Why Israel Was Surprised In October, 1973
AUTHOR Major Kent A. Leonhardt, USMC
SUBJECT AREA Intelligence
Why Israel was Surprised in October, 1973
On 6 October 1973, Israel was caught by surprize when
Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked on two fronts.
Prime Minister Golda Meir had made the decision to call up
the reserves six hours earlier, but that was an insufficient
amount of time to mobilize a defense designed to receive at
least 48 hours warning. Most students of the 1973 Arab-
Israeli War agree that there was an intelligence failure, and
this is essentially the finding of Israel's Agranat Commission.
The Agranat Commission was set up immediately after
the war to study what went wrong. It labeled the war an
intelligence failure and pointed out some of the problems with
political analysis. This is how history records the outbreak of
the war. It describes Israel's heavy reliance on military
intelligence and "the concept." "The concept" stated that
before war could commence the Arabs must unite, and Egypt
would not attack without air superiority.
While Israel's military intelligence recognized most of the
indicators leading to war, they did not recognize the political
motives of Egypt's leader, Anwar Sadat. Political factors
made the conditions pointed out in "the concept" a reality and
There is evidence that Israeli leaders were aware of the
problems pointed out by the Agranat Commission as early as
1963, but failed to implement corrective procedures. The
heavy reliance Israel placed on its military intelligence system
proved to be costly. The reasons can be found in a
breakdown of that system and a leadership failure which
began ten years earlier.
Why Israel was Surprised in October, 1973
Thesis: The heavy reliance Israel placed on it military
intelligence system proved to be costly. The reasons can be
found in a breakdown of that system and a leadership failure
which began ten years earlier.
I. The start of the war
A. The decision to mobilze the reserves
B. Break down of the Intelligence system and a
leadership failure that began 10 years earlier
II. Events leading up to the war
A. Known Arab Intentions
B. Israel's recognition of intentions
C. Indications that were identifiable
D. Other deviations from the norm
E. Indications and intelligence not forwarded
F. Missed indications
G. "The concept"
H. False signals and paradox of warning
I. Conditions required to attack
J. Israel's deception plan
III. Israel's leaders made some serious mistakes
A. There was an intelligence failure
1. Events hindered decision making
2. DMI could not give sufficient warning
B. Problems with intelligence assessments
C. Details of Agranat Commission
IV. Summary of failures and reasons for being surprised
A. Intelligence failure
B. Parlimentary failure
Why Israel was Surprised In October, 1973
The Israeli Cabinet was still in session at 1400 on 6
October 1973 when they received word that the Egyptians and
the Syrians had simultaneously attacked Israel. Prime
Minister Golda Meir had just finished detailing her decision
not to conduct a preemptive strike against the enemy but to
mobilize the reserves. Israel was caught by surprise, and the
initial casulties mounted rapidly.
Earlier that morning the Prime Minister and her Defense
Minister, Moshe Dayan, were awoken and told they could
expect an attack at 1800. The decision to mobilize was made
around 0800, leaving the Israelis less than six hours to
mobilize a force to reinforce thinly stretched defensive
positions which faced overwhelming numbers of Arab soldiers.
The heavy reliance Israel placed on its military intelligence
system proved to be costly. The reasons can be found in a
breakdown of that system and a leadership failure which
began ten years earlier.
There is no doubt that the Arabs' intentions were known.
