Chilling Minutes / A Glimpse Into the Calm Before the Storm

This morning 37 years ago, all the signs indicated that Egypt and Syria were planning to wage war that afternoon, yet the Israeli cabinet and army continued to delude themselves that things weren't as grave as they seemed. First, they thought Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Syrian leader Hafez Assad could be thwarted if they saw that Israel had leaked their war plans to the foreign media. Second, even if war erupted, they believed, the Israel Defense Forces would absorb the first blow and quickly muster a counterattack once the reserves were deployed.

The documents released yesterday by the Israel State Archives send a chill up the reader's spine. The facts aren't surprising - they were already known - but the misplaced sense of serenity that seems to waft from the officials' remarks, as recorded in the minutes of their meeting that morning, is unsettling.

According to the minutes, nobody doubted that the standing army (just a quarter of the Israel Defense Forces ) reinforced by two reserve divisions would be able to absorb a first strike. The only question was whether to speed up the call-up of those divisions, and whether the rush on Damascus and the Suez Canal should be carried out in one day or two.

The discussion lasted for 80 minutes, from 8 to 9:20 A.M. Defense minister Moshe Dayan opened with the question of the Palestinians ("the Arabs of the territories," as he described them ). "Keep the bridges open," he told the cabinet. "If they want to flee [to Jordan], let them."

He then discussed evacuating children living in the Golan Heights and in the Sinai settlements, under the pretext of taking them on a field trip. Prime Minister Golda Meir wanted the children of the Golan brought down "now, not on the eve of the operation," having failed to internalize IDF chief David Elazar's assessment that "we already are on the eve of the operation."

Dayan continued to be skeptical. "If things get worse and there's fire, I'd call up everybody," he said. He did not, the defense minister said, want to get the country in "battle mode."

Meir sided with Elazar and against Dayan. But like Dayan, the IDF chief thought two reserve divisions would be enough to absorb the blow. True, he wanted to call up a third and fourth division, but only that night. The Arab armies, he was convinced, would penetrate Israeli-held territory "only here and there."

Meanwhile, Military Intelligence chief Eli Zeira warned that the enemies' troops "could go on the offensive at any moment. The advance force is well-suited to defensive or offensive maneuvers. Now there are signs that it's on the offensive. They're ripe both technically and operationally for war, according to the plans we're privy to. Everything is ready," he said.

Still, Zeira placed little stock in the Arabs' fighting power: "They know they'll lose, and Sadat isn't in a position to wage war."

Somewhere along the intelligence pipeline, the alert over a potential attack was moved back from afternoon to dusk, from 2 to 6 P.M. Israel's leadership believed it had enough time to coordinate with the Americans, who were expected to oppose a preemptive strike but might be able to dissuade the Arabs from striking first.

Additional documents shed light on a number of strategic, operational and political issues.

Should Meir make a discreet 24-hour visit to the White House to impress Israel's grim situation upon Richard Nixon and secure tanks and planes? How should targets in Damascus be bombed - to "soften Syrian intransigence" or create "a dramatic turnaround?" Should the public be told a partial lie or the incomplete truth?

The documents immortalize a number of sound bytes. "There is an order in the Golan: No retreat. We'll fight until death. We're not moving," said Dayan. "We need to inflict another wound, so that they feel the pain."

"The public must not think the troops are dying slowly," Meir said. Her response to division commander Ariel Sharon's request to cross the Suez conveys doubt. "I fear that if this doesn't work, it'll be a catastrophe."

Minutes found while compiling memorial book for Golda Meir

The secret minutes of the cabinet's meeting during the Yom Kippur War were found while preparing a commemoration book for the late prime minister Golda Meir, Haggai Zoref, the book's editor, told Haaretz. "We came across them while collecting Golda's documents and letters, and decided to reveal some of the documents on the anniversary of the war, to complete the historical picture," Zoref said. "We wanted to give the public access to as much material as possible, and today we can do it over the Internet." The once top-secret minutes were published almost in full, aside from a few sections removed for security reasons. (Barak Ravid )