Magazine | June 12, 2017, Issue

The Six-Day War at 50

(via The Smithsonian)
It changed everything, and nothing

The Six-Day War of 1967 dramatized fears and hopes whose collision made the Middle East so volatile at the time, and still does 50 years later. The belief is more or less general among Arabs that Jews have never been their equal and do not deserve a state of their own. Accordingly, the elimination of Israel is in their minds solely an issue of power and timing.

In April that year, a skirmish no bigger than a man’s hand blew up over a small strip of territory contested between Israel and Syria. In repeated dogfights, the Israeli air force shot down twelve Syrian planes with no loss to itself. This might have been the cause of the umpteenth Arab complaint to the United Nations, but the Syrian regime chose instead to accuse Israel of conspiring with the United States and others, and of mobilizing to invade. In Syria, Communists and the Arab nationalists known as Baathists were engaged in a struggle close to civil war, and the scaremongering about invasion was possibly some appeal for Soviet intervention. A few years previously, the Cuban missile crisis had almost brought the Cold War to a boil, and it was now the turn of the Middle East to become critical.

No Soviet leader ever thought really well of Arabs (or of Jews either, for that matter). Poor but determined imperialists, all of them rigidly pursued Soviet interests in spite of the twists and turns of Arab politics. Client states were useful up to the point when their demands had to be met. Arab nationalism was the one factor the Soviets were always prepared to encourage because it was a political, and occasionally a military, expression of anti-Western prejudice, capable of doing permanent harm to British and American interests.

In a recently published study of the Six-Day War (which is the book’s title), Guy Laron, a well-informed Israeli scholar, analyzes the Kremlin’s Middle East policies and plans almost exclusively in terms of ambiguity and muddle: They themselves had equipped and trained their Arab clients for warfare that they then gave advice not to wage, for instance, and they informed revolutionaries dedicated to the destruction of Israel that in principle that state has the right to exist.

No Arab leader ever thought well of the Soviets — with the possible exception of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who went to a Soviet clinic when he fell ill. Seizing power in a coup in 1952 and appointing himself president of Egypt, Nasser was adept at playing the Cold War superpowers off against each other, in the process becoming a hero of the Third World. Executing opponents or imprisoning them in a concentration camp, he remodeled Egypt into something close to a Soviet satellite. In 1964, he launched the Palestine Liberation Organization, with qualified Soviet approval.

The failure of a project in the early 1960s to unite Egypt and Syria had damaged Nasser, and the rumors of an imminent Israeli invasion in the spring of 1967 might have seemed to him the chance to repair his reputation as the preeminent Arab nationalist. In moves that heightened Israel’s isolation in the region, he ordered his navy to blockade the Straits of Tiran and his army to occupy the Sinai Peninsula and reinforce Gaza. Whether his intention was defensive or aggressive has given rise to lasting controversy. His vice president, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, promised that the army would “throw the Jews into the sea,” in the slogan of that moment. In the event that the Israelis were to mount a preemptive attack, Nasser boasted to the waiting world, “Ahlan wa-sahlan,” the traditional Arab greeting of welcome.

The sense of fate in Israel became oppressive. President Lyndon Johnson was known to be sympathetic but advised against a first strike. Charles de Gaulle, president of France, was known to be unsympathetic and gave the same defeatist advice. The elderly Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, seemed in the Neville Chamberlain mode of being too honorable to be able to hold his own against a belligerent and unscrupulous dictator.

Correspondents in the Israeli Press Office (I was one of them) expected the worst. On the eve of the war, I happened to meet in the hotel Elie Wiesel, a man trying in his writing to give spiritual resolve to his experience of Auschwitz and to discover some moral significance in his survival. Almost incoherent, red-eyed, he had with him an Israeli friend, a ranking major general, who reported that other senior officers at a briefing had said that Eshkol’s refusal to go to war signed Israel’s death warrant. The question was what effect a second and perhaps final Holocaust of Jews would have on humanity.

King Hussein, absolute monarch of Jordan since 1952, was in a particularly awkward predicament. Most probably he did not write the autobiography whose title comes from one of Shakespeare’s most familiar sentences, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” but the quote is apt. He is supposed to have survived a dozen attempted assassinations. Arab nationalism was no concern of his, but he had to take into account that the majority of his subjects were Palestinian and expected him to do battle for them. A licensed pilot, he flew his plane to Cairo. Under pressure from Nasser, he agreed to the appointment of an Egyptian general to command the Jordanian army. This submission greatly limited his freedom of action once he had returned to his palace in Amman.

Early in the morning of June 5, the Israeli air force, flying below the radar, surprised Egyptian planes parked on runways out in the open, destroyed most of them, gained control of the skies, and in effect won the war in its opening minutes. The strike is comparable to Nelson’s sinking of the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, and its operational details are studied in staff colleges all over the world. Unaware that Israeli intelligence was listening, Nasser telephoned King Hussein in order to coordinate a typical anti-Western fable that British and American planes, not Israeli, had been bombing Egyptian airfields. King Hussein concurred. That same morning, Israel sent an urgent message through the proper channels to advise the king that if Jordanian artillery did not open fire on military or civilian targets in Israel, Jordan would be considered neutral and left alone. Plainly, the king was compelled to choose between Israel and Egypt. After some hundreds of Jordanian shells had hit West Jerusalem, the Israeli army crossed into the part of Jordan popularly called the West Bank, and by the end of the week was in possession of the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine, all of it and more.

The Israeli minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, famous for his eyepatch and supposedly experienced in Arab ways, let it be known that he was waiting for a telephone call from any or all Arab leaders to arrange a meeting and come to terms. In the event of the desired peace treaty, many Israelis in all likelihood would return to the great Arab cities from which they once had come, and the state of Israel might then settle into the demographic tapestry of the Middle East. Be that as it may, the Arab summit held that September in Khartoum instead passed a resolution that there would be no peace, no recognition of Israel’s existence, and no negotiations with Israel. Palestinians and Israelis were fixed together in a trap for the indefinite future.

The political cultures of the two parties have no correspondence. What to the Israelis was peace and security, to the Arabs was humiliation, to be wiped out even if the cost were to be aggravated self-harm. The Western way of doing things from a position of strength was unable to find a compromise with the Arab way of doing things from a position of weakness.

The telephone call that never came rekindled violence and hatred. The Soviets immediately aided their clients and supporters with a media campaign that misrepresented Israeli self-defense as occupation of Arab territory. Some of those who once shuddered at the prospect of another Holocaust have swung right around to compare Israelis to Nazis. Victory of supposedly unequal Jews over combined Arab armies — and what’s worse, in full view of the world — was the death knell of Arab nationalism. Obeying the cultural demand for supremacy, Yasser Arafat and the PLO militarized Palestinian society for the purpose of continuous murder and terror, hijacking of civil aircraft, revolution in neighboring Arab countries, and intifadas at home. Exceptionally, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a treaty to regain lost Sinai but first covered himself by once again (in 1973) going to war with Israel; and then he paid with his life for his daring initiative. King Hussein accepted that his misjudgment of the balance of forces had put any decision about the future of Palestine in the hands of Israel, and he renounced his claim to the West Bank. In word and deed, the ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist movements also give regular promises to eliminate the state of Israel whenever power and timing are right for it. Concerning the relative position of Israel and the Arabs, the Six-Day War pulled off the remarkable feat of changing everything and nothing.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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