Golda's meltdown

'The Jerusalem Post,' through excerpts from Abraham Rabinovich's book 'The Yom Kippur War,' examines the performance of prime minister Golda Meir in the autumn of 1973.

golda meir 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP archive photo)
golda meir 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP archive photo)
The humiliation of the Six Day War had cast its shadow over Egyptian President Anwar Sadat since he assumed office in October, 1970. The War of Attrition undertaken by his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had not budged Israel from the Suez Canal. Nor had diplomatic efforts by the international community. Prime Minister Golda Meir, confident that Israel's geo-political situation had never been better, was content to wait for a change in the Arab position [which rejected the legitimacy of the Jewish state and spurned territorial concessions to Israel]. She rejected Defense Minister Moshe Dayan's suggestion in December, 1970 that Israel pull back from the canal in order to enable its reopening and thereby reduce Egyptian motivation for going to war. Two months later, Sadat adopted [Dayan's proposal] as his own in an address to the Egyptian National Assembly. Unlike Dayan, the Egyptian leader saw a partial Israeli pullback as catalyzing, not delaying, a final withdrawal. Sadat astonished his audience by declaring his readiness to achieve a peace agreement with Israel, the first time an Arab leader had publicly suggested that possibility. But Israel, said Sadat, would have to commit itself to withdrawal from all of Sinai and from all the other territories captured in the Six Day War - the West Bank, Golan Heights and east Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee question must be resolved as well. The US attempted to persuade Israel to agree to a limited pullback, but found it unyielding. After a fruitless trip to Jerusalem, Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco paid a courtesy call on the prime minister before leaving and handed her a bouquet of flowers he had bought on the way. "Joe, you're saying it with flowers," Meir said lightheartedly. "It won't do you any good." In a speech atop Massada, Dayan said that Israel's geo-political circumstances were of a nature that "our people has probably never witnessed." In Washington, a relatively junior analyst in the State Department's Bueau of Intelligence and Research, Roger Merrick, submitted a memo in May noting that Sadat's political alternatives were exhausted. Unless there was a credible US peace initiative, he wrote, the chances of an Israeli-Egyptian war within six months were better than 50-50. Many in the Israeli hierarchy held similar views but there was general agreement that another war, while regrettable, would bring the Arabs closer to accepting Israel's terms. "We're not interested in war," said Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar at a meeting in Golda Meir's home on April 18. But if war did break out, he continued, "I favor striking such a blow over a week or 10 days that they'll need five years to lift their heads up again." Meir herself did not think of war as a strategic opportunity. If it appeared likely to break out, she said at the meeting, the Americans should be asked to head it off. Her closest political adviser, Minister-without-Portfolio Israel Galili, pointed out that the danger of war stemmed from Israel's unwillingness to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Referring to the meeting between Sadat advisor Hafez Ismail and Henry Kissinger in February, on which the Israelis had been briefed, he said, "If you take what Hafez said as a starting point - that (the Egyptians) are ready for peace - this is based on our complete pullback to the previous lines." He returned to this theme later in the meeting, as if fearing his previous remark may have been too oblique. "There is also a possibility that we can avoid all this mess (the danger of war) if we are prepared to enter into talks on the basis of returning to the previous border." From the protocol, Galili's remark sounds more like an observation than a proposal, but the fact that he voiced it twice suggests that the veteran political adviser, of hawkish bent, thought it worthy of exploration. Meir, however, declined to pursue it, either at this meeting with her kitchen cabinet and senior military officials or with the full cabinet. She was against war but she was also against total withdrawal from the territories. As she put it in a speech: "Neither war nor the threat of war would move Israel from its insistence on defensible borders. We want defensible borders not only so that if we are ever attacked we will be able to defend them, but so that the borders by their very existence will dissuade our neighbors from touching us." But the Arabs refused to recognize Israel, let alone grant it the border changes it insisted on. In later years, a battle-hardened Israeli paratroop general would lament the fact that Meir had excluded the full cabinet from ongoing discussions on the crisis before the war. "What we needed, were ministers like (Minister for Religious Affairs) Zerah Warhaftig (a Holocaust survivor), who was frightened by the prospect of war, saying 'let's think this through again.'" THE NIGHT before Rosh Hashana, a helicopter landed at a security installation north of Tel Aviv and its occupants were led into a modest building serving the Mossad. While the others in the party were taken to a side room, two of the visitors were conducted into a conference room where Golda Meir awaited them. "Your majesty," she said to the short figure who strode forward to shake her hand. Jordan's King Hussein took a seat at the conference table opposite the Israeli prime minister. Alongside him sat Jordanian Prime Minister Zeid Rifai. Alongside Meir sat Mordecai Gazit, director of the Prime Minister's Office. The Arab monarch had maintained secret contacts with Israel's leaders for years in an effort to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to armed conflict. He had requested this meeting without giving any prior indication of what he wanted to discuss. In an adjacent room, Lt.