A year or so before the war my class was taken to see the Masada exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall. The major excavations had been completed and the stupendous exhibition travelled to various places and everywhere the history of the fortress whose defendants committed suicide rather than surrender to the besieging Romans captured many people’s imagination.
When, in the spring of 1967 the tension around Israel started to build up, it seemed like Masada was with us again. A small country was surrounded by much bigger enemies who were determined to destroy it. Not just defeat it in war or take over some territory but to destroy it.
This was most clearly expressed by the then Foreign Minister, Anwar Sadat, who spoke of sweeping every Israeli man, woman and child into the sea. Recently uncovered documents show plans that the Egyptians and the Jordanians had for the massacre of Jews in captured Israeli cities. This is not surprising if one looks at the history of various places such as Nablus, which is not quite as straightforward as some of those writing about it would like to make it out.
Let me run through my memories very quickly. I recall ferocious debates at school with my classmates. (Yes, m’lud, it was a very ordinary grammar school in north west London but somehow we read newspapers and tried to work out what was going on and what may have been causing it.)
I recall my father writing articles in various publications (yes, ink seems to run in our veins). Like most people, he was frightened of what might happen. Will Israel be destroyed? Will there be another Diaspora? Will, as he put it in one article, the taunting sound of “hep, hep, hep” sound again in European cities as displaced Jews pour in? What will the United States do? It was not, at the time, heavily involved in the Middle East but had opposed Egypt’s escalating involvement in Yemen through the sixties. Would the Soviet Union get involved on behalf of its client state, Egypt?
It seems to be fashionable at the moment among the great and the good to talk of Israel’s wasted victory, of the fact that the situation is no better than it was 40 years ago, of the way Israel’s population has split over the subject of what to do with the lands that were occupied in 1967.
All of that chatter ignores a basic fact: with the Arab countries creating alliances for the specific purpose of destroying Israel, with the Soviet Union arming Egypt and providing Nasser with many “advisers” who were mostly military officers, with the UN peacekeeping troops leaving the Suez Canal at President Nasser’s request, with constant attacks across the border and, finally, with the closing of the Tiran Straits to Israeli shipping, there were very few choices. It was fight or die for the whole country. Given the history of the twentieth century, it is understandable that the grim Israeli reaction was “never again”.
Finally, I recall my father’s instructions to listen to the radio news every morning before I went to school and leave him a note (he got up later) as soon as the war started. There were several false alarms but on June 5, with a sinking feeling I left that note. It had begun.
I shall leave the description of the actual war particularly the various toys involved in it to my colleague. What interests me and what we need to recall is the astonishment with which the world greeted the speed with which the Israelis defeated their enemies, though the losses in East Jerusalem, after Jordan, misled by Egypt, attacked having promised not to do so, were heavy.
The Golan Heights were difficult with the Syrians shelling Israeli soldiers and settlements. But for all of that it was an astonishing victory. The weakness that it revealed in the Arab fighting capability made many wonder why President Nasser had pushed for the war to the extent he did. Did he expect the war to break out or did he hope to take the situation to the brink and have it resolved somehow as it had been in 1956? Above all, had he actually forgotten that although the Suez crisis ended with a humiliation for France and Britain, the actual war in the Sinai had been won by Israel?
As it happens, I have been reading a fascinating new book by a young historian, Laura M. James, “Nasser at War – Arab Images of the Enemy”. Dr James has spent a good deal of time and energy trying to work out precisely what motivated President Nasser and many of those around him. How much did they know about the Israeli preparedness and, above all, about their own troops?
The evidence, on her showing, is confusing. People tell different tales and much has been eroded from memories. But the conundrum of what was Nasser trying to achieve remains. Of course, it is possible, that he was merely trying to survive. Certainly that is true about the immediate post-war period. Having roused the Arab masses with his anti-Western and, only secondarily before 1967, anti-Israeli rhetoric, he could not show himself to be anything less than the man who was going to “liberate” Arab lands, that is destroy Israel.
One of the most curious episodes in that build-up to the war was the certainty with which Egypt and Syria accepted that there was Israeli military build-up on the Syrian border, though a swift check through intelligence information might have disabused both Nasser and Hafez al-Asad that this was an unlikely scenario.
This was the outcome, as Dr James describes, partly of wishful thinking, partly of misunderstanding and partly of certainty given by the Soviet Union confirming the information. That raises questions about Soviet intelligence. Did they not know any better?
A recent book published in the United States by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, entitled “Foxbats over Dimona” puts a different interpretation on the whole episode. According to Daniel Pipes’s review (as I have not yet seen the book) the misinformation was deliberate.
The Soviet Union was worried about the nuclear facility the Israelis were building at Dimona and thought of eliminating it. The plan was a kind of reversal of the Franco-British one in 1956.
By giving misleading and highly provocative information the Soviet Union would provoke the war, which would be fought to a standstill, then move in to destroy Dimona. They miscalculated about the speed and comprehensiveness of Israeli victory, which casts some doubt on the issue, though, otherwise, the scenario is entirely plausible and explains hitherto mysterious aspects.
Judging by the stories told at the time, the Soviet officers in Egypt were as stunned as anyone else by Israeli movement forward and the Egyptian rout. Many Israelis at the time knew Russian and they intercepted radio messages that were full of uncomplimentary (and unprintable) references to the Egyptian forces.
Some Soviet officers were captured but the whole subject was hushed up and some kind of exchange instituted between Israel and the USSR.
