Days of Awe
The Jewish High Holidays are nearing their climax, as Jews around the world prepare themselves for their day of reckoning. Ultimately, repentance is a personal process, the path to atonement – a one-on-one with the Creator. But does not Israel have, as a nation, it’s own reckoning to do?
This year’s “Days of Awe” coincide with a somber anniversary. It is 40 years since Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur. For many Israelis, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was their single most terrifying moment, when a woefully unprepared nation, deluded into believing that its neighbors regarded it as impregnable, suffered a devastating attack and struggled back to victory at enormous cost.
The shock Israelis felt at the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack can best be compared to that felt by Americans after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Israel was caught totally unprepared: the government had assumed that its intelligence services would be able to alert it at least 48 hours before any invasion. This colossal failure – due to a combination of arrogance, self-deception and misperception – together with the accompanying shock and terror brought senior military leaders to contemplate using Israel’s doomsday weapons.
Israel managed to recover from the initial blow to subsequently win a sensational victory, but paid dearly for it. Thousands paid the ultimate price for this victory, while thousands more still wear physical and mental scars that have yet to heal. For those Israelis and Arabs, the Yom Kippur War was a pivotal point in their lives. But it was also a turning point for Israel, and the Middle East as a whole, for by restoring a sense of pride to Egypt and a sense of proportion to Israel, it paved the path to the Camp David peace agreement in 1979. 15 years later, Israel signed an interim peace accord with the Palestinians and a peace agreement with Jordan. In the ensuing years, Israel also wove economic and political ties with other Arab countries, as demonization slowly gave way to realpolitik.
In retrospect, the Yom Kippur War helped strengthen Israel’s deterrence by proving to its adversaries that it was here to stay. Egypt and Syria realized that the chances of catching Israel unprepared like that again were highly unlikely, and if Israel could not be defeated after suffering such a devastating opening blow, then surely it could not be budged by any conventional means.
Indeed, as things stand today, Israel’s overall strategic stance in the region seems unquestionable. This fact has aided those advocating inaction and a continuation of the status-quo. Israel has never been stronger, say the proponents of this school of thought. Why risk it all now when the ground beneath us is so shaky? Surely we cannot afford to give away territory while the Arab world is being reshaped right in front of our eyes!
The Yom Kippur War taught Israel an important lesson about the limits of power and the danger of arrogance and overconfidence. It was these lessons that made Israeli leaders like Begin and Rabin realize that despite its convincing military and technological advantage, Israel’s safety would never be ensured by the use of force only. Have things really changed in the past 40 years? Has the arrogance, euphoria and supreme confidence that we know the enemy so well, and that we have the best army in the world, all disappeared?
Since 1973, Israel has waged war on numerous occasions and under various circumstances, each time with indecisive results. In 1982, Israel swept into Lebanon to purge Palestinian terrorist cells – a move that ended with a political debacle and dubious military outcome. In 2006, Israel launched an attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon, a war that was handled terribly by the Israeli decision makers, and looked as such on the battlefield. Other military operations to counter Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza have failed to deal the fatal blow ensuring peace and quiet.
These flailing attempts to translate military strength into real security mean that the lessons of the Yom Kippur War have slowly been eroded. The fact that there are today those who claim that Israel’s military might excuses us from the need to resolve the Palestinian issue, implies that something still remains of the arrogance and overconfidence that dulled Israel’s senses 40 years ago. Let us not be blinded again by this false sense of security and take action while it is still possible.