Israeli Intelligence Failures in 1973 War

Riveting new film dramatizes Yom Kippur lapses, near defeat under legendary PM Golda Meir

10 mins read
Helen Mirren as Golda Meier

On October 6, 1973, an Israeli friend of mine named Amnon Dankner was performing his annual month-long stint of military reserve duty on the Golan Heights when Syrian tanks and artillery launched a massive surprise attack on his unit.  At the same time, Egyptian forces were invading across the Suez canal. The attacks were the opening shots in what became known as  the Yom Kippur war.

Until then, the 26-year-old Dankner had regarded his reserve duty as a welcome vacation, a chance to escape family obligations and reconnect with buddies from his unit.  Like most Israelis, he was confident that his country’s humiliating defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War had made another Arab attack highly unlikely.  So the last thing he expected that day was a ferocious Syrian artillery barrage and the sight of hundreds of Syrian tanks racing  toward his position on the boulder-strewn, volcanic plateau.

Retreating to an underground bunker, Dankner and the other members of his unit huddled in confusion and fear as Syrian shells relentlessly pounded their position. Why had they not received any advance warning of a Syrian offensive from Israeli military intelligence, they wondered. Why were they given no additional ammunition? Where was the Israeli air force? Why had they been left on their own in the face of the enemy onslaught?

It wasn’t long before their fear morphed into fury toward Prime Minister Golda Meir, whom they blamed for Israel’s lack of preparedness. Cursing the matronly leader, Dankner and a fellow reservist named Gidon vowed that if they managed to survive the war, they would drink a congratulatory toast when Golda died. 

They did,  on Dec. 8, 1978, when the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, as she was dubbed, died.

But the intelligence failure that threatened Israel’s very existence stuck in the craw of many veterans for decades to come. 

Meir shouldered blame for the disaster, which cost the Israelis nearly 3,000 dead  in the opening days of the war, but it turned out there were many hands in the near defeat, in particular those of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan,  the dashing hero of the 1967 Six Day War.

Now Golda, a new film by Israeli director Guy Nattiv, impressively reopens the nagging issue. With a deeply engaging dramatization starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, the film hews closely to the facts as we now know themand even breaks new journalistic ground.

This is a relatively new trend in Israeli cinema. With  acclaimed, highly nuanced counterterrorism TV series like Fauda, Israeli filmmakers have begun showing some dark sides of the country’s military leadership and its treatment of the Palestinians and Arabs in general.  Such works  stand in sharp contrast to the best-known English-language films about Israel and Israeli operations, which, with few exceptions,  have avoided any controversy. With the Israelis invariably portrayed as heroes and the Arabs as murderous villains, films such as Exodus and Cast a Giant Shadow, both of which dealt with Israel’s birth as a nation, ultimately served as propaganda for the Jewish state. There also have been numerous documentaries recounting Israel’s victory over three Arab armies in the 1967 war. 

But Golda zeroes in on the most traumatic episode in modern Israeli history, the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack on the nation’s most solemn religious day in 1973, which  took Israel’s leadership by surprise and left some 2,800 of its soldiers dead, nearly 9,000 wounded and roughly 400 captured before Israeli forces, rearmed by the United States, drove back the Syrians and encircled the entire Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai desert. Those bold moves led to a ceasefire and, eventually, the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Still, in a country of only 4 million people at the time, it was an enormously painful victory; the Israeli casualty toll was the equivalent of a half million dead and wounded Americans.

Golda director Nattiv says the affair has long deserved a fresh, unblinkered look.

“Americans have a romantic perspective of what happened in that war,” Nattiv told SpyTalk in a Zoom interview from his home in Tel Aviv. “Their perspective is ‘we won, and Golda was a great leader.’ But that wasn’t the truth. I wanted to make a movie that tells what really happened and what our leaders back then were really like.” 

Long Buried Secrets

The film, first shown at the Berlinale Film Festival in February, brings to light a number of details about Meir and her leadership that were buried in historical accounts from that time, as well as other details that emerge in the movie for the first time. The script, written by Nicholas Martin, was based on his research of Israeli, Egyptian and American historical records from that time, including the declassified reports of the Agranat Commission, the Israeli board of inquiry that investigated why the Arab attack had taken the country’s vaunted military by surprise. Nattiv says other details came from former Mossad Director Zvi Zamir, Meir’s spokesman Meron Medzini, and from Meir’s bodyguard, whom he declined to name. 

Mirren’s portrayal of Meir is frankly astonishing. Completely transformed by a radical hair re-do and prostheses-aided facial makeover, the glamorous star of Prime SuspectElizabeth I and so many other award winning films would pass unnoticed if her name weren’t on the screen credits. 

