Interview with Abraham Rabinovich: The Yom Kippur War as a Turning PointRoundup: Talking About History
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Abraham Rabinovich, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post and a United States Army veteran. He is the author of the new book The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East.
FP: Mr. Rabinovich, welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is a pleasure to have you here.
Rabinovich: Thank you for inviting me.
FP: What inspired you to write on this war?
Rabinovich: I covered the Yom Kippur War as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post. It lasted less than three weeks but was such an intense, monumental, event that I could not fully grasp what I had witnessed and heard. In the years that followed, I read everything available about it, both in English and Hebrew, and learned a lot of details but the story remained a tangled collection of episodes.
I finally decided to try to understand the war by writing about it myself -- aiming to connect its major aspects in a way that would make their inter-relationship clear. Events on the battlefields would be linked to each other and to the decisions of the high commands in Tel Aviv, Cairo and Damascus. These decisions, in turn, would relate to the manoeuvrings of the superpowers who regarded the warring armies as proxies. I aimed at producing a narrative that would be comprehensive and detailed but clear. It would keep an eye firmly on the Big Picture but let us also understand the war as it was experienced by tank crewmen in the heat of battle and generals struggling with existential dilemmas. I interviewed more than 130 persons and waded through reams of hitherto classified information, mostly in Israel. I thought I could do the job in three years. It took five.
FP: Give our readers a little glimpse into why this was one of the most fascinating wars of modern times.
Rabinovich: The war involved two stunning reversals of fortune. First, the Arabs, humiliated in the Six Day War and dismissed by Israel as third-rate opponents, managed to muster the national will and self-discipline to stagger Israel with a massive, two-front surprise attack only six years later. The success of the surprise ranks with those of Pearl Harbor and Barbarossa. Despite numerous warning signs, Israel’s smug military intelligence chiefs were convinced that the Arabs would not dare attack. When Egypt and Syria struck on Yom Kippur afternoon in 1973, only one-third of Israel’s army was in uniform. The remainder, Israel’s reserves, had only begun to mobilize a few hours before thanks to a last-minute war warning from a Mossad informant. At zero hour, 100,000 Egyptian troops began crossing the Suez Canal under covering fire from 2,000 artillery pieces. Opposite them, in the so-called Bar-Lev Line, were only 450 Israeli soldiers supported by 50 artillery pieces. On the Golan, the Syrians attacked with an 8-1 superiority in tanks and even greater superiority in infantry and artillery.
Apart from their massive advantage in numbers, the Egyptians employed tactical innovations and a new Soviet anti-tank missile that enabled their infantry to destroy in the first 12 hours of fighting two-thirds of the only armored division Israel had in Sinai at the war’s outbreak. For the first time since the tank was introduced in the First World War, infantry was able to stop large armored formations cold. In addition, the Soviet anti-aircraft missiles in Egyptian and Syrian hands succeeded in neutralizing the vaunted Israeli air force over the battlefield. Perhaps the greatest surprise for the Israelis was the grit displayed by the Arab soldiers who had the psychological wind at their backs and did not flinch when hit. So grave was the situation that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan spoke openly to colleagues of the possible fall of Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir would reveal in her memoirs that she contemplated suicide.
The second reversal of fortune was Israel’s success, despite all of the above, in turning the Arab armies back. Within two weeks of its disastrous setback, the Israeli army was pounding on the gates of Damascus and threatening Cairo. I asked major historians like John Keegan and Donald Kagan whether they could think of any parallel in history, modern or ancient, in which an army, so badly mauled, had recovered and regained the initiative so quickly against such formidable odds. None of them could.
FP: What accounted for this remarkable turnabout?
Rabinovich: The fighting ability of the Israeli soldier, deriving from training and motivation. Fortunately for Israel, its soldiers on the front had no time to think about their appalling situation. They focussed on dealing with the enemy to their immediate front. It was the leadership of field commanders – particularly battalion commanders – and the courage, effectiveness and improvisational ability of the troops that succeeded in slowing down the Arab armies and stabilizing the situation. Israeli tank crews fired faster, straighter and at longer range than Arab tank crews. As for the Arabs, while they had executed their initial attack plan with determination and courage, they proved unable to match the Israelis in improvisation once that attack plan ran out of steam.
FP: Tell us a bit about Golda Meir’s and Sharon’s behaviour during the war. How do you grade them?
