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11 October 2023

The revenge of history

How Israel forgot the lessons of the Yom Kippur War.

By Robert D Kaplan

History isn’t a linear continuation of what has gone before. It zigs and zags. When Lenin said that decades can go by and little happens, and then days and weeks go by and decades happen, this is what he meant. This is why predictions are so difficult, and why geopolitical forecasting firms often fall back on linear thinking.

Consider Israel.

Between 1967 and 1973, Israeli strategy was lulled into a triumphant mindset, following its territorial conquests in the Six Day War. Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, did not act on signals coming from Egypt regarding possible peace talks with its president, Anwar el-Sadat. She and her cabinet, following the Arab military debacle of 1967, simply did not consider that the Arabs were strong enough to go to war again. They lacked anxious foresight and constructive pessimism.

Tragedy came in October 1973 when Egypt, in coordination with Syria, launched a surprise attack on Israel across the Suez Canal and, in the north, into the Golan Heights. It took several weeks for Israeli troops to dislodge them and push them back, at a cost of more than 2,600 Israeli soldiers dead. The six-year hiatus between the two wars when relatively little happened was replaced by days and weeks when decades happened.

[See also: Does Qatar fund Hamas?]

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Though Israel’s government turned the 1973 attack into a military defeat for Egypt and Syria, the political damage was done. The war made Israel even more dependent on the US than before. The then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was able to force Israeli territorial withdrawals, consolidate territorial gains for Egypt and Syria, and allow the US to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cairo and Damascus. This was a victory for the two Arab countries as well as for Washington, while a setback for Israel, which had benefited from the relative diplomatic isolation of Egypt and Syria.

The war also set in motion a series of political events that led to an electoral victory for Israel’s opposition Likud party coalition in 1977. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the Likud party had never won a national election. Now it was in charge, beginning a new era of right-wing prominence.

Fast-forward to today. The demonstrations in Israel against the right-wing government’s attempt to weaken the judiciary, the tap dance with Saudi Arabia towards the two countries establishing diplomatic relations, and the Abraham Accords in 2020 – which cemented diplomatic relations between Israel and conservative Sunni Arab states such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – all occurred under the lazy assumption that while Israel had made no concessions to the Palestinians, the Palestinians were, nevertheless, in a state of disarray.

For years, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to ignore the Palestinians while claiming one diplomatic victory after another. That period – that linear pattern – has abruptly ended.

[See also: The Hamas attack was driven by a brutal ideology]

Hamas has not only fired thousands of missiles into Israel and killed at least 1,000 Israelis, it has taken many Israeli hostages through daring cross-border raids that left Israel’s government, and its intelligence and security establishments, shocked. As in 1973, the domestic ramifications will only come after a time.

The first order of business is for Israel to fight and win this war, which will take a good deal of brutality, and has required it to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists – an action that has not been taken at this level for years. Bombing Gaza, the coastal enclave where as many as 2.3 million people live, into the Stone Age is doable. But what will happen the day after? What will be the fate of the Israeli hostages being held in Gaza while the Israel Defense Forces are enacting this? Israel has always been hypersensitive to each Israeli life. In the past it has traded throngs of Palestinian prisoners for just a handful of Israelis; or even for one Israeli as in the case of the soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. Will Israel now empty out its prisons for the hostages that Hamas has taken?

Iran has provided military aid, planning, and political encouragement for Hamas. Tehran views the quickening pace of Israel’s improving relationship with Saudi Arabia with alarm. There have been reports of an agreement to staff the civilian nuclear plant that the US would build for Saudi Arabia with American nuclear experts, to assuage the security concerns of Israel, while at the same time meeting Riyadh’s demands. The Saudis have even indicated that they would be willing to raise oil production to win allies in the US Congress, a body that would be crucial for any grand bargain among Israel, the Saudis, and the Americans. Hamas’s lightning military offensive on 7 October was designed to halt budding Israeli-Saudi relations. The question now is, will Iran encourage its Hezbollah allies in southern Lebanon to open a second front against Israel in the north?

Like the Meir government following the 1973 war, there will be a political reckoning for Netanyahu and his colleagues. We may finally be at the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics. I say this with caution, given how often he has proven analysts wrong in this regard. But a large measure of his appeal among Israelis has been his ability to protect the country from its Arab and Iranian enemies. Nobody, it has been said, has demonstrated toughness, skill and elan like “Bibi” in security policy. That view has substantially been shattered by what has been dubbed Israel’s 9/11. Of course, this could take much time to play out. Likud needed more than three years to wrest power from Labor after the 1973 war. But it happened.

At first there will be unity in Israel, as the anti-government demonstrations cease and the country rallies around its leaders. But that will be a prelude to the post-mortem. This catastrophe happened with a right-wing government in power. The right could pay the political penalty; or the country could drift further to the right in reaction to the Palestinian aggression.

As for the region, much will depend upon how long this war lasts. It will likely continue for weeks, possibly months. The longer it goes on at a high pitch, the greater the possibility for changes outside the war zone. Palestinians in the West Bank could unleash another intifada. The Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah axis could be strengthened, as could the Iran-Russia axis. The Israel-Hamas war will likely steal attention from the conflict in Ukraine, at least for a time. That could affect military aid itself, especially because the US will now have to resupply both Ukraine and Israel with ammunition, not to mention protecting its stockpiles for a possible war over Taiwan.

A final note: by working with Hamas on this attack, Iran has demonstrated its blood-lust for killing Israelis and Jews. That could change the calculation among Israel’s leaders regarding a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. And that could lead to other geopolitical upheavals.

Experts have said that in recent years we have left behind the global war on terrorism for great power competition. But history is not that neat. We could see both eras occur simultaneously.

Robert D Kaplan is the author of “The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China” (Random House)

[See also: What the West got wrong about Iran]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits