Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Tishrei 5764 - October 8, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








All Quiet on the Bar Lev Front

by M. Chevroni

This year was the 30th anniversary of the "Yom Kippur War" that began on Yom Kippur and ended after Succos. At the time, the Israeli military was basking in the glow of their big victory only six years earlier in the Six Day War. They got a rude shock. Still, their concerns were not always focused on the grave threats at hand. This past summer private tapes made by officers and commanders were released that showed what was going on behind the scenes. It proves again, to those who need proof, what is the true nature of the IDF.

"Do a periscope check. Restock the biological-chemical warfare equipment. You've been authorized to mobilize part of the battle formation. Mobilizing the 204th Brigade has not been authorized . . . Position wolves. Prepare entire Precious Light apparatus and Light Beam at outposts and Sunray and arm them."

Thirty years ago, on the morning of Yom Kippur 5737 (1973), slight movement could be detected in the IDF. Intelligence sent grave warnings. The Russian advisors were evacuating Port Said and Alexandria. Equipment was being transported from Egypt to Libya. Five Egyptian army divisions opened a front, including infantry, air force and armored divisions. Lieutenant Colonel Shay Tamari, an intelligence officer at the Southern Command headquarters, passed on a warning based on "a report from a very good source."

The Tapes That Could Not Be Made Public

If only . . . If only the Israelis--drunk with glory since the War of 5727 (1967) and who even published articles proving Israel was no less than a regional superpower--had acted according to the original plans . . . If only they had prepared to activate the Precious Light plan, the entire Suez Canal would have gone up in flames. The plan called for Israel to pump in large quantities of fuel, flood the canal and set it on fire. In that case how would the Yom Kippur War have proceeded?

During this year's summer news doldrums of August, the Israeli press began raising many questions about what took place thirty years ago during the terrible war in which Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said, "Here goes our Third Temple." That was the war that burst the IDF's big bubble of inflated pride. Or perhaps we should say put a few holes in it.

A great deal can be said about the way the Yom Kippur War was run and what occupied the attention of many Israeli banner wavers at a time when a great peril loomed over the State of Israel--questions still asked to this day. What recently brought both of Israel's leading newspapers, Yediot Achronot and Ma'ariv, to simultaneously publish the transcripts of radio communications during the war?

"These reports are not new," says historian Dr. Uri Millstein. "This information was published ten years ago in my book Krisa Velekcha (A Crisis and its Lessons) in 1993. In that book I published in detail all that took place during the first three days of the war. Everything recently reported already appears in the book."

But there is one piece of information that does not appear in the book: the source of the radio exchanges. "Ten years ago it would have been inconceivable to publish such a thing," says Dr. Millstein. "It is prohibited to reveal the tapes of radio devices in times of war. The prohibition, according to the law, remains in place for 50 years after the time of the event. It is permitted to publish information but it cannot be from a classified source and the tapes are classified material."

Yet the contents of the tapes did make their way into the papers. "The big newspapers are not afraid of anyone," explains Dr. Millstein.

The tapes contain exchanges between the Southern Command, particularly then Southern Command General Shmuel Gonen (known by his nickname Gorodish), and the division commanders. "Not every company commander can speak with the general," explains Dr. Millstein. "The general has his own communications network."

How is it that Yediot and Ma'ariv uncovered the sources for the two separate sets of tapes at exactly the same time?

"I can only speculate that one of the newspapers began to work on the material from one of the sources and it became known to the other newspaper, which rushed to do the same." Thus the two major newspapers were in a battle as well, although it pales in comparison to the private battle between the generals during the Yom Kippur War as recorded on the tapes.

In the eye of the storm was--and is--Gonen, who began to document the course of the war when fighting broke out. According to Amir Porat, his close friend who served as his radio operator at the time and made recordings of conversations, Gonen realized he was encountering a historic event of phenomenal proportions. He even realized he was about to get caught up in a historic dispute. And to protect himself, with the help of the female soldiers on his staff and his personal assistants, he transcribed every word on the communications system of the Southern Command during the war. What was the army general's chief concern during a time of imminent danger to the State of Israel? Saving his own hide.