-Col. Zussia Keniezer, head of the Jordanian desk in AMAN (Israeli Military Intelligence), monitored the conversation through earphones. The king began by raising a minor border problem north of Eilat. Both he and Meir then offered each other a leisurely tour d'horizon of the political situation in the region. Meir had grown up in Milwaukee but she had lived in the Middle East long enough to wait patiently for the king to get around to what really brought him. From time to time, her longtime personal assistant, Lou Kedar, brought in hot drinks. It was close to an hour before Hussein came to the point. The Syrians, he said, were in "a pre-jump off position" for war. Lt.-Col. Keniezer straightened up. Are they going to war alone against Israel, asked Meir. No, said the king, according to Keniezer's report - in cooperation with the Egyptians. Kedar, who heard that part of the conversation, would remember it somewhat differently. When asked who else would join Syria, Hussein said "all of them." Kedar had the clear impression that he was saying that war was coming and that the prospect disturbed him greatly. Mordecai Gazit would afterwards assert that Hussein did not warn about an imminent coordinated attack. As soon as the king left, Meir asked Kedar to get Dayan on the phone. It was already midnight. The prime minister gave Dayan a brief summation of the meeting and Dayan said he would call back. Meir chain smoked as she waited. When Dayan called 10 minutes later, they spoke briefly and she left with Kedar for the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem. Meir was supposed to depart the next day for France, where she was to address a meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. "I suppose we won't be going to Europe now," said Kedar as they drove. "Why not?" asked Meir. It struck the incredulous Kedar that Meir did not take Hussein's warning seriously. The prime minister's relaxed attitude stemmed from her conversation with Dayan, who had been briefed by someone in Intelligence on the content and implications of the king's message. There had been other intelligence officers in the monitoring room besides Keniezer and the source of Dayan's report had evidently reported that there was nothing new in the king's remarks. AFTER ADDRESSING the Council of Europe, Meir flew on to Vienna in an attempt to persuade Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kriesky to rescind his decision to close down a transit center for Jews arriving from the Soviet Union, many of them on the way to Israel. Her contentious meeting with Kreisky, which ended in disagreement, was still on her mind when she met with her senior security advisers on Wednesday, October 3, the morning after her return from Europe, three days before Yom Kippur. "He didn't even offer me a glass of water," she complained. The newspapers carried extensive accounts of her trip. In one or two papers there was passing reference to tension on the northern border. The meeting with her security advisors was described as a consultation by Dayan, who had requested it. He could not shake his concern over what was happening in the north and wanted to share it with the prime minister. Military symbol though he might be, he related to the 75-year-old grandmother, even on purely military matters, with the deference due her position. There were reports, he said, that Egypt was bent on war, but the situation on the Syrian front was more troubling because of the immediate threat it posed to the settlements on the Golan. If the Egyptians crossed the canal, Dayan said, they would find themselves in open desert with Israeli forces attacking them from every side. But the Syrians, with one quick thrust, could hope to push Israel off the Golan and then be protected against counterattacks by the steep heights, girdled by the Jordan River below. Gen. Aryeh Shalev, filling in for Intelligence chief Gen. Eli Zeira, who was ill at home, gave AMAN's appraisal of the situation. "There are troubling reports on Syria and also Egypt," he confirmed. The Syrians were in emergency deployment and could launch an attack without warning. They had moved two squadrons of Sukhoi-7s to forward airbases and had deployed an unprecedented amount of artillery opposite the Golan. On the Suez front, the Egyptians were engaged in a large-scale military exercise. A worst-case situation, said Shalev, would be for Syria and Egypt to launch a two-front war. "Is this reasonable?" he asked rhetorically. "In my opinion, on the basis of much material received in recent days, Egypt believes it is not yet ready to go to war." And if Egypt was not going to war, then neither was Syria, whose army was much smaller. Might Egypt not stage a diversion, asked Meir, in order to let the Syrians attack? Syrian President Hafez Assad and the Syrians know their limitations, replied Shalev. "They're aware of Israel's great advantage in the air." In short, the probability of war remained low. Gen. Elazar agreed with Shalev's analysis. Egypt and Syria indeed had plans for a coordinated attack, said the chief of staff. "But I don't see a concrete danger in the near future." Should Syria attempt a full-scale attack on its own, he said, Israel would know beforehand. "It's reasonable that if a big machine begins moving, there will be leaks." When Meir suggested the possibility of reinforcing the front line on the Golan, he said, "That would either mean weakening the Egyptian front or mobilizing reserves for an extended period." Despite her