The Yom Kippur War
“The best general history of the Yom Kippur War. The writing is clear, compelling and precise and offers a good understanding of both the military operations and the political developments. At both levels, it was a fascinating war. Beautiful, precise and sometimes poetic language…Outstanding.” -PROF.BENNY MORRIS, HA’ARETZ
“Truly striking. Rabinovich’s book is brilliant, sweeping and insightful.” -PROF. W. ANDREW TERRILL, NAVAL HISTORY
About the book
In this galvanizing account of the most dramatic of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Abraham Rabinovich, who covered the fighting as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, transports us into the midst of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
His masterly narrative begins as Israel convinces itself there will be no war, while Egypt and Syria plot the two-front conflict. Then, on Yom Kippur, Saturday, October 6, 1973, we see Arab armies pouring across the shattered Bar-Lev Line in the Sinai and through the Golan defenses. Even the vaunted Israeli air force could not stop them. On the Golan, Syria sent 1,460 tanks against Israel’s 180. On the Sinai front, Egyptian soldiers wielding new Soviet-made anti-tank weapons knocked out most of an Israeli armored division in 12 hours while surface-to-air missiles protected the Egyptian troops from air attack. Rabinovich takes us into this inferno and into the inner sanctums of military and political decision making. He allows us to witness the dramatic turnaround that had the Syrians on the run by the following Wednesday and the Israeli counterattack across the Suez Canal that, once begun, took international intervention to halt. Relying on extensive interviews with participants and with access to declassified materials, Rabinovich shows that the drama of the war lay not only in the battles but also in the apocalyptic visions it triggered in Israel, the hopes and fears it inspired in the Arab world, the heated conflicts within the leaderships on both sides about the conduct of the war, and the concurrent American face-off with the Soviets in Washington, D.C., Moscow, and the Mediterranean. A comprehensive account of one of the pivotal conflicts of the twentieth century.
Where to buy
The Yom Kippur War is available in print and eBook formats from most major book retailers including:
“Rabinovich’s (prose) is both compelling and intelligent. A seamless, riveting narrative reminiscent of the books of Rick Atkinson or Stephen Ambrose.. Penetrating insight into the Israeli military and political mind. Never before has the Israeli experience in the Yom Kippur War been so sensitively and intricately documented.” -MICHAEL OREN, WASHINGTON POST
“Five years of research and years of perspective make The Yom Kippur War a much more complete account than was possible in the works of Herzog and the Times Insight Team. Rabinovich’s work will unquestionably supplant them as the standard history of the conflict.. In addition to being well researched, this account is superbly written. The flow of the work is so natural that it reads like a novel, a difficult accomplishment given the necessity of describing military action on two fronts as well as political machinations in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Washington, and Moscow. The Yom Kippur War is easily the best and most complete general history of the conflict.” -PARAMETERS, U.S. ARMY WAR COLLEGE QUARTERLY
“Its revelations are astonishing. Its prose is gripping. Its conclusions, richly documented and austerely objective, are intensely relevant to the Middle Eastern crisis of our own day.” -Prof. Howard M. Sachar, author of A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Own Time.
“The 1973 Yom Kippur War was exceptionally dramatic, and Abraham Rabinovich has written an exceptionally exciting book. Military historians will be grateful for his detailed accuracy”. -PROF. EDWARD N. LUTTWAK, author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace
“As no one before, Abraham Rabinovich recounts the whole story of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, that most elusive round of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” -DANIEL PIPES, MIDDLE EAST QUARTERLY
“Superb. I have found few works of military history so difficult to put down.” -MATTI FRIEDMAN, JERUSALEM REPORT
“This wonderful book on the Yom Kippur war is the most thorough account yet written on the subject. The Yom Kippur War has long been ignored in the broader context of the Arab Israeli wars. Usually it plays second fiddle to the `Six Day War’ yet the Yom Kippur War was the most fascinating of the conflicts.” –By Seth J. Frantzman, Amazon.com reader.
“Rabinovich displays his keen comprehension of military tactics and strategies with detailed, fast-paced accounts. His eye for political and diplomatic maneuverings is equally sharp.” -HISTORY BOOK CLUB
“Rabinovich has successfully retained the rhythm, color and odor (of the war).” -URI DAN, a journalist who was attached to Gen. Sharon’s division, in the New York Post.
“Impossible to put down,” -GERSHOM GORENBERG, author of Days of Awe.
A military sattelite beaming images of the Middle East to earth late on the afternoon of October 5, 1973 would have confronted analysts with a perplexing picture.
On the west bank of the Suez Canal, five Egyptian divisions–100,000 soldiers, 1,350 tanks and 2,000 artillery pieces and heavy mortars–were drawn up in full battle array. Bridging equipment and rubber boats positioned near the water’s edge offered clear evidence of intent.
On the Israeli side, some 450 men could be counted in the strongpoints lining the canal. The Israelis were clearly able to see the preparations for a crossing on the Egyptian bank but there was no sign that it troubled them even though they had only 290 tanks and fewer than 50 artillery pieces along the entire 100-mile Suez front.
The pictures from the Golan Heights would have been even more puzzling. Here, too, five Arab divisions on maximum war footing confronted a thin Israeli defense line from which it was impossible to miss the Syrian deployment. But here there was no canal to serve as a barrier. The disparity in tanks was almost 8-1 in Syria’s favor; in infantry and artillery, far greater. On the Syrian side, secondary defense lines were carved into the landscape between the front and Damascus, 40 miles to the east. On the Israeli side, there was no secondary defense line at all, as if the enormous disparity in forces was in Israel’s favor, not the other way around.
In Israel itself this Friday afternoon, the sattelite would have detected no signs of alarm. There was hardly a person or moving vehicle to be seen on the country’s streets. The setting sun would mark the onset of Yom Kippur and the country’s three million Jews were at home preparing for this holiest of days. The only sign of unusual activity was at the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces in the center of Tel Aviv. Long after the lights had gone out in the rest of the building, they were still on in the office of the chief-of-staff and in the army intelligence offices on the floor above.
In Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is the climax of the 10 Days of Awe during which man makes accounts with his Maker. On this Yom Kippur, Israel’s days of awe were only beginning.
THE ISRAELI MINDSET
Capt. Motti Ashkenazi was not a man to accept a perceived wrong without protest. The outpost in Sinai his unit of reservists took over two weeks before Yom Kippur was in an advanced state of neglect. Barbed wire fencing had sunken almost entirely into the sand, trenches were collapsing, gun positions had insufficient sandbags and the ammunition supply was short. When the officer he was relieving asked him to sign the standard form acknowledging receipt of the outpost in good condition, Ashkenazi declined. Without this formality, the unit being relieved could not depart. When Ashkenazi refused an order from his battalion commander to sign, the exasperated commander signed the form himself.
The battalion was part of the Jerusalem Brigade, which had never before been assigned to a tour of duty on the Bar-Lev line. Unlike the combat units which normally undertook this task, the Jerusalem brigade was a second-line unit which included men well into their 30s. Some were immigrants who had received only a truncated form of basic training before being relegated to the reserves. A sprinkling of younger reservists with combat experience stiffened the ranks and officers too were generally veterans of combat units.
The assignment of such a unit to the Bar-Lev Line, once considered hazardous duty, reflected the relaxed situation on the Egyptian front. It was six years since Israel had reached the canal in the Six Day War and three years since the intense skirmishing across the waterway–the so-called War of Attrition–had ended.
The reservists had grumbled as usual upon receiving their annual call-up notices for a month’s duty, particularly since their tour began on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and would last through Yom Kippur and the subsequent Succot holiday. However, by the time they boarded the buses that would take them to Sinai, some were looking forward to a month of camaradarie, far from the r outine of work and home. The men brought books and board games, finjans for brewing coffee, even fishing rods. Ashkenazi, a 32-year-old doctoral student in philsophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, took along his four-month-old German Shepherd, Peng, because he had nowhere to leave him.
Unlike the other Bar-Lev forts, which were built along the canal bank, Ashkenazi’s outpost, codenamed Budapest, was 10 miles east of the canal on a narrow sandspit between the Mediterranean Sea and a shallow lagoon. The outpost’s purpose was to guard against an Egyptian thrust along the sandspit towards the coastal road to Israel. Budapest was the largest of the Bar-Lev Line fortifications, incorporating an artillery battery and a naval signals unit which maintained contact with vessels patrolling off the coast.
Towards evening on the day of his arrival, Ashkenazi, a deputy company commander, climbed the fort’s observation tower and looked west along the sandspit towards Port Fuad at the entrance to the Suez Canal. This northwest corner of Sinai was the only part of the peninsula not captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Ashkenazi could make out a string of Egyptian outposts stretching along the sandspit. The one closest to him was only a mile away. Since the canal did not separate them, the only thing that could inhibit an Egyptian raid was a minefield that Budapest’s previous commander had pointed out to him during their tour that morning.
As Ashkenazi watched, a pack of wild dogs emerged from the Egyptian lines and trotted down the sands towards the Israeli outpost. They appeared to be heading towards Budapest’s garbage dump at the western edge of the position. As they approached the minefield, Ashkenazi braced for explosions. But the dogs passed through unharmed. Tides washing over the sands had dislodged or neutralized the mines. Ashkenazi decided to contact battalion headquarters in the morning to request additional fencing and sandbags.
