"Milhemet Yom Kippur, zman emet: hamahadura hame'udkenet" ("The Yom Kippur War, Real Time: The Updated Edition" by Ronen Bergman and Gil Meltzer, Yedioth Ahronoth/Hemed Books, 544 pages, NIS 98
Of the numerous books published about the 1973 Yom Kippur War for its 30th anniversary, none was so amply publicized as Ronen Bergman and Gil Meltzer's "Milhemet Yom Kippur - zman emet" ("The Yom Kippur War, Real Time"). In the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur in the fall of 2003, the book was trumpeted in previews, headlines and advance chapters in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth (owned by the same group as the book's publisher). This campaign sparked renewed interest in the war and ignited a sensationalist battle of headlines with the rival daily, Ma'ariv. Not surprisingly, Bergman and Meltzer's book became a best-seller. This year, shortly before the war's 31st anniversary, it was reissued in a new edition, whose cover promises "revelations now cleared for publication." The new edition allows us to examine the book retrospectively and to see, outside the journalistic competition, what its real contribution to our understanding of the war was.
The book sets itself a serious and worthy, but very ambitious goal: to tell the Israeli public at last what really happened during the war. The authors rather justly accuse various authorities, above all the Israel Defense Forces history department (although it is not clear why they chose to pick on Master Sergeant Shoshi as the department's lord privy seal), of not doing their job: Instead of allowing the people of Israel, who paid heavily for the failures of the war, to learn what happened, the department continues to prevent the publication of its own research for political, rather than security-related, reasons. The material uncovered by Bergman and Meltzer, as the book's back cover promises, now finally makes it possible to "reconstruct with precision, minute by minute, the life-and-death war being waged on the ground, and the war of ego being waged in the Israeli command headquarters in the Kirya [the Israel Defense Forces' headquarters in Tel Aviv] and on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War."
To what extent do the authors live up to their self-assigned mission? The answer is complex. The point of departure for their research was tapes from the war room of Major General Shmuel Gonen, then head of the IDF Southern Command; the recordings were made available to Yedioth Ahronoth by Gonen's communications operator. Bergman and Meltzer also managed to get hold of some of the history department's unreleased studies, most importantly Elhanan Oren's research on the war (which, with the help of God, the chief of staff and several other key figures, may soon become available to the public at large) and Dr. Shimon Golan's painstaking study of the high command during the war. These materials, along with occasional pieces of documentation and various interviews, allowed them to construct a good account of the complex, confused and turbulent campaign fought by the Southern Command. Theirs is not the last word on the subject, but then that is not what the authors presume to offer. On the whole, the book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how the war unfolded on that front.
Because the account of the campaign is largely derived from uncensored tapes and other primary materials, and since the authors do not belong to the admiring cult of any particular general, we are given an unmediated peek at the serial insubordination of the man who had headed the Southern Command until July 1973, commanded the 143rd Division during the war itself, and is now Israel's prime minister - Ariel Sharon. For the first time ever, Israelis can read about the sharp exchange of words between Gonen, who succeeded Sharon as head of the Southern Command, and Sharon himself, who thought he knew better than anyone else how to beat the Egyptians.
Equally embarrassing for Sharon is the private conversation held on the evening of October 9 between IDF then-chief of staff David Elazar and defense minister Moshe Dayan, when the two understood that Sharon had acted against his orders that day. The explicit order, after the failed attack of October 8, was to reserve strength. But the 143rd Division lost 50 tanks that day while carrying out Sharon's various initiatives, which did little to improve matters on the southern front. Dayan's claim that Sharon's ego, which made him try to distinguish himself, was the reason for what had happened is one of the most damning character testimonies ever given about the man. What Dayan essentially said was that Sharon's desire to stand out had cost the IDF quite a few tanks and men that day, as it might well continue to do in the future. No wonder an effort has been made to conceal this matter from the public. Bergman and Meltzer should be commended for exposing it in a clear and unequivocal way.
Not the whole truth
So far, the good news. Now for the disappointments. Beyond their good description of the war's unfolding on the southern front on the level of the generals, Bergman and Meltzer go to great lengths to bring to the public new discoveries. In the process, they repeatedly fall into traps that any serious student of the subject would be careful to avoid. A good example is the opening story about the failure of the "or yekarot" (bright light) system, supposed to illuminate the Suez Canal using fuel reservoirs and thus prevent the Egyptians from crossing. According to the book, the system failed because the IDF, from the chief of staff down to the last soldier, had neglected its facilities; some of the system's devices got clogged up with sand while others were sealed with concrete by Egyptian commandos. On the face of it, this story captures on a small scale the entire Israeli failure in 1973: the self-confidence, the arrogance, the neglect, the complacence and the heavy cost that all these claimed. But the story, as it turns out, has no basis in reality. The "bright light" system was a deception meant to deter the Egyptians from resuming their fire. Much has been written about it in the last years. Either Bergman and Meltzer are unaware of this history, or else they refuse to acknowledge it in order not to lose a good story.
