With his reserve division starting north from its bases on the second day of the Yom Kippur War, Gen. Mussa Peled drove ahead to get a feel for the Golan battlefield. Near Almagor in Upper Galilee he saw army vehicles parked at the side of the road. A man was sitting on a boulder looking across the Jordan Valley, while a group of officers waited behind him at a discreet distance. Peled recognized the man as defense minister Moshe Dayan.
Joining him, Peled could see smoke rising from the heights and flashes of explosions attesting to the deep inroads the Syrians had made in little more than 24 hours. The division commander told Dayan he was awaiting permission to begin a counterattack the next morning.
The two men had grown up on adjoining farms on Moshav Nahalal, Dayan several years the senior. Their long acquaintance permitted Dayan to unburden himself of the deep pessimism that had overtaken him since the war began. He spoke "as if all is lost," Peled would remember. Peled, a veteran warhorse, put a supportive hand on Dayan's shoulder and was taken aback to see tears start to flow. The harder he pressed encouragement, the more Dayan wept.
The armor commander, whose division would drive the Syrians out of the southern Golan, did not tell this episode to me when I interviewed him about the war nor to other interviewers, but he did recount it in an oral history tucked away in a corner of the Armored Corps library at Latrun.
The public did not know that Dayan, the country's military icon, had suffered a failure of nerve in the opening hours of the Yom Kippur War. It was not why the protest movements led by returning soldiers demanded his resignation. On the contrary, the disparity between Dayan the myth and the stunning shortcomings revealed on Yom Kippur fed their indignation. As the country's ultimate security authority, Dayan - symbol of the great Six Day War victory, hero of the Sinai Campaign - was held responsible for Israel's unpreparedness, his hallmark self-confidence now seen as arrogance. The decision by the Agranat Commission to absolve him and prime minister Golda Meir of blame for the war's failings would infuriate the protesters. Responding to their outcry, Meir stepped down, taking with her the entire government.
The commission maintained that a defense minister, even a former chief of General Staff like Dayan, was not a "super chief of staff" overseeing operational decisions of the generals. Neither Dayan nor Meir, it said, had independent means of assessing the likelihood of war and neither could be blamed for Israel having been caught by surprise. Blame was assigned entirely to a handful of military officers, foremost among them chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar and OC Intelligence Chief Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira.
Although the commission's report is still regarded by many as a political whitewash, in retrospect it can be more easily justified.
Contrary to the commission's assessment, Dayan did, in fact, act at times as a super chief of staff - generally with great astuteness, although one of his interventions would prove calamitous. More to the point, his input as the military's political overseer, by which he was judged by the commission, was wise and farseeing, not reckless or random. Judging his parliamentary responsibility, the commission held, was outside its mandate.
In hitherto unpublished extracts from the Agranat report released only a few months ago, Dayan played down his role as an uber-general. "From 1957 to '67 I wasn't in the army at all," he said. "I'm not a tank man, I'm not an artillery man, I'm not a paratrooper and I don't have a staff. I didn't return [in 1967, when named defense minister] to deal with the army but with political/defense issues. The defense minister is a political functionary. It would never cross my mind to enforce or decide [purely military matters]. Sometimes, I posed questions. The chief of General Staff decided. I didn't oversee the army's professional level."
That overmodest - and, in the circumstances, self-serving - assessment belies the influence that the charismatic Dayan had over the military establishment. He usually framed his requests as "ministerial suggestions" rather than orders, but they amounted to virtually the same thing. While generally fastidious in channeling requests through the chief of General Staff, he did not hesitate on occasion to intervene directly with Elazar's subordinates.
SUCH WAS the case on the second morning of the war - Sunday, October 7 - when he visited the northern front a few hours before his encounter with Mussa Peled and found the Golan defenses on the verge of collapse. Unable to get Elazar on the phone, he had himself patched through to OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled (not to be confused with Mussa Peled). Dayan urged him to call off a major attack on the Egyptian air defenses just getting under way and to send his planes north.
