The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 was a terrible surprise, which put Israel's security - and even survival - in jeopardy. By the end of the war, Israel had turned the tables and both Cairo and Damascus were under threat. But that did not diminish the sense of shock which shook the nation in the aftermath of the war. How could such a disaster have happened? Israel was supposed to be nearly "invincible", in the minds of many of her military and political leaders. That sense of confidence deflated quickly in the aftermath of the war. Much of the blame fell on the shoulders of the Intelligence community, which was blamed for not accurately assessing clear information that Egypt and Syria planned to go to war on October 6, 1973.
Israel's victory in 1967 extended her borders to all of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel set up electronic eavesdropping and early warning stations in the Jordan Valley along the border with Jordan, on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, looking into Syria, and along the East Bank of the Suez Canal, which enabled Israel to observe Egyptian forces on the other side.
By 1969, the Israeli Air Force was using drones to photograph and monitor Egyptian, Syrian, and later, Jordanian troops. By July of 1969, the Israeli Air Force was called on to engage in deep penetration bombing in the Nile Valley inside of Egypt in response to the continuance of Egypt's declared "War of Attrition."
In response to the Israeli Air Force's (IAF) attacks, Egyptian President Nasser asked the Soviets for help in defending Egyptian air space. "The Soviets responded quickly, sending batteries of SAM's (Surface-to-Air), including the latest SAM-3s, with Soviet crews, and squadrons of MiG-21s, with Soviet pilots and ground crews."
The Soviets used their MiGs to cover the Egyptian troops along the Suez Canal - as well as to move up their SAM batteries as close to the Israeli side as possible. At first Israel refrained from engaging the Soviet-piloted MIGs. That changed in July 1970, however - when in a clash, the IAF shot down 4 or 5 Soviet MiGs in a dogfight off of the Suez Canal.
With the Soviets deeply involved in the defense of Egypt - even to the point of clashing with Israel - the Americans became concerned about a strategic conflagration and negotiated a cease-fire in the form of the Rogers Plan that went into effect on August 7, 1970. This plan called for a freeze of Egyptian and Israeli deployments as of August 7, 1970. The Egyptians broke that part of the agreement the next day, moving their Soviet anti-aircraft batteries close to the banks of the Suez Canal. The Soviets and Egyptians gambled that Israel would not respond so soon after the cease-fire went into effect - and they were right. Israel did nothing. This would have telling effect three years later, when Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries along the Suez Canal pounded the IAF in the first days of the October 1973 War. At the time, in the summer of 1970, however, when "Israel complained to Washington that the Egyptians had breached the agreement, Ray Cline, the head of the State Department intelligence unit…told the White house that the Israeli complaint was baseless. When Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin told his military attache, General Eli Zeira, what had happened, Zeira immediately asked Tel Aviv to send him a photographic interpreter and a set of aerial photographs showing the Egyptian deployment. These duly arrived in Washington and Zeira was summoned to the White House, where he laid out the evidence before President Nixon. Nixon, angry with Cline, then ordered the Pentagon to remove its veto on several categories of weapons the Israelis had asked for during the preceding months."
By mid 1973 Israeli military intelligence was almost completely aware of Arab war plans. They knew that the Egyptian Second and Third Armies would attempt to cross the Suez Canal to a depth of about ten kilometers inside the Israeli side of Sinai. Following the infantry assault, Egyptian armored divisions would then attempt to cross the Suez Canal and advance all the way to the Mitla and Gidi Passes - strategic crossing-points for any army in the Sinai. Naval units and paratroopers would then attempt to capture Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern end of the Sinai. Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence) was also aware of many details of the Syrian war plan.
But Israeli analysts did not believe the Arabs were serious about going to war. Even when all the signs indicated that the Arabs were prepared for war, Israeli analysts continued to believe they would not - almost until the day the war broke out. Why did this happen?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a concept (or "conceptzia", as the Israelis called it) took hold that the Arabs were unwilling to go to war against Israel. The concept was based on the idea that the 1967 War was such an overwhelming victory that the Arabs would not be able to overcome Israel for the time being. Thus even when it appeared clear that the Arabs had aggressive intentions, Israeli analysts refused to believe that the Arabs would actually follow through with them.