He had good cause for fear, but for some reason he was convinced he was right and entrusted the tapes to Amir Porat who was with him in the war room, and to a few other close associates.

In addition to the tapes, Gonen kept various well-preserved handwritten and typed documents. Thus the action was documented in an authentic manner and the voices on the tapes make those harrowing days come to life.

On that fateful Yom Kippur of 5734, David Elazar, then chief of staff, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were woken up at 4:00 am. "Syria and Egypt are about to launch an all-out war against Israel," the two men at the top of the Israeli defense hierarchy were told.

On the Southern Command communications network the events were described by Lieutenant Colonel Tamari, who said, "I am passing on information that something big could take place today. Be more vigilant about the shrapnel vests and helmets . . . biological- chemical warfare preparedness. Increased anti-aircraft alertness at front line and rear bases."

Delusions of Grandeur

His remarks seem understated, reflecting the prevailing attitude at the time. "IDF heads were slow to understand the events taking place in October 1973," says Dr. Millstein.

The Israeli high command was internally fragmented, writes Dr. Millstein in his book. When war broke out on the afternoon of Yom Kippur they were not just surprised, they were dumbfounded. "The methodical brainwashing that had descended upon Israeli society and on the IDF since the Six Day War at least, established as axiomatic that Ha'am Hayosheiv Betzion had a professional and superior military . . . This axiom worked to the enemy's advantage in a process of deceit and/or corruption of the army culture and denied them the ability to confront surprise and pressure conditions."

In other words the army was enthralled by the glory it had built for itself and did not wise up to the flow of events.

"Along a front of at least 160 km [100 miles] along the Suez front," reads an article in Ma'ariv, "only 450 combat soldiers were positioned, divided into 16 strongholds active on the Bar Lev line." These forces had to confront an attack consisting of five Egyptian divisions equipped with 1,000 tanks, 2,000 artillery guns and Soviet ground-to-air missile launchers in addition to Sager missiles, which hit hard at the Israeli Air Force and IDF tanks. According to intelligence reports, the war was scheduled to break out at 6:00 p.m. The Egyptians failed to adhere to the plan and launched the attack four hours earlier. The image comes across clearly in Ma'ariv transcripts of reports radioed at 2:05 p.m.

"The Egyptians bombed the area of the 184th Battalion at Tasa . . . The Egyptians bombed Tasa and Maftzach . . . Egyptian tanks mounted the ramps [on the west bank of the Suez Canal] and have opened fire on us . . . They are shooting at Milano and Mezach [names of strongholds on the Bar Lev line] . . . An aerial attack on Sharam. Antiaircraft activated . . . Shelling on Chashiva [the Southern Command war room] . . . Egyptians crossing south to Chizayon [name of a stronghold] . . . Pressure on the strongholds. Gunfire battles under way. Reports of Egyptian infiltration at Agam Chemer Hakatan . . . Attempts to cross opposite all of the strongholds. No more forces in the sector. At Mifreket [name of stronghold] there was an Egyptian crossing. No wireless communication with Orcal [name of a stronghold]. Eight tanks totally taken out of commission at Budapest [name of a stronghold]. Two of our tanks located at Budapest. One in operation. One barrel [i.e. artillery gun] out of commission at Budapest . . . Nisan under infantry attack . . . Movement on the Jidi Road. One hundred Egyptians are mounting Lituf. At Chizayon the attack was repelled. Many dead and wounded."

Egyptian soldiers came streaming across the Suez Canal and planted Egyptian flags on the eastern bank. The IDF was stunned. The firepower the Egyptians demonstrated, their fighting ability, the combination of artillery, air force, ground troops and tanks did not fit the image of boots scattered across the Sinai Desert engraved in the Israeli consciousness as an emblem of Arab military capability.

Oil Fields in Flames

A great cry went out from the strongholds. "Bring in the planes!" shouted the soldiers under siege, who were convinced the Israeli Air Force was capable of anything. But the air force was engaged in the North and the handful of planes that went south found it very difficult to operate in the presence of the Egyptian antiaircraft batteries. Egyptian Migs also caught the Israelis by surprise, demonstrating improved fighting ability.

