Israelis are currently transfixed by recently released top secret documents from the eve of the 1973 "Yom Kippur" war. They make an interesting read, but the most valuable lesson from that period for today's diplomats is not what led to the war, but how U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger manipulated events once the war started. That's a lesson in the necessity of creating leverage.
On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel. (October 6 that year fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.) Israel's leaders were not expecting an attack, and the Arab armies also performed much better than Israeli war games had predicted. As a consequence Israeli border units were overwhelmed, and the Syrians advanced into the Golan Heights and the Egyptians into the Sinai Peninsula.
The previously top secret cabinet meetings minutes tell the story of Israeli leaders humbled by their miscalculations. Moshe Dayan, Israel's fierce eye-patching defense minister told his colleagues: "I misunderstood the enemy's strength, I overestimated our own forces. The Arabs are much better soldiers than they used to be." The minutes show Prime Minister Golda Meir similarly downcast.
The minutes are fascinating to read, but in terms of lessons learned about the causes of war, there's not much new. Indeed the factors that lead to war – intelligence failures, an overestimation of your own ability, and a misunderstanding of your opponent's intentions – have been similar throughout history.
Of greater value for today's diplomats to study, however, are the next stages of the war, which Secretary Kissinger exploited to achieve his aims (of removing Egypt from the Soviet Union's sphere of influence and paving the way for peace between Israel and Egypt).