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Netanyahu’s Golda Meir moment: Ignorance, distraction, deception, poor intelligence


Netanyahu’s Golda Meir moment: Ignorance, distraction, deception, poor intelligence

In both the Yom Kippur War and the Hamas attack, it was a combination of intelligence and policy failure

Aninda Dey Last Updated:October 26, 2023 17:49:30 IST Netanyahu’s Golda Meir moment: Ignorance, distraction, deception, poor intelligence

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AFP

Tehran, 27 November, 2020. A remote-controlled Belgian FN MAG 7.62-mm machine gun equipped with an intelligent satellite system using AI and concealed in the bed of a parked blue Zamyad pick-up fires 15 rounds in less than a minute.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme—shielded by escort vehicles—is assassinated on Imam Khomeini Boulevard, but his wife seated next to him in the black Nissan Teana sedan is unscathed. A few seconds later, the pick-up explodes.

Unbelievable as it might sound, the computerised sharpshooter was around 1,600 km away at an undisclosed location leaving Fakhrizadeh’s IRGC bodyguards scratching their heads.

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The hit squad belonged to the Mossad.

Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, 5 January, 1996. A bugged cell phone containing 15 gm of RDX connected to an overhead Israeli plane that relays info to a command post.

Yahya Abd-al-Latif Ayyash, aka The Mechanic, Hamas’s chief bombmaker and the leader of the West Bank battalion of the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, receives his father’s call and is killed instantaneously.

The hit squad belonged to the Shin Bet.

The famed Mossad and Shin Bet have an enviable record in snooping, intelligence gathering and assassination of Israel’s enemies using signals intelligence (SIGINT), human intelligence (HUMINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT).

Mossad moles are planted even among Israel’s sworn enemies—Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Israeli spy apparatus is infamous for hacking phones and computers of adversaries, stealing their electronic data and intercepting their communications.

So, how the Mossad, Shin Bet and Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence) abysmally failed in sniffing the daring three-pronged 7 October Hamas blitzkrieg on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War on despite surveillance drones, border security cameras and soldiers guarding the Gaza Strip border.

It was a combined disaster involving intelligence and policy failure. Ironically, it’s a shocking replay of the Fourth Arab–Israeli War (October 6-25, 1973). What makes the Hamas assault more outrageous is it was Israel versus one terrorist organisation, not the combined military prowess of four Arab states.

There are various reasons for the colossal failure of the dreaded Israeli spy agencies.

Ignorance and overconfidence

It’s the Golda Meir moment for Benjamin Netanyahu.

It was 25 September, 1973, a few days before the holiest day of the Jewish year Yom Kippur. What resembled another secret meeting between Jordan’s King Hussein and top Israeli leaders was an ominous warning.

Accompanied by his Prime Minister (PM) Zaid Rifai, and intelligence chief General Fathi Abu Talib, Hussein landed in Tel Aviv after an extraordinary meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and his Syrian counterpart Hafez al-Assad in Cairo.

Though Sadat and al-Assad had excluded Hussein from their ‘plot’, the king was alarmed when they asked whether he would join a combined Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel.

Hussein met Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and Mossad chief Zvi Zamir with an ominous warning—Egypt and Syria were on the verge of attacking Israel.

Meir relayed the impending danger to her defence minister Moshe Dayan, who immediately contacted the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) chief intelligence officer General Eli Zeira and his deputy Aryeh Shalev.

However, Zeira and Shalev rubbished Hussein’s warning as mere guesswork as they believed the Arabs were too weak to attack and would lose. Even Dayan mistook the red flag for exaggeration.

According to former CIA counterterrorism expert Bruce O Riedel, Zamir’s description of the Israeli views of the Arabs proved disastrous. “[W]e scorned them,” he later said.

The Mossad even ignored the alarms raised by its mole in the Egyptian government in the late 60s and early 70s. Egyptian billionaire Ashraf Marwan was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law with considerable knowledge of Cairo’s military and diplomatic manoeuvres. Later, he became Sadat’s close confidant.

Marwan had informed the Mossad that Sadat was waiting for Soviet SAM Scuds and longer-range fighter bombers to prevent an Israeli retaliation if attacked.

By 1973, Marwan had leaked to Israel the Egyptian military’s “complete order of battle, command structure, arms and weapons in detail and even the plan of attack”. However, Israel thought an Arab offensive would collapse before its air and ground superiority and the Arabs wouldn’t attack for years.

