The Gathering Middle Eastern Storm: Enduring History Lessons — Part Two – The American
Editor’s Note: This is the second of four articles covering the interlinked topics of Israel’s relations with the U.S. and the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Much of what follows, especially as to diplomatic maneuvers, is drawn from a 2015 case study by Warren Bass of RAND, A Surprise Out of Zion?, covering the preventive/preemptive wars Israel has faced.
The Six-Day War, 1967
If the Suez Crisis was an exemplar of preventive war, the Six-Day War was a classic case of pre-emptive war. in the month run-up to the June 5 beginning of the conflict, Nasser issued a series of bloodcurdling threats calling upon his Arab allies to join him in a war of extermination against the Jewish state. He ordered UN peacekeeping forces, stationed in the Sinai since 1956, to first pull back and then, to depart the Sinai. The secretary-general, U Thant of Burma, the first developing-country representative to hold that position, complied.
Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol had formed a solid friendship with president Lyndon Johnson — both were farmers, and LBJ, a Christadelphian (Brothers in Christ) worshipper, harbored a special feeling for Jerusalem. After Egypt imposed a blockade on the Straits of Tiran on May 22, Eshkol went to his friend asking for American assistance, based upon America’s 1957 post-Suez guarantee from freedom of Israel navigation through the Straits, and the expulsion of UN expeditionary forces in the Sinai.
But while the two heads of state were close, that was hardly the case at the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom. Mired ever more deeply in the Vietnam War, Defense had no appetite for getting involved in another major conflict. As for State, though less pro-Arab than during Israel’s early years, its Mideast desk still leaned strongly towards the Arabs. The State Department denied that it had guaranteed Israeli safe passage through the Straits after Suez. In Ike’s Gamble (1956), discussed in Part One, Michael Doran notes that it took a press conference called by former president Eisenhower, who reaffirmed that such a commitment had been made, to make State concede. LBJ asked for a fortnight to see if through diplomacy the Straits could be re-opened. Eshkol replied that he would delay as long as possible, but he could not guarantee that Israel could safely hold off a full fortnight.
When Israeli aircraft were returning from their surprise strike at Egypt’s air force, having destroyed some 90 percent of the force, Eshkol notified LBJ. Though LBJ did not agree that Israel had to act, he understood that Eshkol felt differently. Another factor that may have influenced LBJ to stand down: the CIA estimated that in event of war, Israel would win easily in a couple days. After two days, Egypt, and its allies, Syria and Iraq, were defeated, save for mop-up operations, with Israeli ground forces marching towards the Suez Canal. But then Jordan’s normally circumspect King Hussein, galvanized by false reports from Radio Cairo recounting a massive Egyptian victory — including destroying the Israeli Air Force — decided to jump in. The upshot was that Israel defeated the Jordanians, seized much of the area west of the Jordan River, and liberated Jerusalem, re-uniting the western and eastern halves after 19 years of separation. Hostilities ended June 11. Israel, in addition to reclaiming Jerusalem, had taken two-thirds of the Golan Heights in the north, eliminating Syria’s ability to shell northern Israel at will. (READ MORE: Six Days, and Forty Years)
Because the war ended with an Israeli triumph, there was no need for Israel to use the atomic bomb. Sources conflict to how many Israel had in 1967. A 2017 New York Times article based on an interview with a former Israeli official, asserts that Israel had only one A-bomb, to be used by exploding it in the Sinai as a warning to Arab adversaries to back off. But a 2013 compilation of global arsenals by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) shows Israel with two in 1967, 15 in 1973, 33 in 1991, and 80 for 2004-13. A Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) 2007 compilation shows two for 1967 and 13 for 1973, with 20-kiloton yields. As of 2007, FAS offers a range of 70 to 400 for Israel, but adds that the most likely figure is close to the low end of the range. If the 1967 number of two is correct, and given a yield of 20 kilotons, roughly comparable to the Nagasaki bomb, their use could have been, in event of imminent total defeat, for the “Samson Option”: taking out Cairo and Damascus as Israel fell to Arab forces. The most recent estimate for Israel’s nuclear arsenal is 90 warheads.
At its founding, prime minister David Ben-Gurion decided to pursue nuclear weapons to prevent a possible second Holocaust. He secured technology from the French, and they built a nuclear reactor at Dimona, which can produce civilian-grade 3.5 percent enriched uranium, and enable extraction of plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel. In April 1963, when Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres met with JFK in the Oval Office, in response to JFK’s interrogation as to nuclear weapons, Peres improvised on the spot what remains Israel’s stated policy today: Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Defined narrowly, it means that Israel can produce weapons-grade fuel, but will not mate warheads to any bomb chassis, so long as the Middle East remains nuclear-free.
The Yom Kippur War, 1973
In The Two O’ Clock War: The 1973 Yom Kippur Conflict and the Airlift That Saved Israel (2002), authors Walter J. Boyne and Fred Smith show in harrowing detail how close to destruction Israel found itself, before rallying with U.S. aid to save the day. Egypt and Syria turned the tables, striking the first blow and achieving strategic surprise by attacking on Yom Kippur — coincidentally also the first date of the month of Ramadan — which fell on October 6 that year. As the Arabs were marshaling forces, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir went to the U.S. for prewar aid, only to be told that if she wanted to receive U.S. assistance, Israel must not strike first. Reluctantly she complied. Israel did not order mobilization in advance, difficult in a society far less populous than many Arab countries. Thus, unlike Egypt, Israel is unable to maintain a full-time standing army. (READ MORE: The Yom Kippur War and the Righteous Richard Nixon)
Israel intelligence, usually first-rate, proved catastrophically wrong in 1973, in grossly underestimating the military prowess of its adversaries. Had the war been fought without Israel having the buffer of territory acquired in 1967, the Jewish state would have ceased to exist. Not only did the Arabs fight effectively; they also had amassed from their Russian suppliers thousands of modern “Sagger” wire-guided anti-tank missiles, and thousands of surface-to-air missiles, some portable, all deadly. Over the first fortnight of the three-week conflict, the Israeli airfare and armor suffered heavy losses.
Worse, enmeshed in a protracted, desperate fight for survival, Israeli forces consumed munitions at a far higher rate than anticipated, and began asking the U.S. for resupply after one week. The second week saw the first shipments, but it was not until the third week that the full weight of massive U.S. aid enabled Israel to decisively turn the tide. Even that was made possible by the narrowest of margins: all European countries save Portugal were dependent upon Arab oil, and early in the conflict Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo on Europe. As Portugal imported its petroleum needs from its colony, Angola, it was willing to offer its NATO base in the Azore Islands for American shipments. Without this base America’s military transports would have needed to fly 6,000 miles direct, which would have drastically reduced the per-trip cargo load that its nonpareil jet transports, the C-5A Galaxy and C-141 Starlifter, could carry. The shortfall would have to have been made up by many more flights, and thus the time to fully resupply Israel with vital supplies would have been longer. Likely the intense and growing outside pressure to end the military phase and employ diplomacy would have precluded full recovery by Israel of ground lost since Oct. 6.
As noted above, in 1973 Israel had an estimated 13 Nagasaki-yield atomic bombs that it was prepared to use to avoid total defeat. Though no public threat was made it is believed that Israel made it known to its Arab adversaries that it would do so if need be; this may explain why Syrian forces halted after retaking the Golan (which Israel would reconquer before hostilities ended). It is unclear if Egyptian president Sadat intended to retake the entire Sinai, and then invade Israel proper.
The specter of nuclear conflict was also raised in the closing days of the war. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was chief of naval operations at the time, recalled in his…