Israel will soon mark the anniversary of one of the worst traumas it has ever experienced. On Saturday, Oct. 6, 1973, shortly before 2 pm, the Egyptian and Syrian militaries launched a coordinated surprise attack simultaneously on two fronts. The IDF was caught unprepared for the invasion, and a sense of real existential threat hung in the air.
In 18 bloody days of fighting, the IDF fighters managed to turn the tide. The Arab armies were halted, the battles moved to the enemy’s territories and finally, the Egyptians and Syrians signed new cease-fire arrangements.
At the end of the war, the deep shock left its mark on Israeli society. In fact, the feeling of low morale in the face of serious failure and the conduct of the political-security echelons was one of the factors that led to the governmental change in 1977. Later, the results of the war motivated the processes that led to the historic peace agreement with Egypt.
To this day, 50 years later, the consequences of that war are still present in the security establishment and the IDF. The IDF Military Intelligence Directorate trains young officers in light of the lessons of the serious failure. The reason is clear: All the dry intel that pointed to preparations for war in Egypt and Syria was in the hands of the IDF and yet, senior intelligence officials — led by Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira — were absolutely sure that a war was unlikely.
This assessment by Zeira and his colleagues, which numbed the top political and military ranks in the face of the imminent danger, was accepted even though the Syrian army was preparing for an emergency, and aerial footage of the Egyptian front testified to an unprecedented preparation and an extensive reinforcement of the artillery batteries.
On the eve of the war, Israel had actual intelligence about the advancement of the Syrian and Egyptian attack planes to more forward fields, and about the evacuation of the families of the Soviet advisers. One cannot help but also mention the famous strategic warning delivered by Mossad head Zvi Zamir from Mossad informant Ashraf Marwan.
And yet, Zeira insisted that Egypt would not go to war before it was equipped with fighter-bombers, which would be able to attack deep within Israel, and Syria would not go to war without Egypt. In practice, the intelligence assessment was intuitive and was related to the personal nature of the high-ranking officials, who had difficulty changing their perceptions even when reality - and intelligence — pointed to a different situation.
When asked whether another such mistake could be repeated, current senior IDF intelligence officials say that a surprise can always occur, but because the lessons of the Yom Kippur War are still a guiding principle, the likelihood that Israel will be surprised by a multifront attack is very low.
Thanks to the Military Intelligence Directorate’s technological capabilities, Israel has access to impressive intelligence, much better than it did in the early 1970s.
Unlike before, now each of the intelligence analysts has access to almost all the intelligence. Moreover, there is now a separate department established after the Yom Kippur War whose task is to contradict the prevailing opinion. It is a central part of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s situation assessment.
Even young officers are encouraged to express his or her opinion even if it contradicts the accepted paradigm. And just like in the past, the decision-makers in the military are still required to present their assessment to senior military and political officials.
And yet, a surprise can occur mainly due to a misinterpretation of the information, since like 50 years ago, it ultimately depends on human beings who can make mistakes. However, the possibility of Israel being caught off guard by a multifront war is unlikely, and such a complex crisis is more likely to occur as a result of the unfolding of events on the ground.
The next conflict
Another thing is that 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, which was considered the last multi-arena war, the possibility of another multi-arena conflict is back on the table. For the first time since that war, the Intelligence Directorate believes that there is a high chance that the next war will take place on more than one front. According to the latest estimates, if a conflict breaks out with Hezbollah in Lebanon, terrorist organizations in Gaza will also join, as will Palestinian terrorist elements in the West Bank.
During Operation Guardian of the Walls, it became clear that a riot by Arab Israelis also needs to be taken into account. Neither do officials rule out the possibility of Iran or its proxies in other countries in the Middle East trying to send drones into Israel.
Although in collective memory, the biggest failure in the Yom Kippur War was the intelligence failure, it was certainly not the only one. In fact, some argue it wasn’t even the main one.
“It is very convenient to blame the intelligence, because they made a mistake, someone incorrectly processed the data received and was arrogant,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, who was the last general in the General Staff of the IDF to participate in the war as a young soldier, told Israel Hayom.
