When Israel seized the initiative

Reversal of fortune: How the IDF turned the Yom Kippur War around

In this excerpt from his newly updated book, Abraham Rabinovich shows how a plea for help from Syria’s Assad to Egypt’s Sadat opened the way to Israel’s crossing of the Suez Canal

An Israeli tank crosses the Suez Canal (Israel Defense Forces Archive)
An Israeli tank crosses the Suez Canal (Israel Defense Forces Archive)

Close to midnight, after another briefing to the cabinet and before another helicopter flight to the front, the unrelenting stress of running two wars simultaneously for six straight days caught up with IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar. He was discussing the next day’s battle plans on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts with two generals and leafing through a pile of fresh reports on his desk when he turned pale and seemed about to faint.

Alarmed aides brought him water. “I don’t want any pills,” he said. He would need his wits for a major decision that had to be made in the coming hours.

Southern Command had been marking time for the past three days while Northern Command drove the Syrians back across the Golan cease-fire line. It was time now to weigh the next step in Sinai, a pivotal decision that would determine the outcome of the war.

Instinct was irrelevant in matters as complex as this and there was no textbook solution. But with an orderly breakdown of the issues and a readiness to follow logic wherever it led, Elazar would work his way through the problem.

As with the decision to cross the cease-fire line on the Syrian front, the process would involve a day-long exercise in thinking out loud. In the end, after sharp changes in position and fresh intelligence supplied by the Mossad, the way forward would emerge.

IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar (R) during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. (David Rubinger/Government Press Office)

The discussion began in the early hours of Friday morning, October 12, at a meeting in the Pit — the underground war room in Tel Avv — between Elazar and senior officers. Gen. (res.) Haim Bar-Lev, who had been asked to relieve Shmuel Gonen as head of Southern Command two days before, was due up from Sinai in a few hours to present his recommendations. Elazar wanted to informally examine the options before then. Northern Command’s success in driving the Syrians off the Golan lightened the mood at headquarters considerably.

Intelligence chief Eli Zeira opened by noting that the Security Council was expected to pass a cease-fire resolution within forty-eight hours; he and air force commander Benny Peled urged that the IDF cross the canal before then. The air force, which had already lost more than sixty planes, had the capacity to support one more major attack if it were launched by Saturday night, said Peled. Afterwards, it would have to confine itself to defending the skies over Israel.
“You don’t have to convince me that we have to attack by tomorrow night,” said Elazar. “The question is what happens afterwards?”

The Yom Kippur War, by Abraham Rabinovich

His goal was a stable cease-fire that would permit Israel to rebuild its army. Defeating Egypt was no longer a near-term option. This was a painful admission for the commander of an army which until a few days before had been considered unbeatable by any combination of armies in the Middle East—an assumption he himself heartily shared. It was to Elazar’s credit that he was not reduced to denial or paralysis by this startling turn of events.

The chief of staff was convinced that Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat would not accept a cease-fire unless shaken by a dramatic military development. Elazar was not sure that even a crossing would do it. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in fact argued that the Egyptians would never agree to a cease-fire if Israel gained a foothold on the canal’s west bank, with Cairo no longer protected by the waterway. Even if the IDF did cross the canal and achieve a cease-fire, he said, the situation could quickly deteriorate into a war of attrition. In that event, the IDF would find itself holding a thin line on both sides of the canal against a far more numerous enemy.

This, in fact, was Elazar’s worst fear. “I would be happy, and you don’t know how happy,” he said to his officers, “if you have any better ideas.” They didn’t.

If a crossing, then, where? Two formidable armored divisions remained on the west side of the canal plus a mechanized division and other forces. Together they fielded twice as many tanks as Israel could send across. Until now, the tanks that the IDF had confronted in Sinai were of far less concern than the Sagger anti-tank missiles wielded by the Egyptian infantry. Confrontation with the armored divisions meant a major, World War II–type battle. This was precisely what the IDF wanted but not while crossing a major water barrier.

If the Egyptian tanks crossed into Sinai this day or even the next, Saturday, there would still be time to defeat them and cross the canal westward before the anticipated cease-fire came into effect.

But would the armored divisions cross? Elazar asked Peled to stop bombing the bridges in order to lure them in. If the Egyptian divisions did not cross into Sinai, said Elazar, the IDF would cross in the other direction, undertaking “a maximal, hazardous offensive” by Saturday night. The designation being used by the military planners for the land across the canal was Goshen, the biblical name for the part of ancient Egypt where the Israelites had dwelt until their exodus.

