Monday, October 6, 2014

From Low Probability to the Yom Kippur War: Telegrams from Golda's Bureau to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, 5-7 October 1973

On 12 October 1973 Prime Minister Golda Meir said during a discussion in her bureau: "I say this with full awareness of its significance – we never faced so grave a danger in 1948". Her words show the difference between the Yom Kippur War and Israel's previous wars, which is still felt today. Even 41 years later, the war still arouses public interest and controversy in Israel.

Today, on the 41st anniversary of its outbreak on 6 October 1973, the Israel State Archives publishes a selection of 14 telegrams exchanged between Golda's bureau in Tel Aviv and the Israeli embassy in Washington between 5–7 October. Some of them were declassified especially for this publication, and they focus on the central diplomatic aspect of the war – the contacts between the Israeli government and the US Administration, especially with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This story has been told many times from the American point of view: for the first time the ISA is revealing the Israeli side in order to help to complete the puzzle. Two of the telegrams are in English, and the rest are in in Hebrew. They can be seen on the Hebrew version of this post.

The publication is accompanied by summaries of the minutes of the consultations of the war cabinet on 6-7 October published by the ISA in 2010. The telegrams and the minutes show the reversals of fortune suffered by the Israeli leadership during these fateful days – from attempts to prevent the outbreak of war on 5 October, to confidence on the first day of the fighting that the war would soon end with a decisive victory by Israel, followed by the catastrophe of the second day, when the leadership found itself at war for the heartland of Israel.
 Golda Meir and Simcha Dinitz on a visit to the US before the war.
Photograph: GPO
5 October – "Low Probability"

On Friday, 5 October, the Yom Kippur fast, the holiest day of the year, when Israel generally comes to a standstill, was about to begin. However, during the preceding few days, intelligence reports were piling up about a high alert in the Syrian and Egyptian armies and massive deployment of their forces on Israel's borders. Nevertheless, IDF Military Intelligence maintained its assessment that there was a "low probability' of the outbreak of war. During the night, disquieting reports had arrived of a major evacuation of the families of the Soviet advisors in Egypt and Syria, with the help of a fleet of planes sent by the USSR to Damascus and Cairo. In view of the reports, a general alert of the highest order was declared in the regular forces of the IDF, but still without calling up the reserves. Meanwhile the head of Israel's overseas intelligence agency, Mossad, Zvi Zamir, had been called to London for an urgent meeting with Egyptian agent Ashraf Marwan.

In the consultations held that day in the prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv, the head of Military Intelligence, Eli Zeira, continued to claim that the probability of war was low. However the participants, including Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff David Elazar and Zeira himself were less convinced about their assessment. They had begun to think that an outbreak of hostilities was possible: perhaps there would be a war and perhaps it would even start on Yom Kippur. However they were confident in the ability of the IDF regular forces in their current dispositions to deal with any threat or military activity which might develop until the reserves could be called up. In the meantime there was no need to call up the reserves.

The director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Mordechai Gazit, sent a telegram in the evening to Mordechai Shalev, the minister in Washington who was then in charge of the Israeli embassy (Ambassador Simcha Dinitz was in Israel due to a death in the family). In the telegram Gazit sent Shalev the government's evaluation of the possible reasons for the current tension: either that Egypt and Syria were afraid of an Israeli attack, or one or both of them intended to attack Israel. Kissinger was asked to send a message through diplomatic channels to Egypt, Syria and the USSR that Israel had no intentions of attacking its neighbours. However, if they dared to attack it – Israel would respond with all its strength and determination. In the margins of the telegram it was added that if it turned out that there was a reasonable possibility of the Arabs opening fire, then Israel request immediate provision of a number of items of military equipment (See Telegram No. VL/760).  

Shalev replied that he had informed General Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger's assistant at the National Security Council, about the telegram and its contents and Scowcroft promised to relay it immediately to Kissinger, who was in New York. Scowcroft added that American intelligence agreed with the estimate that the deployment of the Egyptian and Syrian armies was defensive, but he found it difficult to understand the  meaning of the landings of Soviet planes in Cairo and Damascus. It was decided to keep the communications channels open even during Yom Kippur (See Telegram No. VL/952)
 October 6 This Evening the War Will Start

On the morning of 6 October 1973, at 03:50 a.m on Yom Kippur, the ringing of the telephone woke Prime Minister Golda Meir, after sleep had eluded her for most of the night. On the line was her military secretary, Israel Lior, who told her a message had arrived from Zamir, saying he had heard from Ashraf Marwan that Egypt and Syria were about to launch a combined attack on Israel that evening. A few hours later a telegram arrived with the full report from Zamir, with detailed information on the Egyptian plan which, according to the source, had a 99% chance of being carried out (Marwan left a 1% chance for the possibility that Sadat would change his mind at the last minute).

