On the Fear of Matches
The Arabs may have the oil, but we have the matches — reputedly said by Ariel Sharon
Historians love to tell people how complicated history really is. You think that the Crusades were all about religion? Historians will tell you all about the social and economic factors that were involved. Think that the American Revolution was all about taxation without representation? Historians will tell you all about how Britain’s desire to maintain friendly relations with the Indian tribes angered American land speculators and interfered with the colonies desire to expand.
But the ability to look beyond the obvious answers seems to desert the historians when it comes to time periods that they personally lived through. Then the reasons stated by the actors involved seem to become the only reasons that historians can see. Pat answers that are obvious are the only ones that they have to offer. Nowhere is this failure of historical technique more evident than the history of America’s relations with Israel.
On the face of it, there are many different views and ideas about the history of American’s relations with Israel. But on closer inspection they all hold to the same basic ideas. Some people argue that American’s close relationship with Israel is a good thing for America because Israel provides a back door way of accomplishing American goals. Other people say that American closeness to Israel is bad because it provides a means for America to oppress people. Some say American support for Israel reveals a cultural arrogance. Others say that by supporting Israel America is upholding its values. And one could go on and on. On both sides of the issue people are saying the same thing about why America is supporting Israel. The only real disagreement is about whether this close relationship is good thing or not.
This consensus on why America is supporting Israel has problems. It does not help us understand why America’s relationship with Israel under went a dramatic change in the early 70’s. The consensus does not account for the fact that the US was not always militarily supportive of Israel. It does not explain why the United States refused to sell Israel weapons until the early sixties. Even then sales were limited. In fact, the more you look into it, the more you see that early in Israel’s history, America was far from being Israel’s best friend.
When Israel was first created by UN mandate, the US did not lift a finger to save her from combined Arab attack. During the 1956 Sinai War America worked against Israeli interests. Right before the 1967 war the Syrians were shelling northern Israel and Egypt was blockading Israeli ports as well as massing troops on the border. Israel begged America to intercede. Even though America had guaranteed the freedom of Israeli shipping as part of the deal that ended the Sinai War, the Johnson administration refused to help. What’s more the Johnson administration warned Israel not to take any military action to resolve the situation.
Hard as it is to believe, the Johnson administration was more favorably inclined towards Israel than previous administrations. After all, he was the first President to actually sell some major US weapon systems to Israel. But it is hard to imagine any president from either political party saying the type of things that Johnson told Israel today.
It was not until the Yom Kippur war that the American relationship with Israel took on its present form. As the pro Israeli site Palestine Facts notes..
As a direct result of the Yom Kippur War, the United States quadrupled its foreign aid to Israel, and replaced France as Israel’s largest arms supplier. The doctrine of maintaining Israel’s “qualitative edge” over its neighbors was born in the war’s aftermath.
U.S. government officials argue that this money is necessary for “moral” reasons–some even say that Israel is a “democracy battling for its
very survival.” If that were the real reason, however, aid should have been highest during Israel’s early years, and would have declined as Israel grew stronger. Yet “the pattern…has been just the opposite.” According to Zunes, “99 percent of all U.S. aid to Israel took place after the June 1967 war, when Israel found itself more powerful than any combination of Arab armies….”
Prior to the Yom Kippur war, no American Administration regardless of political affiliation wanted to provide Israel with a lot of advanced American weapons. After Yom Kippur war, every American Administration strove to make sure that Israel had a qualitative edge over its neighbors. In practice this meant giving Israel any weapon system they wanted. At roughly the same time as the Yom Kippur war, buckets of American money started pouring into Israel. Before the Yom Kippur war broke out, America only used its veto in the United Nations once to block an anti-Israeli resolution and that was in 1972. After the Yom Kippur, America used its veto on Israel’s behalf 33 times.
So why is the Yom Kippur war such a defining moment in US/Israeli relations? That is the question for which the pro-Israel and anti-Israel camps have no answer. If America supports Israel because of shared values how come we did not support Israel from the very beginning? If we support Israel because of the strength of the pro-Israel lobby why did they suddenly become so strong right around the time of the Yom Kippur war? For every reason you can give to explain American support for Israel, the same question can be asked. Why did it start at the Yom Kippur war?
The answer is brutally simple. By the time of the Yom Kippur war an Israeli defeat would mean nuclear war. Warner D. Farr, LTC, U.S Army explains how the 1973 war almost went nuclear in his paper The Third Temple’s Holy of Holies: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons…..
