Israel's Surprise In 1973 (Should It Have Happened?)
SUBJECT AREA History
ISRAEL'S SURPRISE IN 1973 (Should It Have Happened?)
The Marine Corps Command and Staff College
In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements
for Written Communications
Major A. H. Dank
United States Marine Corps
April 1, 1984
ISRAEL'S SURPRISE IN 1973 (Should It Have Happened?)
Thesis sentence: Although the military intelligence data
(for the forthcoming surprise attack) was
perceived, the political analysis of those
facts was erroneous.
I. Introduction: Israel's excellent military intelligence
organization readily spotted the indica-
tors of the Arab plan to attack.
II. The indicators were clear and numerous
A. Massing of Syrian armor, artillery and air defenses
B. Unusual activity along the Suez Canal
C. Stockpiling of supplies
III. The Israeli intelligence analysis system was dominated
by military intelligence
A. The lack of political analysis
B. Israel's reliance on "the concept"
IV. A number of Arab distractions/deceptions hindered
Israel's analysis of the developing situation
A. The Schonau Raid by terrorists in Austria occupied
the Israeli mind
B. Subtle masking by Egypt and Syria of their intentions
V. Conclusion: The surprise should not have occurred, as
properly coordinated political and military
analysis of the situation should have fore-
cast the imminence of the attack.
The commencement of hostilities by Egypt and Syria on
Yom Kippur, 6 October 1973, at approximately 1400, took
Israeli's Defense Forces by surprise. Until the early morning
hours of the same day, the leadership of both the Israeli
Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli government did not
conclude that a large-scale war was about to start. Further,
on the morning of 6 October, when it was readily apparent to
them that the war would break out, the Supreme Command mis-
takenly assumed that the actual fighting would start at 1800.
Why was Israel surprised to the shocking extent it was, and
could this surprise have been avoided?
With the assistance of hindsight, and noting that
hindsight is almost always divine, it becomes clear that the
surprise could have been obviated. The raw intelligence data
was available, and it was indeed perceived by Israel, perhaps
all too clearly. The great mistake made, the great failure,
was in the gravely erroneous analysis of that intelligence
data by Israeli Military Intelligence, as to the true intent
of Egypt and Syria in the weeks preceding the start of the
Strategic warning is of vital concern to all nations,
and is an especial concern to Israel owing to both the
hostility of her neighbors, and the geographic realities of
her location. The initial successes of the Egyptians and
the Syrians show that in spite of having generally excellent
and timely vital warning intelligence, it is quite possible
for a nation to ignore it due to preconceived and unrealistic
attitudes. The preparations for a crossing of the Suez Canal
by the Egyptians were massive, methodical, and relatively
difficult to conceal. The huge amount of Soviet supply sup-
port was equally massive and visible. The heaviest post-
World War II rail movements in Eastern Europe moved Warsaw
Pact equipment to Black Sea ports, for further shipment to
Egyptian and Syrian ports. Nevertheless, the senior officials
of the Israeli government simply would not believe that the
Egyptians and Syrians were going to attack. (4:13)
In September 1973, to most observers worldwide, it ap-
peared that the Arabs, having been defeated by Israel in
1948, 1956, and 1967, and torn by both internal and external
political instability, were incapable of uniting in order to
direct their energies against Israel. Further, to most ob-
servers, their sabre-rattling appeared to be more of the same
old rhetoric, directed more for the satisfaction of their own
populace, than towards their actual enemy.
Israel was still firmly in control of the territories
seized in 1967, and their grip on those territories was ap-
parently being strengthened by the ongoing settlement policy.
To the government in Jerusalem, the primary danger to Israel
was most clearly the Palestinian Fedayeen extremist groups
who hijacked aircraft, took hostages, and in general, con-
ducted acts of terrorism. To Israel, the real threat was from
the Fedayeen and not the regular armed forces of its Arab foes.
In retrospect, the Israeli focus was not in the right direc-
tion. They were thinking small and narrow, when they should
have been thinking large and wide-based threat. (7:11)
On 21 September Egypt began to recall some reservists,
some leaves were cancelled, as were certain training courses.
