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On the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s Top Spymasters Face Off

Zvi Zamir and Eli Zeira reckon with history in Tel Aviv after four decades of feuding over the surprise attack

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Ashraf Marwan. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Shutterstock)
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In late 1970, a 26-year-old Egyptian named Ashraf Marwan walked into a red telephone booth in London, dialed the number of the Israeli Embassy, and asked to speak with someone from the mukhabarat. A meeting in a hotel lobby was hastily arranged; Marwan had been on the Mossad’s recruitment sights for a long while, and now here he was volunteering his services. It’s easy to see why he made such an attractive target: The son of an Egyptian general, Marwan was married to the daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mona, and was head of Anwar Sadat’s Presidential Information Bureau, the regime’s nerve center, giving him access to Egypt’s most sensitive secrets. Though his home was in Cairo, he was pursuing a master’s degree in chemistry in London and would visit frequently. He was, in short, ideally placed.

The Mossad’s human intelligence experts were seasoned enough to know that if things sound too good to be true, they usually are. But Marwan provided Israel with countless documents on Egypt’s political and military spheres, including minutes of high-level Egyptian-Soviet meetings and secret Egyptian war plans, with details on exactly how Egypt planned to cross the Suez Canal into the Israeli-occupied Sinai desert. It was a mother lode for analysts in the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence research division. Israel’s top leaders, Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, would often receive his material in raw form, unencumbered by analysis. Zvi Zamir, the chief of the Mossad, personally attended many of the meetings with Marwan—an unusual move for a spymaster, and a testament to Marwan’s importance. Fittingly, Marwan was christened with the codename “Angel.”

In addition to providing strategic intelligence, Marwan demonstrated an ability to warn Israel of impending threats. In September 1973, intelligence he provided led to the arrest of Palestinian terrorists who were preparing to shoot down an El Al plane after takeoff in Rome, part of a joint Egyptian-Libyan-Palestinian operation in which Marwan was the Egyptian liaison. And twice, in December 1972 and April 1973, Marwan told his handlers Egypt would attack Israel within weeks. Twice the IDF prepared for war, and twice it did not materialize.

While early documents provided by Marwan showed Egypt was keen on attacking Israel to regain the Sinai desert, Israel’s military intelligence assessment suggested that Egypt was acutely aware of its vulnerability to air attacks, especially in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, when it lost its entire air force to an Israel Air Force strike. So long as Egypt had not received the Soviet arms and aircraft it was desperate for, went the military analysis, there was no chance of an Egyptian attack. And Syria would not attack without Egypt. Many signs—including the evacuation of Soviet advisers from Egypt and Syria, and Egyptian troop movements that were in plain sight of the Israeli soldiers across the Suez Canal—pointed to war. Yet Eli Zeira, the head of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, refused to budge from his conviction that it was all just an exercise, and that war was an impossibility.

On the night of Oct. 5, 1973—erev Yom Kippur—Marwan warned his Mossad handlers of the war that would begin the next day at sundown. Zamir, present at the meeting in London and fully aware of the ramifications of a massive mobilization of reserve soldiers on Yom Kippur, called home and sounded the alarm. The joint Syrian-Egyptian attack on Israel came the next day, but in the afternoon, at 14:00. The IDF had barely begun to prepare, and the strike left the nation reeling. In the war’s aftermath, a National Inquiry Commission headed by the Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Shimon Agranat introduced a new word into the Israeli popular lexicon: conceptziya, as in “concept.” It was Zeira’s military intelligence analysts who stubbornly clung to a false conceptziya too long, blinding leaders to an attack until it was nearly too late. Zeira was removed from his post, alongside the IDF’s Chief of Staff David Elazer.

In recent years, Zeira has been outspoken regarding his conviction that Marwan was a double agent working for the Egyptians. In 2004, Zamir blamed Zeira for publicly exposing Marwan’s identity. In retaliation, Zeira sued Zamir for libel—and lost, leaving Zeira on precarious legal ground. He had effectively been found to have disclosed top secret confidential information, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Three weeks later, on June 27, 2007, Marwan died after plummeting from the balcony of his London flat—a suspicious death for a man who has been called Israel’s greatest spy. As far as Zamir was concerned, Zeira was now responsible not just for ignoring the signs of impending war, but for getting a Mossad asset killed.

Zeira was cleared last year, after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided against pressing charges on the basis of Zeira’s age and history of service in the Palmach and the IDF. This weekend, the two octogenarians will finally meet in public, at a conference hosted by a national-security think tank in Tel Aviv. Their feud, long the stuff of Israeli intelligence mythology, will be on everyone’s minds, but the real questions will be the same as they were in 1973: Which man bears the real responsibility for failing to act in time to prevent the Yom Kippur War? Was it just an intelligence failure on the part of IDF military intelligence with Eli Zeira at the helm? Or was Israel’s leadership—just like the greater Israeli public—too drunk on the undreamed of 1967 success that was the Six Day War to anticipate that such a blow could ever occur, and therefore criminally oblivious to its warning signs? And, most important: Could it happen again?

***

Zeira, guilt-ridden and still hurting even two decades after he sustained a very public blow, began his crusade against Marwan in 1993, when he published a bookThe Yom Kippur War: Myth vs. Reality, that told his version of the events leading up to the Yom Kippur War. Although the Israeli military censors removed direct references to Marwan, the book hinted at his identity—while at the same time accusing him of having worked for the Egyptians all along. Copies of the uncensored manuscript found their way to members of the press. Other journalists were tipped off and began hinting at the story in their own work.

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On the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s Top Spymasters Face Off

Zvi Zamir and Eli Zeira reckon with history in Tel Aviv after four decades of feuding over the surprise attack