Part of the reason for Israeli complacency on the eve of the war was due to Arab political and military deception. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (he had replaced Nasser after his death in 1970) frequently and publicly declared his intention to attack Israel. He called 1971 "the Year of Decision" - but 1971 came and went and Sadat did not attack. In 1972 he continued to make threats of his aggressive intentions towards Israel. By 1973 Sadat had become, in the minds of Israeli Intelligence, "a case of crying wolf."
By September and October of 1973, when Egypt really was preparing for war, it was believed that he really was not, because there had been false alarms in the past. Egyptian ministers held talks expressing their peaceful intentions to Western Governments throughout much of 1973. Egyptian military deception was even more effective. Reports were given instructing cadets in military colleges to resume their courses on October 9, and officers were allowed to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. "On 4 October the Egyptian media reported that 20,000 reservists had been demobilized. Immediately before the assault on the morning of 6 October, the Egyptians deployed special squads of troops along the canal; their task was to move about without helmets, weapons or shirts, and to swim, hang out fishing lines and eat oranges."
All of these reports and actions were monitored by Aman - as they were intended to be - and they utterly fooled Israeli Military Intelligence.
Even more than that, the Egyptians and Syrians were very careful about who knew of the impending war plans in advance of October 6. In Egypt, only President Sadat and his Minister of War, Ismail Ali, knew about the war plans before October 1. In Syria, no more than ten people - including President Assad, his Minister of War and Commander-in Chief, the Director of Operations, the director of Military Intelligence, the commander of the Air Force and the Commander of the Anti-Aircraft Defense networks - knew about the impending assault on Israel. "Egyptian army corps and divisional commanders, and equivalent General Staff officers, were told of the war on 1 October at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. Their Syrian counterparts learned of the war and D-Day at a similar meeting in Damascus. Brigade and battalion commanders in both armies learned of the imminent offensive only on 5 October or the following morning, on the actual day of the attack. The vast majority of Egyptian and Syrian officers and troops found out only an hour or two before the actual assault."
Egyptian and Syrian leaders were so wary of Israel's Signals Interception capabilities that they "refrained completely from exchanging messages by telephone, radio-telephone or cables."
Syria also engaged in political deception, but to a far lesser extent than Egypt. For example, "Radio Damascus announced on 4 October that President Assad would begin a nine-day tour of Syria's eastern provinces on 10 October."
It appears that while the Egyptians engaged in deception, they didn't put much stock in completely fooling Israel's Intelligence services. "Egyptian intelligence in fact assessed that Israel would have a 'three-to-fifteen day concrete warning ' of the impending attack.'" They expected an Israeli counter-attack 6-8 hours after the start of the Egyptian assault, with 24 hours being the best-case scenario. The Egyptians were wrong about that; Israel was far slower to know about the attack than the Egyptians anticipated, and the Israeli counter-attack did not begin for a full two days after the beginning of the Egyptian assault (code-named "Operation Badr.")
The date set for the Egyptian/Syrian assault, October 6, was chosen only on September 12, and perhaps as late as October 1 or 2. In any case, the final timing of the attack - 2 p.m. - was only chosen on October 3. "The Syrians preferred an assault at dawn (with the sun behind their back); the Egyptians preferred sunset. The compromise struck was 2 p.m."
As early as April and May 1973, a full six months before the actual combined Egyptian/Syrian attack on the Sinai and Golan fronts, Israeli Intelligence had been picking up clear signals of Egypt's intentions for war. It was recognized that Sadat had the necessary divisions prepared to cross the Suez Canal, he had the bridging equipment to facilitate his army's crossing, and he had SAMs to protect his own divisional crossings from the penetrating raids of the Israeli Air Force.
