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Zvi Zamir, the man who sounded the alarm in 1973, is dead at 98

Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad during the Yom Kippur War and the author of the most dramatic coded message in the history of the State of Israel, died Tuesday at the age of 98.

  • Zamir led the Mossad from 1968 to 1974, six tumultuous years that saw the organization and its straitlaced chief embark on a worldwide hunt for Palestinian terrorists following the Munich Olympics attacks, lead commandos into the heart of Beirut in a daring operation, and attempt to sound a late-night warning bell on the eve of Yom Kippur 1973 as Egyptian and Syrian forces prepared to mount a surprise attack.
  • His death was announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on behalf of the spy agency. No cause of death was given.

Zamir, a proper and dry man possessing what his novelist daughter Michal Zamir once called “a brutally consistent logic,” was an unlikely fit for the Mossad, which often fishes for talent among the cunningly audacious and the quietly theatric.

The defining drama of his life came on October 5, 1973, when an Egyptian source, quite likely the best the Mossad has ever had, asked for an urgent meeting with the commander himself.

The source was not without controversy. The most influential man in Israel’s intelligence community at the time, the head of the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate, maintained then, and has maintained since, that the source, Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law to Gamal Abdel Nasser and adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat, was too good to be true — a double agent.

Zamir, though, flew to London. He met Marwan at midnight in a swanky aparthotel. Convinced of the veracity of his report — that one million men under arms in Egypt would on the following day launch a surprise attack in tandem with the Syrian military — Zamir wrote out an encoded message on a piece of paper and then called his bureau chief. The hour was 3 a.m. “Put your feet in cold water,” he reportedly told the officer, beseeching him to shake himself awake and fast.

“The company, after all, will be signing the contract today toward evening,” Zamir dictated to his bureau chief. “It is the same contract with the same stipulations that we are familiar with. It is known that tomorrow is a holiday.”

2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad during the Yom Kippur War and the author of the most dramatic coded message in the history of the State of Israel, died Tuesday at the age of 98.

Zamir led the Mossad from 1968 to 1974, six tumultuous years that saw the organization and its straitlaced chief embark on a worldwide hunt for Palestinian terrorists following the Munich Olympics attacks, lead commandos into the heart of Beirut in a daring operation, and attempt to sound a late-night warning bell on the eve of Yom Kippur 1973 as Egyptian and Syrian forces prepared to mount a surprise attack.

His death was announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on behalf of the spy agency. No cause of death was given.

Zamir, a proper and dry man possessing what his novelist daughter Michal Zamir once called “a brutally consistent logic,” was an unlikely fit for the Mossad, which often fishes for talent among the cunningly audacious and the quietly theatric.

The defining drama of his life came on October 5, 1973, when an Egyptian source, quite likely the best the Mossad has ever had, asked for an urgent meeting with the commander himself.

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The source was not without controversy. The most influential man in Israel’s intelligence community at the time, the head of the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate, maintained then, and has maintained since, that the source, Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law to Gamal Abdel Nasser and adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat, was too good to be true — a double agent.

Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (photo credit: Raafat/Wikimedia Commons)
Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (photo credit: Raafat/Wikimedia Commons)
Zamir, though, flew to London. He met Marwan at midnight in a swanky aparthotel. Convinced of the veracity of his report — that one million men under arms in Egypt would on the following day launch a surprise attack in tandem with the Syrian military — Zamir wrote out an encoded message on a piece of paper and then called his bureau chief. The hour was 3 a.m. “Put your feet in cold water,” he reportedly told the officer, beseeching him to shake himself awake and fast.

“The company, after all, will be signing the contract today toward evening,” Zamir dictated to his bureau chief. “It is the same contract with the same stipulations that we are familiar with. It is known that tomorrow is a holiday.”

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Those four words — tomorrow is a holiday — was the commander of the Mossad reporting that tomorrow would be war. Never had a more valuable piece of intelligence been conveyed from the field and yet, for a variety of reasons, it was not heeded in full — a failure that hounded Zamir for the rest of his days.

“It burned him up that he didn’t succeed in getting the Israeli government to try and counter the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria sooner,” Danny Yatom, who led the spy agency in the 1990s, told Army Radio Tuesday.

