The Yom Kippur War of 1973 has been described as the greatest military intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. This is the story of how a vengeful surprise attack almost destroyed the nation of Israel. (Part One). Told through the eyes of titanic personalities like Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and more.
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 has been described as the greatest military intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. This is the story of how a vengeful surprise attack almost destroyed the nation of Israel. Told through the eyes of titanic personalities like Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan. (Part 1 of 2).
Boyne, Walter J. The Two O’clock War. 2002.
Blum, Howard. The Eve of Destruction. 2003.
Klagsbrun, Francine. Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. 2017.
Herzog, Chaim. The War of Atonement. 1975.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Yom Kippur War. 2017.
Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War. 2004.
Bregman, Ahron. The Spy Who Fell To Earth. 2016.
Oren, Michael B. Six Days of War. 2002.
Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that have shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
Welcome to Episode 15: The Third Temple.
On June 7th, 1967, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan stood facing a wall in the city of Jerusalem.
It was an old wall. An ancient wall.
As Moshe ran his fingers over the stones, he could feel the pits and chips and ragged indentions. He knew that over two thousand years ago, his ancestors had cut and carried these very same blocks. Shaped them, lifted them, placed them. Moshe was 52 years old, and for almost every single one of those years he’d dreamed of standing in this exact spot.
To the naked eye, there was nothing special or remarkable about this wall. It was overgrown with brittle weeds and weathered to the point of disrepair. But to Moshe, it was much, much more.
Because Moshe was a Jew, and this was not just any old wall.
This was the Western Wall - the last structural remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple that had been sacked and destroyed by the Roman empire in A.D. 70. At that time, the Jewish kingdom had revolted against their overlords in Rome, and they had paid dearly for it.
The legionaries ruthlessly tore down every pillar, every column, and every idol in the temple. They burned it to the ground. And when they were done, all that remained of the Temple was a single, solitary wall on its Western side. As the ancient historian Josephus Flavius wrote:
Every trace of its beauty had been blotted out by war, and nobody who had known it in the past and come upon it suddenly, would have recognized the place.
It was the second time the Jewish temple had been destroyed. The first time had been by the Babylonians in 587 BC. But the Romans had finished the job.
And this last remaining wall was, in many ways, the beating heart of the Jewish faith. One of the few tangible connections to their long, turbulent past. And now, for the first time in two millennia, it was controlled by a Jewish state – a tiny, 19-year-old nation called Israel. Or as it was often called metaphorically, “The Third Temple”
Once the weight of history had passed over him, Moshe Dayan composed himself, and took a small piece of paper out of his pocket. On it, he wrote a short, simple prayer. Then he rolled it up, and placed it between the cracks of the wall. Moshe turned around to face the hundreds of Israeli soldiers watching him intently.
He could see the joy in their faces. The awe and the reverence. But he could also see exhaustion and pain. They had been at war for three days now. Most of them had barely slept.
Less than a week earlier, the fledgling nation of Israel had made the decision to launch a preemptive strike against the Arab nation of Egypt.
Egypt’s leader, the theatrical, charismatic President Gamal Abdel Nasser, had been vowing to destroy the nation of Israel for years. To do it, he had recruited almost the entire Arab world to his cause, including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. It was his obsession to drive the Israelis into the sea. Because to Nasser and the Arab world, the Israelis were not an oppressed people returning to their homeland. They were just more colonizers. Outside interlopers taking whatever land they wanted and displacing the people who had lived there for centuries.
As Nasser had said on more than one occasion:
“We will not accept any coexistence with Israel.”
This Arab coalition had, in one iteration or another, actually fought several wars against Israel in the years since the Hebrew state had been officially recognized in 1948.
But by 1967, tensions had risen to a fever pitch, again. And rather than wait for an overwhelming, coordinated assault that they believed was inevitable, the Israelis had decided to strike first.
At 7:45 in the morning, on June 5th, 1967, 184 Israeli fighter jets had launched a blistering surprise attack on Egyptian airfields, and within a matter of hours Nasser’s dreams of wiping Israel off the map had evaporated forever. As one Israeli commander happily reported just hours after the attack:
“The Egyptian air force has ceased to exist.”
In the six days that followed, Israel’s small, vastly outnumbered military – the Israeli Defense Force, or the IDF - inflicted devastating defeats on Egypt and its allies Jordan and Syria. Over the course of 132 hours, Israel tripled its landmass, conquering the Sinai desert in the Southwest, the Golan Heights in the North East, and the Eastern half of Jerusalem.
The International community was shocked. Nasser and his coalition were humiliated. And the Israelis were ecstatic. The Six Day War, as it came to be known, was a colossal, staggering victory for Israel. A true David and Goliath triumph. It changed the Middle East forever.
If you want to hear the full story of the Six Day War, I covered it in Episode 5, entitled “Six Days”. You don’t need to have listened to that to enjoy today’s episode, but it might provide a deeper sense of background and thematic resonance. So if you’re interested, check it out. And fun fact, that episode is actually hands-down, the most popular episode of the show. So don’t forget to check it out. You’ll have to forgive the audio quality, it’s a vintage episode – bout a year old. And the shows has come quite a long way in terms of audio quality since then, so apologies in advance for that.
Anyway, back to the story.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who had orchestrated much of Israel’s strategy during the Six Day War, was hailed as a hero. A modern-day Samson, to use another biblical analogy. In fact, the June 16th, 1967 issue of Time Magazine, published just one week after the war’s conclusion, featured Moshe Dayan on its cover. You can look it up, and honestly it doesn’t really do him justice.
The first thing you’ll notice about Moshe Dayan is his big, black eyepatch. I referred to him as Jewish Nick Fury in a previous episode, and I stand by that comparison. He lost the eye during WW2, fighting for the British in North Africa. He was looking through a telescope, and an enemy sniper put a bullet through the lens. The glass shattered and blinded him in one eye. Initially, Moshe was extremely self-conscious about it, but before long the pirate’s eyepatch became iconic. And he just kinda rolled with it.
In the weeks and months that followed the Six Day War, the Israelis basked in the glow of international acclaim. They had done the impossible. Prior to the War, Israel’ tiny landmass made it extremely vulnerable to attack on all sides. But with the accumulation of all that extra territory, they had acquired what military historians often refer to “strategic depth”. The breathing room to respond to an attacking force before they’re literally rolling down streets of your population centers.
For the first time in its short history, Israel didn’t have its back to the wall. They could breathe a little easier. Sleep a little more soundly. But with that comfort, came arrogance and complacency. The unquestioned doctrine that the Israeli soldier was completely superior to the Arab soldier in every way. They could never be defeated.
And while the Israelis rejoiced, the Arab leaders in the region seethed.
They had been humiliated, defeated by a tiny nation of colonizers and thieves who had displaced hundreds of thousands of their fellow Arabs in Palestine. This could not stand. The Arab world would not rest until they had their revenge and had retaken the land that Israel had conquered. And with the sting of the Six Day War still fresh in their minds, Egypt and Syria began plotting once again. They would bide their time, build up their forces, and wait for the opportune moment to strike.