In the hands of Nattiv and Mirren, Meir is portrayed as a decisive but flawed leader who relies too heavily on the military counsel of a swaggering Dayan, the patch-eyed hero of the 1967 war.  From those historical records, we know that Dayan, who was convinced Egypt wouldn’t dare attack Israel after its crushing defeat six years earlier, persuaded Meir in 1972 to reject a  peace offer from Egyptian President  Anwar Sadat, a fateful decision that irrevocably set Sadat on the path to war. 

Inside Word

And yet Israel had a spy in Sadat’s inner circle, code name Angel, who told them an attack was coming. 

Early in the film, Meir is shown dismissing the warning, relayed in a coded message from the Mossad’s top spy in Egypt, billionaire Ashraf Marwan, then a top aide to Sadat and the son-in-law of Sadat’s presidential predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser. Mossad boss Zamir says she should believe him.

“Why do you trust this guy?” she asks, noting Marwan had sent a similar warning that hadn’t panned out a few months earlier. “He’s cried wolf before,” she says.

She also rejects cautionary pleas from her military commanders to call up the  reserves, a major and expensive disruption to Israeli lives that Dayan opposed. His opposition could bring down her government if he were to resign in protest, she worries. And if Dayan isn’t worried much about the looming threat, why should she?

“Dayan wasn’t losing any sleep, and he knew the situation in both the north and the south,” Meir tells Agranat Commission, referring to the massing of Arab troops. “Should I have gone against him?”  

Even when the intelligence proves to be accurate and she belatedly orders the mobilization of 120,000 reservists, Meir agrees to an American demand that Israel refrain from a preemptive attack to avoid being labeled the aggressor. When her cabinet ministers protest, she retreats to her office, telling them,  “I’m a politician, not a military commander.” 

The film is also unsparing in its portrayal of Dayan, whose 1967 exploits landed him on the cover of TIME and made him an American hero. The truth was more complicated, to say the least.  

At the time of the war, I was a young reporter in the Tel Aviv bureau of the Associated Press. As Israeli losses piled up, I remember local reports that Dayan had suffered a mental breakdown and offered to resign after seeing the utter destruction of his units on the Golan Heights. The film depicts Dayan observing the battle from a helicopter and vomiting as he listens to outnumbered Israeli troops pleading over the radio for rescue. 

Going Nuclear

In a later scene, a disheveled, breathless Dayan bursts into a Cabinet meeting and announces, “the north is lost! This is Armageddon!” Completely rattled, Dayan then informs the cabinet he has ordered Israel’s nuclear strike-capable aircraft and missiles to go on alert.

They are astounded. Meir pulls him aside and hisses, “Are you crazy?” She then orders him to go home immediately. “Wash your face and snap out of it!” she commands. Later she tells Army Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar, “Dayan is finished. Do not take any further orders from him. From now on, you’re in charge.”

This version of  Dayan’s appearance and remarks to the cabinet, based on Nattiv’s conversations with Meir’s spokesman Medzini and Martin’s interviews with Zamir, the former Mossad chief, both of whom were present at the meetings, has never been presented before.

If the film shows Meir initially to be too heavily influenced by Dayan on military matters, it also underscores her acumen as a diplomat. This comes across when she presses her plea to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for more U.S. F-4 Phantom warplanes and tanks after a week of fighting . By that time, Israel had lost nearly 400 warplanes, fully a third of the entire Israeli air force, and more than 1,000 tanks. 

Amid this rush of events, Nattiv nicely switches tempo with a scene depicting Kissinger, played by Liev Schreiber, arriving at Meir’s Tel Aviv apartment, where the prime minister plays the Jewish grandmother and foists a bowl of borscht on him.  He tries to beg off, saying the Russians he’s been talking with have already overloaded him, but she insists, and he complies. But Kissinger tells her she must accept a truce with the Arabs, who have slapped an oil embargo on the United States. He reminds her he’s an American first, secretary of state second, and a Jew—in that order.  

Meir puckishly responds that Hebrew is read from right to left, making his Jewish identity paramount. Rejecting his call for a ceasefire, she pleads for heavy weapons to replace Israel’s losses on the battlefield. A few scenes later, Meir’s success as a negotiator becomes clear when Kissinger calls from Washington to inform her that the Phantoms and tanks are on their way. 

