Yom Kippur War Documents Darken Dayan's Image

Defense minister sought to deflect blame for military failures to shake off image as defeatist.

The date was October 7, 1973. The clock read 14:50. Israel's war cabinet - Prime Minister Golda Meir; her deputy, Yigal Allon; Defense Minister Moshe Dayan; Minister Yisrael Galili; IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar were meeting just 25 hours after the start of the Yom Kippur War.

Moshe Dayan, AFP

This is the backdrop to the documents released on Saturday by the Israel State Archives as the country marks the war's 37th anniversary. Inexplicably tardy, the gatekeepers of official state documents remembered to offer these crumbs of the government sessions held during the first four days of the war. Just a few years ago the Israel Defense Forces History Department yielded to media pressure and declassified the army's summary report of the war. And portions of testimony before the Agranat Commission, which investigated the war, were also publicized. Even decades ago, various protagonists and researchers since published memoirs and studies of their own.

There are no sensitive secrets here. Perhaps information that should remain under wraps is hidden in the few footnotes that have been whited out.

The choice of document is embarrassing. Moshe Dayan, who is the primary speaker in the discussion, used the record of his statements in his book "Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life." He wanted to deflect blame for the war and to shake off the defeatist image.

Dayan wanted the public to see a man who was not in despair, but was skeptical and realistic. This was also what assistant military secretary, Aryeh Baron, sought to do. Baron would later retrieve internal memos and documents for a book about Dayan and the Yom Kippur War.

Nonetheless, the picture that emerges from this document is important, for while the disaster weighs heavily on the shoulders of Israel's leaders, its proper dimensions cannot be fully appreciated. The chasm between the political echelon and the military, and the gulf between both the political and military leadership and the intelligence community, begins to widen. The head of Military Intelligence, Eli Zeira, is absent from the meeting. He and Elazar have yet to become Meir and Dayan's scapegoats.

Although Dayan characteristically seeks to evade responsibility - particularly for the fate of the trapped soldiers in Sinai as well as the parameters of the counteroffensive - what is most striking about the document is his candid admission of error, both his own and that of the government and the General Staff, in overestimating the abilities of the IDF and underestimating those of Egypt and Syria.

"I didn't sufficiently appreciate the strength of the enemy and his fighting force," Dayan said. "I also exaggerated in assessing our forces and their ability to cope [with an attack]. The Arabs are much better fighters than before. They have many arms at their disposal. The [surface-to-air] missiles [are] a difficult umbrella that is hard for our air force to pierce." As for the boastful cliches of "quality versus quantity," which Dayan was wont to repeat, he remarked: "The quantity of weapons possessed by [the Arabs] is effective. Our moral advantage cannot withstand this mass."

In the spring of 1973, the prevailing attitude in the IDF was "be my guest," as enunciated by Elazar. He said an Arab attack would be exploited as an opportunity to improve Israel's position, even if it meant reaching Damascus and Cairo.

In the years between Meir's resignation and Dayan's defection to a government headed by Menachem Begin, the former defense minister would claim that the war could have been avoided if his proposal for a partial agreement in Sinai would have been accepted.

In real time, however, Dayan did not fight for his position - nor did he view the lack of progress toward a peace deal as a reason to resign. He also failed to mention his suggestion during that fateful cabinet meeting.

Another vital error by Dayan was his mistaken belief that Jordan would enter the war. The possibility of a third front held decisive implications since there were no available divisions to defend Jerusalem from attack from the east nor were there any defenses left to seal the frontier between the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley.

Dayan also erred in his perception of "the Arabs," or at least in his understanding of Sadat. While he acknowledged his mistaken assessment that the war would be the second round of the Six-Day War, he also made the mistake of clinging to the opposite assessment - that the war would be a continuation of the War of Attrition. Dayan and Meir ignored intelligence reports that Sadat was willing to risk a military defeat if it meant profiting politically by breaking the diplomatic stalemate and initiating a rapprochement with Washington.