Thursday, June 07, 2007
Six Days, and Forty Years
This week is the forty-year anniversary of the Six-Day War, a military victory for Israel of almost unprecedented scope.
The victory is all the more impressive, given that hardly anybody outside of Israel thought she would survive the war at all. As Michael Oren writes in Powerline:
People don't realize, or remember, how close Israel was to being wiped off the map 40 years ago. On the one hand, it may not seem audacious that Israel acted in the nick of time to save itself. On the other, Israel used almost its entire air force in its successful gambit to wipe out Egypt's air force on the ground. If the attack had failed, Israel would have been extremely vulnerable to the forces already massed on the border.Indeed. Israel was "betting the farm" in several ways, simultaneously, in 1967. Fighting against the combined military might of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq -- yes, Iraq -- Israel was heavily outnumbered and outgunned. In contrast to all of her neighbors, Israel had no land whatsoever that she could afford to lose.
It is also forgotten that all this happened when Gaza belonged to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan. There were no "Israeli settlements" or "occupation," yet the Arab states were poised to drive the Jews into the sea, as they put it. It is this Arab desire to destroy Israel, not Israeli intransigence, that remains the obstacle to both peace and to the creation of a Palestinian state (whether or not they are the same thing).
Bret Stephens (once editor of the Jerusalem Post, now an editor at the Wall Street Journal) wrote at length about the many misconceptions of that war:
Great events have a way not only of reshaping the outlook for the future but also our understanding of the past, usually in the service of clarity. "Why England Slept" was an apt question to ask of Britain in the mid-1930s, but it made sense only after Sept. 1, 1939. By contrast, the Six Day War laid a thick fog over what came before. Today, the pre-1967 period is remembered (not least by many Israelis) as a time when the country's conscience was clear and respectable world opinion admired "plucky little Israel." Yet these were the same years when Israel lived within what Abba Eban, its dovish foreign minister, called "Auschwitz borders," with only nine miles separating the westernmost part of the West Bank from the Mediterranean Sea.Mr. Stephens politely neglects to mention: if fog surrounds our memories of June 1967, it's fog that was intentionally (and unnecessarily) added later. When people claim that anti-Israeli terrorism started after the Six-Day War and because of it, I remind them that PLO terrorists participated in the war.
It is also often said today that the Six Day War humiliated the Arabs and propelled the region into future rounds of fighting. Yet President Aref of Iraq had prefaced his call to destroy Israel by describing the war as the Arabs' chance "to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948." It is said that the war inaugurated the era of modern terrorism, as the Arab world switched from a strategy of conventional confrontation with Israel to one of "unconventional" attacks. Yet hundreds of Israelis had already been killed in fedayeen raids in Israel's first 19 years of existence.
It is said that the Palestinian movement was born from Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Yet the Palestine Liberation Organization was already in its third year of operations when the war began. It is said that Israel enjoyed international legitimacy so long as it lived behind recognized frontiers. Yet those frontiers were no less provisional before 1967 than they were after. Only after the Six Day War did the Green Line come to be seen as the "real" border.
Fog also surrounds memories of the immediate aftermath of the war. To read some recent accounts, a more sagacious Israel could have followed up its historic victory with peace overtures that would have spared everyone the bloody entanglements of its occupation of the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Or, failing that, it could have resisted the lure of building settlements in the territories in order not to complicate a land-for-peace transaction.
In fact, the Israeli cabinet agreed on June 19 to offer the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace deals. In Khartoum that September, the Arab League declared "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it." As for Jewish settlements, hardly any were built for years after the war: In 1972, for instance, only about 800 settlers had moved to the West Bank.
Nor was there ever any need for Israel's antagonists to see themselves as victims; I still remember a televised interview with Moshe Dayan, then foreign minister of Israel, explaining (in that cute British accent of his) that the territories captured could be returned tomorrow, in exchange for a meaningful peace treaty. It is not to the credit of Israel's neighbors that it took Egypt another decade, and another brutal war, to give peace a try. Jordan dithered for an additional decade and a half; and Syria still considers itself at war with Israel.
How well do you know the history of the Six-Day War, by the way?
I got seven out of eight questions right. (I missed #2 on a technicality.) How about you?
For some contemporary news coverage, have a look at Time Magazine's initial report. (hat tip: LGF.) Needless to say, Time has changed its perspective considerably in the past forty years. (hat tip: FSZ.)
There are many amazing stories told about Israel's victories in 1967. Remind me to talk about them sometime. (Ask about the Israeli tugboat at Suez... or about the Egyptian tank column in the Sinai... or about the many Israelis overseas who, as soon as war broke out, scrambled to return to Israel, most of them after the war was already over. Or ask about some of the more serious stories -- Eli Cohen and Wolfgang Lodz, the secret intelligence wars of Meir Amit and Aharon Yariv, the incredibly tough nut that was Ammunition Hill. Or even some of the better-known stories, such as how the Israeli Air Force was able to catch the Egyptian Air Force with its pants down, destroying virtually every warplane Egypt had on the ground.)
If I sound extremely proud of Israel, my adopted country -- well, I am. Rarely has any country won such a decisive victory -- and this against overwhelming odds, while fighting for its life, in the span of six days.
(And yet: this victory came at a price. As Israelis occasionally point out, the number of Israeli casualties in 1967, as a percentage of the Israeli population of the time, was twice as high as the percentage of Americans lost during the entire Vietnam War. And Israel saw it happen in six days.)