The sun was sinking into the Mediterranean on the eve of Yom Kippur 31 years ago this week, and 3 million Jews were preparing their devotions as the climax of the final days of the dying year. The faithful were concentrating on the most solemn of celebrations of their faith, when supplicants atone for their sins and pray to God to inscribe their names in the Book of Life for the dawning year.
Unbeknownst to nearly all of them, a hundred thousand Egyptian soldiers, behind 1,350 tanks and supported by 2,000 pieces of artillery, were moving stealthily across the west bank of the Suez Canal, marching in an order of battle that was meant to thwart the millions of Israeli prayers. Moving from another direction, the Syrian army with 1,460 tanks rallied in support of the Egyptians. Arrayed against them were a far smaller number of Israeli tanks and artillery batteries.
When the shooting started Israel was both astonished and stunned. In a detailed narrative in "The Yom Kippur War," Abraham Rabinovich, a correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and other newspapers who was there to see it first-hand, tells how this epic encounter transformed both Israel and the Middle East.
"The chances of Israel ever permitting itself to be surprised like that again would appear unlikely," he writes. It was a wakeup call that persuaded Israel once more how its very survival depended on constant vigilance. Lulled by years of semi-peace and yearning for the real thing, the nation had let down its guard - and paid a great price for its carelessness.
The Yom Kippur War was to Israel what Sept. 11 was to the United States, an assault by a determined and fanatical enemy whose menace should have been starkly obvious. Circumstances and motives differed dramatically, but Americans no less than the Israelis ignored hints and clues, underestimating how hatred fed by fanaticism can mobilize for stealth and surprise. Rudolph Giuliani spoke for all of us in the wake of 9/11: "Thank God, George Bush is our president."
Now the president has an opportunity to reprise Ronald Reagan; what communism was to the Gipper, terrorism is to George W. Bush. This president is heir to the Republican reputation for taking the tough, hard-nose approach to national security. That's why we hear echoes of FDR's wartime slogan from an era when the Democrats did not shirk from being the war party when war was necessary: "Don't change horses in midstream."