The recent furor concerning President Obama telling Israel to withdraw to its 1967 pre-war boundaries brought back some vivid memories for me. I was there in Israel in 1967, coincidentally and thus unintentionally covering the Six-Day War for Radio Free Europe, along with several other genuinely surprised correspondents and journalists. We encountered many unusual situations and not a few difficulties, which I will relate shortly.
In his Mideast statement, the President obviously misread his GPS (Geo-Political Situation) where Israel is concerned. He, along with his appointee at the Federal Communications Commission, also misreads the needs of this nation, and here I’m talking about the real GPS — the Global Positioning System.
The two scenarios — Israel in 1967 and the United States today — are connected, and that connection has to do with GPS. I urge all my readers to take prompt action, as outlined at the end of this column. Believe me, it is in your own best interest.
Navigation in 1967
One of the difficulties my fellow journalists and I encountered in 1967 was navigating around Israel in the pre-GPS era. All we had then were paper maps, of course, and after six days everything had changed, and not in small ways, either. Plus, there were mined roads and mined pathways everywhere that were not marked accurately on any map, but were marked on the ground with white flags that approximated the area of the minefield.
Think for a moment about navigating through minefields with simple paper maps as designators, and hopefully that will get your attention and give you some idea of the daunting navigation challenges we faced in 1967.
If President Obama, the Federal Communications Commission, and LightSquared have their way, we may soon find ourselves navigating without GPS and reverting to paper maps here in the United States as well. I wonder if that is really the legacy for which the Obama administration wants to be remembered: destroying the efficacy of the greatest satellite constellation ever placed in orbit. More on the FCC and LightSquared later.
I have returned to Israel several times over the last 44 years on various military assignments, including one to the vastness of the Negev desert, which comprises half of Israel’s southern landmass, where there are few discernable landmarks. Navigating in the Negev can be a daunting task without GPS, because believe me when I say Israel is still a country surrounded by a host of enemies. This means that a wrong turn when you are navigating close to those borders can be disastrous, even fatal; for that reason among others, GPS units are very popular in Israel. Almost everyone I met had one or more units. Handheld units are extremely popular because you can get just as lost and in as much trouble walking around and making wrong turns as you can by driving, even in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem.
Consequently there are several Israeli companies today that produce excellent GPS units, including ruggedized military units. In fact, an Israeli company makes one of the best military SAASM GPS units for warfighters manufactured today. But that is another story, for another time. For now let’s briefly travel in time back to 1967.
There I was…
For reasons probably left better to the imagination, I found myself in Israel just as the Six-Day War drew to a rapid close. At the time I was attending University Abroad in Munich, Germany, and working as a broadcaster for Radio Free Europe. Even though I had not planned it, I was able to cover the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War on the scene for Radio Free Europe as a foreign correspondent. Great shades of Edward R. Murrow.
It was an amazing, tension-filled, historical moment that I will never forget. As I mentioned, one of those memories involves how we managed to navigate around a country that had just won a war conducted throughout its own and neighboring territories. To say that navigation in post-war Israel in 1967 was sometimes a major issue is putting it mildly.
For example, during a memorable journey from the port of Haifa to our quarters in Jerusalem and then on to our destination of Masada, near the Dead Sea, we used several different forms of transportation. We departed the busy port city in a tour bus to Jerusalem, and then continued by desert trucks toward Masada. Halfway there, we switched to horses, then to camels, and our final transports were tiny burros supposedly able to carry us up the ramps at the lofty 2,000-year-old natural stone fortress steeped in history.
Granted, all these forms of transportation were not strictly necessary, but since we were in Israel for the experience, an unforgettable experience is what transpired — although a full-blown war and its exciting but very confusing aftermath were not exactly what we had envisioned. I might add that we were constantly accompanied by bodyguards and a security force for the entire duration of our visit, which was vaguely comforting and troubling at the same time. I will never forget our first meal at Masada when we were able to converse with our bodyguards and ask the proverbial question, “What did you do during the war, Jacob?” The answer was of course “If I told you I would have to …” Well, you know the rest.
