January 4, 2019
Gabi Siboni, Kobi Michael, and Anat Kurz, (Eds), November 2018
With permission, read the entire collection of essays on INSS.
Fifty Years since the Six Day War: A Retrospective
There is a broad consensus that the Six Day War of June 1967 was a formative event for the State of Israel and the Middle East as a whole, evidenced by the numerous academic, public, and political events held to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war. Likewise at INSS, much thought and research were devoted toward a better understanding of this landmark episode. Various aspects of the war and its results, both short and long term, are discussed at length in this collection’s essays. In addition, INSS held a one-day conference in collaboration with Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, which included the presentation of some of the essays compiled here. The collection is therefore a contribution by INSS to the public discourse following the fiftieth anniversary of the war, which too often reflects a common tendency to emphasize one of two opposing viewpoints on this significant occurrence: superlative evaluations of the war itself and its immediate political and territorial outcomes; or a critical view of Israel’s political and military leadership prior to and during the war, and the war’s consequences in subsequent decades.
The State of Israel and Israeli society have changed dramatically since the Six Day War. The results of the war not only tripled the territory under Israel’s control and strengthened the image of the IDF in Israeli society, in the international community, and within the military itself; they also all at once bolstered the sense of security among the Israeli public and the self-confidence of its political leadership and its military, to the point of euphoria and intoxication.
Alongside Israel’s territorial achievements and upgraded regional and international status, the results of the war created a deep political rift in Israeli society. They also shaped military and political thinking for years to come. Furthermore, there has been a change in the nature of IDF activity as a result of the tremendous resources it was forced to invest in policing operations in the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria. Likewise over the past five decades, the Palestinian national movement grew rapidly, and this translated into greater international pressure on Israel to soften its opposition to the national claims of the Palestinians. The State of Israel became increasingly perceived in the international arena as an occupying force—a kind of “David turned Goliath.”
A historical perspective facilitates a critical examination of events and their results that is as balanced as possible, but it can nonetheless be misleading. The tendency to ascribe various trends and developments to the Six Day War and its aftermath can be problematic, since some of the developments attributed might have occurred in other historical contexts as well. Nonetheless, it appears that this war created four main conflict arenas and affected their respective developments in subsequent years: the internal Israeli arena; the Israeli-Palestinian arena; the regional arena; and the international arena as it relates to Israel. These arenas, of course, overlap and influence one another. The connection between them is reflected in many of the essays in this collection, which have been divided into three sections by subject: security-political issues, military dimensions, and civil-military relations.
This introduction discusses issues that appear in many of the essays and in all three sections: the military-security challenge facing Israel, as it developed since the Six Day War and against the background of the war’s political and territorial outcomes; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which joined the regional and international agendas as a result of the war, and became the center of discourse and debate in Israeli society itself; and questions on relations between the socio-political and military leaderships that arose following the war and remained of vital importance in subsequent decades.
The Military Challenge and the Paradox of Power
Prior to the Six Day War, the State of Israel lived under the shadow of the Arab military threat. Although the military leadership conveyed a sense of confidence in the ability of the IDF to defeat the Arab armies despite its numerical inferiority, this was conditional on a preemptive strike. In contrast, the political leadership did not share this level of confidence, and then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol asked that all political possibilities be pursued on the international level in order to avoid war. The waiting period significantly heightened the anxiety among the Israeli public while disrupting economic activity, due to the large scale mobilization of reserves.
The outcome of the war changed the atmosphere all at once, and the sense of achievement and euphoria in Israeli society may have reduced the motivation to learn and internalize the lessons of the war. As a result, military thinking froze, and this in turn affected IDF operations up to the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). The territory appended to the State of Israel not only solidified the sense of self-assurance but also led to the neglect of thinking about defense and to only partial internalization of the geostrategic implications of the added territory. The Six Day War itself can also be interpreted as the erosion or even failure of Israeli deterrence. The military achievement and impressive victory were meant to revalidate and reinforce Israel’s deterrence, and indeed the feeling after the war was that the magnitude of the accomplishment, the clear-cut victory, and the shock experienced by the Arab leaders and their military commanders would deter the Arab countries from any further military action against Israel and would postpone the next war well into the future.