A short time later, Golda was already making her way to her bureau through the empty Tel Aviv streets, with only a small number of people on their way to synagogue. At 07:30 she arrived at her bureau and received from Lior the details of Zamir's full report. Now that the die was cast, Golda took action on several levels, including vigorous diplomatic efforts to persuade the US to accept Israel's evaluations and positions and perhaps to avoid war; if not, to rush vital arms supplies to Israel. On her instructions, a telegram was sent to the embassy in Washington and to Foreign Minister Eban, who was at the UN General Assembly in New York, with details of the news and an instruction to keep policy-makers in the US informed on what was happening (See: Telegram No. TA-14).

At 08:05 a consultation was convened between the prime minister and Dayan, Elazar and Zeira, with Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon and minister Yisrael Galili who had been brought urgently from their homes in Kibbutz Na'an and Kibbutz Ginossar respectively. The meeting focused on the extent of mobilization of the reserves, on which Dayan and Elazar disagreed. COGS Elazar supported extensive mobilization of the fighting forces, while the minister of defence said that partial mobilization of two divisions and the Air Force was sufficient at this stage. The second issue discussed was the possibility of a preemptive military strike. The COGS presented the advantages of this step, which would destroy the Syrian air force, hit the anti-aircraft missiles and give the Israeli air force freedom of action during the fighting. Dayan was opposed for political reasons. The prime minister, an elderly woman with no military experience, was forced to decide between them  On mobilization, Golda decided in favour of the COGS because 'if there really is a war, we need to be in the best position possible'. With regard to a strike, like Dayan, she presented the political difficulties involved, and postponed the decision till later. In fact she had decided against it. She assumed that Israel would need significant American diplomatic support and military aid in the coming days, and was guided by advice given by Secretary Kissinger to the previous Israeli ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, and to Simcha Dinitz – never to put Israel in a position where it would be accused of having started a war, and would find it difficult to get political and military aid from the US (For the minutes of the consultation, see the ISA publication).
Henry Kissinger and Yigal Allon, on one of Kissinger's visits to Israel
At 10:15 Golda Meir met with the American ambassador in Israel, Kenneth Keating, and updated him on the situation. In reply to a direct question, Golda promised that Israel would not initiate a pre-emptive strike, "although it would make the situation much easier for us"; but Egypt and Syria should be aware that Israel knew of their plans and would repel the attacks and hit back hard. She expressed confidence in Israeli victory, and suggested that the US should still try to talk to the Egyptians and the Soviets in order to prevent the outbreak of war, as reported in a telegram to the embassy in Washington (See: Telegram No. VL762/A).
Later the minister in Washington, Shalev, reported that after receiving the first urgent message from Keating, Kissinger telephoned him and said that he had begun vigorous diplomatic efforts to prevent war. The secretary asked him to inform the prime minister immediately that her message in the telegram of 5 October (See above) had been transmitted to the Soviets, who had even agreed to cooperate, and to the Egyptians, and cautioned Israel against initiating a pre-emptive strike. Some 45 minutes later, Shalev reported that Kissinger had called him again and told him that Keating's full report had arrived, and the message that Israel was not planning a pre-emptive strike had been passed to the Soviets and the Egyptians. "We have hereby undertaken a commitment that you will indeed not initiate any action", said Kissinger (See: Telegrams Nos. LV/954, 955).