In time, they would restore their honor. As a Cairo radio broadcast intoned in the aftermath of the Al Naksah, or “The setback”, as the Arabs called it, there would be:
“No peace with Israel, no survival of the influence of imperialism and no existence in our land of the Zionist state.”
In the months following the war, Egypt’s disgraced President, Gamal Abdel Nasser would often lock himself in his office, and listen to recordings of radio broadcasts of Israel’s troop movements from that fateful week, trying to unlock the secret to their astonishing victory. In a haze of smoke, he was could be heard muttering to himself:
“What was taken by force. Can only be restored by force.”
Shortly after, he died of a massive heart attack. But the burning anger of the Arab world did not die with him.
Today, we are going to be talking about the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Just six years after the Six Day War, Egypt and Syria launched a devastating surprise attack against Israel. It was brilliantly planned, meticulously executed, and obsessively staged.
It’s a story of spies and double-crosses. Of Cold War politics and white-hot violence. Of tank battles, dogfights, and narrowly-avoided nuclear strikes. Less than a decade after their jaw-dropping victory in the Six Day War, the Israelis would come closer than they ever had to complete annihilation.
As Moshe Dayan took his hand off the Western Wall that day in 1967 and looked at his soldiers, he believed that the Third Temple finally rested on a firm foundation.
He had no idea that the seeds had been planted for an even more terrible and destructive war.
It was below freezing when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stepped off his plane in Moscow on March 1st, 1971.
Sadat was new to the Egyptian Presidency. His predecessor, the disgraced Gamal Abdel Nasser, was dead, killed by a massive heart attack the year earlier.
Anwar Sadat – that’s S-A-D-A-T, Sadat - was everything Nasser was not.
Where Nasser was a smooth, grinning, charismatic strongman, Sadat was a dry, slippery bureaucrat. His thin mustache and male pattern baldness did not strike fear into the Soviet soldiers who drove him to the Kremlin that day. Here, they thought, was a weak man. A pale imitation of his mighty predecessor. A patsy, who would be gone in a coup or two. But Sadat was much more than met the eye.
The reason for his visit to the heart of Soviet Russia was to ask for weapons. Modern, state-of-the-art weapons that he could wield against his country’s nemesis, Israel.
As he sat across from his Soviet counterpart, he could feel the disdain they had for him. Sadat knew that these Russians did not respect him. But he also knew that they needed him.
The Soviet Union had been cozy with Egypt for years. During the Cold War, the Middle East was a vital part of the Soviet global strategy. Not because Russians liked or even respected the Arabs. The truth was, the alliance was just a matter of simple geography.
The Soviets needed friends in the region to keep track the American Sixth Fleet, which prowled the eastern Mediterranean. Why? Well, from its position, the Sixth Fleet was capable of launching a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. So naturally, the Soviets wanted as many eyes and ears as possible in the Middle East.
But that cooperation came with a cost.
The Egyptians wanted weapons. Cutting-edge Soviet weaponry that they could use in the wars against Israel. Initially, the Egyptians had been eager to provide. Israel was backed by the Europeans and Americans. If the Arabs snuffed out the Jews and removed an American asset from the playing field, all the better. The Soviets supplied tanks, fighter jets, and artillery. Their best stuff – or damn near close to it.
But then, the Six Day War happened.
In less than a week, the IDF had turned all that fancy Soviet hardware into heaps of scrap metal in the desert. So much for Soviet engineering. The root cause of embarrassing catastrophe, the Soviets angrily argued, was the poor quality of the Arab soldiers. Even with the best equipment in the world, they couldn’t destroy a tiny nation of outgunned colonists.
The Soviet defense minister, a guy named Andrei Grechko, drove point home as cruelly and bluntly as possible to Sadat:
“There are three prerequisites for a successful war. Arms. Training. And the will to fight. The first two, you have.”
As Sadat bitterly admitted in an interview in 1974:
“We had already lost credibility in the eyes of the whole world and we had begun to lose faith in ourselves,”
One contemporary editorial even went on to ask:
“an impolite but unavoidable question: What is the matter with the Arab armies? Was there ever a people so bellicose in politics, so reckless and raucous in hostility—and then so unpugnacious in pitched combat—as Nasser’s Egyptians?”
This sense of shame and dishonor was an open wound for the Egyptians. This insult to Arab pride had to be avenged. The territory the Israelis had stolen in a duplicitous sneak attack had to be retaken. And for Sadat, it was not just an abstract necessity. If he couldn’t score a big win for the Arab world, his Presidency was likely to end at the business end of a noose in the next coup.
Years later, Sadat’s wife offered a window into her husband’s mind at the time:
“He [Sadat] needed one more war in order to win and enter into negotiations from a position of equality,”
But defeating the Israelis in an epic rematch would be no easy task. To do it, the Egyptians need two key things. One, long range SCUD missiles that could hit Israeli population centers. And two, a fleet of strategic bombers that could wipe out the Israeli air force before it could get in the air.
The Soviets said “no” to both.
In the early 1970s, the Cold War was cooling down. Both Washington and Moscow were warming up to the idea of being a little friendlier towards one another in an uneasy détente. The explosive conflicts in the Middle East gotten them a little too close for comfort to coming to actual blows with one another. So, they wanted to restrain their assets in the Middle East and just calm everything down.
As Sadat boarded his plane to return to Egypt, his mind began to turn.
Without those weapons, he could never succeed in destroying the Zionists. The Israelis were too strong, too well-trained, and too supported by the International community, particularly the United States.
But maybe there was another way. He didn’t need to destroy Israel, just to humiliate them. If he could bloody their nose enough to break the stalemate and bring them to the bargaining table, then Arab pride would be restored.
When Sadat landed in Cairo, he summoned his generals. And a brilliant, audacious plan began to take shape.
But what Sadat did not know, was that every syllable of his conversations and dealings with the Soviet Union was being fed directly to Israeli intelligence, or Mossad.
The shocking truth was, the Israelis had a man inside the Egyptian government. A spy, placed at the highest echelon of Anwar Sadat’s regime. This mysterious source, (codename-) known only as The Angel, had been feeding Egypt’s most sensitive state secrets to the Israelis since late 1970.
And it all began in a phone booth, in London.
Sometime in December 1970, the phone rang in the Israeli embassy in the city of London. The voice on the line said that he wanted to offer Israel vital intelligence on Egypt. The embassy staff passes along the message to Mossad. They say ‘okay, we’ll look into it’. According to the embassy people, the call came from “some Arab guy”.
So they follow up and arrange a meeting in the lobby of a London hotel. There’s lots of cloak and dagger spy shenanigans. It’s all very Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, if you’ve seen that movie. Eventually, Mossad meets this person offering Egyptian state secrets face to face. And they discover who the source really is.
His name is Ashraf Marwan. And Ashraf Marwan was the son-in-law of Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and current advisor to President Anwar Sadat. The Israelis were floored; absolutely gobsmacked. This would be like if Nixon’s first cousin agreed to spy for the Russians. It was utterly outlandish. It strained credulity.
