Newly released documents shed light on fateful exchange in the wake of the Yom Kippur War
Not long after the end of the Yom Kippur War, three young officers unburdened themselves in a hearing at army headquarters with two higher-ranking colleagues. The minutes of that meeting have been made available for public perusal.
"We are all to blame,” said Maj.-Gen. (res.) Meir Zorea, thereby preempting by four days President Ephraim Katzir. “I would hang people and sever heads and also replace the government of Israel.”
The date was November 20, 1973, less than four weeks after the cease-fire had taken effect on the Egyptian front in the Yom Kippur War. On the Syrian front, the situation had stabilized, but there was still occasional fire. The day after Zorea spoke, under pressure from the public, the Agranat Commission would arise to investigate part of the war: namely, the lead-up to its outbreak and its first three days.
“I should take the three of you and put you in jail, as rebels,” Zorea went on. Across from him, in the simple, whitewashed shed at the Kirya, the Israel Defense Forces’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, in the office of the head of the Training Branch, sat three young officers in the reserves. One was from the Paratroops, one from the Armored Corps, the third one from the Armored Infantry Corps. Zorea arranged to have a stenographer present and announced in advance that the conversation would be official and on-the-record.
Zorea had retired from the Israel Defense Forces prior to the Six-Day War. His pilot son Yonatan fell in that war. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, his friend Maj. Gen. Herzl Shafir, head of the Human Resources Branch, called him back to help command the IDF’s training apparatus. There, in the sheds belonging to the Human Resources and Training branches, Shafir informed Zorea that his son Yohanan had fallen. At the end of the mourning period, Zorea returned to his reserve duty post.
The conversation that Zorea and the head of the IDF History Department, Col. Avraham Eilon, had that day in late November 1973 with the trio was a harbinger of a far-reading change that was approaching, of what eventually emerged as a revolution in stages. For the first time in the state’s first quarter-century, which had already included five wars, a government that had taken credit with the military in its successes was being called on to pay the price of their shared failure. The demand for accountability was made by the government’s traditional backers, the voters of Mapai and Rafi, until recently adherents of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan; they included reserves officers, native-born Israelis, from the agricultural cooperative movement and from the big cities. As one of them put it, it was not “the foot soldiers from Hatikva [quarter in Tel Aviv],” who would vote for Likud and who were outside the Mapai mainstream, rather “kibbutznik officers.” Those who in the 1977 elections would move over to Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change.
The young officers who invited themselves to the conversation with Zorea and Eilon knew how to obtain an entry permit to the Kirya. Amiram Ben-Dror, a paratrooper from Kfar Yehoshua, went through his father, an IDF reserves officer who had fought with the Palmach and an acquaintance of Zorea’s from the Battle of Nabi Samwil in 1948. Eliezer Yoffe from Nahalal, who was named after his grandfather, one of the founders of that moshav, was the nephew of Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, who until recently had been the head of Military Intelligence. An Armored Corps officer, Aharon had lost a brother, Moshe, who was in the same corps. Uri Rosenthal of Tel Aviv, formerly a Golani soldier and now in the Armored Infantry reserves, joined Ben-Dror and Yoffe.
Retreat from Africa
Fast-forward to the present. A fresh wind has been blowing through the
Defense Archives during the past year, under the directorship of Ilana Alon, who made the declassified documents stored there more accessible to researchers and the general public. In advance of Passover, the archives uploaded to its website photographed mementos from the 1974 “exodus” from Egypt: the IDF’s retreat from Africa to east of the Suez Canal, under the Disengagement Treaty, which was a small and hesitant step on the road to the peace agreement with then President Anwar Sadat. The transcript of Zorea’s conversation with the trio is the other part of the story, which was destined to topple Golda and Dayan within a few months and the entire Labor Party three years later. The transcript of the exchange is included in the files of the Agranat Commission.
