The Politicians Were to Blame for the Yom Kippur War, Not the Generals

The Agranat Commission was like a puzzled detective on the heels of a murderer - meticulously dusting for fingerprints, but never contemplating the motive for the murder.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The welcome competition between two government archives, the Israel State Archives and the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives, has yielded an important harvest of information over the past year: Eye-opening documents chronicling the behavior of the Israeli government and its leaders during scandals that rocked the public and sealed the fate of thousands.

The September 2012 release provided more documents from the Agranat Commission, which in late 1973 and early 1974 investigated the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The latest releases were especially significant – they pour cold water on the phenomenon of nostalgia and longing for the leaders of the past.

The documents confirm what Israelis knew when the Yom Kippur War broke out, but have apparently forgotten over the following two generations – that nostalgia and longing for past leaders is baseless.

Some aspects of the Agranat Commission’s work were performed exceptionally and with precision, while other aspects can be called anything from negligent to downright poor. The commission was like a puzzled detective on the heels of a murderer, meticulously dusting for fingerprints – but never contemplating the motive for the murder.

At its core, the disaster of 1973 was a political failure. That failure led to subsequent military and intelligence blunders. Anwar Sadat, (and his partner Hafez Assad, to a lesser degree) went to war to fulfill national objectives. Those objectives were well known to then Prime Minister Golda Meir, and to her two primary partners in government, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Minister without Portfolio Yisrael Galili.

Essential details were hidden from the military and intelligence top brass. The IDF Chief of Staff, David (Dado) Elazar, head of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira and Mossad head Zvi Zamir were all unaware of what Meir, Dayan and Galili were concocting behind their backs.

A fascinating version of this affair can be found in the book “1973: The Road to War,” by Dr. Yigal Kipnis. The military brass lacked essential information, without which they were unable to carry out their mission – they couldn’t assess the situation, nor could they prepare for possible outcomes.

The Agranat report implicated Elazar, Zeira, other senior IDF intelligence officers and GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen-Gorodisch. The report implied that Meir and Dayan were victims in the situation, and placed the blame specifically on Elazar and Zeira. If only the politicians’ blind faith in the commanders and intelligence officers was justified.

The materials published recently by Kipnis, and documents released by the archives, paint a different picture – in fact, a mirror image. Apparently, it was the civilians who caused harm to the soldiers.

This story reflects guilt within guilt: The Agranat commission failed in its duty to carry out an unbiased investigation of the background of the war, without playing favorites. The commission completely disregarded the political factors, which were most important of all.

Thus the commission allowed Meir’s supporters to claim that her government left no stone unturned in searching for peace. In reality, Golda simply overturned Abba Eban, the excluded and rejected foreign minister, who was left of out of major channels of communication with Henry Kissinger. The circle of secrets only included Meir, Dayan, Galili, then ambassador to Washington Yitzhak Rabin and PMO Director Simha Dinitz, and later Mordechai Gazit.

Zeira, for example, was asked to assess possible Egyptian and American reactions to an Israeli move – without knowing that Meir had considered, and rejected, an American-Egyptian plan for an Israeli retreat from Sinai in exchange for a commitment to non-aggression.

Eban was not among the decision makers, but was eager to assist in the war effort. Although he was excluded from security discussions – because, of course, foreign affairs and defense are not exactly related (despite the pairing of the two in a permanent Knesset committee) – Eban was called upon to calm worried diplomats, chiefly Kissinger, who had received alarming intelligence information.

Israel was uncomfortable with the fact that Sadat’s warnings of war were taken seriously. “It was in our interest to curb other nations’ perceptions that war was approaching,” said Eban.

Thus, as that black October approached, Israel’s spokespersons discounted warnings from King Hussein of Jordan, and other reliable sources. The American government, which respected the Israeli intelligence establishment, did not suspect falsification. As long as the Israelis were calm, America saw no reason to worry.

In the organizational field, which is political and personal, the Agranat Commission’s report also highlighted widespread competition among politicians. Dayan prevented Meir from being in direct contact with IDF intelligence. It was enough for her that the Mossad and the Shin Bet reported to her. IDF intelligence only reported directly to the chief of staff and the defense minister.

The Ben Gurion-esque model of combining the duties of the prime minister and the defense minister - which continued under Moshe Sharet and Pinchas Lavon, and later when Dayan seized the reigns of the security establishment from Levi Eshkol - led to the fact that the prime minister’s military secretary attended only a few IDF meetings as a silent participant, rather than a full, active member.

Dayan kept information from his principal rival, Yigal Alon. Alon’s allies, Meir and Galili, also refrained from sharing information with him, even when he previously served as acting prime minister. During that fateful week in October, Dayan preferred to let two precious days pass before holding a meeting, so that Meir, and not her replacement Alon, would officiate.

The military pipeline to Meir was controlled by Dayan and Elazar, who passed her summaries of information while withholding contradictory opinions – for example the views of their ideological rival for the year and a half leading up to the war, Gen. Yisrael Tal, commander of the IDF operations directorate, and deputy chief of staff.
The military secretary, Brig. Gen. Yisrael Lior, was a one man show – working without a staff, he was at the mercy of those making the reports, including the office of the Mossad chief.

If Zamir or his assistants received a report they thought would not be of interest to Meir, they didn’t disturb her with it. The most fateful reports – including the report of Zamir’s journey to London to meet Ashraf Marwan, following a personal warning and unprecedented invite to meet with the head of the Mossad himself – were withheld until the assistant could return from the airport, until Lior left a meeting to call Dayan or possibly heard from Dayan by chance, who heard from Zeira, who was convinced by Zamir’s assistant that he should update the Intelligence chief.

The recently exposed accounts do not support Zamir’s claim that, in contrast to Zeira, he provided the warnings in 1973, and was ultimately disappointed. Lior contradicts this claim again and again. Zamir met Meir on October 21, and was not called by her again for two weeks.

Nor did Zamir disagree with the IDF intelligence estimations two days before the war. According to those who were there, Zamir has no reason to boast about his part in the warnings, not in the day before the war, nor in the year preceding the war.

The important story is not Zaira against Zamir, or Elazar against Dayan. The original sin here is the political blunder. The Agranat Commission did not discuss it. Thus an official, historical investigation is still necessary, to tie up all of the bloody loose ends.

Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir in the Golan Heights, during the Yom Kippur War.Credit: Reuters



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