Concocted Fantasies and Costly Blunders

Two Books and a Photography Exhibit Examine the Yom Kippur War

By Chemi Shalev

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War

By Howard Blum

HarperCollins, 350 pages, $25.95.

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The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East

By Abraham Rabinovich

Schocken Books, 560 pages, $27.50.

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Uri Dan: Yom Kippur War Photographs

Farkash Gallery, Jaffa

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Israel’s recent commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War resonated much more forcefully in the public consciousness because of inevitable comparisons to the country’s current woeful predicament. But it is only with the myopic benefit of hindsight that the horrific pit of October 1973 was placed on the same plane as today’s admittedly difficult days. It was, as the catchy title of Howard Blum’s new book aptly claims, “The Eve of Destruction,” as well as an “epic encounter that transformed the Middle East,” as it is rightly described on the cover of Abraham Rabinovich’s recently-published “The Yom Kippur War.”

It was, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime combination of arrogance, conceit, blindness and stupidity that accumulated to a critical mass among Israel’s top military and political leaders and brought the country to the edge of a fatal abyss. Today’s captains may arguably be shortsighted and misguided, but even their fiercest critics would be doing them a gross injustice by comparing them to the willfully blind navigators of 1973. The fact that the war, in retrospect, may have paved the way for the eventual peace treaty with Egypt does nothing to absolve the leaders of their gross and costly blunder.

Even today, after three decades of historical digestion, it is still hard to comprehend how the entire top echelon of the Israeli leadership — wily politicians and experienced generals all — succumbed in unison, with nary a protest, to their dangerous delusions. They turned a blind eye to the stark facts and undisputable evidence staring them in the face, a deaf ear to the clear bells and unequivocal sirens clamoring for attention. They clung, to the very last possible minute, to their self-concocted geostrategic fantasy, which came to be known infamously as “The Concept.” According to hakonseptzia, as it was called in Hebrew, the Arabs would not launch an all-out attack unless and until they were armed with more sophisticated weaponry. Egypt and Syria, the theory went further, neither could nor would coordinate their moves, and even if the two countries did deviate from their allotted script, Israel would have ample warning time to mobilize its reserves and to launch a crushing preemptive strike. Finally, if all else failed, the cowardly Arab soldier would flee the battlefield at the first sign of hardship — as the Six-Day War had amply shown.

These preconceptions came crashing down on then-prime minister Golda Meir, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, then-chief of military staff David Elazar and, most grievously, then-chief of military intelligence Eli Ze’ira, at exactly 1:50 p.m. on October 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched their massive onslaught on the Golan Heights and across the Suez Canal. It was left to the extraordinary fighting spirit and amazing tenacity of the Israeli field commanders and common soldiers to hold off the invaders and to ultimately save the country from the disastrous folly of their elected leaders.

Of the two new books, Rabinovich’s “Yom Kippur War” is the more serious, detailed and thoroughly researched, while Blum’s “Eve of Destruction” attempts to inject a lighter, tabloid-like prose and style to an otherwise complex and somber topic. For a sweeping but nonetheless meticulous account of the war, choose Rabinovich, but if you prefer rapid-paced spy novels and Harlequin romances, you will probably do better with Blum.

Rabinovich provides harrowing and detailed evidence of the prewar overconfidence that afflicted the Israeli leadership, allowing the intelligence chief, Ze’ira, to convincingly argue, even on the morning of the very attack, that it may look like war, sound like war and smell like war, but is nonetheless something else altogether. Rabinovich also convincingly portrays the operational failures of the army, stemming from its ill-conceived perception of superiority over the Arabs that left it stuck to the outdated Bar-Lev line fortifications on the Suez Canal and ill-prepared to combat Egyptian anti-tank missiles or Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles. Only after paying a terrible cost of many hundreds of lives lost, countless tanks destroyed and scores of fighter airplanes sometimes needlessly shot down did the army rethink its strategy, and start to fight back.

Rabinovich does give credit where it is due, devoting a sizable portion of his book to the bravery and resourcefulness of the besieged commanders and soldiers on the front, who succeeded, against all odds, in holding their own and ultimately in turning the tide. Nonetheless, the disparate chronological accounts of individual battles are sometimes laborious and difficult to follow, especially given the less-than-adequate mapping of the book as a whole. Rabinovich also skims

too lightly over the prewar diplomatic maneuverings between Jerusalem and Washington, which played a major role in the considerations of the Israeli leadership.

On the other hand, he does give an insightful and fresh analysis of Egypt’s war plans, and devotes ample attention to the mastermind of Cairo’s campaign, Lt. Gen. Saad El Shazly. Juxtaposing the careful Egyptian planning with the habitual Israeli misreading of these plans, Rabinovich provides the reader with a first-rate handle on the events transpiring.

Blum’s book is also riveting, but fails to master the overall strategic and military picture, preferring individual anecdotes to sometimes necessary generalizations. Seeking to infuse human interest at what sometimes appears to be any cost, Blum intersperses his tale with details of the courtship, romance and marriage of one of the Golan Heights war heroes, Yossi Ben-Hanan, even alluding, repeatedly, to the wounded colonel’s pre-marriage and prewar sexual proclivities. The superfluous account mars an otherwise largely readable book, as if some editor had ordered Blum to titillate the reader, whatever the general context.

Both books dwell on one of the more recent revelations concerning the war, about the identity of “The Source,” the Egyptian agent who provided then-Mossad head Zvi Zamir with the final confirmation that a war was coming, albeit much too late to make a difference. Blum in particular adopts the version first put forth in early 2003 by Aharon Bergman, an Israeli-born British academic, who identified the spy as Ashraf Marwan, a ranking Egyptian diplomat and son-in-law of the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. Blum’s account appears to bolster Ze’ira’s claim, told to the Agranat Commission of inquiry, that Marwan was, in fact, a double agent whose “revelations” were only aimed at further confusing the already-muddled Israeli view.

For obvious reasons, both books are also decidedly one-sided, in the sense that their portrayal is a distinctly Israeli one, with both authors having conducted extensive interviews with Israeli participants but having far less access to Arab players and resources. Thus, a definitive overall account of the war — including Syrian, Egyptian and other Arab views — has yet to be written.

Of contemporary interest, of course, are the descriptions of the battlefield antics and achievements of then-general Ariel Sharon, whose actual accomplishments, as depicted in both books, fall far short of the legend and hype that have become the conventional legacy of the war. Blum goes so far as to quote then-colonel Amnon Reshef’s internal thoughts as “believing that there would always be a danger lurking in Arik’s command, a rashness or an unruliness that was nothing less than madness.”

For a completely different and much more reassuring view of Sharon, one can view a collection of photographs taken by Israeli journalist Uri Dan that can be accessed on the Internet at Dan, a long-time confidante and admirer of Sharon, provides loving portraits of the embattled general in the Sinai killing fields, aimed at soothing any lingering doubts about whether or not Israel has truly learned the right lessons from its 1973 nightmare.

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