The Yom Kippur War: The IDF Version

Ariel Sharon has a vested interest in determining what we know about what really happened in 1973.

The sticker on the inside cover of "The History of the Yom Kippur War," published by the History Department of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) General Staff, will bring tears to your eyes - it's that funny; the truth is that it's not so much a publication as it is a public execution.

"History," the sticker preaches. "If you don't read, you won't know! If you don't know, you won't learn! If you don't learn, you will make mistakes! Make mistakes!" -and here the exclamation marks trail off into an ellipsis. Paste in the sticker and then lock the book in the cabinet, lest someone read, know, learn and, heaven forbid, make no mistakes.

The History Department is part of the doctrine and guidance division, which is subordinate to the chief of the General Staff's Operations Branch. The chief, Major General Dan Harel, last week took pride in declaring that he is the one who is bodily blocking the dissemination of the book about the Yom Kippur War. The chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who has been in office for two months without showing a sign of change from the path followed by his predecessor, Shaul Mofaz, did not intervene.

Ya'alon is a prominent member of the group of combat soldiers, or noncoms, or junior officers who were so rattled by the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that they decided to join the career army and help prevent a recurrence of such disasters; a personal decision, but cumulatively that of a generation, that is shared by Ya'alon's deputy and the commanders of the Navy and the Air Force, the head of Central Command and the directors of the Planning Branch and Military Intelligence.

One might have expected that Ya'alon would do what he could to inculcate knowledge of the past as one of the elements for understanding the military, political, public and technological framework in which the IDF must perform its tasks now and in the future.

Military history is too important to be left in the hands of the military's historians, but in Israel they get preference, and in many ways even exclusivity, because they are the ones with access to the material - documents, transcripts, recordings, photographs and, if the government agrees, minutes of the discussions held by the political level. The army writes but the army also shelves, and no defense minister, government or Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is about to issue an order to give the public access to its rightful property: historical research.

The majority of Israel's citizens were born, grew up or immigrated here after the Yom Kippur War, which is now in time closer to the Second World than it is to the present. What people know about it is what those who were involved or their representatives have said, and they are committed to partial and private truth. Twenty-nine years have passed, years in which a new generation has emerged in the political and defense leadership, but there is as yet no authorized history of the war. Actually, there is, but it is missing in action or imprisoned without trial and without commutation of sentence in a military dungeon, hidden from the public eye.

Top secret

"The History of the Yom Kippur War, by a researcher of the IDF's History Department, Lieutenant Colonel Elhanan Oren, was printed in September 1992 and classified "secret." Six years later, the classification was lowered by one notch, to "confidential," and it would be no problem to declassify it altogether, as it is or at most with the deletion of a few words. The classification is not sacred. It lies in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder has vested interests. This is well exemplified in a new volume of documents, which are no longer secret, from the period of the Johnson administration in the United States, relating to data about the American nuclear disposition: the defense secretary at the time, Robert McNamara, agreed to make the data public, convened the Atomic Energy Commission as required to get official permission to lift the secrecy and reported to the president. Johnson, in the midst of his presidential campaign against the militant Barry Goldwater, was furious and revoked McNamara's decision. The defense minister, part of the political level but also an authoritative defense personage, thought as he did; the president, a politician but also the commander-in-chief, thought otherwise. It was possible to put forward arguments either way without those supporting publication being considered anti-American. That is the small but critical difference between state secrets and statesmen's secrets.

If Israel had special armament in 1973, there is barely any mention of it in the "History," though years ago Prof. Yuval Ne'eman related, in a public lecture delivered in New York, that Ivri surface-to-surface missiles were deployed as a threat to Syria. Other secrets also remain outside the two-volume work of slightly more than 700 pages that Elhanan Oren wrote; much remains in the dozen volumes compiled by another researcher, Shimon Golan, about the High Command post in the war - then prime minister Golda Meir, defense minister Moshe Dayan, cabinet ministers Yigal Allon and Israel Galili, chief of staff David Elazar and his deputy Israel Tal, director of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira, Air Force commander Benny Peled and their colleagues - in its most difficult moments.

After the report published by the Agranat Commission (the state commission of inquiry that examined the opening stages of the war, chaired by the president of the Supreme Court, Moshe Agranat) and its continuations - the memoirs of Meir and Dayan, the estate of Elazar, the books by and against Zeira, the works by two divisional commanders in Sinai, Ariel Sharon and Avraham Adan, along with numberless articles and interviews - what is there left to relate that is not already known? Not much, though in one sense very much: to decide between the conflicting versions of events. A court, too, which makes its judgment on the basis of the evidence before it, does not usually provide revelations; its strength lies in clarifying which of the competing truths is more convincing. The History Department, which is not a side to the dispute, is armed only with the pretension to know and the authority to decide, poses a threat to those involved in the blood battle over the facts and their meaning - and it is they, and above all one of them, who are putting the fear of God into the successive chiefs of staff of the IDF and the generals, and those who want to achieve those ranks.

