Middle Israel: Lessons from Israel’s most forgotten war

Half a century after the War of Attrition and half a decade since the last round in Gaza – a word in favor of strategic attrition

Eliana Duy, 8, FL, stands in front of the wreath that U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, General John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff and Cindy McCain, wife of late Senator John McCain, lay a ceremonial wreath honoring all whose lives were lost during the Vietnam War at at the Vietnam Veteran (photo credit: MARY F. CALVERT / REUTERS)
Eliana Duy, 8, FL, stands in front of the wreath that U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, General John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff and Cindy McCain, wife of late Senator John McCain, lay a ceremonial wreath honoring all whose lives were lost during the Vietnam War at at the Vietnam Veteran
(photo credit: MARY F. CALVERT / REUTERS)
"In international affairs,” concluded a humbled Robert McNamara, “there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions.”
Spoken 28 years after the fall of Saigon and 36 since his forced resignation as secretary of defense, the Vietnam War’s architect voiced the frustration of all losers in all wars of attrition; a frustration that grows in tandem with the loser’s power, as happened with the Red Army when it failed to crush the turbaned Mujahedin who sniped shoulder missiles at its mighty tanks.
If attrition wars can traumatize superpowers, what could one expect of Israel, whose own War of Attrition – the forgotten 17-month confrontation that began 50 years ago last winter – was imposed not by numerically inferior guerrillas, but by Egypt, whose population was 10 times larger than Israel’s, and whose leaders, like the Vietnamese and Afghans, did not care how many fighters they lost?
Israelis indeed recall traumatically the war along the Suez Canal where the IDF lost 367 men – 75 in the summer of 1969 alone – in a clash dominated by artillery bouts peppered with aerial bombardments, dogfights and commando raids, some waged as far afield as Luxor, 500 km. from Tel Aviv.
Militarily, it seemed similar to World War I’s static trench fighting, despite some impressive operations like an airborne force’s raid on and lifting to Israel of an entire radar station.
Diplomatically, many would later lament Golda Meir’s rejection in the autumn of 1970 of defense minister Moshe Dayan’s proposal that Israel retreat 30 km. into the Sinai in return for the Suez Canal’s reopening and the launch of peace talks. In hindsight, Meir’s inflexibility indeed seems like the diplomatic sequel to the military’s lack of imagination in conducting the War of Attrition.
Psychologically, the Egyptian leadership achieved its aim – no, president Gamal Abdel Nasser did not exhaust Israel, as he thought he would, but his military regained the confidence it had lost during the Six Day War. The War of Attrition, in that regard, marked the beginning of the Yom Kippur War.
This, then, is what drove then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman to warn five years ago that “Israel should not be dragged into a war of attrition,” as the seven-week fighting in Gaza unfolded in the summer of 2014.
While the analogy does not stand – and the dictum it suggested – saying that wars of attrition should be avoided in any event and at any rate is unfounded.
WARS OF ATTRITION are not decided by their parties’ balance of troops, arms or resources, but by their balance of spirit.
The winner will not be the one left with more land, population or treasure, but the one whose spirit will last longer. The Soviets and Americans had unlimited resources, but their troops had long lost their fighting spirit when their governments decided to retreat from Afghanistan and Vietnam.
It follows that if planned in advance, the strong don’t have to lose wars of attrition, and in fact can win them decisively. One instance of this is the Roman defeat of Judea.
The Romans knew they had the numbers, and so first built the invading force methodically, then maneuvered the Jews into the provincial fortresses where they repeatedly laid successful local sieges, before climbing to Jerusalem, whose wall they surrounded with another wall, thus breaking its defenders spirit. Attrition, in that case, went well with size.
That’s also what the Union did to the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
Having failed to break Robert Lee’s last stand with direct assaults, Ulysses Grant stretched a fortification from Petersburg to Richmond. It took nearly a year, but the South was exhausted, and lost the war of attrition that the bigger and richer North imposed.
While these attritions were tactical, there was also a strategic attrition that the bigger party imposed and won. It happened in the Cold War. No, the US was not territorially larger, but it was economically superior, and therefore launched the Star Wars program, which left the impoverished USSR no choice but to effectively surrender following a 45-year face-off.
This, in principle, is what has happened over 90 years of an Arab-Israeli conflict that is now shrunken into Gaza, considering that Iran is non-Arab.
Since its outbreak in 1929, the Arab-Israeli conflict came to involve multiple governments, armies and national budgets fed by superpowers, all of which pushed Israel into a war of military, economic and diplomatic attrition.
The Arabs had size on their side, but in the balance of spirit, their ranks gradually broke and their cause was steadily lost, as some among them embraced peace and others abandoned war.
What began with five armies confronting Israel in 1948 shrank to three in 1967, two in 1973, less than two in 1982, less than one in 2006 and is now down to one militia in one city, tucked at Israel’s western hip.
In the Gazan confrontation, Israel is the decisively larger and richer party. And unlike what many assume, Israel has the upper hand in this duel’s balance of spirit.
Yes, Gaza is still spewing fire and will likely continue doing so in upcoming years. However, its leaders’ strategic quest to see local Israeli communities dwindle and vanish has failed.
New neighborhoods in the kibbutzim surrounding Gaza are overflowing with new residents, and Sderot’s population – some 22,000 in 2014 – has since grown annually by nearly 5%. The town’s nine pre-2014 neighborhoods are in the process of becoming 16, and the population is forecast to more than double next decade and cross 50,000.
The task in Gaza is therefore to continue fighting the war of attrition, because we are winning it. This means waiting patiently, even generations, for the enemy’s spirit to break and to spare a military offensive’s blood, energy and money, and use them for the civilian offensive, which is well under way.
On what is hopefully our 90-year feud’s last front, this is the recipe for victory.