The Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit currently known as Unit 8200 succeeded in breaking the code safeguarding communications between Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and his army commander Abdel Hakim Amer in Damascus during the late 1950s.
Israel failed to take advantage of this, however, and Military Intelligence did not identify the Egyptian army maneuvers into Sinai in February 1960.
The failure caused a crisis between IDF Chief of Staff Haim Laskov and MI head Colonel Chaim Herzog. Laskov voiced his loss of confidence to David Ben-Gurion, who was both prime minister and defense minister at the time, asking him to dismiss Herzog.
Instead, Ben-Gurion placed Herzog on leave until Laskov was replaced by Tzvi Tzur as chief of staff.
These details are included in a new book by Yigal Sheffy, "Early Warning Tested: The Rotem Affair and Israel's Security Policy, 1957-1960," released this week by the Ministry of Defense and Maarachot Publishing.
The Rotem Affair has been described as setting a precedent for the entry of Egyptian forces into Sinai in May 1967, but Sheffy sheds new light on various aspects of the story.
Sheffy, a senior intelligence officer in the reserves, points to the methods, sources and secrets of Israel's intelligence-gathering agencies as well as to failures in the IDF command during the second decade of the state.
The only thing Sheffy does not reveal is the list of names and addresses of Mossad and MI agents.
Even though Israel disclosed during the Six-Day War, for political reasons, its ability to tap into Nasser's wireless communications with Jordan's King Hussein, Sheffy's book contains an unprecedented exposure of "Pagaz" and "Padan," the telex correspondence between Nasser and Amer.
Contrary to Herzog's version of the Rotem Affair in his autobiography, released after his presidential term ended in 1993, in which he claims that MI scored a success, Sheffy documents problematic aspects in Herzog's conduct as chief. Sheffy contends that during the crisis Herzog preferred to spend time with foreign visitors rather than attending to matters at hand, that he failed to provide early and accurate warning and that he attempted to present a distorted version of events.
Laskov, whose conduct as chief of staff also comes under Sheffy's critical eye, "lost his confidence in Herzog, both as the head of intelligence and also on the personal level."
Laskov became convinced that there were with the intelligence reports he received and that "the version MI presented following the events was far from reflecting the facts, was trying to cover up inconvenient information and to beautify what had happened."
Major General Yitzhak Rabin, the number two man in the General Staff, wrote that "there had never been such a grave situation in intelligence."
According to Sheffy, "only following six months of accusations and counter-accusations did Ben-Gurion carry out a disengagement of forces."
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