40 years since the Yom Kippur War

Three years too late, Golda Meir understood how war could have been avoided

The grandmother who led Israel at the time of the 1973 war made a series of instinctive, correct decisions as the battle broke out, writes historian Abraham Rabinovich, but she’d missed a chance in 1970 to prevent it

Prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan meeting with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)
Prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan meeting with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)

She had been sleeping poorly for several nights but this morning she was wakened into her nightmare – a ringing telephone at 3:45 a.m. on Yom Kippur.

It was her military aide, Gen. Yisrael Lior, passing on a message from Mossad chief Zvi Zamir who had just met in London with his most valued source. War, said Lior. This day, before dark.

For all her toughness and experience, Golda Meir had never imagined leading her nation into war. “What do we do now, Yisrael?” she asked.

The threat had been in the air since the Egyptians began moving large forces into the Suez Canal zone a week before. Military Intelligence Chief Eli Zeira assured her and the general staff that it was only a military exercise. She remained uneasy but didn’t challenge a roomful of generals who were counseling calm.

She had been confident since the Six Day War that Israel’s geopolitical situation had never been better and that the Arabs, who still refused to recognize Israel, would eventually bow to reality. In December 1970, she rejected a proposal by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that Israel pull back 20 miles from the canal in order to enable its reopening and thereby reduce Egypt’s motivation for going to war.

Prime minister Golda Meir and Cabinet members visiting the southern command, October 29, 1973 (Photo Credit: GPO/Yehuda Tzion)
Prime minister Golda Meir and Cabinet members visiting the southern command, October 29, 1973
(Photo Credit: GPO/Yehuda Tzion)

Two months later, the new Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, reshaped Dayan’s proposal and adopted it as his own. In an address to the Egyptian National Assembly he proposed a partial Israeli pullback. He saw it, however, as a means of catalyzing, not indefinitely postponing, a final withdrawal from Sinai. Sadat startled his listeners by declaring his readiness for peace but only if Israel agreed to withdraw from all territory captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and resolving the Palestinian refugee problem. Meir was content to wait indefinitely — without conciliatory gestures, as the Americans urged — until Egypt was prepared to meet her demands: border changes and recognition of Israel.

Now, on Yom Kippur morning, 1973, she faced the consequences of that stand.

Golda Meir (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Golda Meir (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

She had spent the night not in her official Jerusalem residence but in her Tel Aviv apartment. She was in her office in the government compound in Tel Aviv when Dayan asked for a meeting of advisers at 7 a.m. The meeting was delayed while the chief of staff, Gen. David Elazar, set the military machine in motion. He and Dayan argued over two vital steps before going to see her. Elazar wanted a preemptive air strike against the Syrian army, which was closer to the Israeli heartland than the Egyptian army, and full mobilization of the reserves. Dayan was dubious about the Mossad’s war warning – there had been similar warnings before from the same source which proved false alarms, he noted. He opposed a preemptive strike and favored only limited mobilization since full mobilization in the absence of fighting could itself be taken as an act of war.

At 8:05 a.m., the two veteran warhorses took their dispute to Meir, a 75-year-old grandmother who did not even know what an army division was. The prime minister smoked cigarette after cigarette as they made their cases. The officers and advisers present squinted from the acrid smoke filling the room. She hemmed uncertainly for a few moments but then made a clear decision. Yes on mobilization. No on a preemptive strike. The Americans opposed Israel making a habit of preemptive strikes and Israel might soon be needing American political and logistical assistance. (As it happened, cloud conditions over Syria would have prevented a preemptive strike. In addition, as the air force would soon discover, it was unable to penetrate the Arabs’ anti-aircraft missile defenses.)

Moshe Dayan, June 1981. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Moshe Dayan, June 1981. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Meir made one decision as a grandmother rather than as a prime minister. Dayan suggested that children be brought down from the kibbutzim on the Golan Heights before the fighting started. He said that buses would bring them down in the late afternoon under the pretense of taking them on an outing. If the war warning had dissipated by then, the trip would be canceled and they would be spared an outcry from the religious sector at the government organizing an excursion on Yom Kippur. According to the Mossad’s agent, the Arab attack would not come before sundown. Meir overruled Dayan. The children must be brought down this morning, she said. The Arabs, in fact, had made a last-minute change in zero hour, moving it up to 2 p.m. when a massive barrage would descend on the Golan Heights.

