From Publishers Weekly
Like Blum's The Brigade, this work is more reportage than history. While Blum takes advantage of both newly available Israeli documents and a growing number of memoirs from both sides, the core of this book, and its heart, is the more than 200 interviews he has done with participants, Arab and Israeli. He begins with a familiar question: how did Israel come to be not only caught by surprise, but so unprepared that after the first days of fighting many leaders believed the survival of the state was at risk? Part of his answer is a top-level spy, code-named "the In-Law" an Egyptian at the highest levels of government who for four years before the Yom Kippur War had provided Israel with a steady flow of valuable information. That data in turn convinced Israel's military and political establishment that war was impossible unless the Arab states were a unified coalition possessing missiles and long-range bombers. Meanwhile, another man, Egyptian chief-of-staff Saad el Shazly developed his own concept of a limited war in which Egypt would seize positions; Israel would then have to counteract, with Egypt then bleeding its enemy dry. Blum describes Shazly making his vision a reality against the opposition of virtually everyone else in Egypt. He describes the Israeli leadership that allowed the In-Law who, of course, was a double-agent to string them along, telling them what they wanted or needed to believe, until the last hours before the shooting started. Blum's approach seems an oversimplification, however. Kenneth Pollack's The Arabs at War (2002) demonstrates that Egypt's military reform was an institutional process and not a one-man show. The story of "the In-Law," until or unless Israeli intelligence records are produced, is perhaps best understood as the kind of explanation societies develop to explain complex catastrophes by reference to a single event.
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After defeat in the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt's Nasser maintained his confidence in the ultimate demise of the Jewish state. Arabs, he mused to a reporter, can lose many times, but Israel cannot afford to lose even one war. As the thirtieth anniversary of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War approaches, it is pertinent to be reminded just how close Israel came to cataclysmic defeat in that conflict. Blum is an investigative reporter and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. Some of the details reported here are already widely known, including the woeful unpreparedness of Israeli forces on two fronts, the decimation of Israeli defenses in the first 72 hours of war, and Israel's desperate need for basic military supplies as fighting continued. However, relying on numerous interviews with participants as well as recently declassified documents, Blum provides a fuller picture of Israel's precarious position and should remind us that Israel's "obsession" with security and defensible borders is not paranoid raving. Jay Freeman
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