Moshe Dayan’s Yom Kippur War

The Yom Kippur War made Dayan determined to pursue the road to peace.

A tank turret on the Golan,  remnant from Yom Kippur War 370 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
A tank turret on the Golan, remnant from Yom Kippur War 370
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
The trauma that overtook Israel in the Yom Kippur War 40 years ago can be gauged by the failure of nerve of then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, the man who had been the country’s military icon for a generation.
Flying north the morning after Egypt and Syria launched their surprise attack, Dayan found that half of the front line on the Golan Heights had collapsed. Trucks were bringing down documents from bases on the heights in preparation for possible withdrawal.
Dayan had himself patched through to Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled, commander of the Israel Air Force.
Although the Bar-Lev Line on the Suez Canal was being overrun, Dayan told Peled to halt the attack his planes had begun on Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries and send them to the Syrian front, which was closer to the Israeli heartland. “The Third Temple is in danger,” he said.
The First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans. The Third Temple was a metaphor for the modern State of Israel. Peled’s staff protested calling off the Egyptian strike, Peled would later recount, “but they hadn’t heard Dayan’s voice.”
Dayan’s despondency darkened the already grim mood of those around him and would largely account for the thoughts of suicide that passed through prime minister Golda Meir’s mind that day, as she would write years later. Dayan – normally a cool, decisive figure given to bold thinking and action – had suddenly realized that he and the General Staff had prepared the army for the wrong war and that the enemy was already inside the gates.
Israel had believed that its swift defeat of three Arab armies in the Six Day War gave it license to cut strategic corners as it prepared for the next round. Although Ariel Sharon and other generals warned that the thin Bar-Lev Line was a death trap for its garrison and for any forces that attempted to rescue it, the army command decided to retain the line on the premise that the Egyptians posed no serious threat. “We’re fighting Arabs, not Germans,” as one general put it.
On both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts, one Israeli division faced five enemy divisions. If the Arabs attacked before Israel could mobilize its reserves – two-thirds of the army’s strength – the air force was supposed to fill the gap until the reserves reached the front. However, it was increasingly apparent before the war that the air force would have great difficulty operating over the battlefront because of the thick arrays of Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles.
The General Staff left it to the ground forces to muddle through for two or three days until the reserves arrived.
These calculated risks – miscalculated, in fact – paled before what neither Dayan nor any other Israeli had even imagined: Masses of Arab infantrymen armed with anti-tank weapons holding their ground in the face of charging Israeli tanks. As Dayan told an astonished cabinet on the second day, “They’re not running.”
The surprise attack and the unexpected Arab display of fighting spirit paralyzed some senior officers for a day or two. “Your mind freezes up,” a deputy division commander would recall. “You have difficulty getting into gear and you react by executing the plans you’ve already prepared.”
These were no longer relevant.
Dayan returned to himself after a few hours. “We’ve got to smash the new legend beginning to be woven about the Arabs becoming phenomenal warriors,” he told the generals in the war room. “Nations don’t change in six years. This is not just a war of armor but a serious war of nerves.”
At his urging, the IAF bombed infrastructure in Syria in an attempt – unsuccessful – to drive it out of the war so that Israel could focus on Egypt. When the situation on the Egyptian front grew even more dire, Dayan said that anti-tank weapons should be distributed “to the whole country” in the event enemy forces broke through into the heartland.
Fallback positions had to be prepared for the army in Sinai and commanders at all levels who couldn’t perform must be replaced. On the Golan, the fight would be to the last man, he said In a remarkable turning, Israeli forces on the Golan clawed their way back after a few days to the pre-war cease-fire line, then crossed it on the road to Damascus. In the south, Sharon’s division found a hole between two Egyptian army corps and threw a pontoon bridge across the canal. Israeli tanks poured across and raced to encircle the Egyptian Third Army. The momentum of the war had been completely reversed.
Dayan shuttled every day between the war room in Tel Aviv and the front lines, often in areas under shelling or where enemy forces had not been completely cleared. There were some who saw this behavior as penance for his early loss of nerve, perhaps even courting a soldier’s death on the battlefield.
As the army moved further east toward Cairo, he praised its prowess to his cabinet colleagues but said it was fighting too boldly. “It’s a wonderful thing and a terrible thing. We have to slow down and think what we’re fighting about. I’m constantly thinking ‘what are we doing here?’ This isn’t the Western Wall.”
The Six Day War had imbued Dayan with a sense of Israeli power and Arab weakness. The Yom Kippur War made him determined to pursue the road to peace. Changing his political colors, he joined the government of Likud leader Menachem Begin in 1977 and played a major role as foreign minister in the breakthrough to peace with Egypt.
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.