Passing the Buck

"The Great Escape" - the famous film about a mass escape from a German POW camp during World War II - would also be a fitting title for the transcripts of the Agranat Commission hearings that were released for publication yesterday. The only difference is that instead of fleeing a POW camp, the senior government and army officials who testified before the commission, which investigated the 1973 Yom Kippur War, were fleeing responsibility: The defense minister blamed the chief of staff, who in turn blamed his generals; and the generals shifted the blame in all directions - up, down and sideways.

One should not leap to conclusions about 30 bulging files after examining just a few, but so far, the censored transcripts reveal no surprises. Nevertheless, one fact to which all the witnesses agreed, stands out: the arrogance that characterized Israel's leadership, as reflected in its overestimation of the Israel Defense Forces' strength and its underestimation of the Arabs' military capabilities.

Thus, while the intelligence failure was admittedly grave, it was not the decisive factor that some have tried to claim. Even when then-Mossad chief Zvi Zamir reported that Egyptian informant Ashraf Marwan had said war was imminent, the leaders still thought it might be another false alarm, and that calling up the reserves would be a waste. This is because both the political and the military leaders believed that even without advance warning, the IDF's regular forces would be sufficient to prevent disaster.

Indeed, some even thought an Egyptian-Syrian attack would be a golden opportunity for Israel to reach Cairo and Damascus. That is what Chief of Staff David Elazar and GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen (Gorodish) spoke and dreamed of even as Israel's defensive line was collapsing.

And while Elazar and defense minister Moshe Dayan did argue over whether to call up the reserves, the context was offensive rather than defensive: Dayan feared a call-up would make Israel look as if it had planned to attack first, thereby angering Washington.

"We didn't properly evaluate the effectiveness of their offensive forces, either on the Golan Heights or in Egypt," Dayan admitted to the commission. "In viewing the nature of the war as too easy - in that, we may have sinned. In our picture of our losses, of how the war would go, our assessment was too optimistic. We didn't correctly evaluate the effectiveness of the enemy's war machine - not quantitatively, not qualitatively, and not regarding the Arabs' personal willingness to fight."

The assumption, Dayan continued, was that Israel would be informed of any planned Egyptian attack in advance. Nevertheless, "in the south, our assessment was that the regular forces would be enough to halt" such an attack, even "if we didn't know in advance."

Gonen, too, said the "great mistake" was "our assessment of the quality of the Egyptian fighters." In previous conflicts, he said, the Egyptian army had always collapsed once its forward units were broken. "Here, we broke the front ranks of the masses, but nothing collapsed."

The Agranat Commission accepted Dayan's argument that he should be absolved of responsibility for the failure, because he bore only "ministerial responsibility." Indeed, Dayan was so modest during his testimony that one could almost forget who he was - war hero, chief of staff from 1953-58, and the defense minister popularly credited at the time with saving Israel during the 1967 war. If one took Dayan's words at face value, one might also conclude that there is no benefit to having Ehud Barak as defense minister rather than Amir Peretz.

"I was chosen as defense minister as the political choice of a certain party, for certain needs, out of certain considerations," he said. "It could have been me, and it could have been someone else. I'm a political creature, or a political figure; I'm not the number-one person in Israel from the professional standpoint."

To make proper operational decisions, he continued, "I would have had to retrain as a tank man, like Ariel Sharon did - to study this, to do exercises. If you think that I was an unsuccessful general, then I was merely another opinion among the 240 opinions that the IDF had among its generals."

This explanation failed to satisfy commission member Yigael Yadin, who noted dryly that Dayan's party had chosen him for that particular post for a reason. But Dayan persisted. Wartime decisions were made by the entire cabinet, he said, "and the defense minister's opinion carried no greater weight than that of the religious affairs minister."

Dayan argued that having left the army in 1958 meant that he was too out of the loop to play an active role in military decisions in 1973. "Granted, I have military pretensions, but only up to a point... I'm not a tank man, I'm not an artillery man, I'm not a paratrooper and I don't have a staff. The defense minister is a political functionary, busy with various matters five days a week... It would never have crossed my mind to enforce or decide. Sometimes, I posed questions. The chief of staff decided. He's the best person, the number-one soldier... I didn't oversee the army's professional or moral level."

Deputy chief of staff Yisrael Tal, who warned of the danger on the eve of the war but did not persist after his warning was dismissed, said he had been told by Dayan upon taking office "not to make too much noise, not to resign over problems of conscience and principle, to do what I was told and remember that I'm only number two, not number one." Moreover, he said, after having been forced to leave the army temporarily due to his bitter fights with the previous chief of staff, Haim Bar-Lev, "I couldn't make a fuss. Today, I know I made a mistake, and I'm sorry. I should have appealed to a higher level."