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)

Three potential crossings were examined: a limited one at Port Said, the northern entrance to the Suez Canal; a two-divisional attack from Fort Matsmed in the central sector, and a split attack by two divisions – one at Kantara in the northern sector and one at Matsmed. Elazar himself was inclined toward a crossing at Matsmed, whose left flank was protected by the Bitter Lake, but he suspended judgment until Bar-Lev had had his say.

Bar-Lev arrived from Sinai at 9:30 a.m. The tense atmosphere he found reflected the fateful nature of the decision they were being asked to make. After conferring with the generals under his command, Bar-Lev had come to the same conclusion as Elazar. The only viable choice was a canal crossing that might throw the Egyptians off-balance and exploit Israeli tank mobility. He favored a crossing at Matsmed. “Regretfully,” he said, “I don’t have another solution.”

Gen. Yisrael Tal, Elazar’s deputy, termed the proposal a dangerous improvisation. It was not certain that bridging equipment could be brought intact through the Egyptian lines to the canal. If the crossing was inconclusive, the army would have to remain fully mobilized and subject to constant attrition. Bar-Lev said he agreed with most of Tal’s assessment. “But I see no alternative.”

Whether a crossing would likely lead to a cease-fire or not was a political assessment, said Elazar, and he wanted the political level involved. Dayan, who was visiting Northern Command, had told him to bring the matter before the inner cabinet if he, Dayan, had not yet returned. But at the chief of staff’s insistence, the defense minister flew back to join the meeting in late morning.

Elazar reviewed for him the discussion which had been going on for several hours now. His objective, he said, was to achieve a cease-fire in order to rebuild the army “for a hundred years.” Did Dayan believe a crossing would make a cease-fire more likely? Or did he not?

The defense minister bridled at the formulation. It was for Elazar to decide whether a crossing was a sound military move, he said. Political considerations were to be left to the political leadership. If Elazar recommended a crossing on its military merits, Dayan said, he would support it in the cabinet even though he believed the best hope for a cease-fire lay in advancing on the northern front another three to five miles to within artillery range of Damascus.

Peled said the air force could bomb Damascus, and already had. “There’s a difference,” said Dayan. “They know that planes don’t conquer (territory).” Artillery, on the other hand, meant an army at the gates.

Haim Bar-Lev (Center L) consults with Ariel Sharon (with bandage) and Moshe Dayan (cap) during the Yom Kippur War. (Photo credit: GPO/ Flash 90)

After twenty minutes, the defense minister rose and said he was going to report to Prime Minister Golda Meir. He left behind his aide-de-camp, Gen. Yehoshua Raviv. Angry at Dayan’s sudden departure, which he attributed to evasiveness, Elazar told Raviv to convey to the minister that he wanted the matter resolved this day. “This is a decision of tremendous military-political importance,” he said. “The chief of staff will do whatever the defense minister decides.”

Elazar proposed through Raviv that the matter be put to the inner cabinet. The decision was too critical, he said, to be left to him, Elazar, alone. “I want clearance from the political echelon today.”

The chief of staff’s blunt message brought a swift response—an invitation to the military chiefs to a meeting in Golda Meir’s office with the prime minister and her civilian advisers, including Dayan.

Meanwhile, on the Egyptian side

For Egyptian chief-of-staff General Saad el-Shazly as well, this was a day for hard decisions. He had visited the canal front and returned eminently satisfied. The army was well dug in and in good spirits. Officers and soldiers were confident they could handle anything the Israelis could throw at them. The armed forces had given Sadat exactly what he asked for, a firm foothold in Sinai from which he could begin leveraging Israel out of the rest of the peninsula through political means.

When Shazly returned to Cairo headquarters, he found a message awaiting him from war minister Ahmed Ismail asking him to stop by. The question put to him by Ismail was the one Shazly had been dreading—could the army continue eastward to the passes? “It’s a political decision,” said Ismail.

In giving the order, Sadat was responding to a plea from Syrian President Hafez Assad, delivered by a Syrian emissary, to attack eastward in Sinai in order to ease Israeli pressure on Damascus. Sadat could no longer ignore Assad. If Syria dropped out of the war, Israel would turn all its might against Egypt.

Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat is flanked by Chief of Staff Sadedin Shazli, right, and War Minister General Ahmed Ismail, right, as he reviews maps of battle development in the desert of Sinai Peninsula, at his Army headquarters in Cairo, on October 15, 1973. (AP Photo)

The IDF counterattack on the Syrian front had failed to force Syria out of the war but it had succeeded strategically by inducing Assad to call on Egypt for help. In responding, Sadat would provide Israel what it was hoping for—a major head-on battle with the Egyptian armored divisions.

Syria’s President Hafez Assad with soldiers, 1973 (The Online Museum of Syrian History)

The Egyptians had until now successfully tailored Soviet doctrine to their own needs. Soviet advisers had been involved in drawing up the plans for a canal crossing and a drive to the Sinai passes. In downsizing this plan, the Egyptians showed a healthy respect for Israeli capabilities and awareness of their own limitations.

Soviet doctrine called for armored divisions to follow up a successful crossing of a water barrier by swiftly moving inland but the Egyptian high command was refraining from attacking beyond the SAM umbrella protecting them from the Israeli air force. To Shazly’s dismay, Sadat was now abandoning this basic tenet.

Not all Egyptian General Staff officers opposed an eastward drive. General Gamasy, chief of operations, believed it vital to push the Israelis back to the passes while they were still off-balance. As for the danger of moving beyond SAM coverage, he argued that the proximity of the Egyptian and Israeli tank formations in battle would make it difficult for Israeli pilots to distinguish between them. He also believed that the Egyptian air force, under Gen. Hosni Mubarak, could acquit itself reasonably well. Furthermore, SAM batteries were being shifted into Sinai at night to extend the missile umbrella eastward.

When he put his case to Ismail, Gamasy found the minister still haunted by the trauma of 1967. Voicing his concern about exposing the army to Israeli airpower, Ismail said, “We have to keep our armed forces intact.” If any part of the Egyptian line broke, there was a danger that it would touch off a stampede as happened in the Six Day War. But Sadat had made his decision and there was nothing Ismail could do but obey and pray.

Debate at the inner cabinet

To the critical meeting in Mrs. Meir’s office Friday afternoon, Elazar brought Bar-Lev and members of the General Staff. Also present at the prime minister’s invitation was Mossad chief Zvi Zamir. The inner cabinet consisted of Mrs. Meir, Dayan, and ministers Yisrael Galili and Yigal Allon.

“I want to outline the next stage of the war,” began Elazar. But before he made his operational recommendations, he said, he wanted to hear from the government whether it believed a canal crossing might lead to a cease-fire.

“I am not avoiding my responsibility to make a recommendation but this crucial stage requires consultation.” There might be alternative ways to achieve a cease-fire he had not thought about, he said— perhaps political alternatives, perhaps “threats.” He did not spell out what kind of threats.

In previous discussions he had raised the possibility of ratcheting up pressure by hitting civilian targets in Damascus and dropping bombs on Cairo in order “to dramatize the war.” He downplayed these options now in view of Mrs. Meir’s reluctance to hit civilian targets but he left it on the table. “It could be done at a later stage.”

Peled asked permission to create sonic booms over Cairo “so that when Sadat agrees to a cease-fire they won’t butcher him in the presidential palace.” Permission was denied.

Bar-Lev spoke in optimistic terms of what a crossing could accomplish, including severing of supply lines to the Third Army bridgehead in Sinai and destruction of SAM missile batteries. He spoke to his former cabinet colleagues of the high spirits of the men on the front and of the superb quality of their officers. “Our boys are fighting, bless them, with cool heads, a dash of humor, without panic. And they’re fighting.”

Israeli forces moving through the Sinai toward the Suez Canal (Israel Defense Forces Archive)

But continuation of the status quo would erode the army’s strength, he said. His own spirits had been uplifted at the front but since returning to Tel Aviv this morning he felt himself drawn into the pervasive gloom.

Benny Peled’s warning that the air force was almost at its “red line” beyond which it would not be able to provide ground support focused minds, particularly Elazar’s. “Each day our situation is getting worse because we have no reserves,” said the chief of staff.

Peled would reveal decades later that he had lied about the red line in order prod the military and political leadership toward an immediate canal crossing. The air force strength he cited referred only to planes capable of providing ground support, which was about 80 percent of actual operational strength.

A dissenting note was once again voiced by Gen. Tal, whose pessimistic tone was increasingly annoying his old friend, Elazar.