The war over the true version of what happened in October 1973 has been fought on several fronts, some contiguous, others separate: the military level against the political level and both of them against the intelligence people, the General Staff against the Air Force, the chief of staff against the head of Southern Command, the Front Command against the divisions and the divisions among themselves. Military Intelligence swept the shame under the carpet. It was only after 20 years, at the initiative of the commander of the School of Intelligence, Ron Kitri, that they convened for the first time to discuss the events of 1973 and the insights that can be gleaned from them.

Although the chief of staff in 1973, David Elazar, is usually portrayed as an unfair victim of the events, which he was only in comparison to Meir and Dayan (and even that only for a few weeks, until their coerced resignations), he easily outmaneuvered Dayan and landed the first blow in the duel between them. Elazar gave Chaim Herzog (a retired major general who was later president of Israel), who had a grudge against Dayan, vital assistance, rare in terms of the access it provided to material and interviewees and transparent in its purpose, even though the Agranat Commission report recommended Elazar's ouster as chief of staff before Herzog's sympathetic book ("The War of Atonement") appeared. Then came counter-versions and counter-counter-versions.

Following Elazar's sudden death at the age of 51, in 1976 - Meir died two years later and Dayan three years after her - the veterans of the barren political contest (Allon vs. Dayan) mobilized to exalt the disgraced chief of staff, some in literature, some in the press and others in the history departments of the universities. The IDF History Department supports Elazar in his dispute with the head of Southern Command in October 1973, Shmuel Gonen-Gorodish, but is unsparing in its criticism of "Dado," the 1978 biography of Elazar by Hanoch Bartov, which has just been reissued in an expanded edition. The footnotes in the "History" are trenchant: Bartov is wrong in his assessment of Elazar's position, claiming that he was constantly pressing for an offensive in the north, but there is no doubt that before 9 P.M. he was inclined to remain in a defensive posture; Bartov's account does not note that the decision took form in the wake of the change in the chief of staff's evaluation; Bartov presents Elazar's remarks correctly but we should not accept his comment about Dayan's earlier reservations; Bartov downplays the pressure exerted by Elazar on October 12 to obtain a cease-fire soon.

The History Department avoids handing out grades to the Agranat Commission report - had it done so, it would have given it quite a high grade - making do with incidental remarks. "The Agranat Commission did not believe [one of the brigade commanders in connection with his advance to battle], did not understand his reports and drew an inference from this detail about everything he said. The research made it clear that the commission used a map coded to 1:50,000, whereas he [the brigade commander] used a map of 1:100,000 and pointed to a green signification of landmines to mark his position."

Agranat Commission

The Agranat Commission was asked to deal only with the preparations for the war and the war's first three days. The IDF History Department painted a far broader canvass, albeit with certain inhibitions: it did not survey political documentation, which could shed some light on the considerations of the leaders of the ruling party to avoid - this on the eve of the general elections, which were set for October 31 - moves that entailed tension that would contradict their boasting about deterring the Arabs; the archives from the 1950s and 1960s of Mapai and its successor, the Labor Alignment, include party discussions about the most secret subjects, such as the nuclear reactor at Dimona, and there is no reason to think that Golda, Galili, Dayan, Shimon Peres (who was also a cabinet minister in October 1973, albeit of junior level) and others abstained completely from analyzing the impact that a call-up of the reserves would have on the election campaign.

In the Dayan-Elazar sector, in the narrow sense, or the government versus the army in the broad sense, the History Department effectively adopts the wretched remark of the state president, Ephraim Katzir, that "we are all to blame" - along with the leadership, Katzir implicated the nation that follows its leaders innocently. No one at the highest level gets off scot-free, but neither is anyone denounced as being the chief culprit.

In the introduction to Oren's book, Benny Michelson, who was the head of the History Department at the time the study was completed, deals with the deterrence failure: the power of the Air Force and the maneuvering capability of the armored forces, which were supposed "to take the war to the enemy's capitals in every opening situation" quickly and potently, did not dissuade the Egyptians from creating offensive, though weapons-intensive, alignments against planes and tanks. The intelligence warning "was late in coming" and the war opened with a surprise in all its dimensions - even commanders who were told that it would soon erupt did not easily internalize the meaning of this and continued to deploy for a "land grab" or a "day of battle," but not for a full-scale war.

