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1973 October War: Yom Kippur War

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Yom Kippur War:
Grand Deception Or Intelligence Blunder

By Major Rodney C. Richardson,


The Israeli Intelligence community has historically been one of the most aggressive and successful intelligence networks in the world. With the aforementioned having world consensus, how were the Arabs able to launch a surprise attack against Israel on 6 October 1973?

Since 1967, the Arabs had been busy planning and preparing for an attack on Israel. Additionally, the Arabs had incorporated the fine use of deception, denial, and disinformation to disguise their deadly intent. In contrast, Israel had been lulled into a sense of security and laxity. Much of the Israeli hierarchy believed that the Arabs were not prepared for war and if they did foolishly attack, Israel could quickly defeat them as was the case in the 1967, Six Day War. Additionally, Israel's focus on their future adversary was distracted due to internal problems in the intelligence community, funding cutbacks, and an immediate need to respond to terrorists activities.

Although numerous indicators outlined the Arabs intentions, it was only hours before the actual invasion that Prime Minister Mier agreed to a partial mobilization of the Israeli Defense Force.

The surprise attack was a result of actions from both sides. The Arab's intense preparation and keen use of deception, denial, and disinformation were certainly factors in their initial success. The Israelis were able to be surprised because of widespread problems in the intelligence community, the lack of perception in identifying the Arab's intentions, the allowance for distractors to take them away from their real enemy, and the high regard for their own military ability.


Thesis Statement.

The blinding self-confidence that permeated the Israeli Intelligence community and military hierarchy ideally set the stage for the Arab invasion of 6 October, 1973.

I. Israeli Intelligence Community

A.  Mossad
B.  Modin
C.  Shabak
D.  Shin Bet
E.  Foreign Ministry Research Department

II. The Concept

A.  Arabs not prepared for war
B.  Bar Lev Line
C.  Arabs incapable
D.  Quick defeat

III. Internal problems in the Intelligence Community

A.  Changes recommended in 1963
B.  Appointment of General Zeira as DMI
C.  Internal stagnation

IV. Intelligence indicators

A.  Annual maneuvers
B.  Reserves activated and leaves canceled
C.  Training courses canceled
D.  Communications systems modified
E.  Drills conducted
F.  Stockpiling of military and civilian goods

V. Israeli distractions

A.  Funding cutbacks
B.  Formation of new group
C.  Focus on terrorism

VI. Israeli mobilization

A.  May mobilization
B.  Leaders credibility
C.  Election and holiday approaching

VII. Final indicators

A.  Mossad obtains Arab's battle plan
B.  Dayan receives call from informant
C.  Intelligence intercepts telephone calls

VIII. The decision

In the complex world of the international intelligence, it seems nearly impossible that one country could be so deadly surprised by an attack and subsequent invasion of a neighboring country. The long term preparation and deception by one country coupled with the blinding self-confidence that permeated the intelligence network and military hierarchy of the other, ideally set the stage for the October 6, 1973, war between the Arabs and the Israelis. One question asked during the attack, after the war, and is still being asked today. How was the Israeli Intelligence Community so keenly surprised by the Arabs?

The Israeli intelligence network historically has been one of the most aggressive and successful networks in the world. The tradition, Israelis say, goes back to the Bible when Moses sent twelve men to ". . . spy out the land of Canaan . . . and see the land . . . and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many." The intelligence network has been an effective force from its conception to the remarkable Jewish espionage service that operated in Palestine on behalf of the British during World War I and through the activities of the services today. (10:XX)

The Israeli intelligence is divided into five main branches. The oldest agency is the Mossad, the Secret Intelligence Service-as Israelis, following British usage, sometimes call it. The next agency, Military Intelligence of Modin, is the only agency task with analyzing and evaluating internationally collected information. The third agency, the Shabak, deals primarily with counterespionage. The fourth, Shin Bet, is similar to the FBI and deals with internal security. The fifth branch of Israeli intelligence is the Foreign Ministry Research Department. (4:66)

With the paralleling interest and pre-eminent world wide performance by the different branches of the Israeli intelligence community, one question remains. How were the Egyptians able to deceive the Israeli intelligence network prior to the Yom Kippur War?

