“This will not be a boxing match,” Amir Oren, a writer for Haaretz and the moderator of an event at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, told the assembled crowd on Sunday. But as Major General (ret.) Eli Zeira took to the stage at a conference marking the anniversary the Yom Kippur War—which broke out exactly forty years prior, on October 6th 1973—the tension was palpable. As the chief of military intelligence found by a national inquiry commission to have failed in his responsibility to properly sound the alarm, Zeira is one of that war’s most controversial figures. His opponent was Major General (ret.) Zvi Zamir, who was chief of the Mossad at the time. The two have been at loggerheads for years now, most notably over the past decade, with Zamir blaming Zeira for exposing a former Mossad asset—the Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan, whom Zeira believed to have been a double agent. The sorry affair seemed to have ended six years ago with Zamir winning a legal battle (Zeira sued him for libel), and Marwan’s mysterious death in London a few months later. And so Sunday’s event was a rare opportunity to watch the two bitter rivals share a forum—although they took turns on stage, and did not shake hands.
First up was Zeira, whose remarks were unsurprisingly self-serving. He dedicated the first part of his remarks to his critique of the 75-mile long Israeli defense array along the Suez Canal prior to the war: only 12 or so strongholds, with 1,000 Israeli soldiers, faced with 100 times as many Egyptians across the canal. That border, he seemed to suggest, was indefensible. That he didn’t do enough to make his point heard, he said, was a mistake. And yes, military intelligence had a conceptziya, or ‘concept’, according to which the odds of an Egyptian attack were low. He said the Egyptians deserved a medal of honor for pulling off such a successful deception operation. Still, Zeira admitted that he had not done enough to challenge that prevailing conceptziya, but maintained that becaues of the intelligence he provided, and contrary to popular belief, by Friday morning—26 hours before the war was to begin—Israel’s leaders had a pretty good idea that war was imminent. “Why the reserves weren’t mobilized then and there,” he said, “remains a mystery to me to this day.”
Zeira’s speech was punctuated by heckling from the audience. Colonel (ret.) Yossi Langotsky was particularly outspoken. Before the war, Langotsky had been in charge of the “special means” that were meant to provide crucial warnings prior to a surprise attack and which Zeira has been accused of failing to activate. Zeira said the means had been activated and that Langotsky had been in the know. “That’s a lie,” Langotzky yelled from the crowd. “He’s spreading disinformation! Where does he get this stuff from?” Zeira, still spry at 85, shrugged him off.
Zamir is 88 and more frail than Zeira. He admitted that he had considered not showing up to the conference, but said he felt that he had to. When he joined the Mossad, he said, he realized to his frustration that his job was to be “a spy for military intelligence”—to provide raw information but not to analyze it on his own. His frustration grew as more and more warning signs came pouring in—via the Mossad—to military intelligence throughout 1973, and were often not passed on to Israel’s leaders because they didn’t fit the conceptziya. “There is nothing holier than a warning signal,” he said. “You just don’t delay those. And based on what I’ve read about the intelligence in the Second Lebanon War, I’m not sure we’ve learnt our lesson.”
Zeira, perhaps wary after losing his libel suit, hadn’t mentioned Marwan in his remarks, but Zamir did not shy away from talking about his most prized source. By now the crusty old spymaster was positively rejuvenated. “The chief of military intelligence disqualified him as a double agent, who had given us truthful reports so he could be a double agent,” he said sarcastically. “But that agent alerted us to the war. Golda didn’t hear it from the chief of military intelligence, but from the ‘double agent’!”
As the session was not a boxing match, there was no knockout between the two once very powerful men. And it is doubtful that there could, or should, have been a knockout. Earlier, when the organizers asked the heckler Langotsky to show Zeira some courtesy, he snapped back, reminding everyone that the session wasn’t really about Zeira and Zamir. “Don’t talk to me about courtesy! 3,000 soldiers were killed back then!”
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.