The Israeli army archive at the Defense Ministry on Sunday released portions of the diary of the late David Elazar, who was the army chief of staff during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In releasing the diary entries, the archives refrained from mentioning that Elazar was dismissed as chief of staff after a commission of inquiry, the Agranat Commission, blamed him for operational and intelligence failures in the lead-up to the war.
The portions released relate only to the hours leading up to the outbreak of the war, in which Israel sustained large numbers of casualties. The diary excerpts were made public without any historical context or criticism – conveying the mistaken impression that Elazar and the army that he headed had made all of the necessary preparations for the possibility that war might break out.
According to Elazar’s diary entry for October, 6, 1973, the day on which Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, the chief of staff began his day at 4:30 P.M. with a report from the head of military intelligence, Eli Zeira, that a warning had been received that the country would come under attack at 6 P.M. that same day.
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The archive makes no mention that the Agranat Commission’s report on the failings of the war states that the army was taken by surprised when Egypt and Syria launched hostilities and that, until that morning, the country’s political leadership had not anticipated that an all-out war was about to begin. Also not noted in the release of the diary excerpts was the criticism that insufficient consideration had been given to prior warnings that Egypt and Syria intended to attack Israel.
The archive did note that immediately after receiving the intelligence information about a 6 P.M. attack, Elazar approached the commander of the Israel Air Force, Maj. Gen. Benny Peled. “The information is that there will be a war tonight,” Elazar is quoted as saying. “We need to regard this report with credibility.”
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From that point on, the archive’s report on the selections from the diary reads like an amazing suspense novel, as if the hero, Elazar, had done everything that he could to prepare for war. At 5:30 A.M., he held a meeting of the commanders of the various military branches and told them: “There are military indications, acts and reports that must definitely be taken seriously.” At the end of the meeting, he said: “[I] approve allowing the operational branch to call up the reserves, the most essential branches so that the various branches can complete alert preparations. In the range of up to thousands of people.”
At 7:15 A.M., he had another meeting, at the end of which he said: “In light of these reports, the probability has increased. Therefore make the assumption that at 6 P.M., they will launch it.”
Elazar noted in his diary that the defense minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, was opposed at that point to preemptive strikes, and added: “If no preemptive strike is approved at midday, we will be on alert for an immediate warning this afternoon…. I am aware of the great political limitations of the matter, but when we’re certain there will be a war, it’s important to see how to win as quickly and as well as possible.”
Elazar also commented on the need to evacuate civilians: “The Golan Heights – evacuation of women and children by the evening, a big trip to the center of the county, which some man will escort.... Southern command, Abu Rudeis [an airport in Sinai] to evacuate the women and children, provide air transport.”
At 10 A.M., the chief of staff had a meeting at a high command post, followed by a meeting with Dayan at 11. According to the diary, Dayan asked: “When it comes to calling up reserves, what happens if they [Egypt and Syria] don’t open fire? When will all the reservists be released?”
Elazar replied: “If the matter isn’t deferred by a day or two, but cancelled, then we will send the reservists home.”
Referring to the president of Egypt and the prior round of fighting, the Six-Day War in 1967, Dayan commented: “Sadat will say it’s not worth doing this a second time. Because Sadat ... relies a bit on the element of surprise, and a little on it being Yom Kippur, and he has already said ‘yes’ 50 times and ‘no’ 50 times. He may therefore decide to forgo it.”
But Dayan added: “I want to remind everyone that the first goal is to destroy the forces…. Whoever attacks us must be killed. That’s important.”
The diary goes on to describe Elazar’s preparations for war, down to the details. “We will need a few days for the big offensive to cross the [Suez] Canal. The number of days depends the extent to which we have disrupted [Egypt’s] defense lines,” Elazar recounts telling Dayan.
Referring to an Egyptian island off Sinai, Dayan added: “On the Egyptian front, there’s planning that I am fixated on, because of the oil too, and that’s the capture of Shadwan Island. ... They have a plan to screw us over on the oil. The issue of the oil is an Arab problem and an Israeli problem...”
Being on the defensive
For his part, Elazar summed up the meeting as follows: “In this war, we will see the unpleasant period tonight and tomorrow,… because if they open fire, they will be attacking and we will be defending. This is a situation that we are not used to, but let’s see how we stand up to it.”
Despite intelligence information that war would break out a 6 P.M., at 12:20 P.M., an hour and 40 minutes before the war actually erupted, Elazar met with the head of southern command, Shmuel Gonen. According to the diary, Gonen opened the meeting with a report that the United Nations had said the Egyptians were about to open fire immediately. Elazar then got a report about the situation on the ground and details about battle plans.
That is the point at which the material released by the archives ends. It makes no mention of the failures of the war or its heavy toll on the Israeli side: more than 2,600 soldiers killed, thousands wounded and hundreds captured, a war that ended with a sense of failure.
The lack of context
The excerpts from the diary may leave a mistaken impression due to the lack of context. They should be read along with the Agranat Commission’s report and reports of the testimony that the commission received over the years. That would provide evidence, for example, that Elazar was afraid to call up reserves or raise the level of alert.
“Too high and expensive a [level of] readiness could wear us out when the real test comes around. That’s not a good system,” Elazar testified, and “calling up reserves could have a negative impact.” He also told the commission: “I’m in psychosis on that day, and on the way home on the eve of Yom Kippur, I have the feeling that I was too strict in cancelling vacations on two fronts. It’s a psychological dilemma, whether or not to call up reserves. Being cautious, not escalating the matter further, not creating panic in the country, which could be interpreted as, look, we’re going to war. I could not ignore the possibility that this may be a deception or a maneuver.”
Following publication of the Agranat Commission’s report, Elazar was forced to resign. He felt he was done an injustice because the commission did not recommend any sanctions against the country’s political leadership and because ultimately the war ended in victory. Elazar died in 1976, at the age of 50.