Forty years ago this week began the 2nd most important of all the wars that mark the Arab-Israeli conflict – the Six Day War (as it is called by Israelis); or the 1967 (June) War. This war is the 2nd most important because of course it is overshadowed by the war of 1948 (Israelis call it the War of Independence) which established and fixed the existence of Israel, and created the Palestinian refugee tragedy.
These two wars, 1948 & 1967, are now sufficiently in the past that historians have been able to delve into heretofore unopened and classified archives and memoirs of key players in order to get a clearer picture of what happened and why.
Each war is remembered by Israel’s supporters as miraculous victories of the outnumbered Jewish David surrounded by an Arab Goliath calling for the total eradication of the Zionist entity; in both instances we have now come to understand that Israeli victory was, in proper hindsight, inevitable. For example, two weeks before the June '67 war, analysts predicted to Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban at a meeting in the Pentagon that Israel would win any war in 2-3 weeks -- 1 week if it fired the first shot. Despite preparing the Israeli populace for a possible slaughter, the Israeli generals were excited at the prospect of going to war against Syria and Egypt, and expected an easy victory.
Both wars are remembered by Israel’s supporters as cases where a reluctant and peace-loving Israel was forced to war because of Arab hatred; today we now know that both wars were contemplated by Israel in a calculated effort to ensure the existence of a qualitatively military advantaged Jewish homeland.
The 1948 was certainly unavoidable, and the Israelis properly prepared for that conflict prudently, and won it easily. Ben Gurion understood and expected to create a homeland through the crucible of fire, and despite a few setbacks, successfully defended the Jewish homeland in a war that was planned for and coolly anticipated.
The 1967 was a war that, had cooler minds prevailed, ought never to have happened, certainly not on the scope it ultimately took. It was a war that occurred because of the hyperactivism of the Israeli army, which in the months leading up to that war, provoked a confrontation as it mis-read Arab intentions and threats, and insisted on warfare.
Much of the march to war in 1966-67 was based on a near-paranoid fear of Egypt and her leader Gamal Abdel Nasser; and a growing dispute with Syria over water rights and guerrilla attacks emanating from Syria. The Israeli COS Rabin wrote in Dec. 66 to Israel’s military attache in London: “an escalation with Syria is not against Israel’s interest, and in my view there is no better time than now for a confrontation with Syria. I prefer to go to war rather than allow this continuous harassment.”
And so, just a few months later, there was a major air clash between Israel & Syria in April 1967, which started as a minor water/fishing skirmish but by the end had become a major dogfight involving more than 130 planes, with Syria losing 6 MIGs and Israel 0. In April and May, Egypt began to build up forces on its international border after the USSR communicated an errant warning of an Israeli build-up on the Syria border, and a specific warning that they would attack. In mid-May, Egypt decided to move divisions into the demilitarized Sinai and requested the removal of a 4500-man UNEF peacekeeping force (made mostly of Indians, Canadians, Swedes, Danes, Yogoslavs). After only the slightest hesitation, and only after India and Yugoslavia agreed to pull troops, the UN as a whole agreed, and UNEF withdrew from the Sinai on May 19. All these changes in the Sinai caught the Israelis a bit off-guard, and began a period known as ההמתנה, “the waiting”. It was the excuse the Israeli military was looking for. Within a few days, Israel went on high alert and begins a call up of its reservists, a debilitating blow to its economy. Once the reservists were called up, a clock began ticking which would inexorably lead to war.
The sabra generals were pressing for war and the diaspora-bound civilian leadership was counseling diplomacy. It was sometime in the 3rd week of May that Rabin first proposed a pre-emptive attack upon Egypt – and instigated a major call-up of reserves. Nasser dispatched his top general, Muhammad Fawzi, to Damascus, where he uncovered the nature of the Soviet false alarm, but now Nasser refused to back down. On May 22 Egypt declared a blockade on Gulf of Aqaba and closure of the Straits of Tiran, thereby blocking all shipping to theIsraeli southern port city of Eilat.
It was a week later that COS Rabin (who had been championing the pre-emptive war option unceasingly) had his famous 30-hour breakdown – he simply disappeared from the Tel Aviv battle headquarters known as "the pit." Some say it was a drinking bout; others claim it was a nicotine and caffeine induced panic attack. Whatever the case, the Israeli leadership moved into a kind of panic mode. Rabin's assistant Ezer Weizman ordered immediate preparations for an attack on Egypt, defying civilian authority. At one point Ariel Sharon suggested to the new Defence Minister Moshe Dayan that the civilian leadership should be locked in a room so that the generals could do their job -- as close to a military coup d'etat that Israel has ever experienced.
The Israeli PM Levi Eshkol was hoping to induce the US to come to Israel's aid and thereby subvert the military's pressure for war. The US tried to talk Israel off of a war, assuming the Israelis were exaggerating the Egyptian threat and suggested instead running an international regatta against the Egyptian blockade. But these negotiations proved fruitless, and on May 29 the Israeli cabinet voted 9-9 to go to war, essentially accepting President Lyndon Johnson's plea for a 48-hour extension. The waiting continued, even as the generals pleaded that with each passing day, the likelihood of easy success was being reduced.
