Perhaps the most discussed book of all is 1973: The Road to War, by Haifa University historian Yigal Kipnis. It was published late last year in Hebrew, and will be released in English on Oct.16 by Just World Books. I was able to read an advance copy and also hosted Dr. Kipnis at a recent talk at the University of Maryland. The book’s revelations are not astounding — they largely confirm what has been discussed and speculated on ever since the war — but they are chilling in their clarity and, though Dr. Kipnis studiously avoids current political analogies, his book nevertheless provides much food for thought on the subject.
The main focus of the book, supported by hundreds of documentary references, is that Anwar Sadat, who had became Egypt’s President when Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970, had persistently — and vainly — tried to convince Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that he was ready and willing to make peace with Israel under very favorable conditions in return for the Sinai, which Israel had captured in the Six Day War of 1967. Sadat was equally clear that if, after more than two years of trying, he could not get an answer by the late summer of 1973, he would resort to war. He also was fully aware he would not and could not defeat, let alone destroy Israel, but he was determined to get its attention. And in that he fully succeeded, at huge cost to both sides.
Kipnis shows that Sadat’s equally important goal was to become a U.S. ally, to forsake the alliance with the Soviet Union established almost two decades earlier by Nasser. He knew that was not possible without peace between Egypt and Israel, and coolly bent all his efforts towards that end.
His interlocutor was Henry Kissinger, the dominant force in American foreign policy, who ran it from the White House as National Security Adviser during Nixon’s first term and as Secretary of State after May, 1973. Kissinger, seemingly in spite of himself, was impressed by Sadat’s sincerity, and strongly urged Israel to take him seriously. But he ran into the unmovable wall of Meir’s obduracy and was unable to budge her.
In December 1971, Kissinger had given Meir a pledge that the US would not change its policy without Israel’s consent and felt bound by it. On its part, Israel had agreed, in return for advanced American arms, not to strike first, as it had so devastatingly done in 1967. Presumably, Israel’s leaders felt confident enough, in the popular euphoria of the time, that they could defeat Arab armies under almost any circumstances – should any be foolhardy enough to attack it, which no one, including Kissiner, thought they would do.
Kipnis’s book focuses on the less-discussed of Israeli’s failures to anticipate or prevent the war, namely, the political failure. The intelligence failure was front and center from the day the war started, and many of Israel’s top intelligence and military figures paid with their careers for it. But the Agranat Commission, which investigated Israel’s unpreparedness, was not charged to investigate politicians. Thus, Golda was reelected in the elections held immediately after the war, and only resigned months later amid a popular outcry.
Israelis use the borrowed word “Konzeptzia,” to describe the pervasive feeling from 1967 to 1973 that Israel was unbeatable and could dictate what it wanted and take its time as well. Should Meier, as Konzeptzist-in-Chief, be blamed for what was, in retrospect, a national delusion? Kipnis thinks she should, and I agree. Partly because she hid Kissinger’s reports of Sadat’s overtures, revealing them only to her two top confidants, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Yisrael Galili, but not even to her other leading ministers, generals, or intelligence chiefs. Partly because she had no plan or idea of what to do. She wanted to hold onto territory and could not tolerate any opposition or different point of view.
Perhaps, as a woman in an otherwise totally masculine and hyper-macho environment, she was unreasonably (if understandably) fearful of appearing soft or weak. But whatever her reasons, she led Israel into disaster. It was only after six years and many thousands of deaths later that Israel, under Menachem Begin’s leadership, signed a treaty with Egypt, almost certainly under less favorable terms than it would have obtained before the war.
Unlike Kipnis, I do think Israel’s current situation should be evaluated in terms of what happened in 1973. As then, Israel has been offered peace, openly, not secretly, and repeatedly, by the Arab League’s peace initiative. As then, Israel feels both too nervous to make peace and too confident to have to make it, and the U.S. feels bound to support it.
Of course, the world and regional situations are totally different, and no historical situation can ever be a foolproof guide. Nevertheless, Israel’s insistence that territory is worth more than a peace agreement is as short-sighted now as it was then. The big unknown, however, is the leadership. Is there a chance that Bibi Netanyahu, coming out of the rightwing, maximalist camp (unlike Meir), could decide to forsake his family and ideological heritage and “normalize” Israel through peace? We may find out next year. I only hope Bibi chooses to learn from his predecessor’s disastrous political failure.