The 1970s: The Transformative Decade for the United States and Israel

How the Yom-Kippur War lit the fuse that ended in the United States and Israel’s close relationship today.

The 1970s: The Transformative Decade for the United States and Israel

Richard Nixon: The Man Who Saved Israel

Richard Nixon is many things to many people: corrupt crook, misunderstood conservative, pragmatic politician. The list goes on and on. His presidency was shaped in large part by the Vietnam War and the decisions made regarding it. Furthermore, the Watergate Scandal and its political fallout remains a fascination of the American mind. Little emphasis, however, is placed upon Richard Nixon’s dealing with the state of Israel, particularly during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This instance in US-Israeli relations should be understood as a watershed moment for the two countries, solidifying their strong relationship, which has been maintained to this very day. Richard Nixon, whilst not being traditionally recognized in this capacity, is the man who saved Israel.

The Yom Kippur War was the latest in the line of a prolonged conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Beginning in 1948 with Israel’s establishment, it had fought three other major conflicts against her neighbors, these being the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1956 Suez Crisis as well as the 1967 Six Day War. What characterized these previous conflicts was the relative unpreparedness of the Arab forces, as well as Israel’s disposition to pre-emptively strike their neighbors, decisively changing the course of war in favor of the Israelis. Whilst the United States supported Israel on a moral and diplomatic level, it did not militarily intervene in these conflicts as it would come to do during the Yom Kippur War. In fact, the United States actually reeled in Israel and its British and French allies during the Suez Crisis, forcing it to come to the negotiating table with Nasser in Egypt.

A number of factors led to the Yom Kippur War being drastically different from the preceding conflicts. Chief among these was that it was the Arab states, not Israel, that initiated the conflict with a surprise attack. Yom Kippur is a Jewish holy day, and as such its armed forces were not prepared like normal to deal with a multi-front invasion. The initial fighting of the war was brutal and Israel incurred high losses, losing ground to Syria in the Golan Heights and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel found itself having difficulty defending its occupied territories in Sinai and Golan, ceding ground to the invading forces.

Sidewinder missiles during Operation Nickel Grass

Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, advised the President that Israel was a strategic bulwark in the Middle East against the Soviet Union. He believed that its defeat, let alone rollback or destruction, would signal both to regional forces and the wider globe that the United States had fallen behind in its conflict with the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon was not perceived to be a particularly pro-Israel President, especially in the wake of Lyndon Johnson, a man who cultivated strong ties with Israel and laid much of the groundwork for Nixon’s intervention with his own during the Six Day War. At the advice of Secretary of State Kissinger, Nixon initiated Operation Nickel Grass, the airlift of what became over 20,000 tons of weapons, supplies and equipment to the Israeli armed forces[1]. This aid proved crucial to Israel’s counterattacks and eventually its overall success. The United States aided further in the peace negotiations, with Kissinger visiting the various leaders involved in the conflict, culminating in a ceasefire. Israel had been saved from a military defeat and its consequences, and the relationship between the United States and Israel had become stronger than at any other point in its preceding history. Richard Nixon had saved Israel.

Political Realignments: The Neocons and The Likud Party

The Yom Kippur War would initiate a political realignment that culminated in the electoral victory of the Likud party in 1977, as well as the election of Ronald Reagan and the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Following the conclusion of the war, the Israeli government convened the Agranat Commission, which was an investigation into what was believed to be a serious intelligence failure and lapse in military preparedness. It found that several key figures within the Israeli security apparatus, including Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar were responsible for the Israeli military failures, and these two, along with other members of the military staff resigned.

These two men, along with countless others with which blame was laid for the war, were supporters of the Labor Zionist government, which had dominated the country’s politics since its inception. Labor Zionism was essentially inseparable from the Jewish nation until the 70’s. Foundational Israeli figures like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were Labor Zionists. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had been founded by the Labor Zionists and its high-ranking members were aligned with the party. The kibbutzim were organized under the principles of Labor Zionism. Many segments of Israeli society, however, began to question whether Israel could maintain the Labor Zionist dream of an egalitarian, socialist, democratic society given that they are surrounded by enemies, even within their own borders. 

