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ISRAEL: Yom Kippur war protocols declassified, provoking debate

October 6, 2010 |  8:19 am
CrossingcanalA few months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved new regulations allowing state archives to extend classification of material from a period of 50 years to 70.
The decision was made following pressure from Israel's security services and likely connected to an ongoing petition by journalists over access to archives kept by individual government bodies (in violation of the law, evidently) such as the Mossad and the Atomic Energy Commission. Documents whose due date was coming up cover Israel's first two decades but may now be released to scholars and the public in 2018.

But meanwhile, state archives released documents about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, opening a Pandora's box and unleashing high debates and deep emotions, and showing that the intensity of the experience -- trauma, really, for many -- hasn't dulled much depsite 37 years. 

The documents confirm what many knew or intuited about the war, including disagreements among the leadership, warring generals, desperate battles and long-shot situations. Nearly four decades later -- inexplicably tardy, commentators say-- the protocols shed light on the decision-making process, confirming some suspicions but busting a few myths too.

So was it a surprise? Six hours before the Egyptians started crossing the Suez canal, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir convened an urgent consultation. Chief of Staff David "Dado" Elazar supported an advance strike and a wide call-up of reserves, saying it would save many lives. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan objected. We can't afford it this time, he said; what would the world say? Meir agreed. An advance attack is appealing but this wasn't 1967; the world won't believe us, she reportedly said. Army intelligence was ambiguous, not convinced that Egypt and Syria really meant war, although they had everything in place. "They know they're going to lose," the intelligence chief said. 

IsmailiyaMoshe Dayan, revered icon of Israeli strength after the 1967 war, was different in 1973. "Lost his wits," wrote former lawmaker Zehava Galon in Yisrael Hayom. Others argue his skepticism was realistic and though he had ups and downs, he wasn't paralyzed by despair. The current debate is darkening his image, writes analyst Amir Oren.  Dayan's daughter Yael, a former lawmaker, is angry at the media focus on her father, calling many comments disproportionate and hypocritical.

Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem director, was head of Elazar's bureau then. He too noted the defense minister's ups and downs but urged people to read the protocols in sequence for what they are and not how they are interpreted in the media. There was no loss of wits, he told Israel Radio, and the country's leadership was stable, clear, alert and ready to make decisions.

Public protest followed the war. Although her party was later reelected and an investigative committee cleared Meir of direct responsibility for lapses by the investigation committee that followed, Meir resigned in 1974.

"Old Wounds, New Lessons," was the headline on an editorial in the Haaretz newspaper suggesting current leaders learn from the past, be wary of shortsightedness and complacency but also recognize the limitations of power and strive toward peace. The Winograd Commission found "serious failings and shortcomings" in the decision-making process leading to the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war; if these protocols had been released in a timely manner, that war wouldn't have happened, says Zehava Galon --  and maybe the first Lebanon war too. 

Perhaps the most striking detail coming to light is that Dayan suggested abandoning positions the army could not reach for reinforcement or evacuation, leaving wounded soldiers to fend for themselves, surrender to the enemy or die.

Former minister Avigdor Kahalani commanded an armored battalion on the Golan Heights in the war and later received a medal of valor. "A disgrace" is how he defined Dayan's proposal that went against the grain of the axiomatic IDF ethos of not abandoning soldiers in field. A soldier who thinks he will be abandoned in the battlefield will not fight, he said in a radio interview.

Rescuing soldiers from the battlefield is a value, says Yaakov Hisdai, an officer in the Suez battle and later a military investigator -- but values are tested against reality and "at all costs" is not always realistic. The Israeli soldier must be prepared for any eventuality and the Israeli army to do everything possible to rescue him, says Hisadi, noting that the same "cost" argument exists around Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted to Gaza four years ago. 

Pay the price before it is too late, says Shalit's family. Not at all costs, says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he agreed to "pay" with the release of "1,000 terrorists" but insists on a couple of red lines. Indirect negotiations for Shalit's release appear deadlocked, despite occasional rumors.

Opponents of a deal warn that released prisoners will kill again. They want to see Shalit home as much as Israelis willing to "pay" do, but believe public pressure and campaigning only drive up the price. In recent days, an animated clip has surfaced that portrays such Israelis as well-intentioned but politically clueless and naive for their approach on Shalit.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Photos, from top: Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal on Oct. 7, 1973; an Israeli soldier on the road to Ismailia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

Video clip: Satirical piece about Israeli efforts to bring Gilad Shalit home from Hamas. Credit: chridap /  YouTube