A story of restraint: The Yom Kippur War and Israel’s nuclear capability

Prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan meeting with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)
Prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan meeting with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)

The Yom Kippur War broke out about four years after Israel completed its nuclear program and became, according to publications in the international media, a country with undeclared nuclear capability. The surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on October 6, 1973, is acknowledged as a clear failure of Israel’s conventional deterrence. The question is whether we can attribute failure to its nuclear deterrence as well.

Fifty years after the last all-out war between Israel and the Arab countries is an opportunity to reexamine its nuclear dimension, while basing itself on new sources that have been revealed during the years since then. The question of the impact and importance that the Dimona reactor products had – or did not have – on the war was a subject of intense dispute among those who first examined this issue.

Academic scholars, the most prominent of whom were Shlomo Aharonson and Yair Evron, were aligned according to two rival political camps that formed years earlier in the debate over the question of the place and centrality of nuclear power in Israel’s security policy.

The researchers who attached great importance to nuclear deterrence were called the “nuclear camp,” as opposed to those who believed that we should continue to rely mainly on the power of the IDF, called the “conventional camp.” However, I propose a completely different reading of the nuclear impact on the Yom Kippur War.

Those in the nuclear camp attributed to it great influence on the decision-makers in Egypt and Syria, claiming that the war goals were limited in advance due to Israel’s nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, representatives of the conventional camp asserted that the nuclear effect was marginal and largely irrelevant in the war.

According to the latter, the very attack on Israel is proof that the nuclear deterrent did not deliver the goods. Regarding the claim of their opponents that the nuclear option was what restrained Egypt and Syria’s war goals in advance and thus fulfilled its strategic purpose, they contended that the war goals were limited a priori for tactical and other reasons.

Egypt and Sadat’s decision-making

Despite the few years that passed from the time Israel obtained nuclear capabilities and despite the country’s policy of amimut (opacity), it seems that the Egyptian leader understood and internalized the goals of Israel’s nuclear deterrence. Sadat’s insistence on a military move with a very limited operational-territorial goal is related, among other things, according to several sources, to his assessment that the likelihood of an Israeli nuclear threat against a limited action was low.

This parallels the more accepted explanation in the literature according to which the Egyptians’ main concern was the exposure of their forces to Israeli Air Force attacks if they advanced beyond the scope of the anti-aircraft missile umbrella that was placed in the Suez Canal. From various sources, including the memoirs of senior Egyptian officials, it appears that Sadat was fully aware of the enormous strategic advantage that Israel had achieved in the late 1960s.

Substantiation in support of the claim that Egypt was aware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities was given in a televised interview with Shimon Peres, shortly before his death. Peres said in the interview that after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat landed in Israel on November 19, 1977, he was greeted by then deputy prime minister Yigael Yadin. According to Peres, while traveling from the airport to Jerusalem, Yadin asked Sadat why the Egyptian army did not continue towards the Straits in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. Sadat’s answer was: “You have nuclear weapons. Haven’t you heard?”

In other words, the Egyptian president correctly estimated that an all-out war whose goals are limited – occupation of the eastern bank of the Canal and a narrow strip inside Sinai – would not drag Israel into a nuclear response of any kind. From a historical point of view, it seems that the Egyptian gamble that the confrontation planned to break the status quo would be conducted entirely on the conventional level was sound.

President Sadat decided to launch an all-out but limited war, the purpose of which was to initiate a political process at the end of which Israel would withdraw from the Canal and then from the rest of the Sinai Peninsula. This was in effect an implementation of the famous assertion of the 19th century German theorist Carl von Clausewitz, according to which war should have a definitive political goal.

The Egyptian decision to go to war was made following Israel’s decision to reject Sadat’s 1972 initiative for a partial settlement with Israel in the Sinai that would allow the Canal to be opened for shipping. Sadat’s decision to go to war against Israel, and in the subsequent years to change Egypt’s orientation in the inter-bloc arena in the direction of strengthening relations with the United States, appears from a historical perspective as a distinct “Clausewitzian move” on the part of the Egyptian president.

A few years after the end of the war – in which Egypt saw achievements in the first days – Egypt managed to recover the Sinai Peninsula through American-mediated negotiations with Israel.

Limited Syrian attack

From Syria’s point of view – similar to Egypt – the joint surprise attack on Israel in October 1973 was an unequivocal challenge to Israel’s conventional deterrence and not necessarily to its nuclear deterrence.

The interesting question is whether the publications about Israel’s nuclear capabilities in the years before the Yom Kippur War had any effect on Syria’s war plans? In the first two days of the war, Syrian forces broke through the Israeli front in the southern sector of the Golan Heights, but refrained from continuing to advance the bridges over the Jordan River.

A Syrian move to take control of the bridges made the most sense from a military point of view on a tactical level, because it would have allowed them to delay the passage of IDF reserve forces up the Golan Heights. Prof. Shlomo Aharonson cited a study published after the war on the Syrians’ moves, from which he concluded that the IDF did not stop the Syrians, but they stopped by order and the Syrian attack was limited from the outset to occupying the Golan Heights.

The Syrian Chief of Staff at the time, when asked by the researcher why the order was given to the forces to stop their progress, replied laconically: “The time has not yet come to discuss the reasons for this.” Aaronson implies that it is possible that Israel’s nuclear capabilities influenced the Syrian General Staff and the decision makers in Damascus, and they avoided crossing the Green Line “without a plausible explanation.”

