• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Israel: Three Months of Yom Kippur

Jerusalem, late December

The aftermath of the October war is still very much before us, but Israeli society is already gripped by the urgency of “drawing conclusions” (“hasakat maskanot“). Indeed, the name “Yom Kippur War,” tentatively assigned by the Israeli press, seems to have stuck fast for reasons far transcending the actual day of attack. For the pain, introspection, and grim self-criticism which Jews so vigorously exercise on Yom Kippur have become, for the present at any rate, a way of life. This is a society facing its short-comings; the achievements can wait.

Internal political criticism has become stormy among a citizenry recognized for its insatiable political appetite and its generally patronizing approach to its own political leadership—even during the most tranquil periods. Each new assault on hitherto sacred cows (golden calves?) has led to feverish assaults on others; no one, nothing is immune. One must be cautioned, however, that the high voltage which the present public debate is generating should not be conceived as a threat to national unity, or to the fundamental authority of government to decide issues of peace and war. It is precisely the Israeli’s sense of social interdependence and the ultimately “for better—for worse” resignation characterizing the relations between Israelis and their governments that have made this intensity of critical debate possible. Only a couple each of whose partners is secure in the other can enjoy the constructive luxury of brawls, particularly in the midst of authentic crisis. The disenchantment here is with policies, decisions, and deciders, not with the Jewish national project.1

Premier Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Minister Without Portfolio Israel Galili, a special adviser on security affairs, are obvious preliminary targets, for they bore, indeed usurped, complete civilian responsibility for defense. The defense watch-dog committee of the Knesset has long been starved into paralysis, and the government as a whole was not consulted or advised about the deteriorating condition on the borders until four hours before the outbreak of hostilities. No doubt, Meir, Dayan, and Galili presided over a remarkable victory by military standards; but Israelis have other standards. Two thousand five hundred killed is a staggering setback to a life-hungry society. Nor are there joy and comfort here from the casualties inflicted on the other side. Quite the contrary. 2

There is, moreover, an unqualified dissatisfaction with the state of the country’s defenses at the outbreak of war. For Israelis get their “real” news from their husbands or sons at the front, and the stories filtering back from the Syrian front suggest that only the perfectly heroic skill and sacrifice of Israeli sons (baneinus), coupled with Syrian logistical incompetence, prevented destructive incursions into productive northern heartlands. On the Egyptian front, furthermore, there appears to have been such a shocking breakdown of communications that the General Staff’s “full alert” was not executed by the Southern Command.3

That Israelis draw inspiration and confidence from the dependable idealism of the Israeli Defense Forces (Tzahal) only increases their skepticism about what the disgruntled ex-Labourite Shulamit Aloni has dubbed “Golda’s Defense Kitchen” (“ha’mit-bach“), which had smugly dictated defense policy, operation, and expenditure for the last five years. Dayan, who had placed himself above criticism on defense matters, and who is generally suspected of having forced an intransigent line on the ruling coalition of “Labour Alignment”—against the explicit opposition of Mapam—by threatening to bolt the party to form a government with the coalition of right-wing parties,4 the Likud, is paying a double price, not only for his apparently faulty command but precisely for having flaunted his political indispensability. There has been very strong opposition to his remaining as defense minister in the next government, although his charisma, albeit tarnished, and his very close ties to Golda Meir still compel one to see his political future as uncertain.5

Israel Galili, on the other hand, faces more immediate political challenges. His name has become synonymous with the government’s lethargy in making peace initiatives because of his leading role in producing the “hawkish” and now unofficially defunct “Galili Document,” and then in cooperation with Dayan grafting it onto the Alignment. The “Galili Document” was a patchwork of plans for selective settlement of the occupied territories and indifference to Palestinian national aspirations, and was predicated on a Dr. Pangloss view of Israeli deterrent power. It has now been superseded by a highly syncretic but decidedly more dovish “fourteen-point program” which emphasizes territorial concessions and recognition for Palestinian Arab self-determination. I shall refer to this new document later, but the extent to which its acceptance compromises Galili’s position in the government is unquestionable.

A long-time friend of Golda Meir (her translator into “nice Hebrew”) and de facto leader of the Achdut Ha’Avoda faction in the Alignment, Galili has lost his constituency, it would seem, to Vice Premier Yigal Allon, an outspoken “dove”—particularly in his attempts to find creative solutions to Israeli-Palestinian political conflicts—whose new found political courage6 makes him a strong candidate to form a new government should Mrs. Meir step down or, though this is unlikely, be forced out by the party “machine.” Mrs. Meir, as a matter of fact, seems to be the only member of the “kitchen” whose position remains stable.

