A barometer for Dan Halutz

Chief of General Staff David Elazar was forced out of the army in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War because of failed decisions leading up to it.

October 1, 2006 08:35
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david elazar 88 298. (photo credit: Archive Photo)

Chief of General Staff David Elazar was forced out of the army in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War because of failed decisions leading up to it, but his performance during the fighting was exemplary, and crucial to Israel's ultimate success. An assessment of that conduct 33 years ago may offer some guidelines into how the current chief of General Staff should be judged over the recent conflict with Hizbullah. Blamed by the Agranat Commission for the IDF's unreadiness in the Yom Kippur War, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar was drummed out of the army. Two years later, at age 51, still stunned by the onus that had been placed on him, he died of a heart attack.

In subsequent years, documents and the testimony of principal players would reveal Elazar as the anchor who held Israel together in its darkest hour. He would prove to have been Israel's greatest wartime chief of staff, indeed someone who merits a prominent place in the pantheon of military commanders in modern world history. His merit lay not in brilliant maneuvers but in keeping his head in a time of extraordinary stress and in his ability to analyze with clarity a rapidly evolving military and political situation and shape appropriate responses.

Examination of Elazar's performance suggests some of the parameters by which the current chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, may be judged for his handling of the confrontation with Hizbullah.

Elazar was wakened at 4:30 Yom Kippur morning 1973, a Saturday, by a telephone call from an aide passing on a report from Mossad chief Zvi Zamir in London that Egypt and Syria would launch a surprise two-front attack this day.

There was no one better positioned than Elazar to grasp the staggering significance of this report. Both Arab armies, he knew, were massed on Israel's borders while Israel's reserves, two-thirds of the IDF's strength, were still unmobilized. It would be at least two days before reserve forces could begin to reach the Suez Canal, by which time the Egyptians would have brought an entire army across. The Golan front was closer but it was questionable whether reserves could arrive before five Syrians divisions broke through the two brigades holding the line.

Despite the alarming situation, Elazar functioned as if he had woken into a General Staff command exercise. His wife would describe his look as "almost ceremonial" as he donned his uniform. Before leaving home for the underground war room - the "pit" - in Tel Aviv, he telephoned Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled to ask him to prepare a pre-emptive strike against the Syrians.

Elazar's first meeting in Tel Aviv was with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who shocked him by rejecting his proposals for immediate large-scale mobilization and a pre-emptive air strike. Despite the Mossad warning, Dayan was not convinced the Arabs would attack. There had been such warnings before which turned out to be false alarms.

The world would not tolerate another pre-emptive strike by Israel, he maintained, after it had launched one in the Six Day War. Even a large mobilization, he argued, would be seen as a provocation. He was willing to accept mobilization of only two divisions, one for each front.

The issue was left to prime minister Golda Meir to decide. She backed Dayan in negating a pre-emptive air strike (cloud conditions over the Golan Heights, it later developed, would have prevented it anyway) but backed Elazar on mobilization, which got under way a critical four hours before the Arab attack that afternoon.

ISRAEL'S POST-Six Day War mind-set assumed the invincibility of the IDF and the ineptness of the Arabs. By Sunday morning, less than a day into the war, that mind-set was shattered.

The Syrians had overrun much of the southern half of the Golan and there was nothing to stop them from descending into the Jordan Valley inside Israel. The Egyptians had overwhelmed the Bar-Lev Line and were putting their Second and Third armies into Sinai across pontoon bridges.

Apart from the shock of the surprise attack and the gross imbalance of forces, a chilling realization was taking hold in the high command that the IDF's two main fighting arms had been neutralized by advanced Soviet weapons in Arab hands. The air force was taking unsustainable losses from SAM anti-aircraft missiles on both fronts while on the Egyptian front infantrymen wielding Sagger anti-tank missiles and a profusion of RPGs had knocked out two-thirds of an Israeli armored division in 12 hours.

The Golan was the more serious problem because of its proximity to Israel. On Sunday morning, Elazar, in one of his first major decisions, dispatched a reserve armored division initially destined for Sinai to the Golan instead. He also sent his boyhood friend and predecessor as chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Haim Bar-Lev, to Northern Command to steady its head, Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, who was questioning whether the Golan could be held.

On Sunday night, the second of the war, Elazar flew to Southern Command to meet with its commander, Maj.-Gen. Shmuel Gonen, and the commanders of the two reserve divisions which had begun to arrive at the front - Ariel Sharon and Avraham (Bren) Adan. Elazar ordered a limited counterattack the next morning, Monday, aimed at breaking the Egyptian momentum. However, in view of the heavy losses suffered so far, he said, there would be no attempt to retake the canal bank or to cross the canal until adequate strength had been built up.