Maj. Meir Weisel, an affable kibbutznik, was the most senior company commander in the battalion which moved into the Bar-Lev Line. In previous tours of reserve duty, his unit had clashed with Palestinian guerillas along the Jordan River and taken casualties. “This time,” a Jerusalem Brigade officer had told him when he reported for duty, “I’m sending you to the canal and you can rest.” His company took over four forts in the canal’s central sector. He positioned himself in Fort Purkan, opposite the city of Isamaliya on the Egyptian-held bank. The officer whom he replaced pointed out a villa across the canal which he said had belonged to the parents of Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s wife, Suzie, who was from a prominent Egyptian Jewish family. It was not clear who lived there now but a gardener watered the plants every day. “As long as you see the gardener working there,” said the officer, “everything is ok.”
The limited forces Israel deployed on both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts opposite vastly larger enemy armies reflected a self-assurance induced by the country’s stunning victory in the Six Day War. Israel believed it had attained a military superiority that no Arab nation or combination of nations could challenge. The euphoria that followed the lightning victory in 1967 over the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies gave Israel a sense of manifest destiny similar to that which impelled the United States westward in the 19th Century. The Six Day War had been launched from within Israel’s narrow borders that Foreign Minister Eban had termed “Auschwitz borders”, in allusion to their vulnerability. The post-Six Day War cease-fire lines for the first time provided strategic depth.
Israel had twice as many tanks and warplanes in 1973 than it had in the Six Day War. Its largest armor formations were no longer brigades with 100 tanks but divisions with 300. Veteran armor officers permitted themselves to fantasize commanding a full armored division deploying into battle–two brigades forward, one to the rear, as they swept into the attack.
The armies of Egypt and Syria had grown more than Israel’s in absolute numbers but the overall ratio in the Arab favor remained 3-1. Given the proven fighting ability of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), this ratio was considered acceptable. The General Staff, in fact, was preparing to reduce the 36-months of service required of its conscript soldiers by three months. Convinced that it could hold its own against an Arab world 30 times its size, Israel was waiting for the Arabs to formally recognize the Jewish state and agree to new borders.
The Arab world, however, refused to accept the humiliation of 1967. In the War of Attrition launched by Egypt in March, 1969, hundreds of Israeli soldiers died in massive artillery bombardments. Deep penetration raids by Israeli warplanes and commandos forced Cairo to accept a cease-fire in August, 1970. Since then, the Suez front had remained quiet. On the Syrian front, there were periodic exchanges of fire–“battle days”, Israel termed them–but no serious challenge to Israel’s dominance.
The seeming docility of the Arabs encouraged a sense of invulnerability in Israel. In August, 1973, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, in a speech to army officers, said that Israel’s strength was a reflection not only of its increasing military potential but of inherent Arab weakness. “It is a weakness that derives from factors that I don’t believe will change quickly: the low level of their soldiers in education, technology and integrity; and inter-Arab divisiveness which is papered over from time to time but superficially and for short spans.”
A Mossad official who had been posted abroad immediately after the Six Day War returned home five years later to find the country transformed. Israel was not just self-assured, he found, but self-satisfied, awash in a good life that seemed as if it would go on forever. Government and military officials traveled now in large cars and wrote off business lunches to expenses, a new practice in Israel. Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza Strip provided the working hands the fast growing nation needed but were politically invisible. The sense of physical expanse was startling to someone accustomed to the claustrophia of pre-Six Day War Israel. The border was no longer 15 minutes from Tel Aviv or on the edge of Jerusalem but out of sight and almost out of mind–on the Jordan River, on the Suez Canal, on the Golan. People went down to Sinai now not to wage war but to holiday on its superb beaches.
The army had grown tremendously and so had its prominence in national life. There was a layer of brigadier generals, a newly created rank required by the expanding army. The Mossad official sensed arrogance in high places. Some generals ordered their offices redone to reflect their new status, some gave parties with army entertainment troupes singing in the background. All of this was foreign to the spartan ways the official had known as distinguishing features of Israeli public life only five years before .An attitude of disdain for Arab military capability had etched iself insidiously into the national psyche. The official was as yet unaware of the extent to which this disdain had led to distortions in the mindset of the armed forces.
Sitting in a downtown Jerusalem café a few months before the war, Motti Ashkenazi had told a friend that war was inevitable unless Israel accepted Egypt’s demand that it pull back from the canal in order to permit the waterway to be reopened. Now, in command of Budapest, he took his own warning seriously. After two days of badgering battalion headquarters, he was informed that his request for sandbags and barbed wire concertinas was being met. The supply vehicle that arrived carried only a fraction of the material he had asked for. Nevertheless, he was able to fortify the area around the fort’s gate and the vulnerable approach from the beach.
A week before Yom Kippur, Ashkenazi was in a halftrack making a routine morning patrol eastward along the sandspit towards his rear base when he saw fresh footprints in the sand on both sides of the road. Whoever made them seemed to have circled the area, as if examining the lay of the land. The road between Budapest and rear headquarters was shut at night because it was vulnerable to commando landings from the sea. If anyone came down the road by day, Budapest was supposed to be informed beforehand but there had been no such notification. The footprints, thought Ashkenazi, could have been left by Egyptian scouts landing from the sea, on one side of the road, or coming on foot through the lagoon, on the other side. He radioed headquarters and a vehicle with two Bedouin trackers arrived. They examined the footprints and concluded that they had been made by standard Israeli army boots.
“If I were an Egyptian scout, I would use that kind of boot,” said Ashkenazi.
The trackers laughed. “Do you think they’re that clever?
“Why not?”, asked Ashkenazi.
Twice more in the ensuing days he would find footprints along the route.
THE ARAB MINDSET
Civilian clothing did little to mask the military bearing of the six men who descended from the Soviet liner docking in Alexandria on its regular run from the Syrian port of Latakia on August 21, 1973. It took a moment before Lt. Gen. Saad el Shazly, chief-of-staff of the Egytian army, recognized his Syrian colleagues out of uniform as they came through customs with their false passports, trying to look like tourists. Shazly, also in civilian clothing, escorted them to the Officer’s Club and left them to settle in there. Towards evening, the Syrians were driven to a former palace serving as Egyptian naval headquarters. Eight Egyptian generals joined them including Defense Minister Ahmed Ismail. The Syrians included Defense Minister Mustafa Talas and Chief of Staff Gen. Yusuf Shakoor. In intensive meetings over the coming two days, the 14 men coordinated their plans for a surprise, two-front attack on Israel. When they rose, all was settled except the timing of D-Day. This would be left to the leaders of the two countries.
The humiliation of the Six Day War had cast its debilitating shadow over Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ever since he assumed office in October, 1970. The War of Attrition undertaken by his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had not budged Israel from the Suez Canal. Nor had diplomatic efforts by the international community. Israel insisted on achieving border changes in direct negotiations with the Arab countries. The Arabs refused to recognize Israel as a legitimate state, let alone grant it border changes.
Prime Minister Golda Meir, confident that Israel’s geo-political situation had never been better, was content to wait for a change in the Arab position. She rejected Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s suggestion in December, 1970 that Israel pull back 20 miles from the canal in order to enable its reopening and thereby reduce Egyptian motivation for going to war. Two months later, Sadat reshaped Dayan’s proposal, without mentioning him, and adopted it as his own in an address to the Egyptian National Assembly. Unlike Dayan, the Egyptian leader saw a partial Israeli pullback as catalyzing, not delaying, a final withdrawal.
Sadat astonished his audience by declaring his readiness to achieve a peace agreement with Israel, the first time an Arab leader had publicly suggested that possibility. But Israel, said Sadat, would have to commit itself to subsequent withdrawal from all of Sinai and from all the other territories captured in the Six Day War–the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee question must be resolved as well. As dire as were Egypt’s straits economically and strategically, Sadat was not bidding for a separate settlement with Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers attempted to persuade Israel to agree to a limited pullback but found it unyielding. After a fruitless trip to Jerusalem, his assistant, Joseph Sisco, paid a courtesy call on the prime minister and handed her a bouquet of flowers he had stopped to buy on the way. “Joe, you’re saying it with flowers,” Mrs. Meir said lightheartedly. “It won’t do you any good.”
Israel was determined not to return to the pre-war borders, particularly on the West Bank, which dominated Israel’s narrow waist, or in Jerusalem. It was certainly not willing to negotiate the return of Palestinian refugees which it saw leading to the demographic demise of the Jewish state. A week after the Six Day War, the Israeli government had asked the United States to inform Egypt and Syria of its readiness to evacuate Sinai and the Golan, except for minor border modifications, in return for peace treaties. There was no response from the two countries but an Arab summit in Khartoum two months later agreed unanimously on no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel. The following month, the Israeli government rescinded its offer to return to the pre-war lines.
