The Gulf war should be seen in the historical perspective of the various Arab-Israeli conflicts over the past 53 years, and of our national commitment to the security and economic welfare of Israel.
Throughout this period and for various obvious political and psychological reasons, Israeli governments have consistently portrayed that country to its own people and to the outside world in a David and Goliath posture fighting for survival against overwhelming odds. Until the Gulf war, the military threat to Israel has been dramatically exaggerated, as the wars of 1948-49, 1956, 1967 and 1973 well illustrate. Israel’s highly educated, technically advanced, well organized and largely European community, imbued with great esprit and courage, and equipped largely by the US with the most advanced weapons, has in fact enjoyed overwhelming qualitative superiority. Additionally, in each of the conflicts mentioned, the Israeli military has been able to bring larger ground and air forces into actual combat than the various opposing Arab armies.
Debunking the Myth
The inapplicability of the Davidand Goliath myth is best illustrated by the 1948-49 war, when 65,000 Haganah and Irgun soldiers, many of them combat veterans of World War II allied armies, faced disorganized Palestinian and Arab forces from four countries totaling no more than 25,000 soldiers. Among these Arab forces, only Jordan’s Arab legion of some 10,000 troops, commanded by British General Glubb Pasha, made a credible showing and saved the eastern portion of Jerusalem from Israeli occupation at that time. The Arab legion had orders not to cross the UN partition lines into the new Jewish state, and no other Arab army was able to do so. By contrast, the Israeli forces moved out and, between 1947 and 1949, conquered large areas set aside by the UN as an Arab state.
Casualty ratios are also indicative of overwhelming Israeli military superiority. In the 1956 Suez War, Israel lost 189 killed, compared to 6,500 Egyptians. In 1967, 19 Israeli aircraft were lost, compared to 300 Egyptian aircraft. Total 1967 casualties, both killed and wounded, were 5,400 Israelis and 18,000 Arabs.
The 1973 war involved, for the first time, an Arab military initiative and an Israeli intelligence failure. On October 6 the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack. The objective announced by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was to take back the Sinai, occupied by Israel since 1967. After three days of initial Egyptian success, the Israeli military pulled itself together. An Israeli counteroffensive across the Suez Canal, most of it conducted after Egypt agreed to a ceasefire, left the Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai cut off from its supplies.
Similar surprise was achieved by Syria, which announced its goals were limited to reoccupying Syrian territory in the Golan Heights. By the time a ceasefire, partially negotiated by Henry Kessinger, brought the war to an end between October 22 and 24, Israel had reoccupied roughly the same Golan areas it had held ever since 1967.
In relating all this to the Gulf War, two realities must be considered. First, extreme Israeli sensitivity to the Arab threat, real or imagined, is essential to an understanding of the present situation. This has resulted in great exaggeration with respect to both Arab intentions and military capabilities. Although his forces were originally portrayed as fighting for survival in 1967, then Israeli Chief of Staff General Yitzhak Rabin later admitted to the Knesset: “I do not believe Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it. “
Secondly, the US commitment to Israeli security has been supported through the years by a massive infusion of weapons, technical and economic assistance, and with intelligence cooperation in 1967 and a significant air lift in 1973. This commitment has been supported by the Congress, the media, the academic community and a majority of the American people.
During the past decades, Iraq under Saddam Hussein has striven for military and political leadership in the Arab world in order to confront the West with Saddam’s control of the oil resources of the Persian Gulf area. For eight years he was distracted by his disastrous war with Iran. He had also lost, to a 1981 Israeli air strike, his nuclear research capability. However, with the end of the war against Iran, Israeli intelligence began publicizing Saddam’s missile capability, his production of chemical and biological weapons, and his continuing efforts in the nuclear field. Saddam’s intentions seem clear. His military capability to achieve them remains an open question.
A Threat to Israel’s Survival?
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2 forced Israel, primarily, and the US, secondly, as Israel’s guarantor, to face up to the possibility that there was, for the first time since 1948, a genuine threat to Israel’s survival.
It is probable that this, rather than Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait per se, or Saddam Hussein’s potential control of Persian Gulf oil, was the key to then Bush administration’s decision to resort to military action against Iraq. Particularly in Israel, there was concern that an embargo would not have changed either Saddam’s intention, or, in the long run, his military capability for mass destruction.
The landing of several Scud missiles in the Tel Aviv, Haifa area had a traumatic psychological effect. Although they have been of minimum military significance, they revealed a frightening Israeli vulnerability to future serious missile attacks. They certainly supported the Israeli contention that the Iraqi war machine, present and future, must be totally destroyed.
Desert Storm must be seen as the most far-reaching military effort to guarantee the future security and survival of Israel. For the first time, the US was the leading combatant. This, however, will continue to have far-reaching and largely unpredictable implications for future relationships between the Arab countries and the United States.
Mr. David Nes is a retired career foreign service officer.