At the end of the week, the world rubbed its eyes and saw a different landscape. There were Israeli soldiers at the West Wall. There were Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights. There were Israeli soldiers near the Suez Canal. The great might of the Arab alliance had been shown up for the sham it was and Israel acquired many problems.
It is, however, untrue to say that the victory was wasted, as the Economist, Sky News, the BBC and many others have been saying. Undoubtedly, some political and military decisions taken after June 1967 were the wrong ones. Israel is a country and its political and military leaders can fall prey to arrogance and misjudgement.
But, as Sever Plocker argues in Ynet, those achievements on the whole were not wasted. Let us enumerate them. After the Six-Day War the question of whether Israel exists or not had been settled, though not to the satisfaction of all. It is a country and it has the right to defend itself, though this is not acknowledged by too many people.
Despite being on constant war footing, Israel has grown in population and economy.
Israel’s population grew from 2.6 million to 7.1 million, 2 million of whom were new immigrants. The Gross National Product grew by 630 per cent. Real per capita product, the benchmark for measuring economic development, grew by 163 per cent and last year crossed the $21,000 mark. The average standard of living in Israel is only 22 per cent lower than in Britain; on the eve of the Six-Day War there was a 44 per cent gap.As those advocates of a boycott will find out very quickly, Israel leads in medical and information technology. We can buy oranges and avocados somewhere else but not medication used by oncologists or military equipment or software for computers. Certainly we cannot buy them from any Arab country.
The main enemy states, Egypt, Jordan and, even, Syria have acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. This would not have been possible without the 1967 war.
There is the downside, of course. While the Arabs in Israel have a considerably better life than those under the Palestinian Authority or in refugee camps among their brother Arabs, there are frictions that cannot be solved until two things happen. There is a complete acceptance by all Palestinians that Israel has a right to exist and, specifically, by the Israeli Arabs that their loyalty is to the Israeli state. There are indications of movement as far as the latter is concerned but very little in the former.
The new territories meant that Israel found itself overstretched in many ways and the gradual disengagement probably made the country stronger.
A far greater problem is an existential one. Having to fight for one’s existence, having to endure constant attacks and, above all, having to rule over other people – the Palestinians – has caused all sorts of heart-searching among the Israelis. (Well, let’s face it, they invented angst.)
Was the need to behave like a strong military power in keeping with the ideals of the Jewish state? Can the Jews see themselves as a powerful nation or do they need to regard themselves as either peaceful settlers or victims? Melanie Phillips gives an excellent account of the many various angst-ridden discussion that the anniversary has occasioned.
Above all, the perception of Israel changed in the West. Masada did not happen. They did not sit there waiting for the conquerors to advance, then commit mass suicide. The defenders rushed out of the fortress and smote their enemy. That changed everything. No longer could the West, especially on the Left of the spectrum, with its obsessive need for victims to patronize, support Israel. It had to be the Palestinians who seem destined to be everybody’s victims, though their plight at the hands of Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians and each other does not seem to bother the many organizations that scream their hatred of Israel in the name of Palestinian welfare.
The appearance of the Palestinians as a political entity is also the outcome of the war. Let us not forget that those famous pre-1967 borders did not include a Palestinian state or even a Palestinian territory. Going back to the borders would hand Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan.
The war involved the Soviet Union more heavily in the Middle East. After the Egyptian collapse the rearmament was speedy but entirely on Soviet terms. Nasser could say little.
There were other changes. Jordan’s King Hussein never quite forgave Nasser for involving him in a war that lost him thousands of soldiers and half the country, as well as lumbering him with the PLO, of which he eventually rid himself during those extremely bloody months of 1970 – 71.
Lebanon, the shelter for those who escaped from Jordan, is still suffering from the Palestinian incursion and the news of the continuing fighting in at least one refugee camp remind us of that.
What the war did not achieve is any kind of unity of purpose among Arabs. Internecine warfare has gone on in the last forty years and even hatred of Israel and the United States cannot stop that.
Two more issues need to be looked at, however briefly. One is the rise of militant Islamism that eventually overcame the militant Arab nationalism of the fifties and sixties. It is something of a mantra that the problem of the Palestinian lands caused that development, which eventually led to Al-Qaeda and the problems the world is facing now.
Setting aside issues of past Muslim-Western wars, we need to look at another country, Iran. It was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 that aroused dormant Islamism and it was his regime, still in power under President Ahmadinejad, that fed it in the last two and a half decades. The Palestinian issue is a thorny one but it is not the cause of our problems. The notion that if it is settled (by the destruction of Israel, if needs be) there will be peace in the world is fallacious.
Lastly, there is the malign influence of the UN and the various tranzi organizations. One could write a whole separate posting on the subject (and one probably will) but let me, at this stage raise just one aspect of the problem.
The United Nations encouraged the defeated Arabs to ignore their defeat once again. It must have been the only war in history in which the heavily defeated side could refuse to agree to any terms and could demand that the victorious army immediately withdraw from the land it occupied with nothing being offered in return.
It is that kind of inability to deal with the world as it is not as they would like it to be that has condemned the Palestinians and many of the Arab states to the fruitless but expensive and hideous struggle for what they know not of the last forty years. Events in Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that what is going on now is far worse than the Israeli occupation show up the futility of the several subsequent wars, the war of attrition and the two intifadas.
Money has been poured into the PLO and the PA. Thousands of people have been killed. Israel will survive. It has already recovered from the horrors of the second intifada. It has more friends than one would believe if one took one’s news from the MSM solely though Israel’s fight, which is also our fight, will be long and unpleasant.
What of the Palestinians? What will they achieve?