How Charles de Gaulle fathered Israel's tech revolution 50 years ago

After 50 years, what's next?

ISRAEL AIR FORCE Mirage fighter jets train over Israel in 1967 before the Six Day War. (photo credit: GPO)
ISRAEL AIR FORCE Mirage fighter jets train over Israel in 1967 before the Six Day War.
(photo credit: GPO)
On November 27, 1967, Charles de Gaulle, president of France and one of the founders of the Fifth Republic, convened a press conference in Paris. It was five months after the Six Day War and de Gaulle was fuming.
Just days before the war, foreign minister Abba Eban had passed through Paris and met with de Gaulle. The French president had urged Israel’s top diplomat not to attack Egypt, which had already closed the Straits of Tiran and was amassing military forces in Sinai. In Israel, the feeling was that war was imminent and Eban went to see if de Gaulle would stand by the Jewish state.
“If Israel is attacked, we shall not let it be destroyed,” de Gaulle told Eban. “But if you attack we shall condemn your action.”
But on June 2, three days before war erupted and 50 years ago today, de Gaulle imposed an arms embargo on Israel and told his cabinet that France would not support the first nation that decides to use force in the coming conflict.
At his November press conference at the Élysée Palace, de Gaulle recalled his meeting with Eban and how Israel had ignored his message. Israel, he said, attacked Egypt and Syria first and then conquered Sinai and the Golan Heights. By holding onto the territory, Israel, he said, was an occupying force and was showing its true expansionist objectives.
This was the final nail in the coffin of Israeli- Franco ties at the time, a relationship cultivated in the 1950s by David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres that had turned Paris into Israel’s primary arms supplier. De Gaulle’s anger was partially genuine for being ignored, but was also part of a larger decision to realign France with the Arab world.
Imposing an arms embargo on Israel was necessary for that to happen. Mirage jet fighters that Israel had ordered and paid for would no longer be delivered. Nuclear cooperation would be suspended. Israel would be on its own.
While de Gaulle thought he was punishing Israel, forcing it to be on its own was actually a blessing in disguise. The French embargo after the Six Day War had an historic and strategic impact on Israel that changed the nation’s trajectory.
The first direct benefit for Israel was its relationship with the United States. With France out of the picture, Israel was able to align itself with a new superpower. It would take some time, but by 1968 Lyndon Johnson had agreed to sell Israel the Phantom jet fighters that would play a pivotal role in Israel’s future conflicts up into the 1980s. Had de Gaulle not cut off ties with Israel, it is possible Israel’s relationship with the US would not be what it is today.
De Gaulle’s embargo did something even more significant: It pushed Israel’s leadership to understand that the state could not rely on anyone but itself. If it wanted to continue to survive, it would need to develop independent research, development and production capabilities – not just for arms, but for everything.
This spawned Israel’s hi-tech revolution. While today it seems that Israel has been the start-up nation since its beginning, that is far from being the case. De Gaulle’s decision pushed Israel to develop its first drone, flown over the Suez Canal in the summer of 1969. It pushed Maj.-Gen. Israel Tal to move faster with his plans to design an Israeli tank, the Merkava, the fourth generation of which is in service with the IDF today.
It pushed Israel Aerospace Industries to build its first fighter jet, the Nesher, designed like the Mirage 5 French fighter it had paid for but could no longer receive due to de Gaulle’s embargo.
Manufacturing the Nesher led to the design and production of the Kfir, a more advanced version of the Mirage, and ultimately the Lavi, Israel’s most ambitious aircraft project. While the Lavi project was ultimately shut down, the knowledge gained from its development laid the foundations for Israel’s drones, satellites, avionics and missile systems.
In academia, the Technion, Israel’s equivalent of MIT, invested in new fields of study, including computer science and electronic engineering. The government appointed chief scientists throughout its various ministries and started investing in technological incubators.
De Gaulle thought he was weakening Israel, but what he really did was help turn the IDF into a hi-tech military superpower and Israel into the start-up nation it is today. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that De Gaulle was the absent father of Israel’s hi-tech revolution.
I tell this story since, in the 50 years that have passed, Israel has changed the world. Its hi-tech can be found across the globe helping people navigate (Waze), assisting militaries in gathering intelligence (Heron drones) and saving people’s lives with its cardiovascular technology.
By all accounts, Israel is a miracle story, but it is also still a work in progress. Over the last month, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, edited by Rhona Burns, has published a series of feature articles on the Six Day War while focusing on a simple question: “What’s next?”
Adam Rasgon and Eliyahu Kamisher went to Hebron and told the story behind what is one of the most complicated and divided cities in the world. Herb Keinon dove deep into the different peace plans that have been proposed since Israel conquered the West Bank, penning a piece that should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in solving this ongoing conflict.
Yonah Bob tackled one of the more difficult questions when it comes to the West Bank – the legal status of Israel’s settlements – and Avraham Rabinovich took us back in time to the debates in the cabinet after the Six Day War and Levi Eshkol’s decision to annex east Jerusalem. In today’s magazine, Sarah Levi talks to peace activists – on the Left and Right – to gauge their predictions as US President Donald Trump tries to renew peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Our goal was to spark a debate – about the challenges Israel faces 50 years after its amazing victory and the options it has at its disposal for dealing with them. This is what I believe our purpose is as a newspaper – to educate, inform and stir debate on the most pressing issues that concern us.
The question “What’s next” is one that Israel seems to have some trouble answering. On Monday, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Likud faction that Israel does not have a “blank check” from Donald Trump. A few weeks earlier, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Israel should try to revive the famous “Bush letter” of 2004 in which Israel committed to the two-state solution and in exchange received American guarantees that settlement blocs would remain part of Israel.
But Netanyahu and Liberman don’t need blank checks from Trump – or any check for that matter – to determine what is in the country’s best interest. Of course, Israel’s ties with the US are of strategic importance and should be always taken into consideration, but it should first and foremost decide what it wants based on what is right for it.
France’s embargo in 1967 changed Israel. It took a country that was barely 20 years old and forced it to understand once again that it could rely only on itself. It made the country innovate, think out of the box and adapt to changing realities.
Fifty years after that war, Israel has become a global epicenter for innovation in life sciences, agriculture, weaponry, medical devices, IT and cyber security. But for some reason, creativity seems to lack when it comes to the way we perceive and present the conflict with the Palestinians.
If the two-state solution is no longer relevant, then Netanyahu should say so and present an alternative. If, however, it remains his objective then he should clarify his position and prepare the nation for the concessions and compromises that it will need to make.
So Mr. Prime Minister – after 50 years, what’s next?