"Request air force assistance the length of the northern sector," came an officer's voice over the radio. "Egyptians present at Mifreket, Lachtzanit and Milano Aleph . . . Lachtzanit and Mifreket overtaken. Request aerial assistance urgently in the northern sector and in . . . No contact with Budapest and Orcal . . . In the southern sector the situation is good, except for an incursion onto the Jidi Road. No incursions at central [sector]. At northern [sector] the situation is bad. The strongholds have been captured."

The dismal account goes on. "The fuel tank at Baliam [oil field] was hit . . . There are a lot of places on fire . . . They hit the middle of the [oil]field at Patriko. The entire flow must be stopped and people have to be evacuated from the drilling rigs . . . Ignite the biggest farm . . . They are taking people off the towers [i.e. drilling platforms] in the middle of the sea . . . They hit the oil, not known with what. The most important field."

The Second Day

On the second day of the war the reserve forces called up late were still stuck on the way to the Sinai Desert. Hopes were hanging primarily on the arrival of two reserve divisions: one under General Sharon and the other under General Aden. And as if there was not enough panic already, somebody sent an erroneous report that the Egyptians were using chemical weapons. "In the area of Miftzach they have activated gasses, put on masks . . . Possibility of gas attack in the southern sector. Request planes in the area of Lituf [and] Miftzach immediately . . . .Request air . . . Communications problems at Um Chashiva . . . The planes are being obstructed . . . In the area of Miftzach there appear to be chemical substances . . . Request discontinuation of electronic fighting for a while. This may be interrupting communications with the planes . . . Baran will reach Baluza in another 40 minutes with 40 tanks. In southern [sector] the situation is difficult. Many of the tanks are damaged. The situation in central [sector] is hazy. Tank incursion, unknown how many. In northern [sector], except for Lachtzanit, they are maintaining all of the strongholds. Arik will not be arriving until this evening."

"I need Benny," comes a repeated cry over the radio. Benny was the commander of the air force, on which all hopes were hanging. Only at 11:07 in the morning does the voice of General Sharon come onto the communications network for the first time. "I am located in Refidim," reports Sharon, who traveled in a civilian van commandeered in Ashkelon.

The situation at the strongholds was worsening. The vast majority of them were encircled by Egyptian forces. Moshe Dayan appears at the southern front and Sharon tells him via radio he will arrive at Tzeilon in another hour. Gonen, who notified Dayan of the massive Egyptian assault, gets a lukewarm response. "There might be air [force assistance], but only in the morning."

Entangled in the Net

"There was no national leadership to put the military command in its place," says Dr. Millstein. "Golda Meir and her coterie were incapable of leading a nation at war. They immediately established a covenant of failure." He says this clique invested all of its energy into ensuring its political future and silencing criticism. "They acted like an animal caught in a trap with no escape, entangling itself in the net."

This metaphor also very aptly describes the conduct of Southern Command Chief Shmuel Gonen, who was accused of mismanaging the southern front.

Gonen was new to the post. He had not yet familiarized himself with the area under his control or the command hierarchy. He was a harsh and irascible man who worked on his image from the very start and was unable to rein in Sharon and Aden, who were both more experienced and seasoned generals than he. The real war among the generals must be viewed from Gonen's limited viewpoint.

"Gorodish [Gonen] was blamed for all of the failures," says Dr. Millstein. "He took the communications networks of the Southern Command and decoded them. He handed out the transcript to all kinds of people, and I was one of them."

Gonen really did perform poorly, but he was not the only one. At first the top brass was in a state of euphoria. "A sickly euphoria," he writes in his book. This sense was "an advance at the expense of victory."

With their distorted perception of reality they believed they would rout the enemy swiftly, tie on some more laurels and reach a forced peace agreement with the Arabs following the big victory they were anticipating. They envisioned an Israel stretching from the oilfields of Abu Rodes to the springs of Mt. Hermon. The Lebanese border, some army commanders held, would lie at the southern bank of the Litani River. For two days they felt the intoxication of power based entirely on illusion and sobered up only on Monday afternoon, the 8th of October.

