Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle EastUri Kaufman
St Martin’s Press
400 pages|₹ $32
An injured Ariel Sharon with Moshe Dayan on the western bank of the Suez Canal in October 1973 (Photo: Getty Images)
MIRACLES HAPPEN. BUT it isn’t healthy to count on your enemy to make mistakes. It’s unhealthier still to lower your guard in a tough neighbourhood. By far, what you should fear most is the lack of fear. October 7, 2023, Israel’s 9/11 in popular parlance with immediate effect, was the second time the country was blindsided within half a century, in the very week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. While that story is still developing and answers—correct answers—are awaited as to what went wrong, it has been ‘safely’ put down to, primarily, an intelligence failure of mammoth proportions. However, what appears as an intelligence failure initially, often turns out to be a failure of communication and coordination. The intel might have been there but no one knew where to look for it or whom to alert. It might have got lost in bureaucratic transit. Or, the party responsible for actionable decisions on said intel chose to ignore it. That’s not to say any of the above happened on the eve of October 7, but the technological distance between now and 1973 hasn’t made human intelligence or HUMINT redundant.
Israel was caught by surprise on Yom Kippur 50 years ago not exactly because of an intelligence failure but because of complacency vis-à-vis what it already knew. In other words, the warnings were there, but in a fantastic anti- Sherlockian moment, facts were twisted to suit theories rather than the other way round. And the particularities of the blame for failure lay with AMAN, Israeli military intelligence, which nevertheless delivered once the fighting began. More precisely, the blame rests on the shoulders of Eli Zeira, the chief of AMAN at the time, whose arrogance was not only a departure from the wisdom of his predecessor Aharon Yariv—who never presumed to know the decision-making of Israel’s enemies—but brought Israel to the brink of non-existence.
A lawyer by training and award-winning real-estate developer specialising in restoring heritage buildings by profession, Uri Kaufman has spent 20 years in researching and writing Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle East (St Martin’s Press; 400 pages; $32), interviewing those participants in the conflict or their contemporaries still around, delving deep into the archives wherever given access, and exhaustively referencing the available literature on the subject. The result is nothing less than a political-military thriller, with a sizeable but pertinent backstory, peopled by starkly distinct characters whose personalities could have overwhelmed the narrative but that they don’t is to the author’s credit.
If Zeira’s arrogance nearly brought Israel to the brink, another man’s defiance of his superiors probably won the war— that man was Ariel Sharon. Hated by the uppermost echelons in Israel’s defence establishment—which included Chief of Staff David Elazar, his predecessor Chaim Bar-Lev who was brought back to head (and rescue) Southern Command, the incompetent de jure head of Southern Command Shmuel Gonen, and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan whose Labourite credentials clashed with Likudnik Sharon—allowing the maverick to come out of retirement and head to the Sinai was, albeit reluctantly taken, one of the best decisions in the early days of the war.
But to return to origins, two factors blinded Zeira, and by extension AMAN, to what was about to happen. One, a very high-placed source in Egypt, whose strike rate matched his stature, was initially silent about Sadat and Hafez al-Assad’s precise plans despite Israel’s ‘ears’—devices clandestinely attached to telephone poles, etc inside Egypt—picking up warnings. This source was Ashraf Marwan, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law and Anwar Sadat’s righthand man, codenamed ‘the Angel’, who nevertheless told Mossad chief Zvi Zamir in a midnight meeting on October 5 in London that war was about to start, based on which Prime Minister Golda Meir overruled Dayan and sided with Elazar in ordering a full mobilisation.
However, Marwan and another Egyptian military source had been periodically warning the Israelis since April 1973 that Sadat was readying for war. And yet, Zeira had consistently advised Golda, Dayan and Elazar not to mobilise. Even when the signs were clear that the Egyptians were crossing the Suez Canal, the Syrians were entering the Golan Heights, and Egypt’s advanced Soviet-provided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were targeting the Israeli air force. Why? That brings us to the second factor: Zeira’s absolute faith in the “Concept” which, simply put, was the following theory: one, Syria wouldn’t go to war without Egypt; and two, Egypt wouldn’t move till it could neutralise the Israeli air force. The Egyptians, to be fair, had confused the Israelis sufficiently with their frequent exercises along the Canal, to the extent it couldn’t be predicted any more if and when they would actually start a war. But Zeira had forgotten a core principle of intelligence work: even the best intelligence network and infrastructure cannot guess what exactly a foreign leader will do. Marwan’s midnight meeting with Zamir alerted Jerusalem that war would begin the next day, October 6, but the time given was 6PM. When it did, it was four hours too soon, at 2PM.
This book is nothing less than a political-military thriller, with a sizeable but pertinent backstory, peopled by distinct characters whose personalities could have overwhelmed the narrative but they don’t
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The mistakes that led to a near-catastrophe would all be investigated by the post-war Agranat Commission and some of its questions are still unanswered. But in October 1973, the Israelis were ruing: “We taught the Arabs how to fight and they taught us how to lie.” A more apt comparison of the lightning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 and a near-collapse at the start of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 couldn’t have been made.
Once the Syrians had been beaten back with patchwork and later coordinated Israeli operations and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were threatening Damascus, full attention and resources could be turned to the Sinai where the Egyptians were not only more numerous but also bolder and more skilled at warfare than the Syrians. The danger was an Egyptian entrenchment on the east bank of the Canal that would have led to a war of attrition, which Egypt would have won by wearing down a resource and manpower-depleted Israel. At that point, the Americans were still refusing an airlift to re-arm Israel despite Golda’s pleas with Kissinger and Nixon. But then, a miracle happened. And it came in the person of the wily Sadat himself who rejected the advice of General Sa’ad el Shazly, Egypt’s clear-eyed chief of staff, and ordered an advance deeper into the Sinai Peninsula east of the Canal which took the Egyptian army out of the range of protection (six miles) provided by the SAMs on the west bank. That was the turning point. And Egypt fell by its leader’s hand.
Sharon came into his own at that critical juncture when he defied his superiors and ordered an operation on the west bank of the Canal which ultimately led to the Egyptians pulling back. Once the bridges were laid under fire, and at a great cost of men and materiel, the IDF could take the war to within miles of Cairo. Sharon is one of the heroes of this story despite his high-risk and often costly tactics. Hated by his superiors, he was worshipped by almost every man who ever served under him. They always acknowledged him as one of the greatest field commanders, given his instinctive understanding of what was needed on the ground—and his understanding of the men fighting. Time and again, events vindicated him although he was always on the verge of being sacked. Much of this has, in fact, come to light only recently, and some details were revealed by his close associates only after his death in 2014.
Even without the aftermath of October 7, the initial chapters of Kaufman’s book—the study in Israeli failure—hold more attention because there the story is the most intricately told and compelling. The argument that it was the Yom Kippur War that created a new Middle East, with a recognition of reality on both sides, thus paving the way for the Camp David Accords and, ultimately, even today’s Abraham Accords, cannot be faulted. But geopolitics is not the attraction of this book, nor its strongest point. Kaufman has done an excellent job with the details of every significant moment, with the anecdotes—such as the scene at the end of a meeting when Dayan pushed for the nuclear option but was firmly rebuked by Golda Meir—and the newer, often first-time, accounts of those who lived to tell the tale.