All of this was no real departure by Egypt from prior prepa-
rations before large-scale training exercises. However, there
were some subtle distinctions at this time from earlier exer-
cises. Special commando units were deployed, without any
fanfare, to new locations, and almost all communications,
both into and out of military headquarters in Cairo, suddenly
were shifted from radio to field telephone. Further, full
division-sized units were maneuvering near the Canal for the
first time, Also observed was the stockpiling of ammunition
by the Egyptians to a far greater degree than ever before.
Within the week before the war started, Israeli intel-
ligence noted that a strange exodus had started in Syria and
Egypt. Russian Aeroflot airliners began departing from their
regular Middle East runs, and from some European routes as
well, to suddenly land in Cairo and Damascus and begin on-
loading Soviet military advisers and civilian experts, together
with their families, and then depart for the Soviet Union.
Until these flights began, nothing was known of any Arab
decision to suddenly expel the advisers and civilian experts.
Egypt and Syria, as part of their plans for war,
decided to utilize a "cry wolf" strategy by deliberate action
over the several months preceding the war. They would
repeatedly move entire divisions, in battle formation, with
appropriate air cover, to the borders with Israel. The
Egyptians were particularly effective with the deception,
as their pattern of movement suggested that while large for-
mations were approaching the Canal in the daytime, they were
turning westward into Egypt at the conclusion of each day's
training. Further, a great deal of night training seemed to
be taking place with a great show of flashing lights and
flares to be seen by Israeli observers on the eastern bank
of the Canal. Also, the Israelis easily monitored a great
deal of radio traffic on a large number of nets, which revealed
the status of the exercises from start to conclusion. The
Israelis did not know that the Egyptians had a very compre-
hensive network of buried telephone cable for use during the
war without fear of message interception by the Israelis.
The effect of this would be either to force Israel into the
very expensive option of mobilizing her large reserve forces,
or get Israel so used to such actions by the Egyptians, that
no mobilization of her reserve forces would readily occur.
Regardless of Israel's reaction, or lack of reaction, the
eventual advantage went to the Arabs, as was clear on the
early afternoon of 6 October 1973.
The date selected for the attack itself was the holiest
of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, which happened to coincide
with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which no Muslim
country would be expected to start major hostilities.
At almost the last minute, Israeli attention was dis-
tracted by the actions of Palestinian terrorists, the Syrian-
based Saiqua, in Vienna. On September 28, a train carrying
Russian Jewish emigrants was hijacked, hostages were taken,
and it was demanded that Schonau Castle be closed. The Castle
was used by the Austrian government as a transit camp for
Russian Jews who had just been permitted to leave Russia
prior to emigrating to the west. Many of these emigrees
were bound for Israel. The Austrian government's very quick
and seemingly willing compliance with the terrorists' demands
for closure of this transit camp, caused a great deal of
concern in Israel during the first week in October. The
terrorist action attracted an almost inordinate amount of
attention from the Israeli government.
There were numerous other deception measures conducted
by the Egyptians: on October 2, it was announced in Al Ahram,
a semi-official newspaper, that lists were open for Army of-
ficers who wanted to make a pilgimage to Mecca; on October 6,
a number of government ministers were out of the country on
state business, to include the economic minister who was in
London, the commerce minister who was in Spain, the minister
of information who was in Libya, and the acting foreign mini-
ster who was in Austria. Notable events planned for the
future included the arrival of a Royal Air Force Comet trans-
port, which was due to fly from Cyprus, in order to test the
airfields at Abu Simbal and Luxor, for the upcoming visit by
Princess Margaret, and on October 8, the defense minister of
Rumania was scheduled to visit with Egyptian defense officials.