Even with regard to Syria, there is no positive testimony or any factual proof for the claim or explanation that it was fear of Israel’s nuclear capability that limited Syria’s war goals. The Syrians, like the Egyptians, were well aware of their limitations in fighting the IDF and built their war plans accordingly.

There is no dispute that the liberation of the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation was the goal of Syria’s war, and apart from the move to seize the bridges over the Jordan to halt the arrival of Israeli reinforcements, there was no military logic, as far as the Syrians were concerned, to continue sending forces into the Upper Galilee, in view of the balance of forces expected with the arrival of the IDF’s reserve forces.

The regime in Damascus was cognizant of Israel’s nuclear capabilities and understood its goals and limitations, since the threat of nuclear weapons on Israel’s northern border has a credibility problem given the short distances from Israeli population centers.

Deterrence does not resolve conflicts

The connection between Israeli policy in the years between June 1967 and October 1973 and the outbreak of the war and the failure of Israel’s general deterrence is a topic that has been extensively researched. Israel’s decision makers learned the hard and painful way that deterrence – nuclear or conventional – is a strategy for preventing war but is not a substitute for conflict resolution policies.

The refusal of the Israeli government led by Golda Meir to enter into negotiations with Egypt on an interim arrangement for a partial withdrawal from the banks of the Suez Canal in order to upon it up for shipping and rehabilitate the cities along the Canal, pushed the Egyptians into another war against Israel.

Beyond the consensus in the literature that the Yom Kippur War was a clear failure of Israel’s conventional deterrence, I dispute the claim that the attack in 1973 is also evidence of the failure of its nuclear deterrence. Israel’s nuclear deterrence was not challenged at all in this war and therefore did not fail.

Nuclear deterrence is not intended and cannot deter any conventional attack or war. The literature in the field of nuclear deterrence theory has clearly distinguished between types of threats against which nuclear deterrence is effective, and threats that are less serious and against which nuclear threats are ineffective.

A distinction must be made between deterrence against threats of harming a state’s ‘strategic interests’ and threats against harming its ‘vital-existential interests’. I find this distinction useful for understanding the deterrence strategy that Israel adopted in the years after becoming a nuclear state.

According to several sources, at the beginning of the war a discussion was held in a limited forum with then Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which the question was raised as to whether Israel should threaten and/or to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities. The discussion took place in the wee hours of Sunday, October 7, in the presence of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Israel Galili and Yigal Alon.

In that discussion, Dayan suggested that due to the difficult situation on the fronts, and since we did not have much time or options, we should also prepare the nuclear option. Those present in the room strongly opposed this proposal, and Dayan’s recommendation was dropped from the agenda.

The brief exchange about considering a nuclear threat or signal and the mood in the War Cabinet are important for understanding the world view of Israel’s decision makers at the time regarding the role of nuclear deterrence during a crisis.

From this historic decision, it appears that the war was perceived by the Israeli decision-makers as a threat to Israel’s strategic interests, which in those years were maintaining the status quo until a political solution was reached under the conditions established by Israel, and not to its most vital interests, which are maintaining its very existence of the country and its territorial integrity.

The strategic depth achieved in the Six Day War removed the dangers to the existence and integrity of the state within the borders of June 4, 1967 (the ‘Green Line’). On the southern front, the Egyptian army was very far from threatening Israel’s southern cities and in any case the need to rely on nuclear deterrence was redundant.

On the other hand, on the northern front, after the Syrian army broke through the IDF’s defense lines in the southern Golan Heights, the war cabinet decided to invest most of its efforts in stopping the Syrian advance. In practice, it turned out that the Syrians refrained from continuing the offensive into Israel’s sovereign territory.

I contend that the importance of the Yom Kippur War in everything related to the nuclear story lies first and foremost in Israel’s restraint, which is reflected in the important decision not to abandon the policy of nuclear amimut in the first difficult days of the war.

The decision by Golda Meir and her advisers not to threaten with the nuclear weapon, not to announce it and not to carry out a test for demonstration purposes and to suffice with leaving the nuclear array on standby, was based on a correct strategic reading of the situation. Despite the difficult battles in the north and in Sinai, Israel did not at that time face the existential threat for which its nuclear capabilities were built.

Israel suffered a military blow, severe losses and damage to its strategic interests, but the strategic depth in Sinai allowed breathing space and protection of its vital interests, i.e., Israel’s territorial integrity within the borders of June 4, 1967 and no harm to the civilian home front. In the north, where there was no strategic depth, difficult containment battles were fought against the Syrians and in the end the IDF forces reached a distance of about 40 kilometers from Damascus.

The failure of Israel’s conventional deterrence in the war had contradictory consequences for Israel’s security policy.

On the one hand, Israel turned to huge investments in its conventional power and continued secret investments in its nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, Israeli political leaders began to doubt the reliance on military force as the sole strategy for Israel’s security and existence.

These changes enabled the necessary flexibility to agree on the separation of forces agreements with Egypt and Syria after the war, and ultimately the peace process with Egypt. President Sadat’s decision to launch an all-out war against Israel despite its nuclear capabilities, and Golda Meir’s decision to conduct the war in those fateful hours without resorting to a nuclear threat, made the October 1973 war an important milestone in Israel’s nuclear history.

The first days of the Yom Kippur War largely shaped the way in which nuclear deterrence was later integrated into Israel’s security policy.

About the Author
Dr. Dan Sagir is a research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, "Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Secret Behind Israel's Nuclear Power," was recently published (Amazon).
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