Officially, Israel Didn't 'Win' in 1973

The head of the Israel Defense Forces history division, Colonel (res.) Dr. Shaul Shai, hoped to take advantage of these few weeks of cease-fire to carry out a task given to him by the chief of staff - to write a preliminary report on Operation High-Ebbing Tide with the Palestinians that began on September 29, 2000.

The head of the Israel Defense Forces history division, Colonel (res.) Dr. Shaul Shai, hoped to take advantage of these few weeks of cease-fire (very partial, he will be told by General Headquarters) to carry out a task given to him by the chief of staff - to write a preliminary report on Operation High-Ebbing Tide with the Palestinians that began on September 29, 2000, and, if no other name is found, can be expected to be called the "Thousand-Day War."

It is not known when the cease-fire will end. It could end suddenly, maybe on the third anniversary of the war's outbreak, which coincides with the end of the three-month hudna declared on June 29. Because the history division is supposed to produce practical research to help improve future performance, and not merely satisfy academic curiosity, Shai gave top priority to processing material that accumulated among his researchers, including an officer armed with a tape recorder who covers all the chief of staff's operational discussions - except for two years ago, when then-chief of staff Shaul Mofaz made overly belligerent and controversial statements in the presence of battalion commanders in the territories that someone did not want recorded.

As a result of Shai's study of the present and all its sensitive aspects, he is often drawn against his will into study of the past, which competes in its sensitivities. The history division, located in a ramshackle old three-story building in the army's Tel Aviv Kirya base, far from the eyes of the defense minister and chief of staff, now finds itself in the eye of a storm.

The renewed demand to thaw out the freeze decreed from above on the final research on the 1973 war by Lt. Col. (res.) Elhanan Oren, did not run counter to what the researchers wanted, but confirmed their superiors' fear of complications.

The natural tendency of the IDF's top brass - especially if they want to climb even higher up the ranks - is to stamp the results of historical studies "top secret" and throw them in the vault. Shai's predecessor, Col. Dr. Yigal Eyal, who played a cameo role in the Mossad's pre-war 1973 fiasco in Lillehammer, recently completed a study on the four years that preceded September 2000, "From Hot Iron to High-Ebbing Tide" - with the first part of the title referring to the Hasmonean Tunnel riots of September 1996. The governments of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the term of defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, the IDF General Staff in the days of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Mofaz, Oslo, Camp David and the withdrawal from Lebanon - these are all raw nerves that anyone with a modicum of caution would keep from the public eye.

Eyal's book was printed in a limited edition for internal distribution exclusively for choice senior readers, as were two previous volumes published by Shin Bet retiree Haim Levenberg about the intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Thus, even though the war in Lebanon has not yet been the subject of a comprehensive study, and while the less controversial Six-Day War is still waiting for its turn on the slow research production line, the old-new story of the research into the events of the 1973 war has become connected with the current story of 2003 at two main focal points.

One fulcrum is Ariel Sharon, the general and politician then and prime minister today. The second is the concept of victory, a fragile concept whose complex strata in the Palestinian context were recently the subject of discussion by Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon and which occupy the writers in the history division in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.

Yaalon prefers to speak of a "decisive outcome" rather than a victory. Similarly, Oren distinguishes in his study between the blow dealt to the armies of Egypt and Syria by the Israel Defense Forces and the "decisive outcome" that was not attained. Basing himself on both confidential and nonconfidential raw material, and naturally also on the wisdom of hindsight (at the time of writing) in wake of the peace agreement with Egypt, the war in Lebanon, the intifada and the Gulf War of 1991, the study states:

© Before the war, the IDF's strategic forecast was based on the assumption, which became even more strongly entrenched following the Arab failure in the War of Attrition, that the Arab states would launch a war only when they were convinced they were ready and armed. In the autumn of 1973, neither the U.S., the USSR nor Israel believed the Arabs meant what they said, because they all took the view that the gap between belligerent aspirations and willingness and ability to open fire had not yet been closed. But, says the report, Egyptian President Sadat despaired of the diplomatic track as early as 1972 when he concluded that detente in relations between the superpowers would prevent pressure on Israel. That realization prompted him to step up military cooperation with Syrian President Assad.

