National Security

Report: Israel Failed to Activate Top Secret System Ahead of Yom Kippur War

General misled officials about activation of system ahead of sneak attack

Moshe Dayan, Yom Kippur War 1973 / AP

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military intelligence chief during the 1973 Yom Kippur War rejected repeated requests from an aide to activate a top secret warning system that might have foiled the surprise Arab attack, according to newly declassified documents from Israel’s state archives.

The subordinate, Col. Menahem Digli, told the Agranat Commission after the war that he had pleaded with intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira to approve use of "special means" including the ability to tap into Arab military communications..

"All through the week leading up to the war I pressured him to activate them," testified Digli, who was the system’s control officer. He repeated the request two or three times a day, he said. "But the answer was no."

Zeira was convinced that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would not go to war until he received advanced weapons systems he had requested from the Soviet Union. The officer persisted in that belief despite a military buildup by Egypt and Syria along Israel’s borders 40 years ago last month.

Zeira argued that the country’s economy could not bear to mobilization of the reserves every time the Arabs massed forces without clear evidence of hostile intentions.

Former Israeli defense analyst, Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph, recently wrote that Israel’s military leadership believed that "special means" had been activated and that they constituted a virtually foolproof warning system against a surprise attack. Only if the system produced evidence that the Arabs were planning an imminent attack, would the army reserves—two thirds of Israel’s battlefield strength—be mobilized.

Bar-Joseph wrote that Zeira had deliberately misled both Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan into believing that "special means" had been activated in the week before the war.

Zeira feared that premature activation risked their exposure. Uneasy at the continuing Arab buildup, Elazar asked Zeira four or five days before Yom Kippur if the devices had been activated. He was led to believe by Zeira that they had been, wrote Bar-Joseph.

Later in the week, Dayan also inquired and received a similar reply. It was only on the eve of Yom Kippur, with Arab tanks along the front line outnumbering the Israeli tanks opposite them by as much as 8-1, that "special means" were activated, too late to have an impact.

Dayan confirmed in other testimony last week to the Agranat Commission his belief before the war that the Arabs could not attack without Israel knowing about it beforehand. This assessment "was based to a large extent on the premise that the special devices had been activated."

The Arab attack caved in the Israeli front lines in Sinai and half of the Golan. It would take several days, and massive casualties