At the same time, a profound shift was occurring in American society, along similar themes. Henry Jackson, also known as “Scoop” Jackson, was the central figure in what was known as the “Scoop Jackson Democrats”. Later on, these interventionist-minded Democrats would come to be known as the Neoconservatives. Scoop Jackson and his camp of anti-communist liberals, including figures such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Dennis Ross, were liberals who found themselves disillusioned with the pacifism of the New Left of the 1960’s, as well as the totalitarian government of the Soviet Union. Trotskyite in nature, these men advocated for an increased intervention on behalf of the United States around the world to stop the spread of communism, which they believed was the single greatest threat to democracy and human rights. In particular, the Scoop Jackson Democrats were concerned with the plight of Jews within the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, as many of the leading neoconservatives were Jewish, with their parents and grandparents experiencing persecution at the hands of the Tsar and later Joseph Stalin. Whilst antisemitism in the Soviet Union cooled after the death of Stalin, under Leonid Brezhnev it once again flourished, due in no small part to the repeated conflicts in the Levant and the Soviet’s support of the Arab states. 

The Neoconservatives were major supporters of Israel during both the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Support for Israel was a central tenet to the neoconservatives, with Israel being both a bastion against the Soviet Union’s influence as well as the homeland for the Jews. Another important policy to come out of this camp was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which sought to gain Soviet Jews the right to emigrate, primarily to the United States and Israel, by restricting trade with countries which refused to do so. Many Jews within the Soviet Union sought to emigrate to the two nations, however found it very difficult to do so given the various taxes and restrictions placed upon Jews who sought to do so. Scoop Jackson, aided by Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams and others drafted the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which was signed into law by President Ford in 1975.

In the following years, an estimated half a million Jews left the Soviet Union for the United States, and another million left for Israel. This demographic shift had a profound impact on the politics of both nations. Israel, with her small population of 3.5 million in 1975 would see an almost 30% increase in population directly attributable to the Jackson-Vanik influx, with most of these Jews being aligned with Likud. Due to how Israel's Aliyah immigration system works, those Jackson-Vanik Jews were eligible to vote on arrival, hinting at perhaps another motive for the Amendment's passing.

This social and political climate created the perfect conditions for the rise of the Likud party. Founded in 1973 and led by Menachem Begin, the Likud party was a model of multiracial (or multiethnic in this case) working class populism. As Israeli society was questioning the viability for the Labor Zionists to safeguard Israel’s future, Begin brought forth a vision of Israeli nationalism that prioritized Israel’s national interest and the safety of her people over the idea that Israel could peacefully coexist with neighbors which hated her. This vision of a strong national defense appealed to those who served in the IDF and sought to strengthen the position of the Israeli military. Likud was popular amongst minority groups, primarily the Mizrahim and Sephardim Jews, who felt ostracized and in some cases were treated like second class citizens by the Ashkenazim, which dominated Labor Zionism. The Mizrahi population would undergo a population boom, making them a prime demographic for Likud to cater to. The Soviet Jews who immigrated during this time period found themselves at home in the Likud party, as its anticommunism and pro-Western stances were popular with this segment of the population which found itself discriminated against by the Soviets. The ongoing influx of Soviet Jewry into Israel over the next few years would only bolster Likud’s numbers further. The party was also popular amongst the religious Jews, particularly those who made up the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Likud party stressed the importance of traditional Jewish religious practices, as opposed to the secularism of their Labor opponents. And lastly, Likud promised liberal market-based economic reforms, resonating with working class Jews who felt ostracized by the socialist economic policies of Labor Zionists. 

And so, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the new Soviet Jewish immigrants, and brewing economic problems, the Likud party won the election of 1977. It not only cobbled together a working class coalition that stretched across numerous diverse segments of Israeli society, but also a political coalition of parties spanning from nationalist and religious hardliners on the right to moderate reformists in the center. The landslide Likud victory of 1977 marked a turning point in Israeli society and in its policymaking, as well as its continued connections to the American Right and its own rise and changes over time.

Thinktanks and Defense Establishment Shakeups

The Yom Kippur War also had a profound impact on the United States’ military strategy and defense establishment. Throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s, the United States found itself bogged down in the Vietnam War. Its strategy and weapons systems were stagnating, largely remaining the same throughout the conflict. What began to change this, however, was witnessing the deployment of Soviet weapons systems by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. T-72 tanks, Surface-to-air missile systems, armored anti-aircraft weapons and new artillery platforms, commonly referred to as "Big 7" weapons systems, found themselves on the battlefields of the Levant, proving to be disruptive to Israeli operations. 

