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The “Special Means of Collection”:
The Missing Link in the Surprise of the Yom Kippur War

Israeli narratives of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War highlight the army’s lack of preparedness in the wake of a successful surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, despite assumptions of Israel’s intelligence gathering capabilities. Using recently declassified government documents, this article reveals a communication breakdown among Israel’s leadership over the operational status of a top secret means of surveillance. This intelligence failure provides the missing link between Israel’s wealth of information and the decision to avoid mobilizing the country’s reserve army until it was too late.

On November 13, 1973, the Israeli Knesset convened for its first political session after the end of the Yom Kippur War.1 Menachem Begin, the leader of the Likud opposition party, gave a speech. Among other issues presented, he exclaimed:

The question that is being posed to you in every house in Israel, and will not stop being raised until our generation has passed, is: Why, between Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year, September 27, 1973] and Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement, October 6, 1973], did you not call up the reserve forces and mobilize the weaponry? What prevented you from doing this simple and fundamental thing? Who prevented you from doing it?2

Neither Prime Minister Golda Meir nor Defense Minister Moshe Dayan gave Begin an answer. Forty years after it was first asked, the question still haunts the Israeli public because many consider the Yom Kippur War the most traumatic event in Israel’s history. Moreover, most Israelis consider the decision to delay the mobilization [End Page 531] of the reserve army prior to the outbreak of the war as the worst ever made by their leaders.3 The immediate result of this decision was that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were left unprepared and without sufficient troops to defend Israel once war started. In the Golan Heights, the IDF was outnumbered by eight to one in tanks and 15 to one in artillery pieces. Along the Suez Canal, the IDF was outnumbered seven to one in tanks and 60 to one in artillery pieces. Even worse, due to the fact that the order to mobilize for war was issued only four hours before H hour and that the Israelis expected the war to start at 6:00 PM, when fire actually commenced at 2:00 PM, the IDF was still only deployed for a small scale clash in the north and had a mere nine tanks out of 268 in position to fire in the south.

This lack of military preparedness led to catastrophic outcomes. Within 24 hours, the IDF lost the Bar-Lev Line along the Suez Canal and about half the territory of the Golan Heights. About two-thirds of the 450 tank force with which Israel started the war had been lost and more than 500 soldiers were killed during this period. This would have been proportional to a loss of 31,000 soldiers in the US in 1973. On the eve of the war, Israel perceived itself as an unchallenged regional power; less than 24 hours later, Defense Minister Dayan spoke about “the fight for the ‘Third Temple,’” implying that just as the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE, the third Jewish commonwealth was again under the threat of destruction.

The “Concept” and the Double Agent Theory: Previous Accounts of the 1973 Intelligence Failure

The question of what went wrong in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1973 loomed high on Israel’s public agenda following the war. Most of the answers regarding the failure have been given only in Hebrew. 4 These include the reports of the Agranat Commission, the official investigation of the war5 and the testimonies given before this commission by the relevant political, military, and [End Page 532] intelligence persons.6 Additional behind-the-scenes information has been revealed over the years in the memoirs of key intelligence officers, such as the director of Military Intelligence (Aman),7 the Chief of the Mossad,8 the head of Aman’s Research Department,9 the commander of Aman’s Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Unit,10 as well as in a number of secondary accounts.11

The answers provided by these sources, as well as others, create a complex picture. Some explanations involve fundamental characteristics of the Israeli psyche at the time, primarily self-assuredness, arrogance, disregard of Arab capabilities, and the worship of improvisation as a panacea to all unexpected problems. Other explanations focus on personal traits of key policy-makers, mainly Dayan and Meir. Altogether, they yield numerous explanations of Israel’s dire situation at the outset of the war: unrealistic combat plans that neglected defensive elements; unshakable beliefs in the ability of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to provide support to the ground forces despite Egypt and Syria’s massive buildup of antiaircraft weaponry; the cultivation of a mythology of the omnipotence of tanks as a weapon system compared to infantry and artillery; and the decision to avoid a preemptive strike a few hours before the war began.

In light of the fact that the most critical war warning was provided only a few hours before the start of the Egyptian and Syrian offensive, a large share of the explanations focus on Israel’s intelligence performance on the eve of the war, primarily that of Aman, which served in 1973 as the nation’s sole intelligence estimator. The 1975 public report of the Agranat Commission concluded that at the root of the intelligence fiasco stood the “persistent adherence” of Aman’s top analysts to the “concept.” The “concept” (konseptsiyah) was that Egypt would not go to war before it gained (a) long range attack planes that could destroy the IAF on its bases and (b) Scud missiles that would deter Israel from attacking targets in Egypt’s hinterland. Aman’s top analysts were the Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) Major General Eli Zeira; the head of the Research Department, Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev; and the chief analyst of Egyptian affairs, Lieutenant Colonel [End Page 533] Yona Bandman. The main thesis of the Agranat Commission was that since these officers continued to estimate until the very last moment that Egypt’s lack of attack planes and missiles would prevent it from initiating the war, they continued until Saturday morning, October 6, to assess that the probability of attack was low. Consequently, Israel’s policymakers avoided taking the necessary measures to meet the threat, and the IDF was unprepared for large-scale fighting when the war began. The Agranat Commission decided to remove Zeira, Shalev, and Bandman from their positions as a result of this main thesis.12

These conclusions went unchallenged until 1993. That year, Zeira published his account of the intelligence failure. At its center stood the claim that the Mossad’s best source in Egypt, the spy who ultimately provided the warning that “war will start tomorrow,” was in fact a double agent who deceived the Israelis into believing, until almost the last minute, Egypt and Syria did not intend to launch war.13 Zeira’s new theory removed much of the blame from Aman and himself personally, placing it instead on the Mossad and its chief, Zvi Zamir, who allegedly fell victim to a sophisticated Egyptian deception operation. The theory attracted considerable public attention in Israel, particularly since Zeira systematically leaked details to journalists and historians concerning the identity of the Mossad’s legendary spy. In late 2002, the spy’s identity was fully exposed: he was Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of the deceased President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and a close advisor of President Anwar Sadat.14 While the question of whether Marwan was a genuine Mossad agent or an Egyptian decoy continues to draw public interest, the relevant epistemic community — that of the intelligence officers who served in 1973 in Aman and the Mossad — almost entirely rejected Zeira’s theory.