Faults were found in the IDF's offensive operation conception, which neglected the defensive side; in relying on the conscript army; and in the considerations that underlay Golda Meir's decision not to launch a preemptive air strike.

On October 12, Michelson writes, "The government, in the wake of the chief of staff's proposal, considered acceding to the stoppage of the war, in conditions that were difficult for Israel, before the goal had been achieved in the Egyptian arena." The reasons for this were "first of all the data on the erosion of planes, as presented by the commander of the Air Force. Total reliance on air power is liable to lead to a reaction so fierce that it will give the leadership a feeling of helplessness." From the IDF's point of view, the History Department concludes, the war ended in a narrow victory, with "only the partial achievement of the war's goals" as they had been defined; from the point of view of the State of Israel, the failure lay in the fact that the war was not prevented and in losing it: the Arab states succeeded in forcing the IDF's withdrawal in the political settlements that came in the wake of the war and to achieve more than they would have had they not gone to war.

According to the authoritative data, the Egyptians held a bridgehead with a total area of some 1,400 square kilometers in the opening stage of the war. Israel was prepared, in terms of ammunition and spare parts, for 10 days of warfare (for 90 days in terms of fuel and food), but after 18 days of fighting the Egyptians had lost only one-seventh of the territory they had captured and still held about 1,200 square kilometers; the Israeli wedge inside Egypt was about 1,600 square kilometers. Between October 6 and October 14, 2,225 Israelis were killed, including more than 950 in defense (190 a day in the first five days); another 325 fell in the next five days, which centered on the offensive against the Golan Heights; 850 died in the operation to cross the Suez Canal and in the breakthrough into Egyptian and Syrian territory; and 100 in the last two days of fighting, between the two cease-fires. The other IDF casualties were: 405 seriously wounded, 1,430 moderately wounded, 5,500 lightly wounded: a third from shelling, nearly a third from antitank weapons, a 10th from air attacks, an eighth from light weapons fire. Some 300 Israelis were taken prisoner, 230 by the Egyptians.

Those are stinging statistics, and many families in Israel have not recovered from them, nor has the state itself, but the desire to close one's eyes to them cannot explain the concealment of the historical study. That reason has another name: Ariel Sharon.

Sharon was the commander of the 143rd Division. The study documents his violations of orders and his friction - to the point where fruitless discussions to remove him took place - with his superior officer and successor as head of Southern Command, Shmuel Gonen; with the chief of staff, David Elazar; with the Southern Front commander who was appointed above the faltering Gonen, Haim Bar-Lev, a cabinet minister who was the political rival of the progenitor of the Likud, Sharon. All this is well-known, and it's possible that Sharon is still proud of his behavior, but the researchers formed the impression that the glory-hungry commander failed to read the tactical battle correctly, particularly between October 9th and 12th. His rash demand to cross the canal, on which his pride as savior is based, was tantamount to the announcement by a swimmer that he will rush into competition by diving head-first into an empty pool. If divisions other than the 143rd had crossed the canal before the change in the balance of the armored forces in the IDF's favor, they might have been annihilated, thus opening up a major breach to the east for the Egyptians.

The IDF History Department listened to the recordings of the radio communications within the army. According to its researchers, "Sharon can claim that his intention was different from what those who listened to the recordings understood, but the recordings is what counts." The recordings are mainly of the General Staff and the High Command. The study notes, "The information about the 143rd Division is deficient: there are only passages from the divisional network but none from the brigade networks."

The official history adds, with helpless regret ,"No summarizing report of the 143rd Division was submitted, and information is still missing from the divisional headquarters about important considerations and moves in the crossing operation and afterward."

Sharon preferred to concentrate his reservations about the study's conclusions in a special annex to "The History of the Yom Kippur War": this is the IDF's version, and now comes Sharon's version. The annex was not attached to all 500 copies that were printed in 1992 and were down-classified in 1998, but the practical difference is nonexistent, because an officer who does not betake himself to the library of a military college will find it difficult to lay his hands on a copy of the history of the war for his free perusal.

The door is absolutely shut to civilians or to conscripts and reservists who would like to know what really happened in the war.

The word about the IDF officers was that they are captives to a rigid conceptual fix on things and that they will inevitably be taken by surprise. Not so, it turns out. For eight years, from 1973 until his appointment as defense minister, they were afraid of Sharon, and finally arrived; for another 18 years, from Sharon's removal as defense minister until his election as prime minister, they were afraid that he would return, and he finally returned. Who will be so foolish as to provoke Sharon? Not Moshe Ya'alon and certainly not Dan Harel. They can plan operations in Iraq and calculate the coming moves of Syria and Hezbollah and practice the end of Arafat. Anything but risk the wrath of Sharon.