Yom Kippur's Tragic Hero

The minutes of discussions from the beginning of the 1973 war add new dimensions to the role played by the defense minister at the time; Moshe Dayan , says the author, has been punished by history for sins that were not his own.

Zalman Shoval
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Zalman Shoval

Every year around Yom Kippur, numerous articles are published about the war that broke out in 1973 on the Jews' most sacred day. Last year, attention was focused on various papers from the Israel State Archives detailing consultations in the bureau of Prime Minister Golda Meir during the first four days of the war.

The minutes of those meetings, however, do not shed new light on most of the questions involving that war. The novelty in those articles, rather, is in how they add a dimension to the claim that the defense minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, was the war's tragic hero. Dayan warned military leaders of what was about to happen, and even took several important steps, mainly in the north, that prevented a major calamity there. Despite this, Dayan would bear the mark of Cain over a disaster for which he was not responsible.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan visiting Egyptian front.Credit: Getty Images

His primary "fiasco" was political and personal: He did not resign from the government when Meir, backed by a majority of her ministers from the Labor Party, rejected his proposals, which various sources, including Americans and Egyptians, say could have prevented the war. Nor did he resign after the government failed to make a clear-cut choice between his assessment (the correct one, as it turned out ) and that of Military Intelligence. In his book "Eilam's Arc: How Israel Became a Military Technology Powerhouse," Brig. Gen. (res. ) Uzi Eilam, who served on the Suez Canal front in 1973, writes that Dayan did not take on Meir ahead of the Yom Kippur War. The defense minister thought, and rightly so, that it would be wise to evacuate the Suez Canal line and deploy along the fortifications 10-15 kilometers to the east, leaving the Egyptians to sit on both sides of the canal, Eilam notes. Meir (with the support of Haim Bar-Lev and others ), refused to budge an inch, and Dayan did not dare fight. In any case, apparently because he blamed himself for not going all the way on these two matters, Dayan offered to resign on the second day of the war, but Meir refused to accept his resignation.

History was also cruel to the war's second tragic hero, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David "Dado " Elazar, whose record as an esteemed, experienced commander and whose role in the war itself were overshadowed because he accepted the soothing, erroneous assessments of Military Intelligence ("There are reports that indicate war, but we dismiss them" ). That is why Dado did not take all necessary advance steps to counter the evil. However, when the picture in all its severity became clear, it was Dado who made the right decisions, going over the head of the inexperienced GOC Southern Command Shmuel "Gorodish" Gonen, and he played a central part in the final victory.

'Low probability' of war

In his book "Israel's Intelligence Assessment Before the Yom Kippur War: Disentangling Deception and Distraction," the late Aryeh Shalev writes that on October 4, two days before the war broke out, MI's Collection Unit picked up a report that the Egyptian army had been given an urgent order to ready President Anwar Sadat's situation room. The report said Egypt was likely headed for war, but it remained stuck in the Collection Unit instead of being circulated. "Had this unusual report been received and circulated by the Research Department in real time, it would have had an impact on the intelligence assessment," says Shalev.

In practice, the delay made no difference, because a few days before the war, Dayan demanded the chief of staff review the intelligence personally and present his own assessment, after "going [directly] to the source" on which the evaluation was based. Elazar did as he was asked, but fully backed MI's assessment; in other words, he too believed there was "a low probability" of war.

As mentioned in one of the articles by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Shlomo Gazit, then an adviser to the defense minister, "Dayan displayed more sensitivity and caution" than the IDF chief of staff. He therefore decided to deploy the 7th Armored Division to back up the northern front a few days before the Syrian offensive began.

The Agranat Report, published by the state commission of inquiry that reviewed the circumstances surrounding the war, notes that starting in 1972, Dayan warned the General Staff at least 11 or 12 times, in his inimical style: "Gentlemen, prepare for war." On at least one occasion, and possibly more, he predicted when hostilities would break out. Dayan, who possessed a broad political and military understanding, and in any event did not believe in the strategic value of the Bar-Lev Line - a chain of fortifications deployed along the Suez Canal - proposed, as noted, that the IDF retreat several dozen kilometers. That would have enabled Sadat to open the canal to maritime traffic and rescue Egypt from its economic and image crisis. His suggestion was not accepted. After hostilities broke out, Dayan once again demanded forces be withdrawn from the canal.

In an interview three years ago, the wartime MI head, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Eli Zeira, who had no particular reason to defend Dayan, said the defense minister gave the most accurate predictions the day before the war began. Zeira described the decisive General Staff meeting at 9 A.M. on Friday, the day before war broke out: "Dayan contemplates and then provides the most accurate situation assessment that there was - and he tells us two things. First thing: The Egyptian exercise is a cover [MI's assessment was that Egypt did not intend to go to war and that all it was doing was holding a multidimensional military exercise]. It is not an exercise, they are going to attack. And the second thing he says, regarding the Egyptians: If they think they are going to surprise us - they won't surprise us."

Zeira added: "At 9:30 A.M. on Friday, 30 hours before the war, Dayan tossed out 'Eli Zeira's assessment.'" It is odd that there are people who call it the "Yom Kippur surprise," when there was no surprise at all, but rather an inability or unwillingness to internalize the requisite conclusions.

