Next month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most profound events in Israel’s brief but eventful history: the Six Day War, which began on June 5, 1967.
While enumerating several milestones in Jewish and Israeli history in his column last week, Mordechai Ben-Dat drew attention both to the 50-year mark of this “momentous” war, and to the dread this event caused, both within Israel and throughout the Diaspora.
Ben-Dat also cited an inspiring passage from Elie Wiesel that captured the complex mood of the time, including the line, “So deep was Jewish anguish that it transformed itself into solidarity: the Jewish people in its entirety offered its unconditional support to Israel whose most trusted and faithful ally it had become.”
In the weeks preceding the war, the Israeli airwaves were full of anti-Israel propaganda, mostly coming from Egypt and Syria, promising the country’s annihilation — the completion of what the Arab world had failed to accomplish in 1948, in its war to destroy the then-nascent Jewish state. An anti-Israel frenzy erupted in the Arab streets.
Reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactic of sowing disinformation while propping up Syria, the then-Soviet Union goaded the Arabs by claiming, falsely, that Israel was poised to attack Syria, its client state.
Events quickly spun out of control, with some historians arguing that then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser became trapped in his own anti-Israel rhetoric.
U Thant, who was the UN’s secretary general at the time, made matters worse with his feckless decision to remove all UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, even though Nasser reportedly only demanded a partial withdrawal. This allowed Nasser to bring his tanks right up to Israel’s border, further fomenting war fever.
Some of those forces had been redeployed from Yemen, where Egypt was using poison gas in its attacks. One cannot overstate the panic suffered by Holocaust survivors in Israel, so close to the Shoah, over a pending Egyptian assault on the Jewish state involving gas.
Then, violating international guarantees to Israel of freedom of passage, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea to Israeli shipping — a blatant act of war. Despite its exhaustive — though futile — search for a diplomatic solution, Israel was left with no option but to launch a pre-emptive strike.
The stunning success of that daring strike — of Israel’s air force, which was just a fraction of what it has become, destroying most of the Egyptian and Syrian jets on the ground — was perceived not only as a brilliant tactical achievement, but also as a miraculous salvation for a country whose fate appeared to be hanging by a thread.
Anti-Israel revisionists, who insist the Jewish state always knew it would prevail and grab territory, typically ignore the uncertainty of that time, so we must remind ourselves of exactly what was at stake.
Israeli historian Michael Oren’s book, Six Days of War, remains a must-read. Also vital is an understanding of the aftermath of the war and what it meant to those Israelis committed to the UN-backed “land-for-peace” formula, which was a rebuke of the Arab League’s defiant “Three No’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel — ever.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat shattered the Arab rejectionist front with his heroic 1977 visit to Jerusalem, which led to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement. Efforts to reach an agreement with the Palestinians followed with the 1993 Oslo accords and, in 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace accord.
So, despite serious setbacks along the way – including former PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a two-state deal with Israel in 2000, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ rejection of an even better deal in 2008 and wars with Hezbollah and Hamas – there have been major advances since those days.
Still, had it not been for Israel’s miracle in 1967, no progress would have been possible.
Paul Michaels is CIJA’s research director.