Politics & Policy

Six Days that Changed Everything

Israel has learned to be cautious.

There has hardly been an Arab peace plan in the past 40 years — including the current Saudi version — that does not demand a return to the status quo of June 4, 1967. Why is that date so sacred?

Because it was the day before the outbreak of the Six Day War in which Israel scored one of the most stunning victories of the 20th century. The Arabs have spent four decades trying to undo its consequences.

The real anniversary of the war should be now, three weeks earlier. On May 16, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser demanded the evacuation from the Sinai Peninsula of the U.N. buffer force that had kept Israel and Egypt at peace for ten years. The U.N. complied, at which point Nasser imposed a naval blockade of Israel’s only outlet to the south, the port of Eilat — an open act of war.

How Egypt came to this reckless provocation is a complicated tale (chronicled in Michael Oren’s magisterial history Six Days of War) of aggressive intent compounded with fateful disinformation. An urgent and false Soviet warning that Israel was preparing to attack Syria led to a cascade of intra-Arab maneuvers that in turn led Nasser, the champion of pan-Arabism, to mortally confront Israel with a remilitarized Sinai and a southern blockade.

Why is this still important? Because that three-week period between May 16 and June 5 helps explain Israel’s 40-year reluctance to give up the fruits of the Six Day War — the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza — in return for paper guarantees of peace. Israel had similar guarantees from the 1956 Suez War, after which it evacuated the Sinai in return for that U.N. buffer force and for assurances from the Western powers of free passage through the Straits of Tiran.

All this disappeared with a wave of Nasser’s hand. During those three interminable weeks, President Lyndon Johnson tried to rustle up an armada of countries to run the blockade and open Israel’s south. The effort failed dismally.

It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks. Egypt, already in an alliance with Syria, formed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco began sending forces to join the coming fight. With troops and armor massing on Israel’s every frontier, jubilant broadcasts in every Arab capital hailed the imminent final war for the extermination of Israel. “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants,” declared PLO head Ahmed Shuqayri, “and as for the survivors — if there are any — the boats are ready to deport them.”

For Israel, the waiting was excruciating and debilitating. Israel’s citizen army had to be mobilized. As its soldiers waited on the various fronts for the world to rescue the nation from peril, Israeli society ground to a halt and its economy began bleeding to death. Army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, later to be hailed as a war hero and even later as a martyred man of peace, had a nervous breakdown. He was incapacitated to the point of incoherence by the unbearable tension of waiting with the life of his country in the balance.

We know the rest of the story. Rabin recovered in time to lead Israel to victory. But we forget how perilous was Israel’s condition. The victory hinged on a successful attack on Egypt’s air force on the morning of June 5. It was a gamble of astonishing proportions. Israel sent the bulk of its 200-plane air force on the mission, fully exposed to antiaircraft fire and missiles. Had they been detected and the force destroyed, the number of planes remaining behind to defend the Israeli homeland — its cities and civilians — from the Arab air forces’ combined 900 planes was … 12.

We also forget that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was entirely unsought. Israel begged Jordan’s King Hussein to stay out of the conflict.

Engaged in fierce combat with a numerically superior Egypt, Israel had no desire to open a new front just yards from Jewish Jerusalem and just miles from Tel Aviv. But Nasser personally told Hussein that Egypt had destroyed Israel’s air force and airfields and that total victory was at hand.

Hussein could not resist the temptation to join the fight. He joined. He lost.

The world will soon be awash with 40th-anniversary retrospectives on the war — and on the peace of the ages that awaits if Israel would only return to June 4, 1967. But Israelis are cautious. They remember the terror of that unbearable May when, with Israel possessing no occupied territories whatsoever, the entire Arab world was furiously preparing Israel’s imminent extinction. And the world did nothing.

© 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group

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