Following the war, an argument broke out among the public and the Knesset over the call-up of reserves on the eve of war. Dayan, who died 30 years ago as of this coming Sunday, was convinced the IDF could withstand the Egyptian offensive even without a full call-up. His opposition to calling up the reserves also had a political rationale. Dayan was worried that the United States might blame Israel if all-out war broke out in the Middle East, which among other things would complicate matters with the Soviet Union. The fear that Israel would be accused of aggression grew stronger as even on the morning of October 6, the Americans announced that "so far there are no visible preparations for war [on the Egyptian side]."

MI's biased assessment continued even into the morning hours of Yom Kippur itself. In the decisive meeting at the Prime Minister's Bureau, Maj. Gen. Zeira said: "Despite the fact that they [the Egyptians] are ready, I believe they know they would lose. Sadat is not in a position where he has to go to war. Everything is ready, but there is no compulsion, and he knows that the balance has not improved - he has not yet given an order to embark - it is possible he may back down."

Misreading the map

During the war's early hours and days, many of the military commanders failed to read the overall battle map. Dado briefed the government on the situation and on the possibility of crossing the Suez canal "even this day." He added that perhaps "one IDF bridgehead already exists on the other side of the Canal." Another report states that "the Egyptian deployment is crumbling and being beaten." All of this was on October 8.

According to the minutes from that same meeting, the optimistic messages about progress on the southern front came from a lack of communication between combat forces and the rear command. Contrary to the reports, the counterattack had failed. According to the minutes, Meir was "bemused" by Elazar's statements.

Dayan's assessments and predictions were more accurate. As early as October 7, he said at the Prime Minister's Bureau: "On the southern front, I suggest that we create a line on the Mitla. We'll give up on the canal and take a stand on the straits line, 30 or so kilometers from the canal. I propose we issue an order tonight to evacuate the posts [we] have no chance of reaching ... Any attempt to reach the posts is an erosion of tanks ... the canal line is lost." (The prime minister also expressed surprise, commenting: "I thought we would start to hit them the moment they cross the canal, what happened?" )

Dayan once told me that he told the government at the time that it would not be possible to stop any serious force on the banks of the canal. Astonishingly, even after the Egyptians had crossed the canal and Dayan's doubts concerning the efficacy of the Bar-Lev Line had proved true in the harshest way possible, David Elazar still claimed "the historical argument is over - only two fortifications fell, some of them were evacuated and some are still being held and continue to fulfill their objectives well."

The argument over the fortifications was later used as the base for unfair accusations that Dayan had suggested "abandoning" casualties. Dayan had said that on the canal front, there was no choice but to give up the posts, and, "in places where it is impossible to evacuate, we will leave the wounded. Whoever gets there will get there - if they decide to surrender, they'll surrender. We need to tell them, we cannot get to you. Try to break through or surrender."

On this matter, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Avraham "Bren" Adan, who commanded the 162nd Division during the Yom Kippur War, and who was not among Dayan's confidants, has attested: "It's true that throughout the years the IDF has educated that you do not abandon the wounded, but you don't rescue at the price of losing another division. The decision [by Dayan] was appropriate in keeping with the situation. Sometimes he saw farther with one eye than those with two eyes."

'Golda, they won't destroy us'

During the first few days, Dayan thought the war would last a long time - weeks, if not months - and that the IDF should deploy behind new lines to enlist everything at the disposal of Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and only then launch a counteroffensive against Egypt. He changed his mind and supported a speedier response after the situation on the ground justified that, particularly following the turning point in battles on the Syrian front, which enabled the transfer of forces from the north to the south. Had it not been for the success up north, it is possible that Iraq and Jordan might have joined the war, as Dayan told the government.

Dayan was criticized for his despondent appearance on television not long after the war began. This stemmed from an explicit government decision that "we have to be straightforward with the people, because the press is drawing a warped picture" - i.e., overly optimistic - and the public must be told how severe the situation is.

Despite the grave impression that the television appearance left on viewers, Dayan did not despair even in the most difficult moments. For example, when Meir suggested on October 9 that she go to Washington to tell U.S. President Richard Nixon that military aid being given by the Soviets to the Egyptians could lead to Israel's destruction, Dayan calmed her down: "Golda, they won't destroy us."

The minutes from the meetings of the government and General Staff in the early days of the war confirm that Dayan was one of the few senior decision makers at the time, if not the only one, to behave responsibly, soberly and impartially. He was not afraid to analyze the situation even if it was inconvenient and pessimistic.

One day, when I returned to Tel Aviv for a few hours (I was a Knesset member, but when the fighting broke out I enlisted ) to attend an emergency Likud meeting, I took the opportunity to approach the defense minister and ask his opinion on the public and political ramifications of the war. Dayan replied (through Maj. Gen. Gazit ) that his sole hope was that a state commission of inquiry would examine things in an unbiased way. I passed that on to Menachem Begin. He asked me to tell the defense minister that he accepted his suggestion in full and that the Likud faction would support the formation of a commission of inquiry.

Since then, 38 years have passed. Now, when most of the key players are no longer living and only the thousands of bereaved families continue to mourn their loved ones, the time has come for history to do justice.

Zalman Shoval was responsible for Israel's overseas information when Moshe Dayan was foreign minister, in the government of Menachem Begin. Later, he served twice as Israel's ambassador to the United States.