The Burden of Israel’s 1967 Victory
By Efraim Inbar
April 5, 2017
June 1967, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) waged war alone against Egypt, Jordan,
and Syria. It achieved a stunning victory in six days.
The military skill demonstrated by the Israelis was remarkable
– so much so that battles from the Six-Day War continue to be studied at war
colleges around the world.
Israel's military achievement had another extremely important
effect. It went a long way towards convincing the Arab world that Israel cannot
be easily destroyed by military force; Israel is a fact the Arabs must learn to
live with. Indeed, ten years later – after Egypt had lost another war to
Israel, this one in 1973 – its president, Anwar Sadat, came to Jerusalem
(November 1977) to offer peace.
The swift and decisive victory of 1967 became the standard to
which the IDF aspired – and the kind of victory expected by Israeli society in
future engagements. This is problematic, considering the ways Israel's opponents
have changed and the means they now deploy.
The unrealistic anticipation that victories on the scale of 1967
should be the end result of any military engagement hampers clear thinking and
impedes the adoption of appropriate strategy and tactics. Moreover, it
encourages what is often an impossible hope for a quick end to conflict. In the
absence of a clear-cut and speedy outcome, Israelis lose confidence in the
political as well as the military leadership.
expectations of 1967-scale victories hamper clear thinking about strategy
Israelis, many of whom have limited military experience, still
long for decisive victories in the Gaza and South Lebanon arenas. The wars in
which the IDF has participated so far in the twenty-first century, which
appeared to end inconclusively, left many Israelis with a sense of unease. They
miss the victory photographs of the 1967 war.
Slogans of the Israeli right, such as "Let the IDF
Win," reflect this frustration. Similarly, the left claims that Judea and
Samaria can be safely ceded to a Palestinian state because these territories can
be reconquered, as they were in 1967, if they become a base for hostile actors.
The calls for the destruction of Hamas also bear witness to a lack of
understanding of the limits of military power.
But grand-scale conventional war, in which the IDF faces large
armored formations and hundreds of air fighters as it did in 1967, is less
likely today. The 1982 Lebanon War was the last to display such encounters.
Since 1982, Israel has scarcely fought any state in a conventional war.
To a significant extent, the statist dimension in the
Arab-Israeli conflict has itself disappeared. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with
Israel. Syria and Iraq are torn by domestic conflict and are hardly in a
position to challenge Israel militarily. Many other Arab countries, such as the
Gulf and Maghreb states, have reached a de facto peace with Israel, an
orientation buttressed by the common Iranian threat.
of the world's deadliest non-state military forces are deployed close to
Israel's border with Syria.
For the past three decades, Israel has been challenged primarily
by sub-state actors, such as Hamas (a Sunni militia) and Hezbollah (a Shiite
militia). Such organizations have a different strategic calculus from that of
states. Because of their religious-ideological zeal, they are more difficult to
deter than states, and their learning curve is much slower.
It took Egypt three military defeats (1948, 1956, and 1973) and a
war of attrition (1968-70) within a span of 25 years to give up the goal of
destroying Israel. In contrast, Hezbollah has been fighting Israel for a longer
period and remains as devoted as ever to its goal of the elimination of the
Jewish state. The heavy price inflicted upon Gaza since 2007 by the Israeli
military has not changed the strategic calculus of the Hamas leadership, which
still aspires to Israel's demise.
Hamas and Hezbollah do not possess arsenals of tanks and air
fighters, which would be easy targets for Israel. The decentralized structure of
their military organizations does not present points of gravity that can be
eliminated by swift and decisive action. Moreover, their use of civilian
populations to shield missile launchers and military units – a war crime –
makes IDF advances cumbersome and difficult due to slower troop movement in
urban areas and the need to reduce collateral damage among civilians.
Urbanization among Israel's neighbors has greatly reduced the empty areas that
could have been used for maneuvering and outflanking. The use of the
subterranean by Israel's foes, be it in Gaza or South Lebanon, is another new
element that slows advances.
The patient, attritional use of force is the best approach for
dealing with Israel's current conflicts.
It is naďve to believe the IDF can or should win quickly and
decisively every time it has to flex its muscles. Yitzhak Rabin warned several
times during his long career against the expectation of a "once and for
all" victory. The defeat of Israel's new opponents requires a different
Israel is engaged in a long war of attrition against religiously
motivated enemies who believe both God and history are on their side. All the
IDF can do is occasionally weaken their ability to harm Israel and create
temporary deterrence. In Israeli parlance, this is called "mowing the
grass" – an apt metaphor, as the problem always grows back.
The patient, repetitive use of force is not glamorous, but it
will eventually do the trick. Unfortunately, many Israelis do not understand the
particular circumstances of the great 1967 victory. They have lost patience and
do not realize that time is, in fact, on Israel's side.