At the cliff’s edge – Part I

Caught unprepared by a two-front Arab attack on Yom Kippur, 1973, the Israeli high command struggles to find its footing.

A soldier waves an Israeli flag on the Golan front during the Yom Kippur war. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT,JERUSALEM REPORT ARCHIVES)
A soldier waves an Israeli flag on the Golan front during the Yom Kippur war.
This is the first in a three part account of the monumental decisions that reversed the course of the most difficult war in Israel’s history. The next installment will appear in the September 11 issue of the Magazine.
The retreat of the last Syrian units from the Golan Heights after five days of unrelenting battle marked the first time since Yom Kippur afternoon that Lt.-Gen. David Elazar could breathe easily. But not for long. The IDF chief of staff had to decide whether to push on toward Damascus or dig in on the ceasefire line just regained. The choice had to be made quickly, and it would be one of the most important in the war.
Lt.-Gen. David Elazar
(photo credit: GPO)
Nine hours of virtually continuous weighing of options began with a meeting in the pit – the underground war room in Tel Aviv – between Elazar and his staff. If the IDF drew close to Damascus, would Moscow press for a cease-fire or be provoked into military intervention? Would an Israeli attack encourage Iraq and Jordan to rush to the aid of the Syrians, or would it deter them? The Syrians had lost hundreds of tanks on the Golan, but they had retreated in good order and the troops manning their defense line were fighting vigorously.
The Israeli forces had staged an extraordinary battle against initial odds of 8-1, but were exhausted. Entire battalions were falling asleep whenever their tanks halted. Officers were not responding to radioed orders, because they had dozed off. Elazar ordered operations halted for the rest of the day.
He was at this point inclined toward halting on the cease-fire line. This would permit one of the three northern divisions, with 200 to 250 tanks, to be sent to Sinai to join in a major drive against the Egyptians, Israel’s main adversary.
In addition, the cease-fire line, which had been in place since the Six Day War, was more defensible than any other line they were likely to find themselves on further east, given its favorable topography, minefields, antitank ditch and strong points.
The major alternative – a push by all three divisions toward Damascus, 56 kilometers distant – offered the possibility of knocking Syria out of the war.
But with Iraqi armored units expected to enter the battle, it was questionable if Israeli forces would be able to reach the city.
Elazar’s optimism was in retreat. Since the opening hours of the war, his upbeat tone had propped up sagging morale on the General Staff and in the cabinet. In a colossal intelligence failure, Israel had been caught in a two-front war with its reserves – two-thirds of its strength – unmobilized. The Syrians had succeeded in places in reaching the edge of the Golan escarpment overlooking Israel; a Syrian battalion commander could be heard by radio monitors reporting Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and Tiberias in view. In a grinding, uphill battle, the first reserve forces to arrive succeeded in stopping the Syrians, then driving them back. With the immediate existential threat behind them, Elazar permitted himself an unblinking assessment of Israel’s situation.
The IDF had been wrong-footed by the surprise attack and was having difficulty regaining its balance. Intoxicated by its success in the 1967 Six Day War, it had rested its strategy on an assumption of Arab incompetence – “We’re fighting Arabs, not Germans,” as one officer put it. Now Israel found itself fighting a war it was unprepared for, militarily and psychologically.
Tens of thousands of Soviet military advisers had been training the Arab armies for six years while Moscow flooded Egypt and Syria with modern weaponry. Israel had no answer to the Sagger antitank missile or the SAM-6 antiaircraft missile. The Arabs were displaying new tactics and, above all, new spirit, leaving the Israeli command groping for an effective response. Defense minister Moshe Dayan would report to his cabinet colleagues about the Egyptian soldiers: “They’re not running.”
The new army Elazar was contemplating would be twice as big and would have thought through the strategic and tactical implications of the current war.’(photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE/MIKE GOLDBERG/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
In describing the battle in Sinai to officers in Northern Command, Elazar said the Egyptians were sending their infantry forward in waves. “They get down from their personnel carriers two kilometers from our lines and fire Saggers. We kill a thousand of them and then another battalion replaces them. Meanwhile, we’ve lost four, five tanks. It’s like fighting the Chinese army.”
He told Dayan that the IDF was obliged to make far-reaching changes to meet the new reality but could not do so in the middle of a war with 400,000 of its men under arms.
Things were looking bleak on every front – in the South, where Israel had failed to make a dent in the two large bridgeheads the Egyptians had established; in the air, where close to 50 planes had already been downed; even in the North. They had driven the Syrians out of the Golan, but armored probes across the cease-fire line that morning had met stiff resistance. Elazar was not sure it would be possible to break through.
On the Sinai front, “Every day we’re doing the same thing, killing a lot of Egyptians and losing a bit of territory,” he said. Within a few days, the army might have to pull back deeper into Sinai. “There we’ll be in for a long, indecisive battle.”
The heavy losses suffered in the opening days had reduced the IDF’s options.