palpable unease, Meir did not take it upon herself to challenge a roomful of generals counseling calm. Shalev's upbeat bottom line had succeeded in reassuring her, at least for the moment. As the meeting broke up, she shook his hand and said, "Thanks for calming me." His words were so soothing that the security situation was no longer considered serious enough to be placed on the agenda of the cabinet meeting scheduled for the next day. The cabinet thus had no idea that the possibility of war was even being mooted. Nor would the Arab buildup be referred to at Thursday's General Staff meeting. The sole subject on the agenda - two days before Yom Kippur - was discipline, with emphasis on the need for soldiers to adhere to military dress codes. THIS RELAXED posture was not warranted by what the men at the fronts were seeing or by what AMAN itself was picking up from its myriad sources. Lookouts along the canal had been reporting a massive build-up since the beginning of the week. Much of the information was not being passed upwards by the chief Southern Front intelligence officer, Col. David Gedalia. Adopting AMAN's no-war thesis, he regarded such reports as irrelevant "noise" attributable to the Egyptian exercise. Some of the information which he did pass on to the Egyptian desk in AMAN in turn was not passed on to Zeira and Shalev. But Zeira and Shalev were not passing on all the information reaching them either. The reports about Arab preparations that did reach Elazar and Dayan were packaged with reassuring explanations -Egyptian exercise, Syrian fears of an Israeli attack - that sapped them of menace. On the Bar-Lev Line, lookouts reported feverish activity across the canal. Convoys were arriving every night. Descents to the water for rubber boats were being prepared at dozens of locations and the Egyptians were working late every night to raise the height of their ramps overlooking the Israeli canalside positions. Maj.-Gen. Albert Mendler, commander of the sole armored division in Sinai, began holding staff meetings twice a day to update situation assessments. It was becoming ever more apparent to him that the Egyptians were preparing for war. When he passed his concern on to Southern Command he was told that all these activities were connected to the Egyptian training exercise. On Thursday, October 4, American intelligence chiefs gathered in Washington for the weekly meeting of the US Intelligence Board's "Watch Committee." In reply to Kissinger's query, the CIA and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), basing themselves largely on the Israeli assessment, said that war in the Middle East was unlikely. The Defense Intelligence Agency went further, saying the Arab buildup was not even of a threatening nature, an evaluation that would cost three of the agency officials their jobs. YOM KIPPUR EVE Leading a nation into a major war was not a role Golda Meir would ever have wished for. But she was coping so far with the steadiness that had marked her long public career. Born in Kiev, she had arrived in Milwaukee at the age of eight with her family, the memory of pogroms still vivid. She trained as a teacher but in 1921 left the US with her husband for Palestine, where they settled in a kibbutz. Strong-minded and articulate, she moved from social activity into politics, becoming in time part of the senior Zionist leadership of the state-in-the-making. In May, 1948, four days before the state of Israel was to be proclaimed, she was dispatched across the Jordan River to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah. Dressed as an Arab woman and accompanied by a single colleague, she passed through an area where an Arab army was preparing to invade the Jewish state. Her attempt to persuade the king not to join in the attack failed. With the founding of Israel, she became its first ambassador to the Soviet Union and later was chosen foreign minister. Meir was already 71 when she became prime minister in 1969. Her pluckiness, wry sense of humor and simple lifestyle earned her widespread popularity. But her uncompromising mindset left little room for exploring the chances of peace, however slim, with the Arabs. Following the meeting of the military chiefs in Dayan's office Friday morning, the day before Yom Kippur, most of the participants proceeded to Meir's office. "I still think that they're not going to attack," said Elazar, "but we have no hard information." Military intelligence chief Zeira, digging in, said that a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack was "absolutely unreasonable." At 11:30 a.m., the generals briefed those cabinet members who were in Tel Aviv. Zeira said the military options open to the Arabs were artillery bombardment, limited incursions or a massive Egyptian crossing of the canal with the objective of reaching the passes in central Sinai. "All are low probability, and the lowest of all is a crossing of the canal," Zeira said. It was Meir who challenged Zeira's reading of the situation, albeit obliquely. She expressed doubt that the Syrians, if they did intend to engage in hostilities, would make do with an artillery barrage, given the massiveness of their deployment. She found further cause for concern in the review of the Arab press she had perused earlier. On the eve of the Six Day War, she recalled, the Arab media had been filled with false reports that Israeli troops were massing on the borders. Today they were writing the very same thing. "Maybe this should tell us something." Hers were the healthy instincts of a woman who knew nothing of military strategy but could recognize a bald fact staring her in the face. Elazar said that if the Arabs decided to attack, there would be "additional indications" beforehand so that at least 12-24 hours warning could be relied on. Dayan firmly opposed mobilization, which could be