Two months after the Yom Kippur War, when the country was still shell shocked by the surprise attack and the sense of terrible failure, a government commission of inquiry was appointed to investigate the preparations for the war and the measures taken to stave off the enemy during the first days of the war.
The commission was comprised of "big guns" and it was headed by former Chief Justice Dr. Shimon Agranat. Alongside Agranat were another Supreme Court justice, Moshe Landau, State Comptroller Dr. Yitzhak Neventzal and former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Professor Yigael Yadin and Lt. Gen. (res.) Haim Laskov.
The commission met 140 times and heard the testimonies of 58 witnesses. It concluded that the various intelligence bodies had a lot of information indicating that there was a possibility that a war would erupt, but the final assessment, which was wrong, was that the likelihood of war was very low, due to what was known as the "conception" that the Egyptians and Syrians would not dare to even think about launching a war.
The commission blamed Military Intelligence chief Eli Zeira for instilling this conception among the decision makers. GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen (known as Gorodish) was found responsible for failing to deploy forces and IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar (Dado) was found responsible for a host of operational and intelligence failures.
On the other hand, the commission praised Prime Minister Golda Meir and exonerated the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, of all blame.
Meir resigned nonetheless, in light of the public's deep rage and extensive protests. Elections were held and Yitzhak Rabin was elected her successor.
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Excerpts from Meir's testimony before the Agranat commission were made public on Thursday. The following excerpts have to do with the information that was or wasn't presented to her by the heads of the intelligence services. Some quotes have been omitted.
Agranat: "This is an intelligence memo that was presented to Ephraim Halevy [then a Mossad representative in the U.S.]. Did anyone superior to the intelligence services see this memo?"
Meir: "We saw it around the time it was issued. It was on Friday [the eve of the Yom Kippur War]. It was at 4:00, possibly 3:00."
Yadin: "At the time that this telegram was sent by you, did the intelligence services or anyone else bother you with anything urgent? Any other information? The problem here is that they [in the report] claim that it is only an exercise."
"...I would like to read to you what the Military Intelligence Directorate received that day: 'We learned that Syria has evacuated Soviet experts, and that planes have begun taking them from Damascus to Moscow. The same sources informed us that even the families of the Soviet diplomats have begun arriving in Moscow from Damascus. The sources added that the Syrians explained the evacuation by saying that Egypt and Syria were planning to wage a war against Israel. For your information."
Meir: "I don't know."
Yadin: "The IDF chief of staff and the defense minister told us that on Friday evening they had not received such a telegram. Did you not get one?"
Later in that meeting, the commission discusses certain intelligence information that was not handed over to the Prime Minister's Office.
Meir: "It may be that the Military Intelligence Directorate did not feel obligated to share information with us, but it is very hard for me to understand how it wasn't shared with the chief of staff."
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Meir: "On October 3, the chief of staff says 'I surmise that we will receive word that they are planning to launch some kind of attack as a complete surprise. By surprise I mean that we will know 12 or 24 hours in advance. That is also a big surprise.' Over the years, there was a notion that we might get advance warning 48 hours ahead of time."
"I am glad at least about one thing, that on Saturday morning I decided to call up forces [the war erupted that afternoon]. Even then there were questions. There were doubts."
"In April, when we thought there would be a war in May based on our intelligence, I was in the 'pit' [operations room]. I was presented with all the problems, possibilities, and everything that had been done."
Agranat: "Did they present you then with the war plans?"
Meir: "Yes. When they talked about calling up troops ... there was always the problem that the very act of calling up troops could itself expedite war. You may recall, in 1967, a man far better versed in security affairs than me -- David Ben Gurion may he rest in peace -- was very upset with the chief of staff for deciding to call up troops. He called Yitzhak Rabin and said very harsh words to him: Why did you announce a call-up? That was when the Egyptian army had been sitting in Sinai for weeks."
"The fear is that if we call up troops, they will think that we are planning to attack and then they will attack. It is a psychological security thing that is always taken into consideration. It was also a consideration on that Saturday morning: Maybe we'll do it anyway. And I, perhaps thanks to not knowing and a lack of expertise, said, let's call up."
Neventzal: "The question was how wide the call-up would be. You wanted a wider call-up and you made a decision."
Yadin: "Did you have a feeling, then, on Saturday morning, that there was any doubt regarding whether or not to call up troops?"
Meir: "There was still a feeling that it may still be possible to wait, and if we need to we can always call up troops on Sunday. The chief of staff's argument was that if we recruit today, these forces will only begin fighting on Sunday, and if we recruit on Sunday, they will only begin fighting on Monday and we will lose another day. If I declare a call-up overnight it is better than moving them in the daytime. And in the absence of knowledge, I said, let's call up."