Despite the wealth of information that has become available in recent years, no definite answer has been given so far to the question of why Prime Minister Meir, Defense Minister Dayan, and Chief of Staff Lieutenant General David “Dado” Elazar avoided taking the steps that were deemed necessary to meet the Egyptian and Syrian threat until the morning of October 6. According to information available today, the three had ample warnings that justified earlier action, even though Aman’s experts assessed the war probability as low. King Husayn of Jordan warned Meir personally ten days before the war that the military buildup in the Golan was for a Syrian-Egyptian coordinated war; a well-informed Mossad source warned six days before the war that the Egyptian military exercise, which started on October 1, was a cover for a real attack; the sudden evacuation, by emergency airlift, of Soviet citizens from Egypt and Syria that started on October 4 was a clear indication that the Kremlin was worried about a new war; and numerous warnings that were collected by Aman on the Suez and Golan fronts showed a military buildup that could only indicate preparations for war.15 [End Page 534]

On October 5, the eve of Yom Kippur, Israel’s top policy-makers conducted a series of emergency discussions concerning a possible and imminent Egyptian-Syrian attack. Throughout these discussions, however, Elazar, the chief of staff, expressed his confidence that he would receive a warning 48 hours prior to the breakout of hostilities and that this time span would allow the mobilization of forces capable of forestalling the Egyptian and Syrian offensive. Accordingly, Elazar avoided demanding the mobilization of the reserve army.16

Until recently, Elazar’s confidence that a war warning would arrive on time was attributed to his utmost belief in Israel’s intelligence capabilities, overconfidence in the IDF’s ability to forestall an Egyptian and Syrian attack under any circumstances, and disregard of the Egyptians’ and Syrians’ ability to keep war plans secret from the Israelis. Meir and Dayan, who participated in these critical discussions and accepted the chief of staff’s logic, were portrayed as irresponsible as well. Today, however, the documentary record shows that Meir and Dayan were confident they would receive a warning on time because Aman had a concrete “means of collection” aimed at providing war indicators, of which they were all aware. The extent of their dependence on these “means,” what went wrong, and the consequences of this mishap are the topics of the rest of this article.

Israel’s Insurance Policy Against Surprise Attack

In the summer of 1972, Aman’s collection experts analyzed their ability to provide a warning in case Egypt were to attack. The Aman experts concluded that they would be able provide a warning at least four to six days before fighting commenced. However, they emphasized two exceptions to this rule: First, situations of continued tension (such as the end of Sadat’s “year of decision” in late 1971), when the Egyptian army’s state of readiness remained high for prolonged periods of time; second, during routine large-scale exercises for the crossing of the Suez Canal that were carried out twice a year. In these situations, the Egyptian army could start a war without taking additional measures, thus eroding Aman’s ability to provide a warning.17 In order to close this vulnerability, Aman developed “special means of collection.” The “means” are still a state secret, and only unreliable descriptions are available to the public. According to one source, the “means” were “a series of battery-operated devices attached to phone and cable connections buried deep in the sand outside Cairo.” When operated by a signal, “operators in Israel could hear not only what was said over the telephone and cable lines, but could also eavesdrop on conversations in the rooms where the telephone and the telex consoles were located.”18 According to another source, the “means” were concealed in the hills of ‘Ataqa, west of the city of Suez, in a helicopter-borne operation on the night of February 16/17, 1973.19 [End Page 535]

According to Colonel (Reserve) Yossi Langotsky, the commander of the Aman unit that operated the “means” in 1973, they were considered “Israel’s national security insurance policy.” The “means” received this nickname following their proven ability to provide the information that allowed calming Israeli fears of war when the Egyptian army conducted a large-scale crossing exercise in May 1973.20 A few weeks before that exercise, Israel received warnings from a number of reliable sources, including Marwan and King Husayn, that President Sadat was planning to launch a war in May. The Agranat Commission hinted in the same direction in its public report of 1975, when noting that DMI Zeira did not exploit other means “that could expose important additional information. Thus the enemy succeeded in deceiving and surprising the IDF under the cover of the exercise that was allegedly taking place in Egypt.”21

Despite these references in the literature on the war, the extent of Israel’s policymakers’ dependence on the “means” as a safety net against surprise attack remained unknown until recently. Only with the release during recent years of the testimonies before the Agranat Commission can we now clearly conclude that, as long as no warning came through the “means,” the Israeli leadership assessed the probability of war as rather low, and therefore waited to mobilize the reserve army.

Meir learned of the abilities of the “means” in 1972, when she visited Umm Hashibah [Arabic, Umm Khushayb], Aman’s main SIGINT base in the Sinai. There she asked the commander of Aman’s SIGINT unit, Colonel Ben-Porat, if he could assure her of a warning prior to an Egyptian war initiative. Having in mind the “special means of collection” that were already operational, Ben-Porat gave her an unequivocal positive answer. During the war, she mentioned this conversation, indicating that she remembered the “means” more than a year after this visit.22 Later, in a critical discussion on the likelihood of war that took place on April 18, 1973, Aman’s director, Eli Zeira, told her that if the Egyptian army planned to cross the canal (i.e., full-scale war), “I am certain that we will know about it in advance, and we will be able to provide an operational and not only a tactical warning, i.e., a number of days ahead.” When the prime minister asked him what the basis for his confidence was, he gave her a detailed answer, summarizing it by saying that “when the Egyptian army enters into action — we know it.”23 Moreover, in a special discussion three days before the war, Shalev promised her a warning of at least 24 hours.24 Meir noted in her memoirs that these promises assuaged her apprehensions about the potential of Israel being surprised.25