As a result, the Israelis were initially extremely skeptical of Ashraf Marwan and his intentions.
They think its too good to be true. Because, as any good Cold War spy will tell you, “walk-ins” – or sources that volunteer their services out of the blue – are not to be trusted. They’re almost always double agents, looking to sow disinformation or discord, while secretly reporting back to the government who sent them in the first place. But what really strained credulity, was who he was. A former member of the Egyptian first family, and a current key advisor in Sadat’s government.
But then, he starts giving them information. And it checks out. It’s a gold mine. He’s giving them transcripts of conversations with Soviet advisors, Sadat’s letters, Egyptian army war plans, formations, and arms sales orders. As one Mossad agent remarked:
“Material like this from a source like this is something that happens once in a thousand years.’
But the missing piece of information that the Israelis did not have from The Angel, or the In-Law has he was also known, was…”why?” Why would someone so closely tied to Egypt’s leadership, someone who had everything to lose if he was exposed, just give over state secrets to his nation’s bitterest enemy?
Mossad had a few theories, but as long as he kept handing over this miraculous intelligence, they didn’t much care. To this day, we don’t exactly what motivated Ashraf Marwan, the Angel, to betray his people. There are lots of theories. Some say he did it for the money – Israel would end up paying him millions for his services. Others say that he simply was tired of being on the losing side of history.
But whatever the case, Israel was confident that it had an unimpeachably accurate window into not only the Egyptian government, but into the inner workings of the mind of President Sadat himself. As one Mossad operator said: “Having Marwan as a spy was like being in bed with Sadat”.
The Israelis became utterly addicted to the information the In-Law provided. And they would go to incredible lengths to ensure that spigot kept pumping out intel. As Ahron Bregman describes in his book, The Spy Who Fell To Earth, when the Mossad
“learned that relations between Marwan and his wife, Mona, were shaky, concerned that the couple might split and Marwan would lose his special ‘Nasser effect’, the Israelis purchased a diamond ring in Tel Aviv and asked Marwan to give it to Mona as a present.”
It was an investment that paid off in many ways. Intelligence from the In-Law often literally saved lives. On one occasion, Mossad uncovered and averted a Palestinian plot to shoot down an Italian airliner thanks to the Marwan’s intel.
As Israel mainlined this flow of information directly into their metaphorical veins, they glommed onto one insight in particular. The idea stemmed from a letter that Sadat had sent to the Soviets, in which he basically said that he could not wage war against Israel unless he had those two weapons systems he had been asking for. The long-range bombers, and the Scud missiles. Without those, Egypt could not and would not attack Israel.
In Sadat’s own words, which the In-Law provided to Mossad:
“Deprived of such a retaliatory weapon, we would remain incapable of taking any military action.”
This one sentence – just 15 words - becomes the foundation for Israel’s entire military strategy regarding Egypt and its allies. The Mossad was one of the best intelligence agencies in the world, with access to some of the best sources in the world. They felt assured that if anything changed in Sadat’s viewpoint on war, they would be the first to know.
This doctrine - this idea that Sadat would never launch attack without the bombers and Scuds became known within the Israeli government simply as “The Concept”, with a Capital C.
But the Israelis were selling themselves a fiction. After being rebuffed in Moscow, Sadat’s thinking had changed entirely. If the Russians wouldn’t give him the hardware he needed to retake the lost territory, he would find another way.
And no one, not even the In-Law, could’ve predicted the ingenious operation that was taking shape in minds of Egyptian military leaders.
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18 months after the In-Law began spying for Israel in 1973, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived at a small house in West Jerusalem. He stepped out of the car, adjusted his signature black eye patch, and knocked on the front door of the residence.
To the untrained eye, it was just a normal house. An understated, modest home. But everyone in Jerusalem knew that this was the home of the most important person in the country: The Prime Minister of Israel.
Moshe walks through the door and rounds the corner of the hallway to enter a small, simple kitchen. He can smell tea on the kettle, and cakes in the oven. Seated at the kitchen table are the most powerful political leaders in Israel. Representatives from the military, the intelligence community, everyone’s there.
And there’s a little old lady serving them all tea and cakes.
Moshe smiles and shakes hands and sits down at the table. He takes a bite of cake and sips his tea. When the pleasantries had been exchanged and the small talk dies down, all eyes turn to the old woman. According to one source, she was:
“square set, standing about five feet five inches tall, silver-streaked hair pulled back in a signature bun, thick brows, no makeup.”
She removes her apron and takes her seat at the head of the table. This little old lady was Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel.
At 75 years old, Golda Meir had seen every step of the long, improbable journey that had transformed a small community of frontier farmers into arguably the most powerful nation in the Middle East. She was an old woman steering the destiny of a very young country.
Like many Israelis, Golda had not been born in Israel. She had been born in Russia in 1898. Life had always been hard for Jews in Europe, but Tzarist Russia seemed to provide a particularly cruel brand of squalor and violence.
One of the experiences that Golda carried with her from when she was a little girl was the constant threat of pogroms – or small-scale genocidal rampages that targeted Jewish homes and businesses. One of her earliest, and most vivid memories was the sound of her father boarding up the windows with a hammer and nails to shield their home from outbreaks of violence. As she told an interviewer later in life:
“I can hear the sound of that hammer now, and I can see the children standing in the streets, wide-eyed and not making a sound, watching the nails being driven in.”
Her father, a poor, uneducated carpenter, decided that his family could never be safe in the lands of the Tzar. A place that Golda described as “a vast, cold land of suspicion, hostility, and silence.”
So, Golda’s father decided to immigrate to the United States. He believed, and rightly so, that he could forge a prosperous future for his wife and children there. As Golda remembered:
“to the Jews, America was like a bank where you went to pick up the dollars scattered on the sidewalks and came back with your pockets full.”
In 1906, Golda and her family boarded a ship bound for America. And as for Russia, they never looked back. As she told an interviewer:
“What did I take with me from there? Fear, hunger and fear. Fear of Cossacks in Pinsk and the dreadful cries from the police station. Poverty, pogroms, and political repression.”
Rather than the typical destination of New York,. Golda’s family settled in Milwaukee. And to a little girl from Russia, it was like stepping into a completely different world. As biographer Francine Klagsbrun wrote:
“Golda began to love what she saw around her. The city traffic, the well-dressed people, the five-story department stores—which seemed skyscrapers to her—the penny ice cream cones sold in bakeries, the wooden Indians outside cigar stores, the electric lights, trolleys, soda pop, and other wonders of this new world enthralled her. For the first time in her short life, she felt a sense of freedom, or, more precisely, a lack of fear.”
Life was mostly good for Jews in America. As a Milwaukee lawyer named Robert Hess recalled:
“Jews ran small businesses then, groceries, delicatessens. Life was hard, complicated, but also simple…a guy could take a girl out to a free lunch counter, where for fifty cents you could get a glass of beer and as much as you wanted to eat.”
