"Lishbor Et Hakonseptzia" [Breaking the Concept] by Dani Asher, Tel Aviv: Maarachot and Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 400 pages, NIS 78
Much has already been written about the gross blunder that led to the disastrous failure of Israeli military intelligence in October 1973. The opening shot was provided by the Agranat Commission, which coined the term "concept" for the mindset that preceded the Yom Kippur War. The commission paved the way for many scholars, including former members of Israel's intelligence community. (The most recent, most comprehensive and most documented of these studies is the book by Uri Bar-Joseph, "Hatzofeh Shenirdam" ["The Watchman Fell Asleep").
Many scholars adopted the thesis of the members of the Agranat Commission and focused on analysis and the depiction of the shaping of the "concept" and its impact on the military intelligence evaluations that preceded the Yom Kippur War. A different approach was offered by the head of the Israel Defense Forces' Military Intelligence (MI) branch during the war, Major General (ret.) Eli Zeira. He denied the existence of any "concept" and pins the blame, wholly or at least partially, for the disastrous failure on a double agent who deceived Israeli military intelligence. It is possible that this agent, code-named "Babel," was, in fact, a double agent; however, Zeira's arguments and his analysis of the complete failure of military intelligence are not particularly convincing.
What makes Asher's book stand out from the other studies on the serious intelligence blunder that preceded the war is his starting point. Whereas the other scholars focus their attention on Israel's intelligence community, its modus operandi and the formation of its mistaken perceptions, Asher concentrates on the Egyptian side. Although he does take account of the errors made by the Israeli side, the main thrust of "Breaking the Concept" is the study and analysis of the decision-making processes of Egypt's policy-setters at the senior political and military levels. This is the book's main contribution.
Asher traces the change that took place in Egyptian military thinking and was accelerated when Anwar Sadat came to occupy Egypt's presidential palace. The central element in this change was the abandonment of the ambitious goal of capturing the Sinai Peninsula from the Israelis and the attainment of a much more modest objective: the capture of a narrow strip on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.
"Sadat made a crucial decision," writes Asher. "He would take the `military option,' which meant a massive deployment of Egyptian forces. The military operation, which was solely intended to set the wheels of diplomacy in motion in the face of the formation of a detente, and to serve Egyptian interests without taking pan-Arab goals too much into account, could have actually had narrow and limited objectives. Sadat made his decision and issued instructions designed to carry out his new way of action, according to which Egyptian forces would engage in `an overall war that would have a limited scope' - that is, a war that would enable Egypt to regain control of a narrow strip of land on the Suez Canal's east bank.
"This move would force the Israelis to tackle the challenge, expose their Achilles' heel, and to ultimately end the deadlock and sit down to the negotiating table. The change in thinking brought about a concomitant change in and narrowing of the war's goals. Those limited goals were transmitted to senior army commanders who were expected to translate them into operative plans for the upcoming war." According to Asher, the decision to narrow the mission and reduce the scale of the fighting was made in late 1972.
These are not new discoveries. Much has already been written on the change in Egypt's military objectives in the wake of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's death, but not much has been said about the process that took place in Egypt. Writings on this subject prior to Asher's book, such as the memoirs of Sadat, Mohammed Abdel Ghany Gamassy and Saad Shazly, display the absence of impartiality one would expect from people who were not only involved in the process but also engaged in bitter confrontations after the fighting ended. A prominent illustration of the strong feelings aroused is the fact that, after Shazly published his book, he was sentenced by an Egyptian court to death as a traitor. Asher tries to provide a detailed picture of the process of change in Egyptian policy while stressing the new direction in the country's war plans following the changes in Sadat's policies.
Whereas the majority of studies of the Yom Kippur War have engaged in analyses at the strategic or tactical level, Asher's book focuses on analysis at the systemic level. He describes and painstakingly analyzes the war plans drawn up by the Egyptian general staff, the Egyptian army's preparations in the years that immediately preceded the war, and even the manner in which the plans were implemented, as was demonstrated in the war itself.
An interesting element in the analysis is the attempt to delineate the development of Egyptian military theory after the Six-Day War of June 1967. Egyptian military theory had been based on Soviet military theory but was forced to contend with many unique problems that Soviet military planners never faced. Chapter four (for some reason, all the chapters are called "gates) is concerned with the analysis of the problems that confronted the Egyptian army in the Suez Canal area and with the solutions it developed.
The Egyptians had to come up with answers to various problems: Israeli air superiority, the improved maneuverability of Israeli ground forces, the defense system the IDF had built the length of the canal and deep into Sinai, the barrier presented by the canal itself, the high ramp that had been constructed on the canal's eastern bank, the heavily fortified outposts, and many other problems and obstacles.
Most of the information on the solutions adopted by the Egyptian army has already been publicized: for example, the use of an umbrella of antiaircraft missiles to compensate for the Israel Air Force's air superiority, the use of a very large number of anti-tank weapons to limit the maneuverability of the IDF's Armored Corps, and the employment of giant hoses to direct water at the high sand ramp and break it down. What Asher's research adds is a detailed analysis of the implementation of the combat theory that was developed specifically for this war.
