The Southern Front

This is the second in a three-part account of the monumental decisions that reversed the course of the most difficult war in Israel’s history. The final installment will appear in the September 18 issue of the Magazine.

A soldier takes a break with a newspaper while stationed near the Suez canal (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
A soldier takes a break with a newspaper while stationed near the Suez canal
Close to midnight Thursday, after another briefing to the cabinet and before another helicopter flight to the front, the unrelenting stress of running two wars simultaneously for six straight days caught up with Lt.-Gen. David Elazar. He was discussing the next day’s battle plans with two generals and leafing through a pile of fresh reports on his desk when he turned pale and seemed about to faint.
Alarmed aides brought him something to drink.
“I don’t want any pills,” he hastily said. He would need his wits for a major decision that had to be made in the coming hours.
Southern Command had been marking time since Tuesday while Northern Command drove the Syrians back across the cease-fire line. It was time now to decide the next step in Sinai, a pivotal choice that would determine the outcome of the war.
Instinct was irrelevant in matters as ramified as this, and there was no textbook solution. But with an orderly breakdown of the issues and a readiness to follow logic wherever it led, Elazar would work his way through the problem. As with Wednesday night’s decision to cross the cease-fire line in the North, the process would involve a daylong exercise in thinking out loud.
In the end, after sharp changes in position and fresh intelligence supplied by the Mossad, the way forward would emerge.
The discussion began in the early hours of Friday morning, October 12, at a meeting in the underground war room in Tel Aviv. Lt.-Gen. (res.) Haim Bar-Lev, was due up from Sinai in a few hours to present his recommendations.
The former chief of staff had agreed to give up his position as commerce minister in order to take over command of the Egyptian front, in the wake of a disastrous performance by the incumbent, Gen. Shmuel Gonen, who was left with his title but with diminished authority.
Elazar wanted to informally examine the options with his staff before Bar-Lev arrived.
Military intelligence chief Eli Zeira and air force commander Benny Peled urged that the IDF cross the canal in the next two days, before an expected cease-fire was imposed. The air force had the capacity to support a major ground attack if it were launched by Saturday night, said Peled. Afterward, given its losses, it would have to confine itself to defending the skies over Israel.
“You don’t have to convince me that we have to attack by tomorrow night,” said Elazar. “The question is what happens afterward.”
Expanding on the motif he had sounded in his talk with Dayan two days before, he said that his goal was a stable cease-fire that would permit Israel to rebuild its armed forces. Defeating Egypt was no longer a near-term option, he said.
This was a painful admission for the commander of an army that, until a few days before, had been considered unbeatable by any combination of armies in the Middle East – an assumption he himself heartily shared.
It was to Elazar’s credit that he was not reduced to denial or paralysis by this startling turn of events.
He was convinced that Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would not accept a cease-fire unless shaken by some dramatic military move, like an Israeli crossing of the canal. He was not sure, however, that even a crossing would do it.
“I would be happy, and you don’t know how happy,” he said to his officers, “if you have any better ideas.”
They didn’t. Peled expressed confidence that a crossing would bring about a swift Egyptian collapse. Elazar did not share that optimism. Northern Command had thrown all it had at the Syrians and made good progress, but its offensive had run out of steam with the arrival of hundreds of Iraqi tanks.
If a crossing, then, where? Two formidable Egyptian armored divisions remained on the west side of the canal plus other forces. Together they fielded twice as many tanks as Israel could send across.
Until now, Israel’s principal concern had been the Sagger antitank missiles wielded by infantrymen. The Saggers were a major challenge that the IDF had not prepared for. Confrontation with armored divisions, on the other hand, meant a World War II-type tank battle. Israel welcomed such a confrontation – but not while it was attempting to cross a major water barrier.
A battle in Sinai would permit the IDF to fight from defensive positions of its choosing. In addition, Egyptian tanks that crossed into Sinai would no longer be waiting on the opposite bank to contest the crossing.
But would the Egyptian divisions cross? According to the battle plan obtained by the Mossad a year before, they were to have crossed already, but intelligence was picking up no signs of movement. If the Egyptian divisions did not cross into Sinai, said Elazar, the IDF would undertake “a maximal, hazardous offensive” by Saturday night and cross the other way, regardless of the risks.
