Highly respected by his fellow journalists in Israel, Matti Golan has written a controversial account of the circumstances surrounding the diplomatic background of the war between the Arabs and Israel in 1973—the conflict that has come to be known as the Yom Kippur War. It began with a surprise attack across the canal by Egyptian forces on October 5, which marked the holiest day in the Jewish calendar (Yom Kippur) and supplied an opportune time to catch the enemy unaware; it was finally resolved on September 2, 1975, when Israel accepted the final terms of an agreement which involved the United States in surveillance of two strategic passes in the Sinai desert. Although ceasefires were achieved between Israel and the Egyptian and Syrian forces within a month of the outbreak of the conflict, a fierce diplomatic struggle between Secretary of State Kissinger and all the parties involved lasted for two years. It is that diplomatic struggle, which in fact began the day the war broke out, which Matti Golan records. What makes his book so controversial is its command of the most minute details of what were supposed to be top-secret meetings and discussions coupled with an unrelenting exposé of Israeli diplomatic blunders and of what Golan himself calls “Kissinger’s perfidy.” The Israeli censor and government took a dim view of Golan’s access to so much privileged information and reluctantly released the book only after a four-month delay.
What will disturb the general reader, and may be one reason why Israel finally felt the book would not be taken too seriously, is the absence of any verifiable sources for most of Golan’s revelations. Journalists must protect the identities of their sources, particularly when the issues are as sensitive as they were in this case. But such a policy can detract from the validity of the journalist’s findings. Golan’s reputation for accuracy and rectitude helped sustain the book in Israel where he was well-known, but the international reader cannot help but lament the lack of hard documentation. When journalism cannot achieve the impact that comes from proof, it is often tempted to settle for the sensation aroused by hearsay. In fairness to Golan, it must be said that his straightforward and even understated presentation of all the “facts” does lend weight to his credibility. Many will be persuaded that he has written a cold and grim book about things as they are.
Could the war have been averted? Golan seems to think that a good chance of stopping it, or at least postponing it, was lost in the fourteen hours preceding the outbreak. Israeli intelligence misinterpreted the true significance of the military buildup on the Egyptian side of the canal, and by the time Prime Minister Golda Meir knew that Egypt was indeed planning to attack, she and her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had decided that in order to maintain their friendship with the United States, a preemptive strike was out of the question in any case. What they did not know at the time was that even if a preemptive strike had been called for, the Israeli ground and air forces would not have been able to launch such a strike in time. But Golan feels that Israel’s failure to explore certain diplomatic initiatives in those fleeting hours was even less excusable than her lack of military preparation. Had Foreign Minister Abba Eban been contacted immediately in New York, where he happened to have been at the time, he would have been able to reach Kissinger, who was also in the city. Kissinger, in turn, could have contacted the Russians and Arabs and transmitted Israel’s warning of a preemptive strike. Stripped of the “surprise element,” the Egyptian-Syrian attack could very well have dissipated under Russian pressure. Eban, however, knew nothing of the impending attack because Golda Meir had left express instructions that he was to be the “last person to be informed of anything important.” Her hostility to Eban caused her to conduct all serious business solely with her protégé, Ambassador Simcha Dinitz. His charge d’affaires was in possession of the news, but since he had been instructed by Dinitz that all communications should be “directly with the prime minister’s office” it did not even occur to him to contact his true boss, Foreign Minister Eban, the one man who could have moved Kissinger to immediate action.
Once the war began, Israel’s desperate need for supplies (there was even a shortage of winter underwear) gave Kissinger the opportunity to change the status quo in the Middle East. Whereas he could have been Israel’s savior in the hours before the war started, he now became, according to Golan, a force for Israel’s containment in the name of what Kissinger felt were ultimately the best interests of the United States. By making Israel wait until the last possible moment for her supplies, he made it possible for the Egyptians to stabilize their presence on the eastern side of the canal. Such a development, felt Kissinger, would not destroy Israel, but it would improve United States relations with the Arabs, thereby offsetting another oil embargo; and it would preserve détente with the Soviet Union. To accomplish this end Kissinger stalled Dinitz, whose vulnerable ego he had stroked ever since this junior diplomat had come to Washington, and secretly urged the Russian Ambassador, Dobrynin, to urge his government to exert...
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