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.
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.