Houthi attacks on Israeli ships show we haven't learned a thing from 1973

Opinion: Houthis now pose same threat Egypt did in 1970s, and Israel would be wise to leverage understandings forged with then-US President Ford to protect trade routes

Prof. Shaul Chorev|
Emboldened by Iran, the Houthis have seized the opportunity of Israel's war with Hamas to "stand by their Palestinian brothers", as it were, by launching a series of ballistic missiles at Israel in the Red Sea, accompanied by two Commando raids on huge vessels with loose affiliations to Israel.
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This puts Israel in a bind since much of its maritime trading operations are conducted in that area, specifically with countries from the Orient. This presents two options: Either work extensively and swiftly to remove the threat (either independently or jointly with U.S. ships in the area), or avoid confrontation with all that would imply, both in terms of Israel's reputation of deterrence and the economic toll this would inevitably entail.
After all, the Red Sea serves as one of the most important shipping routes on earth, and it has two points of ingress and egress - The Suez Canal and Straits of Tiran, adjacent to Sharm Al-Sheikh, and the second in the Straits of Bab al-Mandab, situated smack between western Yemen and Eritrea's southern tip. Keeping Israeli vessels from moving along those lines was one of the main reasons for the Six-Day War.
These and other developments led Israel to bolster its navy by deploying the newly designed Reshef model warships. They were scheduled to arrive earlier than that, but moving them was a problem due to the Egyptian blockade in the fall of 1973. This issue was subsequently resolved between the two nations.
The frustration, brought about by this issue, was well expressed by the then-Navy commander, Major General Benjamin Telem as the war subsided: "Our situation in the Red Sea is dire, as we have no forces there. Let's make it clear, the Egyptians are present with two old Destroyers, and there isn't much we can do. Why weren't our ships there where we needed them? We only have ourselves to blame."
To avoid reoccurrence, Israel received guarantees from President Gerald Ford in September of 1975, in the form of understandings between Israel and Egypt, saying the United States fully supports Israel's right to free and uninterrupted passage through the Straits of Bab al-Mandab and Gibraltar.
Now, we're in the same situation with different players, namely Houthis instead of Egyptians, who have used the pretense of the war with Hamas to flex their maritime muscles against any vessels loosely affiliated with the Holy Land. Additionally, they've called on all countries to remove Yemenite citizens from said vessels and to avoid using them as transport vessels.
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Tribesmen loyal to the Houthi rebels hold their weapons during a rally in Yemen's capital Sanaa
Tribesmen loyal to the Houthi rebels hold their weapons during a rally in Yemen's capital Sanaa
Houthi rebel loyalists in Sanaa
(Photo: AP)
The effect brought on by these steps is evident to anyone who glances toward the port of Eilat, located in the Red Sea's northern tip. Routes have also been altered, all of which carry a heavy financial toll Israel would have to pay unless decisive action is taken.
How did we get here, you ask? As the Israel-Iran shadow war happened in the background, 2019 saw Israel attack Iranian fuel tankers on their way to Syria, as the Islamic Republic was heavily invested in making sure President al-Assad remained the supreme authority in Syria, thus maintaining a Shiite power proxy in the region.
The Iranians responded by attacking Israeli ships in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Concurrently, the Houthis developed their naval capabilities and aimed those square at Saudi and UAE vessels. So when October 7 happened, Iran saw an opening to increase their influence and dispatched its Houthi subordinates.

So how should Israel respond?

One possible path is to deploy the German-made Sa'ar 6-class corvette, ordered for the Israeli Navy in May 2015. These are fully capable of leveraging long distances to their advantage, cruising all along the Red Sea. That said, it's doubtful Israel is interested in such a move since they have enough fronts on their hands already.
שאול חורבProf. Shaul ChorevPhoto: Yarden Zahav
The second option is to cite those 1975 understandings and ask the U.S. to do what the agreements say they should, whether in conjunction with the Israeli navy or independent from it. U.S. Navy vessels in the area are fully capable of conducting such operations.
Sadly, it seems Israel hasn't fully internalized the lessons from the 70s, regarding the importance of being able to move freely through the Red Sea, thus severely hampering international trade Israel requires to bolster its economy, especially as the war with Hamas severely affects in ways not yet fully understood.

Shaul Chorev is a retired Israeli Navy rear admiral and a professor in the International Relations division of the School of Political Science, University of Haifa
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