Rabinovich: Early on Yom Kippur day, in the hours between the Mossad’s war alert and the actual outbreak of fighting, Golda Meir, who admitted that she did not know what a division was, had to make two critical military decisions. Her major military advisors, Defense Minister Dayan, Israel's most prominent war hero, and Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar, disagreed with each other over whether Israel should launch a pre-emptive air attack against the Arab forces and whether it should order a general mobilization of all its reserves. Elazar proposed both these moves. Dayan, who was still not convinced the Arabs would attack, rejected them. The two battle-scarred generals left it the 75-year-old grandmother to decide between them. Falling back on common sense and political instincts, she backed Elazar on full mobilization and backed Dayan in ruling out a pre-emptive strike. The Americans, she noted, opposed pre-emptive strikes and Israel might be needing American materiel and political support, she said. Retrospectively, both her decisions proved correct. Although visibly pained by the high casualties, she bore up well during the war. She let her generals manage the fighting but whenever her intervention was needed her judgement proved sound.
Gen. Ariel (Arik) Sharon had been commander of the Egyptian front until three months before the war when he retired from the army to enter politics. With the war’s outbreak, he was recalled as a general commanding one of the reserve armored divisions dispatched to Sinai. He was adulated by his troops but was a thorn in the side of his superiors who found it difficult to control him. Despite orders to conserve his forces until the army had gathered sufficient strength for a decisive counter-attack, he kept edging his tanks forward -- and losing many. From the beginning, he pressed for a crossing of the Suez Canal. He did not hesitate to criticize his superiors to visiting reporters or to telephone political leaders, and Dayan himself, from the front line in order to press his demands for more aggressive action.
In the end, Sharon’s division led the Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal that turned the war around. He has been given too much credit for that action, as if he was the one who had conceived it. The critical timing of the crossing was not his, but the high command’s, and the idea of a crossing was likewise a long-standing Israeli war plan. However, he did execute the crossing successfully in extremely arduous circumstances. His officers would laud his leadership, his coolness in action and his ability to read a battle. Unlike other senior officers, who were stunned by the surprise attack, Sharon had kept his head in the opening days and was able to correctly predict Egyptian moves. He personally wielded a machine gun on his command half track and was slightly wounded on his forehead. Comparisons to Gen. Patton are not far-fetched.
FP: Tell us something about that Mossad alert.
Rabinovich: The Mossad chief, Zvi Zamir, was wakened early Friday morning, the day before Yom Kippur, by a call from his station chief in London saying that he had just been contacted by an informant in Cairo who wanted to come to London to speak to Zamir urgently. Late Friday night, Zamir met the informant who told him that war would break out the next day. Zamir’s encoded message reached Tel Aviv before dawn on Yom Kippur, enabling the mobilization process to get underway about 10 a.m., four hours before the Arab attack. Those few hours probably saved the Golan Heights from falling.
FP: Did any other Arab countries join the fighting?
Rabinovich: Indeed. Iraq sent two armored divisions which stopped the Israelis from reaching Damascus after the Syrian army had almost been broken. A Jordanian tank brigade also joined in the fighting on the Syrian front as did a Moroccan brigade. The Egyptians had ground and air contingents from several Arab countries as well as a Palestinian brigade. The Egyptians even had a North Korean fighter squadron flying cover over air bases.
FP: What lessons does the Yom Kippur War teach for the future of Israel?
Rabinovich: The principal lesson of the war for Israel was never to underestimate your enemy. I believe we saw this lesson applied when the Palestinian intifada broke out four years ago. The ferocity of the uprising surprised many but the Israeli army, and other security arms, have waged one of the most successful counter-insurgency campaigns ever seen thanks to tactics and technologies developed before the uprising. As for the Arabs, the inability in 1973 of their armies to overcome Israel despite surprising it in a two-front attack with its army unmobilized -- circumstances unlikely ever to be repeated – in the end made Israel seem to the Arab world more than ever an irremovable entity rather than a passing phenomenon. This has been the basis for Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and for lesser diplomatic and economic ties with other Arab states. These ties have in large part been frozen because of the intifada but we can expect them to be renewed, and expanded, when there is some kind of settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The war itself was brutal – Israel lost three times as many men per capita in less than three weeks than America did in Vietnam in a decade. But the war also had a perfect ending, engineered by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in which Israel returned all of Sinai in return for a peace treaty with Egypt – the first between Israel and an Arab country.
FP: Mr. Rabinovich, it was a pleasure to speak with you. We hope to see you again soon.
Rabinovich: Thank you.
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