Mossad’s tip-off ahead of Yom Kippur War did not reach prime minister, newly released papers show

Intelligence agency learned about Egypt’s surprise attack a week in advance but did not properly pass information along, declassified report says

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, center left, consults with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon (with bandage) and Moshe Dayan, center, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (photo credit: GPO/Flash90)
Former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, center left, consults with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon (with bandage) and Moshe Dayan, center, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (photo credit: GPO/Flash90)

The Israeli Mossad intelligence agency knew a full week in advance that Egypt was planning to launch a surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973, but did not pass the information on in an orderly and explicit way to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s office, according to formerly classified information released Thursday. The findings come from the commission tasked with investigating the war.

The warning indicated that Egypt was going to attack under the cover of a military drill.

The Mossad’s information, received from a senior agent, Ashraf Marwan, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, was never handed over to the Prime Minister’s Office, according to Brig. Gen. Yisrael Lior, the prime minister’s military attaché.

Lior is quoted in the newly declassified material as saying that had he known of the Mossad’s information he would have “flown” to the office of Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon — who was filling in for an absent Meir at the time — and alerted him.

On October 5 at 12:30 at night, a cable marked urgent arrived at Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv. In it, Marwan conveyed that war was imminent and asked for a London meeting with Mossad head Zvi Zamir.

A night clerk read the document to Alfred Eini, Zamir’s aide, who told the commission that he felt the material was urgent enough to warrant waking Zamir. According to the newly released material, Yitzhak Nebenzahl, state comptroller and member of the commission, asked Eini whether the information regarded “a warning about the outbreak of war or [whether] the subject was war.”

Eini said that “it was understood that this was a warning about the outbreak of war.”

Eini called Zamir, who seemed groggy and unfocused. In the protocols Eini described the conversation: “He [Zamir] listened. Said ‘thank you’ and then said ‘okay, I’ll go see [Marwan] tomorrow morning.”

The five-member Agranat Commission, chaired by American-born Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Shimon Agranat, was appointed by the government to examine the failures leading up to and during the early stages of the war. The new papers, kept under wraps for decades, were released just ahead of the 39th anniversary of the war.

The commission’s public findings, released in the spring of 1974, called for the resignations of four senior officers, including Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, the commander of military intelligence, and effectively forced from office chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar, who was found to “bear direct responsibility” for the army’s dismal state of readiness on the eve of the war. Prime Minister Meir was cleared of responsibility but ousted from office by public sentiment. She resigned her position some nine days after the publication of the report.

Foreign Minister Abba Eban witnessed the radical change in the assessment of war during the space of several hours, according to the papers.

He told the commission that on Friday afternoon at 17:30, less than an hour before the holiday’s onset, he received a cable from Israel stating that there was a chance of a coordinated Syrian and Egyptian attack but that the probability of this was low.

Several hours later, he told the commission, he received the following: “According to authentic intelligence sources, the Egyptians and the Syrians will launch a coordinated attack toward evening. The goal: conquering the Golan, crossing the canal and establishing [themselves] on the western side.”

“I would like to note,” Eban said, “that the mental change between the two cables was sharp, with no shift, which is to say, I had no experiences between the two cables.”

The war, which lasted from October 6 to 25, 1973, cost 2,688 Israeli lives and deeply damaged the view of Israel as an indestructible force following the Six Day War.

The two-front attack by Syria and Egypt came as an almost complete surprise on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Also according to the newly released documents, GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, later the head of the Mossad, received word on October 2 from his chief intelligence officer that the Syrian army was planning an attack, four days before the outbreak of war.

He told the commission that he checked the intelligence information with the relevant authorities in military intelligence and was told that the information was baseless.

He told the commission he had no idea where the information had come from but that he assumed it had come from within military intelligence but had been leaked behind the back of the commander, Zeira, who infamously believed that the chance of war was “low.”

Zeira took the brunt of the blame for dropping the ball about the warnings, and was later also investigated for outing Marwan, who died mysteriously in London in 2007.

In July, the State Attorney’s Office dropped the case against Zeira, now 84, citing his age and the passage of time.


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