Israel had occupied the Sinai all the way to the Suez Canal
and the Golan Heights since the Israeli victory in 1967. The
peace talks were stalled, and Israel was not returning any of
the occupied Arab lands. Sadat needed something to reopen
the peace process, and a limited objective war with some
success was what the Arabs needed. In a conflict that had
been raging for over 20 years, an Arab attack was only a
matter of time. Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, had
discussed the need for war in 1971, 1972 and 1973. 1 1971 was
announced by Sadat as the year of decision, but no attack
materialized. On December 21, 1972, a Cairo newspaper
reported that Sadat had instructed his new war minister to
prepare for war within six months. 2 In February, 1973, Egypt
renewed relations with the Soviet Union, and arms began
arriving that same month. In the first half of 1973, Egypt got
a fresh shipment of T-62 tanks, and at the same time Syria
was being supplied with 40 MIG-21s and SAM missiles worth
The Arab intentions for war in 1973 did not go unnoticed
by Israel. Moshe Dayan had warned his staff of a possible
war in the second half of the summer in 1973. 3 The United
States State Department had predicted that there was less
than a 45% chance of war with an important caveat; the
chances of war would increase if the Arabs made no progress
in diplomatic circles. 4 On 25 September, the CIA reported to
Israel that a war was imminent on two fronts. 5
Several indications were identifiable. Israel was aware of
the forward deployment of aircraft and the military
concentrations along the Suez Canal and Syrian border. Israel
was aided by the use of American reconnaissance platforms,
and the enemy build-up could not have gone undetected. 6
For the first time bridging material arrived on the scene of
the military build-up after Egyptian bulldozers were reported
to have dug gaps in sand dunes and soldiers were seen placing
markers at the water's edge. Syria's build-up on the front
began slowly on 21 September, and by 1 October, there were
2,000 tanks in defensive positions. The tanks were moved to
offensive positions the night before the attack, but this
movement went undetected.
The Soviet Union displayed indications hinting at the
Arabs' intentions, the most significant being its evacuation of
Soviet advisors and their families from Syria on 4 October.
Dayan knew of these flights and the Soviet passenger planes
landing in Syria shortly after the attack.
Provocative speeches by Sadat two weeks before the war
revealed another indicator. He was reported as having told
Palestinian guerilla leaders, "Prepare yourselves. We are going
to War." 7 Sadat had also reported to the Egyptian
parliament that the peace process was stalled, although he
was openly continuing to show his desire for peace. Libyan
leader Qadhafi had publicly announced earlier his desire to
separate himself from the plans made by Egypt and Syria. 8
Towards the end of September, Egypt appeared to be
exercising more frequently near the canal; they had new
equipment hidden in special crates, installed landlines, and the
SAM radars were not being activated. The SAMs were
deployed forward to cover the limited objective area, thereby
signaling Egypt's initial air superiority. These were all clear
indications of impending hostilities. They were all deviations
from the norm and should have opened the eyes of Israeli
Dayan himself read an indicator but failed to have it
inputted into the intelligence picture. Dayan recognized that
Syria showed no reaction during the days following the
September 13 air battle, in which Syria lost 12 MIGs to one
Israeli Mirage. 9 This was not natural for Syria. There were
no artillery barrages -- Syria did not react because it was
preparing for war.
Following the cessation of hostilities, it was learned that
many of the indicators seen along the front lines, particularly
the Suez Canal, were recognized and reported. However, on
one particular occasion, the report was never forwarded.
Lieutenant Benjamin Siman-Tov, an intelligence officer
with the Southern Command, sent a report to his boss on 1
October titled, "War Preparations in the Egyptian Army."
This report was in contradiction with the headquarters
intelligence assessment, so it was not forwarded. In the
report, he stated that the Egyptian exercise could be
camouflage for a real operation. Lt. Siman-Tov had a tense
relationship with his commanding officer and had had
disagreements with him before.
Still other indicators appear to have been missed. The
Egyptians were well aware that Israel operated an espionage
ring known as Mitkal in the canal area. They had to see the
Egyptians spraying a chemical flame protective against
napalm on their uniforms, after which they could not be
worn again. This should have given Israel almost six hours
warning. During the night of the 5th, the spies should have
noticed the loading of tactical missiles on launch pads.
History created an atmosphere within which the
Intelligence Branch of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) could
overlook the obvious. After the 1967 War, in which Israel was
blessed with unparalleled success, the IDF began to consider a
reduction in force size -- they immediately began to
underestimate the enemy. The Israeli military leaders began
to believe in what became known as "the concept." 10 They
believed that two conditions must exist before the Arabs
would try again.
The first was that Syria would not attack without Egypt.