As Golda grew up into a young woman, she began to relish the newfound educational opportunities available to her in America. She loved learning and school and discussing ideas with other people. As a classmate recalled:
“She was always first to answer all the questions the teachers asked. She was always the one who knew more than the others,”
Golda excelled at school. And she did so without the support of her extremely conservative and traditional mother, who thought education was “for men only” and that “it doesn’t pay to be too clever. Men don’t like smart girls.”
Well contrary to her mother’s old-world instincts, men did like Golda. A lot. There was a no-nonsense magnetism about her. An intelligence that pulled suitors to her like bugs to a zapper. As one friend joked:
“Out of every five men who met Golda, four fell in love with her”
But Golda was falling hard for something else. And it wasn’t men. It was politics. Specifically, the fast-growing Zionist movement. At the time, in the early 1900s, the Zionist movement was a vastly complex political landscape with lots of different facets and sub-groups and splinter ideologies , but the basic central goal of Zionism, was this:
To establish a safe harbor for every Jew in the world, back in their ancestral homeland of – as they would call it – Judea. Which, in the early 1900s, was called Palestine. Well, Golda becomes enraptured with this idea. And she starts getting very involved in American Zionist organizations.
But not all Jews were jazzed about the notion of Zionism. Many thought it was a fool’s errand. A pipe dream. Jews would always be persecuted; it was their lot in life. As Golda’s boyfriend at the time eye-rolled:
The idea of Palestine or any other territory for the Jews is, to me, ridiculous. Racial persecution does not exist because some nations have no territories but because nations exist at all. I do not care particularly as to whether the Jews are going to suffer in Russia or the Holy Land.”
Nevertheless, Golda becomes a passionate advocate for Zionism. She believed in it with every cell in her body. And it came through strongly in her earthy, but electrifying speaking style. As Francine Klagsbrun writes in her biography of Golda, Lioness:
She would move people to tears and herself as well. She was free of stage fright, courageous, and possessing a vast reservoir of energy. She never wrote a speech ahead of time; she seemed to know instinctively how to tug on the collective heartstrings of an audience with simple, straightforward language, a mixture of plain talk and passion that served her all her life.
Eventually, speeches and fundraising were not enough for Golda. She decides to put her money where her mouth is. She decides to get on a ship, with a small group of family and friends, and go to Palestine to join the growing community of Zionist settlers there.
Her mother thought she’d lost her mind, saying:
“Are you crazy? Why do you want to go to that wilderness?”
Remember, in that time, there was no Israel. Its future capital, Tel Aviv, was basically just a one-horse border town. That’s an oversimplification, but comparatively, it’s true. Golda and her Zionist friends were leaving their posh, comfortable life in America to scrounge a pioneer existence in a hostile frontier.
The journey was not a comfortable one. After months of oceanic travel, Golda and her fellow pilgrims endured constant obstacles. As Klagsbrun writes:
The train rides to El Qantara and then Tel Aviv were ordeals of unbearable heat and thirst, of the sting of windswept sand in their eyes and the grit of it in their mouths, of hard, dirty benches and crying children and more beggars,
When they finally stepped off the train and looked out over the arid, featureless desert that was going to be their new home, a friend turned to Golda and said:
“Well, Golda, you wanted to come to Eretz Yisrael. Here we are. Now we can all go back?”
Golda began her new life in Palestine on a small farming community called a kibbutz. And a Kibbutz was basically just a socialist commune in the middle of the Palestinian wilderness. There were dozens and dozens of these popping up in Palestine as Jewish Zionists immigrated to the area. They lived and worked together, pooling their resources and farming the land.
It was not an easy life. At all. But Golda was the real deal. She found honor and dignity in the simple pioneer work ethos. According to Klagsbrun:
Bent on proving her mettle, she worked a threshing machine for the first time in her life, picked almonds in a grove until her hands turned yellow, and dug deep holes in the rocky ground to plant saplings near the entrance gate, barely able to move her fingers afterward. She never let on how exhausted she felt as she joined the others in the dining room to eat the tasteless “chick-pea mush.”
The work was cruel and the environment was crueler. She continues:
“Gnats and flies tormented them in the summer, forcing them to smear Vaseline on the exposed parts of their bodies and cover themselves with clothes from head to toe despite the grueling sun, and even then they were bitten sick.”
Golda’s life had brought her from Tzarist Russia, to the suburbs of Milwaukee, to the kibbutz fields of Palestine. All before the age of 25.
Like the farmlands and crop fields of the kibbutz’s, Golda thrived in the harsh landscape of the Middle East. As more and more Jews pour into Palestine, a proto-state begins to develop, Tel Aviv grows into bustling mini metropolis. And all of a sudden, the Zionist pipe dream is starting to looking more and more feasible.
As for Golda, she makes a name for herself in regional politics, particularly as a public speaker. As Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion said after watching her speak:
I trembled at her daring words. Her speech shook the room. She spoke with pride, assertiveness, bitterness, pain, and good sense. Although I had heard of her success at other gatherings…her speech was an enormous surprise for me.”
Her work ethic was seemingly inexhaustible, according to one contemporary:
“She devoted herself without end to her work. The light burned in her office until all hours of the night.”
Things were looking up for the scrappy little Jewish community making its way in Palestine, which after World War One, was controlled by Great Britain.
But then in the 1930s, Golda and her generation looked on in horror as Hitler and his Third Reich systematically terrorized and murdered the Jews of Germany. Tens of thousands fled central Europe, looking for safe havens throughout the world.
Between 1933 and 1935, over 100,000 European Jews fled persecution in Europe and came to British-controlled Palestine. As Golda said:
“For Jews of the world there are no laws and no boundaries now—there is only one law: millions of Jews are being destroyed…If we do not do something—there is nobody who will.”
Her instincts were sadly correct. The British eventually put a limit on the amount of Jews they would allow to come into Palestine. They were hesitant to offend the native Arab Palestinians, who were worried about being demographically replaced in the region.
As British Prime Minister Chamberlain said in a cold calculation: “If we must offend one side. Let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs”.
All across the world, Jews fleeing persecution under Hitler’s Germany were turned away.
Even the United States set a capped quota of just 27,370 Jews a year from Germany.
As Golda said at the time: “the whole world has abandoned us, and we can rely only on ourselves.”
The result of that callousness– as we all know – was horrific. The Holocaust and its body count of millions were felt deeply all across the world, but nowhere more viscerally than in Jewish Palestine. It left deep scars on Golda, in particular.
During the darkest years of World War 2 and the Holocaust, she felt a sense of helplessness and paralysis. The idea that they just had to sit back and watch Hitler exterminate millions of Jews was excruciating. As Golda called it, Jews were afflicted with “the curse of helplessness.”
She also felt foolish for not predicting how far the Nazis would go:
“In a way, I suppose, it should be chalked up to the credit of normal decent men and women that we couldn’t believe that such a monstrously evil thing would ever actually happen. It wasn’t that we were gullible. It was simply that we couldn’t conceive of what was then still inconceivable.”
When the Third Reich was finally defeated in 1945, all the elation in the wake of the Allied victory left a bitter taste in Golda’s mouth.
