“Wars in history,” the historian Michael Oren observed, “invariably become wars of history.” Oren was writing about the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated the combined armies of its Arab opponents in less than a week. But for many Israelis, it is the Yom Kippur War whose memory is the most prevalent and contentious in the contemporary affairs of their country. As Uri Kaufman highlights in his new book, Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How it Created the Modern Middle East, this is for good reason.
Kaufman, an attorney turned real estate developer, has evidently spent decades studying the Yom Kippur War. His mastery of the subject is obvious and his writing style is engaging. This is not a boring tome of military history that leaves the reader lost in the weeds and burdened with unnecessary details and facts.
Importantly, this is the first English-language look at the Yom Kippur War in two decades. It is also the first full-length study to appear since the recent declassification of war-related documents. Kaufman makes use of these records, as well as interviews with participants on all sides, including Syrians, whose accounts have often been neglected in previous studies.
The Yom Kippur War remade both Israel and the wider Middle East. Israel, the conventional narrative goes, was filled with hubris after its stunning victory in 1967. As Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said at the time: “We went looking for donkeys and we found an empire.”
According to some accounts, the Jewish state spent the next several years drunk on its newfound power and ignoring both warning signs and peace offers from Egypt, the other preeminent regional power and Israel’s foremost opponent. But as Kaufman shows, this narrative is too simplistic by far.
Indeed, while Israel’s economy boomed in the years after 1967, the war against the Jewish state never stopped; rather, it transformed. The Six-Day War marked the beginning of the end of Arab nationalism, with Israel’s opponents increasingly putting their faith in asymmetric warfare and terrorism as means to achieve victory.
After that war, thirteen Arab states gathered at Khartoum and issued the famous “three No’s: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.” By contrast, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan would famously say that Jerusalem was “waiting for a phone call” from Arab leaders. But the line never rang.
Instead, on July 23, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced “that he was preparing his armed forces to continue the battle against Israel.” Buoyed by Soviet arms, Egypt launched what would become known as the “War of Attrition,” a years-long, low-intensity conflict that predated the surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces in October 1973. In a testament to their own losses, the Egyptians would call it Harb al-Istanzaf, the “War of Bloodletting.” Egypt would lose seventy-three airplanes in air-to-air combat while the Israelis would lose only three, “a 24:1 ratio that exceeded that of every previous conflict,” Kaufman notes.
Kaufman provides welcome attention to the War of Attrition, which has been criminally neglected. He highlights its importance, noting how it helped set the stage for the much larger, high-intensity conflict that followed.
The Yom Kippur War remains controversial in Israel—largely thanks to the Jewish state being caught flat-footed by the Egyptian-Syrian attack, as well as for missteps in the war’s early days. Israel was initially sent reeling, though it quickly recovered and scored decisive tactical victories. But the loss in men and material haunted the nation, leading to recriminations and score-settling that continue half a century after the guns went silent.
Indeed, the Yom Kippur War remains a case study for intelligence failures. Kaufman’s chapter on the subject is both concise and even-handed. The failures were epic and costly. And, as the author shows, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Eli Zeira, did more than err. In fact, Zeira actively misled Israeli leadership.
Zeira’s audacity is truly jaw-dropping. As Kaufman relates, Zeira even hid information from Golda Meir, the nation’s prime minister, and David “Dado” Elazar, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. There had been previous war scares in recent years, with Zeira correctly predicting that Egypt would not invade. This history bolstered Zeira’s reputation—and his self-confidence. But it proved tragic for Israel.
Zeira would be one of the Israeli leaders blamed at the war’s conclusion. The Agranat Commission, established in the war’s wake to examine the Jewish state’s failures, would absolve Meir and Moshe Dayan but find Elazar culpable. The Commission’s conclusions proved controversial with the Israeli public, many of whom thought that their leaders had escaped blame.
Indeed, the war would mark the beginning of the end of the Israeli Labor Party’s political dominance. And Israel’s narrow victory helped set the stage for the subsequent peace between Egypt and Israel, which has proved historic and enduring. But as Uri Kaufman documents in his well-written and engrossing book, it was a peace achieved at a terrible cost.