In the fifth chapter, which is also the longest, Asher describes the progress of the Egyptian army's fighting in light of this combat theory. There is much detail here, and those who are interested in doing so can find many facts on the scale and deployment of the fighting forces and on weapons systems. In this chapter, extensive use has been made of the documents that were captured by the IDF in the course of the war, and the immense amount of information that Asher derived from those documents enables him to provide such a detailed description.
The importance of this study lies in the fact that it enables those interested in continuing research on the Yom Kippur War to study the IDF's operations and attainments during that war in a more objective manner than in the past. This is an extremely important issue because, up until now, the "official history" of the State of Israel has determined that the IDF managed to thwart some of the Egyptian army's objectives and, in doing so, obtained a stunning achievement.
However, this evaluation is based on the IDF's official history, according to which the Egyptians' operational objective was to capture large sections of Sinai and reach the passes (Mitla and Gidi) and the access roads leading to the major Israeli military base of Refidim. In contrast, despite the disagreements he discovered between senior commanders of the Egyptian army regarding the objectives and tasks assigned to them when they went to war, Asher tends to adopt the position presented by the chief of general staff of the Egyptian army, Shazly, according to which the objectives were very limited: crossing the canal and capturing a narrow strip of land (between 10 and 15 kilometers wide) on the canal's eastern bank.
If these were truly the Egyptian goals for this war, then one must view in a totally different light the way in which the IDF's fighting during the war has been presented up until now. According to Asher's definition, the IDF's fighting is presented as a "success that was much greater than it really was in point of fact."
To illustrate his point, Asher cites the "Egyptian armored offensive" of October 14 and its containment by the IDF. In his view, the Egyptians did not plan such a major offensive and small forces were sent, one after the other, without any attempt being made to reach deep into Sinai. However, since the IDF's senior commanders and senior military intelligence officers expected a major offensive whose aim was to penetrate deep into Sinai and capture territory, and since this is the picture given in the IDF's official history, the containment of that offensive can be presented as a stunning achievement.
Reinforcing the concept
In my opinion, reinforcement of Asher's thesis is somewhat impaired by the fact that he does not seriously consider or analyze the affair surrounding the military alert of April-May 1973, known as the Blue- and-White Alert. In this particular instance, MI's assessment was that war would not break out; however, the chief of the IDF's General Staff, Lieutenant General David Elazar, decided to call up the military reserves. A not- inconsiderable number of scholars (including Brigadier General Yoel Ben-Porat, who, during the Yom Kippur War, was the commander of the central intelligence-gathering unit of the IDF's Intelligence Corps) argue that MI's "success" in this particular case was due to the wrong reasons: Sadat had really planned to launch a war in May, but the war did not break out for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the "concept" that served as MI's main guideline.
According to these scholars, the fact that war did not break out in May reinforced the self-confidence of senior MI officers and their belief in the "concept," which seemed to have proved itself. MI's "success" in April-May also enhanced MI's status within the IDF and among the policy-setters in the government and placed Chief of Staff Elazar in a very awkward position in October, when he feared calling up the reserves. One of the reasons for this fear was the criticism that had been leveled at him over the funds wasted in the reservist call-up a few months earlier.
Although Asher mentions the Blue-and-White Alert, he does not provide an in-depth analysis of the alert's impact on MI's assessments in September and early October. I believe that the reason can be found in the following statement made by Asher himself: "In the documents captured by the IDF during the Yom Kippur War, I found no support for the reasons why the Blue-and-White alert had been initiated." Asher should have sought out other sources, beyond the documents the IDF captured, and should have tried to understand what really happened in mid-1973.
The book is based on Asher's doctoral dissertation, and the editing should have been more fastidious. Thus, readers would have been spared unnecessary repetitions, such as the one on page 65, which again refers to the stages of the War of Attrition that were presented in considerable detail 25 pages earlier. The same can be said about the dates of appointment of the various war ministers and army commanders - these dates appear several times in the book - and about the repeated listings of the principles of the "concept" that led to the catastrophic failure of Israeli intelligence to warn the country's military and political leaders that war was imminent.
In the foreword to "Breaking the Concept," Major General (ret.) Shlomo Gazit writes that this is a "mandatory text not only for those who want to obtain a better understanding of what happened 30 years ago. This book contains a supremely important message: We must always be sensitive to and aware of the possibility of a change in the other side's strategic perception. The prevailing concept assumes a fixation in the Arab strategic perception. The danger lurking on our doorstep - a danger that led to our disastrous failure 30 years ago - is our fixation. Those who continually repeat the mantra `The sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs' run the risk of falling into the very same trap that they themselves have laid."
Senior IDF commanders, who are today making the battle plans and implementing them in the conflict with the Palestinians, should carefully read this book, and should be sensitive to and aware of the important distinction that Gazit makes.