‘Odds of war lower than low’: Papers highlight intel failures in Yom Kippur War
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Mossad head warned: Egypt, Syria 'poised to attack at dusk'

‘Odds of war lower than low’: Papers highlight intel failures in Yom Kippur War

Documents declassified on 45th anniversary show Mossad Egyptian source suggested day before attack that Israel make public Arab states’ plans in order to deter them. He was ignored

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • Reservist soldiers pose on the top of a truck during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Sinai Peninsula on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Reservist soldiers pose on the top of a truck during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Sinai Peninsula on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • Israeli troops fire a cannon from a position on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War on October 11, 1973. (Radovan Zeev/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Israeli troops fire a cannon from a position on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War on October 11, 1973. (Radovan Zeev/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • Israeli armored vehicles take positions on the Sinai Peninsula during the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Israeli armored vehicles take positions on the Sinai Peninsula during the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • Israeli military vehicles take positions on the Sinai Peninsula during the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Israeli military vehicles take positions on the Sinai Peninsula during the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • Soldiers pose on the top of a tank during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Soldiers pose on the top of a tank during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Avi Simhoni/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • Soldiers pose on the top of a tank during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Soldiers pose on the top of a tank during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
  • Members of the IDF General Staff look over a map during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 17, 1973. (Micky Astel/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)
    Members of the IDF General Staff look over a map during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 17, 1973. (Micky Astel/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)

Israel’s state archives on Monday published a declassified intelligence communique that warned the country on October 5, 1973, of an impending surprise attack by Egypt and Syria planned for the following day — the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

“The Egyptian army and the Syrian army are poised to launch an attack on Israel on Saturday 6.10.73 at dusk,” reads the first line of the document, sent from then-Mossad head Zvi Zamir to prime minister Golda Meir’s military secretary.

In his five-page Hebrew missive, complete with handwritten notes in the margins, the Mossad chief also indicated that war could potentially be averted if Israel made the plan of attack public.

That Zamir had sent a warning the day before the war has been publicly known for years, as was the identity of his source: Ashraf Marwan, a confidant of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, son-in-law of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the subject of a soon-to-be-released Netflix movie, “The Angel.”

A letter from the then-head of the Mossad Zvi Zamir to the military secretary of prime minister Golda Meir on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, October 5, 1973, which was released by the Israeli State Archives on September 17, 2018. (Screen capture)

However, the document includes details about the information Marwan presented to Zamir that were never released before, such as his suggestion for how to prevent the war entirely.

The publication of a Mossad communique is also a relatively rare occurrence, as the spy agency’s documents typically remain classified even many decades after they are written.

Less rare was the decision by the Defense Ministry archives Monday to release the transcripts of the IDF General Staff meeting from the day before the war.

The transcripts show IDF generals noting that the Egyptians and Syrians, whom Israel had seen moving troops near the border, were “capable of attacking in a very short amount of time.”

Former IDF Intelligence Chief Major-General Eli Zeira, April 20, 2005 (photo credit: Flash90)
Former IDF Intelligence Chief Major-General Eli Zeira, April 20, 2005 (photo credit: Flash90)

However, the head of Military Intelligence at the time, Eli Zeira, insisted that the odds of Egypt and Syria launching a coordinated attack were “lower than low,” according to the transcripts.

Zeira later received the lion’s share of the blame for the military having been caught off guard by the attack.

The Angel’s warning

In the 1960s Marwan had contacted the Mossad, offering his services as an asset. The spy agency readily accepted, giving him the code name “The Angel.” For decades, he served as one of the most important assets at the Mossad’s disposal, though some in Egypt and in Israel — including Zeira — have claimed that he may have been a double agent, feeding Jerusalem intelligence of little practical importance.

Two days before the outbreak of the war, Marwan had contacted his handler in the Mossad and requested a meeting with Zamir in order to warn him of the impending Egyptian attack and provide information about how that attack would be conducted.

Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (photo credit: Raafat/Wikimedia Commons)
Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (photo credit: Raafat/Wikimedia Commons)

“The source assesses that there is a ’99 percent chance’ that the attack will be launched on 6.10.73. One percent he leaves for himself, as he said the [Egyptian] president could still change his mind, even when his ‘finger is on the button,'” Zamir wrote.

Marwan told the Mossad chief that Egypt would likely limit its attack to the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had seized in the Six Day War in 1967. He also told the spymaster that Israel had little to fear from Egypt’s surface-to-surface missiles, which were not yet fully operational.

A letter from the then-head of the Mossad Zvi Zamir to the military secretary of prime minister Golda Meir on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, October 5, 1973, which was released by the Israeli State Archives on September 17, 2018. (Screen capture)

The Egyptian spy also offered a suggestion on how to avoid the war altogether.

“According to the source, it may be possible to prevent the outbreak of war by publishing information about it on the radio and in newspapers, which will show the Egyptians, including the military command, that the Israelis are aware of the plan and are ready for it,” Zamir wrote.

“The head of the Mossad suggests considering publication in Israeli news agencies,” he added.

Members of the IDF General Staff look over a map during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 7, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)

Ultimately, Marwan’s “99 percent chance” assessment was right, as were most of his predictions for how Egypt would fight the war. His suggestion of publicizing the Egyptian-Syrian plan was not accepted, though there is no way to know, 45 years later, if it would have had any effect.

The war broke out on Yom Kippur, catching the military unprepared, despite Zamir’s warning letter and other evidence that clearly indicated an attack was coming.

Over 2,500 Israeli soldiers died in the fighting, along with thousands of Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi troops.

The old fight

The publication of the document, 45 years after the Yom Kippur War, sheds some new light on an old controversy — who’s responsible for missing the warning signs of the impending attacks.

The Yom Kippur War and the intelligence failures that prevented the military from seeing what was so obvious in retrospect remain sore subjects in Israeli public discourse.

Though the Israel Defense Forces was able to repel the invading armies, the war prompted the Israeli public to lose trust in its army and government, and forced the IDF to undergo dramatic changes in its structure and protocols to ensure that it never again be caught unawares.

Israeli armored vehicles take positions during the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 10, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)

Following the war, the investigatory Agranat Commission found Zeira guilty of “grave failures” of judgment. To this day, the 90-year-old Zeira largely maintains his innocence, but has acknowledged some failings.

Meanwhile, Zamir, 93, blames Zeira and the IDF for the intelligence failings that caused Israel to be caught by surprise in the war.

In 2013, 40 years after the war, the two former intelligence chiefs spoke on a panel about it at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank.

Israeli troops line up to buy food from a portable canteen on the southern front of the Yom Kippur War on October 20, 1973. (Benny Hadar/Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archives)

Zamir noted that the Mossad began to connect the dots leading to war in February-March 1973, six months in advance, and railed against the behavior of Military Intelligence under Zeira. The former Mossad chief noted that the prime minister’s military secretary had received his communique and didn’t relay the information to Meir for 10 hours. (At the time, only Military Intelligence could present information to the prime minister directly.)

“It’s early warning intelligence. There’s nothing holier than that!” Zamir yelled at the conference.

Zvi Zamir speaks at a memorial service marking 21 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, held at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 4, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zeira, who was dismissed from his post as head of Military Intelligence after the war, has long claimed that Marwan was an untrustworthy double agent. In 2004, seeking to promote this theory, he confirmed the agent’s name (it had first been reported two years earlier by journalist Ahron Bregman in the pages of an Egyptian daily).

Three years later Marwan tumbled off a London balcony to his death. It has never been clear if he was murdered, or perhaps committed suicide.

Zamir called for Zeira to stand trial for revealing Marwan’s name, and though former attorney general Yehuda Weinstein in 2012 acknowledged that Zeira committed the offense, he decided not to prosecute him, citing his rich contribution to Israeli national security, his advanced age, and the many years that had passed since the events in question.

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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