The Egyptians' use of deception, denial and disinformation were certainly a determining factor in their success. These elements combined with the Israelis' attitudes, distractions, and internal intelligence problems allowed the Arabs to conduct a national level, surprise attack unequaled since Operation Barbarossa in 1941, when German armies attacked the Soviet Union. (10:295)

The Israeli intelligence services developed a theory called The Concept. Although not an original product of General Eli Zeira, the Chief of Military Intelligence, he supported it and convinced others of its validity. The theory stated the Arabs were not ready for an all out war with Israel and would not attack until they could simultaneously attack all Israeli airfields. Israeli estimations indicated that this would not be possible until at least 1975 when Egypt would have an adequate number of pilots and aircraft.
Secondly, the Israelis felt that their series of defensive positions along the Suez Canal, called the Bar-Lev Line, would restrain any attacker for the period it would take to mobilize their forces. This obsession drastically affected the Israelis' political and military decision making.
Thirdly, the Israelis were convinced that as a result of the decisive victory in the 1967 war, the Arabs would not launch a conventional attack until enormous stockpiles of weapons and equipment were on hand. This belief was reinforced by the idea that the Arabs were not capable of planning and executing any type of military endeavor other than guerrilla warfare.
Lastly, the entire Israeli establishment felt that if the Arabs made the mistake of launching an attack against Israel, they would be quickly defeated as in 1967.

The Israeli attitude toward the Arabs was clearly reflected by Major General Zeira, Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), during an interview in the spring of 1973. General Zeira stated,

. . . I discount the likelihood of a conventional Arab attack. The biggest problem Israeli intelligence faces is to underestimate what we're up against, but an equally big risk is that we would overestimate (and thus over-react). They (Arab leadership) have their own logic. Thus we have to look hard for evidence of their real intentions in the field -otherwise, with the Arabs, all you have is rhetoric. Too many Arab leaders have intentions which far exceed their capabilities. (1:47)

The complacency of the leaders coupled with the internal structure of the intelligence community courted failure. The controversial appointment of General Ziera as DMI was a major concern of many high-ranking Israeli leaders, both political and military. Ziera's unwavering conviction to The Concept altered or totally squashed many key indicators as to Egyptian intentions. Since military intelligence was the only agency that had the capability to evaluate collected facts, it was easy for Ziera to form and present only those items that supported his thinking. General Ziera had sole responsibility for determining the reasons for the Arab build up.

As far back as 1963, numerous recommendations had been made to reorganize the dangerously inflexible intelligence community. As a result of bureaucratic hostility within the agencies and funding cutbacks, these modifications were never implemented. Ten years later the system was even more vulnerable to mistakes derived from preconceptions or vested interest. Organized along strict military lines where no civilians were employed, rank was meticulously observed. A number of senior officers had been assigned to the same job for six or seven years. This stagnation of personnel tended to present the same line of thinking with no outside opinions to check or contradict evaluations levied by the hierarchy. (4:94)

Such was the case involving Lieutenant Benjamin Simon-Tov, a young intelligence officer at the Southern Command Headquarters. On October 3, he submitted his second paper accurately outlining the activities, preparations and ultimate intentions of the Egyptians. His boss, Lieutenant Colonel David Gedaliah, who was relieved of his job after the war, found the reports heretical and subsequently, sat on them. (4:107)

Even with the monetary and internal problems in the intelligence community the indicators were too numerous and pointed to ignore. Both Israeli and American intelligence had reported that each year Egyptian maneuvers had gotten larger with the current exercises involving division size units for the first time. It was known that reservists were recalled, leaves were canceled as well as some training courses being canceled. The implementations of a more complex field communication network and the change from radios to land lines for all traffic to and from Cairo was more than a field exercise could warrant. Mossad agents had reported air raid and blackout drills were being conducted by the Egyptians. The extensive stockpiling of war materials was indicated. Additionally, some of Egypt's elite commando units were quietly moved to new locations.

In defense of the Israeli intelligence community there were a number of factors that distracted them from the Arab attack. The funding cutbacks seriously affected their operational and personnel levels. To complicate the matter, in 1969 a group was formed solely to combat Palestinian terrorism. Manpower was scarce; therefore, individuals were drawn from within the agencies. Most of the slots were filled by highly qualified personnel who had been assigned to Egypt. Consequentially, the quality of work and information inside Egypt visibly declined.