The risks of the proposed crossing were enormous, said Tal. If the crossing failed, the way to Tel Aviv would be open to the Egyptians. Israel’s armored corps had not been sufficiently trained in bridging operations, and it lacked sufficient bridges. The IDF never imagined that it would have to get through, or around, a five-mile-deep enemy bridgehead before it even reached the canal. The troops had been in combat for close to a week and would have difficulty coping with the fresh armored divisions waiting across the canal. If there was to be a crossing operation, let it be on the less heavily defended flanks—Port Said or the Gulf of Suez.

A fateful phone call

As Tal was talking, the door opened and Mrs. Meir’s secretary, Lou Kedar, entered to herald, unknowingly, the turning point of the war. Apologizing for the intrusion, she addressed herself to Mossad chief Zamir: “Zvika, your people want to talk to you urgently.”

The phone was off the hook in Kedar’s office down the hall. Zamir’s bureau chief, Freddy Eini, was on the other end. The antenna outside the Mossad headquarters’ window in a downtown office building had just picked up a radio message from an informant in Egypt although not all of it audible. The Mossad offices were just a ten-minute walk from the prime minister’s office. Zamir told him to hurry over.

Eini arrived with another officer and a transcript of what could be understood. The message was not from Ashraf Marwan (son-in-law of the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and an important Mossad informant) but from another source. Zamir read the message and hurried back down the hall to the prime minister’s office with the transcript in hand, thinking about how he would paraphrase the message, including the part that wasn’t there. All eyes turned toward him as he entered.

Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat is seen as he peers through a telescope during a visit at the frontlines to Israel, at Sinai Peninsula, on June 4, 1973. (AP Photo)

A report, he said, had just been received from a reliable informant in Egypt. Three Egyptian paratroop brigades were to land behind Israeli lines—near the Refidim Air Base and the Sinai passes—either Saturday night or Sunday night.

By itself, the deep raid made little military sense. What could be understood from the garbled message made no mention of the Egyptian armored divisions. However, Zamir said, according to an Egyptian war plan the Mossad had obtained from Marwan early in the year, the insertion by Egypt of special forces behind Israeli lines was to precede the crossing of the canal by the armored divisions.

In both Cairo and Tel Aviv decisions were being made that would determine the war’s direction

The atmosphere in the room was suddenly electric. Elazar could not have hoped for better news. “We will hold off on the [Israeli] crossing and organize for a defensive battle (against the armored divisions expected to cross into Sinai),” he told Mrs. Meir. Elazar had been prepared to send his forces across the canal the next night even if the Egyptian armor might be waiting for them. Zamir’s report meant that the IDF would now have a chance to significantly reduce Egyptian tank strength beforehand on the Sinai side of the canal.

Whatever traumas the Egyptian infantry had inflicted with anti-tank missiles and RPGs, the IDF was still confident of its ability to deal with enemy tanks. Elazar and his officers hastened back to the Pit, elated by the prospect of the upcoming tank battle.

In Mrs. Meir’s office after the generals left, Dayan drew the ministers’ attention to the political dimension. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had told Ambassador Simcha Dinitz that he could not delay much longer a cease-fire resolution which the Soviets were pressing for. Under no circumstances, said Dayan, should Israel request a cease-fire; but he recommended informing Washington that it was withdrawing its previous objections to a cease-fire. Mrs. Meir agreed to send a message to this effect immediately to Kissinger.

Prime minister Golda Meir touring the southern front with Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon several days after the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Yehuda Tzion/ GPO)

After the meeting broke up, Dayan returned to speak with Mrs. Meir. Public criticism of the government was mounting, much of it directed at Dayan. To Mrs. Meir he acknowledged that he had erred in not anticipating the war and in underestimating the Arabs. He felt capable of directing the military effort in this difficult war, he said, but if the prime minister wanted him to resign for his failures he was prepared to do so.

Mrs. Meir dismissed the offer. She had indeed lost faith in him in the opening days of the war when he was badly shaken, but his self-confidence had returned and she was once again relying on his broad military-political vision and pragmatic advice.

Seizing the initiative

Zvi Zamir’s warning was the second piece of intelligence with a critical operational impact that the Mossad had provided—the first being the all-important warning on Yom Kippur eve that war would break out the next day. The IDF would ready itself now for battle and the government would prepare the political context for a cease-fire. The initiative on the Sinai front, which for the past eight days lay with Egypt, was finally being seized by Israel.

It was quieter on the Sinai front Saturday than it had been since the Egyptian crossing exactly a week before. But in both Cairo and Tel Aviv decisions were being made that would determine the war’s direction.