In the cast of leading characters, there are no real heroes. But the film acknowledges the critical role played by General Ariel Sharon, a murderous but daring commander who leads a bold nighttime tank-and-infantry raid across the Suez Canal to encircle the entire Egyptian Third Army. It was only then that Sadat, faced with Meir’s threat to unleash Israeli warplanes and annihilate his 30,000 soldiers. agreed to direct talks with Israel at Kilometer 101, just 63 miles from the Egyptian capital.

In the flush of victory, however, Meir is shocked by a stunning revelation: Mossad Director Zamir tells her the reason why Israeli eavesdroppers never heard Sadat’s command to go to war: Gen. Eli Zeira, the head of Israeli military intelligence, failed to activate a listening device that Marwan, the Mossad spy, had planted in the Egyptian president’s office.  It’s a secret, Meir commands him, that must stay buried forever. 

The secret would hold for nearly a half century, until 2020 when Israeli authorities declassified a portion of the Agranat Commission’s final report.  According to other documents that were declassified in 2018, Zeira never trusted Marwan, convinced he was a double agent. And, like Dayan, he also believed the chances of a coordinated Egyptian-Syrian attack were “lower than low.” But the commission,  citing Ziera’s failure to activate the listening device, charged him with “severe professional failure” and recommended his dismissal,  along with four other military commanders. All that, of course, is beyond the film’s tightly focused narrative on Golda.

The commission’s report cleared Meir and Dayan of any wrongdoing—a decision that Nattiv chalks up to the investigators’ decision not to allow the intelligence failure of 1973 to put the final stamp on their long careers of public service to the nation.

Secret Cancer

Another little known detail that the film explores was Meir’s battle with cancer during the entire ordeal of the 1973 war and its aftermath. Repeatedly throughout the film, Meir is shown being led through a cavernous hospital basement to a room where she’s given heavy doses of radiation treatment. Even then, she’s constantly smoking and coughing from an unbroken chain of unfiltered Chesterfields. When Meir died in 1978, it was revealed for the first time that she had been suffering from leukemia for the past dozen years. During that time, she never let on to the public that she was ill. In the film, though, all her ministers can see she’s suffering.

Meir’s political career came to end in 1974, when her Labor party polled poorly in that year’s elections, prompting her resignation She did live to see Sadat make his historic 1977 visit to Jerusalem, and the film shows newsreel footage of the two joking together. From her hospital bed, where she was in the final stages of her cancer, she watched the televised signing of 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. But she was already dead a year later, when Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty,  the first between Israel and an Arab state. And it was her rival, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who negotiated and signed that treaty.  

Getting Real

Nattiv has accomplished something remarkable in Israeli filmmaking. He has shown the country’s leaders to be deeply flawed yet completely human, neither heroes nor dunces. 

“Golda was a great diplomat,” Nattiv says. “Her success in convincing Kissinger to rearm Israel probably saved the country’s life. But she was a bad commander-in-chief. Her flaw was that she was too skeptical. She didn’t believe anyone, especially Sadat. And that led her to reject his peace offer, which led to the war and her refusal to believe the Mossad spy that war was imminent until it was too late.”  

In that way, Nattiv says, Meir and Israel’s current  Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu are similar. “They both share a very dark, distrustful vision of the world,” he says. But unlike Netanyahu, who is seeking to accrue unchecked executive powers by weakening the writ of its Supreme Court, Nattiv notes that Meir respected the courts and Israel’s judicial system. 

In the film, a grandmotherly Golda admits to the Agranat Commision that in her gut, she knew war was coming and that she should have mobilized the reserves days earlier.  She does not try to hide behind the fact that her head of Israeli military intelligence didn’t activate the clandestine communications channel of Mossad spy Marwan. 

“All of those boys who died, I will carry the pain of that to my grave,” she says, adding to the commission’s stenographer as she gathers her pocketbook to leave: “Please don’t write that down.”

“Golda  was a tragic figure,” Nattiv says. “The Yom Kippur war was not a victory. It was a debacle. And my movie is a requiem for a flawed leader.” 

My friend Dankner, caught in Syria’s onslaught, went on to become one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, first as the Washington correspondent of Ha’aretz and then the paper’s editor-in-chief. But he never changed his opinion of Meir. “She was a disaster as prime minister,” he told me a few years ago, just before he died.

As Israel approaches the 50th anniversary of the war, many surviving veterans of that conflict still share Dankner’s bitterness. It’s anyone’s guess if the film will soften their views. 

Golda, which garnered rave reviews when it opened the Jerusalem Film Festival  earlier this month, is scheduled for release in the United States on Aug. 25.   

Click here to read the original version of this article on SpyTalk

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is a veteran reporter, editor and foreign correspondent, Broder writes about defense and foreign policy from Washington.

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