interpreted by the world as an act of war, unless the Arabs made the first hostile move. Ending the meeting, Meir said the discussion would be resumed by the full cabinet on Sunday (the day after Yom Kippur). At Galilee's suggestion, the ministers authorized Meir, who was remaining in Tel Aviv for the holiday, and Dayan to order mobilization on Yom Kippur if they deemed it necessary, without convening the cabinet. Meir asked the ministers to leave telephone numbers with the cabinet secretary where they could be reached if necessary during the holy day. YOM KIPPUR MORNING, SATURDAY, OCTOBER 6 Meir is awakened by a phone call at 4:30 a.m from her military aide reporting that Egypt and Syria will attack at dusk, according to a report to the Mossad from a senior Egyptian agent. Dayan and Gen. Elazar meet in military headquarters where the defense minister rejects Elazar's request for immediate mobilization of the reserves and a pre-emptive air strike. The pair bring their differences to Meir. The meeting with the prime minister got underway at 8:05 a.m. Dayan began by saying that war was not a certainty, despite the Mossad warning. Children in the Golan settlements would be evacuated in late afternoon, he said, on the pretext that they were going on an outing. A reduction in tension during the day might obviate the need for this evacuation and thus avoid the ensuing public outcry at a government-organized excursion on Yom Kippur. Meir ordered that the children be brought down immediately. Dayan and Elazar then presented their respective cases on a pre-emptive strike and mobilization. It was admittedly bizarre to have two generals, veteran war horses at the pinnacle of Israel's military establishment, bringing their differences over vital military matters to a 75-year-old grandmother. Meir lit one cigarette after another as they spoke, filling the room with smoke. Elazar expressed readiness to compromise on mobilization at this stage with a callup of 100,000-120,000 men, rather than a total callup. With Meir leaning towards his view, he dispatched his aide shortly after 9 a.m. to make a phone call that would get mobilization started for two divisions. Elazar argued for a pre-emptive strike against the Syrian airfields at noon and then against the anti-aircraft missiles at 3 p.m., by which time the cloud cover should have burned off over the Golan. "Then, at 5, the air force can hit the Syrian ground forces and put them out of action." Aware of Meir's sensitivity to casualties, he said that a pre-emptive strike would save many lives. When the presentations were done, the prime minister hemmed uncertainly for a few moments but then came to a decision. She ruled against a pre-emptive strike. Israel might be needing American assistance soon and it was vital that they know that it was not Israel that started this war. "If we strike first we won't get help from anybody," she said. As for mobilization, she agreed to Elazar's compromise proposal. "If war does break out, better to be in proper shape to deal with it, even if the world gets angry with us." It was now 9:25 a.m. A sense of relief descended on those present despite the somberness of the moment. Indecision was over. The wheels had begun to turn. Almost three precious hours had been lost by the disagreement between Dayan and Elazar over mobilization. And there was even less time left than they thought. Meir made no pretense of knowing anything about military matters. She would confess to her military aide, Gen. Yisrael Lior, that she had no idea what a division was. When he had woken her this morning with the report of imminent war, she asked him over the phone: "Yisrael, what do we do now?" Arriving at her office, her face was grey and her step heavy. But she continued to function well. Her decisions at the meeting with Dayan and Elazar had been sound, based on common sense and political instincts, and they would determine Israel's operational profile for the critical opening phase of the war. There would be no pre-emptive air strike but the weight of Israel's reserve army would be brought to bear as quickly as possible. (Cloud cover over Syria would, it turned out, have ruled out a pre-emptive air strike on operational grounds even if Meir had given the green light.) Meir would leave the running of the war to Dayan and Elazar but her instincts would continue to serve her well whenever her input was required. At 9:30 a.m., American Ambassador Kenneth Keating and his deputy, Nicholas Veliotes, arrived at Meir's office in response to her urgent summons. The diplomats were stunned when she described the situation. They had been assured by CIA reports and the Israelis themselves only the day before that there was no danger of war. Meir told them that Israel would not carry out a pre-emptive strike. She asked that Washington, in the coming hours, try to stave off war by turning to the Soviets or directly to Cairo and Damascus. If the Arab moves were dictated by a misreading of Israeli intentions, the Americans were to assure them that Israel had no plans to attack. If the Arabs did initiate war, said Meir, Israel would respond forcefully. As Veliotes rapidly made notes, the silver-haired Keating asked whether he could be sure that Israel would take no pre-emptive action. "You can be sure," Meir said decisively. Keating said he would send his report to Washington with the highest security designation, which would mean that Secretary of State Kissinger would be wakened to read it. Israel's ambassador to Washington, Simha Dinitz, was in the corridor outside when Keating emerged, looking pale. Dinitz had arrived in Israel a few days before to attend the funeral of his father and was now in the week-long mourning period. A former director of the Prime Minister's Office, he enjoyed Meir's confidence and was one of the first persons she had summoned. "You've