Who was chiefly responsible for the fact that Israel was surprised by the Egyptian and Syrian attacks on Yom Kippur in 1973? Many say that it was the Intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces - and in particular, the head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira.
The chief of staff during that war, David Elazar, also pointed an accusatory finger upward, to then defense minister Moshe Dayan, while Dayan placed almost all the blame on the lower echelon, leaving it with Zeira. Dayan deflected a little of the excess criticism in the direction of the prime minister, Golda Meir.
In actual fact, it is not because of a failure to issue a warning that a prime minister, a defense minister or a chief of staff will turn the head of military intelligence into their own human shield. Everything is dependent upon the military outcome of the actions taken before and during the crisis, with no connection to the quality of the warning. If the result is successful, the oversight about the warning is forgotten. It is only when the result is bad that people want the head of the person who was supposed to warn them.
The victory in the Six-Day War was achieved despite a mistaken assessment by the intelligence branch. Then, Dayan made it clear that the intelligence branch bore limited responsibility, that it had to provide an assessment based on the best of the facts at its disposal and that it was up to the political echelon, including Dayan himself, to weigh the intelligence assessment, to add their interpretation of it and to translate it into action on the ground. It was Zeira's bad luck that the Agranat Commission (which looked into the failures of the war ) was not aware of Dayan's exchange of thoughts with Zeira's predecessor, Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, who is always presented as being more cautious than Zeira.
In a discussion between the General Staff and Dayan in August 1967, some two months after the war, Yariv spoke about the "narrow path" on which an intelligence expert has to walk, between overestimating or underestimating his enemy.
"What Ahreleh [Yariv] said is true, about the philosophy of the narrow path and the need to be careful not to be caught too complacent or too panicky," Dayan responded. "The intelligence branch has to say how it sees things and what will happen. It does not have to philosophize, something that could lead to complacency. I worry about that every day. If they take away my job, what will I do?"
Yariv replied: "When the possibilities and likelihood of action on the part of the enemy are stated, if the intelligence person takes the worst case scenario, then he can be sure. If it happens, good. If it doesn't happen, then it doesn't. From the intelligence point of view, one has to make a logical analysis on the basis of information plus a bit of a [gut] feeling."
To this Dayan responded: "If the risk is that it will afterward transpire that this caused the State of Israel to be complacent, then the State of Israel has to say that it is true that Military Intelligence said this and that, but I want to take security measures."
In terms of Autumn 1973, the security measures that Meir and Dayan did not take were a diplomatic initiative for peace with Egypt, coupled with a military alert in case the intelligence assessments - that Egypt would not go to war and that the preparations for crossing the Suez Canal were merely an exercise - were proven false.
In terms of autumn 2011, which is likely to see Israel facing its most grave diplomatic and military crisis since the Yom Kippur War, it must be stated now that the guilty party will not be Military Intelligence and its estimates, but the government of Israel, its prime minister and the man who holds the defense portfolio.
Speaking last week at a lecture in Jerusalem, the previous MI head, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, warned against the illusion that the current quiet on the borders would continue and that time was working in Israel's favor. Even though he will officially retire from the army in September and was therefore careful not to cast political aspersions, the significance of Yadlin's remarks was unmistakable. It can be assumed also that the present IDF intelligence head, Aviv Kochavi, does not think otherwise; this is not like the transfer of authority from Yariv to Zeira.
The strategic warning has been sounded. What is less important is the tactical question, the timing and the methods for the outbreak of the combined "words-and-missiles Muslim offensive," as Yadlin defined it, with the world sitting sympathetically or apathetically in the gallery.
Between complacency and alarm there is room for initiative. It is not enough for Benjamin Netanyahu to make another flowery and superficial speech and for Ehud Barak to issue another empty self warning and then, like Dayan in Meir's cabinet, to refrain from resigning. They know that too, but out of a fear that a far-reaching diplomatic initiative would topple the government, they may be tempted to embark on a foolhardy military initiative. The government or the country? The choice is theirs.
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