Yom Kippur War hero: ‘You can’t replace a government by refusing to serve’

Avigdor Kahalani recalls the historic battle in the Golan’s Valley of Tears, and charts the changes in Israel’s army and politics in the last 50 years

Fifty years on, the Yom Kippur War is still an open wound in Israeli society. Around this time each year, journalists and historians dig into the archives to try to assign blame for Israel being unprepared, even as its leadership had the information it needed to know that war was looming.

Israelis can seem so busy confessing the sins of the war as though it was part of the Yom Kippur prayers, that they seem to forget that the war was not an unmitigated disaster. Israel ultimately won, and the lessons Israel learned made its leadership more able to protect the country, Yom Kippur War hero Avigdor Kahalani argued in an interview with Jewish Insider last month, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the conflict, which began on Oct. 6, 1973.

The turning point in the war came days after the Syrian and Egyptian armies’ surprise attack on two fronts on Yom Kippur. Syria had taken most of the Golan Heights in the first day, but an Israeli tank force, commanded by Kahalani and far outnumbered by the Syrians, managed to keep the enemy at bay. 

“I commanded a tank battalion in the Sinai,” Kahalani recalled. “On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we were moved to the Golan Heights. We were there 10 days before because we were told there may be a war.”

Within the first day of the war, “two-thirds of the Golan already wasn’t in our hands,” Kahalani recounted. “There were 130 tanks against us, and we had 10-12 tanks.”

But within a few days, the much smaller Israeli force stopped the Syrians and more IDF tank and infantry units joined Kahalani to push the Syrians out of the Golan.

“Many of my people were injured, but what mattered, the bottom line, is that we could stop the Syrian Army from completing its mission of conquering the Golan,” he said.

“The victory in the Golan was very big despite the pain,” Kahalani, who lost a brother, Emmanuel, in battle in Sinai, said. “The war caused us great pain. Israel was in a state of post-trauma.”

Portraits of Israeli soldiers who fell during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War hang inside a fortified bunker on Tel Saki, a hill near the Syrian border in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on September 6, 2023.

The victors of the war were “the simple soldiers, not the generals,” Kahalani said, praising the spirit of those on the front.

Kahalani said he has no doubt that Israel’s leadership knew a war was coming – after all, they moved him to the Golan for that reason.

“It was not a strategic problem. It was a matter of calling up reserves two days earlier. At the end of the day, the ones who paid the price were the combat soldiers,” he said.

The Yom Kippur War is often cited as a breaking point in the trust Israelis had in the government, the IDF and their ability to protect them.

“We learned from this war that we can’t assume that we are strong, so we can do anything,” Kahalani said. “We are strong — but the enemy has his own plans.”

Today, IDF reservists protesting against the current government and its judicial overhaul plans argue that they cannot trust the government if it sends them to war because of its political policies.

“This cannot happen,” Kahalani said. “If you don’t like the government, you have to replace them in an election. You cannot replace a government by saying ‘I won’t serve.’”

“When the moment comes, you have to go and fight,” he emphasized.

This picture taken on September 6, 2023 shows a view of the remains of a military truck from the 1973 Yom Kippur War at a position near the Syrian border in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights.

As for the government and army’s conduct in the past 50 years, Kahalani said he thinks “the post-trauma has an influence to this day.” Israel learned the lessons of the Yom Kippur War and put new systems into place to avoid repeating the same mistakes, he said.

One word that constantly comes up in Hebrew when the Yom Kippur War is discussed is the conceptzia, which literally translates to “conception” and refers to the groupthink from which then-Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government suffered.

Since then, the practice in Israeli security circles is to always have someone argue the opposite case of what the majority thinks, Kahalani explained.

In addition, “there are many bodies dealing with intelligence and not just one,” as was the case in 1973. “Every government has the Security Cabinet and the National Security Council, which are close to the government and not under the IDF chief of staff. The Mossad and Shin Bet have grown a lot since then. They all present their approaches to a scenario. This is a very deep change in the way our governments receive intelligence compared to before the war,” he said.

Still, Kahalani added, “at the end of the day, it’s the decision of one person, and we hope that person makes the right decisions.”

Another shift in the half-century since the Yom Kippur War is Israel’s major investment in technology: “Their tanks, their surface-to-air missiles were better than ours. We learned that if our technology is not at a higher level than theirs, we can’t win.”

After a 30-year military career, Kahalani became a member of Knesset in 1992, first in Labor, and then in a centrist party he founded called the Third Way. The party joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first coalition in 1996, and Kahalani became public security minister. He later joined Likud, but did not make it back into the Knesset.

Kahalani said that today’s politics do not compare well with the 1990s.

“I think that someone who is a politician must serve as an example and be a leader,” he said. “Every MK and minister must be an older sibling or parent to the nation. I think the political culture of today does not respect itself, and the nation trusts politicians less than they did then… We have to believe the government is protecting all of us — ask the nation if they believe that.”

When Kahalani was a minister, he said, “we were coordinated; we worked together. Today it seems to me that everyone is wielding the power to break the government apart and is trying to bend the others to their will.”

“A government can’t function when it’s facing fire from every direction,” he said. “This government is like a bull in a china shop. I hope they will act more carefully and slowly.”

Kahalani was optimistic that the current fissures in Israeli society will subside.

“There was always coalition and opposition, not unity,” he said. “The state is stronger than its leaders, and in the end, I hope we’ll have a situation in which the extremists will be on the outside and the middle will hold the state on its shoulders.”

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