Golda Meir: ‘My heart was drawn to a preemptive strike, but I was scared’
Israel finally releases the late prime minister’s testimony before the Agranat Commission on her handling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which 2,500 Israelis lost their lives
Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, an eventually triumphant campaign that cost over 2,500 Israeli lives and left an enduring scar on the national psyche, Israel on Thursday released Prime Minister Golda Meir’s long-classified testimony from the commission of inquiry that investigated the actions of the military before and during the early stages of the war.
Meir, in her newly released testimony, steadfastly defended her decision not to launch a preemptive strike on the Yom Kippur morning of October 6, 1973, by which point it was virtually certain that war was imminent, and pleaded ignorance of most military matters, explaining that her decision, that same morning, to draft the reserves, and at full strength, despite defense minister Moshe Dayan’s hesitations, was born of “a lack of knowledge and a lack of expertise.”
She categorically denied that the upcoming national elections, slated for late October 1973, had anything to do with her pre-war hesitation in summoning the reserves. “My knowledge of Hebrew is insufficient to find the parliamentary words to reject this,” said the Russian-born, US-raised prime minister.
Regarding the preemptive strike, Meir acknowledged that it would have saved lives but said that, even in the aftermath of the war, she did not regret her refusal to unleash the air force on the amassing Egyptian troops on the western side of the Suez Canal. “I knew then, and I know now, too, that it’s possible, maybe we could even say certain, that boys who are no longer would still be alive,” she acknowledged. “But I don’t know how many other boys would have fallen due to a lack of equipment.”
In recounting the events of the morning of October 6, Meir told the commission that her “heart was very much drawn to” a preemptive strike, “but I am scared.” In both the cabinet meeting on the morning of Yom Kippur and in previous meetings with Dayan and chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar, she testified to having said: “1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive assistance when we have the need for it.”
Had Israel fired the first shot of the war, Meir testified, the US would have claimed “you started” and, based on her knowledge of the Pentagon, she continued, “I can say with 100 percent (certainty)” that the airlift of arms and supplies would not have been delivered.
Israel received 26,000 tons of crucial supplies during the war, Meir noted, including 40 Phantom and 53 Skyhawk fighter jets.
Offering a glimpse into her psyche during the early days of the war, when Israel appeared to be losing on both fronts, she revealed that she had suggested flying to the US on the second day of the war to go “see Nixon incognito.”
“Ask me now how I would have done such a thing, I don’t know. But out of desperation, when something dramatic must be done in order to move them,” she had suggested leaving the country, she said.
The war itself, a stunning military victory, which ended with Israeli forces in control of more territory than at the onset and perched a mere 30 and 50 miles from Damascus and Cairo respectively, nonetheless rattled the Israeli public and shattered the notion of invincibility, which had bloomed in the aftermath of the six-day victory achieved in 1967.
Angered by the price paid in blood and shaken by the accomplishments of the Arab armies during the early days of the war, when the Bar-Lev Line crumbled in the south and Syrian tanks tore through the meager Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, the public demanded a national commission of inquiry.
The five-person commission, headed by Chief Supreme Court Justice Shimon Agranat, released its initial finding in April 1974, six months after the war. The members of the commission, which included Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau, state comptroller Yitzhak Nebenzahl and former IDF chiefs of the General Staff Yigal Yadin and Haim Laskov, called for the heads of five officers, including Elazar, who died two years after the publication (age 51), but cleared Dayan and Meir of all direct responsibility.
Nonetheless, one week after the commission’s preliminary report was published, in April 1974, Meir stepped down, saying she could no longer ignore the swell of public ire.
The commission focused on two main issues in its February 6, 1974, questioning of the prime minister: her reaction to the aerial battle between Israeli and Syrian planes on September 13, 1973, and her subsequent preparations for war.
On that September day, Israel, in what is largely seen today as an ambush, sent a pair of IAF Phantom fighter jets into Syrian airspace on a photography mission in the north of the country. As the Israeli jets concluded their mission, rising up to a detectable altitude, Syria dispatched more than a dozen MiG-21s to engage the Israeli jets over the Mediterranean. Israeli planes hovered low, waiting for them, and in the dogfight that followed the IAF downed 12 Syrian jets and lost only one, with the pilot emerging unscathed. The following day’s papers, and Meir’s testimony, put the score at 13-0, and the result was seen as evidence of Israel’s military superiority.