It now seems indisputable, nevertheless, that Israelis are no longer prepared to tolerate Golda’s “democratic centralism” when the IDF, their most precious national asset, is involved.7 Indeed, there is a vocal public nostalgia for the days of Ben-Gurion when the IDF was not run by the fiat of folk heroes, but by rigorous standards of merit, noninvolvement in politics,8 and efficiency. This, of course, may be a somewhat idealized view, but one which all seem eager to believe in the wake of Ben-Gurion’s recent death, and the memories of a noble epoch which a three-day national mourning aroused. It is widely felt that the extent of the Arab surprise in the last war, in planning and execution, was, by comparison, caused by a withering of vigilance which often accompanies arrogance and elitism. This is a society which is not cynical about democracy after all, and the first surge of public outrage directed at the “failures” (“ha’mechdalim“) of government leaders and senior officers, and their practices, has temporarily been stifled only by the appointment of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, unprecedented in its prestige, independence, and discretionary power.9

However, it would be simplistic to suppose that Israelis, or at least a significant number of them, will now be satisfied with merely a clarification of purely technical failures when the very political and strategic assumptions which these techniques were intended to serve are seriously eroded. Over these assumptions a decisive political battle has been taking place within the Alignment since mid-October. As I have said, the political vulnerability of the “kitchen cabinet” (Meir-Dayan-Galili) has not been ignored by the established opposition within the party. Maverick “doves” such as Yitchak Ben-Aharon, who resigned from the powerful Histadrut leadership to get closer to the action, and Arie Eliav, an ex-general secretary of the party, who has been waging his fight against the “Troika” out in the open for two years, have been pressing the initiative and Mapam has also been stirring.

But what now seems even more significant is that moderate ex-Mapai power brokers—the “fire extinguishers”—such as Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir and Tel Aviv Mayor Yehoshua Rabinovitch, and even steady apparatchniks such as Party Secretary Aharon Yadlin and election campaign chief Avraham Ofer, seem all to be committed to a new style and substance of leadership. The “fourteen-point program” was their victory, and Sapir seems to have tamed Eliav at the marathon Central Committee convention which adopted it, with a secret promise of a cabinet post for a committed dove. Mrs. Meir, it is true, will probably remain a secure leader, however modulated, out of deference to her magnetism,10 but the political wind sniffers broke openly with her at this meeting.

The writing on the wall is, after all, printed in block letters. In mid-December the polls showed the Alignment and the Likud running neck and neck each with about 30 percent of the votes,11 with a huge 30 percent undecided. Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights faction showed surprising strength. Moked, the left-wing splinter party, drew unprecedented crowds (two thousand in Tel Aviv on a Friday night) and seemed to be making real inroads in the Kibbutzim with its pragmatically dovish program. Moreover, over 46 percent polled agreed that at least “some territorial concessions” are now necessary, and only 20 percent insisted that no territory should be returned.

Granted that “territorial concessions” seems a rather simple-minded reflection of a complex problem, nevertheless the term has become an accepted litmus test of a willingness for diplomatic flexibility. The Alignment Party machine churned out election propaganda claiming that it is the only strong peace party and that a vote against it will “split the left.” This has worked before. But, at least this time, the “machine” has felt pressured to deliver more than empty socialist rhetoric; some leaders will go, or, as it is more commonly claimed, they “will fly“—an expression revealing the almost comic relish with which so many Israelis anticipate the cashiering of government ministers.

Meanwhile, during November and December the press and the articulate public set a very peppery tone of debate. Petition campaigns flourished, led by hitherto politically inactive but extremely influential men: distinguished scholars (Talmon, Rottenstreich, Avineri, Shamir), writers (A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Amos Elon), ex-generals (Mati Peled, Meir Payil), actors (Hannah Maron), and, of course, kibbutz leaders (Dan Sion, Muki Tzur), and hundreds more; and if there was a common theme to the various petitions it was that all peace initiatives must now be attempted, with due regard to fundamental national security. The most impressive campaign was an abortive12 attempt to force all parties to reopen their “election lists” so that a new leadership, such is the implication, might have been chosen more democratically to deal with the “new” situation.

So what’s new,” as it were? Is there not a depressing familiarity about conflict and war between Jews and Arabs? Yes, but the catchwords, “new situation,” refer not to the supposed constancy of Arab enmity, or to the chilling specter of “Jewish fate,” but to the real and now more evident strategic alternatives which appear to have existed all along for the Israeli government to explore, but to which Golda and her leadership addressed themselves only with unambiguous claims that no such alternatives had existed.