“We could not go out into the streets with a sense of triumph, knowing that one third of our people was wiped out.”
Nor could she forgive the German people for the genocide they had sat back and allowed their leaders to engineer, saying:
“I hold a racist view. As far as I am concerned, all Germans are by definition Nazis; only later will I be prepared to find out whether this or that individual German is guiltless.”
But the single most important lesson that Golda learned from the international trauma of World War 2, she would often say, was that Jews could only rely on themselves for protection. They had to be strong, because at the end of the day, only Jews could save Jews. She elaborated in a blistering speech to Allied representatives:
“Everybody expresses sympathy for us, but the situation is still tragic. Even if there truly is a desire at this conference to solve the Jewish problem, it stems from a feeling of ‘cast them away from before my eyes. You want to push the Jews into a distant corner so that they won’t be an obstacle and won’t need to be spoken about any longer. But we in Eretz Israel are creating not a corner for hiding, but a homeland.”
“There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”
Golda’s belief that Jews needed to rely solely on themselves was confirmed in 1948, when Palestine was partitioned – or split in two. The United Nations allocated half of Palestine to the Arabs, and half to the Jews.
And on May 14th, 1948, the state of Israel was created.
24 hours later, it was invaded from all sides by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Arabs, finally free of Colonial influence after centuries, were not going to let another Imperialist state pop up in their backyard.
For the Israelis, it was life-or-death. Just three years after the Holocaust, the largest concentration of Jews in the world faced another existential crisis. But the Israelis fought the invading Arab armies off. And in the next two decades transformed themselves into a formidable regional power. Which of course culminated in the stunning victory of the Six Day War.
It was during these years that Golda’s career in politics went into lightspeed. She was now, as Francine Klagsbrun writes: “the first woman in the first cabinet of the country’s first self-government in two thousand years.”
By all accounts she was a force to be reckoned with. Eleanor Roosevelt described her as:
“A woman of great strength & calm & for me she symbolizes the best spirit of Palestine.”
One contemporary bluntly said:
“If you told Golda she was 99 percent right, she would never forgive you until the end of her days,”
One of her coworkers said she was:
The kind of person with whom you did not readily disagree. When there was a discussion, the way she would sort of look at you was frightening.” She didn’t like women, especially pretty women, and she intimidated many of the men. She could be cutting and punitive, but she was also pragmatic.”
You could always tell when Golda was coming down the hall by the smell of her Chesterfield cigarettes, which she chain-smoked incessantly. When doctors told her she was going to die if she didn’t give them, she just laughed:
“There’s no point in my giving up cigarettes now; I won’t die young,
But actually my favorite story about Golda Meir concerns a malfunctioning air conditioner. According to Klagsbrun:
Once, when a meeting room became too cold, Golda asked to have the air conditioner turned off. “Ten men tried to turn off the mechanism, which was old, and couldn’t.” Finally, with an air of disdain, Golda walked over to the machine and pulled out the plug. “Nobody else had thought to do that,”
On March 17th, 1969 – just two years after the stunning victory in the Six Day War, Golda was elected Prime Minister of Israel. Her foreign policy in regards to their hostile Arab neighbors could be summed up thusly:
“The non-Jewish world has been in two groups—those that killed us and those that pitied us…If we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.”
As she stated more succinctly:
“Those that perished in Hitler’s gas chambers were the last Jews to die without standing up to defend themselves.”
This was the 75-year-old woman who removed her apron and sat at the head of a kitchen table of generals and advisors in the summer of 1973. Even the one-eyed warrior Moshe Dayan had to sit down, shut up, and listen when Golda spoke to her “Kitchen Cabinet” as it became known.
On that day, in her kitchen, Golda pulled a drag on her cigarette and asked her advisors a very specific question. Like the thick clouds of acrid cigarette, the question hung in the air, expectantly.
“When, if ever, will Egypt attack us again?”
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, looked with his good eye at the head of military intelligence, a man named Eli Zeira.
Zeira smiled and confidently announced that Egypt would never attack until they obtained the offensive weapons they needed from Moscow. This was The Concept, unequivocally confirmed by a spy from deep within Egypt’s government itself.
“War,” he said, “will not happen for another ten years – at least.”
Moshe agreed. Their air force was the most powerful in the Middle East by a huge margin. Egypt and its bellicose little brother Syria wouldn’t dare try to attack, no matter how bad they wanted to reclaim their territory in the Sinai Desert and Golan Heights.
For now, Israel was safe. But 400 miles away in Egypt, the gears of war were secretly turning.
Israel was not safe at all.
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In the spring of 1973, while Golda Meir and her cabinet were discussing Israeli foreign policy at a kitchen table in Jerusalem, a man named Saad el Shaazly was staring out at a vast expanse of sand…and water.
Shaazly was a soldier.
In fact, he was Egypt’s top soldier. The Chief of Staff of the Egyptian army. He had been tasked by President Anwar Sadat with the small matter of figuring out how to defeat the Israeli army. But Shaazly’s biggest obstacle wasn’t planes, tanks, or machine guns – it was 160 yards of water.
The Suez Canal was a shipping channel that divided Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula. And in the wake of the Six Day War, it was the no man’s land the separated Egyptian troops from Israeli troops. 900 feet of rushing water. With Egyptian troops on the West side. And Israeli troops on the East side.
After the Six Day War, the Israelis had fortified their side of the Canal in anticipation of an Egyptian assault. They erected massive sand walls that stretched for miles and stood three stories tall. That sand was packed so hard and so tight, it was the equivalent of 10 brick walls back to back, able could withstand artillery fire, aerial bombs, you name it.
Along this 93-mile barrier, the Israelis constructed a chain of forts, surrounded by thickets of barbed wire, clusters of land mines, and machine gun nests. They called it the Bar-Lev line, named after the general who had conceived it. The forts were sparsely defended, but they were reinforced by a crack Israeli tank brigade that had a response time of 15 minutes in the event of any attack.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the Israelis had constructed an especially creative deterrent to repel any attempted crossings of the Suez. They had installed a system of pipes underground, that they could use to inject flammable fuel into the water. It would then float to the top and coat the surface of the water. At the opportune moment, the Israelis would ignite the fuel with a thermite bomb, burning anything and anyone on the water alive.
The Bar-Lev line posed a seemingly titanic obstacle. Moshe Dayan gloated that it was:
“The best anti-tank ditch in the world.” And Chief of Staff Shaazly had to figure out a way to get past it. Somehow.
Months earlier, President Anwar Sadat had personally briefed Shaazly on the situation.
Diplomacy had failed in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Israel would not budge from the territory it had conquered during that fateful week. In response, Egypt, Syria and the rest of the Arab world said even in defeat, they would never make peace with Israel.
But when Sadat took over, he blew the minds of the international community by saying ‘ya know what – fine. I’m willing to make peace with Israel…if they give back all the territory they took during the Six Day War’. An Arab leader offering peace with Israel, on any terms, was a gamechanger. A first for the Middle East.
