Lessons from the Second Six Day War
I might be entirely wrong, but my analysis of the situation is that this war is over. Unless either side carries out a major operation, a ceasefire is likely to be announced within the next 24 to 48 hours. Operation Pillar of Defense AKA Pillar of Cloud AKA Cast Lead Lite AKA Operation Umpteenth Time has run its course, for both Israel and Hamas. Neither side can achieve anything more without breaking the china: from Israel’s perspective that would mean a ground invasion, and from Hamas’ perspective, a successful rocket attack with multiple Israeli casualties, something that they haven’t succeeded in doing so far, but if they try long enough, could very well achieve.
Either of these scenarios will lead to an escalation, and more days of war. The rockets are still flying, and the bombs are still dropping, but the current shape of the war is not going to change unless something dramatic happens. International mediators, spearheaded by Egypt and Turkey, are putting the skids on this war and working to draft a ceasefire proposal between Israel and Hamas. The few details that have leaked out are that Israel wants “years of quiet, and an end to terror from Gaza and Sinai” while Hamas wants “an end to Israeli operations and a lifting of the Gaza blockade.” While over 120 rockets were fired at Israel on Monday, I’m not sure that Israel really wants to take this to another level and send in the masses of ground troops that it has deployed around the Gaza border. So a ceasefire seems quite likely in the coming 24 to 48 hours. There might even be a ceasefire and a trickle of rockets. That’s also happened here before.
The IDF cannot continue to hold tens of thousands of troops on the Gaza border indefinitely, where the enemy can have a good look at them, and where they become lethargic and restless. There are vast forces massing on the border, including thousands of reservists. Either the army sends them in, or they must be sent home to their wives, children and jobs. There is no more element of surprise in a ground maneuver that has been threatened, telegraphed, and photographed for the past six days. If the soldiers are sent in, then the government has to decide how far in to send them: to the edges of Gaza City, inside Gaza City, the Philadelphi Corridor all the way to the south, or all the way to the sea, meaning a total occupation of Gaza. The IDF has plans for each stage, each coming with its own price tag of Israeli soldiers and Gazans, both combatants and civilians.
So while the fighting continues, the music from both sides is that a ceasefire is the preferred option. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is set to visit Gaza on Tuesday and I don’t think Israel will bomb while he’s there [although there are quite a few reasons to do so].
So if this is really over, what can we learn from the past six days of war?
Firstly, we learn that without the Iron Dome intercepting close to 300 rockets that would have hit Israeli population centers [including Tel-Aviv], this war would look entirely different. Without a solid air defense system knocking rockets out of the sky, there would have been unbearable pressure on the government to raze Gaza to the ground [or in the words of Eli Yishai, bomb it back to the Middle Ages]. Some 550 rockets struck Israel – the vast majority of which landed in open fields and unpopulated areas. 33 rockets landed in urban areas but caused very little loss of life and damage. Bottom line: Iron Dome gave the Israeli government the room for military and diplomatic maneuver it would otherwise not have had in the absence of an effective anti-missile system. It is no wonder that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that he plans to construct and deploy a total of 13 Iron Dome batteries countrywide as soon as possible. With an eye to a possible conflict with Iran and Hezbollah, and perhaps Syria, Israel covered with Iron Domes gives the government a lot of breathing room in terms of the civilian resilience and diplomatic window.
Secondly, the asymmetry that characterized the Second Lebanon War has been redressed, with Israel once more asserting air superiority over its Arab adversaries – an air superiority first established during the First Six Day War but ultimately subverted by Hezbollah in 2006 with thousand of rockets straight through our F16s at our civilian population centers. With Operation Pillar of Defense, we have shown Hamas, and by extension Hezbollah, that their asymmetric rocket strategy has run into a bit of a problem, and that problem has a name: multi-tiered air defense systems.
Third, we learn that the nature of war has changed beyond all recognition, for us anyway. In the First Six Day War we fought the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, as well as an expeditionary force from Iraq: all in all, 240,000 enemy troops. We fought them on land, sea and air over a vast expanse stretching from the Golan Heights to the Sinai Peninsula. In the Second Six Day War we fought a small, highly organized and lethal Hamas militia made of 15,000 militants crammed into a 150 square kilometer stretch of urban sprawl. Actually, no troops came face to face at all. The war took place entirely in the sky. Hamas fired rockets at us and we fired rockets at their rockets. Most soldiers on the ground, both theirs and ours, could do nothing but look up at the sky in incredulous wonder. Our pilots fly at such heights and speeds over Gaza that almost all of their munitions are GPS guided, they don’t see a thing. The death toll since last Wednesday, since the first day of the Second Six Day War, is 100 Palestinians and 3 Israelis. According to Palestinian Health Ministry officials, half of the Palestinian dead were civilians. The three Israelis killed were also civilians. In the First Six Day War, 780 Israelis and 24,000 Arabs were killed – most of whom were armed combatants from regular armies.
We also learn that Israel waited too long to dismantle Hamas’ rocket capabilities. Criminally too long. Life for residents of the country’s south has been unbearable for years – they should not have been left at the mercy of Gaza’s rockets. This is a lesson that we supposedly learned during the Second Lebanon War, when Ariel Sharon’s dictum that Hezbollah could build up its arsenal as much as it wanted as long as it was deterred from using it, completely fell to pieces.
