When Egypt and Syria launched their coordinated attacks on Yom Kippur of 1973, Israel found itself woefully unready, after two years of assurances from military intelligence that neither country would attack under current circumstances, supposedly deterred by the IDF’s apparent superiority. The high command and the storied military leaders of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir’s cabinet—among them Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon—had been convinced by this faulty assessment. Although Israeli soldiers eventually turned the situation around, the failures of the war’s early days have left an enduring scar on Israel’s collective memory. But Meir, the civilian, knew to be suspicious of complacency, writes Hanan Shai:
Meir apparently did not put her trust in the confidence of the intelligence branch regarding Arab fears of the IDF. During the cabinet discussions, she raised several questions about those ostensible fears. . . . Meir then inquired as to the possibility that “the Egyptians will keep us a little busy when the Syrians want to do something on the Golan,” [which is precisely what occurred]. The response of the intelligence branch to that question was that Hafez al-Assad “knows his limitations, because [his advisers] are aware of Israel’s strategic superiority.”
In answering Meir’s incisive questions, intelligence did not add any facts to substantiate its assessment that the Arabs were deterred. . . . Yet no alarm bells went off for the chief of staff and the many other experienced military men who took part in the discussion.
Meir’s bold questions during the prewar cabinet discussions did not change a thing, [however]. Golda Meir was known as a stubborn and authoritative leader, and apparently the only explanation for her acquiescence to the lack of preparedness that her questions exposed (particularly the lack of an early-warning margin that would enable mobilizing the reserves) was her expectation that spies Israel had recruited deep within the Egyptian government and military would provide such a warning. She was also relying on Dayan, who, until the outbreak of the 1973 war, was a defense minister of mythical stature.
Perhaps then there is some truth to the old adage that “war is too important to be left to the generals.”