Amiram Ben-Dror fired the first salvo. In the officers training course he attended during his compulsory military service, in which he would be named outstanding cadet, he had stood up to ask Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev about the wisdom of the immobile and inflexible defense line that was named after Bar-Lev at the Suez Canal. “Sit down,” Bar-Lev said dismissively, and moved on to the next question.
During Passover, a half-year before the 1973 war, toward the end of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as GOC Southern Command, 1st Lt. Ben-Dror had been called up for reserve duty at the canal.
“I would like to address the state of preparedness there in the strongholds,” he said later in the Kirya meeting, according to the archival materials.
“Grenades were sealed and enclosed in plastic wrappers. Ammunition crates were sealed and no one was authorized to open them. Soldiers had no knowledge of the stronghold at night. Twenty-two officers went down for a drill on the workings of the stronghold system, but they wasted their time and didn’t learn. A live-fire exercise for beefing up deployment when a stronghold is under attack was scheduled. The exercise did not take place, all because of indifference. When we practiced casualty evacuation procedure and getting a stretcher from a stronghold onto a tank, they didn’t send a tank, only an armored personnel carrier, and over the field radio they were playing the pop-music chart.
“There was no operator for the generator, batteries weren’t in use, they hadn’t stocked up on water, hadn’t greased all the places that should have been greased, and so the communications systems at the stronghold weren’t in working order. From the battlefield rations that were supposed to take care of the soldiers’ needs, the grapefruit wedges and plums had been pilfered. Soldiers arrived at the strongholds untrained, unprepared and incapable of proper operation of a stronghold.”
Out of 22 officers, Ben-Dror went on, “first lieutenants like myself, who had completed their conscripted service about half a year early, eight filed a complaint with the IDF ombudsman Haim Laskov [a former chief of staff, and later a member of the Agranat Commission] about the state of preparedness on the line, detailing the problems. We didn’t believe that if we went through the usual channels at the General Staff, our complaint would be dealt with appropriately. We received word from his proxy, a lieutenant colonel, that what we had done was [akin to] mutiny. They didn’t address the complaint, but only the fact that eight officers had signed the same letter. The complaint dragged on for eight months, without a satisfactory response.”
Zorea, a close friend of Laskov’s, told Ben-Dror: “He doesn’t owe you an explanation. I am familiar with his technique. To you he writes that you rebelled, because he really is not allowed to accept a letter from eight officers at once, but at the same time you can be sure that he passed it on to the ‘necessary’ place − and without kid gloves.”
Ben-Dror: “Toward the end of the war I was part of a force that was about to be sent to conquer Port Fouad [in northeastern Egypt]. They gave us practice rifles, some of which did not work, from a training base. There were insufficient magazines, grenades and means for breaking through to a fortified target like that. A battalion commander told us, this is all there is and this is what you’ll fight with. If a lieutenant colonel gives me an order like that, [it would be as if] he sent me off to be slaughtered. A company doesn’t attack a battalion, and certainly not a battalion that’s dug in. Officers on the staff, friends of mine, asked, as I did: Why are they sending us to be slaughtered there?
He continued: “I’m angered by the treatment of the junior officers. I was part of a force there in the [Jordan] Valley and we had to block the route up to Jerusalem, in case [Jordan’s King] Hussein entered the war. We had three magazines per Uzi, two magazines per rifle, and we practiced pursuing tanks. They told me, lie on the road like you’re dead, let the tank drive over you and attach an explosive device to it. So give me an explosive device to attach to it, don’t send me into the field with two magazines, and make platoon leaders steal from the troops, so that at least the officers will have ammunition and equipment! Where are the emergency supply depots? Why weren’t there a million Uzis, 10 million magazines and 40 million bullets?