© The IDF does not have any internal documents that confirmed what the Arabs' goals were before and during the war, but only after-the-fact assessments, mostly from Egypt. There is very little information on Syria and its goals in the war. However, it is believed that Egypt and Syria called up their entire military force to seek a military victory, a destruction of forces and a breakthrough to beyond Israel's defensive lines that would force Israel to give in to the dictates of the superpowers, especially the U.S. The greater the military victory, the greater the expected diplomatic achievement. The operational limitations imposed by Sadat and Assad in the Sinai and Golan were the result of assessments of the military situation.

© But territorially, the Arab planners were content with limited achievements - the Egyptians in Western Sinai up to Refidim and the oil fields along the Suez Gulf; the Syrians on the Golan, up to the Jordan River crossings, at least. They did not view this limited territorial achievement, however ambitious and broad on its own, as the main goal. More than their desire to occupy territory, they sought to pulverize the Israeli air force and smash the armored forces. To illustrate the quantitative dimension: "To destroy two-to-three Israeli divisions in the Sinai." Military achievements on this scale would have dealt Israel a terrible defeat.

© The Arab armies won systemic achievements mainly in the opening stages. They succeeded in their diplomatic deception and surprise attack. The opening campaign showed planning and operational capability, setting in motion ordnance systems that were surprising in their size and scope of use. The IDF managed to check them, containing the Egyptian bridgeheads and moving onto the offensive in the Golan, and the Egyptians ultimately asked for a cease-fire, followed by Syria. Nonetheless, the Arabs managed to elicit diplomatic achievements despite their difficult situation and were able to gain benefits from the confrontation between the superpowers. Going to war also restored the Arabs' pride and self-respect after they were forced to accept the status quo since August 1970.

© The separation lines in the Sinai and Golan articulated a political achievement that some view as an Arab victory. Indeed, the Arab military and political achievement was real, especially compared to the results of the War of Attrition, which the Arabs were forced to end without any gains because of their losses. Nonetheless, there was a considerable gap between the Arabs' goals before the war, which completely ruled out any negotiations with Israel, and the negotiated arrangements after the war. Even broader is the gap between Sadat's and Assad's expectations and the results on the battlefield.

© Despite the shock effect of launching the war on Yom Kippur, it was not the best possible timing for the Arabs, because from the moment recruitment began, the reserves were inducted more quickly than was foreseen. The rapid recruitment and dispatch of the reserves was the IDF's first counter-surprise.

© Egypt and Syria launched the war using their full military power on the assumption they had sufficient force to attain their immediate goals. But they did not extract the full benefit of their superiority in numbers because they did not view the lengthening of the front and the inclusion of Jordan in the initial blow a necessary condition of war. If Jordan had launched an attack from the east, Israel's situation would have been far worse in the early stages of the war.

© Both sides were aware of the extent of their dependence on the superpowers, and Israel was sensitive to the limitations that involvement of the superpowers imposed on its military action. The IDF's operational plans, as prepared in the spring of 1973, reflected these limitations. A preemptive war did not appear possible, the war was expected to be shorter and would be cut short if Israel made military gains, and pressure was expected in the negotiations following a cease-fire. Israel's positions were eroded because of its hold on densely populated Arab areas, terror and the propaganda of the Palestinian organizations, which had the support of Arab countries. And there was the rising economic pressure exerted by OPEC. The superpowers' likely responses influenced Israeli thinking regarding advancement in the direction of Arab capitals.

© Chief of Staff David Elazar believed the top priority of Israel's defense policy after the Six-Day War, and even more so after the cease-fire of 1970, was prevention of another war ("Israel does not need a war and one should be prevented. [...] In the current situation (in May 1973), everything possible should be done to deter, prevent a war. [...] To say that we take it seriously, to let them think there is no surprise and to point to preparations and readiness in order to kill any desire they may have to start"). Dayan warned that if the Egyptians managed to grab and maintain a bridgehead over the Suez, it would represent a "profound change." However, in the spring of that year and through the tense weeks from September on, no real deterrent steps were taken. While readiness was improved, up until the last minute, no actions directed at deterring and preventing a war were considered. The war was postponed but not prevented. The Israeli deterrence showed up in Jordan's decision not to join the war in the early stages and then postpone it for six months - a period that enabled the Arabs to acquire vital items but also enabled the IDF to prepare equipment to cross the Suez, without which the IDF's crossing of the canal would have been impossible.