That meant the Sinai Desert, which served as a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel’s heartland. That meant the Golan Heights, which offered a strategic position overlooking the Israeli Northern frontier. And it meant giving back East Jerusalem. Giving back the Western Wall.
When Prime Minister Golda Meir heard this proposal, she took a drag off her cigarette and flatly refused. “Never again” she said would Israel trade land for peace.
“We had no peace with the old boundaries,” Golda said. “How can we have peace by returning to them?” She continued: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us”.
As one Israeli politician observed, “Golda extended him a finger, not a hand.”
The Americans were not amused at Egypt’s terms either. As National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger said: “My advice to Sadat is to be realistic. The fact is that you have been defeated so don’t ask for a victor’s spoils.”
With diplomacy off the table, and the offensive weapons he needed being withheld by Moscow, President Sadat had to pull a rabbit out of hat. He needed a way to break the stalemate. To force Israel to the bargaining table. The best way to do that, he believed, cross the Suez Canal, capture the Bar-Lev Line and defend the position until the United Nations demanded a ceasefire. At which point the negotiations between the Americans and the Soviets would take place.
As Sadat slyly observed: “Russians can give you arms, but only the United States can give you a solution.”
Charles River Editors. The Yom Kippur War: The History and Legacy of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and Its Impact on the Middle East Peace Process . Charles River Editors. Kindle Edition.
But, again, he had to break the deadlock.
And there was more than just land on the line. As writer Howard Blum describes, the memory of the Six Day War was “a constantly twisting knife”
“If the cocky Zionists once again quickly repulsed an all-out Arab attack, the shame would be a permanent poison. Dishonor would be a curse seeping into the blood of unborn generations.
As Sadat saw it, an Arab victory on any scale, in any form, would be enough. As Howard Blum explained: “Even a sliver of the Sinai desert would be a restoration of honor.”
As Sadat urged his generals: “Just give me ten centimeters on the east bank.”
So, the Egyptians go to work.
The very first thing they have to do, is completely rebuild the military that was thrashed to bloody bits back in 1967. During the Six Day War, the Egyptians were very, very poorly led. Because military officers and the general staff were not chosen on the basis of competence or command ability. They were chosen for their political loyalty. Their absolute fealty and proximity to the old President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Well, Sadat knows that’s a huge problem. So purges the old command structure, and fills the military with smart, capable commanders who know how to win. This was going to be a genuine meritocracy, not a political clique. As historian Abraham Rabinovish describes:
In the armored corps, illiterates, who had made up a significant percentage of tank crews, were replaced. The armed forces now had large numbers of university and high school graduates who could no longer evade conscription.
The second thing they have to do, is replace their weaponry. All the high-tech toys they had purchased from the Soviets needed to be replaced. And despite the international embarrassment of 1967, the Soviets reluctantly agreed to re-arm both the Egyptian and Syrian militaries.
Now they couldn’t get the long-range bombers to preemptively attack Israel’s air fields, but the Soviet shopping catalogue had many, many pages.
T-55 and T-62 tanks, thickly-armored killing machines that could put high-explosive rounds through a target from a kilometer (?) away. Many of them were outfitted with infrared targeting equipment, for fighting on the pitch blackness of a desert night.
Portable SAGGER ant-tank missiles that could be wielded by small, tank-hunting teams counter the expertly trained Israeli armor.
But most importantly, the Egyptians and Syrians were given a brand-new weapons system. Something the world had not seen used en masse on a battlefield before. SAMS – or surface-to-air missiles. Now I’m not a military hardware buff, so I’m not even going to attempt to explain the finer points of how these worked, but let’s just say that they were kryptonite to the seemingly invincible Israeli Air Force. [elaborate]
As long as the Egyptian army remained under the protective umbrella of the SAMS, the Israeli jets couldn’t touch them. That, combined with hundreds of radar-guided anti-aircraft guns, would completely remove Israel’s biggest advantage – air power – from the chess board.
But arguably the deadliest and most effective weapon the Arab armies wielded was the astonishing arrogance and complacency of their enemy, the Israeli Defense Force.
After ’67, the IDF had zero respect for the fighting ability of the Arab soldier. As one General gloated:
“The Arab soldier lacks the characteristics necessary for modern war,”
Moshe Dayan himself elaborated on this perceived weakness:
“It is a weakness that derives from factors that I don’t believe will change quickly: the low level of their soldiers in education, technology, and integrity; and inter-Arab divisiveness which is papered over from time to time but superficially and for short spans.”
The Israelis were completely confident that they would always win in a scrap against the Arabs. The Egyptian and Syrians could buy all the fancy toys they wanted from the Russians, but unless they were wielded by smart, capable soldiers – they would always fail.
The Arabs didn’t think much of the Jews either. As an Egyptian training manual from 1969 said:
Mankind has never known and will never know a brutal enemy like the Jews. They can only damage, plan conspiracies, place traps before justice and create disturbances. From their mother’s womb they have the lowest form of character which they pass on from generation to generation. . . . They have spread out throughout the world in order to poison mankind. . . .”
There was hatred there. But also respect. After their pitiful performance in ’67, the IDF had no respect for the Arabs. As Director of Military Intelligence Eli Zei’ra scoffed:
“Arab leaders have intentions which far exceed their capabilities.”
In the early Fall of 1973, an Israeli soldier noticed strange footprints in the sand around their positions on the Bar-Lev Line. He showed his fellow soldiers the footprints, believing they were from Egyptian scouts. But the footprints seemed to b made by Israeli Army Issue boots. The soldier said to his friends:
If I were an Egyptian scout, I would use that kind of boot,” The trackers laughed. “Do you really think they’re that clever?”
That contempt bred complacency.
In the shadows afforded to them by the Israeli’s mistaken “Concept”, as it was called, the Egyptians and Syrians formed a secret pact.
An agreement to launch a simultaneous surprise attack on two fronts. One from Egypt, which would cross the Suez Canal and penetrate deep into the Sinai. And one from Syria, which would overwhelm the Israeli defenses in the Golan Heights, far to the North.
Strategically, the idea was to exploit Israel’s weaknesses to the maximum degree. Manpower had always been their Achilles Heel, but they’d compensated with a quantity over quality approach. The IDF was powerful and expertly trained, but they were small.
The Israelis didn’t have a large enough population to field a massive standing army, so two-thirds of its military consisted of reservists. That meant that when the Israelis went to war, their economy absolutely screeched to a halt. All the young people would be fighting, not working. So it was imperative for them to score fast, decisive victories. Not only to avoid losing precious manpower in long, dragged-out engagements, but to keep their economy from buckling in the absence of a workforce.
The Arabs, on the other hand, had plenty of manpower. Millions of men. And if they could open up multiple fronts against the Israelis, the IDF would be stretched to its breaking point. One historian compared it to trying to use a napkin as a tablecloth.
The tiny Israeli population – 3 million people, that’s about the population of Houston TX just couldn’t absorb the economic and social impact of a long, protracted war. But that’s exactly the kind of war the Egyptians and Syrians intended on giving them.