“Today I am the commander of the Kilometer 101 checkpoint on the Suez-Cairo road, where the [cease-fire] talks are being held. I don’t have enough weapons and ammunition, and what I do have I got not because I’m an obedient soldier, but because I’m a good thief − I went to other forces and stole from them. And don’t think that I don’t report. I go to my company commander, to the quartermaster, to the ordnance officer, to the deputy battalion commander, to the deputy brigade commander, to the brigade commander. And my brigade commander is Dan Shomron, and the operations officer was commander of the Paratrooper Reconnaissance Battalion [Motti Paz]. They understand infantry and know exactly what I need.”
Zorea: “Maybe they don’t have it?”
Ben-Dror: “That’s not an answer. I am a soldier in the IDF and I want standard equipment that I am entitled to. If they don’t have it, then where is it? Why hasn’t it arrived? If it’s not at the division, is it at the emergency supply depot? If not at the emergency supply depot, isn’t someone responsible [for that]?”
‘They’re not stupid’
Avraham Eilon: “Our primary power is personnel, and the greatest danger is loss of self-confidence. My greatest fear is the loss of faith of each and every one of us in the ability inherent in us.”
Zorea: “These are guys who know all of that. That is why they came here.”
Ben-Dror: “My men − what they don’t need to know, they don’t know, but they’re not stupid either, and when they ask me why the force has no anti-tank devices, I don’t know what to tell them. I can’t say to them that the IDF couldn’t care less about them, but that’s the sense they have.”
Uri Rosenthal, the group’s third member: “All of the serious people who one can put their faith in − from the ordinary foot soldier from the Hatikva neighborhood to the kibbutznik officer − should go to the [Bar-Lev] line. Don’t bring us explainers, all sorts of lieutenant colonels who will tell all kinds of stories, even though they never saw action in their lives. What happened, happened. The burning matter today is to restore faith, and you have no idea of the degree to which there is no faith. Veteran soldiers say that today they will go to fight only with reserves people, because they don’t want a conscription battalion commander and don’t want a conscription brigade commander − and don’t even talk about the conscripted army, the conscripted army is rot.
“In my worst dreams, I never imagined that soldiers would talk like this, saying things like, ‘If we see Gorodish [Shmuel Gonen, who had been relieved as head of the Southern Command during the war], we’ll stick a bullet in his rear.’ There is contempt for the chain of command, up to the very highest level. And you can’t pull one over on an Israeli soldier because, to my great joy, he sat with the field radio the whole time and heard [what was going on in] the division − and he’s not an idiot. The lowliest grunt knew everything that was going on and heard it all. Heard on the radio what Arik Sharon is doing and what everyone is doing. The lowest point in the way we were treated, which was similar to the way the Egyptians were mislead by their leaders and media, and that broke me, was when they informed all the battalions on the radio, on the fourth or fifth day of the war, that we were attacking Damascus. All along the line they raised bottles and drank, and it turned out to be a bluff.”
Zorea: “The main thing is not what was said to the soldiers, but rather what was done. In this war there were many things said that caused the army damage.”
Rosenthal: “We don’t believe that anything will change in the near future. That is not merely my personal opinion, because then I wouldn’t have come to you. People are saying, and I am quoting thousands of people: ‘Gorodish is still sitting in Southern Command, no high-ranking officers have been removed, including the one commanding the front.’ I want to relate how we came to the war, an Armored Infantry company with people aged 25 to 40. I arrived first to sign in. I sat for half a day at Tze’elim [base]. All night long we signed out equipment like we were going to guard the main street in Gaza. We drove on treads, without trying out the equipment, without oil, until two or three half-tracks, their engines got messed up, and we searched the world over for engine oil.”
Zorea: “I have answers to everything you have asked about. I looked into what the mistakes were and who made them. In three seconds, I found who was to blame: the chief of staff, the defense minister, the deputy chief of staff, head of the operations branch, head of the personnel directorate, head of the training branch, the GOC Southern Command, all of the division commanders and all of the brigade commanders. The conclusion is that they should be replaced. I agree, let’s replace them, but if you’ve got better ones then these, who are they?