Operation Pillar of Defense is just the latest name for the numerous Israeli military operations in Gaza since the Disengagement of 2005. None of the half-dozen or so operations have yielded a clear cut victory. Something new has to be thought up. Deterrence, it seems, does not make much of a lasting impression on Islamic fundamentalists hell bent on killing “the unbelievers.” In fact, since the First Six Day War, there has never been an undisputable, clear-cut military victory [Israel’s victory in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 is claimed by Egypt as a victory]. Nobody disputes that Israel won the First Six Day War of 1967. It was victory by knockout. Not on points, not ‘too close to call’ – there was no doubt. ceasefire. The Second Six Day War will end in a ceasefire, not an outright victory. If it ends now, most Israelis will feel that the job was not done. If the troops are sent in, and get bogged down in a protracted ground war, there is a danger that the conflict could further ignite an already flammable region.
The ceasefire currently being drawn up by Egyptian intelligence for Hamas and Israel comes after six days of war where Israel has, without a doubt, dealt a significant blow to Hamas’ military wing. Significant, but not sufficient. The IDF assesses that the majority of Hamas’ underground military infrastructure remains intact, and there is no way to get at it from the air. Short of a ground invasion to dismember the Hamas military capability, Hamas will retain its military power. This, as Hamas has learned together with Hezbollah, is the way to fight Israel: store everything underground amongst civilians, survive an Israeli air bombardment, wait for Arab civilian casualties to mount, international pressure on Israel to mount, and perhaps, Israeli ground troops to move in. In the Second Lebanon War, the IDF showed, belatedly, that it was prepared to put boots on the ground and engage Hezbollah face to face. But that war lasted 33 days and ended in a stalemate.
Conclusion: Israel attacked over 1,200 targets in Gaza in six days of air strikes. That’s a huge amount of ordnance, and still Hamas’ military infrastructure remains largely intact. They’re hurting, but they’re intact. If we were once able to beat 4 armies in six days, but now can’t beat Hamas in six days or Hezbollah in 33 days, it’s safe to say that war has changed and that we have to change with it. Remember that war is diplomacy by other means, so there needs to be some diplomatic endgame here for Israel, some solution we can live with.
One of the ways Israel has kept Hezbollah quiet since 2006 is to threaten a total destruction of Lebanese infrastructure should Hezbollah, part of the Lebanese government, launch a military operation again. The ceasefire with Hamas likely to be announced shortly means Israel has to get into bed with the new regime in Cairo – and that’s good for Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood government is forced to deal with the ‘Zionist Rapists’ – as their spiritual leaders like to call us. Hamas really is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so it is only fitting that Israel conduct negotiations with the Egyptian Brotherhood of Egypt, the mothership, so to speak. Egypt has a lot to lose if Hamas continuously launches war against Israel from Gaza and Sinai, continues to destabilize the Sinai, and continues to smuggle weapons through tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. It’s in Israel and Egypt’s shared interests to keep Gaza and Sinai peaceful. But there is also danger in this. If Egypt takes a more active role in Gaza than it did under Mubarak, what’s to say that in the end, it won’t provide Hamas with the strategic depth it now lacks? Who’s to say that in the next round of fighting, Israel will be facing a Hamas that has the full backing of the Egyptian Armed Forces?
Israeli officials say now that they expect a ceasefire to last for “a long time” without putting a definite on it. What is a “long time” in the Middle East these days? I saw one outrageous report that Israel was demanding quiet for 15 years. 15 years? In the Middle East? That’s a joke. Things here change so rapidly, and the region is in such turmoil, that a ceasefire for 15 weeks could get its signatories a Nobel Peace Prize. Will the ceasefire include an agreement by Hamas and Egypt to keep a lock on Salafist and Global Jihad elements in the Sinai, as Israel demands? Can they even enforce that? How much of the agreement will rely on Egypt imposing control over its own territory, as well as controlling the urges of Hamas in Gaza? Will Hamas agree to rein in Islamic Jihad, which takes its orders from Tehran? Will Islamic Jihad agree to any ceasefire terms? It all seems rather shaky, and history shows us that sooner rather than later, ceasefire deals with terrorists go up in smoke, literally.
As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he’s caught between a ceasefire and an election. As of this writing, the Knesset elections are still set for January 2013. If Netanyahu does not achieve a politically palatable ceasefire then he will head into elections at a distinct disadvantage. I don’t see him doing this. Netanyahu has bet the farm on his security platform, and agreeing to a limited ceasefire with Hamas that holds only for a few more months is going to cost him, and his party, dearly, at the voting booths. However, if Netanyahu holds out for a deal that Hamas cannot accept, he will have no choice but to launch a ground offensive. In that case, Israeli elections will be postponed to “after the war.”
The real lesson of the First Six Day War was that it was an unparalleled military victory which was not translated into a diplomatic one. Land was never traded for peace, only much later, 8 years after the Yom Kippur War, was the Sinai given back to Egypt. The lesson, and opportunity, in the Second Six Day War is clear: to reach a comprehensive ceasefire with Hamas by negotiating directly with Egypt and Turkey, two countries Israel needs to have good relations with on a geopolitical level. It’s not going to be easy, but neither is a ground invasion of Gaza. Egypt, run by Muslim fundamentalists, is no friend of Israel’s. Turkey under Erdogan is downright awful. But Israel now has an opportunity to corral these two regional powers into a multilateral process which could, if played right, get all sides working together toward a common goal. It would be wise for Israel to now condition ceasefire talks on direct contact with political representatives of Mohammed Morsi’s government, and not just officials from Egyptian intelligence.