A Revisionist View of the Intelligence Failure of the Yom Kippur War

by December 2022
Prime Minister Golda Meir, during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. Photo credit: imago images/Sven Simon via Reuters Connect

As Israel heads into the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, one issue from that momentous war is still debated in Israel. Who was to blame for Israel’s failure to anticipate the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack: the military intelligence officials (and by extension the organization and mentality of the intelligence establishment) or the politicians who made the decisions? Published memoirs and declassified documents offer a revisionist view of the intelligence failure of 1973 and subsequent reforms of the Israeli intelligence apparatus.

>> Inside Intelligence: Read more from Amir Oren

The prevailing views of the intelligence failure in 1973 were first created by the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, formed by Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government several weeks after the war ended (at least with Egypt, since Syria kept shooting for weeks after a ceasefire was agreed, in a stationary campaign of attrition.) Shimon Agranat, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, chaired the commission, which included another judge, the state comptroller, and two retired lieutenant generals—the highest rank in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Years later, memoirs, interviews, and declassified documents revealed that the Agranat Commission was strongly biased in favor of Prime Minister Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and their cabinet and against the military professionals who implemented their policy. The Commission decided that the nation had suffered enough and should not have to undergo another upheaval, having held a general election while waiting for their verdict. Several generals were sacrificed to placate public opinion. Ten days after the Agranat Commission presented its interim report—scalping the generals and sparing their political masters—Meir resigned, ending her career. Dayan’s career remained frozen for three years until Menachem Begin became prime minister and needed a world-renowned figure for foreign minister and peacemaker with Egypt.

Israel’s defense doctrine in the early 1950s tried to strike a balance between the nation-building needs of a poor young country and the recognition that the transition from everyday routine to full-scale war could be sudden and fast.

In addition to recommending that the government remove two commanders and three senior intelligence officers, the Commission proposed a reorganization of the intelligence community. One problem it had identified was the monopoly on assessments held by the director of Military Intelligence. This was the long-held idea, indeed pet project, of the Commission’s senior military member, Yigael Yadin.

Universally recognized as the IDF’s boy wonder, Yadin became chief of operations at age 31 during the 1948 war. Although he lacked frontline combat experience, he was held in awe as a staff wizard by both his colleagues and by the Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion. Yadin built the military from scratch and rose to become chief of the general staff. He later resigned after disagreeing with Ben-Gurion’s military budget cuts and exiled himself to academia—a sort of De Gaulle waiting to be called back to save the country from failing politicians.

In 1963 Ben-Gurion fell out with his longtime confidant, Isser Harel, who headed both the external intelligence service (Mossad) and the internal security service (Shin Bet) for more than a dozen years. As I described in a previous column, Harel’s assessment of a certain military-technological threat—rockets being developed by German engineers in Egypt—was at odds with that of the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI). Ben-Gurion forced Harel out, appointed the DMI director to replace him, and asked Yadin and another veteran official, Zeev Sherf, to look into the make-up of the entire intelligence community

The Yadin–Sherf report was never acted upon. Yadin waited for an opportunity to present it again. A decade later, his membership in the Agranat Commission gave him an opening to do just that.

Yadin wanted the DMI chief to remain first among equals on national security assessments, but he also wanted other voices to be heard as second opinions. He suggested that both the Mossad and Foreign Ministry acquire substantive research and analysis staffs.

Israeli soldiers atop a Super-Sherman tank on Syria’s Golan Heights, a week after the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. Photo credit: imago images/Sven Simon via Reuters Connect

Israel’s defense doctrine, whose main framers in the early 1950s were Ben-Gurion and Yadin, tried to strike a balance between the nation-building needs of a poor young country that quickly had to absorb immigration far beyond its means and the recognition that the transition from everyday routine to full-scale war could be sudden and fast. As hopes of turning the 1949 armistice agreements into peace treaties with Arab neighbors faded, and as hostile regimes threatened to destroy Israel once their militaries were ready, Israel’s need to anticipate and provide early warning became paramount.