got to return to Washington immediately," she said. He was first to consult with the Defense Ministry about armaments to be requested from the American administration. The prime minister saw Washington as a critical anchor for Israel in the coming storm. She asked her military aide to find a way to get Dinitz out of the country - no easy feat because there were no commercial flights into or out of Israel on Yom Kippur. Lior arranged for the government-owned Israel Aircraft Industries to roll out an executive jet. It flew Dinitz in the afternoon to Rome, where he boarded a commercial flight for the US. The brewing Middle East crisis jarred Henry Kissinger out of deep sleep in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Without standing on ceremony, Joe Sisco burst into his suite at 6:15 a.m. local time to announce that Israel and the Arabs were about to go war. Sisco had just read the message from Keating. The ambassador quoted Meir as saying, "We might be in trouble." FOR HEALTH MINISTER Victor Shemtov, riding in a car through the empty streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur was an unsettling experience even though he was not religiously observant. Shemtov had been telephoned at home the previous evening by the cabinet secretary, who informed him that an emergency meeting of the cabinet was to be held at noon in the prime minister's Tel Aviv office. He was to tell no one of the meeting. Shemtov already had an indication of something unusual afoot Friday afternoon when his son, a reservist, was ordered to report immediately to his elite reconnaissance unit. "Why on Yom Kippur eve?" his son asked. "Is anything happening?" "Nothing I know about," said the minister. Shemtov drove his son to his base in the Negev and got back to Jerusalem just before the onset of the holiday, puzzled over the callup. The summons from the cabinet secretary came shortly afterwards. Military vehicles with high antennas were parked outside the Prime Minister's Office when Shemtov arrived. He bounded up the stairs and entered the cabinet room to find most of his colleagues already seated around the large table. Only the religious ministers from Jerusalem had not come. Faces were taut and no one was speaking, - itself ominous, given this voluble collection of politicians. As Shemtov eased himself into his chair, the minister next to him leaned over and whispered. "There's going to be war." It was an incredible statement. Shemtov had not attended the previous day's abbreviated cabinet meeting and had received no hint over the past months of possible war, not even in intelligence briefings. Meir had not yet emerged from her office by the scheduled noon starting time, which was unusual. Shemtov went out to the corridor briefly and an army officer said to him, "They caught us with our pants down." Meir entered the cabinet room at 12:30, together with Dayan. She was pale and her eyes were downcast as she walked slowly to her chair. Her hair, normally neatly combed and pulled back, was disheveled and it looked as if she had not shut her eyes all night. For the first time, her ministers saw an old woman, slightly bent, sitting in the prime minister's chair. She lit a cigarette, leafed briefly through a pile of papers in front of her, and declared the meeting open. Meir began with a detailed report of events over the past three days -the Arab deployment on the borders that had suddenly taken on ominous form, the sudden evacuation of Soviet families from Egypt and Syria, the aerial photos, the insistence by AMAN that there would be no war despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The military men were divided, she said, over whether there would be a war or not, over whether there should be mobilization and a pre-emptive strike. She spoke in a monotone that sounded like a judge reading out a sentence. Then she reached the bottom line: In the early hours of this morning, word had been received from an unimpeachable source that war will break out at 6 p.m. this day on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. The ministers were stunned. They had been told for years that even in a worst case situation the IDF would have at least 48 hours to call up the reserves before war broke out. Now they were being told that a two-front war was less than six hours away, with the reserves, two-thirds of the army, still unmobilized. Meir asked Dayan to describe the situation along the two fronts. Despite her depressed look, her voice had been firm. But there appeared to be a tremor in Dayan's voice. He looked like a man whose certainties had suddenly crumbled. Close to 2 p.m. an aide entered and handed him a note. Dayan announced that Egyptian aircraft had begun to attack in Sinai. Even as Meir declared the meeting closed, a siren wail began to rise in the streets outside. WAR - DAY TWO For Prime Minister Meir, the descent into the General Staff "pit" on Sunday morning for a briefing could have served as metaphor for what she would experience this day - a descent into a trough of despair deeper and more charged than any she had ever imagined. The visit itself was less devastating than it might have been, thanks to the positive twist put by Gen. Elazar on reports from the battlefield. He made it sound like the situation, while serious, was in the process of being resolved, or at least stabilized. Dayan knew otherwise. His visit to Northern Command at dawn had darkened his mood. With his visit to Southern Command later in the morning, concern had turned to despondency. The war room at Umm Hashiba (in Sinai) was better organized than Northern Command's and Gen. Shmuel Gonen was far more confident than Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, his northern counterpart. That, however, was part of the problem. "He was too sure of himself," Dayan would write, "about