However, Israeli deterrence did not pass the test and the War of Attrition began shortly after the Six Day War. It continued until the summer of 1970 and exacted a high number of causalities. Israeli deterrence again failed the test when the Yom Kippur War broke out only three years after the end of the War of Attrition. The Egyptian success in the early stages of the 1973 war and the cost in soldiers’ lives to Israel can also be attributed to rigid military thinking and the euphoria among some of the IDF commanders following the spectacular victory of the Six Day War. Despite the problem of deterrence, the power of the IDF and the spirit of its commanders and soldiers sustained the State of Israel during the War of Attrition and to an even greater extent during the Yom Kippur War. The IDF found itself in an inferior position in October 1973 but was able to recover and finish the war with an impressive military achievement. The shock of the Yom Kippur War led to an accelerated—and some would say excessive—buildup of force, when in fact it was the last war in which the IDF fought regular armies (apart from a limited number of skirmishes with the Syrian army in 1982, in what became known as the First Lebanon War).The impressive achievements of the IDF in the Yom Kippur War became a significant component in the State of Israel’s deterrent ability and encouraged the conclusion among the Arab leaders that they were unable to defeat Israel on the battlefield.
Another result of that war, also relevant to the issue of deterrence, was the transformation of Israel into a strategic asset for the United States and the development of the “special relationship” between the two countries. Israel and the United States drew closer already in the early 1960s, and this process accelerated following the embargo imposed by President Charles de Gaulle on weapons shipments to the IDF during the Six Day War. Israel, for its part, replaced its strategic orientation to Europe with an orientation toward the United States, in recognition of its decisive role in the international arena. For many years, the United States has been Israel’s strategic patron and also the IDF’s main source of weapons.
In the decades following the Yom Kippur War, terrorism and hightrajectory weapons replaced conventional weapons as the main security threats facing the State of Israel. In addition, the opponents facing the IDF were now non-state organizations. The prolonged presence of the IDF in Lebanon following the First Lebanon War, the first Palestinian intifada (1987–1993)the suicide terror attacks in the 1990s against the background of the attempt to implement a political process based on the Oslo accords, the second intifada (2000–2005), and the Second Lebanon War (2006), as well as the three rounds of conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip (2009, 2012, and 2014) all served to expose the paradox of power that limits the IDF’s freedom to operate. Thus, the characteristics of the war against the IDF and the citizens of Israel, waged by non-state forces that blend into the civilian population and operate within it, do not enable the IDF to bring to bear its capabilities as a powerful and well-equipped army. The terror organizations that operate in the Palestinian areas use the population as human shields, and have upgraded their ability in the use of high-trajectory weapons. They are thus able to drag the IDF into prolonged conflicts, which in their view constitute a war of attrition against a modern Western society that finds it difficult to endure low level conflict over time and is concerned about casualties. From their point of view, their methods of warfare emphasize the paradox of power, whereby a conventional army, due to normative, legal, and political constraints—rather than military—considerations, it in effect prevented from manifesting its full force. Essentially, the power of the IDF became weakness in many cases, while the military weakness of the non-state players, including Hamas in the Palestinian arena and Hezbollah in Lebanon, translated into power because they operate in populated areas.
The occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the Six Day War exposed Israel and the IDF to direct and immediate contact with a large Palestinian population. After the shock of defeat, this population experienced an economic boom as a result of access to the Israeli economy and labor market. At the same time, Israel became a protected and convenient space for the activities of the Palestinian terror organizations. In the early 1970s, Israel embarked on a large scale effort in Gaza to destroy the terror infrastructure and managed to improve its control on the area and to reduce terror attacks, though they were not completely halted. Until the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, the IDF limited itself to a small presence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The first intifada was the turning point in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The level of friction between the sides increased significantly and the violent confrontations with the Palestinian population exposed the IDF to the limits of power and operational capability to deal with this new type of threat. The army found itself facing a violent grassroots uprising and had to reinforce its forces on the ground, modify its operational methods, and develop non-lethal means for crowd control. From this point onward, the IDF began to operate in the format of demanding policing tasks, which required specific adaptations. The nature of IDF activity in the territories required it not only to change its modus operandi but also to make structural and organizational changes. In this context, two new territorial divisions were created (the Judea and Samaria division and the Gaza division), as well as special units, such as undercover units and the Kfir Brigade, and in addition, Border Patrol forces were more deeply integrated within military activity.