All her decisions had been sound and they would remain so for the duration of the war. Common sense and political savvy would serve her well in the unfamiliar terrain of military matters. She would leave the running of the war to others but her input would periodically be required.

Israeli troops rushing up to the northern frontier with the outbreak of the war, October 7, 1973 (Photo Credit: GPO/Eitan Harris)
Israeli troops rushing up to the northern frontier with the outbreak of the war, October 7, 1973 (Photo Credit: GPO/Eitan Harris)

As soon as the meeting was over at 9:30 a.m. and the signal given to begin mobilizing the reserves, Meir met with American ambassador Kenneth Keating and his assistant, Nicholas Veliotes, whom she had urgently summoned. The diplomats were stunned when she said Israel expected to be attacked on two fronts that day. They had been assured by CIA reports and the Israelis themselves only a few days before that there was no danger of war. Meir assured them that Israel would not strike first. If the Arab moves were dictated by a misreading of Israeli intentions, she said, Washington should assure them that Israel had no intention of attacking. Keating asked whether it was certain that Israel would not preempt. “You can be sure,” she repeated. In his report to Washington, the ambassador quoted Meir as saying “We might be in trouble.”

Waiting outside the prime minister’s office when Keating emerged, looking pale, was Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Simha Dinitz. He had arrived a few days before for the funeral of his father. “You’ve got to return to Washington immediately,” Meir said when he entered. Whatever was about to happen, the US was a critical anchor and Dinitz, a former director of the Prime Minister’s Office, was a channel she could rely on. There were no flights from Israel on Yom Kippur but Gen. Lior arranged for an executive jet from Israel Aircraft Industries to fly Dinitz to Rome where he boarded a commercial flight for Washington.

Meir spoke in a monotone, sounding like a judge reading out a sentence. Then she reached the bottom line. In the early hours of this morning, word had been received from an unimpeachable source that war would break out at 6 p.m. this day on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts

At 12:30 p.m., Meir met with the cabinet, all except the religious ministers who had not come down from Jerusalem. She was pale and her eyes were downcast as she walked slowly to her chair at the head of the table. Her hair, normally neatly combed and pulled back, was disheveled and she looked like she had not shut her eyes all night. For the first time, her ministers saw an old woman sitting in the prime minister’s chair, slightly bent. She lit a cigarette, leafed briefly through a pile of papers in front of her, and declared the meeting open.

She began with a detailed report of events over the past few days — the Arab deployment on the borders that had suddenly taken on ominous color, the hasty evacuation of the families of Soviet advisers from Egypt and Syria, the air photos, the insistence by military intelligence that there would be no war despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The military leaders were divided, she said, over whether war would break out, over mobilization and a preemptive strike. She spoke in a monotone, sounding like a judge reading out a sentence. Then she reached the bottom line. In the early hours of this morning, word had been received from an unimpeachable source that war would break out at 6 p.m. this day on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts.

The ministers were stunned. They had not been made privy to the Arab buildup. Furthermore, they had been told for years that even in a worst-case situation military intelligence would provide at least a 48-hour warning to call up the reserves before war broke out. Now they were told that a two-front war was less than six hours away with the reserves, constituting two-thirds of the army, still unmobilized.

Meir asked Dayan to describe the situation along the two fronts. Despite her depressed look, her voice had been firm. But there appeared to be a tremor in Dayan’s voice. He looked like a man whose certainties had suddenly crumbled. As he neared the end of his review, an aide entered and handed him a note. The defense minister announced that Egyptian planes were attacking in Sinai. Even as Meir declared the meeting closed, sirens began to wail in the streets outside.

