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On the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s Top Spymasters Face Off

Zvi Zamir and Eli Zeira reckon with history in Tel Aviv after four decades of feuding over the surprise attack

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Ashraf Marwan. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Shutterstock)
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In late 1970, a 26-year-old Egyptian named Ashraf Marwan walked into a red telephone booth in London, dialed the number of the Israeli Embassy, and asked to speak with someone from the mukhabarat. A meeting in a hotel lobby was hastily arranged; Marwan had been on the Mossad’s recruitment sights for a long while, and now here he was volunteering his services. It’s easy to see why he made such an attractive target: The son of an Egyptian general, Marwan was married to the daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mona, and was head of Anwar Sadat’s Presidential Information Bureau, the regime’s nerve center, giving him access to Egypt’s most sensitive secrets. Though his home was in Cairo, he was pursuing a master’s degree in chemistry in London and would visit frequently. He was, in short, ideally placed.

The Mossad’s human intelligence experts were seasoned enough to know that if things sound too good to be true, they usually are. But Marwan provided Israel with countless documents on Egypt’s political and military spheres, including minutes of high-level Egyptian-Soviet meetings and secret Egyptian war plans, with details on exactly how Egypt planned to cross the Suez Canal into the Israeli-occupied Sinai desert. It was a mother lode for analysts in the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence research division. Israel’s top leaders, Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, would often receive his material in raw form, unencumbered by analysis. Zvi Zamir, the chief of the Mossad, personally attended many of the meetings with Marwan—an unusual move for a spymaster, and a testament to Marwan’s importance. Fittingly, Marwan was christened with the codename “Angel.”

In addition to providing strategic intelligence, Marwan demonstrated an ability to warn Israel of impending threats. In September 1973, intelligence he provided led to the arrest of Palestinian terrorists who were preparing to shoot down an El Al plane after takeoff in Rome, part of a joint Egyptian-Libyan-Palestinian operation in which Marwan was the Egyptian liaison. And twice, in December 1972 and April 1973, Marwan told his handlers Egypt would attack Israel within weeks. Twice the IDF prepared for war, and twice it did not materialize.

While early documents provided by Marwan showed Egypt was keen on attacking Israel to regain the Sinai desert, Israel’s military intelligence assessment suggested that Egypt was acutely aware of its vulnerability to air attacks, especially in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, when it lost its entire air force to an Israel Air Force strike. So long as Egypt had not received the Soviet arms and aircraft it was desperate for, went the military analysis, there was no chance of an Egyptian attack. And Syria would not attack without Egypt. Many signs—including the evacuation of Soviet advisers from Egypt and Syria, and Egyptian troop movements that were in plain sight of the Israeli soldiers across the Suez Canal—pointed to war. Yet Eli Zeira, the head of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, refused to budge from his conviction that it was all just an exercise, and that war was an impossibility.

On the night of Oct. 5, 1973—erev Yom Kippur—Marwan warned his Mossad handlers of the war that would begin the next day at sundown. Zamir, present at the meeting in London and fully aware of the ramifications of a massive mobilization of reserve soldiers on Yom Kippur, called home and sounded the alarm. The joint Syrian-Egyptian attack on Israel came the next day, but in the afternoon, at 14:00. The IDF had barely begun to prepare, and the strike left the nation reeling. In the war’s aftermath, a National Inquiry Commission headed by the Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Shimon Agranat introduced a new word into the Israeli popular lexicon: conceptziya, as in “concept.” It was Zeira’s military intelligence analysts who stubbornly clung to a false conceptziya too long, blinding leaders to an attack until it was nearly too late. Zeira was removed from his post, alongside the IDF’s Chief of Staff David Elazer.

In recent years, Zeira has been outspoken regarding his conviction that Marwan was a double agent working for the Egyptians. In 2004, Zamir blamed Zeira for publicly exposing Marwan’s identity. In retaliation, Zeira sued Zamir for libel—and lost, leaving Zeira on precarious legal ground. He had effectively been found to have disclosed top secret confidential information, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Three weeks later, on June 27, 2007, Marwan died after plummeting from the balcony of his London flat—a suspicious death for a man who has been called Israel’s greatest spy. As far as Zamir was concerned, Zeira was now responsible not just for ignoring the signs of impending war, but for getting a Mossad asset killed.

Zeira was cleared last year, after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided against pressing charges on the basis of Zeira’s age and history of service in the Palmach and the IDF. This weekend, the two octogenarians will finally meet in public, at a conference hosted by a national-security think tank in Tel Aviv. Their feud, long the stuff of Israeli intelligence mythology, will be on everyone’s minds, but the real questions will be the same as they were in 1973: Which man bears the real responsibility for failing to act in time to prevent the Yom Kippur War? Was it just an intelligence failure on the part of IDF military intelligence with Eli Zeira at the helm? Or was Israel’s leadership—just like the greater Israeli public—too drunk on the undreamed of 1967 success that was the Six Day War to anticipate that such a blow could ever occur, and therefore criminally oblivious to its warning signs? And, most important: Could it happen again?