knowing what was happening and understanding the situation as it really was." With the arrival of the reserve divisions, Gonen told him, it would be possible to drive the Egyptians out of Sinai and perhaps to cross the canal as well. Annoyed at Gonen's easy optimism, Dayan told him that top priority must be given to forming a fallback line that could be held if the current front crumbled. The Bar-Lev forts on the Suez Canal must be given up, he said; enough forces had been eroded trying to reach them. Garrisons that were surrounded should attempt to make their way out on foot after dark, and there must be no more attempts to break through to them with tanks. (The bulk of Mendler's armored division had been knocked out in 12 hours of fighting.) Wounded who could not walk would be left behind to be taken prisoner. The defense minister recommended that the new line be set up along the Artillery Road, six miles from the canal. Gonen said that that line could not be held because of the topography. "It is within my authority," said Dayan, adopting an uncharacteric formality, "to order you to form a line that you can hold. Otherwise we will end up on Israel's (pre-Six Day War) border. Let the line be on the Artillery Road or the Lateral Road." On the helicopter ride back to Tel Aviv, Dayan pondered the implications of what he had seen on his visits to the two fronts. Like everyone else, he had been shocked by the Arab attack. Unlike anyone else, except Elazar, the major burden of responsibility for what had to be done fell upon him. His colleagues knew him to possess a personal courage that seemed to reflect indifference to death. He was gripped now, he would later write, by an anxiety he had never before known. An unspoken premise on which Israel had built its defense strategy - and he its prime architect - was that the Arabs they would face in the next war were the same Arabs they had so handily defeated in the Six Day War and the Sinai Campaign of 1956. It was a premise that permitted strategic corner cutting, such as maintaining disproportionately small forces along the front lines. A single day's battle had now demonstrated that these were not the same Arabs. Both the Egyptians and Syrians were attacking according to a well thought-out plan - better thought-out, clearly, than Israel's own. They had been massively supplied with modern weapons by the Soviets, including weapons Israel had no answer for, like the SAM-6 anti-aircraft missile and the Sagger anti-tank missile. More troubling still, they were infused with a fighting spirit they had never before shown. They were not running, even when hit hard. Israel had not calculated the vital psychological boost the Arabs would derive from having seized the initiative. What concerned Dayan most was not the immediate battle, troubling as that was. Beyond the front lines, beyond Egypt and Syria, lay the rest of the Arab world. Israel's 3 million Jews were facing 80 million Arabs. The breadth of Dayan's strategic vision had become the depth of his despair. Before the helicopter landed at Sde Dov Airfield on the Tel Aviv seafront, he determined to share his nightmare with Elazar and Meir. For the general public, Dayan embodied the nation's confidence in its ability to meet any challenge. He was now probably the most depressed man in the country, certainly the most depressing. The impact of Dayan's words on Meir was predictable. She heard them "in horror," she would write, and the thought of suicide crossed her mind. Her assistant, Lou Kedar, was in the room next to the prime minister's when Meir rang. "Meet me in the corridor," she said. There were other people in Meir's office and she wanted a private space. Although she had the country's top military and political advisers on call, she could share her deepest feelings only with her old friend. When Kedar emerged into the corridor, Meir was already waiting for her. Kedar was shocked at her pallor, which matched the grey jacket she was wearing. Kedar would remember the prime minister leaning heavily against a wall and saying in a low and terrible voice, "Dayan is speaking of surrender." If Dayan had indeed used that word, it is inconceivable that he used it in the conventional sense. But he had spoken of surrendering territory - pulling back from the Bar-Lev line - and of his belief that it would be impossible to force the Egyptians back across the canal. He had offered his resignation, which Meir refused. When she asked what his reaction would be if the UN ordered an immediate cease-fire, he said he would grab it, even if this meant the Egyptian army remaining on the Sinai bank of the canal. Meir stared hollowly at Kedar, her mind elsewhere. Slowly, the expression on her face began to change and color seeped back into her cheeks. "Get Simha," she said. Kedar heard the familiar determination once again in her voice. Through Ambassador Simha Dinitz in Washington, Meir intended to start putting pressure on the American administration for arms. Many excruciating days still lay ahead, but psychologically the prime minister had touched bottom and begun to regain her balance. DAY FOUR The hard truth about the country's military situation was presented to the prime minister by Dayan at a 7:30 a.m. meeting Tuesday. Also present were Elazar and Meir's closest advisors, ministers Galili and Yigal Allon. Dayan began by saying that there was at present no possibility of the IDF approaching the canal, let alone crossing it. The immediate emphasis must be on persuading Syria to seek a cease-fire so that the army could concentrate on the Egyptian front. Towards this end, he proposed bombing military targets in Damascus. Dayan noted that the Syrians had fired close to a score of Frog ground-to-ground missiles at the Ramat David airbase over the past three nights. Frogs had hit the airbase and killed a pilot