(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Abraham Rabinovich's The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East is a fast-moving and authoritative account of the war Egypt and Syria launched against Israel in October, 1973. Caught by surprise, the Israelis nearly suffered a disastrous defeat before regaining the initiative. This war saw the greatest tank battles since World War II. At the end of nineteen days of intense fighting, the Israeli Defense Forces were threatening both enemy capitals. The cost was high. The Israelis killed in the war numbered 2,656. Proportionally, in less than three weeks Israel lost three times as many fighters per capita than the United States lost in a decade of combat in Vietnam. Arab losses were much higher. Despite this, the biggest victor in the war was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, because the honorable showing of his military in the conflict would make possible his later diplomatic visit to Jerusalem and an Egyptian-Israeli peace accord later in the decade. Thus, for all its bloody ferocity, the Yom Kippur War did ultimately bring one corner of peace to the tumultuous Middle East.

Rabinovich is a distinguished journalist whose work has appeared in a number of American and Israeli papers. He covered the Yom Kippur War for the Jerusalem Post. In this book, Rabinovich has supplemented personal experience with extensive research. Despite his efforts, his account is largely one-sided. Many Arab sources of information are still closed to outsiders, especially in Syria. Any definitive record of the Egyptian and Syrian war efforts in 1973 will have to wait until those are more open societies. Fortunately, thanks to some published memoirs and interviews, Rabinovich is able to present a fair picture of Egyptian and Syrian intentions and actions.

Rabinovich is able to do much better with the United States and the Soviet Union. For both these Cold War superpowers, the Yom Kippur War took on the character of a proxy war by allied states. The conduct and outcome of the conflict quickly became a matter of prestige and threatened to upset the policy of détente being pursued by U.S. president Richard Nixon and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. The United States and the Soviet Union rushed arms to their allies and played major roles in brokering the cease-fire that would bring the fighting to a halt. Rabinovich's greatest contribution is the exhaustive pains that he has taken going through Israeli sources on the war. He has digested a small library of published works and studied many recently declassified government documents. Rabinovich has also interviewed dozens of veterans and officials. As a result, he has produced the most comprehensive account yet of the Yom Kippur War.

Rabinovich's history is more than a work of impeccable scholarship. It is also an engaging and exciting read. Rabinovich writes with the assured eye for detail of an experienced journalist. His narrative ranges freely from the front lines, through the Israeli and Arab high commands, to councils of state in Washington and Moscow. He is able vividly to evoke the experience of those caught up in the organized chaos of battle. Yet he does not refrain from magisterial judgments of the success or failure of the combatants’ strategy and tactics. The Yom Kippur War is military history at its best.

The tale that Rabinovich tells is replete with ironies and surprises. Among the most telling: Sadat would launch the war to make peace, and the vaunted Israeli military would come within a hair of defeat because of its own hubris. Both the ironies and the surprises would be shaped by the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. In that earlier conflict, the Israelis attacked Egyptian and Syrian forces gathering against them and inflicted a devastating defeat on the Arabs. They captured the Sinai Peninsula from the Egyptians and the strategic Golan Heights from the Syrians. When the Jordanians intervened in the war, the Israelis conquered the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The Israelis were elated by their dramatic success in the war. Their victory fed a sense of military superiority over their Arab opponents that reflected a reality but also bred a dangerous overconfidence. The Israelis hoped that with territories that they could use as bargaining chips, a comprehensive peace could be negotiated with their hostile neighbors. The very magnitude of the Israeli victory, however, robbed it of any diplomatic value. The Israelis’ Arab opponents were humiliated by the thoroughness of their defeat in the Six-Day War. Their forces were routed. Images of fleeing troops harried by the seemingly invincible Israeli army and air force haunted them. The Arabs had not only been defeated; they had been...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)