Israel, at the time, had little regard for Arab unity. The
second condition was that Egypt would not attack without air
superiority. Nasser had stated before his death that it would
be 1975 before Egypt would possess the capability to neutralize
the Israeli Air Force. 11 Gen. Zeira, Director of Military
Intelligence (DMI), had inherited "the concept" a year before
the war but never seemed to question it. Gen. Shalev, his
assistant, who had held his position since before the 1967 War,
at times questioned "the concept," especially in light of Egypt's
new supply of arms, but it fell on deaf ears. Zeira had a
reputation for not agreeing with anyone who disagreed with
The Ten-Hour War of 9 September 1969 only helped to
reinforce Israel's belief in "the concept." In one 10-hour raid
across the Suez Canal, 150 Israelis were able to destroy three
major radar stations, kill about 150 Egyptian soldiers, and
capture two of the Soviet's newest T-62 tanks. The latter half
of 1969 also saw the Israeli Air Force destroy most of the
radar sites controlling 24 Egyptian SAM-2 complexes. Later in
1969, Israeli commandos captured a late-model Soviet
antiaircraft gun from the Gulf of Suez.
In March, 1971, Egypt was prepared to attack across the
canal, but backed off when Israel mobilized. Sadat was not
prepared to face a fully alerted IDF -- more reassurance for
In 1972, Gen. "Arik" Sharon expressed a common
confidence, "Israel is now a military superpower. Every
national force in Europe is weaker than we are. We can
conquer in one week the area from Khartoum to Baghdad and
Algeria." 12 Israel believed their system of fortification along
the canal, called the Barlev Line, would hold up any Egyptian
crossing long enough for Israel to mobilize; this symbolized
Israel's feeling of strength. Zeira continued his belief in "the
concept" up to the day of the attack, pointing out to Dayan on
6 October that the Americans had changed their opinion of 25
September saying that Egypt was technically unable to
complete a successful crossing. 13
President Sadat summed up the Israeli biases best seven
months after the war. In a speech at Alexandria University,
he stated, "Rogers (U. S. Secretary of State) thought we would
never fight, the Israelis thought they could not be surprised.
The West thought we were poor soldiers without good
The hesitation to mobilize in October, 1973, without a
strong intelligence estimate that the Arabs were planning to
attack, can be traced back to the full mobilization in May,
1973. The May mobilization was costly to a fragile Israeli
economy. The "paradox of warning" here is clear. With no
attack by the Arabs, it is not known whether or not the
expense was justified. The question of whether or not Sadat
intended to go to war remains unanswered. There are Israeli
sources which state that Sadat was going to war.
A former Israeli general believes that Soviet intervention
prevented Sadat from carrying out his plans. 15 Deputy Israeli
Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Yisrael Tal, believed Sadat failed to
attack in May because Syria was not ready. The Israeli Chief
of Staff was convinced war in May was inevitable based on
stronger indications than were seen in October, 1973. Israel's
mobilization and high state of readiness could also have
deterred the Arabs. However, Sadat in his memoirs, stated
that he did not plan to attack in May but that the build-up
was part of his deception plan for later. 16 Israel's intelligence
service throughout the whole period felt there would be no
war and thus claimed a victory and gave credibility to their
early warning analysis.
Both May and October held the conditions Sadat needed
to attack. Sadat chose his date and time to attack to
correspond with a moonlit night, when the tides of the canal
had their least variance and during low tide. In October, they
happened to fall on the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. For
Israel, the coincidence with Yom Kippur was a blessing; a
reserve call-up was faster because everyone was at home or
the synagogue, and the streets were clear. Mobilization could
not have been easier. The Arabs had hoped the holiday
would catch Israel totally off guard.
Sadat did have a deception plan, and it helped to
reinforce "the concept." The Arabs designed their deception
plan to reduce Israeli warning to four or five days rather
than 15 days. They believed it would take Israel five to seven
days to mobilize fully, giving them one to two days'
advantage. 17 In actuality, it took Israel only 18 hours to
implement a system designed for 48 hours' warning.