At 12:00 an urgent government meeting began, after ministers had been rushed from their homes. During the argument as to how to deal with the Syrians, if only Egypt opened fire, the wail of a siren was heard, and Lior entered and announced that the Syrians had opened fire, and apparently the Egyptians as well. Golda's reaction was: "So they did surprise us, after all… I am angry that they surprised us". She repeated this several times during the coming hours. The siren at 14:00 broke the peace of the holy day and Israel radio came on the air and began to announce the outbreak of fighting and to broadcast call up codes for the mobilization of reservists. At a stroke Israel found itself making frantic preparations for war. People living in the north could hear the noise of battle in the Golan Heights like a continuous roll of thunder. 
The outbreak of fighting was accompanied by vigorous diplomatic activity. The Israeli leaders tried to prevent a meeting of the Security Council and adoption of a ceasefire resolution, before Israel had thrown back the attackers, and to ensure a supply of vital arms from the Americans. "There will be no ceasefire before the situation returns to what it was before", declared the prime minister. In a telegram sent from the prime minister's bureau to the embassy in Washington and the foreign minister in New York on the night of 6 October, they were told under no circumstances to accept proposals to convene the Security Council for a ceasefire resolution: "On both fronts, we intend to fight until we have pushed the last of the Syrian and Egyptian soldiers back over the ceasefire lines", it said. Shalev reported that the Americans were indeed working to prevent a meeting of the Council (See: Telegrams Nos. VL/765, LV/965).

The first reports from the front were optimistic. In discussions at the bureau and at the additional government meeting that met that evening at 22:00, there was a fairly confident feeling that the IDF was in control of the situation, and that it would soon strike a decisive blow at the Arab armies, who would realize what a huge mistake they had made. That evening Defence Minister Dayan spoke on television. He mentioned a number of local victories for the Arab armies, especially the Egyptians, and explained why Israel had not initiated a pre-emptive strike and did not mobilize the reserves until it was certain that a war would break out. He expressed his confidence that "we will be able to smite them [the enemy] hip and thigh" (Judges, 15:8); and concluded with a confident statement: "And I believe that we can say with confidence "G'mar hatima tova [A good conclusion]" (traditional Yom Kippur blessing) (See: Dayan's speech on television). The end of the first day of the war thus found the leadership confident and convinced of the IDF's ability to repel the enemy armies and strike hard at them within a short period of time.
At 01:30 a telegram was sent to the embassy in Washington and to Eban in New York, written by Allon, summing up the first day of fighting for Kissinger. Allon reviewed the situation and passed on Israel's estimate that the Egyptians were planning to transfer major forces to the front, in order to reach deep into the Sinai Desert. The text of the telegram radiated optimism on the IDF's ability to stop the Arab attacks. Allon summed up with the words: "Taking into account the fact that for political reasons which he [Kissinger] is aware of, we did not begin with a preemptive strike, and are concentrating on the containment stage; despite minor successes, especially by the Egyptians, the situation is satisfactory" (See: Telegram No. VL/769).  

7 October – War for Israel's Heartland

The second day, 7 October, was one of the most dramatic days of the Yom Kippur War. It began with optimism on the part of the government. On this basis Israel made every effort to prevent a ceasefire that would perpetuate the existing situation. Golda wrote another telegram, expressing her appreciation to Kissinger for stopping the initiative of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ziyat to call for a special session of the General Assembly. She repeated that it was undesirable to convene the Security Council until the Egyptians had been pushed back to their own side of the border, which she thought would take about three days. She added that Israel was planning to attack strategic targets deep in enemy territory, but promised that there would be no attack on civilian targets (See: Telegram No. VL/770). During the early hours of the morning feverish contacts took place between the Israeli foreign minister and his staff and the US State Department on the issue of convening the Security Council. Eban reported that Kissinger had said in a telephone conversation that the Americans could not oppose this move and were therefore considering doing so themselves, in order to adopt a resolution on a ceasefire and a return to the 6 October lines. They would draw out the discussion as much as possible, so as to enable Israel to act on the military front. In any case, according to Kissinger, the American strategy was dependent on Israel's  agreement (See: Telegram No. NR/46).

However, as time passed it became clear that the optimistic reports were not supported by reality. During the night of 6/7 October and the following morning the military situation. The Egyptian army widened the bridgeheads it had constructed and deployed additional forces across the Suez Canal. During the night many of the outposts that constituted the "Bar-Lev Line" along the Suez Canal were surrounded, and some of them were captured by the Egyptian army. The situation in the north was desperate. In the centre and the south of the Golan Heights, the main Syrian force broke through the IDF's lines and penetrated deep into the Heights, nearly reaching the bridges over the Jordan River leading to northern Israel. They faced only by sparse Israeli forces that were unable to stop them.