"We were not mentally prepared for the war," explained then- Colonel Amnon Reshef after the war to the author of a biography of General Mendler, who was killed during the fighting." The atmosphere of tranquility sank too deep into our consciousness . . . Even when two thousand artillery guns opened fire, a grasp of the facts still did not penetrate our skulls. We still did not believe it was war."

Not that early warning signs were lacking. In fact there were plenty- -for weeks. Yet despite the signs, intelligence warnings and high- alert declarations the Israelis were caught in "a total and stunning surprise."

Five days before the war broke out, writes Dr. Millstein, on the 1st of October, at 5:15 am Mendler wrote in his journal: "Fantastic. Intelligence [says] war tomorrow. There goes my replacement!" [Apparently he was to be replaced shortly thereafter.]

The strongholds were already given up for lost. Dayan, who was the first to sober up to reality, went to the opposite extreme. "The strongholds can't be counted on," he said. "It would be a pity if you try to break your way in. If there is a stronghold that has held out [in the fighting], then fine. And if not, let its personnel filter out at night. Leave the wounded to fall into captivity. Have the fit ones try to cross the lines, and on their own. I prefer to do this at night."

According to Dayan's assessment the situation in the north was far graver since the relatively large geographical distance between the Suez Canal and the State of Israel was lacking in the north. "Clearly priority will be given to Deganiot, Tiberius and the Jordan Valley," he said over the radio. "Sinai is not so important. Twenty kilometers more, 40 less . . . "

Yet those kilometers contained human beings, soldiers who were killed or captured. Some of the prisoners were murdered by the Egyptians while their hands and feet were tied. The preference for the north was kept secret as "ministerial advice" according to Dayan. At this stage Dayan already told General Ze'evi (Ghandi), "This is the destruction of the Third Temple." The euphoria quickly turned into despair.

Valuable time was lost, people were killed and the Egyptians tightened their stranglehold. At this point General Sharon entered the picture. Until just a short time earlier Sharon had been a general in the Southern Command and he knew the territory like the back of his hand. He had retired only recently. He was placed under the command of the younger Gonen but did not excel in following orders. "Where's Arik?" Gonen kept asking over the radio.

Even back then, Sharon retained his right to remain silent. When he finally managed to contact Sharon, Gonen ordered him to capture a bridge and destroy the armored units at Masrek, the code name for Mezach. Sharon replied, "Got it. What I wanted to tell you was that according to your intelligence there is no bridge there."

The pressure kept mounting. Gonen spoke crudely to his underlings. Sharon tried to assist the personnel at the strongholds to escape. Meanwhile Gonen adhered to Dayan's "ministerial advice" to let them fall into captivity.

On the morning of the third day of the war, General Aden launched a counterattack. According to the early reports Aden was succeeding in the battle. Sharon received an order to advance and capture one of the Egyptian bridges over the Suez. Then reports came in that Aden was running into trouble. Sharon was ordered to backtrack and move north to assist him. The Egyptians seized the positions Sharon had managed to capture.

Sharon began to feel the army was sinking in the mud. "I think there is a way to get out of this situation," he said.

Something on the southern front was not working properly, namely relations between Gonen and Sharon. At this stage it was decided to make a change in the command structure of the southern front. After the failed counterattack, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan met with Chief of Staff David Elazar in the command bunker at Um Chashiva. This visit is documented in the tapes kept by Gonen's personal radio operator, Yitzhak Rubinstein.

Apparently there were two radio operators who kept tapes, which turned out to be quite convenient for the two major Israeli newspapers. Amir Porat provided his to Ma'ariv and Rubinstein gave his to Yediot Acharonot.

The Yediot report contains the taped record of a special meeting held on the night between the 8th and 9th of October in the command bunker at Um Chashiva. "The tremendous stress of the previous days is evident in everyone [present]," reads the article. "The three division commanders, Sharon, Bern and Mendler, were blackened, sweating, dirty, bleary-eyed and most of all, frustrated. None of them had any good news."

