Today is Yom Kippur, and almost automatically my thoughts, like those of everybody else who was around at the time, go back 34 years, to that Yom Kippur.
I was sitting at home, deep in conversation with a friend, when the sirens suddenly started to wail.
The sound of sirens is always frightening, but sirens on Yom Kippur are something from another world. After all, this is a day of total silence, the day when not a single car moves on the streets of Israel.
Outside, a flurry of unusual activity. Military vehicles speeding by, people in uniform rushing out with kitbags on their shoulders, the roar of airplanes overhead.
We gathered round the radio, which is normally silent on Yom Kippur. It announced that a war had started.
* * *
I WAS not called up, but on the following days I saw the war from several different angles. I was at the time a Member of the Knesset and the editor-in-Chief of the Haolam Hazeh news magazine, but the Knesset was on vacation (it all happened in the middle of an election campaign) and the editorial staff of the magazine was almost incapacitated, since most of its members had been called up. Rami Halperin, a young photographer who had just been released from army service and started to work for the magazine, did not wait to be called up but rushed to join his former unit, in time for the battle for the “Chinese Farm”, where he was killed.
A well-known German TV director came to the country and asked for advice about filming the war. While we talked, the idea came to him of making a film about me covering the war.
That way I saw all the fronts. We were searching for Ariel Sharon in the South and followed him to the Suez Canal. A few kilometers from the canal we came under heavy Egyptian shelling. We were stuck in a huge traffic jam – a whole division with its troop carriers, cannon, tanks, ambulances and whatever else was on the move towards the canal. On the way we entered a mobile field hospital, where a military doctor, Ephraim Sneh – now a prominent Member of the Knesset – was operating.
Next we hurried to the Northern Front. We passed large numbers of burned-out tanks, theirs and ours, and reached a village about a dozen kilometers from Damascus. Somehow I remember a conversation with a small boy about cats.
In between we inspected a refugee camp near Nablus and the Old City of Jerusalem. From every coffee shop blared the voice of the Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, explaining his war aims. The members of the German team were flabbergasted. They remembered stories from World War II and found it incredible that the occupied population was allowed to listen freely to the enemy radio
* * *
BUT THE event that is engraved in my memory – and in the memory of most Israelis who lived through that time – did not happen on the front.
We were sitting in a neighbor’s apartment, when an image appeared on the TV screen: dozens of Israeli soldiers crouching on the ground, hands over bowed heads, with terrifying Syrian soldiers towering over them.
Never before had we seen Israeli soldiers like this: dirty, unshaven, obviously frightened, miserable as only prisoners of war can be.
There was silence in the room. At that moment the myth of the Israeli superman, of the invincible Israeli soldier, which had dominated our lives for a generation, died. This myth was the ultimate victim of the Yom Kippur War.
True, the Israeli army proved itself. In three weeks of war it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. At the beginning of the war, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was muttering about the “destruction of the Third Temple” (meaning the State of Israel), at the end, the army was threatening both Cairo and Damascus.
But the legend of the invincible Israeli army was shattered. The picture of the helpless and humiliated Israeli prisoners refuses to be eradicated from memory. Right after the war, the Battle of the Generals broke out. Their quarrels destroyed the prestige of the military leaders, who until then had been the idols of the public. It has never fully recovered. (But, contrary to the expectations of many, the stranglehold of the army on Israeli policy was not diminished.)
This psychological rupture was followed by a political break. The generation of Golda Meir left the stage, the generation of Yitzhak Rabin took its place. Only three and a half years later, the unbelievable happened: Menachem Begin, the eternal opposition leader, assumed power.
* * *
BEGIN’S MAIN achievement, the peace with Egypt, was a direct result of the Yom Kippur War, which the Arabs call the Ramadan War. The crossing of the canal and the breaking of the Bar-Lev Line restored Egyptian pride, and that made peace possible. I was one of the first five Israelis to reach Cairo after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, and I vividly remember the hundreds of posters hanging over the streets: “Sadat – Hero of War, Hero of Peace!”
In Israel, too, many remember Begin as a hero of peace. After all, he was the first Israeli statesman to make peace with an Arab country – and not just any Arab country, but the most central and important one. In spite of all that has happened in the meantime, this peace has held.
Some people are berating Bashar al-Assad and King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia for not following Sadat’s example. Why don’t they dare to come to Jerusalem?