Various reports and cautionary papers were written in and around 1974. Albert Wohlstetter, Trotskyite in his youth and professor at the University of Chicago, authored the report “Soviet Strategic Nuclear Weapons” which amongst other things criticized US military preparedness regarding its nuclear arsenal, emphasizing that the Soviet Union was racing ahead of the United States in Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile capabilities. The report called on the US military to rapidly develop its technological capabilities to achieve parity with the Soviet Union. 

The report was part of the motivation behind the Team B threat reassessment project headed by Paul Nitze. Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, as well as Paul Wolfowitz, began to rouse a fear of the Soviet Union through speeches, asserting that the Soviet Union was secretly building up its nuclear weapons arsenal in an effort to potentially fight and win a nuclear conflict with the United States. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz believed the United States should respond in kind and undertake a massive arms acquisition campaign, as well as develop advanced technologies to offset the Soviet Union’s numerically superior military.  

The defense officials in the Ford administration and in the defense establishment were not open to this group of relative outsiders challenging their posture towards the Soviet Union. Ford, Kissinger and others within the defense establishment were set on a course of detente with the Soviet Union, rather than a bellicose course of arms expansion and aggressive posturing. Rather, they attempted to shut down the proposed inquiries into the Soviet Union and the future Team B project. William Colby, then the Director of the CIA, was doubtful that a group of outsiders could produce an intelligence report more accurate and comprehensive than that of his CIA. 

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney resigned from the administration due to its hesitancy to implement their agenda. In response, Ford relieved the various establishment figures of their positions and replaced them with Rumsfeld’s crowd, many of which would go on to be key neoconservatives later on. William Colby was replaced by George H. W. Bush as CIA Director. Henry Kissinger was replaced by Brent Scowcroft as National Security Advisor. Secretary of State James Schlesinger was replaced by Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Dick Cheney replaced him as Chief of Staff. This marked a point in which the realists, which had dominated American foreign policy to that point, were phased out and replaced by the incipient neoconservatives. 

With this shakeup in defense officials, the request to form this team of outside analysts was forced through, and in 1976 work began to identify Soviet advances in technology and military strategy. A team of 16 analysts and advisors undertook the project led by Richard Pipes, former advisor to Scoop Jackson and Harvard historian of Russian history. Along with him were a cast of neoconservative anti-Soviet hawks, including Paul Wolfowitz, Seymour Weiss and Paul Nitze. The target of this team’s scrutiny were the recent National Intelligence Estimates produced by the CIA, and Team B found that these reports drastically underestimated the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, as well as its motivations and intentions for armament. It found that the Soviet Union had been bolstering its anti-ballistic missile defense capabilities, its ability to destroy satellites and the mobility of its missile platforms, all of which would have been in violation of recent US-Soviet Missile treaties. It also rejected the idea that Soviet military expansion was undertaken as a defensive measure due to Russia’s history of experiencing invasion, and instead was done to prepare for future aggressive campaigns across the globe to fight against liberal democracy, even against the United States. The Team recommended that the United States embark on an arms race with the Soviet Union, producing and procuring more weapons than the Soviet Union could. At the same time, it needed to invest in the research and development of next generation technologies which would outcompete the Soviets.

The accuracy of the report and its findings have since been heavily criticized in historical studies. What few venture to say in their criticisms of the report is that the ideological bent of the analysts was likely an outgrowth of their Eastern European Jewish backgrounds. Richard Pipes and Paul Wolfowitz’ families were both Polish Jews, with Pipes being born in Russian Poland. Much of the strategic assessment of Soviet aggressive expansionism came from an analysis of communist ideology, which these two men strongly opposed in that it oppressed the rights of minorities, specifically Jews. With the Yom Kippur War in recent memory, it makes sense that these men had an interest in rolling back the Soviet Union to ensure Israel would not be threatened by Soviet-aligned Arab states. It also meant that Israel’s defense capabilities would need to be brought in line with that of the United States, and the development mirrors the shift in Israeli policy towards one of intervention and military expansion under its new Likud government. 

The Cold War Continues

The ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union provided the Neoconservatives early practice grounds which would serve to solidify their ties both within Washington and to Israel. Whilst they had just shaken up the defense and foreign policy establishments, they carried forward the previous efforts of the Cold War with renewed fervor. Important strategic relationships were fostered and global operations carried out by a combination of neoconservative political influence and covert Israeli operations within the United States..