“Even if we get 40 more Phantoms [which the Americans were promising], even if we get more tanks, it would not be substantial enough to change the balance of forces” said Elazar. “We cannot today cross the canal or get closer to Damascus.”
The air force had 227 planes left, just seven above the redline beyond which, IAF commander Benny Peled had said, the air force would not be available for significant ground support.
The logic of events was leading Elazar to a far-reaching conclusion: Israel could not win this war and must invest its energies in preparing for the next one.
“I’m in a black mood if we’re not heading for a cease-fire,” he said to Dayan.
“I’m only thinking out loud, and it may well be that I exaggerate, but I’m saying what I think right now.”
The new army Elazar was contemplating would be twice as big and would have thought through the strategic and tactical implications of the current war.
In a reversal of roles, it was Dayan, recovered from his opening-day shakes, who expressed optimism. The tide had turned in Israel’s favor in the North, he said, and would do so in the South as long as the IDF did not adopt division commander Ariel Sharon’s call for a major canal crossing. Dayan did, however, favor a limited crossing at Port Said, at the northern mouth of the canal. The air force had succeeded in neutralizing the SAM batteries in that area and would be able to support a ground attack.
The city’s capture would give Israel a territorial bargaining chip of symbolic weight in postwar negotiations.
If the Egyptians tried to advance in Sinai beyond the range of their antiaircraft missiles, Dayan said, they would be trounced. In that case, countered Elazar, the Egyptians would stay under the missile umbrella and engage in a war of attrition, which was Israel’s worst option.
“Excuse me, Dado, but that’s not the model,” the minister said to Elazar. “If the Egyptians start a war of attrition, we send the air force on deep penetration raids.”
This is what was done during the War of Attrition in 1969-70 when deep air force raids forced Egyptian acquiescence to a cease-fire. Scud missiles which could hit Israel had recently arrived in Egypt, but the Soviets were maintaining operational control over them while they instructed Egyptian operators. If the Soviets relinquished control, the Egyptians would be able to hit Tel Aviv in retaliation for deep air strikes, but Dayan was prepared to risk it. If it came to it, the air force could counter-retaliate against Cairo to greater effect. He suggested putting Egyptian economic sites even now on an attrition target list.
After Dayan left the room, Elazar turned to the other generals. “I tried to have a serious talk with him, but I couldn’t. I’ll have it with you now. I doubt that we will be able to get out of our situation without some kind of territorial loss.”
A general noted that the defense minister had been on an “up.” Said Elazar: “His ‘downs’ are too low and his ‘ups’ are too high.”
A remark by his deputy, Maj.-Gen. Israel Tal, caused Elazar to reverse on the spot his position regarding an attack into Syria.
Tal noted that if the Israeli forces dug in on the Golan cease-fire line, there would be no forward movement on either front for four days while the division being sent south made its way to Sinai. “The Arabs will see after a couple of days,” said Tal, “that we’re on the defensive.”
The observation galvanized Elazar. “They’ll see it after one day,” he said. “We have to attack [on the Syrian front] tomorrow.”
At 10:30 p.m., Elazar and his generals walked across a grassy patch to the Prime Minister’s Office. Waiting for them was prime minister Golda Meir, her inner cabinet, and advisers. This was the first meeting of the war cabinet since the war had started.
“We’re at the decisive point of the war,” began Elazar.
He himself, he said, now favored attacking into Syria. There was a chance that the Syrian army might suddenly crack, as it had unexpectedly done in the Six Day War when he commanded the assault on the Golan Heights as OC Northern Command.
Beyond that, however, considerations of national image required Israel to push forward.
“The world believes that the IDF is strong and is waiting for it to attack.
No one is aware of its [current] weakness – not the Israeli public, not the Americans, not the Arabs. If we are not attacking by tomorrow in Syria, they will suspect something. After another day, they will know.” (This as quoted in the official history of the General Staff during the war, by Shimon Golan, Milhama b’Yom Kippur, 2013.) Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would not enter a cease-fire, Elazar said, if he perceived Israel as weak. Ambassador Simcha Dinitz in Washington had reported that the Soviets were pushing for a cease-fire within 48 hours. It was essential before then to seize enemy territory for bargaining purposes. The possibility of a successful counterattack existed only on the Syrian front.
“I favor an all-out attack into Syria tomorrow,” said Elazar.
LT-Gen. David Elazar (center) alights from a helicopter to visit the troops on the Golan Heights. In the white shirt (left) is Yitzhak Rabin, serving as an informal advisor (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Dayan agreed. So did Meir, who grasped the cardinal point. It would take at least four days to shift a division to Sinai. If a cease-fire was declared before it arrived, the war would end with a territorial loss for Israel in Sinai and no gain on the Golan – in short, an unmitigated defeat. This was a political, not military, consideration and her decision was unhesitating – to push immediately into Syria. At the very least, she wanted Syrian territory to bring to the postwar negotiating table. Shortly after midnight, the decision was taken to attack in the morning.
