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This War Isn’t Like Israel’s Earlier Wars

On Saturday night, I was seated on the first El Al plane to fly from the United States to Israel since Hamas had attacked my country. Many airlines had canceled flights to and from Israel, but El Al had refused to grant the terrorists that victory. Though we took off after midnight, sleep was impossible. My mind writhed thinking of the reports of unbearable Israeli casualties, the images of the captured and the dead, and the prospect of wider war.

Alongside those waking nightmares was an agonizing irony. I’d just come from participating in events in New York marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Just as in 1973, when Israeli reservists living or vacationing abroad rushed to rejoin their units already in combat, my plane was filled with young men ready to trade the thrills of New York for the horrors of a war under way. Their presence was another reason to reflect on the eerie similarities and stark differences between these two wars, both of which broke out on Jewish holidays—the most solemn, Yom Kippur, and now Simchat Torah, our happiest.

War, in Israel, is a recurrent reality. One used to break out every six years or so, but in recent years the distance between conflicts has dwindled. Between 2006 and today, Israel fought four wars with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and a fifth, in Lebanon, with Hezbollah. None, however, could compare to the scope, the destructiveness, and the agony of the Yom Kippur War. That is, until now.

Perhaps the closest similarity between the two conflicts is their tragic predictability. Well before October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian leaders stated their determination to take back the territories they had lost in 1967. Their armies repeatedly mobilized. But Israeli leaders catastrophically ignored these warnings. The Arabs, they believed, had not yet recovered from their humiliating defeat six years earlier and would never dare to attack.

Similarly, before Saturday’s assault, the heads of Hamas regularly broadcast their ideological and theological commitment to Israel’s destruction. They repeatedly boasted about their preparations for a major offensive. But like their predecessors in 1973, Israel’s current leaders were lulled into thinking that Hamas and Islamic Jihad were deterred by the Israel Defense Forces’ overwhelming firepower and technological know-how, and were less interested in war than in improving Gazans’ quality of life. Though much remains unknown about what, if any, specific warning Israel received prior to the attack, our lack of preparedness this time was equally egregious.

After the Yom Kippur War, Israel established the Agranat Commission to investigate its many failures and assign blame, which fell mainly on the military for failing to anticipate the Egyptian-Syrian attack. But the public held politicians responsible as well, and forced resignations. The current war will no doubt yield a similar investigation, and its findings are sure to be monumental. Multiple resignations will likely ensue.

The comparisons only go so far, however. Militarily, these two wars already look very different. The Yom Kippur War began with a massive conventional attack by the Egyptian and Syrian armies against Israeli forces in the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights. The war was fought far from Israeli population centers with very few civilian casualties. The current war began not with thousands of enemy planes and tanks but with waves of terrorists carrying automatic rifles and grenades. The fighting raged in Israeli cities and towns and on farms. Many hundreds of civilians—including women, children, the aged—have been killed, maimed, or captured in a matter of days. Israeli neighborhoods have been targeted by thousands of terrorist rockets.

Both Egypt and Syria neighbor Israel and in 1973 directly threatened its borders. Today, those borders are threatened by terrorist groups financed and trained by a state located almost 1,500 miles from Israel. The main threat to Israel is no longer Arab but Iranian.

Financially and tactically, Iran backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Iran has a pressing interest in war. The ayatollahs saw an Israel deeply divided over the government’s proposed judicial reform, where air-force pilots and other reservists opposed to that overhaul had been refusing to report for duty. Iranian rulers also saw an America desperate to avoid further foreign entanglements, and a Western world reluctant to stand by Israel’s extreme right-wing coalition. But the Iranians are also afraid. They fear an impending peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia and its promise of Saudi nuclearization. Looking at America’s political polls, these rulers fear the return to the White House of Donald Trump, who canceled the nuclear deal that President Barack Obama had negotiated with Iran and that President Joe Biden promised to revive. Trump, who ordered the assassination of the Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in 2020, would be willing to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities—or so the ayatollahs believe. What better way for Iran to take advantage of these opportunities, and allay these fears, than by triggering a destabilizing Middle East war?

The Yom Kippur War ended with an astonishing military victory for Israel, its forces totally surrounding those of Egypt and its artillery well within range of Damascus. Nonetheless, the price for Israel was excruciating: 2,656 Israeli soldiers killed. The current war has already claimed some 700 Israeli lives and will surely take more as the conflict continues. Victory, even if definable, will likely be Pyrrhic. The 1973 war created the conditions for negotiations between Egypt and Israel and led, six years later, to the Camp David Accords. But Egypt’s president at the time, Anwar Sadat, sought peace; Hamas’s leaders seek genocide. This war will at best conclude with Hamas’s uprooting from Gaza and, almost certainly, its leaders’ deaths.

The Yom Kippur War had a profound impact on Israeli society and politics. The Israeli people’s trust in their leaders, their relationship with the state—whether rooted in Judaism or democracy—and their attitudes toward peace were irrevocably altered. The Peace Now movement, dedicated to ceding territory for treaties, and the Bloc of the Faithful, utterly opposed to such concessions, both emerged in the war’s aftermath. The current conflict, too, is certain to have a tectonic effect, further shaking Israelis’ confidence in the government and perhaps even the army, and making them either more opposed to, or more desperate for, peace. The war, some Israelis will say, occurred because of the absence of a two-state solution. Most others, though, will argue that such a solution would result in Hamas ruling not only Gaza but also the West Bank. The next war, they warn, would be truly existential.

Of course, the conclusion of this war could still be far off. With an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza almost certain to be launched, it’s difficult to imagine Hamas in the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and even radicalized Israeli Arabs remaining passive. A regional war in which terrorists fire tens of thousands of rockets at Israel and Israeli forces fight on multiple fronts is a very real possibility. Iran might also exploit the chaos to further enrich its uranium stockpile and rush to make nuclear bombs. October 7, 2023—like October 6, 1973—was only the beginning.

These were the thoughts coursing through my head as the El Al plane approached Israel’s coast with no apparent signs of conflict below, and the pilot announced preparation for landing in Tel Aviv. The chief flight attendant expressed wishes for the safety of our families and support for the soldiers of the IDF. We landed without incident, and the passengers, including the young reservists returning for duty, disembarked. The flight was full and so was the airport. A long line of taxis awaited. Life in Israel went on.

Exiting the airport, I had to remind myself of the horrors occurring a few dozen miles away. I recalled how Israel had picked itself up after the Yom Kippur War and healed its great many wounds. In time, it grew into an affluent and dynamic state. Whether we can rebuild again after this war—whether, as Ezekiel asked, our dry bones will rise—is the greatest question we will have to answer. For now, our only task is to unite politically, to mourn our unspeakable losses, and to fight.

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