The majority of the Israeli espionage and human intelligence assets were directed at terrorism. This was a result of the constant, guerrilla actions by the PLO and the ever increasing terrorist activity. Starting in May 1972, the intelligence community's attention focused on a number of major, world wide terrorist events.

A major incident occurred on May 30, 1972, when three, PLO hired, Japanese gunmen attacked Lod International Airport. This was followed by numerous terrorists activities which lead to the September 5, Munich Olympic Massacre by Black September. On September 19, an Israeli official, Dr. Ami Shachori, was killed in his London embassy office when he opened a letter bomb sent by the Black September Organization. Terrorism struck again on July 1, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Col. Yosef Alon, naval attache of the Israeli Embassy, was gun down outside his home by members of the Black September organization. The last incident prior to the war involved the September 28th, train hijacking of Soviet Jews on their way to Israel via Austria. Conducted by two members of the Eagles of the Palestinian Revolution, this incident occupied the political and military leadership in Israel for over a week. Whether intentional or coincidental, the diversion of Israeli decision makers was most effective for the Arabs. (9:8-40)

These few incidents cover only a small percentage of the actual terrorists activities that consumed the Israeli intelligence assets during this time. It does however, help explain how the Israeli's focus was diverted from the real threat.

A simple answer to any or all of the Arab indicators would have been to mobilize the defense force. An unnecessary mobilization had been ordered in May at a cost of nearly ten million dollars. It was supported by a number of high ranking officials including Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General David Elazar. When the Arab attack never came, the Israeli Intelligence Corps' creditability was greatly enhanced; they had originally said no attack would occur. This was the same intelligence corps that was currently saying all the Arab activity was related to annual maneuvers. General Elazar doubted the intelligence conclusions. However, he had recently been wrong in May and with election time and the Jewish holiday rapidly approaching, he was reluctant to press the issue.

The final intelligence items came in at about 0400 on the sixth of October. General Zeira notified Chief of Staff Elazar that Mossad agents had obtained the Arab attack plans. According to information, the attack was to commence at 1800. (4:101)

At approximately the same time Defense Minister Moshe Dayan received a call from ". . . an informant in an unspecified country overseas." (4:128) The content of the message stated that Egypt and Syria would launch an attack that same day.

Later on the morning of the October 6, Israeli intelligence intercepted telephone calls from junior Syrian officers. They were phoning relatives in Lebanon and warning them not to come to Syria that weekend. (4:123)  At 0600, October 6, Dayan, Elazar and Zeira met to discuss the drastic situation. They concluded that,
". . . it was clear that we had to act on the assumption that this time Egypt and Syria really meant to start a war." (3:459) The trio met with Prime Minister Mier at 0800. By 0930 she had agreed to a partial mobilization, still believing the attack was to come at 1800.

The Arabs were able to surprise the Israeli Intelligence community as a result of actions from both sides. The Arabs' keen preparation and fine use of deception, denial and disinformation were certainly major factors in their success. The surprise of the Israelis was due to their obsession with The Concept, their internal intelligence problems, their inability to key on the numerous indicators as the Arab intention, their allowance for distractors to take them away from their real enemy and their high regard for their own military ability.

The intelligence story was well stated by United States Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger when he said, "There was no lack of intelligence; it was the interpretation to the reports that was faulty." (1:42)


  1. "All the Inefficiencies of any Intelligence Service." Editorial. Armed Forces Journal, October 1973.
  2. Blumberg, Stanley A., and Gwinn Owens. The Survival Factor. New York: Putnam, 1981.
  3. Dayan, Moshe. Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life. New York: Morrow, 1976.
  4. Insight Team of the London Sunday Times. The Yom Kippur War. Garden City:  Doubleday, 1974.
  5. Mackinney, Katherine A. Egypt and Israel: The Intelligence Prelude to the October War of 1973.  Intelligence Research Paper. DIS, 1978.
  6. O'Ballance, Edgar. No Victor No Vanquished. San Rafael: Presido Press, 1978.
  7. Quandt, William. "Soviet Policy in the October Middle East War." International Affairs, July 1977.
  8. Schulte, Henry, Jr., ed. Facts on File Yearbook 1974. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1975.
  9. Sobel, Lester A. Israel and the Arabs: The October 1973 War. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1974.
  10. Steven, Stewart. The Spymasters of Israel. New York: MacMillian, 1980.


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