Elazar’s jauntiness was immediately restored. He asked to meet on the Golan in the morning with division and brigade commanders before the battle got under way. Calling OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, he told him he would arrive at his headquarters at 5 a.m.
“You’re not going to the cinema tonight, right?” said Elazar, alluding to the early hour and to the fact that Hofi’s war room was located in a commandeered cinema. “We’ll meet, go together to talk to the brigade commanders, come back [to Northern Command headquarters, near Safed], and then, Yitzhak, we’ll make war.”
AT PORIYA Hospital near Tiberias, where his life had been saved in an operation on Sunday, brigade commander Ran Sarig was feeling well enough by Wednesday for doctors to permit him a one-day visit to his nearby kibbutz, Beit Hashita.
Sensing that an attack into Syria was imminent, Col. Sarig joined the “escapees” fleeing hospitals for the front. Stopping home long enough to don a fresh uniform, he headed for the Golan. He had no feeling in his left arm and would need help getting on and off a tank. The doctors had warned him not to cough, lest his neck stitches open.
It was dark when he reached the command post on Mount Yosifon. Vehicles were burning from a Katyusha barrage moments before. One of the men killed in that attack, Sarig was told, was from his kibbutz. No one told him that a few hours earlier his younger brother had been killed leading a company in another brigade.
Elazar came north at dawn on a helicopter flight that offered him a blessed hour of sleep. After reviewing the attack plan with Hofi, Elazar continued on with him to meet the divisional and brigade commanders at Nafach, the main base on the Golan. It was his first meeting with them since the war began.
The sight of the unshaven, bone-weary faces touched him deeply, particularly the haunted visage of Col. Avigdor Ben-Gal, commander of the Seventh Brigade. In a classic defensive battle, his force had blocked a major Syrian attack despite being vastly outnumbered. In the final hour, the Syrians had almost broken through when battalion commander Avigdor Kahalani rallied the few tanks remaining and beat the Syrians back.
The coming battle, Elazar told the commanders, would be a turning point.
It was doubtful that they could reach Damascus, but their aim would be to get close enough to threaten it.
The ground attack would begin with the Seventh Brigade leading Gen. Rafael Eitan’s division past the foot of Mount Hermon, whose slopes would secure the left flank. The attack had been set for 7 a.m., but Ben-Gal persuaded Northern Command to postpone it until 11 a.m. so that the sun would not be in their eyes.
Ben-Gal summoned his battalion commanders for a pre-battle briefing.
Three-quarters of the brigade’s tank crewmen at the start of the war five days before were dead or wounded. Replacements overnight had brought the brigade back up to full strength, 100 tanks.
When the briefing was over, Ben-Gal called Kahalani aside.
“Listen,” he said, placing a hand on Kahalani’s shoulder. “I met the chief of staff this morning, and I want you to know that I told him what you did.”
Ben-Gal seemed to have trouble expressing himself. “I told him you were a Hero of Israel [the name of Israel’s highest medal for valor]. I wanted you to know this.” Backing away from his emotion, Ben-Gal shook Kahalani’s hand and said awkwardly “It’ll be all right. See you.”
Lt. Peled, Kahalani’s operations officer, watched the scene from a short distance away in astonishment. He had not heard the conversation but it was plain from Ben-Gal’s body language and from the comradely hand placed on Kahalani’s shoulder that the brigade commander was emotionally moved and was making personal contact. It was a view of Ben-Gal the lieutenant had never expected to see.
Back at his battalion’s staging area, Kahalani asked for the officers to be assembled.
He scanned their faces as they sat on the ground in front of him. Most were new. “First, for all those who have just joined us and still aren’t sure where they are, this is the 77th battalion of the Seventh Brigade. Battalion commander Kahalani stands by chance before you.”
A hesitant smile appeared on the tense faces. “Before I explain our mission, I want to know who you are and what your tasks are.”
Each new man was asked to tell which company he was assigned to and what he had done since the beginning of the war. A large number were reservists, some of whom had flown back from abroad for the war. Kahalani asked each one of the reservists personal questions – what part of the country they were from, what they did in civilian life, whether they were married, how many children they had.
Lt. Peled, accustomed to the spartan tone of briefings in the standing army, found these personal questions puzzling.
What had they to do with the business at hand? Only later would he understand that Kahalani was spinning a human web, creating out of this disparate group of strangers thrown together on a remote battlefield a cohesive team that would be willing, in moments of danger that would shortly be upon them, to risk death because he asked them to.
Only when this bonding was done did Kahalani turn to Peled and ask him to unroll the map.
“The brigade has been ordered to break through the Syrian lines,” said Kahalani. “Our battalion will spearhead the attack.”
He pointed out their route and spelled out the order in which the units would move.
“I wish you all success. And, the main thing, fight like lions. We’re moving out in 20 minutes. On your tanks.”
Abraham Rabinovich is a former Jerusalem Post staff reporter.