One notable relationship fostered at this time was that of South Africa. Following the Yom Kippur War, several high profile Israeli figures were vocal about guaranteeing Israel’s continued existence with the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal. Politicians like Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, as well as defense figures like Moshe Dayan, all saw that Israel would become untouchable if she were in possession of such an arsenal. Whilst Israel commanded much influence in Washington circles, it was still a bridge too far for the United States to support Israel in her quest to obtain nuclear weapons. Various scandals had erupted in the past regarding this effort, notably the 1965 Apollo Affair. Given the controversy, Israel would need to find a partner outside of the United States for assistance. South Africa, with its sanctioned Apartheid regime, communist guerilla wars, and nuclear resources fit the bill. The South Africans were looking for allies as well, given their support for Rhodesia in the Bush War, as well as their Apartheid regime, had ostracized them from the United States, the Soviet Union, and much of the unaligned Third World. 

The relationship was triangular, with US-based operatives securing deals and facilitating the nuclear trade on behalf of Israel. One such example was the covert operations of Arnon Milchan. Milchan, an Israeli billionaire and Hollywood movie producer responsible for Fight Club, L.A. Confidential, and JFK, was recruited by Shimon Peres in the 1960’s to spy on behalf of Israel. It is alleged that Milchan was an arms dealer on top of his spying operation, being responsible for the illicit transportation of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weaponry. Milchan has since admitted to promoting the Apartheid regime in South Africa for Israel to gain access to its uranium resources. 

Jonathan Pollard, a former Naval Intelligence employee, was another such Israeli spy operating in the United States with connections to South Africa. Pollard passed on numerous classified documents, such as the methodology for how the US military collects signal intelligence, for various arms deals around the world. Pollard was arrested and charged for his behavior, and three decades later was released to Israel, where he now lives. Both men were recruited by the Israeli organization Lekem, which was used to conduct foreign spying operations to bolster Israel’s nuclear program. 

Pollard greeted by Netanyahu upon arrival in Israel

One other notable figure in this relationship was Canadian artillery engineer Gerald Bull. Bull’s artillery designs were renowned across the world, and as such he worked closely with the United States and her allies, including South Africa and Israel. He was granted American citizenship by Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for his efforts. Beyond providing artillery platforms to Israel, which would be used against Lebanon, Bull is known for his role in the circumvention of the arms sanctions placed upon South Africa. He managed to get 30,000 artillery pieces around the sanctions for South Africa to use against communist forces in Angola, and was soon after arrested. Later, Bull was likely assassinated by the Mossad for attempting to arm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with a supergun, termed Project Babylon.

Namibian uranium mining infrastructure

Returning to the subject of nuclear collaboration, large amounts of yellowcake uranium would be mined, primarily in Namibia (South West Africa), and some found its way into the arsenal of Israel. Interestingly, Peter Thiel’s father worked for the Rossing Uranium mine at this time. Israel and South Africa also likely participated in joint nuclear exercises, such as the 1979 Vela Incident, where a nuclear detonation occurred off the coast of South Africa[2]. All this to say, Israel, South Africa and the various operatives, agents, and Israeli-aligned political figures in the United States fostered a strong triangular relationship throughout much of the 1970s. 

Another relationship built during this time period was with the Shah of Iran. Specifically, the Nixon administration was particularly invested in the relationship with Iran as an anti-communist ally. Following the Yom Kippur War, the United States realized it needed to broaden its diplomatic effort in the region as a counterweight to Arab communism. Iran represented a pro-Western regime which was opposed to this threat, and therefore provided an expedient ally.

Iran also maintained a relationship with Israel. Whilst not formally recognizing its independence, the two states worked to contain their mutual Arab enemies. They worked together on various joint military projects, including a missile project under “Project Flower”, wherein Israel gave Iran advanced missile technology in exchange for mass amounts of oil. 

Today, these ties still remain in some capacity. The son of the last Shah, Reza Pahlavi, has been seen touring Israel, brought into the country at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu. The crown prince and his wife claim to represent Iranians who oppose the Islamic Republic, and have clashed repeatedly with pro-democratic dissident movements as well. 

