The Waiting Period Redux
As in 1967, Israel cannot keep massive numbers of reservists mobilized indefinitely
“We have removed with our own hand our most powerful weapon—the enemy’s fear of us. We have the power…but if we give in…we have opened the door to Israel’s destruction.”
These ominous words were spoken in the Pit—the IDF’s prodigious underground headquarters—by General Ariel Sharon. This was the same Sharon who, as prime minister in 2005, ordered Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. The consequences of which have tormented us ever since at no time more excruciatingly than today. But nearly forty years before, on May 28, 1967, Sharon was a hawkish commander in the countdown to the Six-Day War
Israel’s position was perilous. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had evicted UN peacekeeping troops from Gaza and the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula and sent his army into both. He’d signed defense pacts with Syria and Iraq and placed Jordan’s well-trained army under direct Egyptian command. Finally, and most belligerently Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Red Sea, cutting off Israel’s vital shipping lanes to and from Eilat.
Surrounded on all sides by massively equipped Arab armies vowing to throw it into the sea, Israel called up tens of thousands of reservists and then, for three nerve-wracking weeks, waited.
Known in Hebrew as “tekufat ha’hamtana”—literally the Waiting Period—those twenty-one days would be remembered as some of the most trying in Israel’s history. The economy staggered, tourism died, and morale in the army started plummeting. The Israeli public, meanwhile, failed to understand the reasons for the delay. Mothers and wives actually protested in favor of going to war.
Israel waited because it faced an agonizing dilemma. Either brace for the Arab attack, hope to weather it and have enough resources to strike back, or act preemptively before the Arabs had yet to fire a shot. The first option might not be survivable, but the second could turn world opinion against Israel and force it to accept a ceasefire.
The decision came down to one word: deterrence.
As General Sharon explained:
“We have the power to destroy the Egyptian army, but if we give in on the free passage (through the Straits of Tiran) issue, we have opened the door to Israel’s destruction. We will have to pay a far higher price in the future for something that we in any case had to do now . . . The people of Israel are ready to wage a just war, to fight, and to pay the price. The question isn’t free passage but the existence of the people of Israel.”
In other words, if Egypt got away with its blatant aggression, Israel would be perceived as vulnerable and powerless to act in its own defense. All of its enemies would pounce.
Today, nearly sixty years later, Israel is once again waiting. The war with Hamas is well into its third week, 360,000 reservists have been called up, and the public is impatient, each day asking “Why the delay?”
Unlike 1967, of course, the enemy has already fired the first shot. The enemy has already drawn an enormous amount of Israeli blood. Israel’s justification for going to war is unassailable. Yet still we wait.
The reasons we’re given are many. Washington, we’re told, is demanding more time for efforts to free the hostages, more time to prepare American forces in the Middle East for a possible showdown with Iran and its proxies. The IDF wants more time to gather intelligence about Hamas deployments and more time to render the battle zone more accessible to our forces.
There are many reasons to delay Israel’s long anticipated ground incursion into Gaza, but as many reasons to launch it immediately.
As in 1967, Israel cannot keep massive numbers of reservists mobilized indefinitely. Most of them are women and men in their 20s and 30s, the backbone of our economy and high-tech. Many of them are married with young children and babies at home. For them, three weeks is a painfully long time. Any longer will certainly impact their morale.
Another reason is the deterioration of Israel’s international legitimacy. In contrast to 1967 when Israel’s restraint convinced many foreign leaders that it had no choice but to go to war, the longer Israel dallies today the more those same leaders are questioning the wisdom of invading Gaza. The media that once spotlighted Israeli suffering at the hands of Hamas is increasingly highlighting the pain afflicted on the Palestinians by Israel.
There are other reasons as well—the approaching winter, for example, with its cloudy skies and muddy terrain—but none is more pressing than that one word, deterrence.
Without uprooting and destroying Hamas, Israel will not be able to restore its deterrence power. Instead of fearing us, our enemies will be emboldened to attack. Without sending our army into Gaza, we cannot tell the residents of the south to return to the homes. Without demonstrating our determination to fight, we cannot revive the confidence of the people of Israel in the State of Israel, founded on the promise that Jews would be forever protected from massacre.
Were Ariel Sharon alive today, still a general speaking in the Pit, he would urge us, just as he did in 1967, not to remove with our own hands our most powerful weapon. He would warn us of the danger of Israel’s destruction. Do not wait, Arik would shout, attack.