IDF Considers Releasing Its Official History of 1973 War

Current media wars over southern comand tapes force army to move on buried report.

A two-volume, 744-page official Israel Defense Forces history of the Yom Kippur War, completed nearly a decade ago but not shown to anyone other than staff college graduates and the most senor officers - and the senior officers mentioned in it, or their relatives if officers have died - might yet be published in the coming months.

Officers at General Headquarters, including chief of operations (who heads the army's history department), JAG (examining the book's legal ramifications), and field security, have been instructed in recent days to determine why the study has been shelved for so long, even though back in 1998, it was declassified from top secret to classified.

The assumption in the General Staff is that the report was shelved to satisfy various politicians, most specifically Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose performance as a reserve general, commanding a corps in the Sinai, is described in terms that infuriated him when he read a draft of the report and commented on it. The correspondence between Sharon and the history department is under lock and key in a safe in the office of history chief Col. (res.) Shaul Shai, but in the past week the tabloids have fiercely competed to reveal

tapes from Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen's HQ in the south, and thus raised interest in the war history. Shai hasn't had much time to examine the locked-up correspondence because he's been busy writing a summary of the conflict with the Palestinians of the past three-and-a-half years.

His predecessor, Col. (res.) Yigal Eyal, wrote a summary of the four years between the September 1996 Hasmonean Tunnel riots and the outbreak of the intifada, and that report, too, is likely to embarrass quite a few key figures in the administrations of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Like the Yom Kippur War report, its publication has also been halted, just as a report on the first intifada, prepared by Shin Bet veteran Dr. Haim Lowenberg, has never seen the light of day.

The importance of the report on the 1973 war is not that it contains secrets or revelations or exposes hitherto unknown episodes, but that finally there would be an official, IDF version of the war, a final word and a bottom line from the professional researchers of the defense establishment.

The media focus of the past week on the war, because of the Gonen tapes, forced the IDF to reexamine its approach to the book, which was written by Elhanan Oren and is based on historical research initiated by Col. Benny Michalson, who was the IDF's chief historian at the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s.

The study ignores the political, personal and partisan aspects that influenced decision-making in questions like whether to call up reserves in anticipation of the war a month before scheduled elections. It does not delve into the significance of the narrow political and military worldview in both government decisions and IDF recommendations in the years after 1967. It doesn't wonder, for example, why Israel was drawn into such a bloody battle over the narrow 30-kilometer stretch of western Sinai, instead of using the desert expanses for a proactive mobile defense as proposed by those who were against the Bar-Lev line.

None of the senior commanders of the IDF comes out in the report totally whole. Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, for example, is disappointing in the early stage of the war until Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff David Elazar "initiated sending [former chief of staff Chaim] Bar Lev north to examine the situation in the north and help Hofi come up with an operational plan ... apparently his presence helped revive the [flagging] spirits he found in Hofi's command." Bar Lev was later sent south, where he became a sort of super-commander of the entire Southern Command after Dayan and Elazar sensed that Gonen was losing control over the battlefield.

Sharon forced Elazar to grant him a reserve general's emergency command over a corps in the south but just like his rivals, he did not believe war was coming and if it did come, he believed Israel would easily win. He comes out in the report as a general who did whatever he wanted, clashed with his commanders, from Gonen to Bar Lev, and was hasty to pressure for a premature western crossing of the Suez Canal before hundreds of Egyptian tanks moved east.

The study documents Sharon's violations of direct orders as commander of the 143rd Corps, and his friction - up to failed efforts to have him removed - with senior commanders, including Elazar. But Sharon had Dayan's backing and the political rear as the soon-to-become MK from the Likud. The researchers received the impression that the hungry-for-glory general failed to read the tactical battle, particularly in the crucial days from October 9 to 12. His demands for a quick crossing of the canal, for which he proudly claims to have been the nation's savior, was somewhat like a swimmer announcing he was hurrying to dive into an empty pool. If the front's corps' had crossed, as he demanded, and not only his 143rd, before the armored corps balance changed in favor of the IDF, all the corps could have been smashed, and the Egyptians would have found an enormous breach to the east.

On the Dayan versus Elazar dispute, the government versus the army, the history in effect adopts that sorry statement by then-president Ephraim Katzir - "we're all guilty" - in which the president convicted everyone: the nation's leaders and its people. Nobody at the highest level comes out completely clean, but neither is anyone blamed totally as the main culprit.

Michalson, in an introduction, mourns the failure of air force power and the ground maneuverability of the armored corps, which were supposed to quickly and powerfully "bring the war to the capitals of the enemy no matter how the war began."

Sharon preferred to concentrate his reservations in a special appendix to the history of the war. He didn't manage to cross the canal between him and the researchers, but he did frighten their commanders, and thus deterred them from issuing the book. But now, as that deterrence appears to be slipping, it might be saying something about his waning political power.