It’s been nearly 50 years since Israel last held a military parade, and all attempts to revive them have been shot down. The reasons for that are much the same as the ones voiced by people in the United States who are currently protesting President Donald Trump’s July 4 plans: they are expensive, divisive logistical nightmares.
Israel first began holding military parades in the summer of 1948, three and a half months after the founding of the state, on a holiday then known as Herzl and Bialik Day, which celebrated early Zionist leader and thinker Theodor Herzl and Israel’s national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik.
The inaugural parade featured troops, tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces marching and driving through the heart of Tel Aviv during a ceasefire in the War of Independence. The now-defunct Davar newspaper declared it a “breathtaking spectacle.”
A parade scheduled for the following Independence Day was so heavily attended — with hundreds of thousands of spectators blocking its planned route — that it was called off, earning it the nickname “The march that didn’t march.”
Military parades were held every year on Independence Day until 1968, when it was decided that the significant cost and effort needed to hold the annual events were prohibitive, though exceptions would be made for special anniversaries.
A military parade was last held 46 years ago, in 1973, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the state.
The event was held in Jerusalem, passing by the Old City. Four hundred aircraft flew overhead, as soldiers, artillery cannons and tanks — including Soviet-built ones captured in the 1967 Six Day War — paraded 25 kilometers through the capital.
Another parade was considered for five years later, to celebrate the country’s 30th Independence Day, but due to the high costs, the military opted for a far more modest affair, with soldiers marching not through the streets of Jerusalem but inside the Hebrew University’s stadium in the capital’s Givat Ram neighborhood, and without the heavier vehicles and weaponry.
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin intended to hold a military parade five years later in the heart of the First Lebanon War in order to lift the morale of the nation, which was ambivalent about the conflict, but before preparations could begin in earnest, the plans were leaked to the press. The public balked at the projected cost of the event — in the tens of millions of shekels — and it was scrapped.
Proposals since Begin’s 1983 attempt were all quickly shot down. The cost and logistics of transporting large numbers of troops, heavy tanks, artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers, air defense systems and other assorted military equipment into the city — as well as repairing the damage inevitably caused by running treaded vehicles over asphalt and the headache of shutting down major roadways on one of the busier travel days in the Israeli calendar — all have a tendency to stop these plans in their tracks.
Exact figures for the total cost of such events are not readily available, but have been estimated over the years to be in the tens of millions of shekels, not including the indirect costs associated with extensive road closures.
In 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu floated the idea of bringing back military parades during a speech at the President’s Residence at an event honoring outstanding IDF soldiers.
“I have a proposal — let’s bring back the parades to Jerusalem. A military parade in Jerusalem, that is after all the foundation of our independence,” he said.
But the suggestion did not develop significantly in the following year beyond the offhand remark. Nor did it in 2018, when Culture Minister Miri Regev — apparently inspired by Netanyahu’s comment — proposed holding a military parade in honor of the country’s 70th Independence Day.
Though military parades in Israel seem to have gone the way of the dodo, remnants of them remain, notably in the annual Independence Day flyby, known in Hebrew as the matas, in which dozens of assorted current and historical aircraft fly over cities and towns throughout the country.
Though still expensive — some Israeli fighter jets cost tens of thousands of dollars to operate per flight hour — this tradition does not disrupt daily life in the way military parades do. (The costs are also offset by the fact that many of these planes would anyway be in the air, albeit for training flights.)
But Trump’s proposal to hold a military parade in Washington, DC, was met with criticism and derision not only for its high cost, but also for his own divisive nature.
Critics blasted the idea, claiming it as proof of Trump’s autocratic nature.
“Trump really was inspired by his visit to North Korea,” conservative columnist Bill Kirstol wrote on Twitter, referring to the dictatorship’s practice of holding massive military parades.
Trump really was inspired by his visit to North Korea. https://t.co/LMcY5jDWsK
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) July 1, 2019
Trump was also scheduled to speak at the parade, raising concerns that he will use the venue for campaigning — a move that would violate US law forbidding electioneering during government-sponsored events.
Trump has wanted an event with military tanks and other machinery rolling through downtown Washington ever since he was enthralled by a two-hour procession of French military tanks and fighter jets in Paris on Bastille Day in July 2017.
Thursday’s parade will be a far smaller event than Trump desired. Two M1A1 Abrams tanks and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles appear to comprise the entire contingent of armored vehicles taking part in the event, at a cost of $870,000, according to the USA Today newspaper.
The two tanks and two APCs will not be driven down the streets of the US capital, but will instead be on “static display,” the White House said in a statement.
The air show planned for the event will be more impressive.
Under White House direction, the Pentagon was arranging for an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber and other warplanes to conduct flyovers. There will be Navy F-35 and F-18 fighter jets, the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team, Army and Coast Guard helicopters and Marine V-22 Ospreys.
The presidential Air Force One and Marine One aircraft are also slated to make aerial appearances.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.