After leaving the spy agency, Zamir went into private business, serving as CEO of roadbuilding company Solel Boneh and chairman of Oil Refineries Ltd., as well as serving on the state commission that probed prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination.

Eulogizing him on Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog called Zamir “one of the fathers and founders of the defense establishment,” praising him for his stewardship of a “world-spanning fight against terror threatening Israelis and Jews in Israel and beyond.”

“I looked up to him since I was a child, as someone who served alongside my father [former president Chaim Herzog], and as our neighbor and friend,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Not the ‘best choice’?
Zamir was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1925. He moved to Tel Aviv with his family at the age of nine months. The son of an observant Jewish father who drove a horse-drawn wagon for the electric company, he grew up playing soccer alongside Yitzhak Rabin and had his name changed by the Israel Prize-winning author Yehuda Burla, who was his teacher in grade school and struggled to pronounce the name Zarezivsky.

In 1942, at the age of 16, he joined the Palmach. Speaking of the gap between his old-world home and his reality as a teenager struggling for the resurgence of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, he wrote, in his 2011 Hebrew-language memoir, “The home did not serve as a source of inspiration to me on my chosen path.”

During the War of Independence he served as a Palmach battalion commander, fighting along the slim corridor of road linking the coastal plains to the besieged city of Jerusalem. During the early months of the war, from the November 29, 1947, vote in the United Nations to the May 14, 1948, Declaration of Independence, he and the other members of the Harel Brigade improvised their own battle plans and exposed themselves daily to enemy fire. Nearly one hundred of them were wounded and 73, both men and women, were killed.

After the war, he remained in uniform and rose to the rank of two-star general. His final posting, after serving as head of the Southern Command, was the cushy position of military attaché to Britain.

In 1968, Zamir, a largely apolitical and level-headed officer, a man who detested gossip and “maintained the façade that all things human were foreign” to him, according to his daughter Michal, was asked to head the Mossad. Speaking to prime minister Levi Eshkol in advance of the appointment, he said, “I’m not sure that this choice is the best choice available.”

On September 1, 1968, five weeks after the first and only successful hijacking of an El Al plane, he was made the fourth commander of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, ushering it through the rising crescendo of Palestinian terror in Europe.

Munich
Four years into the job, terrorists from Fatah’s Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village in the predawn hours of September 5, 1972, and took part of the Israeli delegation hostage. Prime minister Golda Meir asked Zamir to fly to Munich, “so we’ll at least know what’s happening there.”

Rebuffed by the German authorities and unable to influence the scandalously amateurish rescue attempt, he was forced to watch the fiasco unfold at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield. From the roof of an administrative building alongside the control tower, he saw the German plan fall apart and watched as the terrorists opened fire and threw phosphorous grenades into the two helicopters in which the athletes were held captive, shackled hand and foot. “It was,” Zamir said in a 2017 documentary about the Mossad, “a vision I shall not forget for all of my days.”

Zamir returned quickly to the Olympic Village. He called the prime minister. She told him that the athletes had been rescued. Her impression had been formed by an 11:31 p.m. wire report from Reuters, which read: “All Israeli hostages have been freed.”

2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad during the Yom Kippur War and the author of the most dramatic coded message in the history of the State of Israel, died Tuesday at the age of 98.

Zamir led the Mossad from 1968 to 1974, six tumultuous years that saw the organization and its straitlaced chief embark on a worldwide hunt for Palestinian terrorists following the Munich Olympics attacks, lead commandos into the heart of Beirut in a daring operation, and attempt to sound a late-night warning bell on the eve of Yom Kippur 1973 as Egyptian and Syrian forces prepared to mount a surprise attack.

His death was announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on behalf of the spy agency. No cause of death was given.

Zamir, a proper and dry man possessing what his novelist daughter Michal Zamir once called “a brutally consistent logic,” was an unlikely fit for the Mossad, which often fishes for talent among the cunningly audacious and the quietly theatric.

The defining drama of his life came on October 5, 1973, when an Egyptian source, quite likely the best the Mossad has ever had, asked for an urgent meeting with the commander himself.

Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Edition
by email and never miss our top stories
Newsletter email address
Your email
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By signing up, you agree to the terms
The source was not without controversy. The most influential man in Israel’s intelligence community at the time, the head of the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate, maintained then, and has maintained since, that the source, Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law to Gamal Abdel Nasser and adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat, was too good to be true — a double agent.

Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (photo credit: Raafat/Wikimedia Commons)
Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan (photo credit: Raafat/Wikimedia Commons)
Zamir, though, flew to London. He met Marwan at midnight in a swanky aparthotel. Convinced of the veracity of his report — that one million men under arms in Egypt would on the following day launch a surprise attack in tandem with the Syrian military — Zamir wrote out an encoded message on a piece of paper and then called his bureau chief. The hour was 3 a.m. “Put your feet in cold water,” he reportedly told the officer, beseeching him to shake himself awake and fast.

“The company, after all, will be signing the contract today toward evening,” Zamir dictated to his bureau chief. “It is the same contract with the same stipulations that we are familiar with. It is known that tomorrow is a holiday.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Those four words — tomorrow is a holiday — was the commander of the Mossad reporting that tomorrow would be war. Never had a more valuable piece of intelligence been conveyed from the field and yet, for a variety of reasons, it was not heeded in full — a failure that hounded Zamir for the rest of his days.

“It burned him up that he didn’t succeed in getting the Israeli government to try and counter the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria sooner,” Danny Yatom, who led the spy agency in the 1990s, told Army Radio Tuesday.

After leaving the spy agency, Zamir went into private business, serving as CEO of roadbuilding company Solel Boneh and chairman of Oil Refineries Ltd., as well as serving on the state commission that probed prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination.

Eulogizing him on Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog called Zamir “one of the fathers and founders of the defense establishment,” praising him for his stewardship of a “world-spanning fight against terror threatening Israelis and Jews in Israel and beyond.”

“I looked up to him since I was a child, as someone who served alongside my father [former president Chaim Herzog], and as our neighbor and friend,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Not the ‘best choice’?
Zamir was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1925. He moved to Tel Aviv with his family at the age of nine months. The son of an observant Jewish father who drove a horse-drawn wagon for the electric company, he grew up playing soccer alongside Yitzhak Rabin and had his name changed by the Israel Prize-winning author Yehuda Burla, who was his teacher in grade school and struggled to pronounce the name Zarezivsky.

In 1942, at the age of 16, he joined the Palmach. Speaking of the gap between his old-world home and his reality as a teenager struggling for the resurgence of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, he wrote, in his 2011 Hebrew-language memoir, “The home did not serve as a source of inspiration to me on my chosen path.”

Watching a training exercise: Eli Zeira, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Pundak Binyamin Jibli, Moshe Dayan and Zvi Zamir (Photo credit: IDF Archive/ Ministry of Defense/ photographer unspecified)
Watching a training exercise: Eli Zeira, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Pundak Binyamin Jibli, Moshe Dayan and Zvi Zamir (Photo credit: IDF Archive/ Ministry of Defense/ photographer unspecified)
During the War of Independence he served as a Palmach battalion commander, fighting along the slim corridor of road linking the coastal plains to the besieged city of Jerusalem. During the early months of the war, from the November 29, 1947, vote in the United Nations to the May 14, 1948, Declaration of Independence, he and the other members of the Harel Brigade improvised their own battle plans and exposed themselves daily to enemy fire. Nearly one hundred of them were wounded and 73, both men and women, were killed.

After the war, he remained in uniform and rose to the rank of two-star general. His final posting, after serving as head of the Southern Command, was the cushy position of military attaché to Britain.

In 1968, Zamir, a largely apolitical and level-headed officer, a man who detested gossip and “maintained the façade that all things human were foreign” to him, according to his daughter Michal, was asked to head the Mossad. Speaking to prime minister Levi Eshkol in advance of the appointment, he said, “I’m not sure that this choice is the best choice available.”

  • On September 1, 1968, five weeks after the first and only successful hijacking of an El Al plane, he was made the fourth commander of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, ushering it through the rising crescendo of Palestinian terror in Europe.

Munich

Four years into the job, terrorists from Fatah’s Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village in the predawn hours of September 5, 1972, and took part of the Israeli delegation hostage. Prime minister Golda Meir asked Zamir to fly to Munich, “so we’ll at least know what’s happening there.”

  • Rebuffed by the German authorities and unable to influence the scandalously amateurish rescue attempt, he was forced to watch the fiasco unfold at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield.

