Yom Kippur War as a Case Study: Intelligence and Deterrence Did Not Suffice

What tipped the balance against preemptive action on Yom Kippur in 1973 was not military information, but rather diplomatic, political and strategic considerations, recently declassified documents suggest.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

One of the most fascinating moments in the deliberations of the Agranat Commission, which investigated events leading up to the Yom Kippur War and its first three days, came during the testimony of Brig. Gen. Israel Lior, Prime Minister Golda Meir’s military secretary. The testimony by Lior before the panel, like much of that heard by the commission, has only recently been declassified. It appears on the site of the archive of the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry.

Lior did not head a ministry, a branch of the Israel Defense Forces or any other body that was feeling pressure to justify its activities and/or cast blame elsewhere: His sole function had been to serve as the liaison between Meir − and her predecessor, Levi Eshkol − and various defense and intelligence organizations. As such, he was present during various meetings, passed materials on, saw and heard things; he was in essence a shadow with a notebook and a memory.

The primal organizational “sin” at which Lior hinted in his testimony was the division of Eshkol’s responsibilities on the eve of the Six-Day War: Along with the appointment of Moshe Dayan as defense minister in Eshkol’s government, there was an undermining of the hierarchy of the heads of the various security bodies.

Though Eshkol and Meir had the official capacity to summon whenever they so desired the chief of staff and the head of Military Intelligence, in practice, Dayan during his tenure as minister of defense ‏(June 1967-1974‏) constituted a barrier between his colleagues in the cabinet and chiefs of staff Yitzhak Rabin, Haim Bar-Lev and David Elazar, as well as MI heads Aharon Yariv and Eli Zeira. In essence, Eshkol and Meir had direct contact only with the heads of the Mossad ‏(Meir Amit and Zvi Zamir‏) and the Shin Bet security service ‏(Yosef Harmelin‏).

Members of the Agranat Commission were astonished to learn from Lior that there was no direct contact between the prime minister and the MI chief, except via the defense minister.

In the fall of 1973, after decades of public and governmental activity, nine years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and nearly five years as prime minister, Golda Meir was experienced in intelligence matters. “She has a method,” Lior explained. “She knows the [Mossad] agents. She takes an interest and asks questions. Over time, she gets to know who is reliable.”

The Mossad gathered data, and MI screened and analyzed it and information from other sources, in order to make its assessments. However, Lior stressed, the Mossad chief had been instructed to convey to Meir directly − immediately and without any intermediaries − any especially important material, such as that provided by the highly placed Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan, an associate of President Anwar Sadat.

“The same source who told us about the war on Friday [the eve of Yom Kippur], talked to us three times already,” noted Lior, referring to the meeting that Friday between Zamir and Marwan in London. “The prime minister had read two months or a month and a half previously that he [Marwan] had said yes there would be a war, no there wouldn’t be a war. It wasn’t just at one meeting that she asked Zamir how he assessed the source, [and whether he was] serious or not serious. Look, three times he told us yes, then no, then yes.”

Zamir’s last meeting with Meir was on September 21, two weeks before the war. After that he did not go to her unbidden, he did not inform her of the fact that he had flown to London to see Marwan on the eve of Yom Kippur, upon hearing him use the chilling code word “chemicals.”

Zamir did not question MI’s reassuring assessment at a meeting of the heads of that organization two days before the war actually broke out, and he did not convey to Meir, her deputy Yigal Allon ‏(who stood in for her during her trips to Strasbourg and Vienna‏) or to Lior any warning on October 1 from yet another intelligence agent about the possibility of war breaking out.

The sensational report from agent Marwan − which was later seen to be incorrect when it came to the exact timing of the Egyptian and Syrian attack, but was correct in its essence, regarding the launching of a joint war − was transmitted to MI, which doubted its reliability and included it, or rather buried it, in a compilation of documents that came to the conclusion that war was unlikely. In retrospect, Meir, Allon and Lior felt that a crucial opportunity for Israel’s military to augment its level of alertness had been missed.

Three-pronged slogan

“The Mossad informed us that it did not want to create panic,” former chief of staff Yigael Yadin, a member of the Agranat Commission, told Allon at one of the panel’s hearings. When Lior stated that the head of the Mossad had been given a verbal order to convey all important material to the prime minister, Yadin challenged him with the possibility that Zamir himself might cross-examine Lior during the panel’s hearings, saying: “The head of the Mossad will question you.”

Lior was not perturbed. “I will say even more,” he said. “I remember that ever since I began working, in 1966, every Mossad chief did this [i.e., passed on all important material verbally].”

Yadin confirmed this statement. “I too remember this.”

Lior added that, had the Mossad acted as it should have and transmitted the information from the agent to him, while Meir was in Europe, “I would have got on a plane and flown with the information” to Meir’s stand-in, Allon.

It could have been expected that the Mossad in 1973 or 1974 would be on the defensive when participating in the public discourse concerning the Yom Kippur War. But the reality is the opposite: Former Mossad people and those who have appointed themselves its spokesmen have attacked Zeira for years. On the other hand, former MI people either have kept quiet − or joined in the attack on Zeira.