The international community made valiant attempts at a solution. In reply to a questionnaire submitted by UN envoy Gunnar Jarring in Feb. 1971, Egypt declared its readiness to live in peace with Israel if it returned to the pre-war border. In a parallel questionnaire submitted to Jerusalem, the reverse question was put–in return for peace, would Israel evacuate all Sinai? The reply was negative. Israel was prepared to withdraw to “mutually determined boundaries”, not the pre-war boundaries. Any peace achieved by pulling back to the vulnerable pre-war borders, said Dayan, would be short-lived because it would make another war too tempting for the Arabs. “If we really want to honor all the sovereign rights of the past and all the desires of every Arab we won’t be able to have a Jewish state here,” he said. The possibility of an interim settlement in Sinai had sunk into the desert sands.
As Israel saw it, it had twice in one generation–in 1948 and 1967–been forced into wars of survival by Arab states which wished to destroy it. Israel believed it had the moral right, the strategic need and the military strength to demand border changes. The Arabs, for their part, regarded Israel as a usurper of Arab land. Sadat was willing to pay for Israel’s withdrawal by offering it a sort of peace–one, he would later make clear, that did not include an exchange of ambassadors or normalized relations; in effect, a non-belligerency pact. But he would not pay with territory.
Whether patient diplomacy could have won an Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement must remain a matter of conjecture, although the possibility seems in retrospect unlikely. The person who knew Sadat best, his wife Jehan, would tell an Israeli newspaper in 1987 that peace could not have been achieved without the two countries first passing through the cauldron of war. “Sadat needed one more war in order to win and enter into negotiations from a position of equality,” she said. Henry Kissinger would testify that Sadat himself told him years later that if the U.S. had been able in 1973 to broker an Israeli pullback to the pre-war border without Egypt being required to sign a peace treaty, he, Sadat, would have accepted it, but only reluctantly, because it would not have restored Egyptian pride.
Sadat had been regarded when he took office as a grey, interim figure filling Nasser’s shoes until some more charismatic personality took power. He would metamorphose into one of the most imaginative and daring national leaders of the 20th Century. He reveled in his peasant origins and was imbued with a mystic view of himself as the embodiment of Egypt’s destiny. As president, Sadat would often return to the poor Nile delta village where he was born, Mit Abul-kum, to meditate. His mother was the daughter of a freed African slave, an origin reflected in his dark skin. Before pursuing a military career, he had attempted to become an actor. He failed to make it but the political stage would afford him far greater scope for his sense of drama than any theatre. His wardrobe attested to the variety of roles he pursued with flair; well-tailored Italian suits, medal bedecked uniforms–of an admiral as well as a general–and peasant robes. In what seemed to some as ostentatious ascetism, he would accord interviews to visiting journalists as he sat on the ground under a tree in Mit Abul-kum dressed in a simple gallabiya. However, the sustenance he received from this link to his roots and from his Islamic faith was clearly genuine.
Sadat’s desire as a young man to see an end to British hegemony in Egypt was accompanied by admiration for national leaders who fought for the liberation of their people. In this category he placed not only the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Kemal Ataturk but Adolph Hitler. He held him in esteem as a charismatic leader who rebuilt a shattered nation. Sadat abandoned this assessment, at least publicly, only after he became president. From that point on, he used the term Nazi as a pejorative, usually directing it at Israel.
Although a visionary, Sadat well understood the hard rules of autocracy. Within seven months of assuming the presidency he had arrested his main political opponents and stabilized his regime. His declared readiness to make peace with the Jewish state, albeit on terms Israel was unwilling to accept, was a courageous departure from Arab political rhetoric.
With the failure of his call for a partial Israeli withdrawal, Sadat began preparing for war. His militancy bore elements of desperation that rendered him a quasi-comic figure to many. Halfway through 1971 he declared it to be “a year of decision”. But the year ended without decision. So did the following year. “We had already lost credibility in the eyes of the whole world and we had begun to lose faith in ourselves,” Sadat would acknowledge in a television interview in 1974.
His assertion that he was prepared to sacrifice a million soldiers in the battle to recover Sinai made little impression on the Israelis. His army, as they saw it, was not ready for war.
Egypt and Syria were major Cold War assets for the Soviet Union because they provided port facilities, landing rights for reconnaisance planes and bases for electronic monitoring stations. These facilities were needed by Moscow to keep track of the American Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean whose nuclear missiles were capable of striking the Soviet Union. Moscow had lost its previous foothold in the Mediterranean when communist Albania shifted its allegiance to Red China. The Soviets were happy to cement relations Egypt and Syria by selling them weapons for hard currency. Some 15,000 Soviet military experts were shaping the Egyptian armed forces into a modern army. A similar corps of advisers was attached to the Syrian army.
But the Soviets attempted to discourage the Arabs from a military confrontation with Israel that would endanger Moscow’s warming relations with Washington. Moscow refused to provide certain offensive weapons systems the Egyptians demanded, such as long-range fighter-bombers. Transparent Soviet disdain for the fighting ability of the Egyptians further strained relations. On one occasion, Marshal Andrei Grechko, the Soviet defense minister, lectured Sadat on the three prerequisites for a successful war–arms, training and the will to fight. “The first two you have,” said Grechko.
The closer that détente brought the superpowers together, the more despondent Sadat grew. The communique that followed the first summit meeting between President Richard Nixon and Chairman Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in May, 1972 was termed by the Egyptian leader “a violent shock.” Its advocacy of military relaxation in the Middle East meant to him one thing–perpetuation of Israeli occupation of Arab land. The Soviets had even agreed to the possibility of border changes.
It took fully seven weeks before Soviet ambassador to Cairo Vladimir Vinogradov presented the Egyptian leader a report from the Kremlin on the Nixon-Brezhnev summit and its implications for Egypt. Sadat sat on a couch, he would later recount, leaning his head against his walking stick as the ambassador spoke. The message Vinogradov read out made no mention of pending Egyptian arms requests and ended by noting that Egypt was not yet ready for war. Sadat’s reply was terse. He was herewith expelling all Soviet advisors from Egypt, he said. Looking at his watch, he turned to an aide. “What is the date? I can’t see without my glasses.” Upon being told it was July 8, he turned to Vinogradov and said “Alright then, I’m giving you 10 days. The old way of doing business between Egypt and the Soviet Union is at an end.”
Sadat’s action was no spur-of-the-moment whim. The outcome of the summit had made it clear to him that he could not rely on the Soviets for support in regaining Sinai. His stunning move–the kind of grand political theatre that would become his hallmark–was received with dismay in Moscow and delight in Israel where it was taken as a guarantee that Egypt would not be going to war in the forseeable future. In Washington too, Sadat was seen as having left himself with no military option.
To one astute observer in Jerusalem, however, the expulsion did not mean the shelving of Sadat’s war option but its possible activation. Gideon Rafael, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, after mulling over the expulsion for a couple of days, wrote a memo to his colleagues. It suggested that Sadat’s move was intended to invite the Americans into the game in the hope that they would pressure Israel back to the international border. If this failed, wrote Rafael, Sadat intended to go to war and in that case the massive presence of Soviet advisors was an impediment, given Moscow’s known opposition to Egyptian military adventures. Sadat’s move, argued Rafael, meant that he was preparing both political and military options. Although not taken seriously in Jerusalem, Rafael’s analysis was a precise reading of Sadat’s intentions.
It was more than half a year before there was a significant response to Sadat’s move from Washington, with which Cairo had severed relations after the Six Day War. In February, 1973, Sadat’s national security advisor, Hafez Ismail, was invited to the U.S. to confer with his American counterpart, Henry Kissinger. Meeting secretly for two days on a businessman’s estate in Connecticut borrowed for the occasion, Ismail spelled out Egypt’s position. His country was willing to make peace with Israel, he said, but the process must begin with a declaration by Israel that it would return to its pre-war borders on all fronts.
It was Kissinger’s impression that the Egyptians were leaving an opening for border adjustments on the West Bank and even for an Israeli presence along the Jordan River, aimed at preventing any Arab army from linking up with the West Bank. Once Israel declared its readiness for a pullback, said Ismail, demilitarized zones would be created on both sides of the Israeli-Egyptian border. Israeli vessels would be permitted to use the Suez Canal and Egypt would end its boycott of companies trading with Israel. There would, however, not be diplomatic relations or open borders. This would have to await an Israeli settlement with Syria–including full withdrawal from the Golan Heights–Jordan and the Palestinians. Arab control of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount was non-negotiable.
Kissinger was skeptical about Israel agreeing to these terms even though they were far better than anything any Arab state had yet offered. Golda Meir was by now willing to discuss a partial Israeli pullback in Sinai but it was clear that Israel would insist on border changes in any final settlement. In the view of the Israeli government–at least Mrs. Meir’s ‘kitchen cabinet’, where policy was shaped–the Arabs had no military option and they would eventually have to accept the implications of that situation.
The message Ismail carried back to Sadat was that the U.S. could do nothing to change the situation. ”My advice to Sadat is to be realistic,” said Kissinger, according to the report submitted by Ismail. “The fact is that you have been defeated so don’t ask for a victor’s spoils. Either you can change the facts, and consequently our perceptions will naturally change with regard to a solution, or you can’t change the facts, in which case solutions other than the ones you are offering will have to be found. I hope that what I am saying is clear. I’m certainly not asking Sadat to change the military situation. If he tries that, Israel will win once again and more so than in 1967. In such a situation, it would be very difficult for us to do anything.”