Another area where the Israelis were deceived was the
Arab interest in diplomacy. There were reports, on August 19,
that Egypt planned to initiate a diplomatic drive against
Israel within the next month. By the end of September, rep-
resentatives of several Arab countries had met with the United
States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in order to dis-
cuss the procedures for negotiations. Further, it was agreed
that the Secretary of State should meet with Israeli officials
during November to discuss the same subject. (7:43)
Israel had become so overconfident in its military
abilities, relative to Egypt and Syria, that it was almost
contemptuous of the Arabs and their military abilities. On
9 August 1973, in a lecture to the Israeli Army Staff College
entitled "Transition from War to Peace", Defense Minister
Moshe Dayan said, "The overall balance of forces is in our
favour. Our military superiority is the dual outcome of Arab
weakness and our strength. Their weakness stems from factors
that will not change soon... low level of their soldiers
educations, technology and integrity... division among the
Arabs... and the decisive weight of extreme nationalism." (7:51)
On October 1st and 3rd, Israeli Army Lieutenant
Benjamin Siman-Tov, an intelligence officer with the forces
near the Suez Canal, submitted a number of reports to his
immediate superior, Lieutenant Colonel David Gedaliah, the
senior intelligence officer of the Southern Command. These
reports noted that Egyptian moves were not consistent with a
mere exercise, and assessed the moves to be part of an elab-
orate deception plan, such plan being a prelude to a major
attack. At such a relatively low rank, he had no status or
automatic credibility. Further, he did hedge his predic-
tion somewhat, saying that the Egyptian exercise was only a
possible cover for attack. Not surprisingly, Siman-Tov's
reports were stopped from going higher than the Southern
Command headquarters because they were contradictory to the
view of IDF headquarters, that an attack was not forthcoming.
While the Southern Command did go on partial alert on
October 2, the General Staff ordered that the alert be relaxed
two days later. On October 3, the large buildup and move-
ment of Egyptian forces was explained to Prime Minister
Golda Meir as probably being part of the usual annual
maneuvers. Similar maneuvers, at least to most observers,
had been held in September by the Egyptians for the previous
The main aspect of Egypt's deception plan was actually
directed against the Egyptian armed forces themselves. Not
until the day of the actual attack across the Canal did the
Egyptian soldier learn that this was not just another train-
ing exercise. Some eighteen Egyptian colonels and lieu-
tenant colonels were captured during the war and were in-
terrogated by Israeli military intelligence. Four learned
on October 4 that war was imminent, one was told on October
5, and the thirteen others were not told until the morning
of October 6th itself. So not only had the Egyptians effect-
tively misled the Israelis, they quite effectively deceived
the vast majority of their own armed forces as well, as to
their actual intentions relative to going to war.
Syrian deception, in covering their troop concentrations
on the Golan Heights, was unwittingly aided by the Israelis
themselves. On September 13, a large air battle took place
between Israeli and Syrian planes over the Mediterranean.
Thirteen Syrian planes were shot down, and the Israelis
anticipated that in order to save face, the Syrians would
retaliate in one form or another. Accordingly, the large
Syrain troop concentrations near the Golan Heights were in-
terpreted as being part of a forthcoming Syrian reprisal, as
well as being a defensive move against a possible counter-
reprisal by Israel. The Syrians seemed to have made the most
out of this situation, as they gave the Israelis the impres-
sion that all troop concentrations on the border were merely
defensive in nature.
Although the story of the Israeli intelligence failure
may never be fully known, the component parts of this failure
were documented in the Interim Report of the Agranat Commis-
sion of Inquiry which was published in April 1974. This five-
man commission, which was headed by the President of Israel's
Supreme Court, Dr. S. Agranat, and included two former Chiefs
of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, was appointed by the
government to fix responsibility, both civilian and military,
for the obvious and tragic failure to anticipate the attack.
The Commission indicates three reasons why the intelli-
gence analysts failed, as indeed they did, to predict that
the Arabs were about to launch a massive two-front attack.
First was their adherence to "the concept". "The concept"
rested on two basic assumptions: that Egypt would not go to
war until she was able to stage effective deep air strikes
into Israel, in order to neutralize the Israeli Air Force;
and that Syria would not launch a full-scale war against Israel
by itself (i.e. without Egypt). This "concept" may have been
valid at the time of its formation immediately after the 1967
war. However, its first part, the most important, was never
reevaluated in the light of the significant military and
political changes in the region. In addition, Israeli Military
Intelligence failed to correctly evaluate the extensive
intelligence data that had been collected by various agencies.
Owing to the rigid adherence to "the concept", and the
readiness to easily and conveniently explain away the
Egyptian and Syrian front-line deployments as being evidence
of a mere defensive move by Syria, and a large-scale training
exercise in Egypt, the IDF's Chief of Military Intelligence
failed in his most basic task: to provide adequate strategic
warning of an impending Arab attack. In this milieu,
"adequate" means sufficient to either mobilize the reserves,
or to preemptively attack.
