In demanding that Israel’s security cabinet receive up-to-date intelligence input, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has cited the 2006 Second Lebanese War in which he served, but he could have chosen a far more chilling case.
In the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, the country’s political pinnacle, totally blindsided, might have been saved from disaster if they were offered a view from the sidelines.
Gen. Danny Matt, whose paratroop brigade crossed the Suez Canal to begin the counterattack that turned the tide, lamented to me in an interview three decades later that Prime Minister Golda Meir had not informed the cabinet of the numerous warnings of imminent war in the pre-war period. “What we needed,” he said, “were ministers like (Minister for Religious Affairs) Zerah Warhaftig, who escaped the Nazis and was frightened by war, saying ‘Let’s think this thing through.’”
In September, 1973, Israel received 11 warnings of imminent war from well-placed sources abroad. One was Jordan’s King Hussein, who flew to Israel by helicopter to warn Mrs. Meir. On Oct.1, five days before Yom Kippur, the Egyptian army began maneuvers with 100,000 men on the west bank of the Suez Canal. The 450 Israelis manning the Bar-Lev Line on the Israeli bank looked on with growing concern as masses of tanks and artillery pieces as well as rubber boats deployed across the waterway. Opposite the Golan Heights, the Syrian army was drawn up in unprecedented strength – outnumbering Israeli forces by 8-1. SAM-6 anti-aircraft missile batteries, moved forward from Damascus, now dominated the skies over the Golan and even the Upper Galilee. All this time, Israel refrained from mobilizing its reserves, two-thirds of its armed strength.
This extraordinary situation stemmed from the mindset of a small number of officers within military intelligence (AMAN), particularly its commander, Gen. Eli Zeira. He was a believer in “the concept” – Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s concept that he would not go to war until he received from the Soviets long-range planes capable of reaching Israeli air bases and Scud missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv in the event that Israel bombed Cairo. That had indeed been Sadat’s concept but towards the end of 1972 he changed it, deciding that Egypt would go to war without waiting for the new weaponry.
A few days before Yom Kippur, one of Zeira’s senior officers beseeched him to recommend mobilization in view of what radio monitors were picking up. Zeira replied that he would not “drive the nation crazy” with unnecessary mobilizations. Sadat still did not have the new planes or Scuds that would warrant mobilization. Zeira was held in high esteem by his peers and his view prevailed despite increasing unease.
On Yom Kippur morning, the Cabinet was summoned to an emergency meeting in Tel Aviv. Totally unaware that anything unusual had been happening, they were stunned to hear from Mrs. Meir that, according to a reliable source, war would break out on two fronts that very day and that mobilization had begun. Had Dr. Warhaftig and his colleagues been made privy earlier in the week to the war warnings and the buildup of enemy armies on the borders, it is not unlikely that they would have pressed for at least partial mobilization.
Abraham Rabinovich is a historian and journalist who has published several books including “The Yom Kippur War,” “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “The Battle For Jerusalem.” As a reporter, his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, and the Christian Science Monitor. Before becoming a writer full-time, he was employed as a staff journalist for Newsday and the Jerusalem Post.