By George Friedman
Forty-nine years ago this week, Israel fought Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War. As a result of this war, Israel captured the West Bank (which had belonged to Jordan), the Golan Heights (which had belonged to Syria) and the Sinai Peninsula (which had belonged to Egypt).
Israel waged the perfect war, as much as this is possible. It had superb intelligence, struck with strategic and tactical surprise, rapidly broke the Egyptian command structure, and then systematically secured both the West Bank and the Golan Heights. In doing this, Israel secured something it never had: strategic depth. It forced Egypt across the Suez Canal, drove Jordan behind the Jordan River and forced Syria back off the Golan Heights and out of artillery range of Israeli settlements.
As important, the Israelis established a reputation for military invincibility that remains today. It uses this reputation to shape the psychological framework of the region. Israel’s performance in the war was an extraordinary military achievement. It was also the last time Israel either maintained control at the beginning of a war or achieved its intended strategic outcome.
The 1967 war did not end hostilities. In 1969, the Egyptians imposed the War of Attrition along the Suez. Then, in 1973, only six years after Israel’s destruction of the Egyptian army, Egypt (along with Syria) struck Israel in a stunning assault. Egypt carried out a complex canal crossing with multiple divisions, taking Israel by strategic and tactical surprise. In six years, Egypt reconstructed its entire military.
But it was on the Golan Heights that the most threatening battle for Israel was fought. During the first night, the Syrian army almost recaptured the Golan Heights, opening the door for an invasion of the Galilee. The army was stopped that night by a handful of tanks – all that was available since Israel was taken completely by surprise and hadn’t mobilized.
The Israelis held on the Golan by the sheer will of its defenders. Protecting the homeland by will and courage, rather than by a capable and appropriate military force, is obviously dangerous. In the Sinai desert, the Egyptians declined to go toward the passes, preferring to stay under the protection of their air defense system, which imposed severe casualties on the Israeli air force.
Israel went on the offensive there, but only after a massive American airlift of supplies, which was delayed in order to open channels with Egypt. Without that resupply, Israel could not have conducted its cross-canal attack, since it had massively miscalculated the amount of materiel required to defeat Egypt’s new Soviet-supplied weapon.
Israel won, but it was a victory that exposed multiple weaknesses, from intelligence to logistics to misunderstanding the significance of the AT-3 Sagger wire-guided anti-tank system, which wreaked havoc on Israel’s armor. It was also a victory that required foreign assistance. The weakness of the Israeli position became obvious. Its troops could fight even after reverses, but its logistical train could only function with strategic resupply.
Israel went to war in Lebanon twice. Neither war achieved a strategic decisive end. In the last war against Hezbollah, Israel failed in the air strategy designed by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. Israeli ground forces were unable to break the interlocking fortifications constructed by Hezbollah due to delayed deployment of key forces and logistical problems.
For the past 43 years, Israel’s military has performed well, but nowhere near the brilliance shown in 1967, nor in 1956 when it took the Sinai. Yet, Israel has retained a reputation for military omnipotence.
The most important consequence of this has been the paradox built into the Israeli self-conception. On the one hand, they see themselves as a small embattled nation surrounded by enemies. On the other hand, they see their military as strong enough to challenge any other. From this, they draw the strategic conclusion that their only option is to use their military to guarantee their security. The assumption is that their military is not simply a tool at Israel’s disposal, but a guarantor of its security.
The performance of the Israeli military since 1967 has not been disastrous, but Israel should not draw the conclusion that it is the solution to its fundamental strategic problem. Israelis are right when they say that Israel is a very small country, and they are reasonably correct when they say it is surrounded by enemies. What is baffling is why they believe that a total dependence on Israel’s military superiority provides a guarantee that permits them to avoid other options.
At this moment, that perception is correct because the forces on Israel’s border do not pose a substantial threat. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and common interests against jihadists. Jordan is something of an Israeli protectorate. Syria is in chaos. And any threat from Lebanon, namely Hezbollah, is something that Israel can readily manage. It is difficult to imagine any improvement in Israel’s strategic position.
It is easier to imagine strategic deterioration, given the uncertainty in the region. The future for Egypt and Syria is unclear. Jordan constantly faces internal threats. The future of the Islamic State or a successor entity is unknown. And there are nearly 2 million Palestinians within areas under Israeli control. The idea that countries Israel has fought wars against (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon) cannot evolve politically and technically in the coming generation is far-fetched. There is an upheaval underway in the Arab world, and its outcome cannot be predicted. As for whether these states can develop better technical military capabilities, simply look at the difference between the Egyptian army in 1967 and 1973.
Circumstances can change. What cannot change are demographics. In conventional wars – which have always been rare compared to insurgencies, but have not been abolished – the Arab states have the ability to absorb far more casualties than Israel. Israel has avoided this problem in the past by winning wars quickly.
To do that, Israel has to have an army generations ahead of the Arabs. I will not guess whether this is possible, I will simply say that a national security policy cannot be based on an assumption that it is possible. Yet, Israel is assuming just that, in spite of the fact that all the wars it has been involved in since 1967 have shown some weaknesses in Israeli forces.
All armies have weaknesses, but Israel assumes its army is invincible. Its victory in 1967 created a mindset that continues to define the Israeli view of its military. Israel has survived the wars since and may be said to have won them. But the Israelis’ performance does not justify absolute reliance on the military. Nor does the possession of nuclear weapons, which it is said Israel considered using in the darkest hours of 1973. Their problem was how to stem an invasion already under way near their own territory.
The Israelis have a fine military. But regardless of what it achieved in 1967, its other victories were flawed, as are most victories. Therefore, assuming that the Israel Defense Forces can guarantee the security of Israel in a sea of enemies is dangerous.
Israel is a small country with a good army. It cannot always succeed and should not only pursue a military solution. But Israel’s strategy assumes it will always perform as it did in 1967. The legacy of that war is not only the current borders of Israel, but a concept of Israel’s military power that endangers its national security.