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No exaggeration: the Israeli air force = survival.

On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence. Its War of Independence began that same night as Egyptian, Syria, Jordanian, and Iraqi forces started moving toward its territory. The new prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave Israel a 50-50 chance of surviving the war.

At that time the Israeli air force was a ragtag assemblage, almost all the airmen foreign volunteers. But it succeeded in holding off early Egyptian ground and air advances, and ended up playing a key role in Israel’s victory and survival.

The next threat to survival came in May and June 1967 as Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and eventually also Jordanian forces massed for what they were sure would be a final, decisive attack on the young Jewish state. Among many other such statements by Arab leaders at the time, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser said, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”

The Six Day War opened on the morning of June 5 with a preemptive attack by the Israeli air force that destroyed the Egyptian air force. Later in the morning Israeli planes — fortunately not butterflies — took out the Jordanian and Syrian air forces as well. The path was cleared to a lightning Israeli victory over Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War was the only one where it appeared for a while that Israel could lose and sink into oblivion. This time, on the morning of October 6 (it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year), the Israeli leadership decided not to use the air force in a preemptive raid on Egyptian and Syrian forces — for fear of jeopardizing U.S. support.

The result was that the war went much worse than the 1967 war. Although Israel eventually turned the tide and won, it lost about 2700 soldiers — compared to about 700 in 1967 when it had taken the initiative and ordered a quick air strike.