Scholars hosted by the Visiting Fellows in Israel Studies program at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) on October 27 discussed the lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and its relevance for understanding the current Israel-Hamas war.
The seminar, “1973 Yom Kippur War: Lessons to Remember,” was moderated by Larry Diamond, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at FSI who is also leading the Visiting Fellows in Israel Studies program at FSI.
In his opening remarks, Diamond said, “Our hearts go out to the people of Israel and this struggle they have now in the wake of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in anyone’s living memory, maybe the most horrific. And to all of the people in Israel and Gaza, who are innocent people who’ve lost their lives.”
Speakers included Or Rabinowitz of the International Relations Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting associate professor at FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC); Gil-li Vardi, a former visiting scholar at CISAC and Stanford history lecturer; Professor Emeritus Meron Medzini of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s spokesperson during 1973–1974; and Ron Hassner, the Chancellor’s Professor of Political Science and Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at UC Berkeley.
Israel’s Nuclear Question
On October 6, 1973, an Arab alliance of Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur – the Jewish holy day of atonement. The three-week conflict was one of the deadliest Arab-Israeli wars. It ended with an Israeli victory, shaping inter-state relations in the region for years to come.
Rabinowitz addressed the nuclear dimension of the Yom Kippur War, quoting Richard Nixon, who said in 1972, “The Israelis have nuclear weapons. I’m not going to tell you how I know, but I know that.”
She said a “partial picture” exists of Israel’s nuclear capabilities during the 1973 conflict, and more research needs to be done. Back then, Israel and the U.S. had reached an understanding about Israel’s “ambiguous nuclear posture,” as well as an agreement that any U.S.-made fighter jets would not be used to deploy nuclear weapons. Regarding nuclear-equipped missiles, “we have to take it into account that this was probably a political signaling which wasn’t backed by an actual ability to put in a nuclear warhead on the ballistic missile, but we just don’t know,” Rabinowitz said.
She added, “I am convinced that Golda Meir would have shown nuclear restraint, even if a bilateral understanding had not been in effect with the U.S. – because it made sense, there were moral clouds, and the Israeli objective was to align itself with the U.S. and guarantee further collaboration, and that would have just backfired.”
An Evolving Military Strategy
Vardi said the Yom Kippur War generated a huge incentive for the U.S. military and others to later develop the “AirLand Battle Doctrine,” which emphasizes close coordination between land forces acting as an aggressively maneuvering defense, and air forces attacking rear-echelon forces feeding those front-line enemy forces.
“It also taught the military leadership in Israel that their instincts are the right ones, that they should always be on the offensive. If war is coming, then they should always be very active about it – active to the point of aggression,” she said.
As for Egypt, Vardi said, they weren’t planning an all-out war against Israel if they didn’t receive help from the Soviet Union or elsewhere, and their tactical goals were therefore limited.
She also noted Israel’s battle doctrine, which rests on three pillars – deterrence, intelligence, and military decision-making, as well as a defensive strategy to be executed offensively, by transferring the battle to enemy territory.
This doctrine failed on October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 1,400 people in Israeli territory. “Israeli security perceptions will need to change,” Vardi said.
On October 7, Medzini said, Israel was dealt its worst blow since 1948. “Totally unprepared, wrong intelligence, the army in disarray, leadership, very poor response. And, parts of proper Israel were occupied by Palestinians with a huge number of casualties.”
He said, “The entire country was stunned. How could this happen to us?”
The Yom Kippur War was totally different than today’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, Medzini said. In 1973 it was launched by mostly secular governments in Egypt and Syria, whereas Hamas is a religious organization.
“We thought in terms of Western thinking or Arab thinking. We did not take into account that Hamas is a religious organization. If you read their covenant, if you look at the logo, it’s not only to destroy the Jews of Israel, it’s to destroy the Jews” everywhere, Medzini said.
Hassner said Israel’s opponents erred during the Yom Kippur War by believing the Israelis would be unable to mobilize quickly.
“Mobilization turned out to be very easy,” he said, “because everybody was in the same place. Everybody was in the synagogue. And so, unit commanders just went to the nearest synagogues and told all the young men to come out. The roads were empty, which the Egyptians seemed to be unaware of. Mobilization to the front may have happened at twice the speed at which the Israeli military had planned to mobilize, because nobody else was on the road.”
Also, Hassner said, a backlash effect can exist if one is attempting to exploit their opponents’ religious holiday – “you are going to unleash a certain amount of religiously motivated anger.”
Regarding Israel’s security situation today, Rabinowitz said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies reflect a deep miscalculation of Hamas since the terror group rose to power in 2007 in the Gaza Strip. After Netanyahu took office in 2009, “he went on the record saying that his main mission is to strengthen Hamas” by favoring it over other Palestinian groups.
Medzini said Israel has to conduct a major operation in Gaza to make sure that Hamas loses its military and political capabilities. “You can’t kill an ideology. You can’t kill a religion. But you can certainly destroy a military capability and capacity,” he said. But, Medzini also noted, “Where do we go from here? What’s the end game?”
Diamond spoke of reigniting the peace process and bringing back the two-state solution in a very actual manner. “I’ll note what I think everybody in the room knows that if Hamas is removed from Gaza, something else needs to go and fill that gap.”