"The Third Temple is in danger," he said, an allusion to the modern State of Israel. Elazar would issue a similar order to the air force commander that morning, but it is unclear whether the chief of General Staff was simply confirming Dayan's "ministerial suggestion."
In any case, it was Dayan's call that activated Peled. Describing to me years later the vehement objections of his senior staff officers at aborting the attack in the south, Benny Peled said, "They hadn't heard Dayan's voice on the phone."
The change in plans would prove disastrous. The air force, which had to swiftly improvise an attack on the Syrian anti-aircraft missile sites without updated aerial photos, lost six Phantoms and destroyed only one missile battery. The major loss, however, was cancellation of the attack on the Egyptian batteries. The air force did not have the technology to overcome the Soviet-made SAM anti-aircraft missiles electronically. But it had devised a plan, codenamed Tagar, by which hundreds of aircraft would attack the 62 SAM bases in the Suez Canal zone in an elaborate choreography involving low-level attacks, high-level attacks, electronic deception and toss-bombing in a precisely orchestrated sequence.
After the attack was aborted, Tagar would not again be attempted. Senior air force planners remain convinced that if the attack had been carried out as planned, the Egyptian air defenses would have been shattered, although dozens of aircraft might have been downed. With the Egyptian army left without air defenses, it would have been a very different war.
That, however, was an extreme situation - the war's opening shock when battle-hardened combat officers - Ariel Sharon and Elazar being notable exceptions - froze, sometimes for a day or two, as they attempted to process a situation they had never imagined. Dayan's military interventions thenceforth were almost always incisive, while his political/security input provided vital parameters for the army and cabinet.
Three years before the war, he proposed that Israeli forces pull back 20 miles from the Suez Canal to enable its reopening and reduce Egypt's incentive for going to war. The proposal was rejected by Meir who believed that Israel's continued presence on the strategic waterway would ultimately force Egypt to make territorial concessions. Dayan warned that in the absence of political movement, the Arabs would probably attack. In May 1973, five months before Yom Kippur, he told the General Staff, "Gentlemen, prepare for war [with] Egypt and Syria in the second half of summer."
In September, the Syrians indeed began a large-scale buildup opposite the Golan, alarming Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, head of Northern Command. He had only 77 tanks facing three Syrian divisions with 800 tanks. Unlike the Egyptian front where the Suez Canal separated the two armies, there was only a half-finished anti-tank ditch to slow down a Syrian lunge. Hofi was especially concerned by Syria's forward deployment of SAM batteries which now covered the skies over the Golan. In the event of a surprise attack he had relied on the air force helping him to hold the Syrians off for the 48 hours needed for the reserves to arrive. However, the SAM deployment meant that the air force would now have to deal with the missiles first, providing no ground support in the critical opening phase. He decided to bring his concerns to the weekly meeting of the General Staff on September 24.
Dayan, who attended these meetings occasionally, happened to be at this one. The main subject was the proposed acquisition of American F-15 warplanes. When it was Hofi's turn to speak, he said he wished to talk first about the Golan situation, which he termed "very serious." The discussion about the F-15s then continued around the table, without anyone referring to Hofi's warning.
It was Dayan who brought them back to it. "The General Staff can't let [Hofi's] remarks pass without comment," he said. "Either his scenario doesn't hold water or it does. If it does, we need a plan for dealing with it."
Rosh Hashana was only three days away. Dayan said he would not go off for the holiday without getting an answer. He asked Elazar to assemble the General Staff in two days to decide on appropriate measures. At that later meeting, it was decided to transfer 27 tanks from the Sinai to the Golan. "We'll have 100 tanks against their 800," said the chief of General Staff. "That ought to be enough." That equation neatly summed up Israel's post-Six Day War attitude toward the Arab armies.
Dayan decided not to leave it at that. A few hours before Rosh Hashana, he flew up to the Golan with journalists to send out a warning that the Syrians faced dire consequences if they attacked. His published remarks were duly picked up in the Syrian media.
