- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

THE YOM KIPPUR WAR: THE EPIC ENCOUNTER THAT TRANSFORMED THE MIDDLE EAST

By Abraham Rabinovich

Schocken Books, $27.50, 544 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY SOL SCHINDLER

Abraham Rabinovich, a widely published author who lives in Israel and writes in English, has now completed what must be called the definitive history of a much analyzed and written-about conflict, in a book aptly titled “The Yom Kippur War.”

The story is well known. On the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Oct. 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria simultaneously invaded Israel. The disparity in forces was enormous: five reinforced Egyptian divisions arrayed against 450 Israeli soldiers. In the north the Syrians held an eight-to-one advantage in tanks and an even greater edge in men and artillery.

The Israeli government believed that the mobilization of reservists could bring the situation into greater balance and depended on its air force, which virtually owned the air, to counter any attacking force. Despite warnings from army scouts, secret agents, and even King Hussein of Jordan, the chief intelligence officer, Gen. Eli Zeira, was wed to the belief that Egypt would not attack.

Only when the wives and children of Soviet advisors were air-lifted out of harm’s way did reality take hold, and the mobilization process start, just hours before actual fighting began.

There were other serious Israeli failures. One was its underestimation of Egyptian military ability. The Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and entrenched itself in the Sinai with admirable speed and skill. It had the wisdom to recognize its own weaknesses, and equipped its infantry with an extraordinary number of anti-tank weapons, such as rocket grenades and sagger missiles, and protected its dug-in troops from air assault with an extremely dense concentration of surface-to-air missile batteries.

The Israeli air force had not devised an effective counter against these missiles, and the Israeli tanks were quite unprepared for the infantry anti-tank weapons. As a result, both elements suffered heavy casualties in initial fighting.

Although the situation along the canal seemed serious the Israeli general staff felt they had some strategic depth there, whereas in the north Syrian tank forces had cracked through the thin line of Israeli defense and threatened to descend into Galilee.

Hastily dispatched reservists fed piecemeal into the battle stopped the Syrian drive and by an adroit maneuver cut the Syrian supply line, thus forcing them out of the Golan. In desperation the Syrians appealed to the Egyptians to step up their attack. This put Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat in a difficult position. His initial objective had been simply to secure a bridgehead into the Sinai, which would necessitate international intervention.

He had not told the Syrians that, however. Their plea and his early success finally caused him to go on the offensive, exactly what the Israelis wanted. Once out from the cover of their missile batteries the Egyptian forces were easy game and they were badly mauled by tank and air force fire. After this victory the Israelis implemented a plan they had long possessed and bridged the canal, enabling their forces to cross and neutralize most of the missile batteries.

Despite very heavy resistance they were able to cut Egyptian supply lines and endanger the more than 100,000 men that made up the Egyptian bridgehead. In the north they continued to roll back the Syrians until they came within artillery range of Damascus. When truce finally came a potential disaster had become yet another Israeli military victory.

The author covers not only the fighting in detail but also the diplomatic maneuvering that eventually brought on a truce. The Soviets, for example, were in a no-win situation. They had counseled the Egyptians not to start a war, believing the Arabs could only lose. Nevertheless, the Arabs invaded, started losing, and blamed of course the Soviets. They had wanted to avoid at all costs a confrontation with the United States but found themselves in that position.

It was Henry Kissinger who came to everyone’s rescue. He organized a truce that saved face for the Soviets, avoided Arab humiliation, and somewhat satisfied the Israelis.

Indeed, according to Mr. Rabinovich, he and Anwar Sadat were the only victors in this blood-soaked war. Sadat won because he had retrieved Egyptian military honor, had broken the deadlock on the Sinai and would eventually regain all lost territory, while Mr. Kissinger won because he had made the United States the dominant power in the Middle East.

The losers were the Soviet Union, which had expended a great deal of money and material with absolutely no return, and the families of the many soldiers who died in combat.

The book’s 544 pages are sufficient for its subject, and there is much to commend: the details of battle, tactics, and strategy; the descriptions of the generals who commanded all three armies, including Ariel Sharon, the current prime minister of Israel, and even then a controversial general; but most of all, the author’s thorough knowledge of what occurred and his objectivity in presenting it to us. A task well performed.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.

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