The Yom Kippur War: Israel’s Finest Victory?

The common trope in Israel is that the Yom Kippur War, fought between October 6th and 25th 1973, was a Pyrrhic victory.  Caught off-guard by Syrian and Egyptian forces on the pinnacle of the Jewish calendar, the IDF was forced to regain territory it had captured in 1967, and paid a dear price in the process.  By the end of the war 2,569 Israelis lost their lives in the sands of the Sinai and on the rocky Golan Heights.  The euphoria sparked by the miraculous Six-Day War was suffocated in the eerie silence of national catastrophe.

Israel has endured multiple conflicts since 1973 – two wars in Lebanon, two Intifadas, and two operations in Gaza – but forty years later the Yom Kippur War continues to loom large.  (I recall during my army days being shown the 2000 Amos Gitai film Kippur, where two lost IDF reservists thrown into a rescue unit are quickly exposed to the graphic horror of the battlefield as they drag, like Sisyphus, an endless stream of bodies out of tanks and APCs.  Looking across the room at a friend, I realized we were thinking the same thing: We are serving in these tanks, is this what could happen to us?)  Weeks ago news stations began their coverage, sharing untold stories of the brave warriors who died in the line of duty.

In so many ways the war utterly transformed the function of the Day of Atonement itself.  For a nation facing its first existential threat since independence, the holiest day of the Jewish year – when it is determined “how many will pass from the earth” – would from that point on be a day of both spiritual and national reflection, of both self-doubt and leaps of faith.

And yet, as Israelis prepare for Yom Kippur once again, there are signs that the classic narrative is changing.  The ever-insightful Shmuel Rosner argued this week that:

“The Yom Kippur War was the last time Arab armies tried to invade Israel. But it was the first time Israel experienced a mixed win. Having fought more indecisive battles since — notably in Lebanon — Israelis’ expectations about war appear to be shifting. They realize that Israel’s clear triumph of the Six-Day War was an exception. The mixed experience of Yom Kippur War is the norm. It was the victory to end all victories.”

This couldn’t be more accurate.  Conventional wars against Israel ceased after Yom Kippur.  Just six years later, Israel signed a historic peace treaty with Egypt.  As posited by Fouad Ajami, “There can be no big Arab-Israeli war without Egypt . . . . With Egypt leaving the Arab-Israeli wars, the age of the Arab-Israeli wars came to an end.”

I believe this feat was accomplished, accidentally, as a result of Golda Meir’s now publicized hesitations in the days and hours leading up to the surprise Arab assault.  Though certainly not the intention or plan of Israel’s military leadership, the early days of the war (as Egyptians armored columns raced across the desert) managed to raise Arab hopes to a point that when the IDF finally orchestrated a ferocious counterattack, its challengers were left psychologically defeated.  Claims that the war managed to restore “pride” amongst Egyptians may carry weight in some circles, and the IDF certainly gained a different level of respect for their opponents, but war fought for the sake of pride is folly.  In the end, Israeli troops were forty kilometers from Damascus, and one hundred from Cairo. Over twenty-thousand Arab troops lay dead.  Egypt (and possibly Syria) lost its taste for battle; the sides suffered enough to consider the road to peace.

Swift victories like the Six-Day War will continue to be the stuff of legend for decades to come, but there is a place for the Yom Kippur War too.  Often the hard fought victories, snatched from the jaws of defeats, are the ones with the greatest legacy.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel