Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israel’s National Security since the Yom Kippur War
Israel’s National Security since the Yom Kippur War

Israel’s National Security since the Yom Kippur War

Israeli troops during the Arab-Israeli War. From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.”

For the Jewish people, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (which fell this year on September 30), is the holiest day of the year. It is a day for solemn retrospection and repentance. In Israel, Yom Kippur is a phenomenon: it is the one day of the year when Israel’s borders and airspace are closed; while no law forbids it, only emergency vehicles are on the road in Jewish cities and neighborhoods; all shops are closed. Sixty percent of Jewish Israelis report that they fast on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur has another, more secular significance for Israelis. It marks the lowest point in Israel’s 70-year history—the Yom Kippur War, which began on October 6, 1973. Only six years after Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War, Egypt and Syria carried out a surprise attack on thinly spread Israeli forces in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, destroying or capturing many of them, under the umbrella of mobile surface to air missiles which nearly neutralized the Israeli Air Force. The IDF, over several desperate days, recovered its balance and mobilized reserves, then halted the opposing armies’ advances, rolled them back, inflicted a crushing defeat on the opposing armies, and occupied large tracts of their territories.

It was Israel’s bloodiest war since 1948, with 2,569 killed and over 7,000 wounded. In its initial hours, some of Israel’s leaders thought it spelt the end of the Zionist enterprise. It was a catastrophic failure of Israel’s deterrence, a fiasco for Israel’s military intelligence which failed to provide adequate early warning (despite intelligence indications), and a tremendous blow for the vaunted Israel Defense Forces (IDF), several of whose leadership retired in ignominy after the war. Popular confidence and trust in the political echelon was fractured, especially among those who fought in the war and their families, and has never since been repaired. The war’s ripples caused a political earthquake in Israel, ending 29 years of Labor Party rule and the marginalization of Menachem Begin and his party, and ushering in a period of 40 years in which 33 have been characterized by center-right and right-wing governments.

The IDF built a heavy, reserve-based force posture which would deter and if necessary, fight and win another war like Yom Kippur (less than a decade ago there were still 27 reserve brigades in the IDF). This force was less capable of dealing with many of the campaigns which Israel actually had to fight in the ensuing 30+ years: the First Intifada in 1987, where the structure, equipment, and training of the IDF was not a good fit for the popular insurgency and urban guerrilla war it faced; the 20-year, mostly static, war of attrition in the Security Zone in Southern Lebanon; and the daily grind of maintaining security in the West Bank and (before 2005) Gaza. The engagement in these conflicts was for a long time seen by the military leadership as distractions from preparing and training for “the real [conventional] war.”[1]

Though it was certainly not apparent at the time, the Yom Kippur War was the nadir, and also the flex point, in Israel’s strategic position, which has continued to improve, bumpily, until today:

  • It was the last war in which Israel perceived its very survival to be threatened.
  • It was the last war Israel fought against conventional armies.
  • It was the last all-out war Israel fought against a coalition of states.
  • It was the last time Israel had an emergency general call-up of reservists.
  • It was the last war fought under Israel’s traditional security concept (still the only one which has been officially adopted), based on deterrence, early warning, and in the event of deterrence’ failing, rapidly mobilizing reserves and achieving a decisive victory over the enemy by carrying the war into its territory and destroying or neutralizing its main force.

Developments in Israel’s Security since 1973

On the political-strategic level, two major developments crucial to Israel’s security came out of the war. One was the peace with Egypt. President Anwar el-Sadat  of Egypt already understood before the war that he had to reach a peace treaty with Israel, and saw the Yom Kippur War as a way of “erasing the stain of 1967” and enabling Egypt a better political position from which to initiate negotiations with Israel. Forty years ago, on November 19, 1977, Sadat arrived in Jerusalem to accelerate a process that probably would not have occurred without the jolt of the Yom Kippur War (including the rupture of the Israeli hubris which led Moshe Dayan to say in 1971 “it is preferable to have Sharm-el-Sheikh [a town on the far edge of the Sinai peninsula] without peace than peace without Sharm-el-Sheikh”[2]). The peace treaty with Egypt has been one of Israel’s great strategic assets: the most powerful Arab country and military—which had been the main threat and opponent for the first 40 years of the state—was effectively removed from the strategic military equation. Israel was able over time to lessen the defense burden on its economy and to concentrate its military force on its other missions and challenges, taking the reasonable risk that its southern border was safe and that the Egyptian accession to the pro-American camp would provide Israel with adequate strategic warning of a significant change in direction. Events since the fall of the Mubarak regime have borne this out. Egypt’s turbulence has led to a loss of control in Sinai, its use for arms smuggling to Gaza, and the rise of IS-affiliated terrorist organizations there, which Israel has had to address in both force structure and military operations (in cooperation with Egypt). The peace treaty with Egypt, however, has survived two regime changes and has remained robust throughout Israeli engagements with other actors (most notably in the 1982 Lebanon War).

The second major development was a quantum leap in the strategic relationship with the United States. On October 12, 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered an emergency resupply operation for the beleaguered IDF. The next day, Operation Nickel Grass began, lasting 32 days, with 567 cargo missions delivering 22,000 tons of supplies, and much more arriving by sea. In addition, American F-4 and A-4 aircraft flew from the U.S. and Europe to Israel and were immediately reflagged and put into action with IAF pilots. Nickel Grass was a qualitative leap in the U.S. commitment to Israel’s defense and a prelude to the strategic cooperation which was to develop over the years. The strategic relationship with the United States—especially the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge”—is a key component of Israel’s national security and deterrent capability today (though the shift from conventional to low-intensity conflict has challenged it, since it was never intended for such scenarios, except in the missile defense field).

Today, 44 years after Yom Kippur 1973 and 40 years after Sadat’s visit, Israel’s security situation is better than at almost any time since the State’s founding. There is no current existential threat to the State of Israel. Israel has won the conventional military struggle, and no army credibly threatens Israel’s security. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel, Iraq’s military machine—a major potential threat to Israel until 1991—has been largely destroyed and its newly comprised forces are concerned first and foremost with internal security, and Syria’s army is no longer the massive, armor-heavy force, rich with missiles and chemical weapons, which so occupied Israel’s analysts and planners until 2011. Instead of the Syrian and Egyptian armies, Israel now faces small, irregular armed groups functioning in the non-governed frontier areas of these two countries. Israel and its former arch-enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO, now the Palestinian Authority, or PA), warily cooperate on security and other issues, while Israeli forces no longer occupy Palestinian cities. Israel is resurgent in Africa and Asia after many years of diplomatic isolation and is reported to have developed discreet and fruitful relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, focused mainly on the Iranian threat. The proportion of Israel’s GDP spent on defense has steadily decreased from 30 percent in 1974 to less than six percent in 2013 (See “Government Defense Consumption Expenditure” Table below).[3]

 Current Threats to Israel’s Security

The picture is, of course, not solely rosy. There are still threats: their nature, as well as that of Israeli society, has changed. The most significant potential challenge to Israel’s security in the future is Iran’s obtaining a military nuclear capability, which would dramatically improve its deterrence capability against Israel and afford it more freedom and daring in its provocative regional activity. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have, in the official Israeli view, been deferred by the international agreement, but not abandoned. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has, in the opinion of senior Israeli military officers, pushed off the “day of reckoning” with a possible nuclear Iran for a decade.[4] While Israel’s government did not like JCPOA, and fought it furiously, preferring instead to continue and to intensify the international sanctions and covert actions which led to Iran’s agreeing to engage the P-5 in reaching an agreement, the agreement does diminish the threat, and therefore improve Israel’s security, in the short to medium term.

Iran continues also to play the role today of a regional non-status-quo power, still powered (though less than in the past) by ideology. It attempts to increase its power directly or through loyal Shia proxies wherever it perceives there to be a vacuum, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, or Syria. Iran and Hezbollah may use the agreements reached by the U.S. administration and Russia on creating a “safe zone” in Syria’s southwest, on the Israeli and Jordanian borders, to create a presence on the Golan and a potential second front. But it is worth remembering that Iran, through Hezbollah, has been in Israel’s vicinity for decades, and both have proven over the years to be governed by a species of rationality which—while different than that of Israel—can be manipulated to influence and moderate certain kinds of behavior.

The most painful and intractable conflict of the past 30 years has been that with the Palestinians (the 30th anniversary of the First Intifada is December 6, 2017), and Hamas has been Israel’s most deadly enemy. While Israeli strategic thinking has, since the Revolution and the First Lebanon War, concentrated on Iran and Hezbollah, the conflict with the Palestinians has caused by far the largest number of casualties to Israel.

The threats in the past were dire, but clear, and there was a wide (though never total) consensus on how they had to be addressed: by military force and by resilience, hoping that the enemy would eventually become exhausted and be willing to negotiate (a concept first made popular by Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s in his text “The Iron Wall”). Today’s threats, while objectively lesser, are much less comprehensible and much less amenable to “carrots and sticks;” it is much less clear whether and how they can be deterred or defeated (in Israeli strategic parlance, “decided”). The short and high-intensity wars of the past, which ended in costly victory—at least on the battlefield, if not in the conference room—have been replaced by 30-year wars with Hamas and Hezbollah, characterized by a background level of constant low-intensity violence punctuated by intensive, inconclusive crescendos, as well as a cold—and clandestinely hot—war with Iran. It is difficult to identify the “centers of gravity” which are the traditional targets of military action (though as Hamas and Hezbollah become more like state actors, traditional counter-force, counter-value, and deterrence concepts become more relevant). One of the most significant challenges is that of identifying an “address”—a responsible party which can be pressured, punished, or deterred into restraining the behavior of the threatening non-state actors: Egypt’s rulers cannot be held responsible for the activity of IS affiliates in Sinai, the government of Lebanon has little leverage over Hezbollah, and the PA does not support Hamas in the West Bank.

Past Threats to Israel’s Security

These threats, while real and significant, are a far cry from the existential ones of the not so distant past. These threats are wicked: stubborn, resilient, chaotic, and largely impervious to military—or indeed, any—solutions. I’ve heard one former senior Israeli defense official say: “There has never been such a good and safe period for Israel’s citizens, while so challenging for the few people involved in defining threats and in charting Israel’s strategy.”

So Israel’s current strategic situation is better, but also much more complex. Israel has not been in a defensive war since 1973; all its wars and operations since then, however justified, have been “wars of choice” or wars of attrition, caused by domestic political stalemate and inertia (as in Lebanon 1985-2000 and in the West Bank). Such wars command much less unanimity of support by the population, even more so in view of the post-1973 distrust—not to say contempt—with which they view their political leaders and their motivations. The IDF enjoys popular support, but it, as well as the political leadership, understands that such support is given to the extent to which it keeps casualties low and protects the lives of “the boys.”[5]

There has been much agonizing in Israel since the massive terrorist attacks of 1995-1996 and 2000-2003 regarding the resilience and willingness to sacrifice in Israeli society. The possession by Hezbollah and Hamas of large numbers of rockets and missiles of ever-increasing precision, and the threat they pose to the civilian “rear,” led the Israeli government—which had traditionally held that “the best defense is a good offence”—or the first time to add, de facto if not de jure, the concept of “defense” to the security concept. Active Defense—the use of an architecture of advanced sensors, radars, and high speed anti-missile interceptors to knock down attacking rockets and missiles in flight—is now a key component of the “contract” between the security leadership and the population. This is due to the blurring of the line between “front” and “rear” and to the fact that the disruption of normal, everyday life—largely accepted in the past by the Israeli people—is less accepted in a country which sees itself increasingly as a “regular,” advanced Western state rather than one that is in a state of siege. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, for example, led to a sharp decline in the number of Israeli soldiers and civilians killed in terrorist attacks;[6] the seven years which followed Hamas’ coup in Gaza, of rocket attacks on cities and agricultural communities in the south of the country, resulted in very few fatalities and injuries (See “The Security Situation in Israel” Table below).[7] However, the disruption of day-to-day life and the denial of normality led to public pressure to invade Gaza repeatedly to restore deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas and other actors and to destroy the rocket launchers (a Sisyphic task), and to many Israelis on the Right urging a re-occupation of Gaza. The so-called “Intifada of Knives,” in 2015-2016, was especially frightening to Israelis because of its epidemic, uncontrolled and unforecastable nature, which disrupted ordinary life, despite the relatively modest casualty count (40 killed and some 400 wounded).

