Israelis Look Back on Yom Kippur War Forty Years Later

Country remains conflicted over war's outcome
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at state memorial ceremony for the Yom Kippur War / AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at state memorial ceremony for the Yom Kippur War / AP


JERUSALEM—Forty years after the Yom Kippur War opinion is still divided in Israel over whether that conflict revealed imperfections in the national character or whether it was the greatest military accomplishment in Israel’s history.

Dr. Ya’acov Hasdai, a lawyer and historian who served as a reserve paratroop officer in the war, inclines towards the former analysis.

“The Israeli people emerged from that war mentally beaten,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Hayom Hazeh. “The right thing to have done would have been to analyze the reasons for the failure, draw the conclusions and remedy the problems. But that didn’t happen.”

The loss of faith in the nation’s leadership incurred by the war continues today, he said. The perceived military setback convinced many that “defeat meant that we are not right. Lack of faith in being right means lack of faith in the future.”

However, Hasdai, who served as an investigator for the post-war Agranat Inquiry Commission that investigated the war’s failures, no longer represents the majority sentiment in Israel. After decades of remorse at the war’s heavy toll, Israelis have increasingly come to see the Yom Kippur War in a far different light.

“An unprecedented victory is the true description of that war,” writes Israel Harel, who also served as a paratrooper in 1973. “But in practice, a false, manipulative narrative has taken over the Israeli mind—the fiasco narrative.”

The trauma inflicted on the country in 1973 stemmed mainly from the military’s failure to mobilize the reserves—two-thirds of the army’s strength—in the week before the war as Egyptian and Syrian forces built up along the borders, outnumbering the Israeli forces opposite them by an 8-1 ratio or more.

Israeli defenses along the Suez Canal—the so-called Bar-Lev Line—fell in the first 24 hours and Syrian forces broke through Israeli lines and occupied the southern half of the Golan Heights. It would take several days before Israeli forces found their feet and began pushing back.

However, the heavy losses of those opening days accounted for many of the 2,600 Israelis killed in the war, a figure incurred in just 19 days that is three times higher on a per capita basis than that suffered by the United States in the Vietnam War.

The intelligence failure, it was learned in later years, was the failure of one man: Gen. Eli Zeira, the head of military intelligence, who was convinced that the Arabs would not attack.

Zeira had at his disposal an intelligence tool referred to as “special means” which, it was believed, would have tipped off an Arab attack with near certainty. But activation of the system risked its premature discovery and since he was convinced the Arabs were not going to attack he was reluctant to flip the switch.

For most Israelis, memories of failure in the war’s early going have faded while those surrounding the army’s extraordinary reversal of fortune on the battlefield have grown in stature. When the war ended, Israel was within artillery range of Damascus, 60 miles from Cairo, and both Syria and Egypt were calling for a cease-fire.

“After 40 years of self-chastisement it is time to free ourselves of the shell shock that has been undermining our self confidence,” Harel wrote in Ha’aretz this week.

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