“Gentlemen, the people of Israel went to war on a major scale, which it had not been expecting. Why did it not expect it? That is the mistake of our lives, but it already happened. We did not expect it, we got screwed, but we also managed ... and the current situation is good. Considering everything that has happened, we have really done great things. And who did these great things? The whole army put together, from the lowest rank up to the highest rank. At the same time, it made mistakes, for which I would hang people and sever heads. All right, I found out who is to blame, but can I go tomorrow and replace all of them? No, but if we are to follow your way of thinking, tomorrow some heads have to roll, in a big way; we have to toss out all of these men and put in others.
“If you had five years to get ready for the next war, with the starting line being quiet now, if I were to talk as though I were from outside the People of Israel and analyze it with the scalpel of cold logic, I would replace everyone, including the government of Israel, which also made mistakes. But can I do this tomorrow? No, because we don’t have better ones than those who made the mistakes. Don’t go seeking out guilty parties, look for what can be fixed.” Rosenthal: “You didn’t let me finish. I knew you would trap me like this.”
Zorea: “I am not dealing with you in a theoretical argument, whether or not the Chinese are right. I am dealing with you in detailed specifics. Tomorrow I want to implement whatever I see fit to from your words.”
Rosenthal: “You cut me off in the wrong sentence. I said the people who are to blame must be found.”
Zorea: “We are all to blame.”
Rosenthal: “All right, there are those who are more to blame and those who are less to blame. The entire front knows Gorodish, and all the troops know that he was supposedly removed in the middle of the war. So the soldiers, who don’t know this captain or that lieutenant colonel, are asking a simple question: Why is Gorodish still GOC Southern Command?”
‘In memory of the soldiers’
Zorea: “For the sake of discussion, let’s assume in this conversation that we revoked his commission. You will then claim that I did a great deal, whereas I will claim that I did nothing: What needs to be done is to give Southern Command good conditions for continued fighting. Give Lt. Ben-Dror enough grenades and enough anti-tank tools.”
Rosenthal: “At any rate, I called out. I said I was willing to speak to someone and I talked to some 25 youngsters my age, officers, and when we discussed the people who would come into account for restoring faith in the IDF, the names Laskov, Zarro [Zorea’s nickname], Yadin, Yariv came up.”
Eliezer Yoffe: “During my compulsory service, as an instructor in the Armored Corps, I introduced a lot of things that for the IDF were a novelty. I didn’t invent − I brought up things long forgotten, and revealed what ought to have been in writing ... the opposite of what they had trained me to teach. They promised to correct it. I spoke with the people responsible for the Armored Corps’ combat doctrine and the chief ordnance officer, and [to] this day they haven’t bothered to do it and because of that, people were killed. I feel I myself am responsible for the lives of who knows how many guys, who were wounded or killed, because all my thousands of friends, who are good officers in the Armored Corps, and maybe better than me, don’t know the professional things that I insist on. They are relieved of this guilt, whereas I knew and didn’t shoot whoever failed to deal with it.
“A week or two before the war, there was an inspection from Ordnance, and the men were painting everywhere ... to the point where it interfered with removing shells, because they were stuck in the paint. There were cases where we were left in the tanks with three or four shells. Leaving the position was impossible because otherwise the Egyptians would have captured it, and we waited for ammunition, with the tank commander saying, ‘I have seven shells, but four of them I can’t remove [because of the paint].’”
Yoffe continued: “Thanks to someone listening in on the Armored Corps’ emergency channel, we saved a tank battalion, which it turned out was being fired on by another battalion of ours. We put them in touch and they stopped shooting. There was also a case that is bothering me and I still haven’t been able to sort out: a tank of ours that came from north to south, and was fired upon and messed up other tanks of ours. I yelled and yelled, to no avail.
