It’s hard to believe that 40 years have passed since the day I walked from the synagogue during the Yom Kippur break between morning and afternoon services. As I passed the Hebrew University, a tourist popped out from nowhere and pointed to all the movement on the roads, very unusual for Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. Something must be going on, he said. After reassuring him that this was not the case, I arrived home, and immediately turned on the radio. Normally silent on Yom Kippur, the radio broadcast mournful music, and I understood that, indeed, something was going on. Then came the news followed by a telephone call instructing me to open the Jerusalem YM/YWHA, which I then directed. It would now become an army base, housing 300 and feeding an additional 300 for the length of the war that had begun that day.
Reports started to filter back and the Arab television revealed pictures of captured Israelis, leading us to understand that the war reflected a huge intelligence and military failure. Despite reports of an impending Arab attack, the heads of intelligence neglected to give them sufficient credence, while the military leaders, aware of the reports, failed to mobilize. We learned that the general in charge of the southern front spent Kol Nidrei night in a hotel room with his girlfriend in Tel Aviv.
The political leadership, highly intertwined with the military one, fared no better. The defense minister, Moshe Dayan, implored Prime Minister Golda Meir to make a television broadcast saying that the Second Commonwealth, the State of Israel, was about to fall and that they should prepare for the coming of the Third. Fortunately, Golda refused.
As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in the Jerusalem Post on the war’s 30th anniversary, “The disastrous failure of the Labor government to correctly read the intelligence warnings and to adequately prepare for war was more than a lapse of leadership. It marked the disgraced end of the generation of the founders.”
This was not that generation’s only lapse. We have learned over time that Anwar Sadat made peace overtures that Golda rejected. Dayan, in a speech made while I was living in Israel, said that holding on to Sharm el-Sheikh was more important than peace. Golda likened the first group of West Bank settlers, despite their violation of official government policy, to the halutzim — the pioneers — of pre-state Israel. Later, under an out-flanked Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres would supply jobs for the illegal settlers and Yigal Alon, education minister, would build schools for their children. Moshe Levinger, who led the band of settlers that took over the Park Hotel in Hebron, said that the first minister who ran to congratulate them was none other than Labor’s Yigal Alon. Today 350,000-400,000 settlers live in the West Bank, some for ideological reasons and others for economic ones.
Nevertheless, some great achievements in seeking peace followed the Yom Kippur War. In addition to the treaty with Egypt under Menachem Begin, the Oslo Agreement formalized the relationship with the Palestinians, and Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan. Negotiations continued in fits and starts, and resumed recently under pressure from the United States.
Once more, there are opportunities waiting to be grasped. Recently, two Israeli soldiers were killed in the West Bank, bringing the total killed in 2013 to three. In 2012, there were 12 such deaths — each one a tragedy but a small fraction of the number killed by Palestinian terrorists during the two intifadas. J.J. Goldberg in the Forward notes that Israel’s security chiefs, past and present, attribute this relative tranquility to seven years of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security services. In the Sinai, Egypt, particularly under the current government of Gen. Sisi, has destroyed many of the tunnels that Hamas built to smuggle arms and other materials into Gaza.
In the Oct. 7 Jerusalem Report, Yossi Melman noted there were four states threatening Israel’s existence: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran. The threat has been eliminated in three of these countries — Syria, Libya, and Iraq — by what Melman terms “coercive diplomacy.” Meanwhile, coercive diplomacy is being employed against the fourth country, Iran, in the form of very strict sanctions that have crippled its economy. Things got so bad that its Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, permitted the election of the “moderate,” Hassan Rouhani, as president. Rouhani has softened Iran’s tone, releasing some political prisoners, transferring nuclear authority from the hard line National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry and sending Rosh Hashana greetings. On the whole, the West has been receptive to these overtures, setting the stage for negotiations without granting any concessions.
Israel’s response has been a total rejection. Prime Minister Netanyahu called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” reminiscent of Golda Meir’s rejection of Sadat’s overtures 40 years ago. Perhaps Bibi is correct in saying there is no change in Iran’s policies. But does it serve Israel’s interests, after emerging from decades of isolation, to be the only country to reject negotiations? Yossi Alpher, in the Forward, suggested that without changing his policy, Netanyahu could have thanked Rouhani for the Rosh Hashana greetings and offered to meet with him. This would not detract one iota from Israel’s support of stiff sanctions. This two-track policy — supporting diplomacy but not removing or lessening sanctions until negotiations are successfully concluded — would put Israel firmly in the West’s camp and avoid it being labeled “an impediment to peace.”
When dealing with an adversary, our sages counseled “kabdeyhu vekhoshdeyhu” (honor him but don’t trust him). In this 40th anniversary year of the Yom Kippur War, Israel should take comfort from its achievements since and vow not to repeat the errors that resulted in that awful war.