Yadin: "The argument was mainly whether to recruit four divisions or two divisions. My question is whether you had a [feeling] that the defense minister and chief of staff were debating whether to even call up the two divisions at all?"
Meir: "One of the arguments raised, rightfully in my opinion, by the chief of staff was that as long as we're recruiting, and if they will say it [that we escalated the situation by the very act of recruiting] anyway, there is no real difference between calling up 70,000 [soldiers] and 120,000 or 200,000. If there is going to be an impression that we started the war, and the evidence would be that we called up troops, there would be no difference between 70,000 and a bigger number."
Agranat: "Did that affect you? Did you accept this argument?"
Meir: "It affected me, though I was already in the kind of mood and the kind of feeling that short of a preventive strike, we needed to do everything that could be done. ... Is someone going to go and count? If we are blamed [that the call-up sparked the war] and we say that we only called up 70,000, will they applaud us?"
Yadin: "There was a consultation between the defense minister and the chief of staff that morning at 6 a.m. There was already a disagreement between them on whether to call up two divisions or four divisions. Afterward it was decided, and the defense minister told the chief of staff: since there is a disagreement between us, I will present your views as well. But they both agreed that morning that at least two divisions should be called up."
Yadin: "We asked the defense minister and the chief of staff: since that morning at 6 a.m. you both had already agreed to call up two divisions, why didn't you begin calling them up in the morning? True, it would have required the prime minister's go ahead. So you pick up a phone. ... We didn't get an answer about that. That is what raised our suspicion, just a suspicion, nothing concrete, whether that morning you even had a feeling that anyone had any doubt regarding whether or not to even call up troops at all."
Meir: "No. The chief of staff demanded four divisions, and he was adamant about it. If there was any doubt, it was the defense minister's doubt that two divisions might be enough."
"...We all know the defense minister [Moshe Dayan], he can be insistent. ... He [Dayan] began and said: There is a disagreement between us. If you decide in favor of the chief of staff, I will not resign. That is not to say that he threatened to resign over every disagreement. ... I told him: What do you want from me? I have to decide between you two on two divisions or four divisions. ... I said it [Meir decided to call up four divisions] and that was that. He took it in his stride, but I felt that in his heart he was not convinced."
Landau: "You overcame the American argument."
Meir: "Yes. I had reservations only on one thing, and I don't regret it to this day. I had reservations about launching a pre-emptive strike [the commission was referring to a provisional plan for the Israel Air Force to launch a bombing that would prevent the Egyptians from going to war]. I believe I said: My heart is very tempted, but I am afraid. I can't prove it -- no one can ever prove what would have happened if ... -- but I think that I can say with full confidence that had we gone with a pre-emptive strike when there was no clear assessment that they were planning to attack, I am almost confident that the 'airlift' [the operation conducted by the U.S. to deliver weapons and supplies to Israel during the war] would not have happened. The airlift didn't go so smoothly."
"I was ready to meet with Nixon"
Meir: "...On the second day of the war, I said to Simcha [Dinitz] our ambassador, when I saw that the supplies [from the U.S.] weren't moving: Go and tell them that I am ready to leave the country and meet with Nixon incognito. Ask me now how I was thinking of doing it, I don't know. It was out of desperation that I had to do something dramatic to motivate them. But I knew that at least it wasn't the 'you started it' explanation."
"I knew then, and I know now, that perhaps, maybe you can even say certainly, boys that are gone would have stayed alive. But I don't know how many other boys would have fallen due to the shortage of supplies. I can't say with 100 percent certainty, because I can't prove anything, but other than that reservation, I can say 100% that the Pentagon, as I know it and judging from the trouble we had until we got the airlift, we wouldn't [have received the airlift]."
Landau: "We heard the same argument regarding the call-up, that they would start shooting and say that we started. ... We see that you considered it but got past it."
Meir: "I am convinced that it was the right decision. ... With all the problems, we got 736 airlift flights. ... We got 26,000 tons of supplies. In that time, we got 40 phantoms and 53 Skyhawks. ... The Phantoms could be flown over. The Skyhawks needed to be refueled three times on the way. Now that we know the circumstances under which these things were done, I don't have any feeling that deciding against a pre-emptive strike was a wrong decision."
"...On Saturday, at the cabinet meeting, when I said this, no one said anything to the contrary. At the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting that evening, no one said anything to the contrary."
Yadin: "I want to go back to the issue of calling up reserves. ... I got the impression that on Friday afternoon you had concerns about the situation. ... On Friday, was there any thought about whether to recruit reserves forces on Friday or not because of the panic it would stir in the country?"
Meir: "I don't remember exactly where I said that if we were utterly prepared and the war ended up not breaking out, we could live with that kind of disappointment."
Neventzal: "The term 'pre-emptive strike' is a little misleading, because literally it means that it prevents war."