The confidence that the “means” would provide a clear warning prior to an Egyptian attack was best expressed by none other than Zeira himself. In his testimony before the Agranat Commission, he explained that when he came to office a year before the war, Aman’s analysts explained to him the “concept” according to which Egypt could [End Page 536] not yet go to war, and he accepted their logic. However, at the same time, he could not rest Israel’s security solely on this assumption. In Zeira’s words:

The question I ask myself is where is my insurance in case that the analysts are wrong? My insurance rested with certain means [with excellent accessibility and reliability]. And I told myself: Let’s say that they are wrong. Then I must get an unambiguous indication that they are wrong through those means. This is the whole theory in a nutshell. There is a concept, new facts must come and undermine it. I have here [excellent sources] through which I will get the indications if this concept is valid or not. This is precisely the extract of the essence of my thinking.26

In a newly declassified testimony to the Agranat Commission, Prime Minister Meir stated it was her familiarity with “the special means” that gave her confidence that war was unlikely to start without a prior warning. Meir recalled approving the missions to implement the “means,” as well as the high risk involved and the fantastic sums of money invested on their operation. Despite the danger and cost, the prime minister was assured of the investment’s payoff, saying how she and her colleagues were always told “that we will have the warning.”27

Defense Minister Dayan testified before the Agranat Commission that since May 1973, when the “special means of collection” demonstrated their reliability, he was certain that Israel would receive a warning prior to an Egyptian or Syrian attack. During a discussion in his office less than thirty hours before the war, Dayan asked Zeira if there was “anything special in the Egyptian [communication] traffic lines.” Zeira answered, “absolutely quiet.” This answer, as the Agranat Commission concluded, calmed Dayan’s apprehension of war. On the morning of October 6, still uncertain that war would break out, Dayan asked Zeira the same question, reflecting his utmost trust in the “special means” as the most reliable source concerning the likelihood of war.28

Minister Without Portfolio Yisrael Galili was Golda Meir’s closest and most trusted advisor, and together with Meir and Dayan, constituted the inner circle of Israel’s security leadership. During his testimony in the Agranat Commission, Galili said that his explanation for the contradiction between apprehension about the war he sensed in the discussions of October 5 and the lack of decision to mobilize the reserve army was the “knowledge about the IDF ability to block the Arab offense, and [the belief] that there will be a sufficient warning.” When asked if he knew the grounds for this belief, Galili said that it relied “on major achievements in electronics.” The rest of his testimony in the Agranat Commission’s report concerning the nature of the “electronics” was censored.29 [End Page 537]

Golda Meir’s deputy, Yigal Alon, replaced the prime minister when she went to Europe between September 30 and October 2. He described an unplanned meeting with Elazar after Meir’s return to Israel on October 3 to discuss the tense situation. The chief of staff said in the meeting that “we have arrangements that assure us that we’ll know 48 hours before H hour.” According to Alon, “what calmed me down was the knowledge that you have the possibility to know and I counted [on it].” Throughout his testimony Alon described again and again how the confidence that Elazar expressed in a 48-hour warning calmed his apprehensions. Just as with the other relevant testimonies in the Agranat report, the censorship removed all segments that could indicate the nature of the “means.”30

The testimony given by Elazar contained many references to his confidence, especially after the “means” gained their reputation among the leadership as “Israel’s national security insurance policy” that would provide a warning before a war. At one point, for example, Elazar said that he assumed “there could not be a situation where we would be completely surprised [because] I count on the intelligence system, I count on the ‘means.’” In another part of his testimony, Elazar added: “When I assumed that we would have a warning, I relied mainly on those means that I knew that we have and they would provide us with the information [needed for] action.”31 He also said that he did not count on other sources. When asked how he viewed Marwan (the source’s name in the protocol is censored but it is clearly Marwan), Elazar said that he “did not regard [Marwan] as an important source for an immediate warning.”32

Finally, the commander of the Southern Command, Major General Shmuel Gonen, testified that on October 4 or 5 he asked to turn on the “means” and was told by his intelligence officer that they were already operational. This calmed his worries and led him to be certain that the Egyptian activity was merely an exercise.33

Thus, Israel’s chain of command, from the commander of the Southern Command to the prime minister, was well aware of Aman’s “special means of collection.” They all expected the “means” to provide a war warning at least 48 hours before an Egyptian and Syrian attack. However, the declassified Agranat testimonies show that the “means” failed to provide that warning. What went wrong, then, is the topic of the next section.

What Happened to the National Insurance Policy?

A few months before the outbreak of the war, one of the “special means” accidentally fell into Egypt’s hands. Fear that the other “means” would be exposed led to the decision to limit their use, and DMI Zeira became the only person authorized to [End Page 538] allow their activation.34 Since the “means” were built solely in order to provide a war warning, there was no need to operate them until October 1. On that day, the Egyptian army launched Tahrir (“Liberation”) 41, the latest in a series of military exercises that it had been running since the late 1960s. The prime feature of the exercises was the crossing of the Suez Canal by five infantry divisions and advancement into the Sinai by two armored divisions. Based on the fact that the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia launched under the disguise of a similar military exercise, Aman regularly raised its state of readiness once a Tahrir exercise started. Accordingly, on October 1, Aman raised its state of readiness, particularly for its SIGINT unit.35

On the eve of Tahrir 41, a Mossad agent in Egypt reported that the exercise would serve as a cover for a real war.36 Combined with an already tense situation on the northern front as a result of a massive Syrian buildup that started in August and other warning indicators that could not be explained by a routine exercise on the Egyptian front,37 this warning prompted a number of senior intelligence officers to request DMI Zeira to activate the “special means of collection.” The officers’ main claim was that the “means” were built to provide a war warning, and because the probability for war had increased, this was precisely the time to use them. Since October 1, the head of Aman’s Collection Department, Colonel Menahem Digli; the head of the Research Department, Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev; and the commander of the SIGINT Unit, Colonel Yoel Ben-Porat, repeatedly asked Zeira to allow use of the “means.” In some cases they made the request during meetings, and in others, over the phone or by intercom. In a number of cases, other intelligence officers who permitted to hear the exchange. Zeira rejected all of these requests.38 The issue was raised was for the last time during an emergency discussion that Zeira conducted in his office with senior Research Department analysts on the morning of October 5. The request was turned down again.39