Only rarely is an exceptional voice heard in this context, like that of Reuven Yeredor, commander in the 1980s of the elite 8200 intelligence unit. In October 1973, he held a key position in the unit and decoded a cable written by the Iraqi military attache in Moscow. The cable, sent to Baghdad, reported that in the opinion of the USSR, Egypt and Syria were about to launch a war. The Soviets’ position was fluctuating, apparently, and Israeli intelligence − both the Mossad and MI − was uncertain as to whether Moscow was pushing Damascus and Cairo toward war or trying to stay out of the picture.

The duty officer in MI’s reporting and dissemination department, who was supposed to have forwarded the Iraqi cable, delayed its distribution and wasted precious hours. After the war, when Chief of Staff David Elazar was fighting for his professional survival, he told Unit 8200 commander Yoel Ben Porat that, had he only known of the cable’s existence, he would have understood from it that war was a certainty, and would have called up reserves − and everything would have turned out differently. Ben Porat and Yeredor agonized thereafter about failing to ensure that the cable came to the attention of the chief of staff.

However, from the transcript of a discussion that took place between Dayan, Elazar and Zeira before 7 A.M. on Yom Kippur, recently published here ‏(“Moshe Dayan opposed pre-Yom Kippur War call-up due to fears of U.S. response,” March 31‏), it emerges that Elazar did not recall what had been documented: Zeira told him and Defense Minister Dayan, along with a dozen of their colleagues, including the head of the chief of staff’s bureau, about the Iraqi cable, but it was not regarded as being particularly sensational because in any case a report ‏(albeit partial and incomplete‏) had also come in about the
Zamir-Marwan encounter.

Even if Elazar had become worried and had acted in time, he would have needed to receive authorization from Meir and Dayan to call up reserves, to deploy forces, to send planes across the borders for aerial photography and to launch a preemptive strike.

What tipped the balance on Yom Kippur day against preemptive action was not intelligence information, but rather a diplomatic consideration, as to how the Americans would react, and a political consideration: What would the Israeli public say in the face of a general call-up of the reserves on Yom Kippur, and three weeks before a Knesset election − especially if President Sadat were to change his mind and refrain, as in the past, from initiating a war?

It could also be said there was a strategic consideration at play here, because if Sadat had been able to maneuver Israel into calling up reserves and perhaps lure it into striking the first blow, that would mean the situation ‏(i.e., Egyptian-Israeli tensions over the Sinai‏) was indeed politically and military volatile, and that diplomatic intervention by various world powers would be necessary to stabilize it. Furthermore, such a process, in essence, might precipitate an arrangement whereby Israel would be forced to return territories on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 242.

The conflict among ex-intelligence people over who bore responsibility for the debacle of the Yom Kippur war derives in part from the longevity of the individuals involved. The political echelon of 1973 has largely passed away, with the exception of three ministers who were not at the center of the decision-making then ‏(Victor Shem-Tov, who is now 98, and Shlomo Hillel and Shimon Peres, who will both turn 90 soon‏).

The top commanders from the General Staff and those who were at the front have also died or have withdrawn from public life. This is not the case with those from the intelligence field, however. Zamir and Zeira, two major generals who participated actively in the establishment of the state and its defense, and who accumulated a worthy measure of respect for their successes alongside the failures, are still around. But they tend to exaggerate the importance of intelligence.

This has been caused, in part, by the motto “deter-detect-defeat” ‏(i.e., moving from a peacetime posture to reserve call-ups and an offensive war, based on early warnings, no false alarms and no intelligence failures‏), which captured the essence of the defense doctrine instilled by David Ben-Gurion: Israel is too weak to maintain a large standing army; it must make do with a skeletal force in times of quiet, and initiate swift reinforcement by reserves in times of emergency; and the transition between those two situations will depend on sophisticated and sharp intelligence, which will issue any and all early warnings concerning threats to the country.

From this whole concept, an additional objective emerged: If the enemy tries to shed Israel’s blood through attrition, Israel must offer that enemy a choice between a truce or an all-out war that will end in occupation of territories or destruction of its forces.

But between this stratagem and its implementation lay constraints − above all, the necessity of Israel’s creating an alliance with leading nations of the world so as to restrain the power of the pan-Arab alliance and later of the Arab-Soviet alliance. Therefore, Ben-Gurion reprimanded Chief of Staff Rabin in May 1967, accusing him of recklessly bringing Israel to the brink of war without backing from America and other world powers after Rabin’s threat to Syria − along the lines that Israel was prepared to launch an “all-or-nothing” war − also sparked Soviet and Egyptian involvement.

At the Agranat Commission hearings, Allon noted that after an intelligence failure to predict what was happening, in early-1967, Eshkol had the sense to call up the reserves − and then found himself subjected to criticism while the reserves sat around doing nothing and its actions were late in coming.

“Eshkol made a correct decision and became a victim of his decision, because that’s the way it is here,” explained Allon. “You do the right thing, you call up reserves in time, but you don’t open fire immediately. You begin to get criticized for being hesitant. It isn’t certain that the trauma of those days didn’t have its effect on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, in the considerations of whether to call up the reserves lest you be found to have called up a large number of forces but not to have started a war,” Allon said.

Allon lost the defense portfolio to his rival Dayan in May, 1967, and bade farewell to his own chances of becoming prime minister, but his explanation here is more intriguing and convincing than the narrow focus on intelligence, which is not the be-all and end-all of everything.

For more information, see the following documentation, in Hebrew: http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/IsraelLior/7/mywebalbum/index.html

Prime Minister Golda Meir and Chief of Staff David Elazar. Credit: Moshe Milner / Government Press Office

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