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Footprints in the Sand
Capt. Motti Ashkenazi was not a man to accept a perceived wrong without protest. The outpost in Sinai his unit of reservists took over two weeks before Yom Kippur was in an advanced state of neglect. Barbed-wire fencing had sunken almost entirely into the sand, trenches were collapsing, gun positions had insufficient sandbags, and the ammunition supply was short. When the officer he was relieving asked him to sign the standard form acknowledging receipt of the outpost in good condition, Ashkenazi declined. Without this formality, the unit being relieved could not depart. When Ashkenazi refused an order from his battalion commander to sign, the exasperated commander signed the form himself.
Ashkenazi's unit was part of the Jerusalem Brigade, which had never before been assigned to a tour of duty on the Bar-Lev Line. Unlike the units which normally undertook this task, the Jerusalem Brigade was a second-line formation which included men well into their thirties. Some were immigrants who had received only a truncated form of basic training before being relegated to the reserves. A sprinkling of younger reservists with combat experience stiffened the ranks, and officers too were generally veterans of combat units.
The assignment of such a unit to the Bar-Lev Line, once considered hazardous duty, reflected the relaxed situation on the Egyptian front. It was six years since Israel had reached the canal in the Six Day War, and three years since the intense skirmishing across the waterway-the so-called War of Attrition-had ended.
The reservists had grumbled as usual upon receiving their annual call-up notices for a month's duty, particularly since their tour began on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and would last through Yom Kippur and the subsequent Succot holiday. However, by the time they boarded the buses that would take them to Sinai, some were looking forward to a month of camaraderie, far from the routine of work and home. The men brought books and board games, finjans (pots) for brewing coffee, even fishing rods. Ashkenazi, a thirty-two-year-old doctoral student in philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, took along his four-month-old German shepherd, Peng, because he had nowhere to leave him.
Unlike the other Bar-Lev forts, which were built along the canal bank, Ashkenazi's outpost, code-named Budapest, was ten miles east of the canal on a narrow sandspit between the Mediterranean Sea and a shallow lagoon. The outpost's purpose was to guard against an Egyptian thrust along the sandspit towards the coastal road to Israel. Budapest was the largest of the Bar-Lev Line fortifications, incorporating an artillery battery and a naval signals unit which maintained contact with vessels patrolling off the coast.
Towards evening on the day of his arrival, Ashkenazi, a deputy company commander, climbed the fort's observation tower and looked west along the sandspit towards Port Fuad at the entrance to the Suez Canal. This northwest corner of Sinai was the only part of the peninsula not captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Ashkenazi could make out a string of Egyptian outposts stretching along the sandspit. The one closest to him was only a mile away. Since the canal did not separate them, the only thing that could inhibit an Egyptian raid was a minefield that Budapest's previous commander had pointed out to him during their tour that morning.
As Ashkenazi watched, a pack of wild dogs emerged from the Egyptian lines and trotted down the sand towards the Israeli outpost. They appeared to be heading towards Budapest's garbage dump at the western edge of the position. As they approached the minefield, Ashkenazi braced for explosions. But the dogs passed through unharmed. Tides washing over the sands had dislodged or neutralized the mines. Ashkenazi decided to contact battalion headquarters in the morning to request additional fencing and sandbags.
Maj. Meir Weisel, an affable kibbutznik, was the most senior company commander in the battalion which moved into the Bar-Lev Line. In previous tours of reserve duty, his unit had clashed with Palestinian guerrillas along the Jordan River and taken casualties. "This time," a brigade officer had told him, "I'm sending you to the canal and you can rest." His company took over four forts in the canal's central sector and he positioned himself in Fort Purkan, opposite the city of Isamailiya on the Egyptian-held bank. The officer whom he replaced pointed out a villa across the canal which he said had belonged to the parents of foreign minister Abba Eban's wife, Suzie, who was from a prominent Egyptian Jewish family. It was not clear who lived there now but a gardener watered the plants every day. "As long as you see the gardener working there," said the officer, "everything is OK."