At a meeting with Golda Meir three days before Yom Kippur, Dayan spelled out his growing unease at the buildup of Egyptian and Syrian forces along the border. Military symbol though he was, Dayan related to the 75-year-old grandmother with the deference due her position and wanted her fully in the picture. Other generals present, however, assured her that the likelihood of war remained low. Despite her palpable unease, she did not take it upon herself to challenge a roomful of generals counseling calm.
ON YOM KIPPUR morning, the Mossad forwarded a warning that war would break out this day. Elazar pressed for full mobilization and a preemptive air strike. Dayan rejected both. War, he said, was not a certainty despite the Mossad warning. The world, he said, would not accept another Israeli preemptive strike like the one it launched in the Six Day War. As for mobilization, he was willing to approve a limited call-up but, he said, mass mobilization could be seen as a provocation. It was Meir who decided in the end - no to a preemptive strike, yes to mobilization.
Dayan's briefing to the General Staff that morning laid out an unambiguous war goal. "Our main objective is destruction of enemy forces. Any move in the direction of Damascus will not be to capture territory which, I believe, we will be obliged to pull back from." The importance of a defense minister capable of offering the military clear guidelines and of looking beyond immediate contingencies can be appreciated by comparing Dayan's performance with, say, that of defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz in the Second Lebanon War, a conflict that became mired in confusion despite overwhelming Israeli strength.
The suave Dayan had ever been the symbol of "cool," but the success of the Arab attack shook him to his core. Virtually every assumption by the Israeli command, himself included, about the nature of the next war had proven wrong - the certainty that intelligence would provide ample warning of an Arab attack, that in a worst-case situation the air force could save the day, that the Arab soldier was a pushover and the Arab command inept, that Israeli armor would scatter all before it. The surprise attack had been a staggering psychological blow.
But it was basic operational unpreparedness, now suddenly revealed, that was responsible for the surprise becoming a debacle. The Arabs were employing new tactics, new weapons and astonishing will. Where, Dayan asked himself, was all this leading? His visits to both fronts on the second day of the war only increased his gloom. Returning to the underground command post in Tel Aviv, the "Pit," he told the generals that Israel's three million Jews were facing not just Egypt and Syria but the 80 million-strong Arab world. Even if there were a cease-fire, the Arabs could renew the fighting at any time with fresh arms from the Soviet Union and attempt to wear Israel down.
The breadth of his strategic vision had become the depth of his despair. Meeting with Meir, he painted a picture so grim that she felt the need to telephone her longtime personal assistant and friend, Lou Kedar, in an adjacent office and asked to meet her in the corridor. As Kedar would remember it, Meir, grey and drawn, leaned heavily against a wall and said, "Dayan is speaking of surrender." If he used that word, it was clearly not in the conventional sense. But he had spoken of surrendering territory - pulling back from the Bar-Lev Line on the canal - and of his belief that it would be impossible to push the Egyptians back across the canal.
Even in his diminished state, he continued to issue firm directives to the military. Meeting with Elazar, he did not advocate an immediate retreat from the canal but ordered him to prepare two fallback lines in Sinai. Dayan ruled out an attempt to cross the canal, as division commander Sharon was urging, but if the chief of General Staff believed that a counterattack in Sinai was realistic, Dayan said, he would support it in the cabinet.
On Monday, the third day of the war, a major counterattack in Sinai was badly botched by the front commander. Dayan and Elazar did not learn the dimensions of the failure until they helicoptered to Sinai headquarters that night. Returning to the Pit Tuesday morning, Dayan resumed his back-to-the-wall mode, but this time as a clearheaded war leader with a pragmatic agenda rather than as a demoralizing prophet of doom.
To prepare for a protracted conflict, he told the generals, the IDF mobilization pool had to be expanded to higher age brackets. The IDF should also explore the possibility of giving 17-year-olds advanced training, particularly those who qualified for pilot courses and those destined for tanks, so that when drafted at 18 they would more swiftly be readied for combat. More immediately, antitank weapons should be distributed "to the whole country" - that is, apparently, civilians - in case enemy armor penetrated Israel's heartland, a startling suggestion that indicated the magnitude of the danger Dayan saw.