Military Intelligence (Aman) Chief Eli Zeira was most confident in expressing the view that the probability of war was low. Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir was less dismissive of Arab intentions, as were Chief of Staff David Elazar and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
April and May passed without event, except for a small-scale mobilization of Israeli reserves. This mobilization had been costly, and in terms of actual need, as it turned out, not necessary at the time - except perhaps as a deterrence factor. In August 1973, the Syrians carried out a huge deployment of troops and weaponry along the Golan front, accompanied by "a tightly packed (Surface-to-Air) missile network, which covered the Golan skies as well as the air space above the Syrian divisions." Aman dismissed this deployment as a defensive one against Israeli air strikes. Again, nothing came of it.
Military Intelligence's prognosis that war would not break out was correct in the spring and summer of 1973. Therefore, they were believed again in the fall, with catastrophic results.
On April 7, 1967, two months before the outbreak of the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel had shot down six Syrian planes to no Israeli losses in a dogfight above the Golan. On September 13, 1973, Israel shot down 12 Syrian aircraft to 1 Israeli loss when IAF jets were attacked during a reconnaissance mission over Syrian territory. This naturally reinforced the military belief that the Arabs would not attack due to Israel's once-again proven air capability.
At the same time, Israel had not yet experienced the effectiveness of the Arab Surface-to Air missile defenses.
A few days later, after the September 13 air battle, Aman Chief Eli Zeira argued that the Arabs would not contemplate even a war of attrition before the end of 1975.
Egyptian build-ups continued to be explained away as a practice exercise without harmful intentions. But Syrian deployments were more worrying. Even after the battle of September 13, Syrian reinforcements were sent to the Golan accompanied by the cancellation of leaves as well as a simultaneous call-up of Syrian reserves accompanied by a state of alert. All of these developments were worrying, especially to Northern Command. But because "the concept" still held that Syria would not attack without Egypt, and Egypt was not planning to go to war, that meant that Syrian intentions could not really be aggressive in nature. This view held even after US Intelligence in late September sent an assessment that a combined Egyptian-Syrian attack was possible. Israel responded that it was not something to worry about.
Nevertheless, Syrian deployments below the Golan Heights were worrying enough for Israel to send more infantry and tanks to the Golan at the end of September. These reinforcements, slight as they were, were to make all the difference between holding the line and utter defeat and an invasion of Northern Israel on the first day of the war. Even these reinforcements were not easy to authorize. Mossad Chief Zamir continued to express his concern over the Syrian build-up in contradistinction to Aman Chief Eli Zeira's tranquilizing assessment of the situation on October 3. "Zamir apparently tried to alert Golda Meir to the situation, but the prime minister told him to talk to Dayan." Dayan was influenced by his own optimistic assessments as well as those of Military Intelligence, and was slow to call up reserves.
In the post-war research assessment of Israel's Intelligence failure, it emerged that only one of Aman's researchers refused to be swayed by "the concept." His name was Lieutenant Binyamin Siman-Tov, a junior Military Intelligence officer. He argued that the huge Egyptian deployments and exercises along the Suez Canal "seemed to be camouflage for a real canal-crossing assault." When his first assessment was ignored on October 1, he sent a more comprehensive one on October 3. Both were ignored by his superior, and Siman-Tov, low as he was in the rank of the IDF hierarchy, was to have no influence on the upper-level Intelligence assessments of Egyptian intentions.
On October 4, however, Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir began getting more worried. That day, Soviet advisers and their families left both Egypt and Syria. Meanwhile, transport aircraft, apparently filled with military hardware, landed in Damascus on October 5. The night before, aerial photographs revealed that Egyptian and Syrian concentrations of tanks, infantry, and SAMs were at an unprecedented high. Aman "Research Department Officers later described the "'hammer-blow effect the photographs had on them.'" Yet little was done.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the failure of intelligence to properly assess information is the possibility that as early as September 25, 1973, 12 days before the outbreak of war, "prime minister Golda Meir received a personal warning of the impending Egyptian-Syrian assault from King Hussein of Jordan…" Jordan did send a token force to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights to show his concern for Arab solidarity, but he kept his own front with Israel completely quiet during the war. Israel was thus able to leave a skeleton force of a mere 28 tanks on the Jordan River boundary, enabling Israel's Army and Air Force to concentrate on the direct Syrian and Egyptian threats.