Aerial view of Masada and the remains of the camp of Roman besiegers built in 73 C.E.
Considering all the forms of modern and ancient transportation we utilized during our visit, you might ask how we managed to navigate accurately, since the GPS was of course still eleven years away even from its initial launch, let alone operability.. The answer is, we navigated as accurately as possible and we did it the old-fashioned way, using the pre-1967 version of GPS: Global Navigation & Planning (GNC) maps, ancient street maps, and at times hand-drawn maps. The GPS abbreviation in 1967 stood not for Global Positioning System but for Going Places Slowly, while stopping every fifteen minutes to consult a paper map of dubious accuracy.
Today, of course, the trip from Haifa to Jerusalem and then to the storied fortress of Masada can be made on a fancy European tour bus in air-conditioned comfort, and you can take a cablecar to the top of Masada. Once there, you might be able to just barely see the Dead Sea, which is much further away now than it was in 1967. Yes, unfortunately the Dead Sea is shrinking drastically, due to the high demand for water in Israel today. It is barely visible from the top of Masada’s highest vantage point. You might find it interesting to know that all the young men and women in the Israeli armed forces today take their oaths of allegiance atop Masada. The reasons are historical and make interesting reading, check it out.
Today, of course, everyone navigates accurately to all these wonderful historic venues with a handheld or vehicle-mounted GPS. And believe me, as I said, it seems that everyone in Israel has at least one. And no one in that country today, for personal and security reasons, wants to go back to the old days of navigating with paper maps, where one wrong turn can be catastrophic.
So anytime you find yourself being the least bit complacent about GPS and what it does for you, think about what it is like to live in Israel, where GPS has revolutionized the way an entire county navigates and literally serves as a lifesaving device every single day.
Here is the United States, we tend to take our technology for granted — no surprise there — but when you find yourself in some place like Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and your life
literally depends on a satellite system 12,500+ miles up in space, believe me, you no longer take it for granted.
Always remember: GPS is a ubiquitous utility that is provided to the world free of charge, as a gift from the United States government. Countries around the globe, including Israel, use the positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities enabled by GPS for critical national infrastructure, for military planning and execution, and yes, for everyday navigation. Plus, as I have stated many times, more than 90 percent of the 1 billion-plus people around the world who use GPS, use it for time and all the capabilities that time accurate to 1×10-E14 enables.
Will It Be There?
Please never take your GPS for granted. Part of not taking it for granted is ensuring that GPS is available and is protected from encroachment and jamming by companies like LightSquared. If LightSquared has its way, and its FCC terrestrial license is not revoked, then the company will be able to legally jam GPS and deny everyone in the United States from enjoying the innumerable activities that GPS enables around the globe.
Does that make sense? The U.S. government provides the GPS service globally, but we in the United States cannot benefit from it because a private company has convinced the FCC that being able to Google or Twitter on a cell phone in the middle of Kansas is more important than all the industries and capabilities that GPS enables, not to mention the $100 Billion in revenue that the GPS industry generates every year?
I ask again — does that make sense?
Let’s hope we never have to fight another war on our homeland, because if we do and LightSquared and the FCC have their way, we will do it without GPS. We will find ourselves navigating by the seat of our pants, just as I did in Israel in 1967. Call your Congressman and complain loudly about LightSquared and the FCC. Help put an end to this insanity.
Until next time, Happy Navigating.
P.S. Our 1967 group of war correspondents included the grandson of former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who was named after his famous grandfather. Young Winston wrote an excellent book about the war shortly afterwards. If you want to know more about the Six Day War from an eyewitness then I highly recommend The Six Day War by Randolph S. Churchill and Winston S. Churchill. As I was there, I can verify that Winston’s book is forthright and factual. Winston tells it like it was with no dithering of the facts for political correctness.