Meir: "So maybe say 'surprise strike'"
Neventzal: "If a pre-emptive strike would have accomplished that, the entire issue of the airlift would not have been that relevant. But apparently no one thought then, or thinks now, that it would have prevented the war."
Meir: "If you read the minutes from Saturday morning, there was a kind of argument. We said no to a pre-emptive strike, but if the Egyptians start, we will strike the Syrians too, because we view them as one front."
Agranat: "That is what you wanted to decide, but in reality you didn't decide. The war broke out. There were those who wanted to delay the decision a few more hours. [Pinhas] Sapir for example."
Meir: "Yes, but ..."
Agranat: "And in the meantime, the war broke out."
"I torture myself"
Yadin: "I am going to ask a provocative question, and I ask it because there was talk of this. I don't know where, maybe in the press. Could it be that one of the prime minister's considerations -- I won't talk about the defense minister and others right now -- was the fact that we were on the eve of elections? We, the Maarach Party [the precursor of the Labor Party], have been saying to the public that it is quiet here all the time, everything is great, and suddenly we have to shatter that image? Was this problem ever a consideration?"
Meir: "My knowledge in Hebrew is not sufficient to find the diplomatic words to appropriately deny that claim. It is not just that it was never said in a hint of hint, but I am prepared to swear on everyone's behalf. ... It never crossed anyone's mind. You could say that we were wrong, that we miscalculated, anything, but not that. [Elections considerations] -- not under any circumstances. No one. "
Agranat: "Am I to understand that on the fifth of the month [October 5 was a Friday. The war broke out on Yom Kippur, that Saturday] you still had not decided whether to call up the reserves out of consideration for the Americans? ... I am talking about the fifth of the month because on Saturday you decided on a full call-up."
Meir: "Until Saturday morning, no one brought up the [topic of calling up reserves] -- not military officials, not civilian officials, no one. Now two ministers are saying -- one of whom wasn't there on Friday morning, but his fellow faction member was there. Hasani [Michael Hasani from the National Religious Party] was there. Minister Warhaftig [Zerach Warhaftig, also from the National Religious Party. He wasn't present at that meeting] told me later: If I had been there, I would have proposed [calling up reserves]. It is hard to say for sure. But the fact is that until that meeting at my office early Saturday morning, no one raised the idea of calling up troops. At least not in my presence. I torture myself over why I didn't do it. But no one brought it up."
"As soon as it was brought up, I had no doubt"
"...Until the very last minute we were still trying to follow Military Intelligence's conception, that everything that was happening on the northern and southern fronts was a result of their fear of an attack by us. To try at the last minute through the Americans to tell the Russians, and have the Russians tell the Egyptians that we have no such intention. ... We thought that at the last minute maybe we could still save. ... For some reason based on what Keating told us [Kenneth Keating, who was, for a time, the U.S. ambassador to Israel], it would be at 6 p.m. At one point I said, maybe it was a misprint? Maybe he meant that it would be at 16:00 [4 p.m.]. ... We thought that they would still have time to get the message to the Russians and subsequently to the Egyptians and Syrians, that we are not planning to attack."
Landau: "There was a different idea, if you recall ... that what could perhaps have prevented things -- printing in the papers that Israel knows. Why was that not done?"
Agranat: "It was Shabbat already"
Landau: "But it could have saved time. We may not print papers [on Shabbat] but there is also the foreign press."
Meir: "Apparently we didn't think it would change anything. We thought that with diplomacy, maybe ..."
Landau: "I haven't seen any discussion of such an option."
Meir: "Since the cease-fire in 1970, I have repeated my thesis dozens of times, in all kinds of forums, that I don't accept the notion that we are in a state of neither peace nor war. ... I said: As long as there is no peace, we are at war. ... On Thursday evening I said: I can't guarantee that it will be tonight, since it is not up to us. It is up to [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat and he can give the order right now to start shooting. I had a feeling all those years that it might happen."
Agranat: "I am just trying to understand the frame of mind. ... I understand that one consideration, maybe the main one, was that they were afraid of us and therefore we wanted to communicate the message: know that we have no intention of launching an attack. But shouldn't the other consideration have been not that they are afraid of us, but that they want to attack us and they want to take us by surprise? Or was the assessment that there was a 'low likelihood' as Military Intelligence calls it, meaning that it wouldn't happen?"
Meir: "No, because though the Military Intelligence assessment was as it was -- the conception. I am wary of speaking in front of two former chiefs of staff, but I think that the conception was that if the conscription army was on full alert, that means the air force, and additional units were called up and are there to assist -- that is enough force to stave off ..."
"On the day of October 5, the chief of staff said, and I quote: 'We have taken all the preparatory measures. Over this holiday, the IDF has declared a state of high alert; all vacations have been cancelled on the lines.' ... That means that the conception was that blocking [the enemy] is a conscription army on high alert."