“The Yom Kippur War was a lesson that we should learn every day and every hour, to understand that every one of us could make a mistake in understanding reality. Therefore, it is our responsibility to make sure arrogance, complacency and intellectual tyranny do not take over,” said Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at this year’s official memorial ceremony held Oct. 5 on Mount Herzl, commemorating the fallen of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was a deceptive statement, intended to give the impression that the country’s leadership is acting out of insightfulness and humility.
Until just a few weeks ago, the defense minister was engaged with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a long and complicated round of exhausting fighting against Hamas in Gaza. For a short moment, one could have thought that the defense minister understood the risks inherent to maintaining the diplomatic status quo and the need to think creatively about the Palestinian Authority after the stalemate that ended Operation Protective Edge.
But in that same speech, Ya’alon made it crystal clear that nothing had changed about his approach, and that the proper response to security threats against Israel is a military one. “Rapid changes are underway throughout the Middle East. Israel must follow them closely from a position of readiness. It is our duty as leaders to extend our hand in peace, but at the same time we must not deceive ourselves regarding our enemies’ true intention. … From both near and far, organizations, states and entities are trying to harm us in many different ways, using missiles and rockets, terrorism, a campaign of delegitimization and the goal of developing nuclear weapons. We must know how to fight back if, God forbid, that becomes necessary.”
Israel’s legitimacy continues to collapse worldwide, and possibilities of forming regional coalitions with neighboring Arab states are receding rapidly. Nevertheless, by expressing his distrust in the diplomatic tracks, Ya’alon is exemplifying the same mode of thought that he warned against in his speech. But this error is not limited to a way of thinking; it is also expressed by irresponsible action. The defense minister has chosen to ignore all the signals Israel is hearing from within the United States and Europe, and constantly advances construction across the Green Line. All this, as would be expected, puts his statement that Israel will “continue extending our hand in peace” into question. After all, it is obvious to everyone that there can be no diplomatic track, not even by way of the Gulf States, as long as construction in the settlements continues.
During the Yom Kippur War, Ya’alon was a 23-year-old reservist who fought on the Egyptian front. Like so many Israelis, when he returned from the battlefield he experienced the crisis of confidence between the citizens and the country’s leadership. He recalled this as well in his speech on Sunday when he noted, “An entire generation that trusted the country’s leaders was left with deep scars and difficult questions that have yet to be resolved.” Since then, 41 years have passed. In that time, Ya’alon not only served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, but also underwent an ideological change and crossed the political spectrum. The former “Mapai supporter” from the left has since been embraced by the settler movement on the right and found himself a place among the Likud’s top leadership.
When Ya’alon speaks as defense minister about the arrogance that permeated the country’s leadership and the lessons to be learned from the Yom Kippur War, he certainly means the intelligence failure and the political and defense leadership’s fixation on a single approach. This focus caused them to ignore the warning signs, so that they were genuinely surprised when the war erupted. He bemoans the delay in calling up the reserves and the rampant complacency among the leaders. What he chooses to ignore is the diplomatic failure that preceded the war, a failure whose enormous impact on the consequences of that war continues to be revealed as the years go by.
When it comes to calling up reservists, Ya’alon can pat himself on the back. He and Netanyahu followed the book to the letter when it came to the widespread advance call-up orders issued to the reserves during Protective Edge. He can also take pride in the frequent, if exhausting, Cabinet meetings; a change that was introduced in response to the Winograd Commission’s recommendations following the Second Lebanon War. But what about far-sightedness? What about Israel’s collapsing foreign relations? What about the serial rejection of peace proposals such as the Saudi Peace Initiative and the absence of any diplomatic initiative, given the new possibilities that have emerged in the region? There are more than a few similarities between the period that preceded the Yom Kippur War, during which the War of Attrition was being waged, and the current rounds of frequent fighting with Hamas along the border with Gaza and with Hezbollah in the north.
The threats may be different now. The wars may be different, too. Nevertheless, the government headed by late Prime Minister Golda Meir and the two recent governments with Netanyahu at the helm represent a similar approach: managing instead of resolving the conflict, exaggerated confidence in the possibility of maintaining the status quo and an unwillingness to deeply examine the diplomatic option. This approach stems out of the belief that military dominance will determine the outcome of all threats. With this in mind, it is worth noting that Israel’s top leadership, headed by Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, all rejected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for peace even before he delivered his most recent combative speech before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 26.
During the War of Attrition as well, attempts were made, brokered mainly by the United States, to create diplomatic communication channels with Egypt, but Meir and her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan showed little interest in following through with them. What is best remembered from that period is Dayan’s speech to the Staff Command College titled, “Fear thou Not, O my Servant Jacob” (Jeremiah 46:28), in which he anticipated a long, drawn-out conflict. “We must prepare ourselves physically and emotionally for a long process of struggle, more than we should set a timetable for when we attain peace and tranquility,” Dayan said. What especially stood out in that speech was his lack of faith in any diplomatic option and his disbelief in the possibility of peace. His message was one of constant struggle instead. That narrative is highly reminiscent of the worldview advanced by Ya’alon and Netanyahu.
Not everyone in Israel before the Yom Kippur War accepted Dayan’s analysis that the people of Israel were destined to live by the sword for all eternity. In April 1970, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser invited Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, to visit Cairo, but Meir refused to approve his trip. This led to the famous “Letter from High School Seniors,” in which some of the students who would soon be sent by Meir to the front asked her why they were expected to sacrifice their lives along the Suez Canal. The letter evoked an enormous outcry, but failed to change a thing. Only after the Yom Kippur War failure did it become a document of vast ethical and historical importance, inspiring many other letters along the same lines.
Years of fighting in the West Bank and Gaza resulted in similar phenomena, but these were also met with a firm rebuff from the defense establishment. Among the famous letters were “The Pilots’ Letter” opposing the 2003 aerial bombardment of the territories, and the “Letter from Soldiers in Unit 8200” in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge. Ya’alon responded to the latter by claiming that it served as a weapon in the dishonest propaganda war against Israel.
His fine words about the need for wise leadership and his admonition against complacency and arrogance make it all the more unfortunate that the defense minister fails to follow his own advice. What he really should do is stop, take a minute to assess the truths he holds, and even, dare I say, question them.
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