Six days of war, 40 y years of turmoil
A conflict nobody wanted changed forever the dynamic between Israel, its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians. On the 40th anniversary of the war’s end, traces the extraordinary battle and its legacy: the elusive idea PETER JONES of ‘land for peace’ and
Forty years ago today, one of the most extraordinary conflicts of the 20th century ended, the SixDay War. Israel thoroughly defeated a coalition of Arab armies and more than doubled its land area. Beyond this, Israelis threw off a sense of foreboding about their existence and acquired an aura of invincibility. But the acquisition of land and the enhanced sense of security would ultimately prove mixed blessings. They would unleash political and religious forces that have altered the course of Israeli democracy and made peace with the Palestinians much more difficult to achieve.
For the Arabs, the war was a disaster that reshaped their approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. To this point, the cause of “destroying” Israel had been taken up, with varying degrees of conviction, by the Arab states. After 1967, the “frontline” Arab states were keen to get their land back, rather than fight for the Palestinians — ongoing rhetoric notwithstanding. For the first time, a real Palestinian movement would emerge to lead the fight. But that movement would itself be deeply fractured by the results of the war, eventually helping to create the conditions for today’s crisis in Palestinian leadership.
EGYPT TRAPS ITSELF
What is most remarkable is that neither side really wanted the 1967 war to happen.
It is highly likely Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s intention in the runup to the conflict was to score points with his own population and other Arab states, rather than actually start a conflict. Though popular, Nasser’s government was a political and economic failure. His army was stuck in a costly war in Yemen. More galling were the taunts of other Arab states, notably Syria and the Palestinian movement, that Nasser was not “standing up” to Israel — particularly after Israel launched reprisals against Syria and the Palestinians for their raids over the preceding months.
In response, Nasser began deploying forces into the Sinai on May 14, 1967. A few days later he gave the order to partially evict the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from the Sinai, where it had watched over a stable ceasefire for more than a decade. On May 22, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, contravening a promise made after the 1956 Suez war.
It is now widely accepted that Nasser did not expect the UN to completely withdraw and was surprised when it did. His plan was to seize the initiative, re-arrange the map and create a sense of accomplishment without provoking Israel into a fight.
Nasser’s actions demonstrate the shocking rapidity with which events can get away from a leader. Once the Egyptian propaganda machine rallied, crowds across the Arab world, and his own military leaders, began to demand a showdown with Israel. Nasser was trapped by the furore that he had precipitated.
Jordan’s King Hussein did not seek war. But his relations with Egypt and Syria were poor and his population, many of whom were of Palestinian origin, were restive. Hussein felt he must join in with the Arab consensus. On May 30, he signed a mutual defence pact with Egypt that, fatefully, placed his forces under an Egyptian general.
The United States, embroiled in Vietnam, was determined to stay out of the conflict and tried desperately through diplomatic means to stop the war. Though the Johnson administration may have sympathized with Israel, it made clear that no military help would come, particularly if Israel struck first. Accustomed as we are today to unflinching U.S. support for Israel, it is difficult to remember that such support only really kicked in after the 1967 war.
At the beginning of the crisis, the Soviet Union sought to make trouble for the U.S. and passed to its Arab allies deliberately inflated estimates of Israeli military activity. Once it became clear that war was likely, however, the Soviets counselled caution.
Nasser’s actions were unacceptable to Israel. Particularly worrying was the closing of the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s only access to the Red Sea and thence the Indian Ocean, and the primary route for its fuel imports. After the 1956 Suez war, Israel had insisted on freedom of passage and had noted that closing would be regarded as a grave provocation. A lack of response now would have been a blow to its deterrence strategy, which held that Israel must respond decisively to any provocation, lest the Arabs come to view it as weak.
But the period immediately leading up to the war exposed deep cleavages and insecurities within Israeli society, and especially between its military and civilian leadership. The civilians, particularly the cautious prime minister, Levi Eshkol, favoured diplomacy to re-open the straits. Eshkol and others were obsessed with the need for Israel not to be seen as the aggressor, and worried that Israel’s losses would be severe. These men were products of the plight of European Jewry in the 20th century and of the Zionist movement that had created Israel. One of Zionism’s key tenets was that Israel must seek and achieve the protection of a Great Power patron and must not act alone.
A younger generation of military leaders, among them chief of staff and future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, future Israeli president Ezer Weismann and future prime minister Ariel Sharon, argued forcefully that Israel’s military would not only win, but inflict a crushing blow — if it struck first and quickly. They were backed by Moshe Dayan, the war hero recalled from “retirement” on the eve of the war to serve as defence minister. Most of these men had been born in pre-Independence Palestine. They took the view that Israel must prove to itself, its neighbours and the world that it would not live in the Middle East on Arab sufferance.
The period between Nasser’s eviction of the UNEF and the outbreak of war on June 5 became known in Israel as “The Waiting.”
It was an agonizing period. These weeks saw blood drives, mobilization and furious preparations for fighting. They also saw moments of near military panic, particularly when Egyptian reconnaissance flights over the Negev desert came close to the Dimona nuclear reactor and the Israeli air force very nearly initiated hostilities immediately. Throughout the crisis, Israeli concern for the safety of Dimona was a major factor in decision-making.
The tension was extraordinary. Rabin suffered a breakdown for a few hours in the days leading to war. It was brought on by exhaustion and stress. But he was at his post when the fighting began.
By June 4, Israel’s politicians, under significant pressure from their generals, agreed that “the waiting” must end. Though there are differing views as to whether the Israelis should have given diplomacy a further chance, what seems to have clinched it was growing evidence that diplomatic efforts to reverse Nasser’s decision on the straits were not serious. In particular, an American plan to assemble an international maritime force to run the blockade was not gaining traction.