The limited forces Israel deployed on both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts opposite vastly larger enemy armies reflected a self-assurance induced by the country's stunning victory in the Six Day War. Israel believed it had attained a military superiority that no Arab nation or combination of nations could challenge. The euphoria that followed the lightning victory in 1967 over the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies gave Israel a sense of manifest destiny similar to that which impelled the United States westward in the nineteenth century.
Its thin front lines belied a vast increase in military strength. Israel had twice as many tanks and warplanes in 1973 as it had in the Six Day War. Its largest armor formations were no longer brigades with one hundred tanks but divisions with three hundred. Veteran armor officers permitted themselves to fantasize about commanding a full armored division deploying into battle-two brigades forward, one to the rear, as they swept into the attack.
The armies of Egypt and Syria had grown more than Israel's in absolute numbers but the overall ratio in the Arab favor remained 3 to 1. Given the fighting ability of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), this ratio was considered acceptable in Israel. The General Staff, in fact, was preparing to reduce the thirty-six months of service required of its conscript soldiers by three months. Convinced that it could stand up to an Arab world thirty times its size, Israel was waiting for the Arabs to formally recognize the Jewish state and agree to new borders.
The Arabs, however, refused to accept the humiliation of 1967. During the War of Attrition launched by Egypt in March 1969, hundreds of Israeli soldiers died in massive artillery bombardments. Deep penetration raids by Israeli warplanes and commandos forced Cairo to accept a cease-fire in August 1970. Since then, the Suez front had remained quiet. On the Syrian front, there were periodic exchanges of fire-"battle days," Israel termed them-but no serious challenge to Israel's dominance.
The seeming docility of the Arabs encouraged a sense of invulnerability in Israel. In August 1973, defense minister Moshe Dayan, in a speech to army officers, said that Israel's strength was a reflection not only of its military potential but of inherent Arab weakness. "It is a weakness that derives from factors that I don't believe will change quickly: the low level of their soldiers in education, technology, and integrity; and inter-Arab divisiveness which is papered over from time to time but superficially and for short spans."
A Mossad official posted abroad immediately after the Six Day War returned home five years later to find the country transformed. Israel was not just self-assured, he found, but self-satisfied, awash in a good life that seemed as if it would go on forever. Government and military officials traveled now in large cars and wrote off business lunches to expenses, a new practice in Israel. Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza Strip provided the working hands the fast-growing nation needed but were politically invisible. The sense of physical expanse was startling to someone accustomed to the claustrophobia of pre-Six Day War Israel. The border was no longer fifteen minutes from Tel Aviv or on the edge of Jerusalem but out of sight and almost out of mind-on the Jordan River, on the Suez Canal, on the Golan. People went down to Sinai now not to wage war but to holiday on its superb beaches.
The army had grown tremendously and so had its prominence in national life. There was a layer of brigadier generals, a newly created rank required by the expanding army. The Mossad official sensed arrogance in high places. Some generals had their offices redone to reflect their new status; some gave parties with army entertainment troupes singing in the background. All of this was foreign to the spartan ways the official had known as distinguishing features of Israeli public life only five years before. An attitude of disdain for Arab military capability had etched itself insidiously into the national psyche. The official was as yet unaware of the extent to which this disdain had led to distortions in the mind-set of the armed forces.
Sitting in a downtown Jerusalem café a few months before the war, Motti Ashkenazi had told a friend that war was inevitable unless Israel accepted Egypt's demand that it pull back from the canal in order to permit the waterway to be reopened. Now, in command of Budapest, he took his own warning seriously. After two days of badgering battalion headquarters, he was informed that his request for sandbags and barbed-wire concertinas was being met. The supply vehicle that arrived carried only a fraction of the material he had asked for. Nevertheless, he was able to fortify the area around the fort's gate and the vulnerable approach from the beach.
A week before Yom Kippur, Ashkenazi was in a half-track making a routine morning patrol eastward along the sandspit towards his rear base when he saw fresh footprints in the sand on both sides of the road. Whoever made them seemed to have circled the area, as if examining the lay of the land. The road was shut at night because it was vulnerable to commando landings from the sea. If anyone came down the road by day, Budapest was supposed to be informed beforehand, but there had been no such notification. The footprints, thought Ashkenazi, could have been left by Egyptian scouts landing from the sea, on one side of the road, or coming on foot through the lagoon, on the other side. He radioed headquarters and a vehicle with two Bedouin trackers arrived. They examined the footprints and concluded that they had been made by standard Israeli army boots.