Elazar was devoting much of his time to briefing the cabinet because Dayan had been seized by despair and Meir preferred consulting with the chief of staff whom she would describe as "a rock." Tied up in cabinet meetings Monday morning and distracted by the dire situation on the Golan, Elazar followed the counterattack in Sinai only intermittently. It was not until he flew down there again Monday night that he learned of its total failure. Gonen had ignored Elazar's directives and instead of stopping the Egyptians his forces had been driven back with significant losses.

The mood in the Pit the following morning, Tuesday, was black. Dayan spoke of arming civilians in the heart of the country with anti-tank weapons in the event that the enemy broke through. There was a proposal at a conference in Elazar's office that Israel resort to "special means," believed to be a euphemism for unconventional weapons, but Elazar rejected it.

Maintaining his equilibrium, he declined a suggestion by Dayan for a deep pullback in Sinai, which Elazar deemed premature, and he rejected a request by Ariel Sharon to try to rescue the beleaguered garrisons on the Bar-Lev Line which Elazar deemed too costly. Dayan would acknowledge that Elazar was more optimistic than he was. "Maybe it's the age difference," said Dayan who, at 58, was 10 years older than the chief of staff.

Aligning his priorities, Elazar replaced Gonen with Bar-Lev as commander of the southern front and froze military movements in Sinai in order to focus on the Golan. By Wednesday, reserve formations in the north had pushed the Syrians back in fierce battles to the pre-war Purple Line. A decision now had to be made as to whether to dig in along that line again or to push towards Damascus.

As he would do at critical points throughout the war, Elazar launched a discussion within the General Staff and in the cabinet in which he talked his way through the problem, absorbed feedback, and arrived at conclusions which were often the opposite of his starting point. At the beginning of nine hours of talks, he advocated halting the forces on the Purple Line - the best defense line between the Golan and Damascus - and sending a division south to participate in a renewed attack in Sinai. At the end of the discussion, he favored continuing the attack into Syria.

The decisive consideration was the desire to hold a stretch of enemy territory when the war ended. With talk of a cease-fire already being wafted in the UN, it did not seem likely that Israel would have the time to drive the Egyptians out of Sinai, let alone seize territory across the canal. More tellingly, it was not clear whether Israel had the strength to do it even if time allowed. But territorial gain was possible on the Syrian front.

ISRAEL HAD been caught flatfooted by the war and by its own arrogance. It discovered that it was lagging technologically vis- -vis the SAMs and Saggers and that it was up against a determined new enemy - not the Arab armies of 1967.

Bowing to reality, Elazar was prepared to accept a cease-fire which would leave the Egyptians still holding the Sinai bank of the canal, thereby conceding a clear victory for Cairo. "I'm only thinking out loud and it may well be that I exaggerate," he said to Dayan. "Things won't get any better than they are now. Therefore we need a cease-fire so that we can rebuild the army." This army would be twice as big and it would have thought through the strategic and tactical implications of the current war.

The problem was that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was in no mood for a cease-fire. The war had been going better than he could have hoped for and it would require a dramatic move to make him change his mind.

The only such move possible would be crossing the Suez Canal, a pre-war contingency plan which Sharon was pushing for but which Elazar had until now regarded as too risky. Even if Israel succeeded in piercing the eight-kilometer-deep Egyptian bridgehead in Sinai and getting forces across the canal, it would have dangerously thin, extended lines on both sides of the canal vulnerable to a war of attrition.

"I would be happy, and you don't know how happy, if you have any better ideas," he told his officers.

Sharon, delighted at the prospect, pushed for an immediate crossing but Elazar insisted on waiting to see if the Egyptian armored divisions on the west bank of the canal would cross into Sinai. Better to meet them in head-on battle on the Israeli side of the canal than to have them challenge the crossing itself when the Israelis would be at their most vulnerable.

Dayan, who opposed a canal crossing, absented himself from the discussions, leaving behind his aide. Angry at what he took to be the defense minister's evasiveness, Elazar told the aide to inform Dayan that he was requesting a meeting of the inner cabinet. "I want clearance from the political echelon today."

The meeting was just getting under way in Golda Meir's office a few hours later when Mossad chief Zamir entered with a report from an agent that the Egyptian armored divisions would cross within the next 48 hours. The battle that would open the way for a canal crossing would soon be joined.

FROM THE beginning of the war, Elazar had been operating under tremendous strain.

It was not until Tuesday afternoon, 83 hours after being wakened by the telephone on Yom Kippur morning, that he lay down on an office cot. It was his first nap of the war except for occasionally nodding off on helicopter trips to the fronts.

Two nights later, after another briefing to the cabinet and before another flight to the front, he was leafing through a pile of papers on his desk when he almost fainted. Aides rushed to him and brought him something to drink. No pills, he said. He could not afford to have his mind clouded, even temporarily.

