Documents reveal Israeli pessimism at start of 1973 war

Jeff Abramowitz

Tel Aviv (dpa) – Documents newly-published to mark anniversary of the 1973 October war have revealed how pessimistic leading Israeli military figures were at the start of hostilities with Egypt and Syria.

Former Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan declared the army’s position on the Suez Canal was “lost”, suggesting troops retreat 30 kilometres, after Egyptian troops crossed the waterway on October 6, 1973, the documents reveal.

According to minutes of a meeting held on October 7, 1973, Dayan told the Israeli cabinet that “The canal line is lost” and said that where possible, Israeli would extricate its troops from those outposts along the canal which had not already fallen to the Egyptians but were under attack.

“Where we can evacuate, we will evacuate. In places we can’t evacuate, we will leave the wounded. Those who make it, make it. If they decide to surrender, they’ll surrender. We have to tell them, ‘we can’t reach you. Try to break out or surrender’,” the documents, reproduced in the Yediot Ahronoth daily, cited Dayan as saying.

The Egyptian assault along the Suez Canal, and a simultaneous Syrian attack on the Golan Heights in the north, took Israel by surprise, and caused heavy initial losses.

It also destroyed the aura of invincibility the Israeli military had acquired after routing the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in the six-day war of June 1967, and totally deflated the confidence which had overtaken Israel after that easy victory.

However, the assault took place on the Jewish holiday of the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calender when Israeli virtually shuts down. Whilst most reservists were either at home or in the synagogue, they were also easy to locate and mobilise.

Once the reserves reached the front, the Israeli military position at first stabilized and then improved to the point where, by the time a UN-imposed ceasefire ended the fighting on October 25, Israeli troops had retaken the Golan Heights and pushed into Syria, to within artillery range of Damascus, and had crossed the Suez canal into Egypt, surrounding the Egyptian army.

But until the reserve units could reach the front lines, the outnumbered and outgunned Israeli troops on the sharp end found themselves fighting desperately to stem the Egyptian and Syrian advance.

Ferocious tank battles took place on the Golan Heights – in one encounter the barrels of Israeli and Syrian tanks actually touched each other – and along the Suez Canal the Egyptian troops managed to overrun the string of Israeli outposts, the so-called Bar Lev Line.

Mobile Egyptian Surface to Air (SAM) missile batteries provided a defensive umbrella for the Egyptian troops and also prevented Israeli aircraft from giving much needed air support to the ground troops.

“We lost tanks. There was artillery, out tanks were hit. The planes weren’t able to approach because of the missiles. A thousand artillery barrels allowed the tanks to cross (the canal) and prevented us from getting close, ” Dayan told the cabinet.

Dayan’s pessimism became common knowledge after the war – it features in books written about the conflict – and public discontent at Israel’s unpreparedness for the conflict led to his resignation, and that of then-prime minister Gold Meir.

“The fact that Moshe Dayan , personally, was in a bad state at the beginning of the war was known to the entire people of Israel,” military historian Yakov Hisdai told Israel Radio Tuesday.

“The generation that lived that war remembers his statement about this being the destruction of the third Jewish commonwealth. But a new generation has risen up since them, a generation that knows less about the war, knows less about what happened in its aftermath, and for that generation this a is an extraordinary surprise, he said.”