On October 4, Zeira allowed testing the “means,” which had not been under operation for quite some time. Colonel Ben-Porat, whose unit serviced the “means,” was ordered to report to Zeira at 6:00 AM on October 5 that they were turned off at the end of the test, which he did. The test was successful but since it was only a check, no systematic attempt was made to produce intelligence from the information that passed through the “means.” Ultimately, Zeira gave the order to fully operate the “means” only on the early hours of October 6, a few hours before the war began.40 By then, Israel was already gearing up for war and the information gained by the “means” had no impact on the decision-making process. [End Page 539]

The extent to which information provided by the “means” would have made a difference had they been operational in the week before the war remains uncertain. According to sources close to Zeira, the Tahrir 41 exercise that the Egyptians used to disguise their war preparations would have neutralized the “means’” effectiveness.41 However, in light of the fact that the “means” gave Aman the ability to conclude in a decisive manner that a similar exercise in May 1973 was indeed an exercise and not a cover for war, it is difficult to take this claim at face value.

Although the potential contribution of the “means” to the prevention of a surprise attack might still be undecided, their effect on the decision-making process in the week before the war is clear. For reasons unknown until today, Zeira did not tell his superiors that the “means” on which they counted to provide a war warning had not been activated. When asked about it specifically by Elazar and Dayan, Zeira led them to understand that the “means” were operational, but did not produce any war indicators. The result was that Israel’s policy-makers waited until it was too late for the information that would justify the decision to mobilize the reserve army and take additional steps.

The Impact of Zeira’s Omissions

In 1975, the public report of the Agranat Commission included four discussions of the critical role that the “means’” lack of use played in disrupting Israel’s preparedness for war.42 Since then, it could be inferred that this was indeed the key to solving the mystery of why the attack was a surprise despite the wealth of intelligence Israel had on Egypt’s military movements. But this explanation was withheld for three main reasons. First, the mere existence of the “means” and, even more so, their true nature was, and still is, a top state secret. The less said about them, the better for Israel’s security. Hence, those who knew of them preferred not to speak about them, and military censorship remains very strict with regard to the release of any new information concerning the topic. Second, four of the five policy-makers who were deceived into believing that the “means” had been activated in time — the chief of staff, the defense minister, the deputy prime minister, and the prime minister — passed away within a decade after the war. To a great extent, their versions of the course of events that led them to avoid mobilization were lost with their deaths. The fifth, Galili, passed away in 1986 and never referred to the issue outside of his testimony before the Agranat Commission. Third, the culprit, Zeira, systematically misled the Israeli public to believe that the source of the failure lay not with him, but with the Mossad and its “double agent,” Marwan, upon whose warning the decision to mobilize was allegedly dependent. According to Zeira and a number of authors who echoed his version, as long as Marwan did not provide the warning, Elazar and Dayan did not see the need to mobilize the army.43

The testimonies of the decision-makers themselves show the falsity of this claim. As we saw already, the decision-makers relied on the “special means of collection” and, as the chief of staff said in his testimony, he did not regard Marwan as a source that could [End Page 540] provide the last-minute warning.44 These testimonies, however, were only made public in 2011. Before their release, the spy drama that Zeira authored sparked fierce public debates and distracted attention from the real cause of the IDF failures at the beginning of the war.

We do not know precisely when Chief of Staff Elazar learned that the “means” failed to produce warnings because they had not been activated. According to the commander of Aman’s SIGINT unit, Colonel Ben-Porat, he was called to a personal meeting with Elazar on January 14. At this meeting, Elazar told Ben-Porat that in early October he asked Zeira on two separate occasions if the latter had relied on information from the “special means” when estimating that war was unlikely. In both cases, Zeira answered in the affirmative. Here Elazar told Ben-Porat:

And this [Zeira’s confirmation that he relied on the means] confused me, of course, furthermore, since I knew their ability; and if they do not produce war information, it means that everything [was] all right. Now I clearly understand that I was not told the truth.45

This description was confirmed by Colonel Avner Shalev, Elazar’s military assistant who was present in the room when his boss discussed the operational status of the “means” with Zeira.46 Elazar’s biographer, Hanoch Bartov, confirmed this version as well.47 The only difference between the various descriptions involves the dates: According to Ben-Porat, Elazar first asked Zeira about the “means” on October 1, while according to Avner Shalev and Bartov the conversation took place one day later.

With this false picture in mind, Elazar told the members of the Agranat Commission that he saw nothing extraordinary on the Suez front: “For me, the week in the Southern Command between the first and the sixth of October, is considered the most normal week.”48 This notion was also reflected in his assessments prior to the war. For example, in a discussion with Zeira and Avner Shalev on October 2, Elazar said: “We reconstructed again what we have, and our conclusion is that in Egypt we have an exercise [occurring], and we can say it for certain.”49 This confidence was clearly based on the assurances that Elazar received that day or the day before from Zeira that Aman’s calming assessment about the exercise was also based on the sensitive information provided by the “special means.”

