Yom Kippur War: Was it Israel’s spectacular victory or crushing defeat?

Israelis love to beat their chests in self-reproach, and nowhere is this more evident than in how they have framed the 1973 Yom Kippur War for the past 50 years.

On the last day of the war, October 24, 1973, Israel found itself on the western side of the Suez Canal, with the entire Egyptian Third Army surrounded and just 100 km. from Cairo. In the North, the IDF had crossed the Golan Heights into Syria and was within 32 km. of Damascus, about the distance from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh.

All this occurred after the country had been outgunned, outmanned, and caught completely by surprise on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

In Egypt, the October or Ramadan War, as it is known, is commemorated each year by military parades, public speeches, concerts, sporting events, and trips to the Cairo museum glorifying the war.

In Israel, it is marked by somber music, war memorials, and endless discussion about the failure of Israel’s intelligence, its political leaders, and the military – in short, a colossal collapse.

An Egyptian special forces member lands on parade ground with a banner of president Hosni Mubarak, during a 25-anniversary ceremony, in Egypt’s Eastern desert on Oct. 6, 1998. (credit: MONA SHARAF/REUTERS)

How’s this for reframing: The Egyptians celebrate this military conflict – where they lost thousands of soldiers (Cairo never released official casualty figures, but the numbers are believed to be between 8,000 to 20,000 dead) and where their capital was left undefended – as a great victory. Meanwhile, Israelis, who miraculously turned the initial tide of the war from disaster into a head-turning success, view it as a catastrophe.


Why does Israel view the Yom Kippur War as a disaster despite winning?

It’s easy to understand the Egyptian perspective. Seven years after their humiliating defeat in the Six Day War – when their entire air force was destroyed while still on the ground – they punctured Israel’s invincibility. They caught Israel by surprise and crossed to the eastern side of the Suez Canal, thereby restoring Arab pride.

But why does Israel still view the Yom Kippur War as an unmitigated disaster, despite achieving an undeniable military victory by withstanding the initial attacks and penetrating deep into enemy territory, and despite convincing the Arab states they could not defeat Israel in conventional warfare?

Historian and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren explained that Israelis judge the war by its first day, not the last.

“We are not judging the war by its outcome but rather by its beginning,” he said.

And the beginning was an unmitigated disaster.

“The Yom Kippur War was a military victory, but it was a shock,” he said.

Oren noted that when he visited American military academies as ambassador, the Israeli-Arab war most studied was not – ironically – the lightning victory of the Six Day War but rather the turnaround success on the battlefield during the Yom Kippur War.

There are two reasons, Oren said. First, Ariel Sharon’s daring yet spectacular maneuver of crossing the Suez Canal and encircling the Egyptian Third Army. Second, Israel’s ability to change its military doctrine in mid-combat, something most armies find simply impossible to do.

“Usually, armies will just keep on lumbering on with their old doctrine,” Oren said. That Israel did not do so, that it was able to improvise and change tactical directions midstream, led to a resounding military victory.

Yet that is not what penetrated the Israeli psyche as a result of the war. Rather, what penetrated the collective psyche and has remained there ever since is the trauma of the war.

“This was the trauma of going from such a high after the victory of 1967, to falling so low. It was the trauma of the surprise, and feeling let down by the military, in which people placed so much faith.”

“This was the trauma of going from such a high after the victory of 1967, to falling so low. It was the trauma of the surprise, and feeling let down by the military, in which people placed so much faith.”

Michael Oren

But still, Israel is not the first country to come under a surprise attack or face initial setbacks that are later reversed.

For instance, the Americans lost the Attack on Pearl Harbor, but World War II is not viewed – because of that surprise attack and consequent loss of men and material – as a loss but rather as a great victory.

THEN WHY do Israelis still see the Yom Kippur War as a heavy loss? Simple; because of the casualties.

And the casualties were indeed heavy. During 18 days of fighting, Israel lost 2,688 soldiers (.08% of the population at the time). In comparison, during the six days of fighting in the 1967 war, Israel lost 773 soldiers (.03% of the population). And in 100 hours of fighting in the 1956 Sinai campaign, 231 soldiers fell (.01% of the population).

Udi Lebel, a researcher of civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication and at its BESA Center for Strategic Studies, said that the Sinai campaign was an excellent place to start in trying to understand what Israel’s framing of the Yom Kippur War as a disaster reveals about Israeli society.

“The Sinai campaign was a catastrophe,” he noted. 

“Hundreds were killed, and afterward Israel was forced to withdraw until the last centimeter. Yet no one took to the streets and demanded to remove the Ben-Gurion-Peres government that agreed to turn Israel into an outsourcing entity for France and Britain to try to influence Nasser.”

Instead, he said, Israelis were excited about the victory on the ground and paid little attention to the casualties and the diplomatic significance of what transpired.

Fast forward 17 years and Israelis paid almost no attention to the military victory, focusing instead almost exclusively on the casualties, said Lebel, who wrote an essay on the bereaved families of the Yom Kippur War in a recently released Hebrew book of articles on the war called V’terad Ha’aretz (“and the earth trembled”).