From the roof of an administrative building alongside the control tower, he saw the German plan fall apart and watched as the terrorists opened fire and threw phosphorous grenades into the two helicopters in which the athletes were held captive, shackled hand and foot. “It was,” Zamir said in a 2017 documentary about the Mossad, “a vision I shall not forget for all of my days.”

 

  • Zamir returned quickly to the Olympic Village. He called the prime minister. She told him that the athletes had been rescued. Her impression had been formed by an 11:31 p.m. wire report from Reuters, which read: “All Israeli hostages have been freed.”

 

“Golda,” Zamir replied, according to his Hebrew-language memoir “Eyes Wide Open,” “I’m sorry to tell you but the athletes were not rescued. I saw them. Not one of them survived.”

Zamir left Munich fuming at the “new Germany” and fiercely determined to settle the score with the terror organizations active in Europe. It has been widely reported that upon his return to Tel Aviv, it was Meir who gave him the order to hunt down those responsible for the attack and to preemptively thwart any future attacks. In “Mossad: A Cover Story,” a recent documentary series on Israeli TV, he pointedly dismissed that notion. “Golda gave me no [such] orders. Why?” he asked, shutting his eyes and shrugging. “Because I required no [such] orders.”

Zamir’s next year was feverishly intense. In April, Mossad officers, after months of intelligence work on the ground, led three separate squads of Israeli commandos from the Beirut seashore to three separate terror strongholds in the war-stricken capital, playing a pivotal role in Operation Spring of Youth —a mission so bold it seems almost unfathomable in today’s military.

Four months later, in August, Zamir’s officers learned of a plan to shoot down two El Al passenger planes. The attack was imminent. It would be carried out with six SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, which had been sent, as per an agreement with Tripoli, from Cairo to Italy in diplomatic pouches. A senior Egyptian official oversaw the delivery of the missiles to a squad of Palestinian terrorists in Rome.

That official was none other than Ashraf Marwan. The disgruntled son-in-law of Nasser, who agreed to work for Israel for hefty sums of money and for the feeling, apparently, that he was valued, contacted Zamir and informed him of the plan. The terrorists were located, the Italian authorities tipped off, the arrests inconspicuously made. The missiles had been rolled up in carpets and were ready for use.

Yom Kippur

In October, Marwan again contacted Zamir. This time it was to warn of war. The trouble was it was not his first time. On May 15, 1973, he had sounded a similar warning. Zamir had taken it straight to the prime minister. The head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, had berated him — both for getting it wrong and for overstepping his bounds. In the pre-1973 era, the army’s intelligence branch stood undisputedly at the top of the pyramid. It alone was in charge of forecasting the chance of war. And Zeira remained firm to the last: the Egyptians were not yet ready for full-fledged war, he told the cabinet.

  • Zamir knew that one more false alarm was the end of his career. Summoning the reserves from synagogue on Yom Kippur for a war that wasn’t, he said in “Mossad: A Cover Story,” would be a sin “punishable by death.”

Nonetheless, he sounded the alarm, triggering a partial call-up that may have saved the Golan Heights. To his dismay, though, it did not jerk the IDF into a full-scale war footing. The prime minister was not immediately awoken. According to Uri Bar-Joseph’s book “The Angel,” the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, remarked, “You can’t call up the whole system just because of a few messages from Zvika.”

Zamir never forgave Zeira — for his overconfidence and his crusade to prove that Marwan, who had gotten the time of the attack wrong, was a double agent. That campaign led to the agent’s outing and his apparent murder, in London in 2007.

  • Zamir went to his grave believing that Zeira and Dayan bore the brunt of the guilt for the way the war unfolded. Meir, on the other hand, he believed, was stellar in her leadership, both before and during the war. Among Israelis, who have long held her responsible for the war, this position remains in a radical minority. “She was dreadfully wronged,” he told Channel 10 news at his ninetieth birthday party. “That woman was a hero.”

Zamir, a prickly and principled individual, was at times difficult. During a farewell visit to Mossad headquarters, on July 4, 1974, Golda Meir told the officers gathered there that, “In terms of Zvika, I don’t know if you know how easy it is to work with him: All that is needed is that you agree with everything he says.”

  • Yet it was that drive, that insistence on his own truth, even when it was unwelcome, even when it was in the minority, that proved crucial to Israel in one of its darkest and most haunting hours.

Source: Mitch Ginsburg – TOI