Sadat did not dispute this view; in fact, he shared it, except for the inevitability of another Arab defeat. “It was impossible,” he would write in his memoirs “for the United States or, indeed, any other power to make a move if we ourselves didn’t take military action to break the deadlock.”
This is what he now prepared to do.
Golda Meir was not in a position to judge Gen. David Elazar’s military acumen but she was enough a judge of character to want him as her next chief-of-staff. He was, she felt, a resolute man who didn’t compromise easily. He was also modest and easy to talk to. In addition, she would say, “he’s a pleasure to look at”.
Since the Six Day War, the annual intelligence assessment of the IDF had deemed war unlikely. At Elazar’s first meeting with the General Staff after taking up his post on January 1, 1971, he changed that. “The likelihood of war is strong,” he said. Sadat had virtually no other option, Elazar believed, if he wished to get a political process started.
Israel had nothing to gain from another war, Elazar told the generals. Should it break out, the object would be to win swiftly, in order to reduce the impact on the economy, and decisively, to discourage the Arabs from trying it again.
The relevance of the Bar-Lev Line was one of the first subjects Elazar reviewed with the general staff. It had been built during the tenure of his predecessor, Gen. Haim Bar-Lev. Its name conjured up an image of massive, interlocking fortifications like the Maginot or Siegfried lines. In fact, however, it was a string of small, isolated forts, each with garrisons of only 20-30 men. There were miles-wide gaps between the forts. They had been built to protect the troops along the canal from artillery fire during the War of Attrition. But they had come to be seen as having a role in the event of an all-out Egyptian attack.
Some believed the forts would slow an Egyptian attack, giving time for the reserves to be mobilized and deploy. Others, however, saw the the Bar-Lev Line as a death trap–too thin to be a meaningful barrier, yet too thick to be an expendable tripwire. Gen. Ariel Sharon, who assumed command of the southern front in 1970, proposed sealing the forts and maintaining Israel’s presence in the canal zone with armored patrols and with observation posts set well back from the waterline. A similar position was taken by General Israel Tal, Elazar’s deputy. The forts, he argued, constituted static targets and should be evacuated the moment war began.
Elazar told the General Staff that he did not rest the defense of the canal area on the forts but on tank forces. However, since the strongholds already existed and could interfere with an Egyptian crossing in their immediate locales, there was no point in dismantling them. They also provided ongoing observation of the Egyptian lines. In addition, he said, flying the Israeli flag on the canal was an important political statement. “Even if I thought that the strongholds were worthless from the military point of view, I would be in a quandry over whether to abandon them from the political standpoint. When I factor in that they do help to secure the line and provide a little intelligence I’m no longer faced with a dilemma.” He had no objection, he said, to thinning out the line but he would not abandon it. Sharon interpreted “thinning out” in his own fashion. By the time he left Southern Command in the summer of 1973, 14 of the 30 forts had been shut down. But the Israeli defense of the canal zone was still tied to this string of outposts left over from another kind of war.
The debate over the Bar-Lev Line reflected the paradox of Israeli military planning. Because of Israel’s narrow boundaries, it was basic IDF doctrine before the Six Day War that in the event of an Arab attack the war must be carried swiftly onto enemy territory. That war had pushed the cease-fire line in Sinai 150 miles from Israel’s border but doctrine had not been changed to reflect this fact. Israel’s objective in the event of an Arab attack was “to prevent the enemy from achieving any gain” and thereby discourage future attempts. This was interpreted to mean that the Egyptians must be prevented from gaining a foothold on the Israeli-held Sinai bank east of the Suez Canal.
But by drawing a political line in the sand at the very edge of the Suez Canal, Israel was waiving the major military asset it had won in the Six Day War–strategic depth. With a broad desert to fall back into, the “no enemy gain” formula meant that the Israeli forces on the canal would have to fight with the same back-to-the-wall stubborness as if defending Israel’s heartland. Given the depth afforded by Sinai, it made eminent sense to draw the Egyptians into the desert in a war of manouver, at which the Israeli armored corps excelled and the Egyptian army didn’t.
Elazar was not indifferent to the merits of such a move. At a meeting of the general staff in the spring of 1972, he permitted himself to fantasize. “If I know that they’re going to attack in the morning, we could say–as an intellectual exercise–that under certain circumstances 30 kilometers in Sinai could be completely evacuated. We let them move five divisions into Sinai, and then we slam the door on them. Such a battle implies a number of political risks but it’s a beauty and I’m sure it would make it into the military history books. We have no interest in war but if one breaks out, it’s an historic opportunity to deal a crushing military and political blow that would last for a very long time to come.” It was, however, merely a passing reverie. Both in Sinai and on the Golan, Elazar stressed, there would be no tactical withdrawals. ”We’ve got to kill them on the canal.”
Intelligence believed that if war came it would likely be a renewed war of attrition consisting of artillery barrages and small scale raids. Another possible scenario was an Egyptian attempt to seize a limited foothold on the Sinai bank and hold it until a cease fire was imposed.
To deal with these possibilities, the IDF drew up a defense plan codenamed Dovecote. It rested on the 300 tanks of the Sinai Division–the only armored division of the standing army–and on the air force. So confident was the Israeli command of coping with an Egyptian foray that the plan dealt only sketchily with the defensive battle itself and focussed instead on a swift counterattack across the canal.
In the event that the Egyptians attempted a full-scale crossing, a broader plan had been drawn up. Codenamed Sela (Rock), it called for the deployment at the rear of two reserve armored divisions which would be mobilized before the war started on the basis of intelligence warnings. Like Dovecote, Sela dealt only in passing with the actual defensive phase, as if the swift destruction of Egyptian forces crossing the canal was too straightforward to require elaborate planning. It left the task of dealing with the Egyptian incursion, in fact, to the Sinai Division and the air force, as in Dovecote. The reserve divisions focussed instead on the westward crossing of the canal, a more far-reaching counter-attack than called for in Dovecote.
In the unlikely event that intelligence did not provide sufficient warning for the reserve divisions to be deployed before the war started, the Sinai Division was expected to employ Dovecote to hold the Egyptian army off, with the assistance of the air force, until the reserves arrived. It was like expecting a napkin to serve as a tablecloth in a pinch. Only the dismissal of the Egyptians as soldiers could permit such thinking. The planners did not even provide a flexible, fall-back alternative to permit one division to hold off five divisions in the event of a surprise attack. The Sinai Division would in all circumstances stop the Egyptians on the canal.
In a war game staged by the Southern Command in August, 1972, four Egyptian divisions were depicted crossing the canal, with only a 48-hour warning given by intelligence. In the exercise, dubbed Battering Ram, the Sinai Division wiped out the Egyptian bridgehead in half a day. On the third day, the first Israeli reserve division reached the front and crossed the canal near its northern end. The 48-hour warning was regarded by participants as absurdly short notice given the quality of Israeli military intelligence–a warning of five or six days was considered closer to reality. The notion that the Egyptians might stage a full-scale crossing that was a total surprise was too far-fetched a notion to waste time on in war games. Sharon said that the exercise proved that the Sinai Division alone could meet any Egyptian threat. This confidence was shared by policy makers normally given to caution. In view of the way the Arab armies had fallen apart in the Six Day War, it was hard to imagine otherwise.
There was one Israeli officer who thought it possible to thwart an Egyptian crossing before it even reached the Israeli side of the canal. Col. David Lascov headed a secret unit which developed special weapons and other devices. At 66, Lascov was the oldest Israeli officer on active duty. Born in Siberia and trained in architecture, his Zionist activities made him a target for the Soviet secret police. He fled via China to Haifa in the 1930s, served in the British army in the Second World War and was an early recruit to Israel’s army. Over the years, he had come up with numerous ingenious solutions to operational problems. It occurred to him that if the Egyptians attempted to cross the canal, Israel might inflict a blow comparable to that inflicted on Pharaoh’s army when it tried to follow the Israelites through the parted waters of the nearby Red Sea more than 3,000 years before. Lascov intended to go the Almighty one better by setting the waters afire. It was a solution of biblical resonance but achievable with simple engineering.
Large fuel tanks were installed below ground for this purpose at two of the canalside fortifications. Pipes led from the tanks to the canal edge. From within the fort, the commander could release the fuel and ignite it with an electric spark. The system, dubbed Dusky Light, was tested in February, 1971 at one of the forts. The flames and dense cloud of black smoke that covered the placid canal waters alarmed the Egyptians. The Israeli command was less impressed. The fire did not cover a large area and burned itself out too quickly. In addition, considerable maintenance problems developed with the system. Sharon, as front commander, preferred to invest the funds allocated to Dusky Light in roads. Sixteen dummy installations were built–outlet pipes meant to be seen and to serve as a deterrent. Gradually, the two real installations fell into neglect and their exact location was unknown to most personnel serving on the front. But the Egyptians kept the threat firmly in mind.