Later, on October 5, 1973, at 2:30 a.m., Mossad Chief Zamir received a cable from a trusted source expressing that war was certain. No date or exact time was given, but the message was clear: war was certain. This agent had been described "by one senior Israeli as 'the best agent any country ever had in wartime, a miraculous source…'" The Mossad Bureau Chief, "the first Israeli official to actually see the cable and digest its shattering significance, said later: 'We'd never had anything like it.'"
However, Zamir, despite his alarm, did not tell Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, or Chief of Staff David Elazar about the message. He did inform Aman Chief Eli Zeira of the contents of the message, and expressed his certainty that war was imminent. Yet Zamir decided to go to Europe in order to personally meet the source at midnight on the night of October 5/6. Eli Zeira waited to hear from him before taking any action.
At 3:45 a.m., on October 6, Zamir called Zeira over an open telephone line (due to the absence of a cipher clerk at an unknown Israeli embassy in Europe. There were no clerks available due to the Yom Kippur holiday) and informed Zeira war would come that day at sunset. Subsequent analysis revealed that the message was distorted en route to Israel's top military and political leaders, and instead of expressing the certainty that war would break out "in the afternoon hours" or "before sunset", it had become a definite "sunset." Sunset on October 6 was 5:20 p.m., but somehow the hour became fixed as 6 p.m. The source also asserted that the attack would be a combined and simultaneous one of Egyptian and Syrian forces.
The attack did not begin at 6 p.m., however; it began at 1:55 p.m., and Israel was woefully unprepared. On the Golan Heights 1400 Syrian tanks and over 1000 artillery pieces faced 177 Israeli tanks and 50 artillery pieces - and only that number was there due to the last-minute partial call-up of reserves. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal, easily overcoming Israeli defenses, and established a bridgehead about ten kilometers into the Sinai.
Israel fought a tenacious battle on the Golan and turned near-defeat on October 6 to a recapture of almost all of the Golan by the evening of October 7. But Syria's rapid advance towards the Sea of Galilee and Israel's northern settlements unleashed a fear that has been hard for Israel to ever forget.
On the Sinai front, Egypt nearly had the Mitla and Gidi passes open to them before sufficient Israeli reserves arrived to defend Israel's southern borders. Military Intelligence had seriously underestimated the lethal effectiveness of the Soviet-made Sagger anti-tank missiles, which the Egyptian infantry used to devastating effect against Israeli armor, as well as the Surface-to-Air Missiles, which both the Egyptians and Syrians used to devastating effect against the Israeli Air Force.
Intelligence did pick up on certain changes that had occurred on the battlefield during the war, but it was mainly the courage, ingenuity, and leadership of the armed forces on Israel's southern and northern fronts that enabled Israel to turn the tide of battle. Within two days, the tide had turned on the Golan front. It took more than a week, but by the middle of October Israel had turned the tide in the Sinai, pummeling Egyptian armor, and had crossed the Suez Canal to destroy Egypt's defenses from the rear. By late October, both Cairo and Damascus were exposed to an Israeli advance, and only dire Soviet threats and Superpower intervention put an end to the hostilities and certain and complete Egyptian and Syrian defeat.
While the tide turned, the failure of Intelligence has never been forgotten in Israel. Many lessons were learned, and many people in the Intelligence community were fired. In 1982, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, Intelligence was right up on Syrian defenses and destroyed them far more easily than was done in 1973. But the misconceptions and even hubris that dominated the thinking of Israel's military and political leaders at the time has been tempered by a far greater wariness of Arab intentions after the devastating surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack on October 6, 1973.
1). Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services
2). Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, and Eli Landau - The Mossad: Inside Stories
3). Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman - Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community.
4). Stewart Steven - The Spymasters of Israel