Over the Rosh Hashanah weekend, I decided to re-read Avraham Rabinovich’s estimable book about the Yom Kippur War of 1973. it was a good decision. Rabinovich’s prose evocatively conjures those terrible October days, when the future of Israel hung in the balance. The book also conjures a different Israel, in places oddly recognizable, in others utterly strange.
The shadow of the 1973 war has cast a recognizable shape over Israeli society since the guns fell silent on October 24th. One meets corners of this shape in unexpected places. I remember speaking to a friend of mine one morning in the late 1990s whose father died in the fighting on the Lexicon Way in Sinai, in the last days of the War. That same afternoon, I had to go over the minutes of some Cabinet meetings in the summer of 1973. In the dry record of the proceedings, one could feel and hear the hubris and smug overconfidence of the political leadership of the day. All the way up until September 1973, a month before the war, still talking with blithe confidence about the low chances of war. I wanted to leap into the pages and shake them. Fools. Look what’s coming down the road.
Military intelligence was still preaching the ‘conceptzia’, according to which Egypt would never dare to attempt war until it had acquired Scud Missiles and long range fighter bomber aircraft. And all would be well. In the meantime, my friend’s father and other members of his generation were living the easy, bohemian lives of students in Jerusalem. And all the while, the volcano waiting to erupt.
In the event, of course, once the mountain erupted, that generation, both the leadership and the fighters, acquitted themselves rather well. Here too, Rabinovitch’s book is full of curiosities. Part of its strangeness comes in the juxtaposition of figures seemingly half-legendary from Israel’s creation with more contemporary and familiar types. Here are Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff David Elazar, discussing the unruly tendencies of Major-General Ariel Sharon. Here is Major Shaul Mofaz, now a somewhat lackluster politician of the Kadima party, but then a courageous and intrepid airborne officer, on a hill deep behind Syrian lines with the Paratroopers’ reconnaissance company. With Syrian troops all around, whispering his guidance to the helicopter on its way to rescue them.
Most notable is the hellish, Armageddon-like intensity of the combat described. Above all in the desperate stand on the Golan Heights that stopped the Syrians from rolling into northern Galilee. Here is Lieutenant Tzvika Greengold, head of ‘Force Tzvika’. A ‘force’ which for most of the night of October 7th consisted only of himself and his crew. Presented as a call sign on the communications to stop the Syrians from learning that all that stood between them and northern Israel was one ginger-haired Kibbutznik and his three comrades, on the Tapline Road.
Why is all this important to remember? When I spoke to my friend whose father died in Sinai, it was the 1990s, and we were students. The Yom Kippur War was taking on the sepia tones of sacrifices safely distanced in the past. It was generally assumed that Israel’s great clashes with the states of the region were over. What remained by way of conflict was a sort of mopping-up operation against minor local opposition.
This assumption can no longer, of course, be maintained. The rise of Iran in recent years, and the changes currently under way in the region are raising once again the prospect of state to state conflict involving Israel.
The picture is very different now. Whereas in 1973, Israel faced a solid pan-Arab front against it, today the Arabs are hopelessly divided among themselves. The two most powerful regional states besides Israel are the two other non-Arab countries of the region – Iran and Turkey. But the former is an enemy of Israel, the latter in the process of becoming one.
In 1973, Israel’s strategic alliance with the US was only just beginning. And the vital US weapons airlift highlighted Israel’s diplomatic isolation, with the states of western Europe refusing to allow the supply of arms to pass over their airspace.
Today, Israel is a stronger, more populous country, a vastly stronger economy, a more mature, integrated society. And while there is much talk of its ‘isolation,’ it is noteworthy that in addition to its ongoing bonds with the US, Israel is manageing to forge ahead in building connections to some of the most dynamic new players on the world stage – India, South Korea, the new democracies of central europe.
Still, the region in which the Jewish state lives is becoming less predictable. And there is unease. Israel backed the right side in the Cold war, and has grown used to feeling part of the winning arrangement in the region. This arrangement is now in flux and decline. We are in the transitional moment. To an uncertain future.
Most fundamentally, the deep currents of hatred and rejection of Jewish statehood that fuelled the rage of 1973 are clearly very far from being mined out. Public opinion in Egypt and beyond it is more or less where it was 38 years ago regarding Israel.
So nearly four decades after the maelstrom of Yom Kippur 1973, the wellsprings that drove the attackers on remain in operation. They have shifted, metamorphosed, changed their language. The bottom line – destruction of Jewish sovereignty – remains the same. Israel has shifted and changed too. Yet, again, the deepest essence, which was there with Tzvika Greengold and his friends on the Tapline Road on the darkest night of October 7th, 1973, remains the same.