The deception plan was helped by the secrecy of their
plans. Most of the high-level planning meetings were carried
out in the spring and early summer of 1973, and both
presidents kept the date a secrets. Only three men in Syria
knew the date: the president, the defense minister, and the
chief of staff; only a few more than that knew in Egypt. The
Arab forces in the field thought they were on an exercise
until one hour before the attack. The Soviet Union had to
have a good idea of the date in order to withdraw its advisors
and begin the loading of ships with arms destined for Syria
The Soviet Union helped the deception campaign by
reporting in their papers and on Radio Moscow the Syrian
defensive concentrations on the Golan, and Egypt's reluctance
to attack. Syria described in their news media Israel's intent
to attack Syria so Meir could strengthen her government
before the upcoming Israeli general election. Egypt published
freely of winter maneuvers and Al Ahram, Cairo's leading
newspaper, reported that officers should submit leave requests
for UMRAH, their pilgrimage after Ramadan. Egypt knew
Israel received its newspapers via Cyprus, and played the
maneuver game to the end.
Both Arab countries started spreading rumors -- Egypt
saying their air defense was weak because of the Soviet
expulsion; Syria saying they were dissatisfied with the MIG
aircraft. The September 13 shootdown helped to reinforce that
opinion. Syria also described repeated disputes with its Soviet
The Arabs apparently used on-going diplomatic efforts to
aid in covering up their military build-up. In August, 1973,
Syria welcomed United Nations General Secretary Waldheim
to discuss U. N. Resolution 242; he then went to Egypt. After
his visit, Egypt "leaked" information to the press that they
desired a Middle East settlement.
Sadat was open about his intent to fight Israel. He
frequently gave away dates and plans in speeches and to the
press, but did it so often that it surprised everyone when he
made good on these "promises" in October. 18
Egypt made extremely good use of exercising prior to the
assault. Egypt held major exercises in July and September,
1973. Throughout 1973 the reserves were activated to various
levels 22 times. At the end of September, for the first time,
all of Egypt's reserves were activated, but their orders read,
". . . deactivate 8 October." 19 The September exercise,
"Liberation 23," was planned before plans for the attack were
finalized. It simply became a matter of changing the strategy
and making it real. 20
There were other incidents that were not part of the
deception plan which became "noise" and blinded Israel. On 28
September, two Arabs kidnapped five Jews and an Austrian
from a train enroute to Vienna from Moscow. In exchange
for the release of the hostages, the Arabs demanded that
Austria close down a transit center for Jews enroute to Israel
called the Schonau Castle. Austria agreed, and the kidnappers
released the hostages. The Israeli Cabinet was so annoyed, it
became absorbed with the incident until 5 October. Some
authors have called it "misdirection," but Heikal, who was
Sadat's confidant, insists that it was not. Either way, it did
serve to divert Israel's attention from the growing Arab forces
along its borders.
Foreign press unknowingly aided the Arabs -- the British
press reported on the poor maintenance of Egyptian
equipment, and the Lebanese press reported on the poor
Soviet equipment in the Canal Zone. These news items could
have been started by Egypt.
More proof and misdirection concerning Egypt's desire for
peace in the Suez Canal area was the signing of an agreement
with an American company to build a pipeline terminating in
the Gulf of Suez.
The deception plan was kept active right to the end. On
October, Syria sent a complaint to the United Nations truce
observer about two Israeli tank battalians being brought up to
the Golan out of fear of increased tensions. The complaint
was forwarded to Israel. Syria then moved tanks up to
defensive positions, hull down, and its artillery was placed
back covering Syrian territory only, a defensive posture.
Egypt took precautions to camouflage the equipment to be
used for the canal crossings and concealed its movement into
the objective area over a long period of time. The large
earthen works along the canal aided them in concealing their
movements. The deception plans even included Egyptian
soldiers being seen by the Israelis 30 minutes before the
attack -- without weapons or helmets.
The deception plan was brillant. By reinforcing "the
concept" the Arabs were able to reduce the expected time of
warning given to Israel. The secrecy of their planning reduced
the risk of leaking the exact date and time of the attack. The
Arab planning was aided by other events not of their doing,
such as the Schonau Raid that helped to divert the attention
of the Israeli leaders. The costly mobilization in May probably
did more to create a hesitation in decision making on the part
of the Israeli military leadership than any other single
There is no doubt that a mistake was made in May, 1973,
but what the mistake was has yet to be determined. Israeli
military intelligence claimed a victory when no attack
occurred showing that the decision to mobilize was wrong.
