54 years ago today as I write this, the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors was underway. In one of the most stunning military campaigns of the post-WW2 era, Israel confounded her adversaries and changed the course of history in the Middle East, establishing herself as a regional power to be reckoned with. While Israel has fought many engagements since that time, none have had the singular impact of that conflict…perhaps until now. The recent operations against Hamas in Gaza, known in Israel as “Operation Guardian of the Walls”, while not involving any seizure of new territory nor involving the totality of the IDF in the way that was seen in 1967, nonetheless may represent a watershed event in the history of modern Israel of no less significance. The parallels between the two wars are striking in terms of both the political and military dynamics of the conflict.
First, consider the political stage. From the immediate years following modern Israel’s founding up until 1967, her principal major power ally was France. On the eve of the Six Day War, France’s Charles De Gaulle warned of dire consequences for the French-Israeli bilateral relationship if Israel were to resort to military action in the face of continuing provocations and the very real threat of annihilation by the Arab coalition led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Recognizing that France may not be a reliable ally going forward, Israel had been courting the U.S. as a replacement for some time, but this was by no means assured on the eve of war, having already received warnings from President Johnson against precipitous action by Israel. By initiating Operation Moked (“Focus”), the surprise attack on Egypt’s air bases on the morning of June 5th, Israel was taking the risk of having to survive as a pariah state with no major power backers in the wake of the war.
Fast forward to May of 2021: After four years of the most pro-Israel administration in American history under President Trump, the newly-installed Biden Administration presaged a potentially ominous future for the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Having served as the Vice President under the administration immediately preceding that of Trump, Biden represented a return to the agenda of the Obama years, which were the most hostile towards Israel of any American administration since at least that of Eisenhower, and perhaps ever. Not only did the Biden administration include many of the same people in key foreign policy and defense positions as had been the case under Obama, but the Democratic Party itself had been much further radicalized against Israel during the intervening four years, with openly anti-Semitic figures such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib striking a rabidly anti-Israel tone in Congress. To underscore just how radical this shift has become, it should be noted that a resolution introduced in Congress to condemn Hamas during the recent fighting was soundly defeated with not even one Democratic legislator voting in favor, an outcome that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Meanwhile, the European Union, led by Hungary, did in fact vote to condemn Hamas, demonstrating that even the traditionally pro-Palestinian EU is now more pro-Israel than today’s Democratic Party in the U.S. While the U.S. has not yet embargoed Israel as France did in 1967, an emergency funding bill to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome defenses stalled in the Democrat-controlled Congress, and going forward, there can be no real assurance of continued U.S. support in coming years as long as the Democratic Party of today controls both the executive and legislative branches of national government.
Here one might be tempted to ask, if France could be replaced by the U.S. back in 1967 as Israel’s major power ally, who might replace the U.S. in the near future if the U.S. fully abandons Israel? That is a large question to be dealt with in a moment, but for now the important point to keep in mind is the nature of the diplomatic risk Israel was taking by engaging in decisive action against Hamas in the recent conflict, which, as in 1967, they pursued in spite of the same.
Now, consider the military dimension.
In 1967, the Arabs had intended to overrun Israel not only by means of ground forces, but also with the help of key air force weapons for which Israel had no equivalent and against which Israel could field defenses of only limited effectiveness, namely, Egypt’s fleet of Tu-16 medium bombers equipped with chemical weapons. Had these gotten aloft, while Israel may have shot down some of them, others would have inevitably gotten through, wreaking havoc within the constricted geography of Israel’s major population centers. Israel’s only practical solution to this enormous danger was to hit the bombers on the ground before they could ever be launched, which is why destruction of each and every one of these bombers was a principal objective of the first wave of Israeli airstrikes. The success Israel achieved in denying Egypt their “ace in the hole” from the onset of hostilities ultimately determined the entire course of the war.
Hamas did not represent an existential threat to Israel in the way the Arab coalition did in 1967, at least not in an immediate sense. However, they did represent a key element of a long-term campaign aimed at ending Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. Combined with a well-funded and decades-old propaganda campaign directed at delegitimizing Israel as a sovereign state of the Jewish people, Hamas intended to maintain a campaign of provocation intended to a) make life miserable for many Israelis on the ground, encouraging emigration and discouraging immigration, and b) provoking Israeli military responses that would harm civilians and in turn be used as propaganda to paint Israel as a rogue practitioner of “state terrorism”, to be banished from the community of civilized nations unless and until they abandoned their Jewish character and surrendered to the de-facto control of Palestinian thugs as a “bi-national” state. This strategy, if successful, would ultimately result in the destruction/dismantlement of the Jewish State as surely as a successful conventional Arab military operation would have in 1967. In a purely military dimension, a key element in the arsenal of Hamas was their vast tunnel network, the “Hamas Metro”, which they had first used against Israel very effectively, albeit on a more limited basis, during the 2014 Gaza war. The success Hamas achieved in terms of tactical surprise in certain locations adjacent to Gaza encouraged them to invest much more heavily in this technology for a future conflict, believing that in the event of an Israeli ground invasion provoked by a campaign of rocket barrages against Israeli civilians, their tunnels would allow them to move forces behind Israeli lines, sow chaos, and lead to unacceptable levels of casualties on the Israeli side, forcing an early ceasefire on Hamas’ terms and seriously damaging Israeli deterrence and credibility going forward.
