Home » A Half-Century Ago, Another Major Intel Failure Saw Israel’s Leader Resign

A Half-Century Ago, Another Major Intel Failure Saw Israel’s Leader Resign

A surprise attack catches the Israeli military — who thought it was a training exercise — off guard. A stunning intelligence failure with warnings going unheeded. Calls for the prime minister to resign.

Exactly 50 years and a day before this past weekend’s surprise attack by Hamas on Israel, an eerily similar series of events played out on the world stage: the Yom Kippur War.

In 1973, amid blistering tensions over Israel–Palestine, Arab coalition forces led by Egypt and Syria carried out a surprise attack, successfully pushing Israel, for a time, out of the occupied Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli intelligence noticed the Egyptian military buildup but incorrectly assessed that they were simply military exercises — an error repeated by the Israeli intelligence this past week, according to a news report.

Just before the Hamas attack on Friday, Israeli security chiefs took part in a high-level meeting to discuss whether Hamas’s irregular activity was the prelude to an invasion or simply a military exercise, Axios reported on Thursday. Instead of anticipating the invasion, the chiefs — including the Israeli Defense Forces’ chief of staff, head of military intelligence, and Shin Bet director — decided to wait for more intelligence. 

The two attacks a half-century apart also took U.S. intelligence by surprise. In 1973, Robert Gates, then a high-ranking CIA analyst who would later become CIA director and secretary of defense, was providing a briefing on the unlikeliness of military conflict in the Middle East when he learned of the Yom Kippur invasion on the radio. 

An intelligence community postmortem declassified in 2009 revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts had in fact looked at the question closely and incorrectly judged that there would be no attack despite “plentiful” and “ominous” signs that there would be an invasion. 

“To intelligence historians, the October 1973 War is almost synonymous with ‘intelligence failure,’” says a report by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence about the Yom Kippur War.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir gives her first press conference after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on Oct. 13, 1973.

Photo: dpa/picture alliance via Getty I

Israel’s prime minister at the time, Golda Meir, oversaw a victory over the Arab forces — just as Israel’s military will vanquish Hamas and pummel the Gaza Strip — but she faced steady criticism for having ignored warnings from King Hussein of Jordan that a war with Egypt and Syria was imminent. Under pressure to resign, Meir later did.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under fire for having ignored repeated warnings from Egyptian intelligence. In one such warning, Egypt’s intelligence minister, Gen. Abbas Kamel, personally called Netanyahu days before the attack, warning of “something unusual, a terrible operation,” according to the Israeli news outlet YNet

Eighty-six percent of Israelis believe their government and Netanyahu are to blame for the attack, according to a new poll released Thursday. More than half of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign.

Shortly after the raid, the editorial board of Ha’aretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, said Netanyahu “bears responsibility” for the attack. On Tuesday, the newspaper published an editorial titled “Netanyahu: Resign Now!” 

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October 2023