Fifty Years after the Yom Kippur War, We Are Still Courting Disaster (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- September 26, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Beyond the nostalgia value of revisiting the loss, the trauma, but also the triumph, why is the anniversary of this war significant?

A. A number of issues raised by the 1973 war are highly relevant today, in some cases more relevant than at any time during the past 50 years. One is intelligence surprise and very bad leadership. Another is the rise to power, in the aftermath of a traumatic war, of the Likud. Then too, it is instructive to view the Yom Kippur War through the prism of the peace with Egypt that emerged from it--and the peace breakthroughs that followed.

Apropos, there was a lot of secret peace diplomacy involved too, both before and after the war. It was only when the United States ended its role as go-between and Israel and Egypt communicated directly that the road to peace truly opened up. Today, at a time when the Biden administration is trying to broker ‘normalization’ between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that is an interesting precedent, albeit one mitigated by decades of direct clandestine ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Q. Why is the October 1973 intelligence surprise relevant today?

A. Back then, both the political leadership and the intelligence establishment were incapable of acknowledging that the many warning signs of war they confronted actually meant an impending attack. The Egyptians and Syrians were massing forces, Russian advisers were evacuating their families, intelligence sources were delivering precise data about the attack, and even King Hussein of Jordan came secretly to Israel to warn Prime Minister Golda Meir. IDF intelligence had a dismissive explanation for every warning. Israel was in the grip of the national hubris generated by the 1967 Six-Day War.

I recall with pain and anger a meeting in Europe in early 1973 between several Mossad collection officers, myself included, and IDF Intelligence’s chief Egypt analyst. “All of your Egyptian sources stink”, he said bluntly. Those were the sources who tried to save Israel with their warnings on the eve of the war.

Today, most of Israel’s institutions--security, economic, higher education--are warning that the Netanyahu government’s ‘judicial reform’ policies endanger the country’s well-being. Yet a coalition of 64 members of Knesset, each with a narrow party-political and/or religious-messianic agenda, persists in ignoring the warnings and in maneuvering Israel to the precipice of national disaster. Worse, this anti-democratic slippery slope is paralleled by Israel’s descent down an additional one leading toward a binational one-state apartheid reality.

The current government’s messianic-fascist elements are radically accelerating both dynamics. As in October 1973, the writing is on the wall yet the government ignores it. Worse, unlike in 1973 Israel is today divided--at odds with itself. This constitutes yet another danger. As Mossad chief David Barnea said on September 7 in commemorating the Yom Kippur War, “We must not downplay the importance of unity to survive. Our strength lies in our internal unity.”

These themes were all alarmingly illustrated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s United Nations General Assembly speech last Friday. Netanyahu completely ignored the danger posed by Israel’s domestic crisis. Speaking to an empty hall, he was in fact addressing fellow Israelis back home, selling himself as a global leader, a prophet of the AI era and of ‘normalization’.

Netanyahu’s UNGA vision of Middle East peace featured a map presenting Israel, in 1948 as today, as encompassing all of the Land of Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean: no UN Partition Resolution, no Palestinian Authority, no Gaza Strip. Netanyahu seemed as oblivious to realities as Golda (“There is no Palestinian people”) and Dayan (“Better Sharm [al-Shaykh] than Shalom”) in 1973.

Q. It took two national elections for the Israeli public’s Yom Kippur War trauma to be translated into the 1977 political downfall, for the first time since Israel’s founding, of the Labor party (then known as Mapai or the Maarach). So was this a war-catalyzed political watershed?

A. The rise to power of the Likud was catalyzed less by the war itself, which ended victoriously, than by the astounding failure of the leadership of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to anticipate the war and prepare for it. With a few brief exceptions, Israeli center-left politics has never recovered. Even those exceptions can broadly be explained by the center-left’s decision to be led by a general with hero status: Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak. (At the political center, Ariel Sharon as prime minister fell briefly into this category.)

The political left led Israel from 1948 to 1977. The right took over in 1977 as a direct outcome of the leadership failure embodied in the Yom Kippur War. Today, the right--increasingly religious and even messianic--is firmly in power. If there is an alternative, it is the center. The Israeli political left has almost ceased to exist since shortly after the Yom Kippur War.

