Was the October War necessary?
WITH Binyamin Netanyahu and Iran's President Ahmadinejad sparring at the UN, keeping people guessing if and and when their countries could be at war, some attention turned this week to a previous conflict.
JUST 39 years after the October 1973 'Yom Kippur War' challenged Israel's hold on Arab territories siezed six years before and ushered in the famous oil crisis, many documents about what went on in the background have become available, providing fuel for books and articles on how the Israeli military was apparently caught napping and where intelligence failed.
Much criticism focuses on late leaders Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, and the military's failure to mobilise reserves or move its tanks to the front in time for the assault. But veteran commentator and peace activist Uri Avnery says this is still avoiding a much bigger political issue. Was the war really necessary?
"IT TRANSPIRES that in February 1973, eight months before the war, Anwar Sadat sent his trusted aide, Hafez Ismail, to the almighty US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He offered the immediate start of peace negotiations with Israel. There was one condition and one date: all of Sinai, up to the international border, had to be returned to Egypt without any Israeli settlements, and the agreement had to be achieved by September, at the latest.
Kissinger liked the proposal and transmitted it at once to the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin, who was just about to finish his term in office. Rabin, of course, immediately informed the Prime Minister, Golda Meir. She rejected the offer out of hand. There ensued a heated conversation between the ambassador and the Prime Minister. Rabin, who was very close to Kissinger, was in favor of accepting the offer.
Golda treated the whole initiative as just another Arab trick to induce her to give up the Sinai Peninsula and remove the settlements built on Egyptian territory.
After all, the real purpose of these settlements – including the shining white new town, Yamit – was precisely to prevent the return of the entire peninsula to Egypt. Neither she nor Dayan dreamed of giving up Sinai. Dayan had already made the (in)famous statement that he preferred “Sharm al-Sheik without peace to peace without Sharm al-Sheik”. (Sharm al-Sheik, which had already been re-baptised with the Hebrew name Ophira, is located near the southern tip of the peninsula, not far from the oil wells, which Dayan was also loath to give up.)
Even before the new disclosures, the fact that Sadat had made several peace overtures was no secret. Sadat had indicated his willingness to reach an agreement in his dealings with the UN mediator Dr. Gunnar Jarring, whose endeavors had already become a joke in Israel.
Before that, the previous Egyptian President, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, had invited Nahum Goldman, the President of the World Jewish Congress (and for a time President of the World Zionist Organization) to meet him in Cairo. Golda had prevented that meeting, and when the fact became known there was a storm of protest in Israel, including a famous letter from a group of 12th-graders saying that it would be hard for them to serve in the army.
All these Egyptian initiatives could be waved aside as political maneuvers. But an official message by Sadat to the Secretary of State could not. So, remembering the lesson of the Goldman incident, Golda decided to keep the whole thing secret.
THUS AN incredible situation was created. This fateful initiative, which could have effected an historic turning point, was brought to the knowledge of two people only: Moshe Dayan and Israel Galili.
The role of the latter needs explanation. Galili was the eminence grise of Golda, as well as of her predecessor, Levy Eshkol. I knew Galili quite well, and never understood where his renown as a brilliant strategist came from. Already before the founding of the state, he was the leading light of the illegal Haganah military organization. As a member of a kibbutz, he was officially a socialist but in reality a hardline nationalist. It was he who had the brilliant idea of putting the settlements on Egyptian soil, in order to make the return of northern Sinai impossible.
So the Sadat initiative was known only to Golda, Dayan, Galili and Rabin and Rabin’s successor in Washington, Simcha Dinitz, a nobody who was Golda’s lackey.
Incredible as it may sound, the Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, Rabin’s direct boss, was not informed. Nor were all the other ministers, the Chief of Staff and the other leaders of the armed forces, including the Chiefs of Army Intelligence, as well as the chiefs of the Shin Bet and the Mossad. It was a state secret.
There was no debate about it – neither public nor secret. September came and passed, and on October 6th Sadat’s troops struck across the canal and achieved a world-shaking surprise success (as did the Syrians on the Golan Heights.)
As a direct result of Golda’s Grand Default 2693 Israeli soldiers died, 7251 were wounded and 314 were taken prisoner (along with the tens of thousands of Egyptian and Syrian casualties)."
With other politicians and writers saying nobody spoke out before the war, Avnery feels understandably justified in reminding them that one maverick did:
"Several months before the war, in a speech in the Knesset, I warned Golda Meir that if the Sinai was not returned very soon, Sadat would start a war to break the impasse.
I knew what I was talking about. I had, of course, no idea about the Ismail mission, but in May 1973 I took part in a peace conference in Bologna. The Egyptian delegation was led by Khalid Muhyi al-Din, a member of the original group of Free Officers who made the 1952 revolution. During the conference, he took me aside and told me in confidence that if the Sinai was not returned by September, Sadat would start a war. Sadat had no illusions of victory, he said, but hoped that a war would compel the US and Israel to start negotiations for the return of Sinai.
My warning was completely ignored by the media. They, like Golda, held the Egyptian army in abysmal contempt and considered Sadat a nincompoop. The idea that the Egyptians would dare to attack the invincible Israeli army seemed ridiculous.
The media adored Golda. So did the whole world, especially feminists. (A famous poster showed her face with the inscription: “But can she type?”) In reality, Golda was a very primitive person, ignorant and obstinate. My magazine, Haolam Hazeh, attacked her practically every week, and so did I in the Knesset. (She paid me the unique compliment of publicly declaring that she was ready to “mount the barricades” to get me out of the Knesset.)
Ours was a voice crying in the wilderness, but at least we fulfilled one function: In her ‘March of Folly”, Barbara Tuchman stipulated that a policy could be branded as folly only if there had been at least one voice warning against it in real time.
Perhaps even Golda would have reconsidered if she had not been surrounded by journalists and politicians singing her praises, celebrating her wisdom and courage and applauding every one of her stupid pronouncements.
THE SAME type of people, even some of the very same people, are now doing the same with Binyamin Netanyahu. Again, we are staring the same Grand Default in the face".
It seems the Yom Kippur was neither necessary nor atoned for.