“According to the conventional explanation, the war broke out by surprise and we were saved because we were good, but it’s not like that. The first to understand this was [Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan. On Oct. 7, he realized that there was much more to this than the intelligence failure since the force was not properly prepared in the years leading up to the war, both in terms of the wrong operational concept and also in the aspect of the non-existent defensive concept.
“Thus, for instance, the Israeli Air Force was prepared to attack the airports as in Operation Focus in 1967, while in practice, all the planes were protected by hardened aircraft shelters. Who continues to plan like this when all the planes are protected?”
According to Hacohen, the readiness of the ground forces was not at its peak on the eve of the war. The IDF did have tank brigades, but the ground forces were not optimally structured. The guns were outdated and the equipment was scarce, he said.
Even now, although the IDF tries to sweep the problem under the rug, the readiness of the ground forces is not at its peak. It is no secret that for the past year and a half the IDF has been busy fighting terrorism, and as a result, its training for war has been compromised. Moreover, some argue that the structure of the ground forces is adapted to past wars and not to future conflicts.
Hacohen continued, “Serious credit must be given to former Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, whose vision and ground-breaking ideas regarding multidimensional forces and multidimensional warfare indicated that he recognized a serious problem. If we try to use the classic maneuver concept, which is based on an armored and fast strike force — we will crash against Hezbollah. Kochavi recognized this, and from that, he tried to build a new tactical logic for the IDF’s use of force. But he laid the first milestones, and above all gave a correct diagnosis of the gap.
“The important question is not only whether we will be surprised in the next war, but whether our force is built the right way, with the right mix of balances, and if we have adequate reserves. I believe that the IDF today does not have enough ground forces, nor does it have sufficient reserves of artillery and tanks.”
One of the important things that came up in the discussions of the Agranat Commission that investigated the war was the separation between the enemy’s capabilities and intentions.
“The concept then tended to assess the enemy’s intentions,” Hacohen said. “If the IDF were to work like that today, it would have to now have a supra-divisional force in battalion concentrations in the north. The army doesn’t do that, because even today it relies on the intelligence.”
The bottom line, the IDF won the war despite the surprise and the fact that its forces were not properly equipped. It is likely that one of the main reasons for this was the national spirit and the fact that every citizen felt that the fate of the country rested on his shoulders. In October 1973, the Israelis sought to contribute to saving the homeland, to find a place on the plane that would take them to the war, and they were looking for unmanned tanks to get to the front.
The situation seems different now, even without taking the crisis over the judicial reform into consideration. In recent years, Israelis have not felt that sense of existential threat, and the prevailing opinion is that the IDF is strong and all-powerful. Many Israelis also feel that the military is more than capable of handling a war, and no one feels that the victory or loss in the war rests on them personally.
The latest crisis, which resulted in thousands of no-shows by reservists, only exacerbated the already problematic situation. It seems that the social cohesion and the sense of mutual responsibility that characterized Israel for more than seven decades are cracking.
An equally serious problem concerns trust in the leadership. In general, during the Yom Kippur War, the public believed in its leaders and it was clear to all citizens that Israel was caught in a war and had no choice. In recent months, the feeling of trust in the government has been decreasing. Unfortunately, even in the latest operation in Jenin recently, some accused the government of launching it to harm the anti-judicial reform protests.
By now, it is clear that the start date of the operation had not even the faintest connection to the protests, and the considerations were completely objective. However, the fact that this question has crossed people’s minds is troubling. Who can guarantee that if a confrontation with Hezbollah breaks out tomorrow (and there is no shortage of reasons for this to happen), there will not be someone who will claim that the government is degenerating the country into war in order to get out of its crisis?
Regardless of the protests, Israel is once again in an alarming security situation, as the multi-faceted threat is back on the table.
Back then, Israel managed to win. In 2023, although on paper the IDF is stronger than all the surrounding armies and terrorist organizations, if the social crisis worsens and deepens, it is not at all certain that the Jewish state will be able to repeat the same brilliant victory of 1973.
Lilach Shoval is Israel Hayom’s military correspondent.