Dayan, for long Israel’s icon, was unnerved by the situation Israel now found itself in. Military intelligence had what was supposed to be a fail-safe system that would let it know if the Arabs planned to attack in ample time to mobilize the reserves. It had failed to activate the system because premature activation risked its exposure and Gen. Zeira, despite all the evidence, did not believe the Arabs would dare attack. For two days or so, Dayan suffered a failure of nerve and spread despondency among his peers by warning that Israel faced destruction. When he spoke to the inner cabinet after returning from flying visits to both fronts Sunday morning Meir, who had dark thoughts enough of her own, listened to him “in horror,” as she would write. She would acknowledge that she had thoughts of suicide.

When Meir asked Dayan what his reaction would be if the UN ordered a ceasefire, he said he would grab it

As the cabinet meeting broke up, she telephoned her long-time aide, Ms. Lou Kedar, whose office was next door. “Meet me in the corridor,” she said. There were other people still in Meir’s office and she wanted a private space. Although she had the country’s top political and military advisers on hand she could share her deepest feelings only with an old friend. When Kedar emerged into the corridor, Meir was already waiting for her. Kedar was shocked at her pallor, which matched the gray jacket she was wearing. There was despair in her face. Kedar would remember the prime minister leaning heavily against the wall and saying in a low and terrible voice, “Dayan is speaking of surrender.”

If Dayan had used that word, it is inconceivable that he used it in the conventional sense and none of the many other people who had been in the room would ever suggest he did. But he had spoken of surrendering territory — pulling back from the Bar-Lev Line — and of his belief that it would be impossible to force the Egyptians back across the canal. When Meir asked what his reaction would be if the UN ordered a ceasefire, he said he would grab it. He offered his resignation but she rejected it.

Meir stared hollowly at Kedar, her mind elsewhere. The wait seemed interminable. Slowly, the expression on Meir’s face began to change and color seeped back into her cheeks. “Get Simha,” she said. Kedar heard the familiar determination once again in her voice. Through Ambassador Dinitz she would begin to pressure the American administration for arms. Many excruciating days still lay ahead, but psychologically the prime minister had touched bottom and begun to regain her balance.

The previous spring, at a meeting in her Jerusalem home with her top military and civilian advisers to discuss indications of a possible Arab attack, Meir said that if war appeared likely Washington should be asked to head it off. Her closest adviser, minister Yisrael Galili, reminded her of the meeting between Henry Kissinger and Hafez Ismail, Sadat’s national security adviser, which the Americans had informed them about. Ismail had declared Egypt’s willingness to make peace in return for a complete Israeli pullback. Galili later returned to this theme, as if fearing that his previous remark may have been too oblique. “There is also a possibility that we can avoid all this mess [the danger of war] if we are prepared to enter into talks on the basis of returning to the previous border.” From the protocol, Galili’s remark sounds more like an observation than a proposal, but the fact that he voiced it twice suggests that the veteran political adviser, of hawkish bent, thought it perhaps worthy of exploration.

Meir, however, declined to pursue it. She was against war but she was also against total withdrawal. “Neither war nor threat of war” would divert Israel from its insistence on defensible borders, she said. Defensible borders “by their very existence will dissuade our neighbors from touching us.” Her position embraced the premise that the Arabs had no viable war option. This had now been proven wrong.

An officer distributing mail from home to soldiers in one of the forward positions on Mount Hermon, October 11, 1973 (Photo Credit: GPO/Eitan Harris)
An officer distributing mail from home to soldiers in one of the forward positions on Mount Hermon, October 11, 1973 (Photo Credit: GPO/Eitan Harris)

On the fourth day of the war, Dayan, who had by now returned to himself, proposed that all efforts be made to knock Syria out of the war, including the bombing of Damascus, so that the army could concentrate on the Egyptian front. Meir objected to bombing Damascus. If civilians were hurt, she said, the Americans might hold up arms shipment. But when she put the question to Galili he said “We have to do it.” It was pointed out that the Syrians had fired Frog missiles which caused casualties in Kibbutz Gvat and the town of Migdal Haemek, justifying an attack on Syrian urban areas. She finally gave her assent to the attack as long as it was confined to military targets.

By that afternoon, the last Syrian troops were driven from the Golan Heights in a remarkable drive by the Israeli tank corps. The policy makers now faced one of the most important decisions of the war — to cross the ceasefire line and drive towards Damascus or to dig on again along the line and send a division to the southern front to help drive the Egyptians back across the canal. The final decision would be Meir’s. Although she did not presume to understand military strategy she well understood political strategy. It would take four days, she was told, to move substantial forces to the southern front. During that period, there was a chance the UN might order a ceasefire. If that happened, the war would end with Egypt holding a strip of territory in Sinai that it had captured from Israel and Israel would be holding no captured territory at all. She came down firmly for an immediate attack into Syria.

She did commit one potentially serious tactical error on the tenth day of the war. Finding a gap in the Egyptian lines, General Ariel Sharon had put a tank force across the canal on motorized rafts. It was supposed to protect the site where a pontoon bridge would be thrown across but its presence was kept secret lest the Egyptians attack it with a nearby armored division. Unaware of the secrecy, Meir could not contain herself after all the grim news she had digested until now. “As we convene,” she said from the Knesset podium, “an IDF task force is operating on the west bank of the Suez Canal.”

Fortunately for Israel, Sadat dismissed her statement as “psychological warfare.”

‘How could we have been so unready?’ asked one soldier of Meir

In the third week of the war, secretary of state Kissinger stopped off briefly in Tel Aviv on his way back from Moscow where he had been hammering out the terms of a Middle East ceasefire with Kremlin leaders. When he asked Meir if she thought Sadat would survive the military setbacks of the final days, she said he would. “He is the hero. He dared.”

Kissinger told Dayan that Israel had been wise not to preempt. If it had, Dayan would recall him saying, it would not have received so much as a nail from the U.S.

Before flying to Washington at the end of the war, the prime minister made a visit to the southern front to talk to the troops. “How could we have been so unready?” asked one soldier of Meir who sat on a chair between Dayan and Elazar. She was not an expert on military matters, she said, and relied in this area on the two men alongside her. This infuriated a battalion commander who shouted, “Because you don’t understand these things I lost 48 men?” Other officers calmed him down.

The strain of the war was imprinted on Meir when she arrived in Washington. “The war had devastated her,” Kissinger would write.

After returning home, she received a note passed on to her by Kissinger. It was from Sadat. “You must take my word seriously,” it said. “When I threatened war, I meant it. When I talk of peace now, I mean it. We have the services of Dr. Kissinger. Let us use him and talk to each other through him.”

Her first reaction was “Why is he doing this?” but she recovered quickly. In a note she sent Sadat via Kissinger, she wrote, “I am deeply conscious of the significance of a message received by the prime minister of Israel from the president of Egypt. I sincerely hope that these contacts will continue and prove to be an important turning point in our relations.”

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)
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)

In a talk to the Labor Party Central Committee a month after the war she expressed contrition for the first time publicly at having rejected Dayan’s proposal three years earlier. “I didn’t understand what he was talking about,” she confessed. “We should just propose pulling back from the canal?” She did not elaborate but the implications were enormous. Had she understood that the Bar-Lev Line was a death trap as Ariel Sharon and other generals contended, the war would have taken a very different course, if it had broken out at all.

Elections to the Knesset, postponed from October because of the war, were held on December 31. It was too soon for voting patterns to have changed and Meir was reelected, albeit with five fewer seats. She asked Dayan to stay on as defense minister. Three months later, the Agranat Commission of Inquiry issued its interim findings calling for the resignation of Elazar, Zeira and other officers. It absolved Meir and Dayan, a finding which touched off widespread public protests, including mass demonstrations. A week later, Meir, weary and attuned to public sentiment, announced that she was stepping down, obliging new elections.

Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat (photo credit: Courtesy)
Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat (photo credit: Courtesy)

She reappeared on the Knesset podium in November 1977 as a special guest when Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem. Responding to his address to the Knesset, Meir expressed her hope from the podium that “even an old lady like myself” will live to see peace between the countries (still two years off). “Yes, yes, you always call me an old lady.” A photograph of them sharing a hearty laugh would come to be seen as more evocative of the potential of peace than any treaty.

[The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.]

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