The prolonged duration of the intifada undermined the confidence of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the ability of the IDF to meet the challenge. Arguably, this was one of the reasons for his support of the dialogue, which was concurrently held in Oslo behind the scene between Israelis and Palestinians in an effort to formulate understandings expected to lay the ground for a peace talks (which until May 1993 was under the auspices of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who also took a leading role in advancing the process).
Since the late 1980s, Hamas (much like Hezbollah) has increased in strength organizationally, and alongside its control of population and territory has fought Israel using terror tactics and missile and rocket fire. Hamas’ activity and increasing strength, and in particular the warfare waged in urban areas, have required the IDF to upgrade its operational capabilities on an asymmetric battlefield. The second intifada, which began in September 2000, also led to comprehensive change in the IDF’s operating methods, in part with the aim of dealing with suicide terrorism. It broke out in a new political reality, in which the Palestinian Authority had already been established by the Oslo Accords. However, when the violence began, the PA security forces took a leading part in the confrontation.
In comparison to the situation prior to the Six Day War, when Israel faced an existential military threat, Israel’s economy and society are currently much larger and much stronger, and Israel is economically and technologically prosperous. Israeli society is characterized by a modern Western lifestyle, and the economy, which is far more powerful than all of the neighboring economies combined, is admired as one of the strongest in the world. However, it is exactly these sources of strength that make it more sensitive to terrorist assaults as well as to rocket and missile fire.
Furthermore, the sensitivity to casualties, both civilian and military, limits the freedom of action of both the IDF and the government. At the same time, the struggle against non-state actors places the IDF in problematic situations in which civilians are harmed, despite the efforts to minimize this phenomenon as much as possible. The contemporary battlefield, where the media command an extensive presence and the social media broadcast live and with manipulative bias, has led to a situation in which IDF operations are subject to harsh international criticism. Against this background, the IDF and the State of Israel are exposed to international legal proceedings and delegitimization campaigns.
The Challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank changed the Israeli- Palestinian reality overnight. Less than a year after the cancellation of military rule over the Arab population within the State of Israel (in 1966), which was imposed immediately following the War of Independence (1948), Israel found itself in direct control over a Palestinian population significantly larger than the Arab population within Israel’s previous borders. The government of Israel did not define strategic goals with regard to the occupied territories, and the burden of governing the Palestinian population fell on the IDF, which became the sovereign in the territories due to their international status as territory under military occupation. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was the main political authority involved in the administration of the territories and the day-to-day lives of the Palestinian population. He even defined policy guidelines, though they were not discussed in any comprehensive way by the government and did not lead to any decisions in this context, apart from the general and vague intention that the territories would be kept in reserve as a bargaining chip for use in any future peace negotiations. Essentially, the principle of “land for peace” was not defined officially and publicly by the government of Israel but rather was a byproduct of UN Security Council Resolution 242.
In order to implement Dayan’s policy, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) was created. COGAT, which reported to the Minister of Defense, was responsible for administering the daily lives of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. This was accomplished by means of military governors who were appointed in the various districts of Gaza and the West Bank. Later, COGAT’s responsibility was extended to include the Jewish population in the settlements established in the territories. Following the peace agreement with Egypt (in 1979), the military government in the territories was replaced by the Civil Administration, in an effort to give Israeli control of the territories a more civilian flavor, although this change proved to be largely cosmetic.
