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New Tapes Stir Controversy on Follies, Successes of Yom Kippur War

Almost 30 years after the Yom Kippur War, the ghosts of wars past threaten to haunt Israeli society.

Previously undisclosed documents from the battles that cost Israel 2,587 lives in October 1973 were published over the weekend by two Israeli newspapers, reviving the old debate about who was responsible for the tragedies that befell Israel in the early, gloomy days of the war.

The release of the information also has breathed new life into the question of whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then a military commander, was the war’s real hero.

Ma’ariv and Yediot Achronot published transcripts from recordings of communication systems under the aegis of Shmuel Gonen, head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command.

Gonen, who died several years ago, had entrusted the tapes to two of his wireless operators during the war, Amir Porat and Yitzhak Rubinstein. The two released the tapes to the competing newspapers before the weekend, and each newspaper devoted large segments of its weekend edition to the recordings.

Despite the thousands of words they generated, the tapes contained few new revelations.

Gonen was singled out by the Agranat Inquiry Commission, which was appointed to investigate the war, as one of the officers responsible for the fact that Israel was caught unprepared by the invading Egyptian army.

Top political leaders, including Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, came out clean in the inquiry.

Their lack of culpability left Gonen bitter and angry.

Among the more notable revelations in the articles was Porat’s statement that Gonen had told him he wanted to assassinate Dayan for avoiding responsibility for the war and allowing military commanders — like Gonen and the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, Gen. David “Dado” Elazar — to take the fall.

Gonen reportedly dropped his assassination plan after he saw that Dayan received bad press in connection with the war.

The release of the tapes is fueling public pressure on the IDF to release the army’s official history of the Yom Kippur War.

The military document was completed nearly a decade ago, but was top secret. Five years ago, the document was downgraded to classified, but the army still has refrained from publishing it.

Observers say the report has not been released partly because it could create new controversy for some of those involved in the war, including Sharon.

However, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Monday that senior IDF officers are re-evaluating the decision to shelve the 744-page official version of the war.

The transcripts published this week offer a window into the internal rivalries in the IDF’s Supreme Command as soldiers faced a life-and-death war against the Egyptian army in the Sinai.

The field communication recordings between Gonen and Sharon — then a major general in the reserves, who would become the first commander to cross the Suez Canal and bring the war to Egyptian territory — exposed the differences among top army officials.

Sharon demanded that the IDF rescue Israeli soldiers caught in outposts along the canal, but he did not receive the command’s approval. They were left on their own, and those who remained alive were captured as prisoners of war.

Sharon also wanted to move faster across the canal, but he was held back by Elazar and Maj.-Gen. Haim Bar-Lev, a former chief of staff who was given overall command of the southern front.

Over the years, Sharon has argued that the Supreme Command wanted to limit his strategic maneuvers for fear that it would help his political ambitions in elections due to be held after the war.

The infighting is reflected in the newly released tapes:

Elazar to Sharon: “The plan you said before is totally unacceptable. It does not fit the mission that I gave you. I want you to hold the bridgehead. We’ll discuss crossing [the canal] later.”

Sharon: “Look, Dado. So far I have carried out every mission.”

Elazar: “I hear you, but I am not discussing history now; I am giving orders for the continuation [of the war].”

When Gonen reprimanded Sharon for not following orders, Sharon retorted: “Don’t bother me with those things.”

The future prime minister reportedly allowed himself a large measure of discretion during the battle, at times disregarding orders, shutting off communications systems and pretending that he could not hear orders over the radio.

Because of the eventual victory in the battlefield — the IDF advanced within 60 miles of Cairo — all was forgiven after the war.

“Arik Sharon was the real hero of the war,” said Uri Dan, a journalist who served as a military correspondent in Sharon’s command during the war and who remains a Sharon confidant. “Had it not been for the crossing of the canal, Sadat” — Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president — “would not have come to Israel on his peace mission four years later.”

Two failures marked the war, in Dan’s analysis: The political leadership was caught unaware and the senior military chain of command, from Gonen on up, failed to operate according to procedure.

But reserve Maj.-Gen. Avraham Adan, commander of another division on the Egyptian front, disagreed, telling Ma’ariv that Sharon’s crossing of the canal was not the masterstroke it was made out to be.

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