Q. The war also produced the November 1977 Sadat trip to Jerusalem and the peace process that followed. You mentioned secret diplomacy. Where was it? And where did the United States enter the picture?

A. Secret peace contacts between Egypt and Israel commenced at Egypt’s initiative before the war, through the good offices of US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. While to this day it is not entirely clear just how far-reaching Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s pre-war proposals were, it is certain that prior to the war Israel’s response was lukewarm at best. This reflected the tragically exaggerated self-confidence of the IDF and the political leadership regarding Israel’s capacity to hold on to the territories captured in 1967 at a minimal price, coupled with lack of faith in any potential Arab peace partner.

That display of hubris was nowhere to be found by the time Yitzhak Rabin took over from Meir as prime minister in 1974 (and from Dayan as defense minister). Rabin picked up the thread of abortive contacts with Egypt prior to 1973 and entered into direct secret negotiations with Sadat’s representative, in Morocco. He would travel incognito to Rabat via Europe, wearing a blond wig. Morocco, a prominent Arab country, was a convenient venue for Israeli and Egyptian leaders to meet because its leader, King Hassan II, had been in close clandestine contact with Israel for nearly two decades.

Apropos secret diplomacy, the Shah of Iran and President Ceausescu of Romania also relayed messages between Jerusalem and Cairo. (The tragic fates they suffered are very separate, and unrelated, stories.)

Q. The United States was not involved?

A. No. And matters became more complicated with the advent in January 1977 of the Carter administration. Kissinger and US President Richard Nixon had at least continued to advance the idea of US-assisted bilateral Israeli-Egyptian peace contacts. President Jimmy Carter, in contrast, came to office advocating a multilateral peace process spearheaded by the US and the Soviet Union.

Carter proposed reconvening the ‘Geneva Conference’ which met briefly after the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel and Egypt would be seated at the table in Geneva with representatives from Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and the PLO along with the US and USSR.

Here it bears recalling that Israel had never been enthusiastic about “international” solutions. It feared being bullied at the negotiating table by a coalition of Arabs and Russians. It feared being pressured into accepting peace proposals not backed up by adequate security provisions. What was different this time around was Sadat’s similar approach. He had broken with the Soviets and wanted a close security relationship with the United States. He understood that this would require direct Israeli involvement, without the Soviets and their Arab allies.

Meanwhile, Menachem Begin had replaced Rabin as prime minister. He brought in Moshe Dayan as foreign minister. They took over the Morocco-based bilateral track with Egypt, with Dayan traveling incognito to Morocco without his trademark black eye-patch and wearing a fedora. And they made progress.

Q. What provoked Sadat’s surprise announcement of November 9, 1977, in which he invited himself to Israel to address the Knesset?

A. In early October, Washington and Moscow issued a joint invitation to Geneva to all concerned parties. Dayan, alarmed, traveled to the US and recruited American Jewish pressure on Carter to hold off on his international solution initiative. Dayan promised progress on a separate track. The administration agreed, reluctantly and skeptically, to delay Geneva. Now it was clear that there was no time to lose.

Q. Did Sadat’s Israel visit change Carter’s mind about Geneva?

A. Not right away. Today it is extraordinary to recall that the Carter administration avoided giving its blessing to a bilateral Egypt-Israel peace track for weeks. Sadat even asked Washington to allow an Israeli intelligence operative to pose as an American diplomat in the US embassy in Cairo in order to liaise between Cairo and Jerusalem. Presumably he reasoned that this would force Carter to acknowledge the primacy of a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli process with American connivance. I was appointed to that clandestine liaison post but never got to Cairo because Carter refused to play along.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Things worked out eventually, and in late December 1977 a bilateral peace process was launched. At Camp David in 1978, Carter played a key bridging role between Begin and Sadat. Over the ensuing years, more bilateral peace and normalization agreements followed. From the tragedy of the Yom Kippur War, alongside the loss of lives and of faith in our politicians, there emerged a successful ongoing peace process.

The Oslo Accords with the Palestinians--another bilateral venture that initially bypassed Washington--followed too, but have fared less well.

On the fifty-year anniversary of Israel’s Yom Kippur War systemic failure, we must not ignore the parallels with Israel’s current reality, as illustrated--by omission--in Netanyahu’s UNGA speech.