This line of reasoning is based on a misreading of the facts. Sadat did not just decide to come. It did not happen the way he described it so many times (in a conversation with me, too): that he was coming back from a visit to Europe and, while flying over Mount Ararat, was suddenly inspired to do something unparalleled in history: to visit the enemy’s capital while still in a state of war
The truth is that before the visit, emissaries of Sadat and Begin had held secret meetings in Morocco. Only after Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan had promised, on Begin’s behalf, to give back all the occupied Egyptian territories, did Sadat make his decision.
Where is the Israeli leader today who is ready to promise Assad the return of all the Golan, to promise Mahmoud Abbas a withdrawal to the Green Line?
* * *
HOW DID Begin decide to give Egypt “parts of our fatherland”?
Very simple: for him, they were not “parts of our fatherland”.
Begin had before his eyes a clear map of the Land of Israel. He had inherited it from his master and teacher, Zeev Jabotinsky: the map of the country at the beginning of the British Mandate, on both banks of the Jordan.
In the course of history, the borders of this country have changed hundreds of times. There were the borders of the Divine Promise, from the Nile to the Euphrates. There were the borders of the “Kingdom of David” (which never existed), reaching to Hamat in northern Syria. There were the borders of the tiny enclave around Jerusalem at the time of Ezra and Nehemia. There were the borders of Roman Palaestina, which changed from time to time. There were the borders of “Jund (military zone) Filastin” of the Muslim conquerors. And many more.
Like all the preceding borders, those of the British Mandate were fixed by accident. In the South, they were agreed upon before World War I between the British (who ruled Egypt) and the Turks (who ruled Palestine). In the North, they were agreed upon – after that war – between the French colonial government in Syria and the British colonial government in Palestine. In Transjordan, a long sleeve was stretched to Iraq, in order to allow for the free flow of oil from Mosul (then also under British control) to Haifa on the Mediterranean.
It was this accidental map that was sanctified by Jabotinsky, who wrote the famous song: “The Jordan has two banks / this one belongs to us, and the other one too.” It was part of the emblem of the Irgun underground and appeared on the masthead of the newspaper of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party, the forerunner of today’s Likud. Begin’s conclusion: the Sinai Peninsula does not belong to the Land of Israel and so can be given up without moral scruples. The purpose was to get Egypt out of the war, which for Begin had only one aim: possession of the whole of the Land of Israel, which others call Palestine.
Begin would have had no problem with giving up the Golan, which, according to this map, also does not belong to the country. But he was captivated by Ariel Sharon, who seduced him to invade Lebanon in order to annihilate the PLO, hiding from him his second objective: to knock out Syria. (As is well known, both objectives failed.)
In the meantime, a new generation has grown up, one that does not know Jabotinsky and his map. In the consciousness of the Israeli Right, a new map has taken shape: the East Bank of the Jordan has been taken out, the Golan has been put in. But in its center there lies, as always, the West Bank.
* * *
BEFORE THE Six-Day War, the British historian of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, told me that we live in a paradox: “Israel was founded in the land that once belonged to the Philistines, while the Palestinians, who got their name from the Philistines, live in the land that belonged to the ancient Kingdom of Israel.” The borders between the State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were laid down by the war of 1948.
Since then, The State of Israel has been working hard to eliminate this paradox.
Everything significant that is happening nowadays is a part of the Israeli effort to take over the West Bank and to turn it into a part of the State of Israel. All else is but foam on the water.
The pathetic Condoleezza Rice keeps coming and going. Ehud Olmert is formulating a document without content in order to create the illusion of progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. Israeli airplanes bombard a Syrian area in order to eliminate a threat of “weapons of mass destruction”. Israel prepares to bomb or not to bomb nuclear installations in Iran. President Bush is calling for an “international meeting” at an unknown date, with unknown participants for an unknown purpose.
All this is imagined reality. The real reality is unfolding on the ground, every day, every hour: nightly incursions in West Bank towns, frantic building in the settlements, enlargement of the “Israelis only” road network, further additions to the 600 or so existing roadblocks, worsening of the living conditions in the Palestinian ghettos in the West Bank and turning life in the Gaza Strip into hell.
This is the real war: the war for “the whole of the Land of Israel” – a war that has disappeared from public discourse, but that is being waged energetically, far from the eyes of Israelis living only 20 minutes drive from there. The Palestinians are fighting with their meager means but with dogged obduracy.
If a historic compromise between the peoples is not achieved, this war will go on for generations. A boy born today will join the war on his 18th birthday, like the boys born 18 years ago, and his father, like those before him, will bury him.
The Yom Kippur War was only a small episode in this campaign. It was fought in the North and the South, against the Syrians and the Egyptians. The Palestinians were not involved. But no one doubted for a moment that it was a part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is o a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.