Dayan admitted that during the three days of the war he had not reported to the government about what was taking place. On the way back he decided Gonen had to be replaced. "He's not yet fit for command," said Dayan. "He doesn't have the open mind needed to take the initiative in command."

Friction among the commanders soon became apparent. The commanding officer was supposed to be Gonen, but Sharon decided his moves on his own. Sharon said of Gonen, "I call in to headquarters and ask for the general. They tell me he's asleep."

He had already formulated a plan for crossing the canal. Gonen demanded he gather his forces in accordance with the counterattack plan outlined at the Southern Command headquarters and which was not to Sharon's liking. "I ordered Arik to stop. The answer was that he was not attacking. [But] the attack continued."

The Southern Command received reinforcements. The Mezach stronghold fell on Shabbos, the 13th of October, surrendering to the Egyptians in collaboration with the Red Cross and in front of the news cameras. Thus the first combat soldiers were taken prisoner in full view of the media, carrying with them the sefer Torah kept at Mezach. Years later the sefer Torah was returned to Israel.

The Turning Point

The turning point in the war Dayan thought was lost arrived on Sunday, the 14th of October. Unfortunately the term chasdei Shomayim is not part of the Israeli lexicon. The Egyptians had essentially no obstacles to prevent them from making their way up to Israel, but they failed to see the door was left wide open for an advance. Instead they dug in right on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. Noting their flawed tactics, General Bar Lev said over the radio, "The Egyptians are going back to being Egyptians."

And the Israelis remained Israelis. This was the stage at which they began to seriously discuss a plan to cross the canal. After nightfall a plan was worked out to send two divisions--Sharon's and Aden's--across the canal in the area of Dawar Suar. Lieutenant Colonel Tamari summarized the plan over the radio, "The plan is for the Southern Command to cross the Suez Canal in the area of Dawar Suar, take over the open space between the wadis, destroy the enemy in the open space and conquer the town of Suez. Command forces will be on standby to press forward westward toward Cairo. Southern Command will prevent further Egyptian advance into Sinai and will force the Egyptian forces to the east of the canal to surrender and will destroy them."

On the way to the crossing, differences of opinion arose between Sharon and the other generals. The crossing itself began around midnight of October 16th. "Aquarium," Sharon said to Gonen over the radio, meaning the paratroopers were in boats on the water. Within minutes another announcement came in: "Acapulco." This meant they were encountering no resistance by the enemy. But this message turned out to be somewhat hasty.

During the crossing Bar Lev says of Sharon, "When Arik cleaned up the bridgehead, our forces were at Amat and Missouri [names of roads]. But the gentleman [i.e. Sharon] began to mount an attack and the Egyptians, in their way, crawled back down. And now Chugger and Spider are immobile and messed up . . . "

The generals exchanged words over the communications network freely, as if they were on vacation. "I'm shocked by your conversations," said the Chief of Staff. "You're saying absolutely everything!"

Eventually they managed to lay an Israeli bridge across the canal, turning the situation around, but the difficult war was not yet over.

In the middle of the crossing, Gonen and Sharon had a major confrontation. Sharon claimed Gonen was not giving him room to act while Gonen claimed Sharon was violating his orders. That night Sharon asserted that the maximum fighting force possible should traverse the canal, saying expanding the bridgehead was less important, and kept demanding Gonen send him more and more forces. But Gonen, contending Sharon did not need this amount of force, denied his request.

According to the transcripts, Gonen preferred to see the crossing fail so the victory wreaths would not be laid on Sharon's head. Thus the generals argued in the middle of battle at the expense of thousands of combat soldiers who paid with their blood.

Disputes began to be felt more after two weeks of combat. Sharon received orders to go to Missouri, where he demanded permission to cut off the Egyptian supply lines and move north with tanks. The tanks in use were upgraded T-54s, the model used by Egypt, taken as booty during the Six-Day War to operate on the other side of the canal in order to deceive the Egyptians. Gonen repeated his orders to go to Missouri. Sharon repeated that this would be a mistake. He was forced to go to Missouri, the attack there failed and Sharon complained to the Defense Minister. At night he refused to reinforce Missouri. Gonen ordered him to send forces and he said, "No!"