Another change that has occurred over the last 40 years, and which Israelis find hard to swallow, is that the image of Israel has transformed—at least in many circles in the West—from that of David to that of Goliath. This development is an ostensibly negative one, which, in fact, reflects a positive one: Israel has over the years, while dedicating less and less of its GDP to defense, became a military power which is preponderant in the region, as well as a successful, technologically-advanced modern state with a high standard of living. The immigration of over one million former Soviet citizens has strengthened the country demographically, technologically, and culturally. It also, with recent natural gas finds, possesses much more energy security. It has basically solved its historical shortage of water, an extremely volatile issue in its relations with its neighbors due to the competition for shared, scarce resources, through revolutions in desalinization and sewage treatment; this when nearly all its enemies and rivals have become weaker relative to it across almost every category. Israelis are extremely concerned and exercised about the threats posed by delegitimization and “lawfare” (an entire ministry is now dedicated to countering Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)[8] activity and the IDF is creating a department to address the issue); that in itself may be the best indication that more corporeal threats have diminished.

In the past, the very fact that the threats and “the situation” (as it was commonly termed among the population) were existential, acted as a cementing and unifying force in Israeli society. Other challenges—especially social and economic ones—were subordinated to the overarching existential security threat. The loss of that threat, and the gradual internalization of the change by the population, has led to a questioning of long-held conventional wisdoms, a more anarchic and multicultural society, an urgency to address stresses sublimated in the past and the moving of moral concerns to the fore. This leads some in Israel, noting the loosening of societal bonds, to pine for the “good [bad] old days,” and other, more sober observers to see the main challenges to Israel’s future in internal fissures, rather than external threats. These, then, are the challenges facing Israel this Yom Kippur, as opposed to those of that Yom Kippur.


[1] In recent years, the IDF has recognized the inutility of its traditional force structure, and has put more stress on capable infantry, on Special Forces, and on the use of intelligence and of technology (especially UAVs) to improve the efficiency and survivability of the forces in their asymmetric struggle against irregular forces.

[2] “Dayan: Better to Hold Sharm El-sheikh Without Peace Than Peace Without This Area,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 18, 1971 https://www.jta.org/1971/02/18/archive/dayan-better-to-hold-sharm-el-sheikh-without-peace-than-peace-without-this-area.

[3] “Security Expenditures in Israel, 1950-2013,” State of Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics, February 2015 [In Hebrew] https://www.mifkad.cbs.gov.il/publications17/1680/pdf/h_print.pdf. Table translation by FPRI.

[4] See e.g. Amos Yadlin, “Israel 2016-2017 Situation Assessment: Challenges and Responses,” in Kurz and Brom (eds.) Strategic Survey for Israel 2016-2017 (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, 2016), 245-246. https://www.inss.org.il/he/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/systemfiles/INSS2016-17Balance_ENG_Yadlin.pdf; Dov Gil-Har, “Ben Israel in a Surprising Position: the Nuclear Agreement is Good for Israel,” Walla, July 15, 2015 https://news.walla.co.il/item/2872982?utm_campaign=socialbutton&utm_content=mail&utm_medium=sharebutton&utm_source=mail&utm_term=social.

[5] The use of this emotion-laden term in Israeli discourse reflects a deep change in the view of sacrifice, one which Israel’s enemies understand well and utilize (for instance in trying to capture soldiers or carry away bodies from the battlefield, for use later as bargaining chips). See, Avi Kober, “From Heroic to Post-heroic Warfare: Israel’s Way of War in Asymmetrical Conflicts,” Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2015): 96-122. Kober notes the widespread observation that in Israel, the lives of soldiers seem to sometimes be more precious than those of Israeli civilians.

[6] From 2000 to 2005, suicide attacks originating from the West Bank and Gaza killed 1,200 Israelis and foreigners. That threat was eventually diminished by a combination of a massive use of conventional force in the West Bank and the creation of the security fence.

[7] Tzur Taub and Yaron Ben-Ami, “There is Hope! And a Great Deal of it: Part III,” The Agora Project, https://www.agora.co.il/text.asp?textId=117. Based by the authors on Israeli Ministry of Defense and Prime Minister’s Office statistics. Table translation by FPRI.

[8] Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) refers to a global campaign to increase economic and political pressure on Israel so that it will end its occupation of Palestinian territories.

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