n Tel Aviv, Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel, found herself with only a limited number of ministers (three out of 18) when she received a call at six in the morning on 6 October 1973 informing her of the confirmed Egyptian-Syrian attack later that day.
Most of the Israeli ministers had already left for their farms or resorts on the evening of 5 October to spend the Yom Kippur holiday with their families, reassured by the Israeli cabinet’s dismissal of the possibility of an imminent attack.
About two hours before the call to Meir, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defence minister, was awakened at four in the morning by a telephone call at his home in Tzahala. The call was from somebody who told the minister that there was no doubt about the accuracy of the information: war was certain.
A meeting was held that morning at 7 am with the prime minister in her office. In attendance, apart from the defence minister, who had conveyed the information to Meir, were Israeli chief of staff David Elazar and head of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira.
The chief of staff informed the prime minister that the Israeli Air Force had been on alert since the eve of Yom Kippur and was capable of launching a pre-emptive strike on both fronts. Elazar also proposed the immediate declaration of the general mobilisation of all the country’s military forces, but the prime minister sided with the defence minister, saying that Israel should not initiate the war.
During this meeting, Meir and Dayan rejected the mobilisation resolution, and the defence minister assured her that the regular forces deployed on the two fronts were capable of holding them until reserves arrived, hence the belief in the need for just a “quiet mobilisation” at this stage.
Yigal Allon, the deputy prime minister, who had recently become a permanent member of the “kitchen,” or the Ministry of Defence as it was informally called, was taken aback when he received news of the war alert at six o’clock that evening, remarking “6 pm! This is unreasonable. They need a few hours of daylight, and then they can take cover from the Air Force, perhaps at 4 pm.”
However, no one paid attention to this observation, which was recorded in the minutes of a fateful meeting that was attended later by Pinhas Sapir, the minister of finance.
“Al-Muhaddal” (The Shortfall), an Israeli book about the war translated into Arabic, recounts many details of what happened during the hours following this meeting. Meir did not leave her office before conducting several interviews. But most importantly, in a chapter entitled “They have eyes but they do not see,” the book provides an overview of the series of meetings held by the Israeli government before the war began, starting from its sensing what could be an imminent attack or at least significant changes in the positions and sizes of the forces on both the Sinai and Golan fronts.
The book also says that then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s slogan “what is taken by force cannot be regained except by force” did not die with him. Rather, his successor in power in Egypt, former president Anwar Al-Sadat, adopted it and, more importantly, engaged in a deception operation that was unprecedented in history.
The slogan was softened, altered, and given new content to the extent that at one point Al-Sadat announced his readiness to make peace with Israel and acknowledge its right to exist.
In the three years between the 1970 ceasefire and the outbreak of the October 1973 War, Egypt and Syria dedicated all their resources to implementing Nasser’s slogan. “Al-Muhaddal” says that the first indications of the Israeli shortcomings and failures became clear in April and May 1973 and extended to the ten days leading up to the war.
From mid-April 1973 onwards, Israel began receiving sufficient information to arouse the general leadership and government ministers’ concern about an impending military build-up in Egypt, with extensive military movements behind the Egyptian front and the movement of forces towards the Suez Canal.
On 28 May 1973, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar reported that “the Egyptian Army is being transported day and night from Cairo to the Canal area. The highest state of readiness is being declared to make the army ready to face a fateful decision that could be issued at any moment.”
When Israel responded to these warnings by deploying its army in Sinai in a surprise manoeuvre, its main objective was to deter the enemy. However, there was no reaction from Egypt. The manoeuvre continued for two weeks and was observed by Egyptian forces stationed west of the canal, but Al-Sadat had no intention of starting the war at that time.
The Egyptian army was pursuing a strategy of deliberate deception. Its long preparations before the war had aimed to achieve two main goals: to verify the readiness and capabilities of division leaders and to test the speed of the Israeli response and its nature. This strategy played a decisive role in the general deception operation conducted by Egypt and was intended to keep the Israeli command nervous and compel it to put the Israeli military on alert periodically until it became accustomed to these kinds of manoeuvres and the heightened state of readiness.
Roles were distributed precisely. While Al-Sadat was heating up the atmosphere in the Middle East, mentioning in his April 1973 interview with the US magazine Newsweek that he intended to launch a military operation against Israel soon, there were always other parties within his administration, including in the military, working to streamline deceptive actions in order to create confusion inside Israel itself.
Egypt’s remarkable success in this deception operation made Israel refuse to believe that the country was preparing for war, despite numerous confirmations, and caused it to lock itself into a state of doubt. It denied what it saw with its own eyes until the final moments before the gates of hell opened.
The writer is director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly