30 Years On, Israel Still Confronting Psychological Toll of Yom Kippur War

Dashing in his eyepatch and brimmed general’s cap, Moshe Dayan was disgraced by a strategic oversight that cost his country dearly.

Dayan’s lowest moment has been immortalized in “Silence of the Sirens,” a television drama broadcast in Israel on Wednesday night in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.

That the late defense minister is played by his bohemian actor son Assi is, perhaps, an irony appropriate to a country where the cataclysmic conflict with Egypt and Syria is still discussed in the hushed, hurtful tones of children robbed of their innocence.

“Having Assi Dayan in the role of his father is significant,” “Silence of the Sirens” screenwriter Motti Lerner said. “No less significant is the opportunity to examine, in public, how Israel managed to get so badly taken by surprise.”

“Silence of the Sirens” focuses on the two weeks leading up to the outbreak of hostilities on Oct. 6, 1973, when Dayan and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ignored intelligence warnings about Egyptian forces massing on the Suez Canal and similar Syrian designs for the Golan Heights.

The decision meant Jerusalem was fatally slow to respond to the combined onslaught that caught Israelis at sleep or at prayer on Judaism’s holiest day. In the 18 days it took to turn the war around, some 2,300 Israeli servicemen died.

Though the war’s final outcome was a resounding military victory for Israel, the early setbacks constituted a blow to national morale unparalleled since the 1948 War of Independence.

“It was about as shocking as an act of man can be, especially coming on Yom Kippur,” said Haifa engineer Pinhas Herzog, who saw action on both fronts as a paratrooper platoon commander. “Even after we had regrouped and begun fighting back, we still knew we would be paying the price of our lack of preparedness for years to come.”

The ordeal bred the inevitable conspiracy theories — such as that Israel, having launched a pre-emptive strike to begin the 1967 Six-Day War, had been ordered by the United States to fight from a position of pure retaliation and self-defense to maintain international support.

But official opinions have mellowed since, with even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — then a maverick reserve general and division commander who forced an Egyptian cease-fire by leading Israeli forces across the Suez Canal – - saying the war improved the Jewish state’s strategic position.

“Clearly, Israel exists in a region that refuses to reconcile itself to our presence,” Sharon said in a television interview. “But at least the Arabs learned in 1973 that they cannot beat us militarily.”

Indeed, historians argue that the surprise Suez attack — celebrated to this day as a victory in Cairo’s October War Museum — restored Egyptian pride battered in 1967 and thus paved the way to the 1978 Camp David peace treaty.

At a Tel Aviv symposium marking Shimon Peres’ 80th birthday last month, the Israeli elder statesmen took the theory further, telling his audience that the Yom Kippur War ushered in an era of Middle East peacemaking that culminated with the Oslo accords.

But Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, who as the Israeli army’s chief of staff has seen firsthand how quickly Oslo deteriorated into the bloodshed of the Palestinian intifada, took a somewhat different tack.

Just as war “brought Egypt, the biggest and most important Arab nation, to realize that the only way out of the imbroglio the Arabs marched into in 1948 was negotiations on the basis of recognizing Israel,” so “will it be in the conflict with the Palestinian Authority,” Ya’alon told Yom Kippur War veterans on Tuesday.

Of course, there is a world of difference between the sprawling Sinai Desert tank battles and hand-to-hand skirmishes in the Golan 30 years ago, and today’s often messy sweeps of West Bank and Gaza terrorist strongholds.

Israel’s military intelligence, like its civilian adjuncts the Mossad and Shin Bet, has been bolstered massively since the Yom Kippur debacle and keeps a close eye on restive neighbors.

But all that is not enough, it seems, to stop Palestinian teenagers donning explosives belts and blowing up Israeli restaurants and buses.

According to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it comes down to geography rather than military prowess.

“When the Egyptians and the Israelis made peace, they suddenly had a hundred miles of desert between them. They signed a treaty and, for the most part, they never really saw each other again,” Makovsky told The New Yorker magazine.

“But with the Israelis and the Palestinians, the quality of the relationship after they make a deal is at the core of everything, as with a marriage,” he said. “And when the Israelis begin to think that what the Palestinians really intend is not land-for-peace but land-for-war, well, it doesn’t bode well for the marriage.”

Still, Israelis who shunned the Sinai after the intifada erupted are flocking back once more to the shifting sands and tranquil beaches that have forgotten the din of war. At the Taba border crossing, Egyptian border officials who once scowled at Israeli passports now are happy about the return of tourism.

Many of the luxury hotels in Sharm el-Sheik or Nuwaibe even offer Israeli television by satellite, so visitors over these High Holidays can, if they wish, enjoy “Silence of the Sirens.”

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