I am sitting here writing this article 39 years to the minute from that moment when the sirens started screaming, announcing the beginning of the war.
A minute before, total quiet reigned, as it does now. No traffic, no activity in the street, except a few children riding bicycles. Yom Kippur, the holiest day for Jews, reigned supreme. And then…
Inevitably, the memory starts to work.
This year, many new documents were released for publication. Critical books and articles are abundant.
The universal culprits are Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.
They have been blamed before, right from the day after the war, but only for superficial military offenses, known as The Default. The default was failing to mobilize the reserves, and not moving the tanks to the front in time, in spite of the many signs that Egypt and Syria were about to attack.
Now, for the first time, the real Grand Default is being explored: the political background of the war. The findings have a direct bearing on what is happening now.
It transpires that in February 1973, eight months before the war, Anwar Sadat sent his trusted aide, Hafez Ismail, to the almighty U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. He offered the immediate start of peace negotiations with Israel. There was one condition and one date: all of Sinai, up to the international border, had to be returned to Egypt without any Israeli settlements, and the agreement had to be achieved by September, at the latest.
Kissinger liked the proposal and transmitted it at once to the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin, who was just about to finish his term in office. Rabin, of course, immediately informed the prime minister, Golda Meir. She rejected the offer out of hand. There ensued a heated conversation between the ambassador and the prime minister. Rabin, who was very close to Kissinger, was in favor of accepting the offer.
Golda treated the whole initiative as just another Arab trick to induce her to give up the Sinai Peninsula and remove the settlements built on Egyptian territory.
After all, the real purpose of these settlements — including the shining white new town, Yamit — was precisely to prevent the return of the entire peninsula to Egypt. Neither she nor Dayan dreamed of giving up Sinai. Dayan had already made the (in)famous statement that he preferred “Sharm al-Sheik without peace to peace without Sharm al-Sheik.” (Sharm al-Sheik, which had already been re-baptized with the Hebrew name Ophira, is located near the southern tip of the peninsula, not far from the oil wells, which Dayan was also loath to give up.)
Even before the new disclosures, the fact that Sadat had made several peace overtures was no secret. Sadat had indicated his willingness to reach an agreement in his dealings with the U.N. mediator, Dr. Gunnar Jarring, whose endeavors had already become a joke in Israel.
Before that, the previous Egyptian president, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, had invited Nahum Goldman, the president of the World Jewish Congress (and for a time president of the World Zionist Organization) to meet him in Cairo. Golda had prevented that meeting, and when the fact became known there was a storm of protest in Israel, including a famous letter from a group of 12th-graders saying that it would be hard for them to serve in the army.
All these Egyptian initiatives could be waved aside as political maneuvers. But an official message by Sadat to the secretary of state could not. So, remembering the lesson of the Goldman incident, Golda decided to keep the whole thing secret.
Thus an incredible situation was created. This fateful initiative, which could have effected an historic turning point, was brought to the knowledge of two people only: Moshe Dayan and Israel Galili.
The role of the latter needs explanation. Galili was the eminence grise of Golda, as well as of her predecessor, Levy Eshkol. I knew Galili quite well, and never understood where his renown as a brilliant strategist came from. Already before the founding of the state, he was the leading light of the illegal Haganah military organization. As a member of a kibbutz, he was officially a socialist but in reality a hardline nationalist. It was he who had the brilliant idea of putting the settlements on Egyptian soil, in order to make the return of northern Sinai impossible.
So the Sadat initiative was known only to Golda, Dayan, Galili, Rabin, and Rabin’s successor in Washington, Simcha Dinitz, a nobody who was Golda’s lackey.
Incredible as it may sound, the foreign minister, Abba Eban, Rabin’s direct boss, was not informed. Nor were all the other ministers, the chief of staff, and the other leaders of the armed forces, including the chiefs of army intelligence, as well as the chiefs of the Shin Bet and the Mossad. It was a state secret.
There was no debate about it — neither public nor secret. September came and passed, and on Oct. 6, Sadat’s troops struck across the canal and achieved a world-shaking surprise success (as did the Syrians on the Golan Heights.)
As a direct result of Golda’s Grand Default, 2,693 Israeli soldiers died, 7,251 were wounded, and 314 were taken prisoner (along with the tens of thousands of Egyptian and Syrian casualties).
This week, several Israeli commentators bemoaned the total silence of the media and the politicians at the time.
Well, not quite total. Several months before the war, in a speech in the Knesset, I warned Golda Meir that if the Sinai was not returned very soon, Sadat would start a war to break the impasse.
I knew what I was talking about. I had, of course, no idea about the Ismail mission, but in May 1973 I took part in a peace conference in Bologna. The Egyptian delegation was led by Khalid Muhyi al-Din, a member of the original group of Free Officers who made the 1952 revolution. During the conference, he took me aside and told me in confidence that if the Sinai was not returned by September, Sadat would start a war. Sadat had no illusions of victory, he said, but hoped that a war would compel the U.S. and Israel to start negotiations for the return of Sinai.
My warning was completely ignored by the media. They, like Golda, held the Egyptian army in abysmal contempt and considered Sadat a nincompoop. The idea that the Egyptians would dare to attack the invincible Israeli army seemed ridiculous.
The media adored Golda. So did the whole world, especially feminists. (A famous poster showed her face with the inscription: “But can she type?”) In reality, Golda was a very primitive person, ignorant and obstinate. My magazine, Haolam Hazeh, attacked her practically every week, and so did I in the Knesset. (She paid me the unique compliment of publicly declaring that she was ready to “mount the barricades” to get me out of the Knesset.)
Ours was a voice crying in the wilderness, but at least we fulfilled one function: In her March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman stipulated that a policy could be branded as folly only if there had been at least one voice warning against it in real time.
Perhaps even Golda would have reconsidered if she had not been surrounded by journalists and politicians singing her praises, celebrating her wisdom and courage, and applauding every one of her stupid pronouncements.
The same type of people, even some of the very same people, are now doing the same with Benjamin Netanyahu.
Again, we are staring the same Grand Default in the face.
Again, a group of two or three are deciding the fate of the nation. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak alone make all the decisions, “keeping their cards close to their chest.” Attack Iran or not? Politicians and generals are kept in the dark. Bibi and Ehud know best. No need for any other input.
But more revealing than the blood-curdling threats on Iran is the total silence about Palestine. Palestinian peace offers are ignored, as were those of Sadat in those days. The 10-year-old Arab Peace Initiative, supported by all the Arab and all the Muslim states, does not exist.
Again, settlements are put up and expanded, in order to make the return of the occupied territories impossible. (Let’s remember all those who claimed, in those days, that the occupation of Sinai was “irreversible.” Who would dare to remove Yamit?)
Again, multitudes of flatterers, media stars, and politicians compete with each other in adulation of “Bibi, King of Israel.” How smoothly he can talk in American English! How convincing his speeches in the U.N. and the U.S. Senate!
Well, Golda, with her 200 words of bad Hebrew and primitive American, was much more convincing, and she enjoyed the adulation of the whole Western world. And at least she had the sense not to challenge the incumbent American president (Richard Nixon) during an election campaign.
In those days, I called our government “the ship of fools.” Our current government is worse, much worse.
Golda and Dayan led us to disaster. After the war, their war, they were kicked out — not by elections, not by any committee of inquiry, but by the grassroots mass protests that racked the country.
Bibi and Ehud are leading us to another, far worse, disaster. Some day, they will be kicked out by the same people who adore them now — if they survive.