***

Zeira, guilt-ridden and still hurting even two decades after he sustained a very public blow, began his crusade against Marwan in 1993, when he published a bookThe Yom Kippur War: Myth vs. Reality, that told his version of the events leading up to the Yom Kippur War. Although the Israeli military censors removed direct references to Marwan, the book hinted at his identity—while at the same time accusing him of having worked for the Egyptians all along. Copies of the uncensored manuscript found their way to members of the press. Other journalists were tipped off and began hinting at the story in their own work.

One of them was Ahron Bregman. An Israeli journalist and historian, he has lived in London for the past 25 years and teaches at the War Studies department at King’s College. In December 2002, he gave an interview to the Egyptian daily Al Ahram in which he was the first to publicly and explicitly reveal that Marwan was the mysterious spy “Angel.” Up until that moment, Bregman says, his pursuit of Marwan had been like a game. He would hint at the spy’s identity and wait to see if Marwan would respond. “I didn’t mention his name, but I hinted heavily,” Bregman recounted. In a September 2002 article for Yedioth Aharonoth, Bregman had written that the spy was a relative of Nasser’s, even referring to him as “the son-in-law.”

In December 2002, as Bregman tells it, he was in the garden collecting leaves when his wife told him to pick up the phone. “I’m the man you’ve written about,” a voice said. It was Marwan. “I was convinced he wanted to kill me,” Bregman said. Marwan, who had recently undergone heart bypass surgery, told Bregman three things: “One, I’m not challenging you. Two, you’ve got your enemies and I’ve got my enemies. Don’t talk to my enemies. Three, we should meet up when I’m better. But don’t listen to my enemies.” The Jew and the Arab wished each other merry Christmas and rang off. Over the next few years, the spy and the historian developed a relationship. They met only once but communicated regularly. All the while, Marwan never confessed to being “Angel.” That didn’t stop him from voicing his frustration with the Mossad for not protecting him. “He couldn’t understand how a ‘Bregman’ could reveal his identity without anyone stopping him,” Bregman told me.

Bregman has insisted that Zeira was not his direct source, but it is clear that Zeira at least set in motion the process that led to Bregman’s Al Ahram interview. After Bregman publicly named Marwan, Israeli censors had no choice but to allow journalists to name him in their own articles. In 2004, Zeira published the second edition of his book. Now he could finally name Ashraf Marwan himself—despite the obvious difference between the weight of what had been journalistic speculation until that point and was now recounted as fact in a memoir by one of the most important figures in the history of the Israeli intelligence community. The book’s publication was accompanied by a rare and lengthy television interview conducted by Dan Margalit, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, large parts of which Zeira dedicated to his theory that Marwan was a double agent.

A week later, an outraged Zvi Zamir appeared on Margalit’s show. “When a man who was in his position, director of military intelligence, when he reveals sources, he’s breaking the first of intelligence’s Ten Commandments!” he insisted. “He should be put on trial! I don’t know of anything like this in the history of intelligence. And with all due respect, you can’t compare him to Bregman.” Around that time, according to Bregman, he shared with Marwan his prediction that the Zamir-Zeira feud would end up in court. Marwan was incredulous. “ ‘That will never happen,’ he told me. He couldn’t believe that he would ever be so exposed.”

But Bregman was proven right. Zeira sued Zamir for libel, claiming that he hadn’t leaked Marwan’s name. Theodore Or, a former vice president of the Israeli Supreme Court, was tasked with arbitrating. The lengthy procedure ended in March 2007. In his verdict, Justice Or found that Zeira had indeed, on multiple occasions, revealed Ashraf Marwan to be a spy. On June 7 of that year, the verdict was made public. Inadvertently, Ashraf Marwan’s identity as a spy for Israel had become a matter of public legal record. “He would cry on the phone: ‘How can they do this to me?’ ” Bregman said. “ ‘Zeira and Zamir have their own wars, and I’m the one getting hurt.’ ”

On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 27, 2007, Marwan plunged five stories to his death from the balcony of his apartment on Carlton House Terrace, a posh, leafy cul-de-sac, just off London’s Trafalgar Square. By the time he died, he was a billionaire, living in London. Using connections garnered over years in government, particularly with the Qaddafi regime in Libya, the “Angel” was no saint. He was part of a failed bid to take over the Harrods department store and acquired ownership of part of the British football club Chelsea, but he also traded arms across embargoes and maintained close ties with the Egyptian elite. One of his sons married the daughter of Amr Moussa, formerly the Egyptian foreign minister and later the secretary-general of the Arab League. Another one of his sons was close friends with Gamal Mubarak, the son and heir apparent of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Eyewitness accounts surrounding Marwan’s death were unclear. One version was that Marwan had climbed over the railing himself. Another, immediately after the fall, spoke of two men, dressed in suits and who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, silently watching from Marwan’s balcony. An inquest conducted by the Westminster Coroner’s Court was unable to reach a conclusive verdict regarding the cause of death.