One final important tie built at this time was between the United States and the Pinochet regime in Chile. Deposing Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973 with the backing of the CIA, Pinochet would go on to govern Chile for the next seventeen years. Pinochet would ensure the United States had a strong ally in South America, alongside the various other regimes it supported at times, as a way to undergird its continued presence in the region. Furthermore, the ties between the Pinochet regime and the United States go deeper than the intelligence world, as his regime was guided by the neoliberal economic teachings of the Chicago School of Economics. 

Kissinger and Pinochet

Citing Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek as foundational thinkers, the “Chicago Boys” were a group of Latin American economists educated at the University of Chicago, as well as Harvard and MIT, whose primary aims were to bring neoliberal economic reforms to Latin America. The Chicago Boys were brought to the United States over the course of several years, their studies being financed by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. The privatization reforms driven by the Chicago Boys would go on to serve as a model for the United States, the United Kingdom, as well as Israel in their eventual pivot to neoliberalism. Some of its members were also members of the Mont Pelerin Society, a liberal thinktank dedicated to advancing the causes of free trade and neoliberal economics. Pinochet’s attacks on Allende and the labor unions of Chile would serve as an example for Menachem Begin to do the same years later. Allende was, after all, a close partner of the Labor Zionist government and its Histadrut union.

Chile also became a partner of Israel, primarily providing a market for Israel to export its weapons systems. Chile bought air-to-air missiles, Israeli tanks, and even aircraft, bringing the two countries closer together. The two defended one another diplomatically at the United Nations, and Chile served as a model, both economically and politically, for Israel and the Likud party to model itself off of.

Sowing the Seeds of Neoliberalism

Another deepening tie between the United States and Israel during this time was their gradual shift to neoliberal economic systems. In Israel, this was first initiated under Menachem Begin with his free-market liberalization programs. In his political calculus, it was determined that the Histadrut, or General Organization of Workers in Israel, was the main source of power and legitimacy for the dominant Labor Zionist government. For the Likud party, breaking the power of the Histadrut was synonymous with gaining and maintaining their grip on power, and as such the new Likud government of 1977 immediately began privatizing swaths of the Israeli economy. Inflation soared as a result of Likud’s liberalization policies, increasing tenfold from 1977 to 1984. The stock market collapsed, and with it went the savings of many working class Israeli families. With the economy in shambles, Begin resigned in 1983, turning the government over to a stability regime of both left and right politicians. Inflation was curbed as a result of the 1985 stabilization program, and whilst Labor was the dominant party in government for much of the 80’s, this privatization spree continued, being led most forcefully by the Peres and Rabin administrations. 

Similarly, both the United States and the United Kingdom were undergoing neoliberal transformations. Mentioned earlier, the Chicago Boys of Chile demonstrated the practicalities of implementing such reforms. Also mentioned earlier was the Mont Pelerin Society, a group dedicated to the spread of neoliberal economic ideas. The Society featured members from across the world, and a considerable amount of its members worked in the Reagan administration. With its focus on fighting the excesses of big government, trickle-down economics, and global free trade, Ronald Reagan initiated the shift in the United States towards neoliberalism. Alan Greenspan was Reagan’s Chairman of the Federal Reserve. George Schultz, Edwin Meese, William Niskanen, and Martin Feldstein served as key policy advisors to Reagan. All were members of the Society. The Committee on the Present Danger under Reagan was also supportive of the new neoliberal economic direction the nation was heading in, with some notables being Norm Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, and Paul Nitze.

The Unipolar World Stage Is Set

All of these developments taken together, it is beyond clear that the 1970s were the formative decade for the future unipolar moment in United States’ history. The pivot to neoliberalism, the ties formed in Chile, South Africa and Iran, the shake-ups in the American defense establishment, and the political realignments in both America and Israel all found their origins in the developments surrounding the Yom Kippur War. Neoconservative ascendancy and the crushing weight of the Israel lobby went through a boost period during this time, and when the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in the 1990s, the agenda was already set as to what the purpose of American foreign policy would be, and it found itself armed with all of the tools necessary to carry it out.

[[1]] Walter J. Boyne (December 1998). "Nickel Grass". Air Force Magazine. 81 (12). Arlington, VA: Air Force Association. ISSN 0730-6784. Archived from the original on March 31, 2012.

[[2]] Polakow-Suransky, Sasha (2010). The Undeclared Alliance: Secret Relationship Between Israel and Apartheid South Africa. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. ISBN 978-0-375-42546-2. Archived from the original on February 2, 2014.