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Focus on Issues: Israelis Wrestle with War’s Trauma 25 Years After Attack on Yom Kippur

After 25 years, the battle-scars of the Yom Kippur War have yet to heal in Israel, where the bloody days of October 1973 made an indelible mark on the nation’s consciousness.

Each year, as Jews across the world prepare to fast and pray, Israel mourns the 2,687 casualties of that war.

They retell war stories of an overconfident nation, drunk with victory after the 1967 Six-Day War, that was brutally shocked and sobered by invading Arab armies that nearly succeeded in breaking through Israel’s defenses.

But this year, along with the war stories, Israel launched a fresh round of soul-searching to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the war.

Israeli newspapers reopened the books on the war with biting criticism of the military and political leaders of the time, sparking a public debate on whether the lessons of the 1973 trauma have indeed been learned.

Two Hebrew words are associated with the war: “mehdal,” Hebrew for “oversight,” referring to Israel’s general failure to foresee and be prepared for the war; and “conceptzia,” or conception, referring to the intelligence breakdown.

According to the Agranat Commission, appointed by the government after the war to probe Israeli officials’ mind-set before the war, the “conceptziya” was to blame for Israel’s lack of preparedness.

Intelligence officials believed Egypt’s air power was too weak to launch a full-scale attack, and that Syria would not attack without Egypt.

This belief led the army to brush off hard evidence to the contrary in the days prior to the outbreak of fighting.

The Agranat Commission, laying the blame squarely on the military, called for the dismissal of David Elazar, then army chief of staff.

However, it did not specifically hold the government’s leaders responsible, namely, Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Shortly after the commission’s interim report was submitted in April 1974, Meir stepped down, leading to the fall of the government.

But 25 years later, the issue has not yet been resolved.

Before this year’s Yom Kippur fast, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv launched a campaign to cancel those findings of the Agranat Commission that absolved the Meir government.

The paper published a personal account of Uri Simhoni, an operations officer in the northern command in 1973, as he recalled testifying before the commission.

Simhoni claimed the commission was not interested in his version of events. Instead, the panel directed him to answer specific questions that would confirm the impressions they had already formed.

The commission’s conclusions ignored policy failures and the “excessive overconfidence” of the government that led to Israel’s unpreparedness, the Ma’ariv article said. “If we don’t recognize these mistakes, we will repeat them again.”

After Yom Kippur ended this week, Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan publicly backed Ma’ariv’s campaign and pledged to raise the issue in the Cabinet.

Some bereaved parents who participated in memorial ceremonies this year also voiced support.

Along with Ma’ariv, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot directed considerable criticism at Meir.

Yediot reported that Meir had considered suicide during the most difficult hours of the war.

Both papers reminded readers of a secret meeting involving Jordan’s King Hussein and Meir less than two weeks before the war broke out, in which the monarch is believed to have explicitly warned Meir that war was imminent.

Ma’ariv also published “The Unforgiven,” a damning account of Meir’s leadership of the country before and during the war by veteran journalist Amnon Dankner.

In the introduction to the article, Meir is branded “the stubborn aged woman from Milwaukee” who “blinded us from seeing the storm clouds warning of the Yom Kippur War.”

In a separate article, the newspaper questioned whether Israeli intelligence has learned the lessons of the war.

Journalist Oded Granot argued that the army has made some important changes since 1973 by establishing additional intelligence units with the explicit goal of “balancing” analyses — providing every possible angle to ensure that Israel does not succumb to a false “conceptzia” again.

But in the years since the Agranat report, argued Granot, military intelligence has also been driven by a desire to cover itself in the event of a breakdown.

It therefore provides less decisive recommendations and prefers to package reports in vague terms.

For example, he wrote, in February 1998 intelligence predicted a “low probability” that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would launch missiles at Israel as the Gulf crisis intensified.

But intelligence also warned of a high probability that Saddam would launch missiles if he felt desperate.

Under such conditions, explained Granot, more and more “raw” intelligence material is being funneled directly to the prime minister, who is expected to make the final assessments.

But the premier is often overwhelmed by the mass of paper. This is why the Agranat Commission — and the Ciechanover Commission on the failed Mossad assassination of a Hamas official in Jordan last October — recommended setting up a national security council to advise the prime minister.

This has not yet been done.

Whether or not the lessons have been learned, one thing is clear from the Yom Kippur debate: the war led to profound changes in Israeli society and government.

The war ushered in the first-ever ousting of a Labor-led government by the Likud, led in 1977 by Menachem Begin.

The lost authority of the political center led to a culture of sharp criticism from the left and settlement building from the right, according to a Yediot article entitled the “collapse of Israeli-ism.”

Author Nissim Calderon argued that the demise of Labor leaders who were widely credited with leading the country during its first difficult 25 years dealt a painful blow to Israel.

Israelis “lost the feeling that they control their actions,” he said, explaining that the trauma was not just military.

“It was a blow to the very definition of being Israeli,” wrote Calderon. The war made Israelis passive, or at least, incapable of solving problems because of a constant deadlock on every issue.

He added that this is illustrated in the inability to make peace with the Arab world or to heal domestic rifts.

“Until 1973, we saw ourselves as active people. After 1973 we found our hands tied. Or rather, our hands weren’t tied, they did plenty, but our actions canceled each other out and nothing important has happened since.”

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