© The goals of a war, if one should break out, were determined for the IDF as "preventing the enemy from achieving any military gains and to deal it a military defeat based on the destruction of a maximum amount of forces and military infrastructure in order for Israel to acquire military advantages over Egypt and Syria, both in ratio of forces for a number of years and in the cease-fire lines." According to Dayan, Israel would not start a war to improve its lines, but the validity of that position would expire if the enemy were to initiate a war.

© Elazar sought a defensive strategy that would be realized in systemic offensive moves. He expected the air force to attain air superiority within a day or two, after which the IDF would elicit advantages in the ground war. He told then prime minister Golda Meir that in his assessment there would be two stages to the war, five to seven days from a 48-hour warning until the completion of preparation to attack, and another four to five days for simultaneous attacks on two fronts. Golda feared that Israel would not be permitted to benefit from a 10-day war. The logistic preparations were adapted for a 10-day war, and it was feared in the General Staff that if the war lasted longer, Israel would not have the logistic staying power.

© The direct military results of the war, at the moment of cease-fire, were only a partial attainment of the war goals, as defined before the war, and each specific achievement was overshadowed by the traumatic failure of not preventing the war, more so because the deterrence failed and the warning came too late. What went wrong in the wake of the failure to prevent the war, because of the insufficient preparations and the severe blow of the surprise at its beginning, undermined the IDF's capability and detracted from the achievements of the battle victories. About half the losses in human life and arms suffered by the IDF came in the defensive stages. The IDF managed to quickly restore the balance within a few days, but until it took the initiative and moved onto the offensive, its ability to bring about a decisive victory was damaged. The IDF was unable to attain an unequivocal, decisive victory in the north or the south for both military and political reasons.

© Since the Six-Day War, a somewhat contemptuous approach toward the fighting ability of the Arab armies prevailed. However, this time the Arab armies acted with unexpected efficiency, and it appeared that the fighting spirit had increased among the Arabs.

© Within 17 days, the IDF was able to overcome the Arab armies, so much so that the superpowers acceded to Egypt's request and imposed a cease-fire through the U.N., with Syria's belated consent. However, the Arab armies were only battered but not bowed, because on both fronts the IDF attacks were halted too soon, as the report emphasizes in the original.

© The penetration on the Golan was insufficient to cause a complete collapse of the Syrian forces during their withdrawal to the outskirts of Damascus before Iraqi, and then Jordanian, reinforcements could arrive. With the help of Iraqi expeditionary forces, the Syrians stabilized a defensive strip and even carried out coordinated counter-attacks. On the southern front, the Egyptians were not forced to withdraw from the bridgeheads in the Sinai and the IDF did not manage to break down their battered forces in the "Missouri" sector.

© The IDF was unable to complete the military victory. In the Golan, this was mainly the result of military factors - our forces in the north exhausted the momentum of attack before attaining the goals of the campaign, because of the cumulative losses and because of the appearance of the fresh Iraqi expeditionary force. Political factors were not responsible for preventing further advances to achieve the original goals of the attack.

© In Egypt, the shock of the surprise Israeli crossing of the Suez and the territorial gains brought in the superpowers and stepped up political moves to enforce a cease-fire. The "situation on the ground" spurred the intervention of the superpowers, but the statesmen that focused on monitoring the advancement of the armored forces on the West Bank did not see the entire map: The forces in the south did not have time to follow through on their threats against the Egyptian armies and did not manage to concentrate forces to defeat them or force the evacuation of the bridgeheads on which they fought so well.

© In the months that passed since the declaration of the cease-fire, pressure was brought to bear on Israel from without, and the country was especially sensitive because of

the depth of the shame and the domestic protests: the election campaign before the war and after it, the accusations of the fiasco of the surprise attack and in certain initial steps taken in the war, the storms that accompanied and inflamed the political campaign that was held while tens of thousands of reserves soldiers - 160,000 in mid-November - compared to 260,000 at the height of the war - were still in uniform.

© Under these circumstances, Israel wanted to exploit the violations of the cease-fire by the Egyptians as a pretext for a lightening strike on the third Egyptian army and enforce an immediate settlement, and if that were not possible, to hold onto everything the IDF had occupied and reach a settlement that would make it possible to discharge as many reserve soldiers as possible and to quickly move to rehabilitating the army and replenishing equipment.

© The Israel Defense Forces in 1973 did not achieve the decisive victory that chief of staff Elazar viewed as the opportunity for bringing peace closer, but the war created the breakthrough for the peace with Egypt, perhaps precisely because the Arab armies were also able to claim achievements.