On a line of sand hills five to six miles east of the canal–the first high ground inside Sinai–a second, thinner, line of outposts was built. These served as tank and artillery staging areas. In the event of an Egyptian attack, tanks would race from here to the canalside forts. The outposts were linked by a road called the Artillery Road. Fifteen miles further east, another north-south road–known as the Lateral Road–was built to serve the rear area. A series of east-west roads linked the Lateral and Artillery roads with each other and with the canal road, codenamed Lexicon, a mile from the waterway itself. These three roads–roughly one, five and 20 miles east of the canal and parallel to it–would be pivots around which future battles would unfold.
The post-Six Day War deployment of the IDF on the canal and on the Golan Heights had placed a special burden on military intelligence. The Egyptian and Syrian armies had in the past kept the bulk of their armies well back from their borders. When Egypt moved its divisions into Sinai before the Six Day War, signalling hostile intent, Israel had more than two weeks to fully mobilize and deploy. Israel lost this early warning buffer after the Six Day War since the Egyptian and Syrian armies were now drawn up in strength only a few hundred yards from the new Israeli lines on their territory
In October, 1972, after returning from posting as military attache in Washington, Gen. Eli Zeira was appointed head of military intelligence, known by its Hebrew acronym, AMAN. Zeira had once served as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s aide-de-camp and was said to be the general whom Dayan most respected. The brilliant, self-assured officer was already being mooted as a coming chief of staff. In some circles, however, his appointment created unease. After Zeira addressed a forum of senior officers in his new capacity, a colonel commanding a paratroop brigade remarked to a fellow officer as they left the hall that he was troubled by Zeira’s overweening self-confidence. The colonel would have preferred an intelligence chief more open to uncertainty.
AMAN was the leader of Israel’s intelligence community. It was responsible for formulating the “national intelligence estimate” which served not only the general staff but the government in decision making. The Mossad was responsible for intelligence collection abroad but, for all its reputation, it deferred to AMAN on assessments of Arab capabilities and intentions.
To ensure early warning in the new circumstances, AMAN under Zeira no longer relied only on analysis of what the enemy was capable of doing–he was now capable of attacking on very short notice–but principally on analysis of what he intended to do.
This could normally be equated with a reading of entrails, particularly when dealing with autocratic regimes where decisions lie mainly with a single man. But Zeira’s belief that he understood Anwar Sadat’s thinking rested on more than his own analytical abilities. The intelligence chief had discovered when he assumed his post that Israel had access to a supersource inside Egypt, according to foreign reports. It was the kind of source that intelligence officers dream about, supplying high quality military-political information and insights from the heart of the Egyptian establishment on Egypt itself and the Arab world, according to these reports. He had walked into an Israeli legation in Europe in 1969 to offer his services. Despite initial skepticism, his claim to have access to Egypt’s political-military pinnacle had reportedly proven itself in the quality intelligence he provided. The Mossad ran extensive checks and concluded that he was not a double agent. It was to him that Moshe Dayan referred years later when he said that Israel’s pre-war intelligence on Egyptian thinking was based on solid information. “I can say with total certainty that any intelligence service, chief of staff and defense minister in the world, having received this information and knowing its origins, would have come to the same conclusion.”
It was from this agent–who would be referred to as “The Source” by a post-war commission of inquiry–that Israel learned the key to Sadat’s strategic thinking. The Egyptian leader was determined to regain all of Sinai and would go to war if he had to. But he would not do so before two conditions were met. He wanted first to receive from the Soviet Union fighter-bombers capable of neutralizing the Israeli air force by attacking bases inside Israel. This determination stemmed from the Israeli Air Force’s success in 1967 in eliminating the Egyptian air force on the ground within the opening three hours, thereby determining the course of the entire war. The second Egyptian condition was receipt of Scud missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. This was intended to detert Israel from striking the Egyptian heartland. Israeli intelligence knew from other sources that the Egyptians were indeed negotiating with the Soviets for long-range planes and Scuds. The Soviets had not yet supplied them and therefore Egypt was not yet ready to go to war.
Zeira had inherited “the concept”, as this assessment came to be called, but he embraced it without reservation. It was Sadat’s concept, not his, and from an Egyptian point of view it made sense. Zeira assured the general staff that whatever angry noises Egypt might make, it would not go to war until those two conditions were met. And Syria, which was far weaker, would certainly not go to war without Egypt.
Half a year after taking over the Intelligence branch, Zeira’s analytical abilities and nerves were put to the ultimate test. In the spring of 1973 unprecedented movement was detected of Egyptian troops, artillery and bridging equipment to the canal front. Intelligence assets, including “the Source”, reported Sadat’s intention to go to war. Cairo placed its army on high alert and expeditionary forces from Iraq, Algeria and other Arab countries took up positions in the Egyptian line. Two squadrons of warplanes arrived in Egypt from Iraq and Libya. The latter squadron consisted of Mirages capable of reaching Israel. Intelligence sources cited a date in mid-May for the war to commence and the IDF was placed on alert status–codenamed “Blue-White”.
On May 8, Prime Minister Meir was taken to army headquarters for a briefing on the situation. If the Egyptians intended to go to war, she was told, Israel would know about it. “How will we know?” she asked. “By the preparations?” If the entire Egyptian army was planning to cross the canal, Zeira assured her, the IDF would know. Syria was unlikely to join in, he said, unless it felt, after the battle with Egypt was already underway, that Israel was in difficulty. The Syrians had no barrier like the Suez Canal separating their capital from the IDF and their air force had no chance against Israel’s. Therefore they would be very cautious. In any event, the chances of an all-out war with Egypt, which alone might bring in the Syrians, were “very low”, said Zeira. Mrs. Meir’s simplistic-sounding question was more to the point than she realized because Zamir’s analysis was not determined by the preparations but by his understanding of Sadat’s thinking.
Elazar did not accept Zeira’s “low probability” assessment. War was not a certainty but he ordered the general staff to act as if it was. Blue-White preparations included the shifting of tank depots closer to the fronts, speeding up the creation of new units, and readying equipment to bridge the Suez Canal. But there was no mobilization of reserves.
The head of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, did not share Zeira’s assessment either. He believed that Sadat was ready for war, regardless of “the concept”. He did not go so far as to forecast war but he supported the preparations being undertaken by the IDF. Dayan also believed war a reasonable option for Egypt since it would end political stalemate and bring international intervention. If war came, he said, it would be all-out.
Zeira emerged from the Blue-White episode with his reputation, and his self-confidence, greatly enhanced. With alarm bells going off all around him and the nation’s fate at stake, he had cooly maintained throughout the crisis that the probability of war was not only low but “very low”. Even senior analysts on his own staff had challenged his assessment but he stuck to it, unperturbed. It was AMAN’s task, he would say, to keep the national blood pressure down and not sound alarms unnecessarily. Otherwise, the reserves would be mobilized every couple of months with devestating effect on the economy and on morale.
Appearing before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in May, Zeira said “If the Egyptian army is planning to cross the canal, warning indicators will reach us.” Even in their current deployment, poised to spring, there were a number of specific steps the Egyptians and Syrians would have to take before opening fire. In fact, however, Zeira gave higher priority to his own analysis of Sadat’s intentions than to these so-called “warning indicators” on AMAN’s check list.
Zeira’s triumph was an indirect rebuke for Elazar. There was criticism in the government of the heavy expenditures the Blue-White logistical initiatives had involved. There was a clear risk that the chief-of-staff would be viewed as an alarmist if he again cried wolf. In future, he would think twice before challenging Zeira’s evaluations.
In the general relief at the end of the crisis, little notice was given to a report coming across the Egyptian desk at Intelligence headquarters. Only some of the bridging equipment and artillery that the Egyptians brought to the canal had been returned to bases in the rear. The remainder was still in storage areas in the canal zone.
Gen. Zeira’s reading of Egypt’s strategy, which he would cling to confidently over the course of a year, was obsolete even before he adopted it. The very month Zeira took over AMAN, Anwar Sadat revealed to his senior commanders that he had abandoned the concept on which the Israeli assessment was based.
The Egyptian president told the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on Oct. 24, 1972 that he intended to undertake military action without waiting any longer for long-range aircraft and Scud missiles. His objectives in Sinai could be achieved with lesser means. “We have to manage our affairs with whatever we have at hand ,” he said.
He had made his decision about the time he expelled the Soviet advisers in July when he ordered the minister of war, Gen Mohammed Ahmed Sadek, to have the army ready for war by mid-November. When Sadat at the October meeting asked Sadek for a report on the army’s readiness, the general leaned over in embarassment to whisper that he had not passed the order on to most of the generals for fear that it would be leaked. Two days later, Sadat dismissed Sadek. “He didn’t want to fight”, Sadat would write in his memoirs. Also dismissed were two generals and an admiral who had expressed reservations at the meeting about embarking on war.
General Sadek had maintained that only a war that forced Israel out of Sinai and the Gaza Strip would achieve Egypt’s objectives. That, however, was a formula for doing nothing since it was beyond Egypt’s capacity. Simply gaining a foothold on the Sinai bank of the canal, Sadat believed, would be sufficient to trigger superpower intervention and set off a political dynamic that would eventually force Israel to withdraw to the international border. To achieve this goal, it was not necessary to neutralize the Israeli air force by attacking its bases, a dubious prospect in any case. Soviet-made SAM ground-to-air missiles would serve instead.