On the afternoon of 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in a coordinated surprise attack, beginning the Yom Kippur War. Caught with only regular forces on duty, augmented by reservists with a low readiness level, Israeli front lines crumbled. By early afternoon on 7 October, no effective forces were in the southern Golan Heights and Syrian forces had reached the edge of the plateau, overlooking the Jordan River. This crisis brought Israel to its second nuclear alert.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, obviously not at his best at a press briefing, was, according to Time magazine, rattled enough to later tell the prime minister that “this is the end of the third temple,” referring to an impending collapse of the state of Israel. “Temple” was also the code word for nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Golda Meir and her “kitchen cabinet” made the decision on the night of 8 October. The Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton atomic bombs. The number and in fact the entire story was later leaked by the Israelis as a great psychological warfare tool. Although most probably plutonium devices, one source reports they were enriched uranium bombs. The Jericho missiles at Hirbat Zachariah and the nuclear strike F-4s at Tel Nof were armed and prepared for action against Syrian and Egyptian targets. They also targeted Damascus with nuclear capable long-range artillery although it is not certain they had nuclear artillery shells.
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was notified of the alert several hours later on the morning of 9 October. The U.S. decided to open an aerial resupply pipeline to Israel, and Israeli aircraft began picking up supplies that day. Although stockpile depletion remained a concern, the military situation stabilized on October 8th and 9th as Israeli reserves poured into the battle and averted disaster. Well before significant American resupply had reached Israeli forces, the Israelis counterattacked and turned the tide on both fronts.
It is a widely known fact that Israel had nuclear weapons by the time of the Yom Kippur war. It is also widely known that Israel contemplated using them at the most critical point of the Yom Kippur war. But these facts are ignored by the pro- and anti-Israeli debaters. Both camps argue as if the factors affecting America’s policy toward Israel stayed the same throughout Israel’s history, regardless of Israel’s nuclear status. This has caused the arguments over American support for Israel to become divorced from reality. How could any American president not take into account nuclear weapons? And how could they fail to have affected US policy?
Israeli nuclear power has considerably complicated American calculations about how much support to give to Israel. Before Israel became a nuclear power, American support for Israel was a matter of sentiment, and it always took a back seat to core American interests. After Israel acquired nuclear weapons, the question of support for Israel became one with the question of how to prevent nuclear war. Especially since Israel pursued and obtained the ability to threaten the Soviet Union directly.
Once you take into account the background effect of those nuclear weapons, a lot of things make more sense. The urgency with which America tried to insure that Israel could win the Yom Kippur war conventionally had something to do with the fact that the Israelis were about to go nuclear. The fear that Israel would resort to its atomic weapons seems to me to go a long way to explaining why all administrations, regardless of party, have maintained a policy of keeping Israel far more powerful than its neighbors ever since the Yom Kippur war. It is true that America military aid started to climb a couple of years before the Yom Kippur war. But this rise mirrors the increasing capabilities of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which made the first bombs before the Yom Kippur war got started.
Not that America ever wanted Israel to have nuclear weapons. They even tried to exert some behind-the-scenes pressure to derail the program. But the United States has never had much influence over France. And it was France that gave Israel everything that it needed to have a successful nuclear weapons program. France also helped Israel develop a ballistic missile suitable for use with atomic weapons. Furthermore, some people in the United States worked to frustrate official US policy regarding Israel’s nuclear program. All of this meant that Israel made rapid progress in its pursuit of nuclear weapons in spite of official US opposition. By the time of the Yom Kippur war, Israel was an established nuclear power.
Once Israel became a nuclear power there was no way of forcing them to give up their atomic weapons short of a nuclear strike. Even if an American president had the political will to try to use economic pressures to force Israel to get rid of the nuclear weapons, a desperate Israel could always threaten to nuke Arab oil fields to force the US to drop the economic pressure. I do not mean to say that Israel ever threatened to do such thing. But the mere fact that they theoretically could do such a thing makes an important point. No matter how small the country is, nuclear weapons make you a world power. This is especially true if you happen to be right next to most of the world’s supply of oil.
Highlighting Israel’s status as a power is the fact that Israel gained the ability to seriously threaten the Soviets. Theoretically, Israel could have nuked Moscow as early as the Yom Kippur war, provided that its pilots could get through Russian air defenses and they did not balk at making a one way trip. By the 1980’s the one way trip problem became unnecessary as Israel seems to have targeted Russia with ballistic missiles. That accounts for the fact that Russia stop threatening to intervene militarily against Israel like it did in the 50’s and 60’s.
Given the potential consequences of Israel’s nuclear weapons and the fact that the genie could not be put back in the bottle, how was America to ensure that Israel never used their nuclear weapons? America seems to have decided that the answer is to make Israel feel as secure as possible. Hence the fact that since Yom Kippur America has made sure that Israel’s conventional arms are far more powerful than its neighbors. The theory behind this military aid is the hope that if the Israelis can easily defeat their opponents with conventional weapons their finger will stay away from that little red button. Hence the fact that America has used it veto 33 times on Israel’s behalf since Israel acquired nuclear weapons. America never used its veto to support Israel before Israel acquired nuclear weapons. Hence the fact that America gives aid to Egypt in exchange for keeping the peace with Israel. Back in the good old days this would have been called tribute.
