By Uri Sadot
As world powers debate what a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran should look like, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu continues to maintain that Israel is not bound by the interim agreement that the P5+1 and Iran struck in Geneva on November 24. Israel, says Netanyahu, “has the right and the obligation to defend itself.” One question then is whether Netanyahu actually intends to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. The other question, no less important, is whether Israel could really pull it off.
American analysts are divided on Israel’s ability to take effective military action. However, history shows that Israel’s military capabilities are typically underestimated. The Israel Defense Forces keep finding creative ways to deceive and cripple their targets by leveraging their qualitative advantages in manners that confound not only skeptical observers but also, and more important, Israel’s enemies.
Military triumphs like the Six-Day War of June 1967 and the 1976 raid on Entebbe that freed 101 hostages are popular Israeli lore for good reason-these “miraculous” victories were the result of assiduously planned, rehearsed, and well-executed military operations based on the elements of surprise, deception, and innovation, core tenets of Israeli military thinking. Inscribed on one of the walls of the IDF’s officer training academy is the verse from Proverbs 24:6: “For by clever deception thou shalt wage war.” And this has been the principle driving almost all of Israel’s most successful campaigns, like the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, the 1982 Beka’a Valley air battle, and the 2007 raid on Syria’s plutonium reactor, all of which were thought improbable, if not impossible, until Israel made them reality.
And yet in spite of Israel’s record, some American experts remain skeptical about Israel’s ability to do anything about Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Even the most optimistic assessments argue that Israel can only delay the inevitable. As a September 2012 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies contends: “Israel does not have the capability to carry out preventive strikes that could do more than delay Iran’s efforts for a year or two.” (Excuse me. What’s the matter with that? This is an existential problem for Israel)
Part of the reason that Israeli and American assessments diverge is the difference in the two countries’ recent military histories and political cultures. While the American debate often touches on the limits of military power and its ability to secure U.S. interests around the globe, the Israeli debate is narrower, befitting the role of a regional actor rather than a superpower, and focuses solely on Israel’s ability to provide for the security of its citizens at home.
Any account of surprise and deception as key elements in Israeli military history has to start with the aerial attack that earned Israel total air supremacy over its adversaries in the June 1967 war. Facing the combined Arab armies, most prominently those of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel’s Air Force was outnumbered by a ratio of 3 planes to 1. Nonetheless, at the very outset of the war, the IAF dispatched its jets at a time when Egyptian pilots were known to be having breakfast. Israeli pilots targeted the enemy’s warplanes on their runways, and in two subsequent waves of sorties, destroyed the remainder of the Egyptian Air Force, as well as Jordan’s and most of Syria’s. Within six hours, over 400 Arab planes, virtually all of the enemy’s aircraft, were in flames, with Israel losing only 19 planes.
The 1981 raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak is another example of Israel’s ability to pull off operations that others think it can’t. The success caught experts by surprise because every assessment calculated that the target was out of the flight range of Israel’s newly arrived F-16s. Washington later learned that Israel’s success came from simple and creative field improvisations that gave the Israeli jets the extra mileage needed to safely reach Baghdad and return, and also to gain the element of surprise by extending their reach beyond what the tables and charts that guided thinking in Washington and elsewhere had assumed possible.
Surprise won Israel a similar advantage one year later in the opening maneuvers of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. For students of aerial warfare, the Beka’a Valley air battle is perhaps Israel’s greatest military maneuver, even surpassing the June 1967 campaign. On June 9, Israel destroyed the entire Soviet-built Syrian aerial array in a matter of hours. Ninety Syrian MiGs were downed and 17 of 19 surface-to-air missile batteries were put out of commission, while the Israeli Air Force suffered no losses.
The 1982 air battle was the culmination of several years’ worth of tension on Israel’s northern border. Israel was concerned that Syria’s deployment of advanced aerial defense systems in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley would limit its freedom to operate against PLO attacks from Lebanon. When Syria refused to pull back its defenses and U.S. mediation efforts failed, Israel planned for action. Although Israel was widely understood to enjoy a qualitative advantage, no one could have imagined the knockout blow it was about to deliver. When Syrian pilots scrambled for their planes, their communications had already been severed and their radars blinded. Israeli pilots later noted the “admirable bravery” of their Syrian counterparts, whom they downed at a ratio of 90 to 0.
And then there is Israel’s most recent high-profile conflict with Syria. When Israeli intelligence discovered that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was building a plutonium reactor in the northeast Syrian Desert, Israeli and American leaders disagreed on the best course of action. Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert argued for a military solution, while the Bush administration feared the risks, demurred, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed to take the matter to the U.N. (That would have been a big help – almost as big as John Kerry’s and Tzippi Livni’s current recommendations in the latest “peace proposal”) The Israelis, however, confident in their cyberwarfare capabilities, knew they could disable Syria’s air defenses. And on September 6, 2007, Israel once again overturned the expert predictions and assessments of others and successfully destroyed the Syrian reactor at Al Kibar.
The question of how exactly Israel might act to stop the Iranian nuclear program is an open one. …What is certain, however-what many historical precedents make clear-is that it would be an error of the first order to dismiss Israel’s ability to take meaningful military action against Iran. Israel has left its enemies, as well as American policymakers and military experts, surprised in the past, and it may very well do so again. (And, let us say, Amen)
Uri Sadot is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Princeton University.