“Our battalion hadn’t been on tanks for two-and-a-half years before the war. Reserve duty we did in the [Jordan] Valley. Platoon commanders were having communications problems, because they didn’t know how to stabilize frequencies. A year ago, and in July of this year , I volunteered to teach a professional class in an Armored Corps officers course. At the end of it, I said that I had given the class in memory of the comrades, the soldiers and commanders who had fallen in the wars. I talk to people beforehand and I was told, this is a generation of peace, it doesn’t want to hear about wars. And that is indeed how it seemed, and I saw this also with my two brothers, the one who was killed and the other brother − and indeed they were a peace generation. They did not prepare for war. When I, as a soldier, was taught about tanks, before the Six-Day War, they always told us, from morning to evening, take care of these tanks, because they have to make it to Cairo.
“On Monday, October 8, we fired in the direction of the [Suez] canal, from ranges that are a waste of ammunition, over 4,000 [meters]. All the hollow charge of tanks in the IDF is good up to a range of 2,800 at most. The Egyptian tanks that were visible weren’t active; the ones that were active and that we saw afterward were in trenches. They returned our fire and managed to hit two of our tanks. In no tank was there adjustment of sights, and in the ballistic calculator there wasn’t what there should have been. There were a lot of cases of disassembling and reassembling treads because people didn’t behave correctly in the sands and commanders didn’t direct tanks correctly in the sands, and the convoy leaders, who are already guys with slightly higher ranks, led in wrong directions. When a commander took superfluous tanks down from an exposed position, so they wouldn’t crowd together and get hit, there was yelling on the company, battalion and brigade radio networks, ‘Everyone quick, get up to the positions and fire.’ At what? At nothing. There was pressure from above.
“On Wednesday or Thursday, after we had already seen all the tricks, three APCs showed up, three young officers got up, each with a blue-and-white flag, and charged. Didn’t talk to us on the radio, nothing. I don’t know who came up with that idea, but we followed them, because they had prevented the possibility of our firing, and secondly, if they were in such a rush, maybe there was something important there.
“We went down and we saw the Egyptian deployment sitting in wait for us, without shooting, let us approach. I asked a company commander on the radio, what’s going on here, and he replied, Monday is what’s happening here. I told him ... let’s put a stop to this. We contacted the platoon commander, we contacted the battalion commander, and we told him: Stop this madness. The battalion commander naturally thought as we did, but he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can’t really say this to the brigade commander. When they saw that we had suddenly stopped, they stopped too, and a negotiation began over the radio, with the brigade commander in the role of arbitrator. His deputy brigade commander and the commanders of the three APCs said, these tankists are cowards, it’s just infantry, and our battalion commander, who is a platoon commander who became battalion commander because the battalion commander was wounded, said, ‘They must be from the cavalry, but we’re not, and if they want to − let them charge on their own.’ This phenomenon, of commanders who held consultations among themselves on the radio and say ‘this we will not do,’ happened to us a number of times. I heard this in a lot of other places.
“The loss of faith is in division commanders and up. Above that there were insults and cursing. We heard everyone on the radio and we knew who was speaking, what he’s saying and where he is. I listened, and every once in a while, when I thought I was hearing something important, I would break into the platoon network, or the battalion [network] when the battalion was very small, identify myself and say [something] ... I was the ear for the guys.”
Zorea: “You deserve a beating.”
Yoffe: “Could be.”
Zorea: “And not because you listened in; because you broadcast.”
Yoffe: “I certainly deserve a beating, because when another brigade commander next to us began firing on us, I went onto the network and warned them, and they stopped shooting. They would have massacred us out there, they were firing at us from behind and from the flank.”
Butchering and beating
Eilon: “Where do you see the breach? By ranks, where is the crisis in faith?”
Yoffe: “With tank commanders, the matter is completely clear. We saw who ran away, who didn’t want to mount the tank anymore; we know exactly who we kicked out and who we won’t be willing to see again. Here it was decided in the field. I kicked out my platoon commander and took him off the tank and I made sure he wouldn’t be seen at all and that the guys would think he was missing. The battalion commanders, generally, are all right. Except for the charge on that Monday, I didn’t get the impression that a battalion commander was running head first. But I do have such an impression about a brigade commander.