Three crossing proposals drawn up before the war were examined: a limited one aimed at seizing Port Said at the canal’s northern mouth; a two-divisional attack at Deversoir, opposite Fort Matsmed in the central sector; and a split attack by two divisions – one at Kantara in the northern sector and one at Deversoir.
Zeira, whose operational insights during the war would prove far more realistic than his prewar intelligence assessments, supported a two-divisional crossing at Deversoir. The Israeli forces, he said, would probably come up against the soft underbelly of the Egyptian army across the canal.
Like Elazar, Bar-Lev had come to the conclusion that only a canal crossing had a chance of salvaging something from the war – throwing the Egyptians off balance and exploiting Israeli tank mobility. Two divisions – with 300- 350 tanks between them at current strength – could cross at Deversoir/ Matsmed where their left flank would be protected by the Bitter Lake.
“Regretfully,” he said to Elazar, “I don’t have another solution.”
Gen. Israel Tal termed the proposal a dangerous improvisation. It was questionable if the bridging equipment could be brought intact to the canal bank through the Egyptian lines. If the crossing were inconclusive, the army would have to remain fully mobilized and subject to attrition.
Bar-Lev agreed. “But I see no alternative.”
Elazar did not want to make the decision on his own. Whether a crossing would throw Sadat off balance was basically a political assessment, and at Elazar’s insistence, defense minister Moshe Dayan flew back from Northern Command to join the meeting. The objective of a crossing, said Elazar, was to achieve a cease-fire in order to rebuild the army “for 100 years.” Did Dayan believe that a crossing would make a cease-fire more likely? Or did he not? The defense minister bridled at the formulation. It was for Elazar to decide, he said, whether a crossing was a sound military move. Political considerations were to be left to the political leadership.
If Elazar recommended a crossing on its military merits, Dayan said, he would support it in the cabinet, even though he believed the best hope for a cease-fire lay on the Syrian front.
“Advance to within artillery range of Damascus,” he said. “The only thing that can bring about a cease-fire is if our shells hit inside Damascus.”
Peled said the air force could easily bomb Damascus.
“There’s a difference,” said Dayan.
“They know that planes don’t conquer [territory].” Artillery, on the other hand, suggested an army at the gate.
(The next night, two long-range Israeli guns hit Mazeh Airport just outside Damascus with 23 shells. The sound of the explosions was heard in the city itself. The night after that, the guns were preparing to hit several targets inside Damascus. The mission was canceled at the last moment by an order from the political level, perhaps because of fear of retaliation against Israeli cities or because of Soviet hints of intervention.) The defense minister rose after 20 minutes and said he was going to report to prime minister Golda Meir. He left behind his military aide-de-camp, Gen. Yehoshua Raviv.
Angry at what he took to be Dayan’s evasiveness, Elazar told Raviv to convey to the minister that he wanted the matter resolved this day.
“This is a decision of tremendous military-political importance,” he said, “and the chief of staff will do whatever the defense minister decides.” Elazar proposed through Raviv that the matter be put to the inner cabinet. The decision was too critical, he made clear, to be left to him alone. “I want clearance from the political echelon today.”
The chief of staff’s blunt message brought a swift response – an invitation to a meeting in Meir’s office with the prime minister and her civilian advisers.
FOR EGYPT’S Gen. Saad el-Shazly, too, this was a day for excruciating decisions.
He had visited the front and left it in good spirits. The army was well dug in and officers and soldiers were confident they could meet anything the Israelis could muster.
When Shazly returned to Cairo, he found a message awaiting him from war minister Ahmad Ismail Ali. Could Shazly stop by? The question put to him by Ali was the one Shazly had been dreading: Could the army continue eastward to the Sinai passes? Shazly sharply objected to moving the army out of the protection of the SAM antiaircraft missiles in the canal zone, but by the next morning the question had become an order.
“It’s a political decision,” said Ismail.
Sadat was responding to a plea from Syrian president Hafez Assad to attack eastward in Sinai in order to ease Israeli pressure on Damascus. Sadat could ignore Assad no longer. If Syria dropped out of the war, Israel would turn all its might against Egypt.
TO THE critical meeting with the inner cabinet in Meir’s office Friday afternoon, Elazar brought Bar-Lev and members of the General Staff. Also present at the prime minister’s invitation was Mossad chief Zvi Zamir.
“I want to present the next stage of the war,” began Elazar.
Before he made his operational recommendation, he said, he wanted to hear from the government whether it believed that a canal crossing might lead to a cease-fire.