When Marwan warned in April that Egypt and Syria would attack in mid-May as Algeria and Libya had deployed longer-range jets, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) dismissed it as wrong information with a “very low probability” of an attack.

By August, a Soviet Scud brigade with several dozen missiles arrived in Egypt and training started. Marwan also informed the Mossad of a meeting between Sadat and Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud where the Egyptian president said an attack was imminent.

In late September, Syria, adept in the use of Soviet SAMs delivered earlier that year, was ready to attack with three infantry and two armoured divisions—the alert was issued by Israel’s most trusted ally, the United States.

Meir’s government, however, ignored the CIA report as alarmist.

At 2 pm on 6 October, a complacent Israel was juddered when five Syrian Army divisions (1,400 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery) attacked the Golan Heights and an equal number of Egyptian infantry divisions (1,300 tanks and 2,000 artillery pieces) targeted Israeli soldiers, mostly reservists, across the Suez Canal.

Egypt and Syria had launched Operation Badr, catching Israel off guard.

Fifty years later, Netanyahu did a Meir.

“We have warned them an explosion of the situation is coming, and very soon, and it would be big. But they underestimated such warnings,” an Egyptian official requesting anonymity told The Associated Press referring to the warning given to Israel.

According to the Ynet news site, Egypt’s intelligence minister General Abbas Kamel, in fact, warned Netanyahu merely 10 days before the attack that Hamas terrorists were likely to do “something unusual” and execute “a terrible operation”.

Netanyahu’s indifference shocked Egyptian officials, who said that he was too “submerged” in the West Bank’s rising violence against increasing Israeli settlements.

After the Egyptian revelation, Bibi denied receiving the warning and termed it “fake news”.

“No early message came from Egypt and the prime minister did not speak or meet with the intelligence chief since the establishment of the government—not indirectly or directly,” Netanyahu’s office said.

The situation strikingly resembled the Hussein-Meir situation. Like Meir, Netanyahu too didn’t see the attack coming. Both thought that the enemy wouldn’t attack because they would lose. Therefore, every rad flag and the enemy’s military preparedness were ignored.

The carelessness and ignorance of Mossad director David Barnea, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi were equally astonishing.

Bar admitted to the Shin Bet’s failure. “Despite a series of actions we carried out, unfortunately, last Saturday, we were unable to create a sufficient advance warning that would allow us to thwart the attack. As the one who heads the organisation, the responsibility for this is mine,” he told the media.

And so did Halevi. “The Military Intelligence Directorate, under my command, failed to warn of the terror attack carried out by Hamas. We failed in our most important mission, and as the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, I bear full responsibility for the failure,” he said.

Another reason for Israel’s casual attitude could be the usual Hamas threat, not a massive lightning-quick operation.

For example, a few weeks before 9/11, then-President George W Bush discounted the possibility of an immediate Al-Qaeda attack in the US considering that Osama bin Laden had always wanted to target America.

According to ‘The 9/11 Commission Report’, the FBI warned the government on 1 August, 2011, that an Al Qaeda attack in the US “could not be discounted” on the upcoming anniversary of the East Africa embassy bombings.

Later, two CIA analysts writing an agency briefing on the looming threat believed that the threat of an Al Qaeda attack in the US was “current and serious”.

However, after the August 6 Presidential Daily Brief titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US’—the 36th about Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda but the first regarding the possibility of a terrorist attack in the US—Bush said, “Bin Laden had long been talking about his desire to attack America.”

The most shocking part of the Israeli failure was the Gaza border guards not acting on a specific intel warning them of a surge in activity in Gazan terrorist networks just before the attacks, two senior security officials told The New York Times.

Both Meir, Netanyahu distracted, deceived

Like Meir, Netanyahu was also distracted. The day after meeting Hussein, she went to Strasbourg (France) to address the European Parliament and subsequently to Vienna (Austria) “after Arab terrorists hijacked a train filled with Russian Jews leaving the Soviet Union”, writes Riedel.

The identities of the two Arab terrorists who hijacked the Czechoslovakia-Austria Chopin Express on September 26, 1973, and the timing still trigger suspicion that the hijack aimed to divert Meir’s attention from the coming war.

The terrorists belonged to the Eagles of the Palestinian Revolution group, which was in reality As Sa’iqa, a terror outfit established by the Syrian Ba’ath Party.

The terrorists later told a German newspaper that the hijacking was part of the war’s preparations.

Meir and Dayan were preoccupied with the hijacking for five critical days before the war.

