Every year, as Yom Kippur approaches, discussions of the 1973 war — specifically the intelligence services’ failure to anticipate the attack — come rushing back. The disclosures of new information that seem to surface each year continue to surprise me. They renew old debates and fuel new ones about the circumstances surrounding the war.
But while I certainly don’t underestimate the importance and consequences of the intelligence failure, I don’t think the issue gets at the core of the Yom Kippur War’s greatest impact. Rather, I see the lasting legacy of the war in the set of national and strategic issues that Israel grapples with most acutely today. These large-scale, definitional challenges are beyond the scope of the IDF and intelligence officials. They deal with the kind of country we, Israelis, are building — and the kind of country we aspire to be.
My own personal experience intersects with Israel’s journey to define itself and its borders. On June 9, 1967, the last day of the Six-Day War, I convened senior members of the Military Intelligence Research Department for a discussion. I suggested we use the strength we had gained as a result of our sweeping military victory over the allied Arab armies to achieve a lasting peace with our neighbors.
At that meeting, I argued that we had a responsibility to take advantage of this moment to reach a political agreement, and that Israel had to be the first to formulate and propose a plan. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that imposing territorial gains on the region can be a viable long-term strategy, I said. Addressing the Palestinian issue and agreeing on how we could share Jerusalem were essential goals, and we proposed the creation of a Palestinian state.
We distributed the document that came out of that meeting to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the senior military-security deployment. Unfortunately, as far as I know, our proposal was not even discussed. Obviously, there was no attempt to implement our recommendations. The national unity government that had been set up on the eve of the Six-Day War was not ripe for discussion and creative decision-making.
Ten days later, on June 19, the government convened a political discussion. The decision that came out of it was to propose an Israeli withdrawal to the international border in Egypt and Syria in exchange for peace agreements. Somehow, this proposal was ultimately never transferred to Cairo and Damascus. On the Palestinian issue, the government refrained from even formulating a proposal internally.
Ten years after that — and after the loss of some 2600 Israeli casualties in the Yom Kippur War — Israel finally agreed to pursue a peace agreement with Cairo (an Egyptian initiative, rather than an Israeli one).
Fifty years have passed since then. Similar agreements that could have been forged with the Syrians and the Palestinians were not finalized. On the contrary, we created new facts on the ground — in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. These developments only complicated difficult circumstances, making viable agreements impossible to achieve.
This is the real Israeli failure of the Yom Kippur War — policies and steps that thwart any chance of Israeli political flexibility in the difficult work of making peace. The need for a balanced and responsible understanding of Israel’s role in the Middle East should be our main lesson from the war, not a debate about a military intelligence assessment.
Israel currently marks one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the British Mandate — one hundred years of struggle for our right to live in our historic homeland. Mere talk of another one hundred years of struggle won’t bring about a solution. On the contrary, it will only make the chances of securing Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people more remote.