‘The Eve of Destruction’
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TERENCE SMITH: The book is “The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War.” The author is Howard Blum, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and a former reporter for The New York Times.
On Oct. 6, 1973, Israel was caught by surprise when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. The Arab army scored important early gains in the three weeks of fighting, crossing the Suez Canal and seizing parts of the Golan Heights.
But they were eventually driven back across the 1967 cease-fire lines by Israel’s counterattack. The outcome of the war set the stage for the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and has continued to shape Middle East politics ever since. Howard Blum, welcome.
HOWARD BLUM: Nice to see you, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: The subtitle, “The Untold Story,” of this war, now 30 years later, what does that refer to?
HOWARD BLUM: Today, 30 years after the war, Israel is just beginning to declassify documents — cabinet meeting documents, intelligence reports — about the war. And I had access to all these reports, and I’m able to tell stories that haven’t been told before: Stories about double agents, stories about generals, stories about people on the front lines, and that all adds to “The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War.”
TERENCE SMITH: A principle character, who was certainly not known then, is someone you referred to as the in-law. Who was the in-law and what did he do?
HOWARD BLUM: The in-law was a spy that, who worked for the Egyptians, but the Israelis thought he was actually an Israeli spy. Four years before the Yom Kippur War, he walked into the Israeli embassy in London and volunteered his services.
Usually when there’s a walk-in, as it’s called in the intelligence business, another intelligence agency will just say, “go away.” But this man’s credentials were extraordinary. He was an in-law of Nasser, he was in the Egyptian cabinet…
TERENCE SMITH: He had married one of Nasser’s daughters.
HOWARD BLUM: Daughters. And he brought with him top-secret documents. These documents were gold, as people in the Israeli intelligence service said. And he was paid $100,000, a safe house was established for him near the Dorchester Hotel in London, where there were meetings at least once a month.
The transcripts of these meetings went directly to the prime minister, Golda Meir, the defense minister. And from these meetings, from these transcripts, from these documents, the Israeli government developed something called the concept, the concept convinced the Israelis that war could never happen.
The Egyptians needed to be armed and the Arabs needed to work as a community, and these documents that the in-law provided testified to the fact that these eventualities were impossible. Because of this, Israel was confident war would never happen.
TERENCE SMITH: Yet you identified the in-law in the book. He is alive.
HOWARD BLUM: The in-law is alive and relatively well. He has had four heart operations. He is 60 years old — Dr. Ashcroft Maran. He is an international businessman. He at one point tried to control Harrod’s Department Store. He owns the Chelsea soccer team and he is an Egyptian James Bond.
TERENCE SMITH: By your telling, he is a double agent, he was actually planted by the Egyptians.
HOWARD BLUM: He was a double agent. He recently faxed me award he received from President Sadat for his glorious services in the October war.
TERENCE SMITH: You have him in fact fooling the Israelis, in the sense that he gave them misinformation about the start, the exact time of the start…
HOWARD BLUM: The night before….
TERENCE SMITH: …of the war.
HOWARD BLUM: The night before the Yom Kippur War, the head of the Mossad makes a trip to meet with his most valuable agent. At this point Israel is beginning to suspect the war is coming. The Russians are leaving Egypt and Syria.
They begin to suspect something is happening. They still have not called up their reserves. The in-law at this point tells the head of the Mossad….
TERENCE SMITH: That’s the Israeli intelligence agency.
HOWARD BLUM: Yes, he tells him yes, the war is coming but it’s coming at sunset on Yom Kippur Day, Oct. 6. Israel then decides, well, we won’t give away that we know this. We’ll move our tanks into position around 4:00 by the Suez Canal, except the war comes at 2:00. By then the tanks … it’s too late for the tanks to move up into position. This is the last piece of disinformation the in-law gave the Israelis to fool them.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, you have to wonder, even three decades later how Israel could have been surprised when, as you write, they had intelligence officers who had analyzed information in the days prior to the war and were trying to get a hearing at the top levels with that kind of information. And there was a built-in reluctance, I gather, to acknowledge that this was even possible.
HOWARD BLUM: Yes, I quote document after document saying the Israelis knew what the Egyptians were doing. They knew what the Syrians were doing. They had the electronic surveillance equipment that showed the tanks were being moved into position and missiles were being readied.
The Israelis still failed to believe what they were seeing. They took two and two and didn’t get four. They got five. There was a mind-set in Israel that they were invincible. After the Six-Day War, Israel believed the Arabs would never dare to attack them. They were caught by surprise because of this.
TERENCE SMITH: They held to the belief despite the fact that as you describe it, King Hussein of Jordan, the late king, makes a midnight trip by helicopter in to tell them firsthand.
HOWARD BLUM: Right. King Hussein goes to Israel, flies the helicopter himself, lands in the midnight meeting and he tells Golda Meir, you are going to be attacked. Syria is in its jump off position. Golda wakes up Moshe Diane and said what should we do. He tells her nothing. It’s not going to happen. She goes back and humors King Hussein.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, Moshe Diane is by your description emotional, erratic, vacillating, full of fears, quite a difference from the popular image of Moshe Diane as Israel’s ultimate military hero.
HOWARD BLUM: In the course of the Yom Kippur War, Moshe Diane suffers a breakdown, wailing about the destruction of the third temple as he calls it. What he means is the present state of Israel. He — at one point, the chief of the Israeli army on the day of Yom Kippur wants to call up the reserves. Moshe Diane says no, we don’t need it.
He feels so guilty about his failure to call up the reserves, that he has this breakdown. On the third day of the war, he is about to go on television and he meets with reporters first to give them a briefing. After this briefing, he is so erratic, that the reporters go to Golda Meir and said you can’t have him on TV, it will cause panic and Golda insists to have him on TV.
TERENCE SMITH: “The Eve of Destruction” by Howard Blum. Thank you very much.
HOWARD BLUM: Thank you.