Thousands of words have been written in the past few weeks commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War in 1967. Many, like those that appeared in this newspaper, elegantly described the battles fought and emotions felt at the time. Others dwelled only on the aftermath, the settlements that sprouted after the war and Israeli relations with the Palestinians. Here I’d like to fill in a bit of the history behind the event.
With Israel a powerful presence in the Middle East today, it’s hard to imagine the feeling of vulnerability — the terror — that gripped the nation in the months before the 1967 war exploded. Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had moved troops into the Sinai Peninsula and ordered United Nations peacekeeping forces there out of a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. When U.N. Secretary-General U Thant accepted his demand without batting an eye, an emboldened Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, a clear act of war. Meanwhile, Cairo radio blared out threats around the clock, vowing this time to annihilate the “Zionist entity” and all the Jews in it.
A nation filled with Holocaust survivors quaked at the vision of another catastrophe. Ten thousand graves were dug for the coming Armageddon, and even the military, although confident of its strength, predicted that victory would come only at the cost of thousands of lives. “It is now a matter of our national survival, of ‘to be or not to be,’” Yitzchak Rabin, then the chief of staff, told his generals. Committed to having Israel take the initiative rather than wait to be attacked, Rabin discussed his plans with the retired former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Instead of the approval he expected, he received a vitriolic scolding and accusations of endangering his country by planning to act without a world power at its side. Distraught at that response and the hesitations of the current prime minister, Levi Eshkol, Rabin collapsed and was out of commission for a full day.
In some ways, Eshkol himself became a victim of the national anxieties. Moderate by nature, he sought ways to avoid war and engage the United States in seeking a solution to the crisis. But to Israelis he appeared weak, especially after a radio broadcast in which he stammered over words intended to reassure listeners. Nobody knew that the script he read had been so marked up with corrections it was barely legible, or that he’d had cataract surgery, making it difficult for him to see. The attacks against him led Golda Meir, his strong supporter, to defend him with her well-known aphorism: “A leader who does not hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader.”
Under pressure, Eshkol relinquished his portfolio as defense minister (which he held along with being prime minister) to Moshe Dayan, the people’s choice. Dayan got credit for Israel’s lightning victory, while Eshkol faded into the background, although the prime minister had been strengthening and modernizing Israel’s army for years.
In the United States, President Johnson warned against preemption. “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone,” he proclaimed. But after a secret mission to Washington, Mossad chief Meir Amit reported that in spite of Johnson’s rhetoric, he sensed a “green light” to go ahead. The war broke out two days later.
The euphoria that followed Israel’s triumph contrasted sharply with the panic beforehand. Later, the bravado that stemmed from this victory would trip up Israel’s military leaders in confronting another Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. Over-confident of their prowess, they would underestimate Arab strength and have to struggle mightily to win the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In 1967, however, the elation was warranted.
But now another quandary gripped the land. Israel had begun the war strictly to eliminate the Egyptian threat and ended it in control of more than a million Palestinians and an area three times its original size. It’s difficult to grasp today the degree of confusion that existed back then about how to handle these conquests. Shortly after the war, Israeli leaders offered to withdraw from Sinai and the Golan Heights in return for peace treaties with Egypt and Syria. They would negotiate the West Bank with Jordan. Those proposals ended with the famous three Arab “Nos”: no recognition, no negotiations and no peace. From then on, the internal clash of ideals, of settlements and anti-settlements, of one-state and two-state solutions, have ruled out any easy answers to the question of what to do with the territories.
The war left Israel with a mixed bag of joy at its results and conflicts over them. But for the moment, as we mark this anniversary, let’s just try to relive the jubilation Jews everywhere felt after that astounding week in June half a century ago.
Francine Klagsbrun’s new biography, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” will be published by Schocken Books in October.