The book is full of such mistakes. A few examples from the beginning will demonstrate the point: the dramatic tale a few pages later about Mati, a soldier in Unit 848, who on Wednesday sounded the alarm over the Soviet departure (word of this was actually first received on Thursday evening), single-handedly rousing the entire military system (which, in fact, had roused itself quite well on its own); the story of Lt. Colonel Yomi Eini, according to which the heads of the Military Intelligence research division, including its director, Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev, spent all of October 3 touring the Israel Aircraft Industries (Shalev actually attended an important discussion at the prime minister's office that day); the much-repeated fiction about Major General Gonen remaining in Haifa until Saturday morning, thereby neglecting his command (when in fact on the Friday night and early Saturday morning he conducted a pre-war discussion at the Command Headquarters in Be'er Sheva); and the fairy tale about Mossad director Zvi Zamir setting out on a private jet to meet his top operative in London (he took a regular El-Al flight).
Other examples: the claim that Yona Bandman, head of the Egyptian Branch in the Research Division, issued on Friday, October 5, a summary of intelligence reports on the situation along the various fronts (as suggested by the photocopy of the document, and as anyone vaguely familiar with the procedures of research knows, such a document is not issued by a single branch of the research division, but by a number of branches as well as navy and air force intelligence); a General Staff meeting mentioned did not actually convene on Friday morning, but at around 2 P.M. (this on a day in which every hour counted); a quote provided according to which then-chief of staff Elazar had believed back in April that 100 tanks would be enough to halt the Syrians in the Golan Heights (Elazar did not talk about war, and all his actions on Friday morning point to his estimation that additional forces would be required to repel the Syrian assault); or the mention of the so-called "Yachmur" intelligence report (received from a top-quality source and attributing the Soviets' emergency evacuation to their knowledge that Egypt and Syria were going to war), correcting an error in the previous edition, but failing to note that, under the orders of the director of Military Intelligence, this report was not passed on to its recipients in time.
For the second edition, the authors armed themselves with some new or renewed stories, as is boldly proclaimed on the back cover. But their careless work has yielded sensational tales with no grounding in reality. Thus, for example, they claim that American satellite photographs identified in Egypt the deployment of two Scud brigades "with undisguised nuclear warheads," manned by Soviet soldiers, and that these were the reason why the Americans went on high nuclear alert toward the end of the war. This claim has indeed never been published before. The problem is that it lacks all foundation. The Scud missiles that arrived in Egypt in August as part of a Soviet-Egyptian arms deal did not carry nuclear warheads. The source on which the authors rely, Prof. Yuval Ne'eman, indeed addressed the subject, but even he did not claim that the missiles had nuclear warheads - he only said that there was concern over this possibility at the time. The reason why neither American nor Soviet sources about the war refer to this is that it has no basis in reality.
Another new, sensational and groundless story involves the surface-to-surface missile called the "Ivri," whose operational readiness was examined by Dayan a few hours before war began. The authors see in this an indication that the defense minister was willing to use "what the foreign press claims is another name for the surface-to-surface `Jericho' missile, capable of carrying nuclear armaments." In reality, the Ivri was a short-range missile (40 kilometers) that has nothing in common with the Jericho beyond the fact that both are missiles. The attempt to link the two by alluding to the "foreign press" (usually a formula for going around the Israeli censor) is ridiculous and unnecessary. This missile is mentioned in authorized books about the war that were published long ago. The Google search engine yields not only details about the Ivri missile, but even a picture of it. That, however, might spoil a good story.
The authors make unjustified accusations against senior officials who acted exactly as they should have. In this they follow the example of Eli Zeira, the director of Military Intelligence during the war, who has since become involved in the serial disclosure of Israel's most highly classified secrets to unauthorized Israelis and foreigners. A complaint against him on this matter was recently submitted to the attorney general. Based on a taped conversation with then-Mossad director Zvi Zamir prior to his testimony before the Agranat Commission (which investigated the defense establishment's failings in the war), Bergman and Meltzer determine that "a strict legal interpretation might see in this conversation a certain coordination of testimonies." However, Zamir and Zeira's conversation was meant to protect not their own hides, but Israel's finest sources of intelligence (which Zeira has since exposed). They did nothing wrong; in fact, they were doing precisely what their positions and responsibilities required of them.
Similarly, without any investigation, Bergman and Meltzer accept Zeira's claim, recently voiced on television and in the new edition of his book, that Prime Minister Golda Meir withheld from the Agranat Commission the warning she received from King Hussein of Jordan in their meeting 10 days before the war. The suggestion that an Israeli prime minister deceived a state commission of inquiry is a grave matter, casting a serious shadow over Meir's integrity. In fact, again, no such thing happened. Meir and others reported the meeting to the commission. This could have been ascertained with a phone call to Yaakov Hasdai, who served on the commission. As far as I know, Meltzer and Bergman did no such thing. One can only hope that those who cherish Meir's memory will demand of Zeira, Bergman and Meltzer a retraction and apology for their maligning claims.
This book might have been what its authors presume it to be if only they had devoted much more effort to the task and narrowed its scope to central, well-documented issues. Hanoch Bartov has demonstrated that this can be done even by a writer who is not a professional historian or a retired general in his excellent biography of David Elazar, first published in 1978. Bergman and Meltzer's book combines, in a schizophrenic fashion, fairly good research and important documentation with hints, speculations and false accusations. The Yom Kippur War deserves to be treated much better than that.
Dr.Uri Bar-Joseph is a senior lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of Haifa.