‘If We Don’t Win, All Is Lost': Declassified Yom Kippur Minutes Reveal Golda Meir's Dire Warning

The minutes show that the IDF’s deputy chief of staff at the time, Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, also warned of the serious consequences if Israel did not emerge victorious in the war

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in the Golan Heights, 1973.Credit: Reuters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On October 10, 1973, the fifth day of the Yom Kippur War, just four days after the surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria, Prime Minister Golda Meir warned of dire strategic consequences from the war.

“I’ve been living since the beginning of the fighting with the feeling that we can’t end up in a situation in which around the world they say, ‘That’s that. What we had thought about Israel and the Israeli army – it’s over,’” she remarked at a meeting on military and diplomatic issues.

The prime minister noted that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had told the Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time, Simcha Dinitz: “You have to win.”

“This has terrifying significance. If God forbid, we don’t win, it’s lost,” meaning that all is lost, Meir said.

The comments appear in minutes released Thursday by the Defense Ministry’s Israel Defense Forces Archives, along with minutes from four other consultation sessions that Meir convened during the war. The documents were considered by the Agranat Commission, a state commission of inquiry established to investigate the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

In recent years, such documents have been made public in small increments. Given the popularity of “Valley of Tears,” a recent Kan public television series on the war, the release of these documents may attract wide interest among the public, which in the past paid little attention to information.

The minutes show that the IDF’s deputy chief of staff at the time, Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, also warned of the serious consequences if Israel did not emerge victorious in the war. “Our credibility will be over,” he said at one meetings. “If we don’t turn things around, our friends and enemies will come to the conclusion that the State of Israel is weak. The moment there’s such a conclusion, there’s no doubt that the Arabs will want everything and won’t be satisfied with a little.”

On the morning of the second day of the war, October 7, 1973, Prime Minister Meir convened a meeting at in the underground command center at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. She was given grim reports.

“We had a bad night,” IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar said. “On the Golan Heights, they broke through simultaneously with large numbers of tanks ... [with] 81 dead so far.”

“What’s the feeling of the guys up there?” the prime minister asked. “It’s difficult for them. Granted, they are saying, ‘We’re destroying a lot of tanks,’ but there’s no end to this,” came the response.

At a morning meeting on October 10, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan warned about the serious situation of the air force. “We not only have a problem involving equipment, but also a problem with pilots, and so forth. We have quantitative problems,” he warned.

“Today we sat down to examine our air power,” Dayan reported. “We’ve lost 56 planes and there are another 40 grounded. Yesterday we lost 13 planes. At this pace, it’s not good. There’s a lot going out of service.” Then referring to the commander of the Israeli air force, Benny Peled, Dayan grimly reported, “Benny says: ‘In another three or four days, I’m done for.’ It’s concerning.”

Israel army Chief of Staff David Elazar, center right, conferring with members of the army's Northern Command.Credit: IDF Spokesman/IDF Archives at the Defense Ministry

At a meeting that evening, the prime minister asked Peled, “How many planes would you need to get to feel better?”

“I could absorb 20, even though I don’t have reserve pilots for them,” Peled answered.

Dayan’s concerns extended beyond the state of the air force. At a morning meeting on October 10, he was critical of the head of the army’s Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, saying that the commander was not being sufficiently aggressive. Dayan suggested that he himself and Chief of Staff Elazar pay a visit to forces on the ground “to increase their aggressiveness, so they get orders to keep pushing.”

Elazar’s assistant, Rehavam Ze’evi, warned, as Dayan had, that the troops were exhausted. “There is no momentum because the people are tired, and we don’t have tanks,” he remarked.

The news from the southern front with Egypt wasn’t encouraging either. “Tonight [the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen], called and said all the outposts were gone … Today [Gonen] told me to delete that,” Dayan said.

That evening, Deputy Chief of Staff Tal warned, “There’s a immediate danger from a purely military perspective on the Egyptian front. We need to deal with the Egyptian front and to be sure that nothing bad happens to us there.”

A meeting of the Israeli army's general staff during the Yom Kippur War. Credit: Yossi Greenberg/GPO

American volunteers

Dayan proposed reinforcing the army with volunteers from abroad. “American Jews who want to fight here, there are Israelis overseas; we need to fly them in by the hundreds,” he implored.

There was also discussion about bombing the Syrian capital, Damascus, a move that was proposed on the second day of the war by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon. “Technically, it’s not difficult to bomb. But from a practical perspective, they aren’t attacking cities either so I don’t want to start with this,” Chief of Staff Elazar retorted.

The idea was still a subject of discussion on October 10. At a meeting with the prime minister on the morning of October 10, Dayan said the air force would first bomb the international airport in Damascus – which also served the Syrian Air Force and was being used to airlift Russian military supplies to Syria.

“This [argument] would retroactively buttress the case for the bombing: Why are you using the international airport for military purposes?” Dayan said, later adding. “They need to be screaming about how we’re advancing on Damascus.”

Meir agreed. “We need it for bargaining purposes. We need it to break them.” Later she said: “Don’t think that I’m some kind of stupid person, but from the standpoint of what is good, … if we can land a decent blow that makes the Russians ask for a cease-fire, with the Syrians’ consent, or if they force [the Syrians] to do so, for me that would be enormous,” she said. Meir made it clear, however, that she opposed bombing Damascus itself.

On October 13, the eighth day of the war, Israel Air Force planes bombed the airfield. It was one of a series of aerial attacks on targets in Syria that had begun on the fourth day of the war.

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