Moshe Dayan Told '73 Probe: I Wasn't Fit for War-time Decision Making

Yuval Azoulay
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Yuval Azoulay

Moshe Dayan, the defense minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, had been lionized just six years previously over Israel's victory in the Six-Day War, during which he also served as defense minister. But when he testified before the Agranat Commission that investigated the Yom Kippur War, Dayan insisted that he lacked the necessary military qualifications to influence decisions before and during that war.

"From 1957-67, I wasn't in the army at all," argued the man who had been IDF chief of staff in the four preceding years. "I'm not a tank man, I'm not an artillery man, I'm not a paratrooper, and I don't have a staff... I am not and was not a military man for 10 years, and I didn't return to dealing with the army after that, but rather to political defense issues."

The argument worked: The commission absolved the entire government of responsibility, laying the blame solely on the IDF, in a decision that has remained controversial to this day. But only Tuesday, 35 years after the war, was Dayan's testimony finally released for publication, along with that of dozens of other ministers, Knesset members, IDF officers and other functionaries.

Of particular note was the testimony of Maj. Gen. (res.) Ariel Sharon, who had left the army just three months before the war began. He was called up as a reservist as soon as the war broke out, on October 6, 1973, and commanded Division 143, which successfully crossed the Suez Canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army, thereby effectively ending the war on the southern front.

Sharon testified on July 29, 1974, about four months before the commission published its report. He was asked in particular about the first two days of the war, and replied that immediately after reaching the Refidim base in the Sinai peninsula, he realized that the situation was dire.

"I tried to get information about what was happening... My impression was that there was no clear picture of what was going on in the field," he said. He therefore called GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen (Gorodish), he related, and urged him to tell all his commanders to leave their war rooms and go to the front, so that they could see for themselves what was really happening.

Because neither Gonen nor chief of staff David Elazar ever did go to the front, he charged, and they never understood what was happening on the battlefield.

Sharon also related an argument he had with the commander of the Sinai Division: "When the division commander told me what had happened in the field, I asked him one question: Why didn't you spread out your forces? This question arose because, among the various possibilities, we had foreseen this possibility, too - that the Egyptians would attack in this manner... He told me: 'I received an order not to spread out my forces.'"

Sharon said that he refrained from requesting aerial assistance during the war's early days, because he saw that the air force was encountering trouble with Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries stationed along the canal. Nevertheless, he complained, "when there were convoys of hundreds of Egyptian vehicles, hundreds of tanks and hundreds of armored personnel carriers standing bumper-to-bumper west of the canal, this was a worthwhile target to attack, and even to absorb losses when there's a target like this. But there was a screw-up - in my view, a screw-up by the air force - because the information wasn't reaching it at a fast enough pace. An aerial photograph of the convoy that was standing there in the morning they would have perhaps only that evening. They were not prepared to get this information immediately."

"We were standing 10 or 12 kilometers from the canal, but we couldn't discern what was happening there," he continued. "Everything was full of dust, full of smoke, and we didn't see much. Later, it turned out that there were sometimes convoys of hundreds of vehicles that the air force could have caused damage to."

Elazar told the commission that the General Staff became a "madhouse" on the morning of Saturday, October 6, once it became clear that war would break out later that day. He wanted to call up the reserves immediately, but Dayan and prime minister Golda Meir objected. That worried him, he said, because once the war began, rockets might be fired at Israel's cities, which would significantly slow the subsequent mobilization.

"I knew there could be FROG rockets on Tiberias and Safed, and that would reduce the speed of the mobilization," he said. "Any mobilization I didn't do now, without fire, but did later, could be limited. This could cause problems. And that's another reason why I preferred to call up the reserves that Saturday before the war began."

Dayan, he said, objected to the call-up lest the Arab countries accuse Israel of aggression. "I argued it was better to be accused of aggression and win, because the Arabs would accuse us of starting the war in any case."

Like Sharon, Elazar also criticized the air force. "The air force thought before the war that it had a good response [to the anti-aircraft batteries]," he said. "I can say today that the response was incomplete. We did not and do not have a complete response to missile batteries. And that will still be true if war breaks out in another two weeks."

Gonen said that the Southern Command had faced a severe shortage of both soldiers and equipment. "We asked for another two companies of infantry in the south - it wasn't approved. We asked for two bridging tanks and four bulldozer tanks, and that wasn't approved. We asked for another two radar trucks, and that wasn't approved. We asked for another 11 tank crews for one combat sector, and we got five."

Sharon echoed this complaint, saying that during the first days of the war, his command had a severe shortage of machine guns, because the army had previously taken whatever was available to use in training exercises.