Following its establishment, the Palestinian Authority received some of the powers of the Civil Administration. The Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 further reduced the area under the Civil Administration’s control to Area B (where control is coordinated between Israel and the PA) and Area C (under full Israeli control) in the West Bank. Since then, the main activity of the Civil Administration has been in Area C and in civilian and security coordination with the PA. The discussion of the Palestinian issue and the partition of the Land of Israel prior to the Six Day War remained theoretical and superficial, and barely took place on the political level. The territorial results of the war intensified the discussion and injected new content into it, and the Israeli settlement enterprise in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank kept the debate alive. The future of the territories became a watershed in Israeli politics. It is the main issue distinguishing right from left, and since the Oslo Accords has also served to divide between those demanding a new Israeli deployment in the territories, including a withdrawal that would enable the implementation of the “two states for two peoples” idea, and those demanding Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, whether for reasons of security or ideology. The years following the Six Day War saw the rapid development of Palestinian nationalism and the consolidation of the PLO’s status as the exclusive representative of the Palestinian people. However, ironically, the outcome of the war, which, according to many in Israel, returned parts of the historic Jewish homeland to the State and facilitated a revival of Zionism, strengthened Palestinian nationalist sentiments. There are even those who view the results of the Six Day War as a replay of the dynamic that spurred the development of Palestinian nationalism prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. From this point of view, the Six Day War, which eliminated the existential threat to Israel from its Arab neighbors, returned the State of Israel to a period prior to its establishment, in which the partition of the Land of Israel and sovereignty over it were the subject of public discourse.
The Effects of the War on Israeli Society
The debate over the future of the territories deepened rifts in Israeli society and even created phenomena that pose a threat to the State’s democraticliberal values. Fifty years after the war, the argument focuses primarily on the threat that in the long run the control over another people will not only undermine Israel’s international standing but is also liable to challenge the Zionist enterprise as a whole, as manifested in the vision of a Jewish democratic state.
The complexity and importance of civil-military relations in the State of Israel have also become evident from the immediate and long term outcomes of the Six Day War. The IDF’s control of disputed territory places it in sensitive and problematic situations. Among the most serious challenges is that in many cases, professional recommendations presented to the government are viewed through ideological lenses, although the senior military commanders are committed to a broad and holistic view of the reality in the territories and beyond. Therefore their insights and proposals are primarily based on an analysis of regional and international implications; the media and PR environment and legal ramifications; and an in-depth familiarity with the population in the territories and its way of life. Thus, more than once the army has been the one to advocate the limited and measured use of military force, with the goal of separating between those who pose a security threat and the civilian population at large that desires stability. The government’s difficulty in deciding the future of the territories—as a result of the complexity of the negotiations and the prolonged impasse in the political process, as well as the belief that it will be difficult to gain broad public support for a peace plan that requires far-reaching concessions—has created a situation in which, at the end of the day, the IDF finds itself at the center of the public and political debate.
The current chief of the General Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, has sought to change this reality. This can be seen in the IDF Strategy, which was also released to the public in Israel. This document lays out the military doctrine for the use of force in various scenarios, as derived from policy decisions and the clear definition of goals by the government. It includes a call to upgrade the level of discussion between the military and the government. The document distinguishes between two main types of dialogue, clarification and learning, and emphasizes the need to define objectives regarding the future of the territories.
Although the Six Day War is perceived as an impressive achievement for the IDF and the State of Israel, its results were not aligned with the relatively limited goals of the government prior to the war. The exploitation of the military victory on three fronts was not the result of instructions issued by the government; rather, in most cases, the course of the war was determined by military commanders under pressure from commanders in the field, without the government advising on the possible outcomes and implications for the future. The euphoria of the military success, the territorial gains, and the sense of release from the anxiety that prevailed prior to the war allowed the public and the government on the one hand and the military on the other to postpone the debate on war and society’s goals. Unlike the Sinai Campaign a decade earlier—which involved clear goals that were pursued by the army—the disrupted connection between war and its long term outcomes in the Six Day War has, to a large extent, determined the problematic nature of civil-military relations in Israel and the lapses in the interface between the political and military echelons, primarily in the context of the reluctance of the former to establish clear goals in a war. The editors of this volume wish to thank the contributing authors for the research and composition of their essays. Many thanks go to the INSS publications staff—Moshe Grundman, the Director of Publications, Ela Greenberg, who oversaw the editing of this volume, and Judith Rosen, the Institute’s editor of English publications. Special thanks go to Gal Perl Finkel for his contribution to coordinating the project.
Gabi Siboni, Kobi Michael, and Anat Kurz
Introduction: Fifty Years since the Six Day War: A Retrospective
Gabi Siboni and Gal Perl Finkel
Meir Elran and Carmit Padan
David Siman-Tov and Shmuel Even