On May 30, King Hussein of Jordan made one of the most fateful errors of his long reign. He flew to Cairo and placed Jordanian forces under Egyptian command. He had warm relations with the Zionists and admired them, but could not resist the siren call of Arab solidarity in the face of the growing provocative situation. By choosing to go to war with Egypt and Syria, Hussein put at risk his hold on Jerusalem and on the breadbasket of his kingdom, the West Bank of the Jordan River. The Israeli General Staff had 6 months earlier advised against occupying East Jerusalem and the West Bank in some future war, but once Jordanian artillery opened fire on West Jerusalem, caution was thrown to the wind, and Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in less than 2 days.
On June 2, Israel formed a national unity government, and for the first time Menahem Begin's Herut party joined an Israeli government. With all the parts of a national consensus in place, on June 4 - just as France announces an arms embargo to the Middle East, the Israeli civilian government relented, and -- with three dissenting votes -- agreed to go to war.
The war began on the morning of June 5. Within the first 3 hours of the war, the Israel Air Force essentially destroys the Egyptian & Syrian air forces. Israel destroyed over 350 out of 600 Arab planes, mostly on the ground. And in open-field warfare, he who controls the airspace wins the war.
Gaza fell on the first day; the blockaded Straits of Tiran on the 2nd. By June 7th all of the Sinai and East Jerusalem were in Israeli hands; the last few days of the war were devoted to Syria and Israel captured the Golan Heights.
The 1967 war resulted in Israel gaining 3 times its size (28,000 sq. mi.) in a week; all of the holy city of Jerusalem came under its rule; and it suddenly found itself the ruler of over a million Palestinian refugees, on top of the 600,000 living inside pre-1967 Israel. It is clear that the Six Day War was not intended as a war for expanding territory; but that was its principle outcome. The war changed the geopolitical structure of the Middle East.
The Six Day War was called last week by the British newsweekly The Economist “Israel’s wasted victory.” The magazine stated: “In the long run, the war turned into a calamity for the Jewish state no less than for its neighbors.”
Why the overly harsh judgment? First, argues The Economist, the war gave birth in Israel to a messianic religious interpretation of the sudden and one-sided victory. The Israeli population was preparing for a debacle, and instead was delivered a monumental victory. Intoxicated by victory, Israel embarked on a policy of dominating the region and settling the newly conquered lands. The settlement enterprise was largely driven by a new kind of Jewish fundamentalism, which has corroded the entire fabric of Israeli society.
Second, the Arabs were humiliated by defeat, and stung doubly by the inflated media reports of stunning lopsided victories against the Zionist regime, which turned out to be lies. The Arab political leadership would not engage diplomatically with a triumphant Israel. The three no’s of the Arab League Summit at Khartoum in September 1967 stated that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” It would take 35 years for the Arab League to formally change its tune.
Third, the war united and reinvigorated the Palestinians. The Palestinian national movement had been ineffectual in the 1920's and 30's, and had become a pawn of larger Arab interests. Before 1967, Palestinians were scattered in Gaza and the Jordanian West Bank, riven by internal clan squabbles and corrupt leadership. Suddenly, Palestinians were gathered together in a common dilemma under Israeli occupation. Palestinian nationalism and armed resistance became an internal and an international issue, all because of the 1967 war. Yasir Arafat and the PLO found its lost voice through 1967.
In the 40 years since this war, there has been a sizable effort to move away from warfare and towards peacemaking – the 1973 war was an Egyptian effort to undo the humiliation of 1967, which opened the way for peace-making; since that war, Israel and Egypt and Jordan have established peace agreements.
But the Palestinian issue will not go away, because it hinges not on the '67 war, but on the '48 war.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is a territorial dispute to resolve the issues of the '67 war. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict involves both issues raised by '67 and '48. The '67 issues are easy to solve; the '48 issues (e.g., refugees) are existential, and do not exist in the interstate conflict. Hence it is possible for an Egypt and an Israel to sign a peace treaty based on a readjustment of the Israeli border and dismantlement of settlements. But the domestically wrenching unilateral departure from Gaza brings no resolution for Palestinians.
From the Zionist perspective, the creation of the state is an act of self-defense. From the Palestinian perspective, it is an act of aggression. 1948 for Israel is the greatest victory of the Jewish people in 2000 years. 1948 for Palestine is the nakbah – catastrophe, disaster, & even“holocaust”; a traumatic defeat and dispersal of people. It is the formative incident of their identity.
In Arabic, a nakbah can also be a natural disaster (a tsunami); there is a sense that it is a trauma that is not your fault. It is not your responsibility. It is the Israelis’ fault.
The '67 questions are 3: borders, settlements, and Jerusalem. All of these have to do with Israel’s extent, width, and girth.
The '48 questions are 2: refugees, and national rights of Arabs in Israel itself. These are existential questions going to the very nature of the Jewish state.
So 40 years later, and while there are some reasons to think it was not completely a "wasted victory," it is certain that this 40 year-old war will be resolved long before the 59 year-old war becomes a memory.