For President Sadat and his generals, the final decision to make was: When?
When would be the optimal time to launch this surprise attack? The Egyptians and Syrians had waited years for this, so they wanted to make sure that the timing was absolutely perfect.
Every possible variable was considered. The weather, the seasons, the lunar effect on the tides of the Suez Canal. They took into account election cycles, economic calendars, and other political calculations. And eventually, the Egyptians and Syrians came to a final decision.
They would launch their massive assault against Israel on October 6th, at two o’clock in the afternoon. That precise timing held a very special significance.
The attack would fall on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar. The nation of Israel would be asleep; off its guard; an entire nation preoccupied with prayer, fasting, and religious rites.
In his book on the Yom Kippur War, historian Abraham Rabinovich talks about what the nation of Israel would have looked like from an orbital satellite on Yom Kippur 1973:
“The satellite would have detected no signs of alarm. There was hardly a person or moving vehicle to be seen on the country’s streets. The setting sun would mark the onset of Yom Kippur and the country’s three million Jews were at home preparing for this holiest of days.
Where normally you would have seen streets and cities buzzing with activity, on Yom Kippur, nothing.
And what made the timing of the attack even more symbolic, was that it also fell within the monthlong Muslim holiday of Ramadan. During this holiday, Muslims do not eat or drink during the day. Not ideal conditions for launching coordinated attacks across vast swathes of desert. The Israelis took it as a given that Arab countries would not attack them during Ramadan.
The Israelis would never expect a war during what Rabinovich called: “the most sacred time of the year for both sides.
But for all the meticulous planning of the Egyptians and Syrians…Israel should have seen it coming a mile away. Warning after warning fell deaf and unheeded on Israeli ears. It was a catastrophic mix of institutional arrogance, political inertia, and misinterpreted evidence.
What happened in the Fall of 1973 has been described as the single greatest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.
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On September 25th, 1973, Golda Meir sat chain-smoking in an empty conference room at a Mossad safehouse north of Tel Aviv.
It was late, a little after 10 o’clock. But Golda had always been a night owl. The 75-year-old grandmother was famous for inviting friends over in the middle of the night to drink coffee and chat into the dawn hours.
But tonight, Golda was waiting for a very different kind of friend. For a very different kind of chat.
As she lit another cigarette, her guest entered the room. A short, thin, 38-year-old man. He walked with an unmistakably royal bearing. Because he was royalty. A King, in fact. This late-night visitor was none other than King Hussein, ruler of the neighboring Arab country of Jordan.
If you’ve listened to the episode I did on the Six Day War, you may remember King Hussein. If not that’s, okay. But before we continue, there are a few things you should know about him.
King Hussein of Jordan was technically part of the Arab alliance that had fought the Israelis for years. On paper, he too called for its destruction. On paper, he too, hated the Jews and wanted to see them pushed into the sea. But behind closed doors, King Hussein was a reluctant participant in the Anti-Zionist coalition.
King Hussein just wanted peace.
His country had also been humiliated in the Six Day War alongside Egypt and Syria. It was a conflict Hussein had never even wanted in the first place. And his only reward for his display of Arab solidarity was the destruction of his army and the loss of East Jerusalem. Afterwards, he told his fellow Arab leaders:
“Leave me alone. I have already paid a high price for your partnership in 1967.”
If any of those same leaders knew Hussein was visiting the Israeli Prime Minister in the middle of the night, they would’ve demanded that the people of Jordan overthrow their king and hang him from a lamp post.
But in spite of the danger, King Hussein was here, in absolute secrecy, to give Golda Meir an urgent warning.
The Egyptians and Syrians are planning something, he says. From a very reliable source in Syria, King Hussein had learned of a massive build-up of troops, equipment, and arms along the Syrian border with Israel. It could be a large training exercise, but he had his doubts.
“Whether it means anything or not”, the King said, “nobody knows.”
Golda did not want guesswork. She wanted facts. The little old lady stubbed out her cigarette and politely asked “Is it conceivable that the Syrians would start something without the full cooperation of the Egyptians?
The King looked at her and answered cryptically: I don’t think so. I think they are cooperating.
In other words, Egypt and Syria were planning to attack Israel, and soon. Golda left the room and picked up the phone. She called Moshe Dayan and told him to convene the cabinet immediately.
The very next morning, the leaders of Israel debated the likelihood of an Arab attack. Golda told them everything Hussein had said. To the casual observer, the import of Hussein’s words was obvious. War was imminent.
But this flew in the face of The capital-C “Concept”, Israel’s strategic assumption that President Sadat would not, could not, take Egypt to war unless it obtained the long-range bombers from the Soviets. And they had *not* obtained those weapons.
So - Syria would not attack without Egypt and Egypt would not attack yet. Ipso facto, King Hussein’s warning was a false alarm.
Golda had her doubts, though. She pressed her cabinet on the matter, but they assured her that the probability of war was “extremely low.”
As historian Abraham Rabinovich observed: “even intelligent and experienced men are capable of adhering to a false idea in the face of mountains of contrary evidence.”
And there were mountains of evidence in the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur 1973.
Israeli military intelligence had always, always maintained. That – worst case – they would know if Egypt and Syria were going to attack at least 48 hours before. And that was the absolute, most pessimistic, worst-case scenario. It would be impossible for the Arabs to pull on over on us, they swore.
Because again, they thought the Arabs were inept at best and stupid at worst. Weak, cowardly people that had failed over and over again to defeat Israel. Even when they had all the advantages. When all the odds were in their favor, they blow it. That’s the Israeli mindset.
It’s a conventional logic that’s further reinforced by their Egyptian Benedict Arnold in Cairo. The In-Law. Ashraf Marwan. He’s providing the transcripts, the documents, the words of President Sadat himself directly to Mossad. It’s where the entire framework of The Concept, big “C”, comes from. And yet, there’s not a whisper of this Yom Kippur surprise attack in his reports.
But there’s a reason the In-Law doesn’t have the skinny on it yet. The Egyptian and Syrian militaries are playing this operation so close to the vest, it boggles the mind. And they’re deceiving everyone it in plain sight, lulling the world into a false sense of security.
In the months leading up to October, they’re bringing massive amounts of troops up to the borders, putting them on full alert, and then sending them home. Bring ‘em, rattle the saber, then send them home. Over and over and over. Twenty two times they do this. And the Israeli leaders get numb to these repeat performances. Until eventually, they don’t consider them a threat at all.
But this was deliberate.
The Egyptians and Syrians, in addition to planning a huge surprise attack, were mounting one of the greatest deception campaigns in modern history. The Egyptian Chief of Staff, Saad el Shazly, is feeding false intelligence to Egyptian newspapers, to they’re report things like “disunity among the Arabs!” or “Soviet weapons not performing as anticipated”.
Which the international press is picking up on. That year, the Washington Post wrote that “Arab unity is more myth than reality”. It was an assessment based on sources specifically planted to feed the international press bad information.
The level of effort and detail the Egyptians go to in deceiving the Israelis is remarkable. They have regiments on the Suez Canal who’s only job is to play soccer or go fishing on the banks of the water. They were called “the lazy unit”.