"That's refusal to carry out orders," said Gonen over the radio.

"Don't bother me with that stuff," retorted Sharon.

It would be too exhausting to trace all the developments of the war that ended with a high number of casualties, but also with the miraculous defeat of the Egyptians and the Syrians. After the war another front opened: The question of who would be the fall guy. Gonen was the obvious choice, alongside the Chief of Staff.

Gonen a Broken Man

And that's just what happened. Gorodish acted like someone caught in a trap. He tried to explain to whoever was willing to listen that he had been done a terrible injustice. He never came to terms with his meteoric fall from grace.

In Jerusalem a group of friends met in the home of Chaim Wertheimer, Gonen's friend since childhood who had gone through plenty of battles with him. "Call up our old friends," Gonen said.

"Gorodish felt all alone," says Wertheimer. "He was an isolated man with no political backing. He knew everybody has this kind of backing and that he lacked it."

Furthermore, admits Wertheimer, he had very few friends. "He acquired enemies. For example, he decided to wage a battle against the high number of road accidents in the army in his time. He succeeded and brought down the percentage of accidents by army drivers almost to zero. But he did it in a cruel manner. Very hard- handedly. The slightest infraction would send the driver to jail."

"True," said Gonen during the social gathering at Wertheimer's house, "I didn't think there would be a war, just like the others. I thought it would be an exercise."

Among other things Gorodish told his friends only one of Israel's spies in Egypt reported "there was going to be something serious." The general perception was that the Egyptians were merely planning an exercise.

"When it became apparent, before Yom Kippur, that this was not an exercise, I asked them to call up the reserves. Golda didn't want to. `It's not certain,' she said. I did the best I could and asked that reinforcements be sent. They didn't send any. I asked them to send planes to attack the Egyptians, but they didn't arrive. The idea was that it was not so pressing, the south. [In] the north it was pressing. `Make ready to stop the Egyptians,' they told me, `but don't take any action that will endanger the soldiers.'"

Chaim Wertheimer sees Gorodish's real failure as a flawed character. "They offered to let him switch with Sharon and to let him manage the Southern Command. He should have jumped at this idea and grabbed onto it with both hands. After all he was new in the [Southern] Command and did not know it at all. But he was incapable of such a thing. He was incapable of retreat, to admit Sharon was better than him. That was his big mistake."

Gonen's main contention was that "everyone thought that way [i.e. that the Arabs posed no threat] and they tagged it all on me."

When he requested reinforcements he received Bar Lev, the man behind the concept of the strongholds. After the gathering at his house Wertheimer did not see his childhood friend anymore. "He broke down completely," he says. "He did not have the sense to step off to the side, to let the matters sink and die down, and then come back. He was constantly banging his head against a brick wall. In order to make money, a lot of money, and to launch a campaign to clear his name in Israel, he went to Africa to deal in diamonds. It was a field in which he was not talented and was unfamiliar. He died there."

Wertheimer knew Gorodish when the two were cheder boys living in Meah Shearim. "He had a large family," he recalls. "They lived in poverty. A room two meters long and two meters wide filled with mattresses. Everyone would sleep there. During the day the mattresses were stacked up. At night they were spread out and took up the entire floor."

Later the two fought side by side in the Palmach and in the IDF. Gorodish managed to climb the rungs of the military ladder and won acclaim in the Six Day War. Since then he believed his abilities were almost unlimited and dreamed of becoming Chief of Staff.

But he never learned how to back down and take a step back. "Clear out of the area," Dayan told him. "I don't want a general to get taken prisoner."

"I'm not budging from here," retorted Gorodish in his typical style.

Later he formed strong feelings of resentment toward Dayan, who managed to survive the Yom Kippur War without having to pay a price, although he was more responsible than anyone else for the failures. This hatred cast a pall over his life. He planned to shoot Dayan himself and even went to a firing range to practice.

In the end he never carried out his plans.


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