Then Commander-in-Chief of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Southern command, Ariel Sharon, describes Israeli politicians' grave mistake which precipitated the Yom Kippur War, and a letter he received from the Rebbe on this matter.

The Egyptians' approach in the War of Attrition1 was based on the idea that they could create a rate of Israeli casualties that would eventually prove unbearable to an Israeli public always hypersensitive to every single lost life. In response, we did everything we could to demonstrate that Egypt was even more vulnerable than we and that continuing attacks would create unacceptable consequences for themselves. Outgunned by the Egyptian batteries on the canal, we did not limit ourselves to artillery exchanges. In 1969, before I took over command of the front, our forces launched a number of spectacular raids. On July 29 Israeli frogmen stormed and destroyed Green Island, a fortress at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez whose radar and antiaircraft installations controlled that sector's airspace. On September 9 our forces carried out a large-scale raid along the western shore of the Gulf of Suez. Landing craft ferried across Russian-made tanks and armored personnel carriers that we had captured in 1967, and the small column harried the Egyptians for ten hours. Moving down the gulf coast more than thirty miles, they wreaked havoc among the stunned Egyptian forces in the area, inflicting heavy casual-ties, including an Egyptian general and a top Soviet adviser, also a general. Already a sick man, Gamal Abdel Nasser suffered a heart attack when he learned what had happened.

In an effort to bring the consequences of the War of Attrition even closer to the enemy, in early 1970 the Israeli air force began attacking military targets deep inside Egypt. Very quickly it became clear that the jets could operate with impunity, penetrating the Egyptian air defenses and hitting virtually any target they wanted. But even these strikes did not persuade Nasser, ill as he was, to end the war. Instead he again turned to his Soviet allies, pleading with them for a solution that would enable him to continue drawing Israeli blood while protecting Egypt from the consequences of her actions.

By the early spring of 1970, the Russians had come up with their answer. Large numbers of the most up-to-date SAM-3 antiaircraft missiles were shipped into Egypt along with their Russian operating crews. Our intelligence told us too that advanced Russian-piloted Mig-21J's were also being deployed in large numbers. By June over a hundred of them were in the country, providing Egypt with a formidable, wholly Soviet-run air-defense system. For the first time, Russian military personnel were actively taking part in Middle Eastern combat. We did not announce it, nor did they. But the fact that the new Soviet role was undeclared did not make it any less ominous. Fifteen thousand Soviet missile troops, technicians, advisers, and pilots were now sitting astride Western Europe's traditional lifeline to the Persian Gulf. And for the first time Israel found herself in a face-to-face military confrontation with a superpower.

Up to this point Israeli air strikes had provided a telling answer to Egypt's artillery and commando war on the canal. But with the advent of the Soviets, the picture began to change. Missile sites that had started off covering the Egyptian interior were moved in stages toward the canal. Russian Mig patrols began by protecting Cairo, then slowly expanded their zone of coverage eastward. From the United States there was no significant response, and at first our pilots were ordered to avoid direct confrontations. As time passed, though, we began to feel that we had no alternative but to unambiguously demonstrate our determination. If we allowed Soviet planes and missiles to protect not just the Egyptian interior but also the canal zone, we would have lost any possibility of bringing Nasser's War of Attrition to a halt, or indeed of protecting ourselves.

As a result, we stepped up our bombing of Egyptian emplacements along the canal. Then on June 12 our forces crossed to the west bank above Kantara, destroying Egyptian positions along a two-mile front in an overnight operation. On July 25 and 27, Israeli and Russian pilots skirmished, and on the thirtieth a full-scale dogfight developed in which five Russian-piloted Migs were shot down to no Israeli losses.

The situation was precarious and explosive. We could not allow the front to be placed under a Soviet protective umbrella beneath which the Egyptians could continue their bombardment and their preparations for what Nasser was now calling the "liberation phase" of the war. On the other hand, an intensified, direct confrontation with Soviet forces would create an entirely new set of unpredictable perils which no one was eager to explore.

On August 7 the dilemma was apparently resolved when both Israel and Egypt accepted an American proposal for a standstill cease-fire. The cease-fire came as a relief to everyone concerned. We were suffering daily casualties on the Bar-Lev Line,2 and the Egyptian canal forces too had incurred extremely heavy losses from the constant battering by Israeli jets, artillery, and tanks.