Ashraf Marwan received a hero’s funeral in Egypt. Omar Suleiman, then-head of Egyptian intelligence, was in attendance, as was Mubarak’s son, Gamal. The president himself later told reporters that he did not doubt Marwan’s patriotism. “I knew the details of what he was doing to serve his nation,” Mubarak said. “He carried out patriotic acts which it is not time yet to reveal, but he was indeed a patriotic Egyptian and was not a spy for any organization at all.” To Zeira, it was proof that Marwan had indeed been working all along to dupe Israel. “My big mistake,” he told an Israeli news magazine, “was that Marwan was a double agent and I didn’t find that out. That’s where I’m guilty.” He pointed to the fact that the war broke out in the afternoon, hours before the evening attack Marwan had predicted, as indicative of his lack of bona fides. Uri Bar-Joseph, of Haifa University, the author of The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Sources and an indispensible book on Marwan, The Angel, maintains that Marwan probably had no way of knowing that the H-hour had changed.

A scene from a Mafia movie, where mobsters kill one of their own and then put on a big show of bereavement.

But Israeli observers in Zamir’s camp purported to see through the platitudes; to them, this was a case of the Egyptian elite covering up one of its more shameful scandals—a traitor in their midst. After years of ignoring the elephant in the room, the arbitration verdict in the Zamir-Zeira case meant that Marwan had to be dispensed with. Amos Gilboa, a retired Israeli intelligence official, said in an interview that watching footage of the funeral reminded him of a scene from a Mafia movie, where mobsters kill one of their own and then put on a big show of bereavement.

***

One irony of Zeira’s crusade stems from the fact that “Angel” was actually never meant to serve as the Israeli intelligence community’s ultimate alarm bell. Israel had other strategic sources in Egypt, which the censored report of the Agranat Commission opaquely referred to as “special means”—widely understood to be signals intelligence, or surveillance, which were supposed to provide early warning. The 48-hour warning would give the IDF time enough to mobilize reserves, beef up defenses, and launch a preemptive strike. Zeira himself admitted that much in his testimony before the Agranat Commission, saying that he while he indeed had a conceptziya—that Egypt would not launch an attack—“in case my ‘concept’ was wrong, I needed an insurance policy,” Zeira said. “My insurance policy was in the form of those ‘special means,’ they would give an unequivocal indication. That was my plan, in a nutshell.”

But in the days leading up to the war, Zeira was asked on multiple occasions whether the “special means” were operational, according to Bar-Joseph. The surveillance was not active, Bar Joseph told me, but Zeira lied and said that they were. Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and Chief of Staff Elazar were all under the impression that they would receive the early warning they needed. “The IDF was actually very well prepared for war but dependent on the 48-hour alert that military intelligence had promised to provide,” Bar-Joseph explained. “Even after Marwan’s alert came in, Dayan didn’t view it as a critical piece of intelligence, because he wasn’t counting on Marwan.” Marwan hadn’t even been given a communications device. “You can’t depend on a spy with no radio to give you an early warning,” Bar-Joseph went on. “Marwan was an excellent source for many things. But we’re very lucky he gave us the warning for Yom Kippur.”

Zeira’s attempt to shirk part of his blame for the Yom Kippur surpriseby shifting it to Marwan, or to Zamir and the Mossadis easy to understand in light of the personal ramifications the war must have had for him. But he isn’t alone in thinking that the war was not primarily his fault. Bregman thinks the strategic surprise has much to do with what happened to Israel after 1967. Israelis at the time were euphoric, Bregman said. They were convinced that Israel could do no wrong, make no military miscalculation. “I’ll never forget how after the Six Day War I was at a restaurant in Tel Aviv with my mother, and suddenly the traffic stopped,” Bregman told me. “It was because some general had stopped up the traffic with his car, because he wanted to buy falafel.” According to this view, Israel was a country ready for a fall. “1973 was inevitable, to take us out of the Six Day War euphoria,” Bregman said.

I asked Bregman whether he felt guilty for what happened to Marwan. “Exposing him was the stupidest thing I ever did,” he admitted. “Before I met him, it was a game. The temptation was irresistible. You have information on probably the most important spy that ever operated in the Middle East. Everyone’s talking about him, and you know who it is. So that was a huge accomplishment. But once he called me, in December 2002, when I heard his voice, I knew I had made a mistake. The spy became a man, with ailing health, with all sorts of problems. A human. And what happened afterwards wasn’t very good. He died. I’m sure his name would have been revealed regardless of my actions. But I would rather that had been someone else’s fault.”

***

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On the 40th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s Top Spymasters Face Off

Zvi Zamir and Eli Zeira reckon with history in Tel Aviv after four decades of feuding over the surprise attack