This approach had been urged by Gen. Shazly whom Sadat had appointed chief of staff a year earlier. A charismatic paratroop officer, Shazly was selected for his post over 30 more senior generals. His appointment reflected Sadat’s determination to go to war. Shazly’s personal flair and his readiness to “eat sand” by prolonged stays with his men in the field made him an appropriate choice for restoring the self-confidence lost by the army after the disaster of 1967. Cairo newspaper editor Mohammed Hassenein Heikal, a shrewd judge of men, would conclude that Shazly was no military genius but that his energy and attention to detail would lead the army to success. “He knew what he was doing in using his glamour to achieve his military ends, above all raising the army’s morale for the task it faced.”
Gen. Sadek had initially rejected Shazly’s proposal for a limited Egyptian foothold in Sinai on the grounds that an Israeli counter-attack could pin the Egyptian forces against the canal, the very image Elazar had conjured up. Eventually, he authorized Shazly to draw up a plan, with the assistance of Soviet advisers, for an attack up to the Gidi and Mitla passes, 35-40 miles east of the canal–a plan known as Granite 2.
Even this was regarded by Shazly as unrealistic since it would take the Egyptian forces beyond the SAM umbrella. He was finally authorized to draw up a still more limited plan. Named High Minarets, it envisioned an advance of only five or six miles eastwards from the canal, a range just covered by the SAM batteries. In Shazly’s view, this was Egypt’s only realistic offensive option.
In the Six Day War, as a division commander, Shazly had barely escaped the Israeli onslaught, reportedly swimming back across the canal after his forces were destroyed. He had seen the devestation inflicted on the retreating army by Israeli warplanes operating with impunity over the battlefield. He did not want to put the army at risk again to an unfettered Israeli air force.
At the same time, Shazly did not accept the notion that Egypt could not go to war until its air force had neutralized Israel’s air superiority. He expressed this view at a meeting of the Armed Forces Supreme Council attended by Sadat in June, 1972. “If we are going to base our planning upon an adequate air force, we will have to postpone the battle for years and years,” he said. “In fact, I believe the gap between our air force and the enemy’s will tend to widen rather than narrow. We therefore have no choice but to prepare for a battle under conditions of enemy air superiority. We can do it by challenging that superiority with SAMs.” It was a rational assessment which would be reflected in Sadat’s revised strategy presented to the council four months later.
The person named by Sadat to replace Sadek as war minister, Gen. Ahmed Ismail, was the last man in the Egyptian army Shazly would have chosen to serve with, let alone under. The two men were longtime foes because of a squabble originating in the Congo in 1960. Ismail, heading an Egyptian military mission to the Congolese army, tried to interfere with Shazly’s command of an Egyptian contingent that was part of a UN peacekeeping force. Shazly had thrown a punch at Ismail, who outranked him, and the two men thereafter maintained an icy relationship whenever their common career brought them into contact. Shazly regarded Ismail as both indecisive and a bully. He submitted his resignation in 1969 when Nasser appointed Ismail chief of staff. It was only Nasser’s personal intervention that persuaded Shazly, then head of special forces, to remain. Six months later Ismail was dismissed following an Israeli armored raid on the Red Sea coast that met no resistance. Sadat had now recalled him as war minister, to general surprise.
Thrown together once again in a working relationship, Shazly and Ismail managed to suspend their mutual distaste. Shazly showed Ismail both the Granite 2 plan for reaching the passes and the limited High Minarets plan. The minister accepted Shazly’s opinion that only the latter was feasible and told him to proceed with detailed planning. Thus, an entirely new Egyptian strategic concept began to take shape even as Israeli intelligence clung confidently to the old. In time, the name of the plan would be changed to Badr, the site of the Prophet Mohammed’s first military victory in 624 A.D.
Shazly’s plan was completed by January, 1973 but would continue to be refined over the coming months. Its outline was simple but in the myriad, interlocking details lay its grandeur.
Five Egyptian infantry divisions had been deployed along the canal since the 1967 war. Three divisions, occupying the northern part of the line, constituted the Second Army. The southern two divisions constituted the Third Army. It was a basic premise of any Egyptian plan that a canal crossing would be made simultaneously at points all along the 100-mile canal line. This would play Egypt’s best hand–its abundant manpower– against Israel’s worst–its limited manpower.
The Egyptian army had been extensively revamped since the debacle of 1967. The heavily politicized General Staff had been purged and new commanders chosen on the basis of competence. In the armored corps, illiterates, who had made up a significant percentage of tank crews, were replaced. The armed forces now had large numbers of university and high school graduates. Intensive training with the new Soviet military equipment had honed the army’s skills.
Before coming to grips with the Israelis, the Egyptians would have to overcome the obstacle of the canal itself. Some 180 yards wide, it was subject to tides which rose and fell up to two yards. From the canal edge on the Israeli side rose a steep sand barrier 60 feet high, forming the outer edge of the Bar-Lev Line.
The assault crossing would be carried out in rubber boats. The commandos in the first wave would be supplied with rope ladders which they would secure to the top of the rampart to make it easier for the subsequent waves to climb. The assault waves would cross by boat but the bulk of the army would cross by bridges and ferries after openings had been cut through the ramp. Experiments in blowing holes in sand ramparts with explosives proved disappointing. A young engineering officer finally provided the solution. Heavy water cannon, he noted, had been used during construction of the Aswan Dam to cut openings through sand dunes. Lighter pumps floated across the canal might do the same to the Israeli earthwork. Tests behind the Egyptian lines proved that the idea worked and hundreds of pumps were purchased in Britain and Germany. Israeli intelligence was aware of the Egyptian plan to use water cannon to open breaches in the sand barrier but dismissed it as unfeasible.
High priority was given to neutralizing Lascov’s “fire-on-the-water” system. An initial idea was to form fire-fighting units which would beat the flames out with palm fronds. Another proposal was to use chemical extinguishers. Shazly didn’t think either approach efficient. He decided to try to block the fuel outlets on the Israeli bank just before the crossing or to rupture the buried fuel tanks with artillery fire. If these efforts failed, the crossings would be made upstream of the outlets, leaving the canal’s current to carry the burning fuel away. In a worst-case situation, the crossing would simply have to be delayed until the fuel burned itself out.
In the back of every Egyptian’s mind was the trauma of the 1967 rout and the fear that it might be repeated. Whether or not this would happen depended largely on Shazly and his planning staff, headed by Gen. Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy, chief of operations. By not foraying beyond the SAM umbrella, the Egyptians believed they would be spared concentrated air attack, provided the Israelis had not figured out how to foil the SAM missiles. But what of the Israeli tanks? Egyptian intelligence knew the outlines of the Dovecote plan from documents they had captured in cross-canal raids and from observing the frequent training exercises along the canal. Within less than half an hour of their opening barrage, the Egyptians knew, the first of the Israeli tanks would reach the canal from the Artillery Road. Egyptian tanks could not cross to challenge them until openings had been sliced through the sand barriers and bridges erected. Until then, the Israeli armor would have to be held off mainly by foot soldiers with anti-tank weaponry.
There were two principle weapons the Soviets had supplied for this purpose. One was the shoulder-held RPG-7 (rocket-propelled grenade), a successor to the World War 11 bazooka, that was highly effective at close range. It had been developed by the Soviets in 1961 to penetrate the armor of NATO tanks and would still be in use after the turn of the century. It could hit a target at 300 yards but was generally used at closer ranges. The other weapon, carried in what resembled a suitcase, was called the Malotka by the Soviets; in the west it was known by its NATO designation as the Sagger. The case opened to reveal a small missile connected to a length of thin wire and to a joystick. The operator would guide the missile to target with the joystick which sent signals down the wire unreeling behind the Sagger. Its range was 3,000 yards, about the maximum effective range of a tank gun, and its impact was no less deadly than a tank shell.
The Egyptian infantrymen would be fighting alone on the Sinai bank during the critical early hours but they would get covering fire from ramps the Egyptians had built on the west side of the canal. Instead of one continuous ramp the length of the canal, as on the Israeli side, the Egyptians raised scores of separate ramps at strategic locations. The Israeli ramp had initially been higher and every time the Egyptians raised theirs the Israelis raised theirs as well. But in 1972, the Egyptians undertook a massive construction project at the order of Ismail in which the Egyptian ramps grew to twice the height of the Israeli barrier.
The Israelis chose not to raise their ramp again. Instead, they built tank emplacements, which they called “fins”, up to a mile behind their canal-side strongpoints. From here, protected by long, low earthworks shaped like inverted Vs, they could duel with the tanks atop the Egyptian ramp, relying on superior gunnery to overcome the Egyptian advantage in height.
The Egyptians had grasped Israel’s operational mode and formulated an effective strategy to counter it. The Israelis would respond aggressively to an Egyptian attack, attempting to destroy the SAMs with air attacks and rushing tank forces forward to destroy the bridgeheads. The Egyptian response would be judo-like, letting the enemy’s forward thrust be his undoing.
The SAM air defense system supplied by the Soviet Union was one of the strongest in the world. It was backed by hundreds of anti-aircraft guns defending against low-flying aircraft which the SAMs could not lock onto.