In spite of all the tactical indicator activity along
the Suez Canal, and to a lesser extent along the Golan front
with Syria, reliance upon "the concept" seemingly blinded
Israel to the imminence of the dangers facing her. Even the
CIA was influenced albeit indirectly, by the adherence of the
Israeli government to "the concept". For years, the United
States had relied rather heavily upon the Israelis to provide
intelligence in the Middle East. Although the CIA was very
likely to conduct its own analysis of the information received
from the Israelis, this analysis would usually be heavily
flavored by Israeli reporting. When, on October 4th, Henry
Kissinger met Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban in Washington,
the question of an imminent Arab attack was quickly dealt with.
They both agreed that the latest intelligence each had seen
was of a reassuring character. Neither realized that they
were speaking to each other on the basis of the exact same
information, prepared and submitted by the same people in
Israeli intelligence. In essence, Kissinger and Eban were
speaking from the very same (intelligence) script, although,
in fairness, each was oblivious to the fact at the time.
There most assuredly was an intelligence failure in the
weeks preceding the outbreak of war on October 6, 1973. The
Israeli intelligence community, whose responsibility it was
to produce finished intelligence, did not perceive the
growing possibility of an Arab attack and, accordingly, did
not provide warning of its imminence. That the information
provided by those parts of the intelligence community
responsible for the collection of raw and unevaluated
intelligence data was more than adequate to trigger such a
warning, cannot be denied. Critical errors in the analysis
of this data are what allowed a surprise of such magnitude
to occur. Certain basic conceptions swayed the analysts'
attentions toward political indications that the Araba were
bent on finding non-violent means to achieve their objectives,
and away from indications that military means would soon be
The failure by the Israelis to anticipate the Arab on-
slaught on October 6,1973, owed less to Arab deception,
although this did play an important role, than to unrealistic
reliance on strategic preconceptions that weakened the per-
ception of the ample number or tactical indicators. (1:7,8)
In retrospect, the failure of General Zeira, the chief
of Israeli Military Intelligence, was the ultimate failure of
a military intelligence officer. He had promised, however
foolishly that seems now, the general staff and the government,
that he would always be able to deliver at least forty-eight
hours notice of a large-scale Arab attack. As the Agranat
Commission later determined, all he gave was ten hours notice,
such an interval being far too short a warning period to al-
low for effective mobilization.
Not surprisingly, military intelligence, after the war
and the resultant soul-searching that occurred, had to pay.
Four officers lost their jobs. The verdict of the Agranat
Commission on General Zeira was that "in view of his grave
failure, he could not continue in his post as Chief of
Mililitary Intelligence". Zeira's deputy, Brigadier General
Aryeh Shalev, Lieutenant Colonel Yona Bendman, the officer
in charge of the Egyptian desk, and Lieutenant Colonel David
Gedaliah, chief intelligence officer of the Southern Command,
were also dismissed. Lieutenant Benjamin Siman-Tov, was
spot-promoted to Captain immediately after the war, and still
serves in the Israeli Defense Forces as a senior officer. (3:236)
In the final analysis, the Israelis really deceived
themselves into believing that war simply could not occur at
that time. Their rigid adherence to "the concept", their
faith in their own military deterent power, their unwillingness
to believe that the Arabs could take such a great risk, and
most of all, perhaps, their wishful thinking, holding out hope
against hope that no war would start, all contributed to the
shattering surprise on 6 October 1973.
1. Agranat Commission, "Press Release Issued by the Commis-
sion of Inquiry -- Yom Kippur War upon Submission of
Its Third and Final Report to the Government and the
Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset
on 30 January 1975" (Jerusalem: Government Press
Office, January 1975), pp. 7-8,18.
2. Herzog, Chaim. The War of Atonement: October 1973.
Little, Brown and Co. (1975).
3. Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars. Random House
4. Hotz, Robert. "The Lessons of October." Aviation Week
and Space Technology, December 3,1973, p.13.
5. Insight Team of the London Sunday Times. The Yom Kippur
War. Doubleday and Co. (1974).
6. Monroe, Elizabeth and A.H. Farrar-Hockley. The Arab-
Israeli War, October 1973, Background and Events.
Adelphi Papers #III. (Winter 1974-75).
7. O'Ballance, Edgar. No Victor, No Vanquished. Presidio
Press (1978), pp. 11, 43, 51.
8. Schiff, Zeev. October Earthquake: Yom Kippur 1973.
University Press (1974).
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