This made the Chief of Staff hesitant about questioning
intelligence estimates despite his opinion to the contrary. On
the other hand, there is strong evidence available indicating
that the Arabs were going to attack but were deterred by
any of a number of theories. Regardless of which version is
accepted, the May mobilization was costly, and its memories
hindered the decision making at the top level.
There are no doubts in any analysts' minds that there
was an intelligence failure in October, 1973. The DMI continued
to insist they could give sufficient warning when, in fact, they
did not; and the DMI insisted that the possibility of war was
low, and the enemy was not capable of attacking and
winning. In fact, the Arabs did attack and were capable of
achieving only limited successes.
In fairness to the DMI, he did not say there was no
chance of an attack, which shows one of the problems with
assessments of this nature. How does one quantify the
probability of attack based on indications seen? This is not an
easy undertaking, and there are no good answers. The DMI
was charged with giving a military assessment, not a political
one. The intelligence branch was correct, as the war
eventually proved, that the Arabs could not win, and the
forces on line could protect Israel proper until the reserves
were mobilized. The intelligence branch did not see -- nor
was it charged with seeing -- the limited objectives of the
Immediately after the war, Israel's cabinet appointed the
Agranat Commission to determine exactly what went wrong.
The Commission labeled it an intelligence failure and pointed
out some of the problems with political analysis. But, the
Agranat Commission in paragraph 30 titled, "Personal
Responsibility at the Government Level," felt free to remark
on direct responsibility only and not on official parliamentary
responsibilities. The Commission decided not to become
involved in political matters. 21
Defense Minister Dayan, according to the Commission, was
not obliged to come to a conclusion different from those of his
advisors or order any changes to their advice. However,
Dayan did suspect a war was eminent; he stated so. He also
correctly read the indicator concerning Syria's lack of reaction
to the air battle on 13 September, but did not input the
information into the intelligence picture. Dayan's observations
were made from experience, and that experience was why he
held the position of Defense Minister. Dayan was cleared by
the Agranat Commission from any direct responsibility for
Israel being caught unprepared.
Prime Minister Golda Meir was also cleared of any direct
responsibility by the Commission. However, if the Prime
Minister had acted upon the recommendations on intelligence
matters presented in 1963 to Prime Minister Eshkol and the
cabinet, as a part of her duties as foreign minister, the
disaster may have been avoided. The Agranat Commmission
pointed out that there was no independent political, strategic,
operational, and tactical intelligence evaluations. 22 They
recommended the immediate implementation of those
recommendations made by the 1963 committee, set up by
retiring Ben Gurion, to study the subordination and evaluation
function of the intelligence community.
The two primary recommendations were the
appointment of a special advisor to the Prime Minister for
intelligence and the strengthening of the Foregin Ministry's
Research Department. The special advisor would keep the
Prime Minister in touch with the activities of the various
intelligence services. The stronger Research Department in the
Foreign Ministry would achieve a pluralism in intelligence,
concentrate on security and political evaluations, and ensure a
better balance in intelligence estimates.
A better Research Department in the Foreign Ministry
could have seen the stalled peace process and the usefulness of
limited objectives. It could have sorted through the rhetoric
of Arab leaders and advised accordingly. Dayan's observations
could have been seen or inputed into the system through this
office or through the special advisor, had one been appointed.
The Commission did not put the blame on anyone in
particular for not implementing any of the 1963
recommendatins. Since it was a parliamentary decision, they
did not involve themselves. Prime Minister Meir has to share
in the responsibility because she was the Foreign Minister in
1963 and remained so until 1965.
Indeed, there was an intelligence failure in 1973 that
allowed the Arabs to gain a tactical surprise over Israel.