With an American administration freshly in place who held out the prospect to Palestinian terrorists of a 1967-esque abandonment of Israel a la De Gaulle, and with their tunnel network expanded far beyond that which was in place seven years earlier, Hamas decided the time was ripe to strike. On Monday, May 10 of this year, they began showering Israel with rockets, while their fighters awaited orders to deploy through the “Hamas Metro” in the face of the all but inevitable Israeli ground offensive.
However, just as Israel was well aware of the Egyptian bomber threat in 1967 and had developed a very effective plan to counter the same, so too had Israeli military planners anticipated and devised a crushing counterstroke to the Hamas war plan.
As the rocket barrage continued through the week, Israeli media aired reports of reservists being called up, while footage of IDF tanks and other heavy equipment was widely broadcast on international media outlets, moving towards the frontier with Gaza. The word went out that a ground offensive by the IDF into Gaza was imminent, and so Hamas duly deployed their forces into the tunnels. Israeli intelligence, however, had developed means in the intervening years to map out the locations of the Hamas tunnel network, and the Israeli Air Force took full advantage of this information. After “flushing out” the Hamas army into the tunnels to meet what they had been led to believe has an impending Israeli invasion, on the night of Friday, May 14 (interestingly, the 73rd anniversary of modern Israel’s declaration of statehood), over the space of 35 minutes, 160 Israeli fighter bombers dropped 450 precision guided deep penetration bombs onto the Hamas tunnel network. While the exact casualty figures are unknown, this strike tore the guts out of the Hamas army, rendering them effectively destroyed as a coherent military entity. This combined with effective attacks against key Hamas commanders had delivered the most devastating defeat Hamas has ever experienced, from which they will not recover for years to come, if ever.
In what was obviously a face-saving gesture, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was quoted in the May 27th Jerusalem Post as claiming that Hamas had 500 km worth of tunnels in the Gaza Strip and that not even 5% of these had been damaged by Israeli strikes. Yet the entire Gaza Strip has a land area of only 365 square kilometers, which would mean that if his claims were true, virtually the entirety of Gaza would be covered with these tunnels. This network would, amazingly, be 100 km longer than the whole of the London underground, and it would be able to run ten parallel lines north to south intersecting with a further eight lines running east to west across the land area of Gaza. Meanwhile, in the face of such fantastic claims, Israel has assessed that they destroyed over 100 km worth of tunnels in Gaza; outrageous Hamas propaganda claims notwithstanding, this means that Israel likely destroyed most of the Hamas network…along with the cream of their army inside. When hearing these claims by Hamas of a ‘500 km’ tunnel network of which Israel allegedly destroyed a mere 5%, one might be reminded of a quote by the American military theorist, James F. Dunnigan, who once wrote to the effect that, “…the most amazing fiction ever written appears in a nation’s newspapers on the day before they surrender in a war.”
Perhaps the most poignant symbol of the extent of Hamas’ defeat was a video that surfaced a few days before the May 21 ceasefire of Palestinians inside Gaza waving an Israeli flag. If residents of Gaza have reached the point of frustration with rule by the Hamas terrorists that they are willing to take the personal risks associated with such an act, then the Hamas regime has truly lost the war in a most fundamental way.
We now return to the question raised earlier: If France could be replaced by the U.S. as Israel’s major power ally in 1967, who might replace the U.S. in the foreseeable future if the Democratic Party remains in control at the national level, and if their most radical members successfully push an agenda that ends with the destruction of the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership? The answer is: Israel herself.
Despite the parallels between the situation in 1967 and that of 2021, there is one enormous difference between the Israel of 54 years ago versus the Israel of today. In 1967, Israel was still a relatively poor and undeveloped country. While she held strategic value as a regional U.S. ally opposite Soviet client states within the context of the Cold War, economically speaking, she was still very much a “charity case”, and offered little to the world community of that time in the way of unique technology or goods and services. Her trade and diplomatic relations were still very limited, and aside from being an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Middle East for the U.S. and beyond that, a source of useful front-line intelligence on Soviet weapons, the world at large would not have missed her in any tangible, material way if the Arabs had succeeded in overrunning her in 1967.
Today, Israel is an economic and technological powerhouse, heavily integrated into the world economy, a source of cutting-edge innovation, and a military power in her own right easily placing her among the top ten in this latter metric among the world’s nations. With this in mind, perhaps Israeli leaders need to re-evaluate a central pillar of the original foreign policy of modern Israel elucidated by her first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, that it was of existential importance that Israel maintain close ties with at least one major power “sponsor” nation who could provide her with arms she could not develop nor afford herself, who would stand up for her in international forums, who would buy her goods, etc. Modern Israel has now reached a place in her history where she can truly defend herself by herself if necessary, and need not submit to the blackmail of any other power.
Of course, as was the case in 1967, the Gaza war of 2021 will not have solved Israel’s security problems once and for all. But, if the Israeli people and their leaders recognize and appreciate how far they have come, they can now embark on a new chapter in their history as a truly independent sovereign state with a permanent place in the world community.
June 6, 2021