The focus this time on the casualties, as opposed to 1956 or even the Six Day War when the country refused to let the bereaved intrude upon the post-war euphoria, is because certain key communities needed the narrative of a national trauma to push their agendas, Lebel said.

ARIEL SHARON commands the 143th Division, which initially crossed the canal on the night of Oct. 15-16. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY/REUTERS)

For example, the new Israeli Left – represented by Peace Now – emerged after the war and fed off the war’s trauma and heavy cost.

Without going into the historical veracity of the claims, Lebel said that the Left’s main argument was that the war – and all its casualties – could have been prevented had then-prime minister Golda Meir responded positively to peace overtures from Anwar Sadat before the war and been willing to withdraw from Sinai and make peace with Egypt.

Lebel said this has become the Left’s central argument ever since: that the lesson of the war is that territorial concessions will prevent war and its inevitable casualties.

This way of thinking, he argued, was “very similar to the post-Vietnam Left in the US in the sense of a great sensitivity to casualties – a ‘casualty aversion’ and ‘casualty phobia.’ This then led to a willingness for territorial concessions because of the concern of casualties. The linkage between sensitivity to casualties and a willingness to withdraw leans heavily on the example of the Yom Kippur War.”

This thinking, born of the trauma of that war, moved the Labor Party from being very hawkish – more right-wing, Lebel said, than many on the Right today – to a European-style new Left party, and the party of the Oslo Accords.

The trauma of the Yom Kippur War solidified this narrative, so there was no interest on the Left in changing how the public viewed the war. On the contrary, they needed the country to see the war as a disaster to promote their case.

ON THE Right as well, the war’s casualties and trauma helped prove its point.

The Yom Kippur War did not only spawn a peace movement, but it also spawned the new Right and the Gush Emunim settlement movement.

The war’s lesson for the new Right, Lebel said, was that had the leaders at the time listened to their healthy Zionist instincts as in the past, had they behaved as Labor leaders would have in previous years, then they would have ordered a “preemptive strike, called up the reserves, mobilized the nation, and not been afraid of what the US, Europe, and the UN would say.” 

Had this been done, ran the Right’s argument, the war’s casualties could have been avoided.

The lesson for the new Right was to follow Zionist instincts and do what needed to be done – including settlement in Judea and Samaria – regardless of what the US or UN thought. Consequently the Right, too, was interested in perpetuating the perception of the war as a resounding defeat to advance its agenda

Another community benefiting from the perception of defeat and trauma was the one advocating for increased defense and intelligence spending, along with technological advancements for the army, seen as a way to avoid another Yom Kippur-style surprise.

The lesson for this community after the war, Lebel said, was that Israel had to be on the vanguard of military technology. Whenever there are talks about budgets for the IDF, Lebel noted, there is always reference to the Yom Kippur War and the need for state-of-the-art technology for intelligence gathering to prevent a recurrence of what happened then.

The war, Lebel said, built up Peace Now, Gush Emunim, and the legitimacy to turn the IDF into a technologically advanced army. It also gave birth to Israel’s civil society

“Something transformational happened,” he said. The media, previously not highly critical of the government or the military, began to be much more critical. NGOs, scarce before the war, gained prominence as people sought to drive change through civil society.

This shift to civil society activism was due in no small part to the sudden breakdown in the country’s faith in institutions it had trusted completely beforehand: the army and the government.

PERHAPS THE most significant impact of the country’s focus on the trauma, on the casualties, has been that it has made a generation of Israeli political leaders wary of deciding to go to war. They know that the country can’t handle too many casualties, and that any war will be judged not just by how it turns out on the battlefield but also by how many lives it costs, just like the Yom Kippur war, Lebel said.

After the Yom Kippur War, and even more so after the War in Lebanon nine years later, the politicians internalized that any war would lead to the following script: casualties, protests, and commissions of inquiry resulting in the removal from office of those who went to battle rather than trying to prevent it. As a result, all operations now need to be quick, limited, and reliant heavily on technology because the country will not tolerate casualties.

According to Oren, the trauma has affected a generation of leaders, even those who did not participate in the war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t fight in the Yom Kippur War, Oren noted, “but he is a product of that generation. It affects him. How? He is very risk-averse, war-averse, conflict-averse.”

Lebel agreed, saying the generation leading the country now “is very afraid of the 1973 script and is very much impacted by it. For this generation of leaders, the main thing is not to introduce troops so that there will be no casualties. We are still very much under the influence of the Yom Kippur War – 50 years later. It was the ultimate transformational event for Israel.”

For Nobel Prize laureate Yisrael Aumann, this perspective is a mistake.

In a 2020 article in Makor Rishon on the 47th anniversary of the war headlined, “The real tragedy in the Yom Kippur War is how we look at it,” Aumann wrote that the war succeeded in undermining Israel’s self-confidence, not because of the Egyptian force but because of the way the war was internalized as an utter failure, disaster, and catastrophe.

“While it seems an impossible task to change public perceptions formed over years, we must fix them,” he wrote. “For the sake of the fallen, for the sake of our national resilience, for the sake of the future. The time has come to declare publicly: We won the Yom Kippur War. Big time.”