The Yom Kippur War--Why It Was So Important

Roundup: Talking About History

David C. Unger, in the NYT (Feb. 15, 2004):

ISRAEL'S brief history falls into two periods. Four heroic wars shaped its first quarter-century. Defeat in any could have brought the end of the Jewish state. Yet Israel emerged victorious from all of them, each time extending, even if only temporarily, the amount of territory under its control. The second period, still under way, has been less dangerous but more frustrating as Israel has struggled to translate military strength and territorial gains into real security and diplomatic recognition by its Arab neighbors.

The Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 forms the hinge between these two periods. Never did the prospect of Israel's destruction seem more imminent than in the first days after Egypt and Syria's devastatingly effective surprise attack. Israel rallied its reserves, recovered its losses and added new territory along the critical Golan frontier. But Egypt, a country humiliated and demoralized by Israel's crushing victory in June 1967, regained enough of its pride to pursue peace. A direct line runs from the Egyptian Army's crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973 to Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem four years later, and then on to the first formal peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. Underscoring those connections, Islamic opponents of that treaty assassinated Sadat at an October 1981 military parade marking the anniversary of the 1973 war.

Sadat's example challenges the lifetime belief of Ariel Sharon, Israel's current prime minister, that Arab nations will not make peace with Israel unless they have been so thoroughly beaten and humiliated that they internalize the certainty of defeat. But in the absence of extraordinary leaders like Sadat, recovered Arab pride is no sure formula for peace. Consider President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, whose armies did as well as Egypt's during the early days of the Yom Kippur War, but who never followed Sadat's path to peace. The lessons of the war point in no single direction, but they have much to teach Israelis, Arabs and all who yearn for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Two new books re-examine the events and lessons of the war. Abraham Rabinovich, the author of ''The Yom Kippur War,'' is an American who moved to Jerusalem in 1967 and covered the 1973 war for The Jerusalem Post. Howard Blum, who has written ''The Eve of Destruction,'' is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. Both aim to knit together the military, strategic and political levels of the war much as Michael B. Oren's ''Six Days of War'' did for the June 1967 war. Neither fully equals Oren's magisterial achievement. But these authors are working with more difficult material. Sixteen days of grueling back-and-forth combat is not as inherently dramatic as six epochal days in which large Arab armies seemed to melt miraculously before Israeli arms. On their own terms, both of these books offer lively and informative accounts of a pivotal conflict.

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