In the ground battle, the intention was to let the Israeli armor break against a defensive wall that included thousands of Saggers and RPGs. This was an anti-tank array no army had yet encountered. Shazly ordered all units not crossing in the early waves to hand over their Saggers to those that were. Until the Egyptian tanks could cross, the infantry units in Sinai would form shallow, dense bridgeheads in order to concentrate their anti-tank fire. They would be supported by tanks and anti-tank guns firing from the Egyptian ramparts.
The Egyptian attack plan was impeccable. But there were two major unknowns. One was how soon Israeli intelligence would become aware of the pending attack and what steps the IDF would then take to thwart it. Also unknown was the ability of the Egyptian troops to bear up to whatever Israel was going to throw at them.
It was opera, thought Benny Peled, and bad opera at that.
Reviewing contingency plans upon his appointment as Israel Air Force (IAF) commander in May, 1973, Gen. Peled found the proposals for suppression of the SAM missile batteries complex to the point of absurdity.
Israel had encountered SAM-2s in the Six Day War and lost three planes to them. But the missile batteries had been few and were easily destroyed by low-level attack. In the War of Attrition, the nuisance became a nemesis. Deployed in large numbers, the batteries, each with six missile launchers, were now mutually supporting. The defenses had also been reinforced by SAM-3s which were more difficult to evade.
In July, 1970, the air force tested a system devised by the Americans for countering SAM-2s over North Vietnam. It was based on electronic pods which sent signals distorting the missile’s radar. Warplanes equipped with these pods were required to maintain formation at precise altitudes even if missiles were fired at them. The Americans themselves did not know if the method was effective against SAM-3s. The need for finding a solution to the SAM threat was so critical that the commander of one of the IAF’s two Phantom squadrons, Col. Shmuel Hetz, pressed for the American system to be put to the test.
Hetz personally led the first flight of 20 Phantoms into the missile zone. Activating the pods slung beneath their wings, the Phantoms held steady course as the sky around them blossomed with exploding missiles. The planes got through to destroy four of the 10 batteries targetted and damage three others. But one plane was downed on the way back. It was Hetz’, hit by a SAM-3. His navigator bailed out and was captured. Hetz did not manage to parachute. A Phantom flown by the other squadron commander, Col. Avihu Bin-Nun, was also hit and he barely succeeded in landing at a base in Sinai, his plane running off the runway and plowing into the sand for 100 yards. Five Phantoms, the pride of the Israeli air force, would be downed by missiles before the cease fire went into effect three weeks later.
In the ensuing lull, the air force was left with the queasy realization that it no longer held unchallenged mastery of the skies. The technological edge it enjoyed over the Arabs had been reversed almost overnight. The problem became even more acute when the Egyptians, flouting the cease-fire, moved missiles into the canal zone from where their reach extended over Israeli-held western Sinai.
The best minds in the air force were devoted in the ensuing years to the missile challenge. What Benny Peled found on his desk was a plan devised by a team headed by Bin-Nun that sought to make up with tactics what was lacking in technology. Codenamed Tagar, it envisaged a complex aerial ballet executed by hundreds of planes performing exacting manouvers at top speed and with stopwatch precision. A similar plan, codenamed Dougman-5, was drawn up for the Golan Heights.
The Israelis eventually succeeded in creating a jamming system against the SAM-3s but the appearance in 1972 of the SAM-6 posed a more menacing threat. The electronic parameters of the new missile were unknown even to the Americans. They would therefore have to be attacked without precise electronic foreplay, which greatly increased the risks. From war games, the air force had concluded that it could lose as much as one plane per SAM battery attacked. Given that there were 87 batteries on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts–not to mention another 95 defending rear areas such as air bases–there was an immense price to be paid, if this projection held, even if only the front line batteries were attacked. Some air force officers maintained that Tagar and Dougman were too complex and too rigid to work. But no one offered a better solution.
Ironically, Peled was the only senior airman in the IAF who had not experienced missiles close-up. He had joined the air force as a mechanic and only later became a pilot, rising to squadron commander, but the technical side of flying always intrigued him. He was an unexpected choice for the top command. In a clubby organization filled with superb pilots and fighter aces Peled had never downed an enemy plane. He himself had been shot down in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. His extended absences on special development projects made him something of an outsider. But his intellect, organizational brilliance, and ample self-confidence left no question once he took over about who was running the shop. He had an acerbic tongue and did not suffer fools.
The missiles, he discovered, had traumatized the air force. For long virtually invulnerable in dogfights, the flyers had seen Hetz and other top pilots suddenly brushed away by a new weapon system that threatened to drive them all from the sky. Most of the air force’s energies and much of its budget were dedicated to the missile question, diverting attention from critical subjects like strategic warfare and close support of ground forces. Meeting with the Tagar planners, Peled said he believed their scheme could work, but only in a perfect world. Success required that the operation be launched when the sun would be in the enemy’s eyes and in perfect weather. It would need fresh intelligence, from the morning of the planned attack or the previous evening, fixing the exact location of the missiles. It would also need 36 hours notice to prepare necessary accoutrements to foil the enemy radar. Above all, it required a government decision to launch a pre-emptive attack which alone could ensure these ideal conditions. This meant relying on politicians. Peled determined to find another solution but meanwhile Tagar and Dougman 5 remained on the books.
Shortly after taking command, Peled was paid a formal visit by Dayan, Elazar and other members of the general staff. They had come to hear the new air force commander’s war plans. With Peled were Bin-Nun and the other Tagar and Dougman 5 planners who spelled out their “star wars” proposals, as Peled would sardonically label them. The visitors were impressed at the sophistication of the plans and were relieved to be told there was a solution to the missile problem. Before they left, Peled brought them back to earth. “You should know that these plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless we get permission to strike first.” As Peled would recall it, Dayan replied “Do you think that if we have even a hint of an Arab attack we will not attack first?”
The visit by the heads of the defense establishment and the comfort they drew from the airmen’s presentation betrayed one of the basic flaws of Israel’s defense posture–overdependence on the air force. The IAF received fully half the military budget and had come to be seen as an almost mystical problem solver. The flimsiness of the front line forces deployed opposite the Egyptian and Syrian armies rested on the presumption that the air force would slow the enemy down until the reserves were mobilized. But this now depended on prior supression of the missiles. Tagar and Dougman 5 were only paper plans and the arrival of the SAM-6s rendered these already complex operations even more chancy.
Just as a sense of dolce vita had come to permeate the civilian sector, flabbiness of thought had overcome the senior military command. Israel had fallen victim to its own victory in 1967. A success of such dimensions, against such odds, evoked a sense of Israeli power and of Arab dysfunction that was too powerful to ignore. There were some who saw in this disparity a divine hand but most presumed a civilizational difference–a divide between east and west that would not be bridgeable for generations to come. “The Arab soldier lacks the characteristics necessary for modern war,” then chief-of-staff Haim Bar-Lev declared in 1970. These characteristics, he said, included rapid reaction, technical competence, a high level of intelligence, adaptability, “and, above all, the ability to see events realistically and speak truth, even when it is difficult and bitter.”
However, the Egyptians had proven, as far back as the first Israel-Arab war in 1948, that in defensive battles they were stubborn opponents. The 1967 rout had been touched off by a premature fallback order by Egypt’s high command on the second day of the war before 80 percent of his army had even been in contact with the enemy. A fleeing army may be dismissed as rabble. But that same army, infused with motivation, could prove formidable. In the War of Attrition, which saw daring commando raids behind Israeli lines, the Egyptian army showed that it had another face.
Israel’s tank corps was a particular victim of the victory syndrome. Its success in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War in breaking through heavily defended Egyptian positions reinforced the notion that the tank was king. The number of Israeli tanks had been doubled since 1967.
Israel’s tank doctrine rested in good part on a concept developed by General Tal during his seven years as head of the armored corps which some called “the totality of the tank”. Conventional doctrine, deriving from vast experience in World War 11, called for a combined arms approach in which tanks advanced in tandem with infantry and artillery. The infantrymen served to protect the tanks from enemy ground troops wielding anti-tank weapons while artillery provided both with support.
Tal, however, believed that on the desert battlefields of the Middle East the tank could for the most part manage alone. Visibility was far clearer than in hazy Europe and there was precious little brush for infantrymen with bazookas to hide behind. As for enemy anti-tank guns, these are easily spotted in the naked desert and could be hit at a distance with accurate gunfire. Tanks would advancae swiftly to reduce exposure to enemy fire, not stopping till they had broken the enemy line. Such a charge would create an effect of “armor shock”. Infantry would follow to mop up. Since the charging tanks would quickly outrun artillery, they would rely primarily on their own guns and on the air force as flying artillery. Tal stressed tank gunnery training and Israeli tank crews opened fire at longer range than in any other army. A senior American armor general who closely studied the Israeli armored corps would term its gunnery the best in the world.