Riedel too believes the hijack “may have been designed to deflect Israeli attention away from the Levant to the Danube”. “If it was intended to distract Israel, it succeeded brilliantly”.

Since returning to power in last December, Netanyahu has deployed more troops in the West Bank to stem the increasing violence compared to Gaza.

In February, Israel sent additional troops to the West Bank. In July, Israel launched one of the biggest military operations in years, including overnight aerial and ground assaults, on the Jenin refugee camp. Before the Hamas attack, around 22 battalions were deployed in the West Bank and only two near Gaza.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin warned Netanyahu that his excessive focus on West Bank was diverting their attention from Iran. Though he didn’t mention Hamas, Iran funds and trains it.

Consequently, several troops deployed on the Gaza border were diverted to the West Bank.

“Not surprising that Hamas and Islamic Jihad noticed the low staffing at the border,” Aharon Zeevi Farkash, former head of Aman, told Israeli radio station Reshet Bet.

At worst, Netanyahu expected hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis to die—like in earlier attacks—even if Hamas attacked.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary, which triggered furious protests, impacted Israel’s military preparedness with reservists joining the demonstrations.

The DMI had sent four letters to Netanyahu warning of the security impact of his judicial overhaul. In July, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that senior intelligence officers had warned that Iran and Hezbollah could exploit a divided Israel. Halevi met with Netanyahu to highlight the fear.

In August, Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah said, “Israel, once a formidable regional power, has gradually eroded in faith, consciousness, self-assurance and humility.

Deception followed distraction twice in 50 years.

Egypt duped Israel into believing that its secretive major military exercise on the Suez Canal, codenamed Tahrir 41 from October 1 to 7, was only a drill, not a cover-up for the attack.

“A survey of 4,000 captured soldiers showed only one knew on October 3 that the war was scheduled to start on the 6th. Of the 18 Colonels captured, only four knew on the 4th. Ninety-five per cent learned that the war was coming on the morning of the 6th,” Riedel writes.

In a typical example of ‘the calm before the storm’, Hamas went mum as Israel reopened crossing points on the Gaza border in September to allow thousands of Palestinian workers to rejoin work in Israel and the West Bank. Around 18,000 Gazans have work permits to earn livelihood in Israel and the West Bank, which injects $2 million into cash daily to the blockaded and impoverished enclave.

With no major escalation with Hamas after May 2021, Israel was misled into believing that the terrorist organisation had changed its tactics and was more interested in governing, developing Gaza’s economy and improving the standard of living of Gazans.

Hamas went underground to keep the attack plan under wraps aware that Israeli spies monitored its calls. Its operatives never discussed the plan during calls. Instead, their conversations were about the loss in the May 2021 violence, making Israel believe the group won’t launch another major attack.


Hamas had been planning operation Al-Aqsa Flood for the last two years right under Israel’s nose—undetected without the intelligence agencies getting a whiff.

The storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli troops in May 2021 had enraged Al-Qassam Brigades’ elusive chief Mohammed Deif, the most wanted terrorist in Israel who has survived seven assassination attempts.

Deif started hatching the audacious plot, which involved meticulous planning, rigorous training, coordination, funds, the element of surprise and deception.

In an audio tape released while Hamas terrorists were slaughtering Israelis, Deif said, “Today, the rage of Al-Aqsa, the rage of our people and nation is exploding. Our mujahedeen (fighters), today is your day to make this criminal understand that his time has ended.”

Hundreds of Al-Qassam Brigades members, including its elite commando unit Nukhba, which led the attack, trained in a simulated environment right near the Gaza-Israel border.

A Hamas video footage released after the attack shows terrorists firing rockets, RPGs and heavy machine guns, attacking mock Israeli buildings with Kalashnikovs, taking off and landing on paragliders and taking hostages.

While SIGINT is the primary tool for intel gathering used by spy agencies across the globe, Hamas terrorists went low tech to avoid high tech—they used HUMINT to evade technological intelligence gathering.

Hamas stopped using technology. In all probability, Hamas circumvented Israeli intelligence by going primitive. It used couriers and relayed messages in person rather than phones and computers.

The possibility of Hamas moles in the thousands of Gazans working in Israel and the West Bank can’t be discounted either.

The shocking resemblance between the 1973 and 2023 intelligence and policy failures shows how pre-conceived notions, prejudices and overconfidence of the intelligence community and the government make them ignorant of changing threats.

The writer is a freelance journalist with two decades of experience and comments primarily on foreign affairs. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely those of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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