On October 3, during the special discussion in the prime minister’s office, Elazar, made a principle distinction between his general estimation of Syria and Egypt’s possible intentions to go to war and his specific estimation concerning the situation. He was not very worried about the current situation since the “special means” did not provide any indications of war on the Egyptian front. He also compared the situation in spring 1973, when several high-quality human sources had warned of war and a large-scale Egyptian exercise took place, to the present situation when there were no specific warnings [End Page 541] and a similar large-scale crossing exercise was again taking place. In the spring, the “means” had indicated that the exercise was not a cover for war. Consequently, despite the warnings, there had been no need to mobilize the reserve army. By Elazar’s logic, the current situation was even less worrying since no warnings had come and, as far as he knew, the “means” indicated that Tahrir 41 was not a cover for a real crossing of the canal. Elazar also linked the situation in Egypt to that of Syria: “In case Syria would go for something more fantastic [i.e., an all-out war and not merely a localized attack], we will have to know. We have good … information. And it is reasonable that when you activate a big machine, there will be leaks.”50 Here, Elazar expressed two beliefs which were shared by all the participants in the discussion: first, that Syria would not go to war without Egypt; second, that if Egypt initiated a war, the “means” would yield the necessary indications. This belief was also reflected in Meir’s summary of the meeting in her memoirs: “Nobody at the meeting thought that it was necessary to call up the reserves, and nobody thought that war was imminent.”51

October 4 saw three major developments that increased the likelihood of war: the Soviets started an emergency airlift to evacuate their personnel and their families from Egypt and Syria; the results of an IAF reconnaissance fight showed that the deployment of the Egyptian army on the Suez Canal front was the largest ever to have taken place; and Ashraf Marwan requested to meet Zvi Zamir urgently in order to speak about a large-scale war. The significance of these three developments became clearer on the morning of Friday, October 5, and catalyzed a series of emergency discussions. At the center of these discussions stood the possibility that Syria and Egypt planned to launch war soon. Despite this concern and the fact that the intelligence picture revealed the Syrian and Egyptian armies completely deployed for war on Israel’s borders, hardly any of the participants in the October 5 discussions raised the possibility that war might start within 24 hours.

Elazar came the closest to predicting a war scenario. He was mostly worried by the level of war-readiness of the Egyptian army and, accordingly, his first decisions on that Friday morning was to put the regular army on its highest state of alert since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and to prepare for the mobilization of the reserve army. Such acts were within his realm of responsibility. But even Elazar did not yet request the formal mobilization of the reserve army, which had to be approved by the government. As he himself explained, he avoided such a request since he was still expecting to receive the war signals from the “special means.”52

At 9:00 AM, Elazar and Dayan convened a meeting that entailed an intelligence briefing by Zeira followed by discussion concerning Israel’s necessary reaction to the threatening situation. Zeira focused mainly on the Soviet evacuation but could not provide a solid explanation for its motivation. He continued to estimate the likelihood of war as low. Dayan asked Zeira at this stage: “Is there anything special in all the traffic of the Egyptian lines?” Zeira’s answer was, “Everything is quiet.”53

From Dayan’s question it is obvious that he was certain that the “means” had already been operational for quite some time. Zeira’s answer did not give any indication that this was not so. As mentioned earlier, the “means” had been tested for [End Page 542] a few hours during the night before, but had been turned off since 6:00 AM. Obviously, then, Zeira’s telling Dayan that “everything is quiet” led him and Elazar, who also participated in the discussion, to believe that the “means” were operational but not producing any warning indicators. Hence, to Dayan and Elazar, immediate war would still seem unlikely. Indeed, the Agranat Commission concluded from this exchange that Dayan’s “confidence in Aman’s estimate … grew after the DMI Zeira told Dayan in response to his question on the morning of October 5 that he was making use of all possible sources of information.”54

The question that loomed high on the agenda of all the emergency discussions on that day was whether or not to start mobilization of the reservists. Elazar, whose request was supposed to initiate this process, described his state of mind during a cabinet meeting in the prime minister’s office in Tel Aviv at 11:30 AM:

I do not mobilize the reserves, and the state of alert is conducted just by the regular army. I assume that we will receive more information [even if] they are going for some kind of attack in total surprise. When I say surprise — even if we know 12 or 24 hours earlier — that will also be a big surprise, and I assume that if we approach that phase — we will have more indications and information. If they seriously intend to do something, we will know more than what we do at the moment. I am saving the mobilization of the reserves and other measures for additional indications.55

Meir, Dayan, and Galili knew very well the basis of Elazar’s confidence was that “additional indications” would arrive. All of them were certain that by this stage the “means” had long been operational and none of them disagreed with the chief of staff’s logic. The only person in the room who knew that no “additional indications” for war should be expected was Zeira, but he kept quiet on this issue. In Zeira’s memoirs, in which the “special means” are not mentioned at all, he commented in response to Elazar’s words: “Did Aman’s director promise to bring ‘additional indications’ on the offensive intentions of Egypt and Syria? Not at all! And yet, the chief of staff conditions the mobilization of the reservists on ‘additional indications.’”56

About two hours later, Elazar expressed a similar kind of logic in an unplanned general headquarters meeting. Following an intelligence briefing by Zeira, who estimated the probability for war as “lower than low,” Elazar said, “I see the danger that a war … will break out today or tomorrow as less probable than no war breaking at all.”57 Obviously, he was still counting on the “special means” to give him a 48-hour warning. Since they did not produce anything yet, he estimated that the outbreak of war in the immediate future was less probable. This reasoning became even more evident when Elazar explained his decision to avoid, for the time being, a request to mobilize the reserve army: “Though we do not have a concrete warning on attack, I assume that if, indeed, they have an intention to simultaneously attack from Egypt and Syria — we will get a warning.”58 [End Page 543]

The warning that alerted Israel to the coming war did not arrive from the “special means of collection.” On October 5, at around 11:30 PM, the Mossad chief, Zvi Zamir, met Marwan in a London apartment hotel. With them was “Dubi,” Marwan’s case officer since December 1970. Marwan’s message was clear: a war will break out tomorrow, according to the Egyptian plans he already revealed. The meeting ended about an hour later. Zamir then went to the residence of the Mossad station chief in London, about a 15-minute walk away.59 There he sat for a while and wrote on a piece of paper the message that would wake Israel up to a day of war. It was a simply coded message:

Nevertheless the firm intends to sign the contract today before sunset.

They speak about the contract in the same terms that we are familiar with.

They know that tomorrow is a holiday.

They think that they can land before darkness.

I spoke with the manager but he could not delay because of the commitment to the other managers and he wants to meet the commitment.

I’ll cable all the contract’s details.

Since they want to win the race they are frightened that it will be publicized before its signing and there will be competitors and some of the shareholders might reconsider.

