One can point to many important events in Israel’s history related to religion, economics, politics and culture. I would like to highlight 10 that profoundly affected Israel’s security with the caveat that the list is neither exhaustive nor reflective of the full impact of each event.
War of Independence – Israel’s chief of operations, Yigael Yadin, believed they had only “a 50-50 chance” of prevailing. Israel won the war without help from the United States, which had been the first to recognize the new state. The Jews fulfilled the Zionist dream. The state became the only democracy in the region and expanded the boundaries provided by the partition decision. The Arab states displayed a desire to drive the Jews into the sea they would not give up until their defeat in 1973. The fate of Palestinian refugees became an issue that persists today.
Six-Day War – After the Arabs threatened its annihilation, Israel shocked them and the world with their lightning victory, which established the country as the most powerful in the region. Even that devastating defeat, however, could not convince the Arabs to make peace and Israel ended the war controlling the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the lives of the Palestinians living there creating the unresolved conflict both face today. Jerusalem was reunited and became a focal point of that conflict.
Phantom Jet Sale – Prior to 1968, the United States had reluctantly provided mostly defensive weapons to Israel and insisted on balancing those sales with similar ones to America’s Arab friends. Rejecting opposition within his administration, President Johnson agreed to sell Phantom jets to Israel. This was significant because it provided Israel with its first supersonic planes. The sale established the principal of ensuring that Israel maintains a qualitative advantage over its enemies. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke noted the broader significance, “We will become the principal arms supplier to Israel, involving us even more intimately with Israel’s security situation and involving more directly the security of the United States.”
Black September – After establishing a state within a state in Jordan, the PLO threatened to overthrow King Hussein in 1970. Though ultimately not needed, Israel offered to intervene to save the American ally. This helped establish that Israel could be a strategic asset to the United States. The strategic cooperation agreement signed in 1981 formally recognized Israel’s value.
Munich Massacre – The murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics highlighted the Palestinian issue, brought the menace of terrorism into the homes of people around the world, reinforced the fear that Jews and Israelis could be targeted anywhere and provoked greater discussion of how to handle and respond to terrorist threats. Israel demonstrated that terrorists would not be safe anywhere, and that the murder of Israelis would be avenged, by tracking down and killing most of the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre.
UN Resolution 3379 – In 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution slandering Zionism by equating it with racism. The vote gave international legitimacy to the defamation of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and has been a staple of anti-Israel propaganda ever since even though the resolution was repealed in 1991.
Yom Kippur War – Israel’s military and society were shaken to the core by the surprise attack, shattering the euphoria that had accompanied the victory in 1967. The near defeat reinforced the fortress Israel mentality that no matter how strong they are, Israelis are not safe. The war was sufficiently successful for Anwar Sadat to regain Egypt’s honor, which allowed him to pursue peace with Israel. The war also proved the superiority of American weapons and that the United States would not allow Israel to be defeated, which effectively ended the Arab belief that Israel could be driven into the sea.
Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty – The 1979 treaty proved that peace was possible between Israel and an Arab Muslim leader. The agreement took the most influential and powerful Arab country out of a possible coalition of Israel’s enemies. By rejecting autonomy, the Palestinians once again missed an opportunity as it might have led to statehood. Instead, Israel accelerated the establishment of communities in the disputed territories. At the time, fewer than 10,000 Jews had settled there.
Bombing Osirak – Israel sent a powerful message to its enemies when it destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. The government proved the ability and willingness to use military force against its enemies anywhere and the commitment to prevent any of them from obtaining nuclear weapons. The lesson was reinforced when Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. The prospect of an attack forced Iran to take measures to defend its nuclear facilities.
Lebanon War – After living with provocations from the PLO, which had established a state within the state of Lebanon, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. Often referred to as Israel’s Vietnam because of the impact it had on domestic politics, its duration and casualties and inconclusive outcome. Israel’s final withdrawal came 22 years after the fighting began. The war succeeded in driving the PLO leadership from Lebanon to Tunis where it could do less harm. The PLO was replaced, however, by Iran’s proxy force – Hezbollah – which has essentially taken over the country and now points 150,000 rockets at Israel. The war brought down Menachem Begin and temporarily sidelined Ariel Sharon. This was the first war where Israel’s existence was not threatened, and it was seen as Goliath rather than David. Media coverage was unrelentingly negative and forced Israel to consider the impact of public relations in future operations.