The following Sunday, at the weekly cabinet meeting, Meir said, the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff were asked “what we could expect, what was reasonable” in the way of a Syrian reaction.
The response was that the Syrians “will make use of this and try to start something on the Golan Heights.” The something, Meir told the commission, was likely to be a random bombing of an Israeli residential area, “because the easiest thing from their perspective is to bomb villages.”
By September, the Syrian armed forces had amassed 800 tanks on the Syrian side of the Golan – eight times more than the IDF – and they had moved their artillery cannon out of a defensive position near Damascus toward the front. The head of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, told the General Staff, on September 24, two days before Rosh Hashanah, that the situation was “very serious,” according to Abraham Rabinovich’s authoritative account “The Yom Kippur War: The epic encounter that transformed the Middle East.”
On the 24th of September, Meir said, when it became clear that “the Syrian army was on a full emergency footing on the front, the IDF’s assumption was that the deployment was a response to their fears about a possible attack of ours on the Syrian front.”
Commission member Yigal Yadin, a former IDF chief of the General Staff and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, asked the prime minister why it was “logical” to assume that after a bruising defeat Syria feared another Israeli strike, rather than the more natural explanation that the Syrians were readying themselves for retaliation.
Meir said that IDF military intelligence believed that “the Syrians thought this was some sort of a beginning on our part.”
On September 25, 1973, King Hussein, the ruler of Jordan, was helicoptered into a Mossad building outside Tel Aviv and met with Meir. They spoke for over an hour and, after some idle chatter, the king essentially warned her of war on two fronts
Conspicuously, there is no mention in the testimony of the events of the following day. On September 25, 1973, King Hussein, the ruler of Jordan, was helicoptered into a Mossad building outside Tel Aviv and met with Meir. They spoke for over an hour and, after some idle chatter, the king essentially warned her of war on two fronts. Lt. Col. Zussiya Keniezer, the military intelligence officer in charge of the Jordan desk, listened in on the conversation from another room. When the conversation was over, he promptly called his superior officer, Brig. Gen. Aryeh Shalev, and told him, according to Rabinovich’s account, that “the bottom line of what Hussein had to say was that there’s going to be war with Egypt and Syria.” [Asked whether the Agranat Commission had questioned Meir about this meeting and whether her testimony had been stricken in order to avoid bruising the ties between Israel and Jordan, where the king’s son now rules, the Defense Ministry, which has handled the dissemination of this information from a committee headed by Justice Yitzhak Engelhard, said, “On the basis of the harm that may be caused to the security of the State of Israel, the committee decides what to publish.”]
Instead the protocol skips ahead to September 30, when Meir set off for Strasbourg to address the Council of Europe. Before departure, at the airport, she was told that the Syrian front had been further strengthened and that the Egyptians had embarked on a large-scale drill near the canal. Nonetheless, she said, quoting from a copy of an intelligence report from that day, “our estimation stands that the strengthened front is part of the Syrian fears of an Israeli attack, which they have been anticipating for two weeks.”
On October 2, well after midnight, Meir returned. Dayan met her “in some corner of the airport,” and said, as she recalled, “I want to report about developments on the front.”
They met the following morning, along with Elazar, Brig. Gen. Shalev and IAF commander Benny Peled. The members of the commission had a copy of the minutes of the meeting and did not ask Meir any specific questions about it. She volunteered that all parties were in agreement about the unlikelihood of immediate war; that she decided to summon Elazar and the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, to the first cabinet meeting after Yom Kippur; and that, in the interim, she decided “to focus on one thing” — narrowing down the Israeli military wish list from the US and pushing for its urgent delivery.
The following day, Zeira, the strongest advocate of “the concept” that the Arab armies would not dare attack Israel, informed the prime minister that he had a piece of news that “could be worrying”: the families of the Russian advisers were leaving Egypt.
