Eli Zeira's Mea Culpa

Retired major general Zeira, head of Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, is fixed in the national memory as the man responsible for the intelligence debacle that is embodied by his own famous statement at the time, regarding the "low probability" of an outbreak of war.

At age 76, 31 years late, Eli Zeira has managed to utter the four words that he has until now stubbornly refused to say: "I am to blame."

Retired major general Zeira, head of Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, is fixed in the national memory as the man responsible for the intelligence debacle that is embodied by his own famous statement at the time, regarding the "low probability" of an outbreak of war.

His soul searching may be found in the pages of a revised edition of his book, "Myth Versus Reality: The Yom Kippur War - Failures and Lessons" (published in Hebrew by Yedioth Ahronoth Books).

After the war, then-president Ephraim Katzir issued the galling pronouncement: "We are all to blame." The Agranat Commission limited the roster of the guilty parties to the military echelons, in effect clearing prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan of responsibility for the failure to prevent the war, and prepare the army for the Egyptian-Syrian challenge. Then-chief of staff David Elazar and head of Southern Command Shmuel Gorodish, who were dismissed from their posts, tried to argue against the commission's conclusions. Zeira, on the other hand, accepted the judgment, and left the army for the private sector. But he doggedly claimed - to a handful of friends - that there had been no intelligence failure and that he therefore bore no responsibility.

To prove his virtue, he became the chief source of a theory that a certain Mossad agent who supplied the information about when the war would break out was in fact a double agent. Zeira's thesis is that the agent had provided reliable information for years in order to enhance his credibility, and then came the `sting,' in which he very belatedly tipped off Israeli intelligence about the exact timing of the war.

The name of the agent, Ashraf Marwan, was leaked a few years ago. He was a son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a confidante of President Anwar Sadat. In 1969 he walked into the Israeli Embassy in London and volunteered to furnish information. The offer was turned down. Some time later, he again offered his services, and after a thorough inquiry, it was decided to recruit him. His handler was D., a case officer in the Mossad. The two developed an especially close relationship. At one point, when D. was about to be replaced, Marwan demanded that he continue to serve as his liaison. D. stayed on as the handler, which among other things killed his chances for promotion.

Marwan is considered the highest-ranking agent who was then in the employ of the intelligence community, and his work was highly compartmentalized. His information was considered particularly credible, even after it was cross-referenced with data from other sources. Among other things, he provided two warnings of Sadat's intent to go to war against Israel.

In briefing sessions with D., he passed secrets about a highly clandestine meeting between Nasser and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. At the meeting, Sadat requested fighter aircraft for the purpose of rectifying Egypt's aerial inferiority vis-a-vis Israel, as well as ground-to-ground missiles in order to threaten the Israeli home front.

At the same meeting, he essentially outlined the Egyptian strategy: Egypt would go to war only if these vital conditions were met. This information in turn gave rise to the famous "conceptzia" (the prevailing Israeli military strategy), which led to Zeira offering his "low probability" forecast: Egypt would not go to war until it had reached the minimum threshold it had set for itself.

The leak of the agent's name is one of the most serious failures of the Israeli intelligence community. The process of disclosure was gradual. It began with Dr. Ahaon Bregman, an Israeli who worked as a researcher for the BBC and who wrote a book in which he offered clues from which it was possible to guess the agent's name. The Egyptian media then wrote about Bregman's revelations, and explicitly named Marwan. Based on these reports, Haaretz ran the story of Marwan two years ago. Marwan continues to conduct business in London and Cairo, and maintains close ties to figures in the Egyptian and Libyan leaderships.

In conversation, Zeira confirmed that he had met with Bregman several years ago for the purpose of preparing a film for the BBC, but vehemently denied that it was he who revealed the name of the agent, or that he had even hinted at his identity. Zeira is not opposed to the establishment of a commission of inquiry that would investigate who was to blame for the leak. But he would also want this commission to investigate if Marwan was a double agent, and if he played a central role in the Egyptian deception plan before the war.

Such an investigation was conducted by the highest echelons of both the Mossad and Military Intelligence. The Mossad concluded that he was a trustworthy agent. It is difficult to imagine that Egypt would have endangered its forces by providing the timing of the war's outbreak simply in order to preserve an agent's credibility. But Zeira believes that such an investigation should be conducted by an objective body that was not involved in the affair.

He says that a few years ago he asked two ex-directors of the Shin Bet, whose names he did not offer, to conduct a private inquiry into the matter, based on information that he provided them. Zeira claims they reached the same conclusion as he - that indeed, this was a classic deception of a double agent.

It is only right that the intelligence community conduct both of these inquiries. As for himself, Zeira emphasizes that even if he is found to be correct about the double agent, "I am solely responsible for the intelligence failure of the Yom Kippur War."