“True, you can’t replace all of the brigade commanders today, but I don’t accept that everyone is to blame. There were people whose job is to safeguard an emergency supply depot that is worth more than 100 million lirot and is the strength of a brigade. They were given all the glory, the means and the power to do so. They [should be replaced], in addition to making up the equipment, providing the machine guns, handing out binoculars and maps, and giving orders. To this day I do not know, for example, of an order regarding being taken captive and taking prisoners.”
Rosenthal/Ben-Dror, together: “If there is an order not to take prisoners, what do you do with those who surrender? Butcher them or not?”
Zorea: “Let’s assume that you are told that you’re being butchered, would you butcher them?”
Yoffe: “We are sitting here in uniform, we won’t talk about the government ... In the military, certainly, you have to move people, and the civilians, the fighters, they’ve gone through enough and are clever and wise enough to know that when we look into the fiascos we will find out that there are people, from the rank of private up to lieutenant general, each of whom there is something to lay into him for this. If a certain brigade commander, on a certain day, entered head on into a night fight and left nine tanks and four APCs − how was he given assignments the next day? So that is the responsibility of the division commander, and if the division commander goes wild, there is someone else above him, and so we leap upward.
Rosenthal: “From private up to reserves battalion commander, they are talking about IDF generals in a way that I could not have imagined in my worst nightmares.”
Zorea: “These are the same generals who in the Six-Day War led us to victory.”
Yoffe: “Then they were brigade commanders, and the question is whether they deserve to be generals. The purpose of the conversation was for you to know what people in the field are thinking, and for you to think about how this can be resolved. I am afraid that tomorrow, if heaven forbid there is a war, there will be entire battalions that will not carry out orders. They won’t run away, but they will stand and think: Is it worthwhile going in?”
Zorea: “I thank you. Had we spoken of slightly less important things, I would have had to take the three of you and put you in jail as rebels. I have heard. I know that the three of you are warm-hearted Jews and that in cases in which you spoke ill of so-and-so, you meant well. There is much to be done. If I shall be in a position where I can act, I will act.”
Yoffe: “A week before the end of the war, I was told by guys who know me and know that I can get [to the top] because Aharon Yariv is my uncle and Amos Horev is my brother’s father-in-law, ‘We’ll make sure you get out of here, on condition that you talk.’ I told them, ‘They’re already used to hearing me, I’ve been griping for years, but will you come to speak out?’ And they said, ‘If we make it out of here.’”
First part of the protest
Zorea’s meeting with the representatives of the officers who remained at the front was one of the first events, perhaps the first of its kind, of the Yom Kippur War protest. Not one word was spoken during it about the political context of the war, as though it were possible to discuss the military preparedness separately from it.
Eliezer Yoffe also had another meeting, with Prime Minister Golda Meir. His uncle, Aharon Yariv, supplied him at his request with the telephone number of her secretary, Lou Kedar. Yoffe telephoned and was invited for a 15-minute conversation, which turned into an hour and a half. Meir, though, said responsibility lay with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff David Elazar, the generals. What did she, a civilian, have to do with military matters, she said, ignoring the warning not to view war as a matter of little importance, which it is permissible to leave to the generals. She also voiced some other criticism, which caused Yoffe and his friends to wonder just how in touch the old leadership was with the new generation. During her decade as foreign minister, Golda told the young officers, she was troubled by the diplomatic regulations that required that she take her vacations overseas. To escape her preoccupation with various duties, which pursued her on her vacations in Israel, she sailed on a Zim cargo ship all the way to Marseilles and back. At night, in the French port, after the crew returned to the ship, she was surprised to hear the noise of a drunkards’ quarrel. To her dismay, she learned that Israeli sailors were brawling over local women. “What have we come to,” Golda sighed.