Abba Eban: Israeli Leaders Thought Egypt Wouldn't Start a War It Was Liable to Lose

In a testimony following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, then-foreign minister Abba Eban said Israel estimated that Egypt would fight Israel in the diplomatic, economic arenas, and not on the battlefield.

In his testimony before the state commission of inquiry that examined the opening stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, then-Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban said that the diplomatic echelons were under the assumption war was not imminent.

Describing the IDF-widely-accepted intelligence assessment before the commission, headed by then-Supreme Court president justice Moshe Agranat, Eban said that the possibility Israel would be attacked by its neighboring Arab countries was considered as low.

According to his testimony, the reason for the heavy concentrations of Syrian forces, whose daily reinforcement was described in the testimony of then-Northern Command head Yitzhak Hofi, was believed to be fear of an Israeli attack.

The ground for that assumption, Eban said, was a Military Intelligence briefing. As he recalled, the intelligence officers said: “We believe that the main reason for the current emergency deployment is the Syrians’ fears, which began at the beginning of September and increased dramatically after the aerial combat on September 13. These fears stem from a Syrian assessment that Israel is liable to act against Syria.”

In the briefing, the intelligence officer referred to a dogfight which occurred on September 13, after Israeli fighter-jets were fired upon during a reconnaissance mission over Syria. In the subsequent clash, the Israeli Air Force shot down 12 Syrian planes, losing only one.

“With regard to Egyptian activity," Eban continued, "they said that ‘The Egyptian army is conducting a wide-ranging multi-force exercise expected to end on October 7, 1973.’" Describing the activity of the Egyptian military, Eban said that the intelligence officers used the word "exercise" four times.

The U.S. intelligence assessment, delivered to Israel by general Brent Scowcroft, an aide to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was similar, Eban said, stating that the Syrian military is conducting defensive maneuvers.

“Scowcroft’s response was transmitted immediately to Israel, and then we went to say the ‘Kol Nidrei’ prayer... we went into Yom Kippur with all these phone calls,” Eban said.

Then, Eban continued to describe the conduct of the Foreign Ministry during this period and its assessment of the possibility of war with Egypt.

“Since the defense establishment's position was that he [then-Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser] isn’t preparing for war," Eban said, "we spent most of those months with the feeling that our front was the front of diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, boycott pressure, pressure from Arab influence that was spreading and growing.

“Given that Egypt was capable of all achievements not in the realm of war, [Israel believed] it would continue to struggle in the arena in which it had power, and wouldn’t turn to an arena in which, according to our assessments and to all other sources, it was liable to be defeated," Eban explained. "Why would it want to risk a military defeat when it has a chance for diplomatic achievements?”

As his testimony progressed, justice Moshe Landau, a member of the commission, asked Eban about the almost absolute faith in the assessments of the Military Intelligence.

“MI personnel are army people and by their nature they make short-term assessments - what’s in the field, they count the equipment, and based on that they evaluate the capabilities of the military forces on both sides,” Landau said. “But a comprehensive assessment can’t be limited to that; here there is a need for a diplomatic assessment in the broadest sense.”

Later, responding to Eban's answer concerning the relationship between MI and the diplomatic echelons, Landau continued: “I understand from this that your answer to my question is that you are satisfied with the existing system.”

“No,” Eban replied. “Considering what happened, I think that every citizen, not to mention a person filling this position, finds himself in a state of introspection, not just regarding the specific issue, but also regarding our methods.”

Eban continued to describe the customary freedom of opinion during the analysis of intelligence reports, and the “pluralism of assessments” that were received, in the United States, among other places.

“If there’s a disagreement, it might be used as a warning bell to consult and think more critically about each of the suggestions,” Eban said. “I think it’s a tremendous responsibility, and it would comfort me if someone else had brought the issue to a decision, because this isn’t like other assessments, say, whether Tanzania will or won’t break off diplomatic relations. There's no comparison when something hangs on the balance of an inaccurate assessment.”