The Lessons of the Yom Kippur War, Pre-Emptive Strikes and Iran
What Israel must never do.
The Yom Kippur War was a war Israel almost lost. The accepted story is that Israel was taken by surprise; that Egypt and Syria managed to launch simultaneous attacks against an unprepared IDF. It turns out that the true story was more disturbing than that: Israel knew in advance, thanks to American intelligence, of the Arabs’ plans, but refused to engage in a pre-emptive strike because of its leaders’ fear of world condemnation. They were willing, that is, to sacrifice Israeli lives in order to limit the diplomatic damage that would likely result from a pre-emptive strike. This was not a wise decision. The story is here: “Israel Knew of Imminent Attack Before Yom Kippur War, Did Not Strike for Fear of International Reaction: Documents,” by Benjamin Kerstein, Algemeiner, June 6, 2021:
Newly released documents reveal that the Israeli government knew that Syria and Egypt were set to attack Israel on Yom Kippur 1973, but chose not to make a preemptive strike, fearing international condemnation.
The Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack on Israel’s southern and northern borders set off the Yom Kippur War, which proved to be one of Israel’s most traumatic conflicts — with over 3,000 dead, thousands wounded, and enormous economic damage to the Jewish state.
Israeli news site Walla reported Sunday that the newly revealed documents include protocols of the Israeli security cabinet, which met on Yom Kippur just before the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack to discuss newly arrived intelligence that war was about to break out.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told the assembled ministers, “The assumption is that this evening, at dusk, or shortly before dark, a full-scale attack will begin on both fronts.”
There was still time to order airstrikes that day, or the next, on both Egyptian and Syrian forces, and to move more IDF troops into the Sinai (which in 1973 Israel still held), and further south, as well as call up the reserves on which the IDF must depend. But Israel did none of those things before Egypt and Syria attacked. It didn’t want to be seen as the aggressor.
There is a phrase to describe this Israeli attitude: the “galut mentality.” This refers to the attitude of Diaspora Jews of bowing and scraping and being quiet for fear of offending the Christians; thank goodness there was no such attitude in June 1967, when Israel attacked first, putting aside any worries about what the world might think, and consequently was able to destroy the Egyptian Air Force within the first day of the Six-Day War.
This information [about a full-scale attack by Egypt and Syria], he said, had come from American intelligence, which had “credible information” that an attack was imminent and had informed the Israelis a few days before.
Since the intelligence about Egyptian and Syrian plans came from the Americans, they would understand fully – and certainly not condemn – Israel for striking first. They could even testify that they had been the ones to furnish that information to Israel. It’s unclear what “condemnation” Israel was worried about. Did it fear condemnation by the Europeans? By the U.N.? As long as the Americans could exercise their veto power in the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. could no nothing except issue its usual anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly, which unlike Security Council resolutions, are non-binding.
Israel had at first dismissed the information, but now believed it to be true, particularly because Egypt’s Russian advisors were leaving the country. This, said Dayan, was a “red light.”
Several ministers and IDF commanders said Israel should undertake a preemptive attack on the enemy’s air bases and missile sites.
In retrospect, this position appears to have been correct. A preemptive attack on those airbases and missile sites might have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli lives. That should have been more important than preventing any “condemnation” by those already ill-disposed to Israel; its friends, and especially the United States which knew the truth about Arab plans, would have stuck by Israel, once it had been assured that the intelligence, furnished by America, prompted that pre-emption.
Prime Minister Golda Meir said that the idea was appealing, but “I know what kind of world we live in. … It’s a pity, but it’s not going to work.”
Dayan said, “We have to make sure it’s a clear-cut case” were Israel to attack.
Why were Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan so worried about world public opinion? As long as they had the backing of the Americans, who were their suppliers and resuppliers of arms, what did those speeches at the U.N. matter? Israel could have laid out the intelligence it had on Egyptian and Syrian plans, have shown evidence – videos from the air — of the Egyptian and Syrian troops and tanks arranged on the Suez Canal and near the Golan, respectively, and alluded to “information we had received from a friendly source about Egyptian and Syrian intentions.” In this case both Meir and Dayan were wrong to be so anxious about world reaction.
Justice Minister Yaakov Shapira disagreed, noting that Israel had struck first in the 1967 Six Day War, and while it was seen as the aggressor by many, “it is very good that we were like that, because otherwise who knows if we would exist at all?”
The Justice Minister appears to have had more sense, or less of the galut mentality, than either Meir or Dayan. The Six-Day War began when Nasser first moved tens of thousands of troops northward in the Sinai, blockaded the Straits of Tiran, and announced to hysterical Cairene crowds that the destruction of Israel was imminent. But the first physical blow was struck by Israel, when the IAF destroyed the Egyptian Force on the first day of the war. No one in Israel today thinks that was a mistake. Those who wanted to blame Israel would do so no matter what, but most of the world was deeply impressed by the IDF’s spectacular performance, against much larger militaries.
Ultimately, however, the idea of a preemptive attack was abandoned, and the war began shortly after.
Why are these newly-released minutes of the Israeli Cabinet meeting just before the Yom Kippur War so important today? It’s because they offer a previous example of when Israel allowed itself to be held in check by its own worries over diplomatic responses to a pre-emptive attack, and the disastrous consequences of that decision.
Given the certainty that both the Americans and Iranians will return to the JCPOA, it’s clearly going to be up to Israel alone to prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel’s leaders have already said they are prepared to do “whatever it takes.” That means a series of acts to keep slowing down Iran’s nuclear project, just as Israel has been doing since 2010, when the Stuxnet computer worm was introduced into Iranian computers regulating centrifuges, causing them to speed up so fast they destroyed themselves. That was followed by the assassinations of five important nuclear scientists, by agents of Mossad; the locating and removal back to Israel, of Iran’s entire nuclear archive; the sabotage at the nuclear facility at Natanz on two separate occasions, the first one using on-site sabotage to cause an explosion,, the second caused by cyberwarriors managing to cut the electric grid and its backup. And there have also been dozens of “mysterious explosions” and “unexplained accidents” that have hit Iranian power plants, rocket and drone production facilities, petrochemical plants, oil refineries, which damage Iran’s industrial base and its conventional weaponry, and keep Iranian leaders rattled.
But eventually, if Iran, despite all these spectacularly inventive attacks by Mossad and the IDF, nonetheless comes ever closer to becoming a nuclear power, Israel will likely have to make a pre-emptive strike. And in case there are those who, like Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan in 1973, argue for “restraint,” believing it more important to keep the good opinion of the world than to strike first against a mortal threat to its existence, let them consider carefully the price Israel paid in lives for such hesitancy in 1973. And imagine the thousand times more Israeli victims there would be than in the Yom Kippur War, should Iran manage to send even one nuclear warhead into the Jewish state. Israel must do what it must, strike first, and devastatingly, and ignore the “good opinion” of others which, in any case, given the power of Palestinian propaganda and of antisemitism, is not going to be forthcoming from most of the world, no matter what Israel does or fails to do.