In Sinai, he said, the army could fall back if it had to as far as a line between El-Arish and Sharm e-Sheikh, two-thirds of the way back to the Israeli border, since the desert offered ample room for maneuver. On the Golan, however, there was no room for fallback. "We fight there until the last man and we don't fall back a centimeter. We must bring the battle there to a decision." To end the war on the Syrian front, he said, "all possibilities must be examined, even the wildest, including the bombing of Damascus." That afternoon, a Phantom squadron, flying via Lebanon, struck Syrian military headquarters in the center of Damascus. One plane was brought down by the city's thick air defenses.
Dayan urged the General Staff to reach artillery range of Damascus. In a note to Elazar, he said he would not be averse to reaching Damascus itself with ground forces if that were possible, so as to offset politically the pullback from the Suez Canal. (US secretary of state Henry Kissinger also encouraged Israel to move on Damascus for similar reasons. "When you reach the suburbs you can use public transportation," he quipped to Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz in Washington.)
Something of Dayan's wry humor had also begun to return. Told of Sharon's recurring demands to cross the canal, he said of the reserve general-turned-politician: "If I know Arik, he'll head straight for Cairo and try to get votes for Likud." Dayan would visit the battlefronts every day, getting as close as he could to the actual fighting. Officers who saw him repeatedly venture onto dangerous ground suspected that, consciously or unconsciously, he was courting a soldier's death, perhaps as penance.
When a paratrooper battalion crossed the Suez Canal at night in rubber boats and staked out a bridgehead on the eastern bank, Dayan did not wait for a pontoon bridge to be completed. He crossed with Sharon on a raft and toured the bridgehead perimeter. When he related to Meir that evening that he had been across the canal, she was astonished. "You were there?" she exclaimed. "Yes," he said. "And tomorrow the whole State of Israel will be there."
Chief of General Staff Elazar's steady nerves in the midst of the gloom around him was an inspiration for the rest of the army. His performance as a war commander merits him a distinguished place in military history. However, the blame laid upon him by the Agranat Commission was inescapable. He had accepted a strategic doctrine for the IDF that rested on disdain for the enemy, he had chosen to maintain a defense line on the canal itself which proved a major error and he had bowed, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to intelligence chief Zeira's insistence that Egypt and Syria were not going to war.
In reflections near the end of the war, Dayan told the cabinet that the Arab soldiers had surprised him with their steadfastness. "They didn't run, not even when they were defeated in battle." As for Israel's soldiers, he said, they had fought too boldly. "When I'm on the other side of the canal, I'm constantly thinking, 'What are we doing here? This isn't the Western Wall.' We generally understand these things a generation later. We should not be shedding blood unless it's necessary." But the army had fought magnificently, he said. "We have three divisions in the south, the likes of which the Israeli people have never seen." The IDF could reach Cairo, he said, but he did not advocate it.
In the months after the war, as reservists began to return to civilian life, Dayan was the target of daily demonstrations. The last surviving member of the wartime cabinet, former health minister Victor Shemtov, 93, recalled this month the shouts of "murderer" directed at Dayan during funerals in military cemeteries. "I made a point of standing next to him to indicate that all of us in the cabinet were responsible for the government's decisions," he said. "But later, when I thought about it, it was clear to me that Dayan, the foremost security figure in the country, bore a responsibility greater than ours."
Legally and morally, that may or may not be. But Israel was fortunate to have had a soldier/statesman of Dayan's caliber at the pinnacle of its defense structure at the time of testing.
The Six Day War had imbued Dayan with a sense of Israeli power and Arab weakness. "Better Sharm e-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm e-Sheikh," he famously said, insinuating that Israel's security lay in territorial expansion, not ephemeral peace treaties. The Yom Kippur War sent him down another road. Accepting Menachem Begin's offer in 1977 to serve as foreign minister, Dayan played a central role in opening a dialogue with Cairo.
With the signing of its treaty with Egypt in 1979, Israel got peace and, for those interested in snorkeling, it got Sharm e-Sheikh as well.
The writer is the author of The Yom Kippur War.