Refighting the Six-Day War
Fifty years later, Arabs nurture a fantasy of avenging their loss
In the beginning of June half a century ago, the Six-Day War exploded on the Middle East stage. Prior to the war, but as precipitate, relentless attacks against Israel were conducted by Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian forces. By May 1967 President Gamal Abdel Nasser had mobilized Egyptian troops in the Sinai and closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, thus effectively cutting off all trade to the port city of Eilat. On May 30, King Hussain of Jordan arrived in Cairo to sign a mutual defense pact with Egypt.
In response to this mobilization and the fear of being overrun, Israel staged a pre-emptive air assault on June 5 that destroyed more than 90 percent of Egypt’s air force. A similar attack devastated Syrian air capability. Without air cover, the Egyptian army was vulnerable to attack and defeat. In three days the Israeli Defense Force captured the Gaza Strip, all of the Sinai peninsula up to the east bank of the Suez Canal, and drove Jordanian forces out of East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank.
The lopsidedness of the defeat demoralized the Arab public and political elites. By contrast, in Israel there was euphoria as films of Israeli troops taking control of the old city of Jerusalem and soldiers praying at the Western Wall proved to be the war’s iconic image. But the Six-Day war also marked the beginning of a new phase in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The conflict created hundreds of thousands of refugees and placed more than 1 million Palestinians (formerly Jordanians) under Israeli rule. While this was a moment of rejoicing for Jews worldwide, it was also a time bomb released within Israel itself. As a result of occupation and the Arabs under Israeli authority, this war would be fought again and again since 1967. Surely the battleground is not the same, but the humiliation the Arabs felt in defeat was manifest in hostility at the councils of state, in legal parlance and in the United Nations. This became the war that would not end.
Cries for the destruction of Israel became more shrill over the decades following the war. From the Arab side, resistance set in. Despite accords like the Oslo Agreement, there is an unwillingness to recognize formally the state of Israel.
In fact, diplomacy has become an extension of war for Palestinian leaders.
Israel was from the outset a geographic splinter, a long shot to survive. But this ragtag population mercilessly oppressed by the Holocaust has been transformed from underdog to top dog. The psychological overhaul is not easy for the Arabs to appreciate. Nor is it easy for Jews, who assume based on historical antecedents, that they will be at the bottom looking up. It is not coincidental that prior to the ’67 war, secular Jews in the United States were uniformly in favor of Israel. By the 1990s, this support was unraveling. In fact, in surveys conducted by the Israeli Consul General’s office in New York, less than half of those who responded positively to Israel before 1967 felt the same way a decade later.
A Jewish commitment to left-wing politics placed the Palestinian question in a unique “box.” The liberal Jew could be the outlier defying his political orientation or he could embrace the newly emerging view that Israel, as an occupying entity, had exploited Palestinians through denial of their rights and territory. This latter position was reinforced at international meetings, the mainstream press and even Jewish organizations like J-Street.
It is alarming that Fatah and Hamas goals are mutually compatible on Israel, despite their leadership disputes. Their stance is belief in a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, in other words, a land that excludes a Jewish state. All of the verbal conjuring does not change that proposition. In a sense, it means the ’67 war will be refought with a different ending.
When the United States abstained at a recent Security Council vote recognizing the post ’67 territory as “illegal,” the stage was set for a Palestinian state. The Obama-Kerry position was designed to legalize the Green Line as the Israeli boundary and to do so without negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis. The ghosts of ’67 live in the minds of some American diplomats who still view the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War with the jaundiced eye of the Arabist angry at Jewish success.
It is often said that history is written by the victors in war. From June 1967 to the present, we have witnessed a relentless underdressing of events. In this case, the Palestinians have dominated the narrative. The bearers of anti-Zionism present their bigotry as social justice. But the question remains: whose justice? If Zionist thought is the original sin, only dismantling the Jewish state can redress it. Many anti-Zionists claim they don’t oppose Judaism, only the state of Israel as presently constituted. Yet the main guarantor of Jewish security since the end of World War II has been the sovereign state of Israel, the state that secured the territory in the Six-Day War that has allowed it to prosper. Israel wasn’t born on the ashes of the Holocaust, as President Obama once noted, but it is the last fortress against its re-enactment, a point sometimes lost in the memory hole of Jews across the globe.