The Six-Day War: A Paradigm From a Previous Century
As Israel transitions from its commemorations and celebrations of the Six-Day War, increasing attention is being focused upon the Trump peace plan. Scores of retired senior members of Israel’s defense establishment are campaigning in opposition to the application of Israeli sovereignty over areas that are vital to Israel’s security in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
Some assert that Israel will retain its ability to defend itself even if it withdraws from most of the territories conquered during the Six-Day War, believing that the IDF can replicate its 1967 achievements if needed. But such perspectives reflect a blindness and obliviousness to the changes that have taken place over the course of several decades in the area of warfare — both in Israel, and generally. They overestimate the IDF’s power and grossly underestimate the capabilities of Israel’s enemies.
The storied successes of the Six-Day War resulted from unique military phenomena that nobody should reasonably expect to be repeated. On both the Israeli right and left, Israel’s success continues to stir an expectation of a future “victory” to which the IDF is unrealistically held. Those former generals and commanders who took part in the 1967 conflict who still expect the IDF to achieve a victory similar to the one it did then fail to realize how fundamental the changes are between the 1967 battlefield and the theater of today.
The Six-Day War was the last military clash that occurred along the patterns of the Second World War. The IDF operated against conventional, regular militaries that fought on the basis of British or Soviet doctrines, with full symmetry. That enabled Israel to achieve tactical and operational supremacy at every encounter. Mechanized combat in desert surroundings, or in the open settings of the Golan Heights, enabled the IDF to identify a clear advantage over its adversaries — despite the odds it faced.
The lightning attack against the Jordanian Legion in Judea and Samaria followed similar patterns. Using a moderate number of armored and mechanized brigades, made up of conscripted and reserve forces and backed by outstanding air power, the State of Israel maximized the potency of a powerful military force, suited to the arenas in which it fought, drawn from a society of some two million citizens. The IDF’s armored formations channeled the swift offensive tactic of the German blitzkrieg of the Second World War. In the open areas of Sinai and the Golan Heights, the IDF overcame its adversaries by using modern, mechanized combat.
Since that time, Arab militaries have metamorphisized, something first demonstrated during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, under the direction of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Just a few years after the Six-Day War, Arab militaries had adapted to a military process better suited to them. Anti-tank missiles were widely distributed among infantry units — and a dense air defense system based on surface-to-air missiles combined to create a significant obstacle that blocked and impeded a swift IDF offensive; by air or on land.
These challenges and adaptations, designed to blunt the momentum of Israeli maneuvers, have only mutated and intensified since then. In the modern era, and particularly after the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah has played an important role in the overall conceptual upgrade undertaken by Israel’s enemies. The creativity used by Hezbollah to design its operations, out of a cognizance of where it is inferior to the IDF, is a strong example of organizational adaptation, both at the tactical and the operational levels.
Hezbollah’s unique system of organization was demonstrated in its force build-up and actions; something particularly visible in the realm of widespread, unprecedented rocket fire, and its use of dense defensive systems that are dug into bunkers. These rockets and bunkers were placed in villages, both above and below ground, and in mountainous terrain. Such diversity demonstrates their ability to exploit the environment in which it seeks to achieve its objectives, while reducing and even overcoming the IDF’s areas of supremacy.
Such thinking, adapted for the environment at play, has also been applied in the Gaza Strip since 2006. In the past three rounds of conflict between the IDF and Hamas, two core components — rocket fire and defensive strongholds — challenged the IDF and drew it into broad, multi-domain conflicts.
Israel’s adversaries have traded open terrain for urban battlefields. A tank brigade is now forced to adapt itself to warfare in built-up areas and to function as a combined force with the infantry and engineering units. But unlike in the open, an infantry battalion consisting of over 400 soldiers can be swallowed whole by a single street as it tries to cleanse it of combatants. That reality has dulled the IDF’s abilities.
Additionally, as radical Islamic forces grow in numbers, so too does the fierce belief of Islamist fighters, who demonstrate a willingness and readiness to die for their cause — a reality with which we must contend in the modern battlefield. None of these factors was at play during the Six-Day War. Each of these developments lead directly back to the heart of Israel’s domestic division over the application of sovereignty to the vital areas obtained during the Six-Day War.
Those who support a two-state solution without 1967 borders do so based upon a totally false assumption; namely, that Israel will be able to defend itself by itself despite a withdrawal to pre-1967 armistice lines, something some of them recommend albeit with minor adaptations, and despite the surrender of any strategic depth. They evoke the victory of the Six-Day War in order to support their position, while ignoring the massive changes that have occurred since then.
The Six-Day War configuration cannot be replicated, nor can the advantageous conditions enjoyed by the IDF in 1967. Those circumstances, and the crushing victories that resulted, belong to the previous century — as does the two-state solution, for which too many commanders of the past continue to call.
Major General Gershon Hacohen (IDF Ret.) is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. He concluded his career as Commander of the IDF Northern Corps and held other command positions including Commander of the IDF Colleges, Head of Training & Doctrine Division in the General Staff, and Reserve Division Commander of the Northern Command.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.