It is mid-July 1958, and the Middle East is on fire. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion calls in the US ambassador and tells him that what is taking place is “the most important political event since the Second World War.” Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser seems to be on a roll. Syria recently joined Egypt as the junior partner in a United Arab Republic. Now a Nasserite Iraqi general, Abd al-Karim Qasim, has taken over Baghdad by gunning down the pro-Western prime minister and his royal backers. Lebanon is teetering—this would soon become the site of the first American military deployment into the Levant—and Jordan could fall too, encircling Israel by a Nasser-controlled, Soviet-supported hostile ring.
That long-forgotten episode is an interesting case study in crisis management—although King Hussein ultimately survived yet another plot (and went on to rule for 40 additional years), and Qasim turned out to be an Iraqi nationalist, who put Iraq’s national aspirations ahead of Cairo’s and Moscow’s. The danger of a ring of hostility was abated. Thanks to declassified top-secret minutes of Israel’s cabinet sessions, Ben-Gurion’s approach to the intelligence operations policy nexus is now publicly available. It provides context for what would take place 15 years later—the role of assessment error (“low probability”) in the failure to brace properly for the Yom Kippur War.
Yom Kippur is etched in memory as Israel’s Pearl Harbor, but the lessons learned by American leaders, first in Congress and then in the Executive Branch (with Truman, the senator-turned-president playing successive roles in both), were turned upside down by the Israeli system of having two or three ministers in charge of various agencies.
In Washington, the separate intelligence entities of the Departments of State, War, Navy, and the FBI (whose beat was the Western hemisphere) were shown to need integration; hence the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. In Jerusalem, the argument was that intelligence was too centralized in the run-up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with skeptics drowned out by an almighty, overbearing Directorate of Military Intelligence.
Following that war, the Agranat Commission of Inquiry found fault in the alleged total reliance on the DMI and recommended a fundamental reform. The two major tenets would be bolstering the analytical role of other members of the intelligence community (a newly established research function in the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry’s political research center) and creating the position of intelligence advisor to the prime minister.
Five decades later, with enough data to measure the success of this reform (forced on reluctant governments), one should first go back to Ben-Gurion’s doctrine, as revealed in that 1958 brain-storming among Israel’s leaders.
“This goes to show you,” as Israel’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ben-Gurion stated, “that Intelligence—both British and American—is worthless. They knew nothing until the last moment, that such a thing was being planned.”
Education Minister Zalman Aran, who earlier had led the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee—a key supervisory organ in the Israeli system of government—echoed Ben-Gurion’s sentiments: “As you noted, all of the Intelligences went bankrupt. When do you know that someone went bankrupt? Once the bankruptcy is announced. That’s why I want to draw your attention to what could come next,” a reference to his fear of an Arab revolt within Israel.
That contingency aside, Ben-Gurion focused on the main issue, posed to him by another minister: “If this spreads further, do you think they could soon dare to do harm to Israel?” To which Ben-Gurion’s response was, “I can’t say what they are going to do. I have to see the potentially most severe development. This is how I go about it at all times. If it does not happen, great, but one has to be prepared for the worst eventuality. The human being is not a rational creature. You don’t know what forces push on, what awakens on certain moments. I can’t rely on a theory, what would happen if we do something or not. I may have a basis for an assumption, but will not build on that, not endanger our existence through a theory. One has to assume the worst option.”
In other words, he was arguing in favor of a worst-case decision maker and of zero complacency, when the stakes are so high that national survival may be in the balance. Yet this in itself does not mean any particular action—mobilization, prevention, diplomacy. The immediate need is for awareness of options, risks, opportunities, and timelines. The professional intelligence mechanisms are only one part, albeit an essential one, in this system.
The emerging State of Israel was fortunately not dependent on strategic intelligence gathered by its underground collection service, which was tactically adapted to Jewish–Palestinian fighting (and to giving support to Zionist diplomacy) but was not useful for assessing Arab governments, their capabilities, and their intentions.
Thus, in 1948, and for the next two decades, the key role of strategic assessment was played by the foreign ministers—Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir, or Abba Eban—always among the three most influential members of the government led by Israel’s then ruling Mapai Party (later to become the Labor Party). They were all experienced diplomats, assisted by able foreign service officers in embassies and at the Jerusalem head office. It was ludicrous to portray a military man briefing the Cabinet on political developments. Ben-Gurion hardly ever invited officers under the level of the chief of general staff to attend ministerial meetings.
Ironically, considering the later call for multiplicity of intelligence assessments, in earlier years there was no dearth of conflicting interpretations of data collected by the various arms of the Israeli government. While DMI heads rotated in and out, a competing power center emerged in the person of Isser Harel, whose authority spanned both the Mossad for external intelligence and the General Security Service, better known as the Shabak, for internal intelligence. On two major occasions, Harel challenged the DMI’s relative optimism following the veiled threat of Soviet Premier Bulganin to strike Israel unless it withdrew from Sinai in 1956 and when German rocket scientists were recruited to help Nasser against Israel in the early 1960s.
The secretive Harel went by the unofficial title “ha-Memune,” which can be roughly translated as “the Supervisor.” After Harel’s falling out with Ben-Gurion over the German scientists episode and subsequently being forced to resign, one Israeli minister wondered aloud what Harel was actually supervising—did he really have official authority over both civilian intelligence agencies?