in a dormitory. But the missiles had also hit nearby civilian settlements - Kibbutz Gvat and the town of Migdal Haemek - and wounded a score of people. This was enough to justify an Israeli attack on Syrian urban areas and infrastructure. "Our targets are military, but we can't rule out the possibility that civilians will be hurt." Meir objected to hitting targets in Damascus. If there were civilian casualties, she said, the Americans might hold up arms shipments. But when she put the question to minister Galili, he said, "Wwe have to do it." Meir bowed to his judgment and had a message sent to Dinitz requesting him to explain to Kissinger that the object of the air attack was to knock Syria out of the war and dissuade Jordan and Iraq from joining in. The prime minister raised what she called "a crazy thought" - that she travel incognito to Washington to make a personal appeal to President Richard Nixon to meet Israel's arms requests swiftly and in full. Not even the Israeli cabinet need know of her visit. Dayan supported the idea but Washington did not. DAY FIVE The IDF pushes the last of the Syrian forces on the Golan back across the so-called Purple Line that separated the two sides before the war. A day-long debate within the military hierarchy about whether to continue the attack into Syria or focus exclusively from this point on the Egyptian front culminates at night with a meeting in the Prime Minister's Office. Meir grasped the cardinal point raised by the generals. It would take four days to shift a division from the Golan to Sinai, as some of them were proposing. What concerned her was that if a cease-fire were imposed during this transit period, the war would end with the Egyptians still in Sinai and no territorial gain for Israel in the north - an unmitigated defeat. This was a political matter and her decision was unhesitating: to cross the Purple Line into Syria the next day. At the very least, she wanted Syrian territory to bring to the bargaining table. CEASE-FIRE A cease-fire on both fronts is achieved after Israel breaks through the Egyptian lines and crosses the canal, trapping the Egyptian Third Army in Sinai. Kissinger landed from Moscow and was driven to the same Mossad guest house where, less than a month before, King Hussein had warned Meir of war. At the start of a 50-minute tete-a-tete, Meir went directly to the heart of her concerns: had the US struck an agreement with the Soviets to force Israel back to the 1967 lines? Kissinger assured her there was no such agreement. When he asked if she thought Sadat would survive the military setbacks of the last days, Meir said he would. "He is the hero. He dared." Jerusalem resists American pressure to ease the siege of the Third Army whose water supply is eroding. The US Defense Department proposed that American planes parachute supplies to the beleaguered Third Army. Kissinger preferred to win Israel's agreement to supplies passing through its lines and thus possibly open a door to a dialogue between it and Egypt. However, Israel was fixated on evening the score with Egypt. Not even the normally far-sighted Dayan was ready to see the linkage between the Third Army's fate and the possibilities of peace. Meir took her time - half a day - before responding to Kissinger's urgent call for immediate lifting of the siege. Instead of acquiescing, she suggested that Egyptian and Israeli representatives meet face-to-face to discuss the fate of the Third Army and of the Israeli POWs. The Egyptians, she said, could fix the place, the time and the rank of the representatives. Kissinger saw this as a further stall - no one could expect the Egyptians to agree to direct talks with Israel at this early a stage - but he passed the offer on to Hafez Ismail. Five hours before Kissinger's ultimatum to Israel expired, a message arrived in Washington from Ismail saying that Egypt accepted Israel's offer of direct talks. Kissinger was flabbergasted. "You're from a land of miracles," he told Dinitz. The meeting point set by Cairo was Kilometer 101 on the desert road between Cairo and Suez. The Egyptians designated Maj.-Gen. Gamasy as their representative and stipulated two pre-conditions: a complete cease-fire and the passage of a convoy bearing non-military supplies to the Third Army. Meir accepted both conditions and designated Maj.-Gen. Aharon Yariv as Israel's representative. It was 1:30 a.m., October 28, when the generals finally shook hands in a large tent that had been set , the first time that representatives of the two countries had met for direct negotiations. Substantive talks would also take place in Washington in the coming days. On the eve of her departure for Washington, the prime minister helicoptered south with Dayan and Elazar for her first visit to the front. At Southern Command and at each of the divisional headquarters, she met with commanders who described the war from their vantage points. At each stop, the prime minister also met with the troops. Sitting on a chair, she answered questions from soldiers gathered on the ground around her. When she visited Ariel Sharon's division and made her entrance alongside Dayan, Elazar and Sharon, the troops began chanting "Arik, King of Israel." It was a spontaneous display of affection for a commander at the successful end of a war, but it had political implications not lost on Meir and Dayan. When asked by a soldier why supplies were being permitted to reach the Third Army before Israel's POWs had been freed, the prime minister explained that American pressure left no choice. "It's easier to fight enemies than friends." From time to time, the grandmotherly nature of the visit gave way to disturbing questions. When a soldier asked, "How could we have been so unprepared?" Meir said that she could not give an authoritative answer. She was not an expert on military matters, she said, and relied in this area on the two men sitting alongside her, the chief of General Staff and the defense minister. Her answer infuriated Lt.