This “totality of the tank” approach had its opponents even within the armored corps but the results of the Six Day War appeared to confirm its validity. Several times, Israeli tank columns broke through fortified Egyptian positions by brazen, head-on, attacks with virtually no assistance from artillery or infantry. Critics would note, however, that the fact that it worked in the context of that war, in which the surprise Israeli assault had stunned the Egyptians, did not necessarily prove its applicability in every war. There were other battles in the 1967 war which were won by effective use of combined arms, including battles by Tal himself, but it was the dashing tank charge that seized the army’s imagination.
The acquisition by the Egyptians and Syrians of the Sagger anti-tank missile made little impression. Israeli tank forces had encountered the missile in exchanges of fire across the lines during the War of Attrition and regarded it as just another anti-tank weapon along with conventional anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles and tanks themselves, not a threat that required a basic revision of battle doctrine. AMAN printed booklets about the Sagger’s characteristics based on information received from the U.S. which had encountered the missile in Vietnam in 1972. The Armored Corps command had even developed tactics for dealing with the missile. But neither the booklets nor the tactics had been widely circulated and few tank men were even aware of the Sagger’s existence.
Its introduction, however, changed the battlefield equation. Unlike conventional anti-tank guns, the Sagger was wielded by a single soldier. He did not need bushes to hide behind; lying behind a small pile of sand or in a shallow foxhole would be enough to render him invisible at a distance to tank crews. The Sagger operator would find it much easier to hit a tank than the other way round—and at ranges that matched the tank’s.
Israel was also aware that masses of RPGs had been acquired by the Egyptians and Syrians but did not find convincing the thought of Arab infantrymen meeting a tank charge head-on.
Another technical advance in the Arab armies–the acquisition of infra-red equipment for night fighting–was likewise noted and dismissed. Night fighting had been Israel’s preferred mode in its War of Independence in 1948. Its lightly armed troops used the darkness to close on the enemy, something that would have been costly in daylight. But as the army over the years acquired heavier weapons, daylight came to be seen as the best time to exploit this strength. The IDF continued to train in night fighting and to engage in it periodically and there remained a myth that the IDF preferred night fighting while the Arabs were afraid of it. However, by the 1970s few Israeli tanks had night-sights. By contrast, Soviet tanks in Egyptian and Syrian hands were equipped with infra-red projectors as well as infra-red headlights and infra-red sights for the crew. Night sights were also widely distributed among infantry units.
Israel had not turned its back on night-fighting but it preferred not using infra-red devices which could be detected by an enemy with infra-red binoculars. The armored corps was planning to acquire night sights that magnified starlight. Meanwhile, however, the Arab armies had night-viewing equipment and the IDF did not.
The Israeli navy had been spared the smugness which overtook the rest of the IDF after the Six Day War. Its antiquated collection of ships dating from the Second World War had taken virtually no part in the 1967 war. The defense establishment regarded the navy as little more than a coast guard and would not expend funds to build a modern navy. It was clear that Israel’s fate depended on its army and air force; whatever happened at sea would not matter much, one way or the other.
In 1960, the service’s senior officers assembled to discuss the navy’s future. From this two-day conclave, a revolutionary concept emerged. Israel’s fledgling defense industry was developing a missile that it was trying to peddle, in different versions, to the air force and the artillery corps. Neither was interested. The missile could be fired from long distances but had to be guided onto target by a forward observer manipulating a joystick. If the missile could be adapted for use at sea, the naval officers fantasized, its large warhead would give a small patrol boat the punch of a heavy cruiser. Furthermore, patrol boats were cheap.
In the coming years, the navy invested prodigious efforts in creating a sea-to-sea missile and the missile boat that would launch it, a weapon system no country had. It would take 13 years of virtually round-the-clock work by the navy and the military industries for the pieces to come together. During development, the idea of guiding the missile with a joystick was improved upon. The missile, dubbed the Gabriel, was provided an electronic brain that permitted it to home on a target and pursue it on its own.
Halfway through the project, it was learned that the Soviets had developed their own missile boats and had supplied them to the Egyptian and Syrian navies. Four months after the Six Day War, Egyptian missile boats emerging from Port Said harbor demonstrated for the first time the accuracy and lethality of seaborne missiles when they sank Israel’s flagship, the destroyer Eilat. An Israeli naval electronics expert, calculating the sort of homing device his counterpart in the Soviet admiralty had devised for the missile, developed electronic countermeasures that he hoped would foil it.
An embargo declared by France impounded the last five of 12 missile boat platforms Israel had ordered from a shipbuilder in Cherbourg. On Christmas eve, 1969, in the midst of a Force Nine gale that kept even large freighters in port, Israeli sailors who had slipped into Cherbourg raised anchor and took the five vessels out. When the authorities realized the boats were gone, the infuriated French defense minister threatened to send planes to bomb the boats but cooler heads prevailed. On October 1, 1973, the Israeli missile boat flotilla held its first full-scale manouvers at sea, returning to harbor a day before Yom Kippur.
Like the Israeli navy, the Arabs had been spared the self-satisfaction induced by victory. Solutions were painstakingly hammered out for neutralization of Israel’s superiority in air and armored warfare. Thousands of officers were sent to advanced military courses in the Soviet Union. Intelligence officers were trained intensively in Hebrew in order to permit them to monitor Israeli communications. If Israel’s thinking had been lulled by hubris, Arab thinking was sharpened by desperation. The “on to Tel Aviv” bravado of earlier wars that led to disaster had given way to sober war preparations .
The bizarre disproportion of forces along the front line rested on Israel’s confidence that intelligence would provide enough warning to mobilize before the war started. In the highly unlikely event of an intelligence failure, the fallback would be the air force. “In this kind of situation,” Elazar said, “the air force pays dividends. That we dare to delay mobilization stems from our faith in the ability of the air force to halt the enemy during the blocking stage.”
The possibility that the air force might be neutralized by the SAMs was not considered despite the fact that the War of Attrition had ended without an answer to the missiles having been found. It was presumed that the solutions the air force had since come up with—Tagger and Dougman-5– would work, even though they had not been tested. To envision a failure of the air force on top of a failure of the intelligence services would be pushing imagination to the point of perversity. The general staff made no contingency study of what would happen if the Sinai Division had to hold off five Egyptian divisions without the reserves– not mobilized in time because of intelligence failure–and without the air force, neutralized by the SAMs.
There was still another worst-case scenario the high command did not consider–that innovative Egyptian tactics would cripple Israel’s armor.
If any one of these three scenarios became reality, it would pose the IDF with a major challenge. If all three became reality–meaning neutralization of the IDF’s intelligence, air force and armor–Israel faced catastrophe.
How I came to write The Yom Kippur War
As a Jerusalem Post journalist I reported from the Sinai and Golan battlefronts during the Yom Kippur War. In the years that followed I read almost everything there was to read about the war in the Israeli and foreign press, read many of the books written about it and followed closely radio and television accounts. On the occasion of the war’s 20th anniversary in 1993 I was asked to write an article about the Golan battle for the Jerusalem Post magazine. Interviewing commanders and soldiers who fought there I discovered that the pieces of information I had amassed over the years were merely blips on a much broader and more intricate and fascinating canvas. In that article I focused on the battle for the northern part of the Golan. Five years later, on the 25th anniversary, I decided to write about the battle for the southern Golan about which I already knew myself to be ignorant. The senior Israeli commanders there had been killed in the opening days and few surviving participants had come forward to tell the story. Once again, what emerged from extensive interviewing was a revelation. By now, I understood that whatever I thought I knew about the main battlefront in Sinai was sure to be more shadow than reality. Much had been published about the war but I was now convinced that there was lacking a narrative that told the story of this extraordinary conflict, not as a collection of episodes but with the sweep and comprehensiveness it deserved. The book would have to be based on large scale interviewing – from generals to tank gunners to cabinet ministers – that would provide a three-dimensional picture and link a two-front, multi-pronged war into a cohesive whole in which everything connected. I set out to do this in 1999. It would take me five years of full-time effort. The timing was good. Censorship restrictions had been eased and most of the senior commanders in the war were still alive and willing to talk. Several whom I interviewed would die not long afterwards. I profited from valuable memoirs and analyses published in Israel, the Arab world, the U.S. and the Soviet Union which appeared close to the 30th anniversary of the war in 2003. One invaluable document was made available by Col. Amnon Reshef, who commanded the only Israeli tank brigade on the Suez Canal when the Egyptians attacked. He asked his men after the war to submit to him detailed accounts of the opening battles as they experienced it. Their reports constitute the most vivid account of the traumatic battle for the Bar-Lev Line in which close to 200 tanks were lost in the first 12 hours of the war. Early in the war, I reached the northern part of the Golan Heights together with a colleague. The battlefield was eerily quiet and the fatigued soldiers we encountered could tell little of what happened. Unknown to us, the fiercest tank battle since the Second World War had just ended. A vastly outnumbered Israeli force had stopped the Syrian army which attacked with more than 1,000 tanks. The last of the Syrians had been driven back only hours before after four days of desperate fighting. Israeli forces would the next morning launch a counterattack towards Damascus. The quiet we had stumbled into was that of two exhausted armies gathering strength for the next round. For all those who lived through the war, on whatever side, the Yom Kippur War–or, as it is known in the Arab world, the October War or Ramadan War–remains one of the defining moments of their lives. It is a defining moment too in the history of the region. Its reverberations are with us yet.