WAR IN THE SINAI …
The conflict began just after 7 a.m. on June 5, 1967 with a daring and brilliantly executed air strike by Israel. The Egyptian air force had deployed to forward bases within range of Israel, but had not taken elemen-
tary steps to protect itself. It was virtually destroyed on the ground.
It is an enduring mystery how the Egyptians allowed themselves to be so exposed. Certainly, military incompetence was a factor. As one Egyptian general would write after the war, “Israel spent years preparing for this war, whereas we prepared for parades.”
With the Egyptian air force destroyed, the land battle in the Sinai desert was decisively affected. The overall performance of the Egyptian army was poor. Its leadership, so keen for war before the shooting started, was stunned by the new circumstances. Without waiting to see if a defence of the Sinai could still be mounted, a confused retreat was ordered.
But, crucially, neither side admitted dur- ing the early hours what had happened. The Egyptians broadcast a steady stream of propaganda to the effect that they were advancing into Israel. These messages were made publicly, but also in private communications to Jordan and Syria. Meanwhile, Israel concealed its own breakthrough lest international pressure mount for a ceasefire before it had “finished the job” of defeating Egypt and occupying as much of the Sinai as possible.
As it advanced, Israel debated whether to invade and take the Gaza Strip, a thin piece of land into which millions of Palestinian refugees were crammed. Dayan was opposed, fearing — rightly — that all this would gain Israel was the rule over millions of poor and angry Palestinians. But military logic and fluid events overcame these concerns and Israel occupied Gaza.
IN THE WEST BANK …
Meanwhile, Israel sent signals to Jordan’s King Hussein that he would not be attacked if he stayed out of the fighting. Not knowing that the Egyptians would crumble, Israel had anticipated a hard fight in the Sinai and did not want to be at war on two fronts. But Hussein, having committed himself to a defence pact with Egypt, felt he had to join. Had he known that Israel was routing the Egyptians, Hussein might have stayed out.
With no Israeli announcement of their breakthrough to contradict Nasser, Hussein allowed the Egyptian general commanding his forces to commence hostilities against Israel. This was perhaps the most fateful decision of the Six Day War and of Hussein’s reign. The Jordanians fought well, but could not hold the tide, especially once the Israeli army was able to transfer units no longer needed in the Sinai to the West Bank.
The Israeli conquest of the West Bank, and with it, the Arab-held part of Jerusalem, was one of the most far-reaching consequences of the Six-Day War. More than the conquest of any other piece of territory, this one would profoundly reshape Israeli society. And they knew it at the time. Records of cabinet discussions as the fighting raged are full of hesitation on the part of Eshkol and others. They knew that the capture of the historic lands of ancient Israel, Judea and Samaria, would unleash new political forces in Israel and that these lands would be hard to give back as part of a future peace settlement. They also knew that having to rule over millions of Palestinians would change Israeli society. Secret studies done within the Israeli government in the months leading to the war had come to the same conclusions.
But the enthusiasm of commanders on the scene and other politicians who understood the historic opportunity that lay before them allowed for no such subtleties. On June 7, Israeli forces entered the Old City of Jerusalem and prayed at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. By June 8, fighting on the West Bank was essentially over and Israel occupied the entire territory.
AND IN THE GOLAN
The war in the north began with shelling by Syria on Israeli positions and villages, but no real attack. Not until he was certain that Egypt had been defeated and both the Sinai and West Bank taken, did Israeli defence minister Dayan allow his forces to attack the Golan in earnest on June 9. They took the Golan in 24 hours.
In later years, Dayan noted that he was convinced that taking the Golan would only mean having to return it eventually for peace, and might make peace more difficult to achieve. The official Israeli line is that they had to take the Golan to relieve northern Israel from the danger of periodic shelling by Syria. Many Israelis felt that Syria, having helped initiate the crisis that led to the war, should not “get off” without loss. Finally, many years later, Dayan would note that Israeli agricultural and other interests pushed for the takeover of the Golan to further solidify Israel’s hold over important sources of water.
By June 10, fighting was over on all fronts. As the guns fell silent, Middle Eastern and world leaders struggled to appreciate the stunning new reality. Several believed that it might present opportunities for a new approach to peace in the Middle East.
The contours of a possible peace were easy to see. Israel had taken significant land from the three most important “frontline” Arab states. Surely some sort of a trade could be worked out whereby Israel would hand it back in return for a lasting peace. This “land for peace” formula was en- shrined in the gist of the UN Security Council Resolution adopted after fierce negotiation that solidified the ceasefire, the famous, if ambiguously worded, Resolution 242.
But the Arab countries, badly stung and humiliated by their catastrophic defeat, were not willing to consider such formulas. Meeting at the first Arab League Summit after the war, Arab states adopted what became known as the “three nos: no recognition of Israel; no peace; and no negotiations with her.”
It would not be until after another war in 1973, when Egyptian forces fought for a much more limited objective, and acquitted themselves much better, that the man who succeeded Nasser, Anwar Sadat, would be in a political position to make his historic trip to Jerusalem. Sadat pursued a peace treaty that would return the Sinai to Egypt — land for peace. He would later pay for this peace with his life when a Muslim extremist assassinated him.
If the Arab states were not prepared to make peace with Israel after the 1967 war, neither were they prepared to make war with it on behalf of the Palestinian cause. The period after the 1967 saw the rise of a previously insignificant movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and particularly its Fatah faction led by Yasser Arafat. Having no other recourse, this group turned to spectacular acts of terrorism and the 1970s became notable for hijackings and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.