School children filling sandbags in Ramat Gan, 7 October 1973
Photograph: Hanania Herman, GPO.
At 07:30 the prime minister crossed the lawn that separated her bureau from the IDF's command headquarters (the 'Hole'), and heard an update from COGS Elazar. "We have had a bad night," said Elazar, and added details about the difficult position on the Golan Heights, while the situation at the Suez Canal "was a little better". This was the first in a series of consultations that day on the serious events at the fronts. At 14:50 the war cabinet was convened for another consultation, revealing the full extent of the deterioration in the military position. It focused on the report presented by Defence Minister Dayan, who had just returned deeply concerned from a tour of the fronts. His words produced an atmosphere of gloom and doom. He described a grim scenario in which the Arabs would not stop their attack. This was not the time to think of counter-attacks but rather of the defence of Israel itself. They "will come to fight us for the land of Israel itself" and therefore "descent from the Golan is not a solution, since they will go on to the Hula valley… conquer Israel, to finish off the Jews." The prime minister agreed with Dayan's assessment andsaid: "There is no reason for them not to continue, not only now. They've tasted blood… This is the second round since 1948". (See a summary of the  record of the consultation)

Moshe Dayan at a press conference, 6 October 1973
Photograph: Chanania Herman, GPO 
Despite the bleak picture, the prime minister continued to express optimism in a message to Kissinger, writing that although the fighting was fierce, the military estimate was "that with the entrance of the reserves… a change in our favour is about to take place". She reminded him of her decision to avoid a preemptive strike, which could have greatly improved Israel's position, and urged him to postpone the discussion in the Security Council till the fourth or fifth day, "when we have reason to assume that we will be in an attacking position, instead of a defensive one". An assessment sent with the telegram wrote that Israel hoped to push back the Syrians and the Egyptians over the ceasefire lines by the end of the day and even to cross them in order to improve the situation (See: Telegram No. VL/773). Nevertheless Golda's mood was grim and she even feared for Israel's survival.

At a government meeting held at 21:00 in a sombre atmosphere, the minister of defence presented a report of the IDF's heavy losses, alongside a slightly more encouraging description of the situation on the fronts. Several ministers, such as Allon, began soul searching and drawing conclusions (this meeting was not released for publication).  No operative decisions were reached but the general consensus, as reported in a telegram from Galili to Eban in New York, approved by the prime minister, was that the goals remained the same as before: "A. To drive back the Egyptian army to the other side of the [Suez] Canal; B. To drive back the Syrian army over the ceasefire line on the Golan Heights, C. During those two actions, to inflict severe blows on the two enemy armies" (See: Telegram No. VL/778).

Following the reports on the grave military situation, the Israeli leadership changed its demands for military aid from the US. No more requests for individual items were made, but rather demands for massive aid, especially of fighter planes and tanks, with the prime minister exerting the full weight of her position (See Telegram No. VL/775). During the night, Shalev reported on a meeting between Dinitz, now back in Washington, and Kissinger, in which Dinitz "presented him with [the prime minister's] urgent request for Phantoms (planes)". Dinitz also reiterated Golda's decision not to order a preemptive strike, partly on Kissinger's advice, and claimed that this put the US under a moral obligation to help Israel. Kissinger praised Israel's decision, but said that supplying planes was very difficult. He told Dinitz that he had received a message from Sadat's adviser Hafez Ismail, according to which the Egyptians had no intentions of expanding the bridgeheads they had established, and if Israel would announce its willingness to withdraw to the '67 borders, they would be prepared to open negotiations on this. The secretary of state added that he was only transmitting the information and was not making any recommendation to consider it (See: Telegram No. LV/982). The Egyptians repeated this proposal several times during the coming days.

During the night the atmosphere in the prime minister's bureau began to improve. At 20:50 Lior reported that Deputy COGS Israel Tal was preparing reserves for a counter-attack and that things would return to their previous state or even better. Close to midnight a consultation was held with Yitzhak Rabin, who reported on a visit to the southern front with the COGS. Rabin stated that it was decided to launch a counter-attack against the Egyptian army the following day, which would be carried out gradually: only one of the three divisions there would attack at any one time, because "only these tanks stand between Tel Aviv and the Canal", as he put it. He ended with the statement that despite the difficulties and problems with Israel's forces, "all in all, the situation is satisfactory" (See above).

Commanders consult on the Southern front, among them ex-COGS Yitzhak Rabin, COGS Elazar and head of the Southern command Shmuel Gorodish, 8 October 1973. Photograph: Shlomo Arad, GPO

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