"If I were an Egyptian scout, I would use that kind of boot," said Ashkenazi.
The trackers laughed. "Do you think they're that clever?"
"Why not?" asked Ashkenazi.
Twice more in the coming days he would find footprints along the route.
the man in the peasant robe
Civilian clothing did little to mask the military bearing of the six men who descended from the Soviet liner docking in Alexandria on its regular run from the Syrian port of Latakia on August 21. It took a moment before Lt. Gen. Saad el Shazly, chief of staff of the Egyptian army, recognized his Syrian colleagues as they came through customs with their false passports, trying to look like tourists. Shazly, also in civilian clothing, escorted them to the officers' club and left them to settle in. Towards evening, the Syrians were driven to a former palace serving as Egyptian naval headquarters. Eight Egyptian generals joined them, including defense minister Ahmed Ismail. The Syrians included defense minister Mustafa Talas and chief of staff Gen. Yusuf Shakoor. In intensive meetings over the next two days, the fourteen men coordinated their plans for a surprise two-front attack on Israel. When they rose, all was settled except the timing of D-Day. This would be left to the leaders of the two countries.
The humiliation of the Six Day War had cast its debilitating shadow over Egyptian president Anwar Sadat ever since he assumed office in October 1970. The War of Attrition undertaken by his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had not budged Israel from the Suez Canal. Nor had diplomatic efforts by the international community. Israel insisted on achieving border changes in direct negotiations with the Arab countries. The Arabs refused to recognize Israel as a legitimate state, let alone cede territory to it.
Prime Minister Golda Meir, confident that Israel's geopolitical situation had never been better, was content to wait for the Arabs to bow to reality. She rejected defense minister Moshe Dayan's suggestion in December 1970 that Israel pull back twenty miles from the canal in order to enable its reopening and thereby reduce Egyptian motivation for going to war. Two months later, Sadat reshaped Dayan's proposal and adopted it as his own in an address to the Egyptian National Assembly. Unlike Dayan, the Egyptian leader saw a partial Israeli pullback as catalyzing, not indefinitely delaying, a final withdrawal.
Sadat astonished his audience by declaring his readiness to achieve a peace agreement with Israel, the first time an Arab leader had publicly suggested that possibility. But Israel, said Sadat, would have to commit itself to subsequent withdrawal, not only from all of Sinai but from all the other territories captured in the Six Day War-the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee question must be resolved as well. As dire as were Egypt's straits economically and strategically, Sadat was not bidding for a separate settlement with Israel.
As an interim measure, U.S. secretary of state William Rogers attempted to persuade Israel to agree to a limited pullback but found it unyielding. After a fruitless trip to Jerusalem, his assistant, Joseph Sisco, paid a courtesy call on the prime minister and handed her a bouquet of flowers he had stopped to buy on the way. "Joe, you're saying it with flowers," Mrs. Meir said lightheartedly. "It won't do you any good."
A week after the Six Day War, the Israeli government had asked the United States to inform Egypt and Syria of its readiness to evacuate Sinai and the Golan, except for minor border modifications, in return for peace treaties. There was no response, but an Arab summit in Khartoum two months later rejected peace with Israel. The following month, the Israeli government rescinded its offer.
The international community made valiant attempts at a solution. In reply to a questionnaire submitted by UN envoy Gunnar Jarring in February 1971, Egypt declared its readiness to live in peace with Israel if it returned to the prewar border. In a parallel questionnaire submitted to Jerusalem, the reverse question was put-in return for peace, would Israel evacuate all Sinai? The reply was negative. Israel was prepared to withdraw to "mutually determined boundaries," not the prewar boundaries. Any peace achieved by pulling back to the vulnerable prewar borders, said Dayan, would be short-lived, because it would make another war too tempting for the Arabs. "If we really want to honor all the sovereign rights of the past and all the desires of every Arab, we won't be able to have a Jewish state here." The possibility of an interim settlement in Sinai had sunk into the desert sands.