-Col. Yom Tov Tamir, emotionally scarred by the destruction of his tank battalion on the first day of the war. "Because you don't understand these things, I lost 58 men?" he shouted. Gen. Gonen, standing alongside him, calmed him down. Anger suppressed during the weeks of combat was beginning to vent. The question raised by the soldier about the nation's unpreparedness was being asked on the home front with increasing stridency. The two men to whom Meir had referred the question would offer sharply conflicting answers the following day. In an appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Elazar laid the blame for the initial setbacks squarely on the failure to mobilize the reserves in time. "If we had mobilized," he said, "the war would have lasted three, four, six days. From a terrible opening, the IDF went on to victory, and if there were enough time it would have magnified it in a way that would have startled the world." There had been mistakes, he admitted, but the structure of the IDF and its preparations for the war had proven sound. There were no previously unknown factors that affected the outcome of the war, he said. It was a statement that ignored the stunning surprise of the Egyptian anti-tank tactics, the unexpected resilience of their infantry, Israel's neglect of combined arms operations, and the fact that the air force had been impaled by the SAMs. Dayan disagreed with Elazar on every point. His hard-nosed assessment was that the problem went much deeper than the surprise and the failure to mobilize. "The army's operational concept proved incorrect," he said in a meeting with the country's newspaper editors in Tel Aviv. "Even if there had been full mobilization, the tanks could not approach (the enemy without being hit) and the planes could not approach. We estimated that if we have 300 tanks in Sinai and 180 on the Golan it would be enough. But it was not enough." Having overcome its initial problems, the IDF had become a formidable fighting machine, he said. "We have three divisions in the south, the likes of which the Israeli people have never seen. If we wanted to, we could reach Cairo. The question is whether that's desirable." Asked whether he feared a renewal of the war, he said, "On the contrary. I very much want a renewal of fighting with Egypt." Israel's present deployment west of the canal - sandwiched between two Egyptian armies and with an overextended supply line - was too awkward to maintain. Dayan wanted to pull back across the canal, but only for a price - the reopening of the Suez Canal and the repopulation of the abandoned canal cities, as a guarantee that Egypt would not readily go to war again. If the Egyptians refused, he said, Israel would destroy the Third Army and try to do the same to the Second. FOUR MONTHS after the end of fighting, Capt. Motti Ashkenazi, who had commanded the only fort on the Bar-Lev Line that had not fallen, was demobilized. It was a rainy morning when Ashkenazi took up position across the road from the prime minister's office in Jerusalem the day after his release. Drivers passing through the government center slowed down to look at the bespectacled figure in a windbreaker holding aloft a placard. "Grandma," it read, "your defense minister is a failure and 3,000 of your grandchildren are dead." In the coming weeks, he would be joined by thousands of other demonstrators. Knesset elections, postponed from October because of the war, were held on December 31. It was too soon for voting patterns to have significantly changed. The Labor Party, headed by Meir, won again, although with five fewer seats, 51, in the 120-seat Knesset. Meir asked Dayan to stay on as defense minister in the new government. He told her that if the government-appointed Agranat inquiry commission found him in any way responsible for the failings of the war, he would resign. The public, not waiting for the commission's report, had already focused its anger on Dayan, the dashing figure on whom it had rested its sense of security. The public's anger was brought home to him at military funerals when grieving relatives shouted at him, "murderer." On April 2, 1974, the Commission published its eagerly awaited preliminary findings. It demanded the resignation of six senior officers, including Elazar. As for Meir and Dayan, the commission cleared them of all responsibility. Dayan, it noted, had no independent method of assessing the possibility of war. "The defense minister was never intended to be a 'super chief-of-staff' who must guide the chief of General Staff in the latter's operative area of responsibility." Meir, the commission found, had "used her authority properly and wisely when she ordered mobilization of the reserves on Yom Kippur morning, despite the weighty political factors involved." The absolution of Dayan and Meir aroused widespread anger and made public calls for their resignation, particularly Dayan's, even louder. Meir had twice during the war refused his offer to step down and she had defended him against cabinet colleagues calling for his resignation. After the commission's report, Dayan asked her again whether she wanted him to resign. This time she said that the Labor Party leadership must decide. In her memoirs, she would suggest that the commission's harsh findings regarding Elazar and Zeira should have led Dayan to "stick by" his comrades-in-arms and step down. "But he was following a logic of his own," she would write, "and I didn't feel that on such a weighty matter I should give him advice." She, however, followed her own logic. A week after the report - four months after the elections - she declared that she could not ignore the public ferment and announced her resignation.