“I am not avoiding my responsibility to make a recommendation, but this crucial stage requires consultation.”
There might be ways of achieving a cease-fire he had not thought of, he said – political alternatives or perhaps “threats.” He did not spell out what kind of threats. He had previously suggested “dramatizing the war” by hitting civilian targets in Damascus and dropping bombs on Cairo. Peled asked permission to create sonic booms over Cairo, “so that when Sadat agrees to a cease-fire, they won’t butcher him in the presidential palace.” Permission was denied.
Bar-Lev spoke in optimistic terms of what a crossing could accomplish, such as the severing of supply lines to the Egyptian bridgeheads and the destruction of SAM batteries. There were serious risks, he acknowledged, principally the possibility that the Israeli bridges might be knocked out after forces had crossed.
He spoke to his former cabinet colleagues of the high spirits of the men on the front and of the superb quality of their officers. “Our boys are fighting, bless them, with cool heads, a dash of humor, without panic. And they’re fighting.” But continuation of the status quo would erode the army’s strength, he said.
Peled’s warning that the air force was almost at its redline focused minds, particularly Elazar’s. “Every day after the 14th [when air force ground support supposedly would stop] we’ll be in a worse situation,” Peled said.
Peled would reveal decades after the war that he had lied about the redline in order to encourage an immediate canal crossing. The figures he cited referred only to certain kinds of aircraft, about 80 percent of actual operational strength.
A dissenting note was again voiced by Tal. The army was inadequately prepared for such a risky operation, he said. The Armored Corps had not been sufficiently trained in bridging operations, and it lacked sufficient bridges.
Tal was still talking when the door opened and Meir’s secretary, Lou Kedar, entered to herald, unknowingly, the turning point of the war. Apologizing for the intrusion, she addressed herself to Mossad chief Zamir: “Your people want to talk to you urgently.”
Two of Zamir’s officers were waiting in Kedar’s office down the hall. They had walked over from Mossad headquarters, 10 minutes away, to inform him that a radio message had just been picked up from an important Egyptian informant. The message was only partially audible. One of the officers read out from a paper the part that could be transcribed. Zamir hurried back down the hall to the Prime Minister’s Office, clutching the paper and working out in his mind how he would phrase its message, including the part that wasn’t there. All eyes turned toward him as he entered.
A report, he said, had just been received by radio from a reliable Egyptian source. Three Egyptian paratroop brigades were to land behind Israeli lines – near the Refidim air base and the Sinai passes – either Saturday night or Sunday night. By itself, the deep raid made little military sense. The message was garbled but the part that could be understood made no mention of the Egyptian armored divisions. However, said Zamir, according to the war plan the Mossad had obtained, the insertion of special forces behind Israeli lines was to precede an attack by the armored divisions.
The atmosphere in the room was suddenly electric. Elazar could not have hoped for better news.
“We will hold off on the [Israeli] crossing and organize for a defensive battle,” he told Meir. Elazar had been prepared to send his forces across the canal the next night, despite the risk.
Zamir’s report meant that the IDF would now have a chance to reduce Egyptian tank strength, perhaps significantly, before making the crossing.
Whatever traumas the Saggers and RPGs had inflicted, the IDF had not lost confidence in its ability to deal with enemy tanks.
IN MEIR’S office after the generals left, Dayan proposed informing Washington that Israel was withdrawing its objections to a cease-fire, although not to request one. Meir sent a message to this effect to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Dayan returned to speak with Meir after the meeting broke up. Public criticism of the government was mounting, much of it directed at Dayan himself.
To Meir he acknowledged that he had erred in not anticipating the war and in underestimating the Arabs. He felt capable of leading Israel’s effort in this difficult war, he said, but if the prime minister wanted him to resign for the failures he cited, he was prepared to do so.
Meir rejected the offer. She had indeed lost faith in him in the opening days of the war when he was badly shaken, but his self-confidence had returned and she was once again relying on his broad military/political vision and his pragmatic advice.
Zamir’s warning was the second critical piece of battle-relevant intelligence that the Mossad had provided – the first being the all-important warning on Yom Kippur eve that war would break out the next day. The army would ready itself now for battle, and the government would prepare the political context for a cease-fire.
After eight days of war, the initiative on the Sinai front was finally being seized by Israel.
Abraham Rabinovich is a former Jerusalem Post staff reporter. abra@