They don’t have partners outside the region.

The Angel estimates that the chances for signature are 99.9% but, nevertheless, this is the man.60

Zamir called Alfred Eni, his aide-de-camp, in Israel and dictated the message to him. Eni decoded it and started a series of telephone calls. By 4:30 AM, Israel’s leaders were already awake. Shortly afterwards they started intensive discussions in the IDF and the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. Despite Zamir’s message, Dayan was still reluctant to take the steps demanded by Elazar to respond to the coming war. On one occasion, Dayan answered Elazar’s demand for a full-scale mobilization of the reserve army: “On the basis of information from Zvika [Zamir] you do not mobilize the whole army.” Later, during a discussion in Meir’s office, Dayan asked Zeira: “Are your lines open?” and received the answer that everything was opened.61 Dayan said that although a preemptive Israeli strike would be the preferred option to the alternative of an Egyptian and Syrian first strike, “the present information does not allow it.”

This exchange sheds additional light on Dayan’s way of thinking: he did not regard Marwan’s warning as justifying the drastic measures requested by the chief of staff, and he was still waiting for information from the “means” in order to better assess the gravity of the situation. It is no wonder, then, that until fire commenced at around 2:00 PM, Day-an continued to regard the likelihood of war as uncertain and to doubt the necessity of the large-scale mobilization of the reserve army that Meir had confirmed at around 9:20 AM. [End Page 544]


The mere existence of the “special means of collection” and the fact that they had not been activated before the war has been known since 1975, though we still do not know what the “means” were. The evidence that became available in recent years, primarily the testimonies before the Agranat Commission gradually released starting in 2011, shows in a clearer manner the extent to which the whole decision-making process before the war rested on the assumption that the “means” had been activated for at least a few days without yielding any warning indicators. In this sense, this knowledge about the “means” creates the missing link between the wealth of information that indicated war would occur on the one hand and the decision to delay mobilization of the reserve army on the other.

Prime Minister Golda Meir testified that in the days before the war, she was certain that the “means” were operational and that “there was a way to know” if an Egyptian attack was coming.62 Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon testified before the Agranat Commission that Chief of Staff David Elazar told him after the war, when he learned that the “means” had not been activated, that “something horrible happened to us.”63 When Minister Without Portfolio Yisrael Galili was asked by the commission’s members if he would be surprised to know that the “means” had not been activated before the war, he answered that he would not “be surprised, but shocked.” 64 The intuitive distinction he made between “surprise” and “shock” illuminates what he thought about Director of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira’s behavior. Sometime after the war he told an interviewer, “In contrast to the widespread notion in the public … the fatal mistake was rooted in a severe intelligence failure.”65 There can be hardly any doubt that what he had in mind was the mistaken decision to avoid activating the “means” and even more so Zeira’s decision to hide it from his superiors.

Why Zeira acted the way he did is a mystery which is not likely to be fully solved. When asked about it by the members of the Agranat Commission, he provided a very superficial answer:

Most of my years in the IDF I was not a staff officer, but a commander and as much as my nature allows me, I do not pass responsibility upwards, because … it means to come and say: we have a complex situation, you decide. I did not intend to do it. In general, I act this way only rarely.66

A more thorough explanation for this behavior demands further study of Zeira’s personality. A study which employs cognitive psychology theory has been conducted. It collated and analyzed testimonies about Zeira’s behavior, the intelligence estimates that he made since becoming the director of Military Intelligence in early October 1972, the way he conceptualized his role as Israel’s chief intelligence officer, and the explanations he gave to the Agranat Commission concerning his unusual conduct before the war. On the basis of this data, the study concluded that Zeira had [End Page 545] a high need for cognitive closure.67 Persons of this kind evince a desire for predictable results and a need for order and structure. They are uneasy with ambiguity, and have a tendency for decisiveness and close-mindedness.68 In 1973, Zeira’s strong need for cognitive closure drove him to grasp forcefully to the assumption that war was unlikely because of the IAF’s superiority, which in turn made him impervious to information indicating that Egypt was nevertheless prepared to go to war and that war was imminent. Being both concerned about the safety of the “means” if they became operational and certain up until the very last moment that war was unlikely, Zeira rejected all requests by his subordinates to activate them.

This explanation sheds more light on the question of why Israel’s “national security insurance policy” against a surprise attack was not implemented when it was most needed. But, it cannot provide a comprehensive explanation to Zeira’s decision to mislead his superiors with regard to the operational status of the “means.” For this specific question, we may never have a satisfactory answer. [End Page 546]

Uri Bar-Joseph  

Uri Bar-Joseph is a Professor at the International Relations Division at Haifa University, Israel. He concentrates on strategic and intelligence studies, especially focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli security policy. He has authored nearly 80 book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals, such as Political Science Quarterly, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Security Studies, Political Psychology, and Armed Forces and Society. In addition to these, he has written five books, the most recent of which are The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Sources (Hebrew, revised edition, 2013) and The Angel: Ashraf Marwan, the Mossad, and the War of Yom Kippur (Hebrew, 2011).


1. Also referred to as the October War, the Ramadan War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

2. “Kenes Meyuhad shel ha-Keneset ha-Yeshiva ha-Arba‘-Me’ot-ve-Shishim-ve-Shesh shel ha-Keneset ha-Shevi‘it Yom Shelishi, 18 Heshvan 5734, 13 November 1973 — Hoda‘at ha-Memshela ‘alha-Matsav ha-Medini — Diyun” [“A Special Assembly of the Knesset, Session 466 of the Seventh Knesset, Tuesday, Heshvan 18, 5734/November 13, 1973 — The Government Statement about the Political Situation — Deliberation”], Meli’at ha-Keneset [The Knesset Protocols], Vol. 68, November 13, 1973, posted at: Menachem Begin Heritage Center, http://db.begincenter.org.il/he-il/INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphicINSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphicINSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic.htm.

