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

The Hamas surprise attack isn’t history rhyming, it’s a reprise of 1973’s Yom Kippur War — and it doesn’t bode well for Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli soldiers plug their ears as they fire shells in October 1973 at the Syrian front lines on the Syrian Golan Heights, two weeks after the beginning of the 1973 ArabIsraeli War. On October 6, 1973, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, an Arab military coalition led by Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous surprise attack in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 ArabIsraeli War. This war provoked the oil shock of 1973 and led to the opening of peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, concluded by the Camp David agreement in 1978. (Photo by GABRIEL DUVAL / AFP) (Photo by GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli soldiers plug their ears as they fire shells at the Syrian front lines, two weeks after the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, On October 6, 1973. Photo: Gabriel Duval/AFP via Getty Images

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.

FILED - 13 October 1973, Israel, Tel Aviv: The then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir gives her first press conference after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. To this day, hardly any war in Israel has left such a deep mark on the collective memory as the one that began on Yom Kippur on October 6, 1973. On the highest Jewish holiday, an alliance of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria unexpectedly invaded an unprepared country. More than 2600 Israeli soldiers were killed, more than 7000 injured. The horror of that time and the question whether the 19-day war could have been prevented still occupy the people in Israel. (to dpa "50 years after Yom Kippur war, Israel fears danger from within") Photo: Martin Athenstädt/dpa (Photo by Martin Athenstädt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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.


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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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