Newly Released Documents: Division and Disarray on Eve of Yom Kippur War

Documents attest to the existence of an intelligence source who warned of an imminent attack, enabling Israel's leadership to consider a preemptive strike.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Following the release on Monday of minutes of prime minister Golda Meir's meeting with her war cabinet on the second day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the state archives released Tuesday the minutes of eight additional meetings that the prime minister held during the war's first four days.

David Elazar during the Yom Kippur War.Credit: Government Press Office

The documents provide a rare look at the military and diplomatic efforts made just hours before the Arab attack on Israel. They also attest to the existence of an intelligence source who provided credible information of an imminent attack, enabling Israel's political leadership to consider a preemptive strike on Egypt and Syria.

IDF chief of staff David Elazar suggested during the meetings "When there are skirmishes we tell the truth, but during wartime we must not tell the truth."

The documents show the close ties between King Hussein of Jordan and Israel's leadership on the eve of the war. They also again reveal Israel's complacency regarding the Arab armies' military might.

On the day the war broke out, Yom Kippur, the chief of military intelligence, Eli Zeira, was still expressing the belief that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would not start another war with Israel. Despite that view, and against the recommendations of then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, Meir decided to mobilize 200,000 reserve soldiers so as to provide a substantial boost to the military in the event that war broke out.

Meir and senior defense officials also worked to procure additional military hardware, in the form of 40 fighter jet and 400 tanks, from the United States. The prime minister even considered a secret meeting with U.S. president Richard Nixon without the knowledge of the cabinet, in a effort to convince the American leader to come to Israel's assistance.

October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, 8:05 A.M.

Meir convened an emergency meeting in Tel Aviv with senior defense officials. Six hours before the outbreak of the war, Israeli preparations for a general offensive by Arab armies finally began. The warnings of the intelligence source were being taken seriously, as was the fact that the Russians were pulling families out of Egypt and Syria, a sign of approaching war. But U.S. intelligence was not predicting war.

Minister Yisrael Galili said a source had suggested the war could be prevented by leaking information that would reach the Egyptians and Syrians, so they would knew their plans for attack had been discovered.

Jordan also preoccupied those in attendance, because it wasn't clear if the kingdom would join in the assault on Israel.

Initially, Meir deliberated between Elazar's call for a full mobilization of the reserves and Dayan's request for a limited call-up.

"If you approve a major mobilization of the reserves, I won't resign," Dayan said. But with an eye to international reaction, he added, "A full mobilization before even one shot is fired - they will say right away that we are the aggressors."

At 9:20 A.M., a full mobilization was approved.

October 7, 1973

A discussion at the Prime Minister's Office centered on how to enlist American support at the United Nations and head off a cease-fire that would hurt Israel. Meir suggested putting together a list of requests.

The forum considered presenting U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger with a partial, distorted picture exaggerating Israel's poor situation to win the Nixon administration's support. Meir rejected the suggestion out of hand.

"We should telegraph him the details; he should get the real picture," she said. "We can't play hide and seek with him."

Minister Yisrael Galili asked in response, "Do we sell him the fact that we've moved out of the populated areas?" Meir replied, "I don't object to us saying, there's also risk to populated areas ... I want to give him the real picture. I'm not under the impression the

situation is doomed ... We should tell it to him convincingly. Tonight was a bad night."

11:50 P.M.

A meeting of the ministers with senior defense officials. Yitzhak Rabin returned from a tour of the southern front and told the meeting, "The whole issue of the dead and wounded is complicated. There are 400 wounded and 80 killed. [GOC Southern Command Shmuel] Gorodish estimates there will be 150 to 200 killed before the counteroffensive." Rabin said he had no information on Egyptian losses.

October 8, 7:50 P.M.

Maj. Gen. Haim Bar-Lev and minister Yigal Allon report to the prime minister after a tour of both fronts. The Israeli forces' situation is beginning to improve, while the enemy forces are beginning to suffer serious damage.

"What they achieved today as compared to yesterday is enormous," Allon said. "The front was breached yesterday. If the Syrians had been more daring, they'd have made significant gains."

Bar-Lev explained the Egyptian and Syrian successes as being partly due to technological superiority. "Both have the new Soviet tank plus infrared," he said. "They have an advantage there. On the first night we were surprised; we only knew they had it in theory ... Today we know about it and take it into account."

9:50 A.M.

Elazar asked Meir's permission to attack four Egyptian targets along the coast. Meir agreed.

"These are good targets," Elazar said. "Make them worry. We need to press them. After all, they too are only human."

October 9

Dayan voiced confidence in the Israeli forces' ability to overcome Syria and asked permission to bomb targets in Damascus. "There's an order: No retreat on the Golan," he said. "Fighting to the death and not moving ... What I'm suggesting and asking for approval of [is] bombings inside the city."

Meir asked whether he meant within the city itself, and Dayan confirmed this. He said the IDF can't muster a column to march on Damascus even as a decoy, but bombing in and around the city could "break the Syrians" - though he conceded, "you can't say the population wouldn't be hurt."

"Why would it necessarily break them?" Meir asked. "Would a bombing here break us?

Elazar replied: "A heavy bombing here, on Reading and Ramat Aviv, would seriously disrupt things."

Meir suggested leaving on a secret, 24-hour mission to Washington, without informing the cabinet, to personally explain the gravity of the situation to Nixon. "I'd like to suggest a crazy idea: What if me and an appropriate military official go to Washington for 24 hours? ... Maybe he'll say he can offer nothing but sympathy. Maybe his personal pride will be roused by what they [the Russians] are doing to him ... I have the feeling that I'm at a point where I need to talk to him, and a feeling that he will understand."



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