Days of atonement and renewal

Posted: Sep 23, 2004 12:00 AM

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."

In a campaign year when nearly everything is subject to polarization, the vision of this president is clouded in rhetorical hostility. This does not serve any of us well, because the president's instinctive reaction to 9/11, compelling a pound of retribution in Afghanistan and another pound of prevention in Iraq, reflects a determination to transform the forces of evil in the Middle East into something resembling civilization, if not democracy.

It's not clear that the president can accomplish all he has set out to do, but the debate between the president and John Kerry is shaping up not over aims, but over means and determination. Can we accomplish the mission in two years? Three years? Or, as the senator suggests, four?

A first test of the Bush vision will come even before our own presidential election, when the Afghanis vote on Oct. 9 in their first direct presidential election. Remnants of the Taliban are predictably trying to thwart democracy by targeting candidates for assassination, but more than 10.5 million Afghanis have registered to vote, nearly half of the population.

If elections take place in Iraq in January as planned - an "if" of considerable size - democracy, fragile and tentative though it may show itself, will demonstrate to the world the new possibilities of freedom in the new century. We're watching baby steps toward a new world order, or maybe a crawl, but whatever it is, it's movement. The more or less peaceful election in Indonesia, where 100 million voters defied threats by terrorists, offered the Muslim world a glimpse of a future. Only six years ago such an Indonesian election looked like the stuff of fantasy.

Maybe this is a demonstration of the natural thirst for liberty that we want to think is a God-given instinct, that Muslims no less than Christians and Jews will be satisfied with nothing less. Na? or not, this is the Bush vision for Afghanistan and Iraq.

With his campaign becalmed and the calendar and the clock running down, John Kerry has decided to make the election about Iraq. ("It's not the economy this time, stupid.") Fair enough. Yom Kippur, with its focus on atonement and the possibility of renewal, is a place to start.