Israeli bridge over the Suez Canal (From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.” / CIA / Wikipedia)

Sadat was wakened shortly before dawn and informed that the British ambassador had arrived with an urgent message. Kissinger had asked the British to submit a cease-fire resolution to the Security Council this day after being assured by Soviet ambassador Dobrynin that Sadat would welcome it. Dubious, the British instructed their envoy in Cairo, Sir Philip Adams, to verify Egypt’s position. Israel had agreed to a cease-fire, the ambassador informed Sadat, and both superpowers supported it.

However, Sadat rejected it out of hand. There would be no cease-fire, he said, until Israel agreed to withdraw from all of Sinai.

Acceptance of the cease-fire would have achieved for Sadat the goals he set before the war—a firm Egyptian foothold in Sinai and international involvement in a diplomatic solution. But he hoped now to do even better.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, left, and Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, second from right, who suffered a slight head wound, visit Israeli bridgehead on the West Bank of the Suez Canal with other staff officers, Oct. 18, 1973. (AP Photo)

Egypt was controlling the battlefield. The Israelis had not attempted to advance since Gen. Ariel Sharon’s unauthorized attacks on Tuesday while the Egyptians were making small-scale pushes eastward every day, with some success, as the Israelis sought to avoid escalation. SAM batteries were being sent across the bridges at night to extend the missile umbrella toward the passes.

With every day, Arab strength was increasing as the Soviet arms airlift hit its stride and the Arab world dispatched reinforcements to Syria and Egypt. Contingents, some of them sizeable, had arrived from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Jordan, and Iraq. Even Pakistan sent pilots, and North Korean pilots were patrolling the skies over Egypt’s hinterland.

Israel was receiving no military supplies from abroad except for what the small El Al fleet could carry (the American airlift would begin only the next day); the only reinforcements it was receiving were Israeli reservists returning for the war from studies or travel abroad. (Those in combat units were flown home free.) To Sadat, Israel’s acquiescence to a cease-fire was a clear signal of weakness.

Israel’s assessment of the situation was not far from Sadat’s. The day before, the Mossad station chief in Washington, Ephraim Halevy, met in the morning with Kissinger and found him agitated. A message from Prime Minister Meir—sent Friday afternoon, Israel time—had just arrived saying that Israel was prepared to accept a cease-fire in place. Kissinger had been stalling Moscow’s efforts to lock in Arab gains with a speedy cease-fire. Now Israel was expressing readiness to accept a cease-fire without even attempting to condition it on Egypt pulling back across the canal.

US president Richard Nixon, left, with secretary of state Henry Kissinger (Keystone/Getty Images)

“Kissinger almost tore his hair out,” Halevy, a future head of the Mossad, would recall years later. “He said, ‘You’re declaring that you lost the war. Don’t you understand that?” The difference between requesting a cease-fire and not objecting to one was a subtlety that did not cloak Israel’s dire view of its situation. However, Dayan believed that with the crossing of their armored divisions, the Egyptians would soon be receiving a bloody nose that would take the onus off Israel’s readiness for a cease-fire.

Elazar himself had begun thinking anew. The looming setpiece tank battle held out for the first time since the war began the tangible prospect of a reversal of fortune, perhaps on a major scale. The battle might significantly erode Egyptian strength. If that happened, the Israeli crossing could turn out to be more than a desperate lunge aimed at persuading Sadat to stop the war. It could be the key to winning the war.

This possibility was not yet being articulated by Elazar but was beginning to work its way into his thinking, as imperceptibly but inexorably as a tide turning.

In this Oct 30 1973 file photo, a huge Israeli Star of David flag flutters over the recaptured east bank of the Suez Canal. Egyptian forces had overrun the canal in early days of the Yom Kippur war. (AP Photo)

The writer is author of “The Yom Kippur War:The Epic Encounter That Transformed The Middle East.” His revised and updated edition was published this month by Schocken (New York).

The revised edition includes previously censored material as well as information that has emerged from memoirs and other sources since the book was originally published in 2004. A major new source is a 1,300-page compilation of transcripts of discussions, often heated, within the high command and other command levels during the war that offers a rare closeup of decision-making amid seeming chaos. Separately, we learn about two Egyptian informants for the Mossad who provided vital information that directly impacted on the battlefield. A former Mossad leader offers new insights into the colossal failure of military intelligence on the eve of the war. Interviews with a former commando leader and others likewise add new layers to the story.

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