Defense establishment kept Golda Meir in the dark in the lead-up to Yom Kippur War
This past week, some of Golda Meir's testimony to the Agranat Commission (which investigated the government's and the IDF's failure in the Yom Kippur War) was released for the first time. While the headline was that Golda told the Commission that had Israel pre-empted we might not have been resupplied by the US, this is the piece that is truly shocking.
"At the time that this telegram was sent by you, did the intelligence services or anyone else bother you with anything urgent? Any other information? The problem here is that they [in the report] claim that it is only an exercise."
"...I would like to read to you what the Military Intelligence Directorate received that day: 'We learned that Syria has evacuated Soviet experts, and that planes have begun taking them from Damascus to Moscow. The same sources informed us that even the families of the Soviet diplomats have begun arriving in Moscow from Damascus. The sources added that the Syrians explained the evacuation by saying that Egypt and Syria were planning to wage a war against Israel. For your information."
Meir: "I don't know."
Yadin: "The IDF chief of staff and the defense minister told us that on Friday evening they had not received such a telegram. Did you not get one?"
Later in that meeting, the commission discusses certain intelligence information that was not handed over to the Prime Minister's Office.
Meir: "It may be that the Military Intelligence Directorate did not feel obligated to share information with us, but it is very hard for me to understand how it wasn't shared with the chief of staff."
"...Until the very last minute we were still trying to follow Military Intelligence's conception, that everything that was happening on the northern and southern fronts was a result of their fear of an attack by us. To try at the last minute through the Americans to tell the Russians, and have the Russians tell the Egyptians that we have no such intention. ... We thought that at the last minute maybe we could still save. ... For some reason based on what Keating told us [Kenneth Keating, who was, for a time, the U.S. ambassador to Israel], it would be at 6 p.m. At one point I said, maybe it was a misprint? Maybe he meant that it would be at 16:00 [4 p.m.]. ... We thought that they would still have time to get the message to the Russians and subsequently to the Egyptians and Syrians, that we are not planning to attack."
Agranat: "I am just trying to understand the frame of mind. ... I understand that one consideration, maybe the main one, was that they were afraid of us and therefore we wanted to communicate the message: know that we have no intention of launching an attack. But shouldn't the other consideration have been not that they are afraid of us, but that they want to attack us and they want to take us by surprise? Or was the assessment that there was a 'low likelihood' as Military Intelligence calls it, meaning that it wouldn't happen?"
Meir: "No, because though the Military Intelligence assessment was as it was -- the conception. I am wary of speaking in front of two former chiefs of staff, but I think that the conception was that if the conscription army was on full alert, that means the air force, and additional units were called up and are there to assist -- that is enough force to stave off ..."
"On the day of October 5, the chief of staff said, and I quote: 'We have taken all the preparatory measures. Over this holiday, the IDF has declared a state of high alert; all vacations have been cancelled on the lines.' ... That means that the conception was that blocking [the enemy] is a conscription army on high alert."
The week prior to the war was critical. On October 1, a Monday, the Egyptian army began the "Tahrir 41" exercise, concealing their preparations for an actual attack. According to Bar Joseph, the Military Intelligence echelon directly subordinate to Zeira, including the head of research Brig. Gen. Aryeh Shalev, collection department director Col. Menachem Digli and Unit 848 commander Ben Porat, demanded that the devices be activated and made operational. But Zeira refused "both because he was afraid of what would happen to them (the listening devices) and because he was convinced that no war would break out."
For example, upon discovering that the Soviet Union was evacuating nationals on the day before the war, Zeira confessed that "in my view, the Soviet thing is the most problematic and serious." But he still concluded by saying "I don't see the Egyptians and the Syrians attacking us."
Col. (res.) Yossi Langotsky, who served as the commander of the Military Intelligence Directorate's operational technology unit (in charge of operating the listening devices) confirms Bar Joseph's sentiments. "I can personally attest to the fact that during the week prior to the war Digli and Ben Porat approached Zeira several times and asked for his authorization to activate the devices, but to no avail. To assuage Zeira's concerns over the safety of the devices, Digli told him that 'after all, it is for emergency situations and times of uncertainty like this that these devices were designed.' There are no words to describe the height of Zeira's arrogance. Despite the terrible implications of a possible surprise attack, he stuck to his misguided conception and avoided activating the devices that were designed precisely to protect against such a surprise," Langotsky says angrily.
On the other hand, the officials to whom Zeira was himself subordinate -- the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister -- were convinced that the assessment indicating a low likelihood of war relied entirely on intelligence collected by the special devices.
