As world powers debate what a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran should look like, Israeli prime minister Benjamin 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.
A destroyed Egyptian warplane, June 1967
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.” An attack, it continued, “would be complex and high risk in the operational level and would lack any assurances of a high mission success rate.” Equally cautious is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who argued that while “Israel has the capability to strike Iran and to delay the production or the capability of Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons status,” such a strike would only delay the program “for a couple of years.” The most pessimistic American assessments contend that Israel is all but neutered. Former director of the CIA Michael Hayden, for instance, said that airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program are beyond Israel’s capacity.
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. That is to say, even if Israel and the United States saw Iran and its nuclear arms program in exactly the same light, there would still be a cultural gap. Accordingly, an accurate understanding of how Israelis see their own recent military history provides an important insight into how Israel’s elected leaders and military officials view the IDF’s abilities regarding Iran.
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.
Israel’s sweeping military victory over the next six days was due to its intimate familiarity with its enemy’s operational routines—and to deception. For instance, just before the actual attack was launched, a squad of four Israeli training jets took off, with their radio signature mimicking the activity of multiple squadrons on a training run. Because all of Israel’s 190 planes were committed to the operation, those four planes were used to make the Egyptians believe that the IAF was simply training as usual. The IAF’s stunning success was the result not only of intelligence and piloting but also of initiative and creativity, ingredients that are nearly impossible to factor into standard predictive models.
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. The former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Israel Bill Brown recounted that on the day after the attack, “I went in with our defense attaché, Air Force Colonel Pete Hoag, to get a briefing from the chief of Israeli military intelligence. He laid out how they had accomplished this mission. . . . Hoag kept zeroing in on whether they had refueled the strike aircraft en route, because headquarters of the U.S. Air Force in Washington wanted to know, among other things, how in the world the Israelis had refueled these F-16s. The chief of Israeli military intelligence kept saying: ‘We didn’t refuel.’ For several weeks headquarters USAF refused to believe that the Israelis could accomplish this mission without refueling.”
Washington later learned that Israel’s success came from simple and creative field improvisations. First, the pilots topped off their fuel tanks on the tarmac, with burners running, only moments before takeoff. Then, en route, they jettisoned their nondetachable fuel drop tanks to reduce air friction and optimize gas usage. Both these innovations involved some degree of risk, as they contravened safety protocols. However, they 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 brutal—and for Israel, still controversial—nature of the Lebanon war of which this operation was part dimmed its shine in popular history, but the operation is still studied around the world. At the time it left analysts dumbfounded.
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. Israel launched its aerial campaign on the fourth day of the offensive, commencing with a wave of unmanned proto-drones that served as decoys to trigger the Syrian radars. Rising to the bait, the aerial defense units launched rockets and thus exposed their locations to Israel’s artillery batteries and air-to-ground missiles. In parallel, Israel used advanced electronic jammers to further incapacitate Syrian radars, which cleared the path for the IAF’s fighter-bombers to attack the remaining missile launchers. 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.
A RAND report later concluded that Israel’s success was due not to its technological advantage. “The Syrians were simply outflown and outfought by vastly superior Israeli opponents. . . . The outcome would most likely have been heavily weighted in Israel’s favor even had the equipment available to each side been reversed. At bottom, the Syrians were . . . [defeated] by the IDF’s constant retention of the operational initiative and its clear advantages in leadership, organization, tactical adroitness, and adaptability.” In other words, Israel won because of its creative and skillful orchestration of a well-organized fighting force.
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. The Israelis, however, confident in their cyberwarfare capabilities, knew they could disable Syria’s air defenses. Moreover, as careful students of Syrian decision-making, they believed they could destroy the reactor without triggering a costly reaction from Assad. 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.
With Iran, American and Israeli leaders once again disagree on what might be gained by a military strike. While the American debate is riddled with doubts about the efficacy of force, Israeli experts harbor far fewer doubts. As former chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin asserts unequivocally: “It can be done.” There are some Israeli strategists less optimistic, but the nature of their dissent is fundamentally different from that of American skeptics. U.S. policymakers and analysts question Israel’s ability to strike, or how far even the most successful strike might set back Iran’s nuclear program, but Israelis largely believe they can take effective military action. The question for Israeli strategists is at what cost? A 2012 IAF impact evaluation report predicted 300 civilian casualties in the event of an Iranian retaliatory missile attack. Former defense minister Ehud Barak offered a higher number, contending that open conflict with Iran would claim less than 500 Israeli casualties. Responding to Barak’s relatively optimistic assessment, onetime Mossad director Meir Dagan argued instead that an attack on Iran would take a heavy toll in terms of loss of life and would paralyze life in Israel.
Regardless of the number of potential casualties, the frank discussion of what an attack on Iran might cost Israel in human lives is an essential part of preparing the country, and steeling it, for the possibility of war. Israel has also devoted material resources to the eventuality of a military campaign against the regime in Tehran. According to Ehud Olmert, Israel has spent over $10 billion on preparations for a potential showdown with Iran. “We’ve worked long and hard to prepare ourselves,” former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said recently. Israel, he added, “will be able to deal with the consequences of a military attack on Iran.”
The question of how exactly Israel might act to stop the Iranian nuclear program is an open one. In part, that’s because it’s hard to know how Israeli strategists see the problem or might reconfigure the working paradigm. The basic operational assumption is that Israel would attack from the air, but who knows? If the goal is to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, there are other ways to do it, perhaps by targeting Iran’s economy, its powergrid, its oil fields, or the regime itself. Or military action might not take the form of an aerial attack at all, but rather a commando heist of Iran’s uranium. Recall the raid on Entebbe: With commandos operating 2,000 miles from Israel’s borders disguised as a convoy carrying the Ugandan leader Idi Amin, that 1976 operation, like many of Israel’s air triumphs, combined strategic surprise with tactical deception.
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.
Uri Sadot is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Princeton University.