During the week before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the IDF’s chief intelligence analyst asked the commander of military intelligence several times a day to operate the army’s sophisticated listening devices in Egypt but was persistently rebuffed, according to newly declassified testimony from the commission that investigated Israeli failures in the war.
“I didn’t lie down across the door of the commander of military intelligence and tell him to step on me [if he wants to leave]… but the pressure was expressed in the number of times I did it,” the late Col. Menachem Digli, the army’s chief intelligence analyst during the war, told the Agranat Commission. “It was several times, in my opinion twice or three times a day, from Sunday until Thursday.”
Only on Friday night at midnight, a mere 14 hours before the war began, were the listening devices first used, he said. Digli, a former commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, told the five-member commission that he and his peers “weren’t that smart” and that he, too, did not believe that a war was imminent but merely that the situation “was unusual and that the maximum had to be made of the devices at our disposal.”
Digli’s testimony — released 40 years after the war along with the testimonies of Mossad head Zvi Zamir, IDF military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (ret) Eli Zeira and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan — is part of a national reckoning with a war that ended in victory but claimed 2,656 Israeli lives and left an enduring scar in the national psyche.
The commission was headed by then-chief justice of the Supreme Court Shimon Agranat. Upon release on April 2, 1974, it called for the dismissal of IDF chief of the staff David Elazar, the commander of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen and Zeira, along with three of his officers, not including Digli.
One week after the report’s release, prime minister Golda Meir resigned from office, making way for a new government headed by Yitzhak Rabin.
Dayan had offered Meir his resignation twice during the war, according to Abraham Rabinovich’s authoritative “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East,” but in his newly released testimony to the commission, Dayan sidestepped accusations regarding his understanding of the pending war and his responsibility for calling up reserve units ahead of time.
“I never once heard an estimate that disputed that of the military intelligence head [Zeira],” Dayan said. “They were all of one mind: that war is not likely, at least not this sort of war.”
Regarding the pivotal decision to refrain from mobilizing the reserves, the backbone of the IDF, and allow the standing army to absorb the opening blow of the war — and perhaps in that way to categorically show the world powers that Israel had not started the war — Dayan lay the lion’s share of the blame at Elazar’s door. “He’s not my personal driver. If he wants to draft, he’s responsible for the war, he can say to me in Hebrew: Mr. Defense Minister… not a moment should be wasted. Can I call them up or not?”
Zamir, the Mossad head, told the commission of inquiry that “from the material we have it could have been understood that barring a far-reaching shift in Israel’s national policy, coming war should be expected.”
Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau inquired whether the possibility of the outbreak of war had ever crossed Zamir’s desk or been seriously discussed during the months leading up to the war. “It was not a forum for assessments,” Zamir said of the Mossad, rolling the ball toward Zeira and military intelligence.
Zeira, long considered the face of Israeli hubris on account of his refusal to accept that Egypt and Syria might dare wage war on Israel, told the commission on November 27, 1973, during his first hearing, that the IDF’s “Military Intelligence Directorate made a mistake in its estimation regarding war. That’s a given.”
He remained on the fence about the reliability of Mossad source Ashraf Marwan, who warned of war on October 1 and again on the night before the war, and defended his assertion in early October that Egypt, as it had done in 1971, 1972, and in May 1973, was merely launching a large-scale military drill. Speaking of himself in the third person, he said that “when an officer who is analyzing the matter looks into it for the fourth time, in October 1973, he does not take the data [of a massing of troops along the canal] as data of war, but as data of a drill.”
Zeira’s certainty about Egypt’s intentions, and the way it shaded his interpretation of the facts on the ground, has led a generation of intelligence officers to read and study the Agranat Commission’s report as a cautionary tale. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said recently that he read the report in its entirety as soon as he was told in 1995 that he would be appointed the director of military intelligence, and the current holder of that post, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, took the unusual step of publishing an op-ed in the Maariv daily earlier this month explaining how military intelligence’s failure in October 1973 had influenced him.
“An organization enjoying a feeling of satisfaction, without the constant presence of doubt and apprehension,” he wrote, “paves its path to failure.”