Complete strategic surprise was not achieved because the
Israelis were mobilizing prior to the attack and had
implemented their alert posture the day before. The Agranat
Commission, while clearly laying blame on the Military
Intelligence Branch of the IDF, also pointed out flaws known to
exist in the intelligence community a decade earlier. The
military intelligence effort was correct in saying Syria would
not attack alone, and they were correct that Egypt would not
attack without air superiority. If Israel's intelligence system
had recognized Sadat's limited objectives, it would have
realized that the forward deployment of SAMs gave Egypt air
superiority. Military intelligence analysts were also correct in
saying the Arabs were not capable of winning. They never
said there was no chance of war. Without a good political
assessment the low probability of war was not very far from
The Agranat Commission does not acknowledge that the
flaws within the Israeli intelligence community were known to
the Prime Minister and other government officials, but just
that the flaws were identified earlier and not acted upon.
Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan each, in their autobiographies,
remind their readers that the Commission cleared them. It
did, in fact, clear them from direct responsibility but not
parliamentary responsibility. The failure to implement a
more effective intelligence apparatus is a parliamentary
failure for which the Prime Minister and government
ministers are responsible.
1 Zeev Schiff, October Earthquake (Tel Aviv: University
Publishing Projects Ltd., 1974), p. 34.
2 Editors, "All the Inefficiencies of Any Intelligence
Service," Armed Forces Journal International (October 1973), p.
3 Moshe Dayan, Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life (New
York: William Morrow, 1976), p. 466.
4 Insight Team of the London Sunday Times, The Yom
Kippur War (New York: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 70-71.
5 Jacques Derogy and Hesi Carmel, The Untold History of
Israel (New York: Grove Press, 1979), p. 280.
6 "The Middle East War," Armed Forces Journal
International (January 1974), p. 34.
7 "War of the Day of Judgment," Time Magazine,
October 22, 1973, p. 34.
8 Henry Schultz, Jr., ed. Facts on File Year Book 1974
(New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1975), p. 431.
9 Dayan, p. 468.
10 The Agranat Commission refers to "the concept" as
"the conception," but most authors use "the concept.
11 Insight Team, p. 95.
12 Ibid., p. 27.
13 Derogy and Carmel, p. 281.
14 Insight Team, p. 46.
15 Yoel Ben-Porat, Brig Gen. IDF., "The Yom Kippur War:
A Mistake in May Leads to a Surprise in October," Rev. Ben-
Porat, Yoel, Brig. Gen. IDF., and Dr. A. Lavita. "The Yom
Kippur War," Maarachat (February 1985), np.
16 Ibid., np.
17 Mohamed Heikal, The Road to Ramadan (New York:
Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1975), p. 16.
18 James A. Bill and Carl Leiden, Politics in the Middle
East (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983), p. 352.
19 K. A. MacKinney, Egypt and Israel: The Intelligence
Prelude to the October War of 1973, Defense Intelligence School,
March, 1978, p. 15.
20 Heikal, p. 16.
21 "Israel: Waht Went Wrong on October 6?" Journal of
Palestine Studies (Summer 1974), p. 205.
22 Ibid., p. 199.
Anderson, Robert, Maj, USA. "Israeli Use of Early Warning
Indicators" Preceeding the 1973 Arab-Israeli War."
Military Intelligence July-Sept. 1979, pp. 24-26.
Ben-Porat, Yoel, Brig. Gen., IDF. "The Yom Kippur War: A
Mistake in May Leads to a Surprise in October," Rev.
Ben-Porat, Yoel, Brig. Gen. IDF, and Dr. A. Lavita. "The
Yom Kippur War" Maarachat Feb. 1985.
Betts, Richard K. Surprise Attack. Washington, D. C.;
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Bill, James A., and Carl Leiden. Politics in the Middle East.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983.
Dayan, Moshe. Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life. New York:
William Morrow, 1976.
Derogy, Jacques, and Hesi Carmel. The Untold History of Israel
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Editors. Armed Forces Journal International. (October 1973),
El-Rayyes, Riad N., and Dunia Nahas, eds. The October War.
Beirut, Lebanon: An-Nahar Press Services, 1973.
Heikal, Mohammed. The Road to Ramadan. 1975 rpt. New
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Insight Team of the London Sunday Times. The Yom Kippur
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"Israel: What Went Wrong on October 6?" Journal of
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MacKinney, K. A. Egypt and Israel: The Intelligence Prelude
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