On August 8 both sides emerged from their bunkers, at first with a nervous hesitation, like animals coming up from their dens into an uncertain daylight. Climbing out of the underground recesses, Israeli soldiers stood on the top of their positions and looked across the canal at the Egyptians, who were standing on top of theirs. The two sides took each other in, staring with curiosity at their counterparts on the opposite bank, who looked surprisingly like normal people.

Nasser's acceptance was something of a surprise, but within hours of the cease-fire the mystery was cleared up. During the past several months the Soviets had been inching their SAM launchers forward, extending the missiles' range toward the canal. This movement had been the primary target of the Israeli air force, which assumed the role of flying artillery in an effort to stop the advance (and had lost considerable numbers of planes in the effort). Now, even as the cease-fire was going into effect, the missile regiments again moved forward. The truce had been accepted by the Russians and Egyptians not with any thought of looking toward a settlement (as the American State Department had supposed), but as a ruse to advance the SAMs quickly, at least temporarily free from Israeli interdiction. It was an astonishingly brazen maneuver.

It was also a decisive moment. Once the missiles were in place, the skies over the canal would be denied to Israeli Phantoms and Skyhawks. Again the Egyptians would be able to hit us hard—and now we would be unable to respond. They could go on making all their preparations without hindrance. In the future if they decided to cross the canal we would be unable to use our air force to stop them. If we refused to confront the situation now, we would be accepting an inevitable slide toward the next war.

With time against us, Southern Command and General Headquarters began immediate discussions of a response. My own recommendation was for strong, decisive action. We should cross the canal near Kantara, destroy all the SAM sites in that region, then withdraw. But we would keep a limited bridgehead on the Egyptian side of the canal. We would make it clear that we did not intend to move beyond the bridgehead; we did not want to renew the general war. But neither were we going to allow any further missile deployment. The concept was well received, found support, and was given General Headquarters approval.

Now for the first time I began to consider the practical aspects of a canal crossing in force. I made a careful study of the most promising crossing sites, especially Kantara in the northern sector and Suez in the south. In each of these places one flank of a crossing force would be protected—in the case of Kantara by impassable swamps, and at Suez by the gulf. With one flank secure, the opportunity for the kind of narrow-front breakthrough I always favored would be maximized.

Of the two sites I liked Kantara best. The lagoons and swamps north and west of Kantara would provide more extensive protection than was available at Suez. Moreover, a west-bank bridgehead in that area would be comparatively easy to defend. To the south of Kantara an arm of the Nile fed into a sweetwater irrigation canal that ran parallel to the shipping canal. With its right flank resting on the swamps, a crossing force could secure its left flank on the sweetwater canal. And once established, a lodgement in the Kantara area would threaten the major part of the Egyptian army, which was positioned to the south. Kantara may not have presented the easiest crossing site, but its overall advantages for the kind of operation we had in mind was undeniable.

In the end, despite the General Headquarters recommendation, the government decided against the crossing operation. We would settle for the cease-fire and allow the missile defenses to come right up to the canal. I was quite concerned about this decision. It was, I believed, a dangerous display of weakness. My feelings on this subject were shared by others; I even received a long letter about it from Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered rabbi of the Lubavitcher Hassidic community. After Gur's3 death in 1967, Rabbi Schneerson had written me a beautiful condolence letter, and since then we had developed a warm relationship.

The rabbi was interested and well versed in a surprising variety of subjects, and now he was deeply worried about the situation on the canal. The Bar-Lev Line he considered a disaster, an outmoded Maginot-like concept which could not be effective "in our time of jets and airmobile forces." But it was the decision not to react to the missiles that had upset him even more, a sign, he thought, of accelerating Israeli weakness that could only have bad results. "In the beginning," he wrote, "it was a matter of our will. But in the end we will be forced. A year or two ago it depended on us." But then, "the government announced to all concerned that Israel was willing to give back the 'occupied territories.' That was a mistake. They should have said 'liberated territories.' So that by itself was a weakness. Then the weakness was enhanced when it became known that the Egyptians had brought up surface-to-air missiles, and we did not react."

Not being involved on the political side myself during that period, I was unable to judge if the decision not to oppose the missiles was unavoidable. But from a military point of view it put us at a bad disadvantage, and three years later was to create devastating problems for us during the initial stage of the Yom Kippur War.