A Surprise Out of Zion?

Case Studies in Israel's Decisions on Whether to Alert the United States to Preemptive and Preventive Strikes, from Suez to the Syrian Nuclear Reactor

by Warren Bass

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Research Questions

  1. Is Israel likely to alert the United States of a pending preventive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities?
  2. What insights do some key historical precedents provide into today's decisionmaking about Iran in both the United States and Israel?

Might U.S. officials be surprised by an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities? This study examines some key historical precedents, considering four key cases in which Israeli prime ministers chose preemptive or preventive military strikes and had to decide whether to notify or consult with the United States: the Suez crisis of 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967, the 1981 strike on Iraq's nuclear reactor, and the 2007 bombing of the mysterious Syrian nuclear facility known as al-Kibar. The Eisenhower and Reagan administrations were indeed surprised by Israel's actions in 1956 and 1981, but U.S.-Israel relations were put under far less strain by the bilateral discussions that preceded Israeli military action in 1967 and 2007. With the widening and deepening of the U.S.-Israel special relationship over the decades, Israeli prime ministers will have to think very carefully before choosing confrontation over consultation with the United States.

Key Findings

Superpowers Hate Surprises

  • In the Suez War of 1956, the Eisenhower administration was shocked and enraged by Israel's secret collusion with Britain and France to try to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

U.S. Irritation Is Bounded by the Evolution of the Special Relationship, and Israeli Action Is Bounded by the Depth of U.S. Interests

  • In 1956, the entire relationship between the United States and Israel seemed to hang in the balance as a result of the Suez War, but in 2007 the well-established special relationship made it easier for Israel to sound out the Bush administration over striking the Kibar reactor.
  • Leading up to the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel endured weeks of ultimately fruitless diplomacy because the Johnson administration was wary of unleashing a chain of events that could have compelled it to intervene in the Middle East as the war in Vietnam was escalating.

Consultation Does Not Guarantee U.S. Assent, but It Can Limit U.S. Anger

  • In both 1967 and 2007, Israel's leadership consulted extensively with Washington before resorting to the use of force, which yielded considerable dividends of U.S. understanding when Israel ultimately took matters into its own hands.

Different U.S. Agencies Will Often Have Differing Opinions

  • In 2007, while Vice President Cheney was in favor of a strike on Kibar, Israel met with opposition from National Security Adviser Hadley, Defense Secretary Gates, and Secretary of State Rice.

The View from Washington Is Different than the View from Jerusalem

  • During the Suez crisis, Israel was determined to overthrow its nemesis Nasser, while Eisenhower was enraged by what he considered a galling display of gunboat diplomacy that he worried would cost the West precious ground in the Cold War.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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