3. Ben Tekumah le-Ivelet” [“Between Revival and Folly”], Yedioth Ahronoth, April 26, 2002, weekend supplement.

4. For the main exceptions, see: Uri Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Sources (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005); and Aryeh Shalev, Israel’s Intelligence Assessment before the Yom Kippur War: Disentangling Deception and Distraction (Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2010).

5. State of Israel, Duah Va‘adat Agranat: Va‘adat he-Hakirah. Milhemet Yom ha-Kipurim [Agranat Commission Report: Commission of Inquiry; Yom Kippur War] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1975) (hereafter cited as Agranat Commission Report). State of Israel, Comission of Inquiry: Yom Kippur War, “Din ve-Heshbon Helki Nosaf: Hanmakot ve-Hashlamot le-Duah ha-Helki mi-Yom 9 be-Nisan 5734 (1.4.1974) [“Additional Partial Report: Notes and Appendices to the Partial Report from Nisan 9, 5734 (April 1, 1974)”] (hereafter cited as Additional Partial Report); and State of Israel, Commission of Inquiry: Yom Kippur War, “Din ve-Heshbon Shelishi ve-Aharon” [“Third and Final Report”] (hereafter cited as Third and Final Report), both available at State of Israel, Ministry of Defense, “Hasifat Duah ‘Va‘adat Agranat’ le-Hakirat Iru‘e Milhemet Yom ha-Kipurim” [“Declassified Documents of the ‘Agranat Commission’ Inquiry into the Events of the Yom Kippur War,” Arkhiyon Tsahal u-Ma‘arakhat ha-Bitahon [IDF and Defense Department Archives], http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/pages/Exhibitions/agranat/agranat_commission.asp.

6. State of Israel, Ministry of Defense, “‘Eduyot Va‘adat Agranat” [“Agranat Commission Testimonies”] The IDF and the Defense Community Archives, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/pages/Exhibitions/agranat2/exb.asp.

7. Eli Zeira, Milhemet Yom Kipur: Mitos Mul Metsi’ut [The Yom Kippur War: Myth against Reality] (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth Press, 1993, and revised edition in 2004).

8. Zvi Zamir and Efrat Mass, Be-‘Enayim Pekuhot: Rosh ha-Mosad Matria‘, Ha’im Yisra’el Makshivah? [With Open Eyes: The Head of the Mossad Warns, Is Israel Listening?] (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret-Zmora Bitan Dvir, 2011).

9. Shalev, Israel’s Intelligence Assessment before the Yom Kippur War; originally published in Hebrew under the title Kishalon ve-Hatslahah be-Hatra‘a: Ha‘arakhat ha-Modi’in ‘Erev Milhemet Yom ha-Kipurim [Failure and Success in Alert: The Intelligence Assessment on the Eve of the Yom Kippur War] (Tel Aviv, Maarachot, 2006). To date, this book is the only one that was also published in English.

10. Yoel Ben-Porat, Ne‘ilah: Sipur ha-Hafta‘ah shel Milhemet Yom-ha-Kipurim [Locked On: The Story of the Surprise of the Yom Kippur War] (Hebrew, Tel Aviv: Edanim, 1991).

11. Hanoch Bartov, Dado: 48 Shanah ve-‘Od 20 Yom [Dado: 48 Years and 20 More Days] (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret-Zmora Bitan Dvir, 2002); Eitan Haber, Hayom Tifrots Milhama: Zikhronotav shel Tat-Aluf Yisra’el Li’or [Today, War Will Break Out: The Memoirs of Brigadier General Yisrael Lior] (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth Press, 1987); Arie Braun, Moshe Dayan be-Milhemet Yom ha-Kipurim [Moshe Dayan in the Yom Kippur War] (Tel Aviv: Edanim, 1992); Uri Bar-Joseph, Ha-Mal’akh: Ashraf Marwan, ha-Mosad, ve-Hafta‘at Milhemet Yom Kipur [The Angel: Ashraf Marwan, the Mossad, and the Yom Kippur War Surprise] (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret-Zmora Bitan Dvir, 2011).

12. Agranat Commission Report, pp. 18–20, 34–37.

13. Zeira, Yom Kippur War, pp. 85–95, 119–26.

14. For a description of Zeira’s theory in English, see: Ahron Bregman, Israel’s Wars: A History since 1947 (New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 112–17; for the story of how Zeira leaked the name of Marwan to reporters and historians (including Ahron Bregman), see: Uri Bar-Joseph, “The Intelligence Chief who Went Fishing in the Cold: How the Identity of Israel’s Most Valuable Source in Egypt was Leaked by Maj. Gen. (Res.) Eli Zeira,” Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 23, No. 2 (April 2008), pp. 226–48.

15. For a detailed discussion about these warnings and many others, see, Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep, pp. 89–184.

16. For an account of the October 5 discussions. see, Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep, pp. 141–86.

17. Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep, pp. 54–55; Shim‘on Golan, Milhamah be-Yom ha-Kipurim: Kabalat Hahlatot ba-Pikud ha-‘Elyon be-Milhemet Yom ha-Kipurim [War on Yom Kippur: Decision-Making in the High Command during the Yom Kippur War] (Ben Shemen, Israel: Maarachot, 2013), pp. 61–63.

18. Howard Blum, The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War (New York:HarperCollins, 2003), p. 120.

19. Yigal Kipnis, 1973: Ha-Derekh le-Milhamah [1973: The Way to War] (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret-Zmora Bitan Dvir, 2012), p. 31.

20. Yossi Langotsky, “Ha-Emet ‘al ‘ha-Emtsa‘im ha-Meyuhadim’” [“The Truth about ‘the Special Means’”] Haaretz, November 10, 2012, http://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/1.1860134.

21. Agranat Commission Report, p.20.

22. Ben-Porat, Locked On, p. 46.

23. Uri Bar-Joseph, Ha-Tsofeh she-Nirdam: Hafta‘at Yom ha-Kipurim u-Mekoroteha [The Watchman that Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Origins] (Lod, Israel: Zmora-Bitan,2001), pp. 172–75.