Reports of Lt.-Gen. Halutz being twice rushed to hospital with unspecified stomach pains during this summer's war would likewise seem connected to the strain on a chief of staff in time of war.

After Dayan recovered from his depression he was a valuable sounding board for Elazar but the chief of staff had come to trust his own instincts. Dayan, who had ample opportunity to observe Elazar close up, generally deferred to him. So did Golda Meir. He himself had few people he could rely on besides Bar-Lev on the southern front.

Elazar's deputy, Yisrael Tal, would not figure large in his calculations. He had replaced Gonen as head of Southern Command in the midst of the war and found it necessary to shore up the head of Northern Command, Hofi, with a deputy after Bar-Lev was transferred south. Ironically, that deputy was Maj.-Gen. Yekutiel Adam, father of Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam, who was head of Northern Command in the recent war. Udi Adam was himself effectively displaced at one point by Halutz and resigned in the war's aftermath.

Elazar's one unalloyed comfort was his visits with the troops at the front. "Whoever feels depressed in these dark corridors," he told the officers in the Pit upon returning from Sinai on the eve of the canal crossing, "should go into the field and see the boys. You'll come back in a grand mood. We're eight days into the war but when you meet the tankers they talk as if this were the third year of World War II. They're on top of things. They know what the Egyptians are up to and they have an answer for everything. The best of our people are down there."

Elazar's last major decision in the war was to have far-reaching political ramifications. After the epic battle for the Chinese Farm by Sharon's division that opened the way to the canal and the construction of a pontoon bridge, Bren led his division across the canal and with great panache began to encircle Egypt's Third Army to the south.

However, Elazar's wish for a cease-fire was granted too readily by Egypt's alarmed leader, Anwar Sadat. A UN cease-fire resolution went into effect just after darkness on the 18th day of the war before Bren's tank formations could complete the encirclement. In the morning, Bren pressed Elazar to let him continue, claiming that the Egyptians were violating the cease-fire - with not a little help, it must be said, from the Israeli forces in among them.

Elazar did not need much pressing. He asked permission of Dayan and by the time fighting in Bren's sector stopped two days later the Third Army was cut off. It was this, plus the skillful diplomacy of US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, which persuaded Sadat to agree to the first ever direct Egyptian-Israeli talks. Six years later, the two nations, never having stopped talking, would sign a peace agreement.

TOWARDS THE end of the war, Kissinger stopped over briefly in Tel Aviv on his way back from Moscow to the US and met with Israel's leaders. He also asked for a meeting with the military chiefs.

Elazar told him that the Egyptian and Syrian armies had fought well. When Kissinger asked to what he attributed the IDF's success, Elazar said that a wide gap remained between Israel and the Arab armies in leadership and the quality of the fighting men.

Kissinger would write of Elazar in his memoirs: "[He] struck me as a man of rare quality, noble in bearing, fatalistic in conduct. He briefed us matter-of-factly but with the attitude of a man for whom the frenzies of the day were already part of history."

History would need some years more before Elazar's role would be properly appreciated. The ruling of the Agranat Commission had been harsh but just. Elazar had not mobilized the reserves in time. He had accepted, albeit with growing discomfort, the assessment of his intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira, that despite the Arab buildup along the borders, Egypt and Syria would not go to war.

Elazar had also been responsible for a major strategic miscalculation upon assuming his position the year before when he insisted on maintaining the Bar-Lev Line on the canal despite warnings by Sharon and Tal that it was a death trap.

However, during the war itself he displayed a coolness and clarity of thought that are the marks of greatness in a military commander.

He had first revealed such characteristics as a young Palmah officer during the battle for the San Simon Monastery in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. He and a small number of comrades, including other future generals, fought for 16 hours against hundreds of Arab militiamen.

"He had a special tone of voice," recalled one of the participants in the battle who had not known him before, "quiet-like, as if he were singing, as if he were having a friendly chat or explaining something. I remember saying to myself then: 'What a character that one is.'"

Elazar's biographer, Hanoch Bartov, describes him shortly after the cease-fire entering his secretaries' office to look for a document. A transistor was playing a new song sweeping the country, "Would that it were," a poignant work about the war. Elazar stood transfixed, then hurried back to his office without taking the document. His chief secretary hurried after him. When she opened the door to his office, she saw the man who had not permitted himself to waver for a moment during the war sitting at his desk, holding his head and sobbing.

Elazar brought his long experience as a combat soldier and armor commander with him to the chief of staff's post. As an airman, Halutz had no such experience. But he can be fairly judged on the basis of the leadership qualities Elazar had displayed - an ability to formulate clear goals, to allocate the forces needed to achieve those goals, to engage in ongoing analysis of the situation, and to keep one's head.


The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.

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