Egypt’s Sadat is ‘not worth tomatoes,’ reservist professor assured Israel’s military intelligence before 1973 war

39 years after Yom Kippur War ends, newly released material shows more Israeli blunders, but also indicates that Syria could have held the Golan Heights but for an elementary mistake

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Divisional commander Ariel Sharon consulting with Lt. Gen. Chaim Bar-Lev and other officers on the southern front (Photo credit: GPO/ Flash 90)
Divisional commander Ariel Sharon consulting with Lt. Gen. Chaim Bar-Lev and other officers on the southern front (Photo credit: GPO/ Flash 90)

Lt. Col. Aviezer Yaari, the head of the Syria, Lebanon and Iraq desk of the Israeli army’s military intelligence in 1973, was reprimanded for suggesting several days before the Yom Kippur War that the Egyptian and Syrian military exercises then under way might well be preparations for a combined strike, newly declassified material from the Agranat Commission of Inquiry revealed Wednesday.

“After that I grew more cautious in my estimations,” Yaari said.

His testimony to the commission, revealed 39 years to the day the war ended, was part of a bulk of material that included testimony from the chief of the General Staff, his deputy, a senior military intelligence officer and ministers Yigal Allon and Yisrael Galili.

Deputy Chief of the General Staff Maj. Gen. Israel Tal told the commission that had Syria not committed an elementary blunder in land warfare, Israel would likely have lost the Golan Heights, the newly released material also revealed.

Deputy Chief of the General Staff Maj. Gen. Israel Tal (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
Deputy Chief of the General Staff Maj. Gen. Israel Tal (Photo credit: Wikicommons)

By not sending in an infantry division to lay claim to the land seized by its tank offensive, he said, Syria had committed “the original sin” of tank warfare. “That’s a mistake that was already made during the First World War,” said the officer who later created the Merkava tank. “Had they sent in a division or two of infantry after the tank charge, to hold the territory, I don’t know if we would have been able to get them out.”

The politicians’ testimony released Wednesday revolved around the build-up to the war.

Allon, the minister of education and a cabinet member, said that he was told several days before the war that not only were the Syrians preparing a major military drill but so, too, were the Egyptians.

Brig. Gen. Israel Lior, military attaché to then-prime minister Golda Meir, relayed this information to Meir before she departed for Vienna.

“I asked him if the minister of defense and chief of staff wanted me to convene a consultation in light of these new facts,” Allon said, “and he responded, and I quote, ‘”not yet.'”

The war ended on October 24, 1973 with Israeli troops 50 miles from Cairo and 30 miles from Damascus. But the death toll — 2,656 dead Israelis — and the potency of the surprise attack, along with the IDF’s inability to win the war decisively during the first few days, left a profound scar on the collective Israeli psyche and brought about the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, which called for the resignations of four senior officers and effectively forced the chief of staff from his post.

Meir was cleared of responsibility but ousted from office by public sentiment. She resigned her position nine days after the publication of the report.

One of the ousted officers was Brig. Gen. Arie Shalev, an assistant to the head of military intelligence and the direct commander of Lt. Col. Yaari.

In late September 1973, Yaari told the chief intelligence officer of the Northern Command, Haggai Mann, that he believed that an army drill in Syria was a cover for war and that Syria might attack on the first of October.

Shalev chastised him later that day, saying that it was his job to report “the findings of the research division and not your own assessments.”

In his own testimony before the commission, Shalev said that he and his staff had gone over the intelligence material they possessed in “the most objective way possible” and that the information they had “barred him” from reaching the conclusion that war was imminent.

He also revealed to the commission that IDF Military Intelligence had used a graphologist to analyze the personality of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and confirmed that the branch had not altered its personality profile of Sadat, which was written in the early seventies by a professor whose name remains classified. Committee member and former chief of General Staff Yigal Yadin noted that the professor, who wrote the profile as part of his reserves duty with the research division of Military Intelligence, referred to the Egyptian leader as “not worth tomatoes.”

The commission found that Shalev “bears responsibility for the most grave error of the division that he heads and therefore may not continue to serve in Military Intelligence.”

Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973 (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973 (Photo credit: Wikicommons)

Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar told the commission that he had differed with the head of Military Intelligence at every relevant forum regarding the possibility of war. He said he told Meir that “in Egypt they are thinking about war, they are talking about war, they are preparing war and in the end there will be a war.”

Later in his testimony, however, he clarified that when Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, the head of Military Intelligence, told the prime minister and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the chances of war were very, very low, he merely asked that Zeira “remove one of the verys.”

He admitted before the commission that Sadat “surprised us more than I thought” possible.

Elazar was taken to task for Military Intelligence’s steadfast belief that the Egyptians would not dare launch a war against Israel and for the IDF’s blunders, especially on the southern front, where the OC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gorodish, was effectively removed of his command in the middle of the war.

In his defense Elazar said, “I fully believe that as chief of the General Staff I acted in the most reasonable way… and since this committee has been highly critical of me I would be much obliged if the committee would show the light of my work as chief of the General Staff and not just the shadows.”

The Agranat Commission found Elazar to bear “direct responsibility for what happened on the eve of the war, both as to the assessment of the situation and the IDF’s preparedness.”

He felt wronged by the committee — by the fact that defense minister Moshe Dayan and Meir were absolved of blame and because he felt they did not take into consideration his pivotal stabilizing role during the war — but resigned nonetheless in April 1974; two years later, at the age of 51, he was dead. Many believed that he never recovered from the committee’s determination that he was personally responsible for what happened.

Maj. Gen. Tal, his deputy, said that the Yom Kippur War had inflicted “indescribable damage” on the IDF. “Up until Yom Kippur it was easy to lead in the IDF,” he said. In the wake of the war, the lack of consensus rendered the IDF officer “the same as those in most of the armies in the world.”

He testified that the General Staff had not agreed with his minority opinion that Syria’s surface to air missiles, which Damascus moved close to Israeli lines in August 1973, represented a strategic change that had to be terminated. “That move had a decisive role in the Syrian successes and our lack of success in immediately stopping the Syrian offensive with the Air Force.”

In general, Tal, who also told the commission he advocated ceasing funding for Army Radio and Bamachaneh magazine, said that he believed the fighter plane was an overrated weapon and that it “cannot be seen as a strategic weapon anymore” because of the abundance of anti-aircraft systems.

Yisrael Galili, a cabinet minister, testified that the chief of staff, the head of military intelligence and the defense minister told the cabinet in September, after three Israeli planes were shot down, that even if there was to be fire it would be “sporadic and not the onset of war.”

He further revealed that Meir had expressed her “consternation” with her military attache for not informing her that the head of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, had set out for London on the day before the outbreak of war.

Zamir met a very well positioned Egyptian source, Ashraf Marwan, who told him that war would begin the following day.

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