Having demobilized after 1949—both because supporting a huge standing army was financially untenable and the civilian economy was in need of a workforce—the IDF built three complementary components. These were conscripts serving two (later three) years in training and border security missions; a small cadre of career officers and non-commissioned officers in charge of these youth; and reservists, who were called up for annual exercises and were able to mobilize during emergencies. Accurate and timely intelligence would make the difference between too early and too late, as false alarms could be unbearable while complacency could lead to disaster.

In the British military model adopted by Ben-Gurion and Yadin, the intelligence section chief, G-2, was one of the commander’s staff officers, much like G-1 personnel and G-4 logistics. Yet compared to these two, he was of even lower rank, because bureaucratically he was subordinate to the operations chief, G-3, Yadin’s own wartime position. Yadin’s intelligence chiefs were mere colonels heading departments. It was only later, under Dayan as chief of staff, that the DMI was upgraded to a full department of the general staff, and its head was elevated to the status of general officer.

Israel’s political leadership made the wrong call. On the eve of Yom Kippur, 1973 Israel’s leaders believed that the worst-case scenario could not be that bad.

So when Yadin submitted his report (with Sherf) in 1963 and revived it as a member of the Agranat Commission a decade later, he believed that the prime minister and the close circle of policymakers would be best served by a variety of views provided by several intelligence chiefs and sorted out by an intelligence adviser to the prime minister.

Under the impression that Israel’s troubles in October 1973 stemmed from being surprised and that the surprise was organizationally tied to the DMI’s supremacy in the intelligence community, Yadin and his co-panelists zeroed in on the DMI chief, Major General Eli Zeira, and his research and analysis chief, Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev. They had presented the assessment that turned out to be woefully wrong—that there was only a “low probability” that Egypt would wage war.

The sins of the Agranat Commission became gradually evident as its bias and secrets were exposed and declassified. Yadin went easy on Golda Meir because he wanted to join her cabinet. Meir’s meeting with Jordan’s King Hussein one week before the war on September 25, when he warned her that the Syrian military was on “pre-jump positions,” came up in her closed-door testimony but was only revealed to the public 15 years later—a decade after her death. Meir and Dayan were depicted as being wholly dependent on the DMI’s assessment; therefore, if the DMI was mistaken, they were not at fault.

In reality, Israel’s political leadership made the wrong call. On the eve of Yom Kippur 1973, Israel’s leaders thought that acting upon war indicators would be more costly than inaction, especially three weeks before an election, and believed that the worst-case scenario could not be that bad. Meir and Dayan were confident in the IDF’s ability to easily repel an invasion and go on a counter-offensive. If they had had a more pessimistic view of the ratio of forces, with a need to hedge against the price of surprise, they would not have needed assessments by the Mossad or the Foreign Ministry to uptick the DMI’s low probability to medium or high.

Yadin’s pluralistic approach makes sense, as no supply chain, including when the product is intelligence, should depend on a single source. But three or four different intelligence assessments rather than one provide no assurance that decision makers will reach the right conclusions upon hearing dissenting views.

Other reforms instituted in the years since 1973 were of some help. Strategic planning was belatedly upgraded, thereby giving the IDF some net assessment capability. Another quarter of a century passed before a National Security staff was established, though it still lacks the clout to effectively coordinate policy options among the ministries and present them to the prime minister.

The roles and missions of Israel’s intelligence agencies have multiplied since 1973. The Palestinian issue—dormant in the Yom Kippur War—is now front and center, giving the Shin Bet a major seat at the table. The DMI’s entire outlook has shifted toward targeting and amassing offensive cyber capabilities. Its vaunted Unit 8200, Israel’s cyber command and signals intelligence branch, is as much a part of the attack formations as the air force and ground divisions.

The Agranat Commission’s reform of Israel’s intelligence community did, however, bring about one very positive result—fresh brainpower, recruited out of academia and the military to staff the new research and analysis organs. They went on to other positions as spies, diplomats, and managers across the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry, a big plus for their employers and the entire system.

>> Inside Intelligence: Read more from Amir Oren

Amir Oren
Amir Oren has been covering national security, intelligence, and foreign affairs as a combat correspondent and commentator for decades. He is a regular lecturer at defense colleges and intelligence and diplomacy fora in Israel, Canada, the EU, and NATO. @Rimanero
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