This policy has not been 100% successful at eliminating nuclear scares. Israel went on a nuclear alert during the First Gulf War as the result of the Iraqi scuds that were being fired at it. Saddam Hussein seems to have calculated that as long as he did not put chemical or biological weapons on his missiles, Israel would not nuke Baghdad. People all over the world should be grateful that calculation was more accurate than his calculations that it would be easy to take Iran’s oil fields, America would not intervene to take back Kuwait, or that George W. Bush was not really determined to remove him from power. But it does not seem to have sunk into people’s consciousness how close the First Gulf War came to going nuclear.
Part of the reason for this lack of understanding is that many people in the western world seem to think that America has a veto over what Israel does. It you believe that then it is no surprise that Israel did not nuke Baghdad, but that idea is hardly credible. If America had a veto over what Israel does, Israel would never have had a nuclear program to begin with. A more sophisticated variant of this idea is that Israel went on nuclear alert just to make America take seriously its concerns about the scuds.
What both of these ideas have in common is the refusal to take Israel seriously as an independent nuclear power. If the Iraqi scuds had been hitting France do people really think that the French would not have gone on nuclear alert? If they had been able to hit the United States, wouldn’t the US have put its nuclear weapons on alert? And if the French or the Americans had felt that their nation was in serious danger, they would have fired. Israel is no different then any other nuclear power.
What is different about Israel is that people tend to discount it as a nuclear power and don’t seem to devote much thought to the problems that their weapons pose. During the cold war, the best way to prevent a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia was widely debated. Arguably this debate helped American avoid nuclear war as it put into practices ideas put forwarded by various competing ideological camps. No similar debate is occurring over how to prevent a nuclear war in the Middle East. At best you hear the anti-Israel crowd talking about how Israel’s nuclear weapons destabilize the Middle East and you hear the pro-Israel crowd talking about how all Israel’s enemies should be shaking in their boots because Israel has got the bomb.
This type is of talk is not very productive. Israel’s bomb may be contributing to instability in the Middle East, but there is no realistic chance that they will ever give it up. And as happy as the pro-Israeli crowd may be at the idea that Israel has the bomb, they have to realize that a situation where Israel feels compelled to use the bomb would be a catastrophe. But the type of platitudes that the pro- and anti-Israel sides of debate throw around illuminate nothing. At the same time they are debating whether it is morally acceptable for Israel to have the bomb, the risk of nuclear war in the Middle East has been increasing.
It is time for people to stop debating the ups and downs of something that has already occurred and cannot be reversed. People should instead start talking about the problems that can arise in the future as a result of Israel’s nuclear weapons. One thing that should concern the pro-Israel camp and the anti-Israel camp is Israel’s lack of second strike capability.
It has been known for a long time that Israel has no second strike capability. Being a small country, it does not have the ability to disperse its nuclear weapons as most nuclear nations do. As best as anyone can tell, most of Israel’s nuclear weapons are concentrated in one area. And that area is vulnerable to a nuclear strike by even a relatively crude atomic weapon. As Jane’s Intelligence Review says….
Although the Soviet threat is gone, the missile base remains vulnerable to a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile such as the Chinese M-9, which has a CEP of 300 m – accurate enough to threaten the base. Although accuracy and the type of nuclear explosion would determine the extent of the damage, a quick review of the effects of a nuclear blast raise serious questions about Zachariah’s ability to survive a Third World-produced nuclear missile. If a missile containing a crude, 20 kiloton nuclear warhead detonated 2,200 m above and 1,000 m away from its intended target within Zachariah, the surface target would still sustain severe damage from heat, radiation, and blast effects. Two kilometres from ground zero, the shock wave (at 34.5 KPa) would be powerful enough to destroy unreinforced buildings and unprotected TELs, while the thermal radiation (10 calories/cm2) would be enough to ignite combustible materials. If the base were hit with missiles having the accuracy of the M-9, even reinforced underground caves would be seriously damaged by a ground burst.
The vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear arsenal to a first strike from someone else forces them to be extremely trigger happy when it comes to perceived nuclear threats. If Israel waits around to see if a threat is real or not, it may no longer have a nuclear arsenal left to respond with. Once you understand this, you begin to see why Israel has been so adamant that it will not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran.
If Iran became a nuclear power it could very easily take out Israel’s nuclear arsenal with a first strike. Conversely, Israel could also deprive Iran of its nuclear weapons if it struck first. Compensating for fact that Iran has more land in which to hide the missiles would be the greater size and technical sophistication of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. For both countries to be able to eliminate the threat that the other posed if they struck first would be extremely dangerous. It would put enormous pressure on both countries to be the first to strike.
This is the nightmare that western powers are trying to prevent with their attempts to pressure Iran into dropping their nuclear program. But even if they succeed in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, it does not solve the underlying problem. What if Pakistan should become extremely hostile to Israel due to a change in government? What if Saud
i Arabia should purchase nuclear weapons from North Korea or Pakistan?
The time when America could give Israel a sense of security just by selling it advanced weapons is gone. So what is the United States going to do now to try to minimize the chance that Israel will use their nuclear weapons?