For a start, the notion that the Israeli Army has had no choice (Ein breiras) but to sit on the Suez Canal and dig in on the heights overlooking the road to Damascus until Egypt and Syria respectively agree to direct negotiations with no preconditions appears to have been a poor strategic decision even under the very worst of scenarios which would reflect the very worst of Arab intentions. The sorry fact that nobody ever called Sadat’s peace bluff, if it was a bluff (he did after all make clear rumblings about “recognition” and “peace” to Jarring, and in an interview with de Borchgrave, if Israel would agree, in principle, to return the whole of Sinai), is only coincidental to the more central point that a unilateral withdrawal from the canal, with strongholds left to, say, a UN Emergency Force, might have ironically served Israel’s strategic interest.

  1. 1

    A recent public opinion survey conducted by the Communications Institute of the Hebrew University reveals, among other things, that a full 84 percent of those questioned believe that a meaningful cut in their living standards is “acceptable” and that almost 20 percent insisted that cuts were “necessary.” Over 83 percent have already purchased war bonds or will be doing so. The net average Israeli income is, by the way, roughly only two-thirds that of the American with regard to purchasing power. Moreover, during the war period public volunteering exceeded demand although all men, 18-45, were conscripted.

  2. 2

    Correspondents friendly to Sadat, such as Arnaud de Borchgrave of News-week, might learn a moral lesson from Israeli correspondents on this matter.

  3. 3

    General “Goordish” Gonen, by the way, has already been demoted and replaced by Assistant Chief of Staff Tal, an acknowledged architect of the counteroffensive. But many see this demotion, although perhaps justified, as scapegoating.

  4. 4

    The State List (Party), a new member of the Likud and remnant of (the) Rafi (Party), of which Ben-Gurion and Dayan were leaders, went to the Histadrut elections explicitly claiming that every vote for them would help chip Dayan away from the Alignment.

  5. 5

    Shimon Peres, Minister of Transport, erstwhile Rafi member, and close associate of Dayan, is now expounding the argument that Israel has in fact been at war since 1967, and that one ought to appreciate Dayan’s competence during the whole of his tenure. But it will not wash. After all, it was precisely Dayan’s claim to have provided a stable “no peace—no war” which had justified his hard line prior to October.

  6. 6

    Allon called for Dayan’s resignation and suggested that Mrs. Meir form a projected government before the elections so that the Israeli voter would know for what he or she is voting.

  7. 7

    The Foreign Policy and Security Committee of the Knesset appears now to have a greatly augmented responsibility; and academic “think-tanks” have been commissioned to prepare contingency plans for the Geneva talks.

  8. 8

    General “Arik” Sharon’s openly critical remarks to the foreign press particularly caused quite a stir—not so much for their content, with which many agreed, but because they were correctly taken as a symptom of serious politically motivated malaise among the IDF’s senior officers. It is clear, by the way, that Sharon’s Likud political affiliations are intimately connected with the fact that he was passed over for Chief of Staff, although it is not certain which preceded what.

  9. 9

    Included on the commission are Lieutenant Generals Haim Lasko, who, as Chief of Staff when the “Lavon crisis” broke in 1953, maintained a political neutrality beyond reproach, and Professor Yigal Yadin, the first Chief of Staff, a gadfly in the establishment, whose agitation for electoral reform and genuine democratization, complemented by his personal “pioneering” example at the excavations of Masada, endows him with great respect. The latter, by the way, was highly touted to become Defense Minister in 1967 but was passed over for Dayan for reasons that are not clear.

  10. 10

    A mid-December poll revealed that Golda still held a hefty plurality. Forty-six percent, as the “people’s choice” for premier, but now Allon ranks second in the Alignment, not Dayan.

  11. 11

    The strong early showing of the Likud should not be overrated. They made early gains by attacking administrative failures, but it is no secret that the hard-line policy (for which the polls showed only 20 percent support) was originally their own. They may indeed garner a significant protest vote, particularly since they are running on a promise to form a “national unity” government of all parties, but I suspect that most of this vote will eventually go either left or, more likely, back to an overhauled Alignment. Israeli voters always surprise analysts with their predictability, and it seems very doubtful to me that in the voting booth there will be a decisive swing to the Likud, particularly as long as a shifty demagogue like Menachem Begin leads it.

  12. 12

    The fact that the “academic” pressure to open the lists failed attests to the estrangement of scholars from political hand-soiling, although very many are plugged into the Labour establishment as consultants. Whether they might feel their strength as a group, and attempt a putsch of sorts, remains to be seen. The first substantial step in this direction was taken by a smaller group of which Schmuel Ettinger and Mati Peled were among the more prominent members. They met to endorse the Alignment “nevertheless,” i.e., in view of uncertainty about Likud’s strength; but they put the Labour Party machine on notice that they will carry the fight to the rank and file after the election.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print