Just before he left office, Ben-Gurion appointed two respected officials to examine the structure of the intelligence community and recommend reforms, if necessary. The two were retired General Yigal Yadin and long-time Cabinet Secretary Ze’ev Sherf. Their report was submitted to then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who implemented some of the proposals, including moving the Shabak from the Defense Ministry to the Prime Minister’s office—an important act that ensured that the two agencies would no longer be run by the same person. But Eshkol did not fully embrace the other major recommendation, to appoint an advisor on intelligence affairs who would serve as a sort of director of national intelligence (as established in the US after 9/11), but without an organization of his own, yet competing with the established chiefs by virtue of seniority and proximity to the prime minister. This would have been a recipe for friction, and Eshkol was averse to friction.
For a while Eshkol had what he euphemistically called “a general advisor”—first Sherf, then Harel—who chaired, or at least participated in, meetings of the big three intel chiefs, sometimes also attended by senior officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry, and the National Police. But the human explosive charge named Harel detonated, with shrapnel hitting his rivals, as well as Eshkol. The advisor’s position was eliminated, Sherf and Harel went into politics, and Eshkol, as well as his successor Golda Meir, did just fine by relying on the DMI for analysis at the national level and on the Mossad for international espionage and other chores.
And yet Yadin (who was also a famous archeologist) had not said his last word. After the 1973 failure, he was invited to serve as the leading military authority in the five-member commission of inquiry led by Shimon Agranat, then the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There Yadin again pushed his pet project, pluralism writ large. Let a thousand flowers, or at least three, bloom. No longer will the DMI reign supreme. The Foreign Ministry and the Mossad, reinforced by officers taken out of the same limited reservoir, will offer their political and defense superiors a variety of assessments. A menu of analysis will be provided, rather than an à la carte meal cooked in one kitchen.
This was a simplistic proposition even when first unveiled. To begin with, the DMI’s head office was not the only organization offering intelligence assessments. In the narrower realm of their particular turfs, the intelligence divisions of the Air Force, the Navy, and the Territorial Commands could offer their independent assessments, although they were more junior and not privy to all national sources of information. Thus, on the eve of the 1973 War, the director of Naval Intelligence issued a war warning to the naval fleet, approved by the Navy chief, based on unusual patterns of Egyptian ship movements. These departments were rightfully upgraded and more listened to, and a “devil’s advocate” was set up to present an alternative assessment. Still, the DMI held the abiding responsibility for assessments at the national level.
In fact, politicians actually prefer clear-cut intelligence judgements. Snide remarks crept into the councils of war. Responding to a remark by Chief of Staff David Elazar that “[the DMI] says that the Iraqis are not in Damascus yet,” Defense Minister Moshe Dayan quipped, “DMI says no, but in its paper it writes yes. Maybe there are several DMIs.” This was a fair critique of the practice where the intelligence briefer does not conform to the document painstakingly produced by others, to the point of giving the opposite impression. The intelligence organization then stands accused of trying to hedge its bets, in an either-or fashion.
Dayan, however, was the last person with a legitimate claim in this regard. Three days before the war, with warnings coming in but not yet substantiated (as well they could not, because only on that very day did Egypt’s Anwar Sadat bring the Syrian High Command in on his plan for joint action), Dayan told his colleagues that he was not worried about an Egyptian attack, primarily because the Suez Canal was quite an obstacle and even if crossed, Israel proper was another hundreds of kilometers eastward. Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s protege and political heir, forgot the worst-case scenario.
As soon as the wartime director of the DMI, Eli Zeira, was replaced by Shlomo Gazit, the chilling effect was immediately obvious. Tensions were still high between Israel and Syria, while US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s Damascus–Jerusalem shuttle went on. There were indications that the Syrian Army would attack. Then again, maybe not. Gazit heaped all “18 options” to choose from on Dayan, lest he be charged once again with being recklessly optimistic.
One of Zeira’s main rebuttals to the Agranat report was that his political superiors denied him crucial information regarding secret diplomatic contacts between Meir, Kissinger, and Sadat. Meir kept it to herself and three or four confidants, excluding her intraparty rival Dayan and his subordinates, among them Zeira. How can an estimate be wholesome and relevant, when a key piece is withheld?
Moreover, the intelligence professional is never steeped in political culture in quite the same way as his customer—a prime minister or president. A seasoned politician who has reached the top of the greasy pole knows the difference between a plan, even one bolstered by a sincere wish to execute it, and an actual decision to go ahead. So many plans—reported openly in the media or secretly by spies—have never come to fruition. The intelligence product is but one input of many considered by the policy maker. In 1977, when Dayan served as foreign minister in the newly formed Begin government and was in touch with Sadat’s emissary in Morocco, Gazit was kept out of the loop, unable to comment intelligently on prospects of a new Egypt–Israel war.
In a perfect world, political decision makers would have shared everything with those officers who were expected to come up with both raw information and finished intelligence products, and these heads of intelligence organizations would always be accompanied to high-level briefings by a person from within their bureaucracy who dissented from the chief’s assessment. Also invited would be a cross-section of the community. In the Israeli case, this would not only be the directors of the Foreign Ministry’s research center and the Mossad’s Intelligence Division, but also the seniors from the DMI as well as their dissenting juniors. Perfect, perhaps, it is, but in one word, impractical.
Multiplicity of views is no panacea. The Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research were all wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (but were right four years later about Iran’s).
The “intelligences,” as that member of Ben-Gurion’s cabinet collectively called the CIA, the British MI6, as well as the DMI and Mossad, can never fully satisfy their customers’ appetite for the right menu, based on the right diet, at the right time. Placement of quality personnel who are immune to ideological kinship and ulterior motives will get better results than exercises in re-organization.