To achieve this high level of secrecy, most Egyptian soldiers were kept in the dark about the fact that they’d be going to war in a matter of weeks. According to historian Chaim Herzog:
“95% learnt only on the morning of 6 October that the exercise in which they were engaged was in fact preparation for war and that they were about to go to war.”
All of this smoke and mirrors to create the impression that nothing weird is happening on the Egyptian side. To make the Israelis relax, even for just a second.
But things *are* happening.
Tons upon tons of troops and tanks and surface-to-air missiles are cohering into this terrifying “fist” of military power. And its hovering, clenched, over this fragile, thin chain of forts – the Bar Lev Line. Totally unprepared to repel what is about to be unleashed at it.
The image it conjures up in my mind is in Lord of the Rings, where you see the massive army that Saruman is building and amassing secretly. And no one realizes what’s happening until it’s already too late.
Now, that’s not really a fair comparison because in that movie Saruman is the bad guy. The Egyptians are not the bad guys. The Israelis certainly think of them as the bad guys. But in this struggle – at least to a neutral observer like myself – there are no traditional bad guys. Just two groups with absolutely irreconcilable political goals.
The Egyptian and Syrians were deftly misleading not only Israeli intelligence operatives but the American CIA as well. Even the US had no idea this was coming. But still, there were giant blinking red signs that should’ve tipped both the Americans and Israelis off. They were just looking for the wrong signals.
As one Israeli military officer remembered telling his wife: “There’s a Sherlock Holmes story, where the clue is the sound of the dog not barking.”
From September 25th to October 1st 1973, no Israeli air reconnaissance flights were flown by Israel over the Suez Canal. If they had been, they would’ve seen a colossal build-up of troops. Hundreds of thousands of men. Bridging equipment. Clear indicators that something big was about to happen.
And starting in October, things start to happen that make the looming threat of an attack incontrovertible. Un-ignorable, if you will.
On October 4th, which was a Thursday, all the families of the Soviet advisors in Egypt evacuate the country. Now Sadat’s relations with the Soviets had been testy for years; he famously expelled all the Soviet advisors for a little while a few years earlier. He eventually welcomed them back in - it was a big kerfluffle.
This was different, though. When you’re sending the families of advisors away, but *not* the advisors themselves. That implies knowledge of coming danger. That implies that you’re trying to get vulnerable people out of harm’s way. That implies that war is coming – one you’re initiating.
Alarming as that development was, Israeli intelligence picks up another piece of information.
It’s a bulletin to Egyptian troops. It says that they are not to observe the fasting protocols of Ramadan until further notice. So “eat up, boys you’re gonna need your strength”. In an extremely religious nation like 1970s Egypt, you do not tell your soldiers to ignore their religious duties unless they absolutely need to. Unless they’re about to – oh, I don’t know – go into battle.
So that’s two red flags. And by this time, the Israeli government is starting to sweat a bit. They’re starting to think, I don’t know guys, that saber is rattling pretty loud. Maybe we should mobilize the army?
But there’s lots of debate about that because – again – tiny nation with a reservist army. You don’t wanna call up the troops unless you know for sure. So they say: well, maybe we do a limited mobilization?
And this whole time, the Israeli military intelligence guys are saying, it’s all just an exercise, war can’t happen. It will not happen. Low probability. Over and over again. Remember the capital-C, Concept? It’s impossible. Remember our spy in the Egyptian government? The In-Law? Has he said anything? Nope.
Well on Friday, October 5th 1973, the In-Law calls.
Ashraf Marwan. Their inside man in Sadat’s government. The asset that they once literally called “our best spy ever”.
What the In-Law says to his handler is jaw-dropping. He says he needs to speak to the head of Mossad, a guy named Zvi Zamir, in person. So Zamir flies to London that day, and he meets the In-Law in a London hotel room to discuss this urgent request.
The In-Law says Egypt and Syria will launch a massive, coordinated attack on the nation of Israel - at 6:00PM the following day. Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and the rest of the Israeli government would have less than 24-hours to mobilize the entire country for war.
Two days earlier, President Sadat had rejoiced:
“Whatever they do…even if they know tonight. Even if they decide to mobilize all their reserves. And even if they think of launching a preemptive attack. They have lost the chance to catch up.”
At 2:30AM on the morning on Yom Kippur, the Mossad chief sends a coded message from London back to Israel. The Cabinet was made aware that an attack was coming within a matter of hours.
At 5:45 AM, the military reported the results of long overdue air reconnaissance flights over the Suez Canal:
“From the findings it can clearly be deduced that the Egyptian army on the Canal front is in an emergency formation, the magnitude of which we have never seen before.”
Moshe Dayan’s one good eye widened as he looked at the intelligence. He said:
“You can get a stroke from just reading the numbers.”
But – STILL – the military intelligence guys were saying that an attack was: “entirely improbable.”
Golda Meir however, was unconvinced. She said “I would like to say one word: There is something.”
The conversation eventually turned to the topic of a preemptive action. A first strike. It was a strategy that had served them well in 1967. One simple command and within a few hours, Egypt’s ability to wage war effectively had vanished.
Moshe Dayan knew the power of that strategy better than anyone. Three days into the war in ‘67, he had stood in the shadow of the Western Wall, physically touching the sacred spoils of the Six Day War.
But this time, things were different. A preemptive strike would not be taken. Not even if “it earns us a ticket to paradise”, Dayan said.
Golda wrestled with the decision. A preemptive strike by the Israeli Air Force could cripple the Syrian and Egyptian militaries before they had a chance to gain a foothold. Even at this late, desperate hour, there was still a chance to save lives and avert a much larger conflict.
“My heart is drawn to it”, Golda confessed to the room.
But her hands were tied. After 1967, Israel gained a powerful benefactor: The United States of America. They had supplied it with weapons and arms and support, with a condition. Israel could never strike first again. It could not be the aggressor a second time.
That was a chess move the Americans would not condone.
Golda sighed: “If we strike first, we won’t get help from anybody,”
Her fear, her greatest fear, was being abandoned by the United States in Israel’s hour of greatest need. If that happened, and the IDF was unable to stop the Egyptian and Syrian armies, she wouldn’t just be the first female Prime Minister of Israel, she would be its last Prime Minister.
Her hands might’ve been tied, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t prepare. She turned to her Generals and said:
“We need to be in the best possible position. If war does break out, better to be in proper shape to deal with it, even if the world gets angry with us.”
Orders began disseminating all throughout the country, as the IDF scrambled to notify its reservists that they were needed for battle on the holiest day of the year. But, as was customary, all the phones were unplugged. Everyone in the country was observing the religious holiday, at home or at the synagogue.
Five hours later, air sirens began to scream all over Israel.
Egypt and Syria had begun the attack. Four hours earlier than Israel’s spy, the In-Law had predicted. And 75% of the Israeli army was still not fully mobilized.
Years later, Golda would tell an interviewer: “I will never again be the person I was before the Yom Kippur War.”
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