Zeira, who critics say crushed dissenting opinion from within the ranks of the military intelligence community, and who was effectively removed from his post by the commission, explained this, though, as the likely result of a feud or a capricious decision by Egyptian ruler Anwar Sadat, whom Meir described as someone whom she once thought was “unreasonable” and “now I can almost ask his forgiveness.”
Zeira also informed Meir, who was strangely not kept in the loop, that the head of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, had received an urgent warning signal, at around midnight, and had left the country. “I did not know that he had left,” Meir told the commission. “Usually he calls me. But he received an urgent call and left immediately, and we knew that he had gone to meet with source ______.”
The source, Ashraf Marwan, former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, had told his Mossad handler that Egypt would wage war on Saturday, Yom Kippur.
“Did you know this was about war?” Agranat asked Meir. “Were you told that?”
“No,” Meir said. “At the time, I think not. But I understood that if he called him and he immediately got up and left, that he had some information to pass on.”
Asked if it was common for the head of the Mossad to depart without informing the prime minister, Meir said that it was not. It had never happened during their years of working together. “I can explain it only in one way. He knew what was happening on the fronts. He knew this was a source from whom he could hear something important, he received the code word, got up and left. It’s good he did that.”
“But had he called you directly, maybe you would have heard the code word,” justice Moshe Landau remarked. “Maybe it would have changed something.”
“Yes. But it wouldn’t have changed a thing, for I would have told him: of course, go. And I can’t say that I would have said that, based on that, something must be done.”
Meir described her state of mind during those days before the war as “unquiet” but said, “I didn’t think I could argue with the military intelligence people, with the chief of the General Staff.”
In fact, throughout her testimony she scoffed at her own understanding of military affairs.
Speaking of the October 5 cabinet meeting, on the eve of Yom Kippur, she told the commission that although none of the government ministers present demanded that the army summon the reserves, “I, afterwards – since the war, not right away – have chastised myself, why didn’t I propose it.” Haim Bar-Lev, a former chief of the General Staff and a minister in her government, she told the commission, told her: “I don’t understand you. There are generals, me, Bar-Lev, who just two years ago was the chief of the General Staff, the chief of the General Staff, the defense minister, who also knows a bit about the army, a general who is the head of military intelligence, and all of these people don’t suggest a call-up of the reserves, and you, the civilian, are supposed to recommend it?”
On Saturday, the morning of Yom Kippur, she described her decision to authorize the call-up of the reserves as an amateur’s decision. Some argued that calling up the reserves, and certainly at full strength, might be used a pretense to attack Israel, and that a show of calm might soothe regional tensions, “but I, out of a lack of knowledge and a lack of expertise said: We’ll draft.”
She described herself as “glad” about that decision.
Meir further revealed that Zeira’s decision to dilute the information he had about the airlifting of the Russian advisers out of Syria and Egypt, wording it in an ambiguous way in his Friday report to cabinet, was a miscalculation in her opinion, but explained that he was not alone in his constant fear of information leaks. “It’s a terrible plague,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s an idée fixe of mine. I’m not entirely rational on this matter. There’s fear, there’s terror, that what is given to the government or any other forum might be leaked.”
Landau remarked that had this information been passed on properly to the entire government – Meir already knew – it would have given the situation “an entirely new shade of urgency” and that some of the former generals in her cabinet might have sounded the alarm.
At four in the morning on Yom Kippur, Meir said, her military attaché, Brig. Gen. Israel Lior, called and effectively announced that war was about to start. “There’s information from Zvika that this is it.”
Meir went to her office, she said, and read the Mossad commander’s three-page report “from the first word to the last.”
At two p.m., the Syrians and the Egyptians opened fire in a devastating, coordinated onslaught.
Meir’s testimony, over 100 pages long and given in the course of a single day, does not touch on her handling of the war, which was considered to have been very solid under very trying circumstances. “We’re not touching on that?” she asked the commission.
The answer, which she already knew, was no.
In parting, she thanked the members of the commission, with whom she seemed to enjoy a familiar and at times even playful banter. “My work colleagues are witnesses to [the fact] that I am thankful three times a day that you took this on yourselves,” she said. “I think that to a great extent this has saved us, even before you submit your recommendations. The very fact of your work.”
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