The 1973 war and the power of deterrence

1973 Arab-Israeli war

By Gilad Atzmon

Today is Yom Kippur and the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Arab–Israeli (Yom Kippur) War [in the Hebrew lunar calendar].

That war caught Israel totally on the hop. In the first days of the conflict, both the Israeli army and the air force were defeated and humiliated. Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli defence minister, contemplated out loud the “destruction of the Third Temple” and, according to different intelligence sources, Israel was close to using its “Samson option” – a nuclear strike against Egypt.

But neither the Egyptians nor the Syrians had any plans to “throw the Jews to the sea”. In fact, their military objectives were rather limited: liberating land occupied by Israel in 1967.  The Egyptians attempted to secure a narrow bridgehead over the Suez Canal and the Syrians hoped to free the Golan Heights or at least part of it.

But driven by pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Pre-TSD), Israeli army generals and the government managed to recast this joint Arab operation as nothing less than an emerging shoa, or holocaust. Consequently, at least for the first days of the war, they panicked and unnecessarily and critically exhausted Israeli military assets and force.

Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

I believe that when judging Israeli contemporary politics, we need to bear in mind that the current Israeli political and military leadership were low- and medium-ranking front-line commanders in that war 40 years ago.

In 1973 Binyamin Netanyahu led special forces operations in Syria and Egypt. Ehud Barak, then a lieutenant-colonel, led an Israeli tank battalion through some of the toughest battles in the war. Israel’s defence minister, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, fought the war as a reservist commando soldier, while former Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was an infantry soldier and fought in the Sinai Peninsula.

Nor does it take a genius to realize that these Israeli leaders’ current decisions would have been shaped by their 1973 experience. In that war they mistakenly saw themselves as the last defenders of the newly founded Jews-only state. Like all Israeli front-line combatants in that war, they interpreted the powerful but limited Syrian-Egyptian attack as a serious attempt at genocide. As any pop-psychologist will tell you, they projected their own symptoms onto their Arab adversaries…

In the last week the Israeli papers have been saturated with articles and commentaries on Yom Kippur and the trauma that never fades away. The Ynet news website and the Haaretz daily both reflect on that event that shook Israel’s confidence and, for the first time, challenged its image of military omnipotence.

A lesson for the Arabs – and Iran

Two days ago I came across a very interesting story on Ynet (Hebrew edition). Apparently, just before hostilities began on 6 October 1973, Israel became aware of a vast Soviet delivery of long-range Scud missiles to the Egyptian army.  Seemingly, this piece of intelligence deterred Israel from its intention to raid Egyptian governmental and civilian infrastructure in Egyptian cities.

Ynet writes:

Three days later, on 9 October, the [Israeli] Air Force (IAF) launched a series of deep raids on Damascus military headquarters in an attempt to put pressure on the Syrian government and leadership. One would expect the IAF to launch similar air raids on Egypt’s capital. Yet despite the Egyptian initial assault, and despite the tremendous pressure exerted by Egyptian armies on the Israeli forces in the Suez Canal, Israel was careful. It was fearful. Policy makers in Israel, headed by Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, repeatedly rejected IDF’s [Israel Defence Forces] suggestions to conduct deep raids against Egypt. It was the Soviet Scud missiles in Egypt that deterred Israel from conducting such aerial bombardments.

I guess the meaning of this paragraph is simple yet crucial for understanding Israel and its politics. Israel restrained itself from pounding Egypt only because it was aware that the Egyptians had the means to retaliate. In other words, Israeli leaders knew all along that Egypt possessed the capacity to inflict pain to Israel’s cities. They must have realized that Egyptian objectives were not genocidal, but it also means that Israel’s enemies – Arab countries as well as Iran – must pursue every possible means to posses the kind of weaponry that deters Israel.

It seems this is the only way to bring Israeli aggression to an end.

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