The October War: A Retrospective, Edited by Richard B. Parker

Article excerpt

Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2001. 396pp. $55.00.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1973 is the most traumatic event in Israeli history and one of the most significant causes for pride in Arab modern history. Towards its end the Cold War's last major superpower crisis took place, and, the fighting also triggered the Arab oil embargo, which had a major impact on world economy during the 1970s.

Despite its significance, the volume of academic and non-academic body of literature on the War of Yom Kippur, as it is remembered in Israel, or the Ramadan War, as the Arabs term it, is rather small. Most of it was written during the 1970s, when many details concerning various aspects of the conflict were still unclear. A number of memoirs of Israeli and Egyptian key figures (e.g., the Director of Israel's Military Intelligence, or the Chief of the General Staff-Branch of the Egyptian Army), were published in the early 1990s. They provide new, sometimes misleading, information and interpretation, primarily about Arab war preparations and the sources of Israel's intelligence failure, and they present these from a rather limited and biased angle.

Given these deficiencies, The October War: A Retrospective, could fill a wide gap in our knowledge. This is especially so, since it is the summary of a conference on the war which took place in Washington D.C., on October 9 and 10, 1998. Most of the participants in this conference, who came from the USA, ex USSR, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, took active part in various diplomatic, intelligence, and military roles in the war. Others were academic experts. Such a combination of expertise, implies high expectations. Unfortunately, the final product does not meet them.

The book's main weakness is that it hardly provides new information or fresh perspective about the war. The practitioners seem to have come unprepared, bringing into the conference whatever they recollect from the war, without trying to refresh their memory. And the academicians -- some of whom are more familiar than others with the events of 1973 -- could not get out of the discussants the information the practitioners either forgot, or deny, or (still) refuse to tell.

Perhaps the best examples, which are also of prime interest to the readers of Shofar, involve the failures to reach a diplomatic solution prior to the war, and Israel's strategic surprise at its beginning. Thus, two of the Israeli representatives in the conference, Mordechai Gazit (the director-general of the prime minister's office in 1973) and Simcha Dinitz (then ambassador in Washington), hardly related to Sadat's attempt, in February 1973, to use Kissinger's back-door channel in order to promote a comprehensive Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. This was, certainly, the most daring Egyptian proposal throughout the 1967-1973 period. From Israel's perspective it was, however, a non-starter. In April 1973 Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and Yisrael Galilee assessed that war with Egypt was highly likely. Though they mentioned Sadat's initiative as an alternative to it, their main concern was how to explain their preference for a non-diplomatic solution to their colleagues in the government. …