24. Haber, Today, War Will Break Out, p. 20.

25. Golda Meir, My Life (London: Futura, 1976), p. 354.

26. Third and Final Report, p.64. (Brackets in the original).

27. “‘Edut Golda Me’ir, Rosh ha-Memshelah” [“The Testimony of Golda Meir, Prime Minister”], February 6, 1974, Agranat Commission Testimonies, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/INSERT DESCRIPTION - inline graphic/mywebalbum/index.html, p. 67.

28. ‘Eduto shel Sar ha-Bitahon Mosheh Dayan, Yeshivah 66” [The Testimony of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Meeting 66”], February 11, 1974, Agranat Commission Testimonies, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/MosheDayan/66/mywebalbum/index_2.html, p. 21; Braun, Moshe Dayan in the Yom Kippur War, pp. 58–59, 71; Agranat Commission Report, p. 46.

29. ‘Eduto shel Yisra’el Galili, Yeshivah 68” [“The Testimony of Yisrael Galili, Meeting 68”], February 13, 1974, Agranat Commission Testimonies, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/galili/68/index.html, pp. 32–33.

30. ‘Eduto shel Yig’al Alon” [The Testimony of Yigal Alon,” Febaury 14, 1974, Agranat Commission Testimonies, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/yigal_alon/index.html, pp. 31–33.

31. ‘Eduto shel Rav Aluf David El‘azar, Yeshivah 54” [“The Testimony of Lt. Gen. David Elazar, Meeting 54”], January 29, 1974, Agranat Commission Testimonies, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/dado/54/index.html, p. 73, 75.

32. “The Testimony of Lt. Gen. David Elazar, Meeting 54,” p. 52.

33. ‘Eduto shel Aluf Shmu’el Gonen, Yeshivah 29” [The Testimony of Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen, Meeting 29], December 25, 1973, Agranat Commission Testimonies, http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/Pages/Exhibitions/Agranat2/ShmuelGonen/29/mywebalbum/index.html, pp. 81–82.

34. Langotsky, “The Truth about the ‘Special Means,’”.

35. Ben-Porat, Locked On, pp. 48–52.

36. Bar-Joseph, The Watchman Fell Asleep, pp. 103–6.

37. These warning indicators included massive reinforcement of the front, including advancement of bridging equipment, a raise in the state of alert of the entire Egyptian army, a call up of reserve soldiers, and the cancellation of military courses.

38. Ben-Porat, Locked On, p. 53, 55; Alex Fishman, “‘Ad Hayom Hu’ Lo’ Ma’amin she-Partsah Milhamah” [ “Until Today He Does Not Believe that War Broke Out,” Yedioth Ahronoth, September 24, 1993; Uri Na‘aman, “Ehad she-Yada‘” [“One Who Knew”], Mabat Malam, No. 61 (October 2011), pp. 27–28.

39. Avi‘ezer Ya‘ari, Ba-Derekh me-Rehaviyah: Hayav shel Ish Modi‘in Yisra’eli [On the Road from Rehaviyah: The Life of an Israeli Intelligence Man] (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret-Zmora Bitan Dvir, 2003), pp. 176–77.

40. Langotsky, “The Truth about the ‘Special Means.’”

41. Amir Oren, “Tselav ha-Milhamah shel Eli Ze‘ira” [Eli Zeira’s War Cross”], Haaretz, September 26, 2003, http://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/1.913279; Kipnis, 1973, p. 32.

42. Agranat Commission Report, pp. 20, 34–35, 39–40, 46–47.

43. Zeira, Yom Kippur War, pp.119–24; Bregman, Israel’s Wars, pp. 116–17; Kipnis, 1973, pp. 251–62.

44. “The Testimony of Lt. Gen. David Elazar, Meeting 54,” p. 52.

45. Ben-Porat, Locked On, p. 183.

46. Interview by author with Avner Shalev, May 4, 1999, Ramat ha-Sharon, Israel. During the interview, Shalev spoke about the issue of the “special means of collection” as the most critical element in the decision-making process before the war.

47. Bartov, Dado, p. 322.

48. Additional Partial Report, p. 270.

49. Additional Partial Report, p. 266.

50. Braun, Moshe Dayan in the Yom Kippur War, pp.52–53.

51. Meir, My Life, pp. 354–55.

52. “The Testimony of Lt. Gen. David Elazar, Meeting 54,” p. 113.

53. Braun, Moshe Dayan in the Yom Kippur War, p. 58.

54. Agranat Commission Report, p. 46.

55. Zeira, Yom Kippur War, p. 154.

56. Zeira, Yom Kippur War, p. 154. In the 2003 edition of the book, Zeira’s comments are somewhat different but contain the same message.

57. Additional Partial Report, p. 283.

58. Additional Partial Report, p. 284.

59. Bar-Joseph, The Angel, pp. 250–54.

60. Zamir and Mass, With Open Eyes, p. 150.

61. Bar-Joseph, The Angel, p. 259; Braun, Moshe Dayan in the Yom Kippur War, p.74.

62. “Testimony of Golda Meir, Prime Minister,” pp. 67–68.

63. “Testimony of Yigal Alon,” pp. 31–33.

64. “Testimony of Yisrael Galili, Meeting 68,” pp. 32–33.

65. Yesha‘yahu Ben-Porat, Sihot [Conversations] (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth Press, 1981), p. 123.

66. The Agranat Report, p.35.

67. Uri Bar-Joseph and Arie W. Kruglanski, “Intelligence Failure and the Need for Cognitive Closure: On the Psychology of the Yom Kippur Surprise,” Political Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 1, (March 2003), pp.75–99.

68. Arie W. Kruglanski, Donna M. Webster, and Adena Klem, “Motivated Resistance and Openness to Persuasion in the Presence or Absence of Prior Information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 65, No. 5 (October 1993), pp.861–76; Donna M. Webster and Arie W. Kruglanski, “Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 67, No. 6, (December 1994), pp.1049–62; Maria Konnikova, “Why We Need Answers,” New Yorker, April 30, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/04/why-we-need-answers.html.