"Hanoch Bartov, Elazar's biographer, said that the IDF chief of staff was convinced, up until the start of the war, and even shortly afterward, that Zeira had activated the special means of collection," says Adam Raz, a doctoral student in the Political Science Department of Tel Aviv University, who researched the topic. "Ben Porat recounted a conversation he had with Elazar, in which he said that between October 1 and 6 he had asked the Military Intelligence chief twice if all the sources were being utilized, and the answer was affirmative. Digli has also said in the past that Elazar had told him after the war that 'when I asked Eli (Zeira) if, when he says that there is a low likelihood, he is relying on those sources (the listening devices) as well, and his answer was affirmative.'"
Later, Elazar explained to Ben Porat: "the false information that I received about the activation of the means confused me even more, because I knew what they were capable of. If there was no intelligence of impending war coming from them (the devices), that means that everything is okay. It is now very clear to me that I was not told the truth."
When facing the Agranat commission, Elazar testified that "the incident (failure to activate the listening devices) was not decided by me nor was it brought to my knowledge… I learned only after the war that the […] was not turned on in those days. That is precisely what it was made for -- to give us warning. That was its sole function, and in essence I did not know that it was turned off."
Zeira was asked by the Agranat commission why he had decided on his own accord not to use the devices rather than consulting with the chief of staff, while "his superiors were led to mistakenly believe that the topic had been incorporated into his assessments." Zeira's reply was that "it is not my nature to delegate authority upward…I don't bring things that are under my authority to my superiors, usually, and I don't tell them 'I know it is my responsibility, but I am handing off the responsibility to you. You decide.'"
Bar Joseph argues that the decision makers' faith that the devices were operational but providing no indication that a war was imminent carried fateful weight in the decisions that were made. It is the reason they did not rush to deploy the army along the Sinai and Golan Heights fronts and why they did not recruit the necessary reserves units. That faith also painted the rest of the intelligence that came in from the region in a different light.
"During the week before the war broke out, the decision makers are confident that the listening devices are fully operational. They don't ask if the devices are working but rather what information they are yielding. They say so in their Agranat commission testimonies very clearly, and explain that their confidence that they would receive notice 48 hours in advance relied on them. Zeira knows that they think the devices are working, and for reasons known only to him he does not correct them. That is the most terrible part of this story. In my opinion, it was not a mistake. It was calculated," Bar Joseph says.
According to Langotsky, "Zeira first gave the green light to activate the devices only on Thursday afternoon, and only for a technical check. The check began overnight between Thursday October 4 and Friday October 5. His instructions were to complete the test and report the findings to him personally at his house no later than 6 a.m. Friday morning, Yom Kippur eve." In other words, when Zeira says to Dayan that it is "totally quiet" in the "chatter on the Egyptian lines" it is, according to Langotsky, at least three hours after the devices were shut off, following a mere technical check. Bar Joseph claims that due to a malfunction, one of the devices continued to work for several hours more, but since it was just a technical check and not full operational eavesdropping, it did not really help.
For many years I have refrained from using the word "failure" in regard to the army's lack of preparedness for that war and the way the country's leaders made decisions during those days. Immediately after I was released from a long hospital stay, where I was treated for a serious war injury, I told the late Menachem Begin what I had seen in battle. He asked me never to use the word "failure" because mothers had lost their children in the war, and we mustn't compound their pain with the term "failure." When I read Meir's Agranat commission testimony, it became clear to me that it was not a failure at all -- it was in fact a true crime.
The writing was on the wall, written in huge red letters, and the irresponsible and shortsighted leaders simply refused to read. The writing is now written in small black letters on gravestones in various military cemeteries.
Meir was never fit to serve as prime minister in the first place. She didn't understand the first thing about the most fundamental, existential issues facing the State of Israel. She was a representative of the Mapai establishment that ruled the country for generations, and refused to step aside. Meir lacked the ability to stand up to the heads of the defense establishment. Her opinion did not matter to them, and when it came to classified information, they didn't even bother informing her. Then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan's well-publicized heroism and then-Military Intelligence Director Eli Zeira's arrogance and overconfidence turned Meir into a marginal character in the mechanism that made fateful decisions.
After the war, efforts were made to be lenient with her, in many ways due to pity or other external considerations. I feel suspicion mixed with contempt toward all the embarrassing arguments that we must give her credit for her conduct in the days after the initial surprise of the war. Unfortunately, as someone who was seriously wounded in that war, giving her credit feels to me as artificial, worthless and dishonest.