Middle East

The Six Day War, 50 years later: Still little chance for harmony in a region of perpetual conflict

Vastly outnumbered, outgunned, besieged on every front and overwhelmed by the wealth and diplomatic influence of the Arab States, Israel faced its hour of maximum danger 50 years ago. And it did so alone: 100,000 Egyptian troops, armour and artillery had amassed on Israel’s southern border; the UN peace-keeping force along the Israeli-Egyptian frontier had been expelled by Egypt; a naval blockade upon Israel’s southern port of Eilat had severed Israel’s maritime routes to the world; and further Egyptian forces had been transferred to the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to prepare the eastern front of attack. The Arab public from Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad was alight, euphoric in anticipation of the final defeat of Zionism and all the plunder and spoils the conquest would surely entail.

Chaim Herzog, an officer in Israel’s War of Independence and future President of the state, had been appointed military commentator on Israeli radio station Kol Israel in the weeks before the outbreak of war. He would speak directly to the public each night to comfort and inform, to maintain morale and keep dread at bay. On June 1, 1967, he dedicated his broadcast to Egypt’s aerial superiority. “I want to discuss our air problem,” he began, before examining the size of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces and conceding their heavy quantitative advantage over solitary Israel. He took solace in the prowess of the Israeli pilot and the “traditions of self-sacrifice of countless Jewish generations, the spirit of pioneering and volunteering.” He concluded by assuring the public that in spite of the undeniable might of the Egyptian and allied forces, given the choice of being in an Egyptian bomber bound for Tel Aviv or being in Tel Aviv awaiting the payload, “out of purely a selfish desire for self –preservation he would opt to be in Tel Aviv.” The broadcast reflected the mood of Israel in those days - stoic, plucky and ready to work and carry on, never mind the horrors that had preceded them or the periled path ahead. There was no time for pessimism.

While on the face of it, little has changed, some crucial differences can be detected. Egypt and Israel have been at peace since 1979. Israel and Jordan since 1994. Iran has surpassed Israel as the greatest threat to regional peace in the eyes of the Arab world.

The six days of combat that followed, June 5-10, 1967, could scarcely be believed. Had they taken place in the age of the prophets, the Six Day War would now be enshrined in Jewish liturgy and marked each year by the eating of magnificent foods and the recital of words of praise to the glory of the Almighty.

But this was a more rational time, and the causes and forces that drove the parties to war have been subjected to more sober analysis. Even so, the dramatic context in which the war arose, the sense of doom and foreboding of it all, and the manner of the victory, both decisive and inconceivable, ensure that a sense of wonder remains around those few days in June 1967.

In the opening hours of the war, Egypt’s air force was reduced to a smouldering ruin on the ground, immediately neutralizing the great threat that Herzog had identified in his radio broadcast. In the following days, Egyptian troops were driven out of the Sinai to the western side of the Suez Canal. Israel responded to Jordanian attacks on the eastern front by driving them out of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Jordan had conquered and annexed in 1948, depriving access by Jews to their holiest prayer site, the Western Wall. The territories were not named “the Occupied Palestinian Territory” by the UN until Israel replaced the Jordanians in controlling the area. The Syrians meanwhile were driven off the Golan Heights.

At the end of those six days, Israel stood in possession of the Holy Basin, including the Temple Mount and Western Wall, the entirety of the West Bank, the strategically vital Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza.

Twenty years earlier, the United Nations General Assembly had sought to settle the question of Palestine by resolving, with both Soviet and American support, that the territory relinquished by Britain following the end of its League of Nations mandate, be partitioned to create two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews acceded and declared independence the following year. The Arabs bristled, rejected partition, and put the nascent Jewish state through a frantic war of independence, an exercise in needless bloodletting and displacement brought about by the Arab rejection of an autonomous Jewish presence in the Middle East. Uneasy armistice agreements were concluded at the end of the war.

The impermanence of the armistice agreements in law – they were expressly stated not to be treaties or to delineate borders – plus the failure of the 1948 war to either give Israel the defensible borders it needed or the Arabs the destruction of Israel they demanded, created a sense of unease that made a fresh war almost inevitable. This was sharpened by the strategic positioning of the Arab forces, which threatened the slow strangulation of the Jewish state. Syria held the high ground in the Golan Heights from which they routinely shelled Israeli villages in the Jordan Valley. The Jordanians held the high ground around Jerusalem, while the Egyptians in Gaza could easily advance on Israel’s heartland. An Israeli civilian could never be more than 30 miles from an Arab soldier.

All this contributed to ensure that the interwar period (1949-1967) was marked by excruciating tension which manifested in a pattern of Arab ambush and Israeli reprisal, with each move carefully calibrated to restore some semblance of deterrence without prematurely pushing the region into another full-scale war.

The Palestinians, frequently seen as mere bystanders in the drama, played a crucial role in the years leading up to the Six Day War.

On the one hand, the Palestinian guerrilla organizations launched regular attacks on Israeli targets from the territory of the neighboring Arab states, with the aim of eliciting an Israeli response capable of setting off a new regional war.

As much as the Palestinians sought to draw the Arab world into a war fought on their behalf, the Arab dictators each used the Palestinian issue to satisfy their own domestic and regional interests, all the while ensuring that the refugee camps remained and the Palestinians never integrated into their respective lands. They would goad one another into war, score points against regional rivals by deriding each other’s failure to quash Zionism once and for all, and of course, use bellicose words and acts towards Israel to cement their own rule by igniting and satisfying that tempestuous creature, the “Arab street”.

While on the face of it, little has changed – the Arab world is as divided now as it was then - some crucial differences can be detected. A hatred of the Jewish state is no longer sufficient to temporarily unify the Arab nations, nor is a sense of responsibility to the Palestinians enough to draw them into wars against their own interests. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security advisor to President Trump, observed “a reassessment of regional relationships, most notably between Israel and a number of Arab partners.” Egypt and Israel have been at peace since 1979. Israel and Jordan since 1994. Iran has surpassed Israel as the greatest threat to regional peace in the eyes of the Arab world. Qatar’s patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that seek the overthrow of sitting governments is of far greater concern to Egypt and Saudi Arabia than the actions of Israel.

And yet, the Palestinian question remains as vexed now as fifty years ago. Israel is justifiably wary of relinquishing captured territories to the Palestinians and again putting every Israeli civilian within thirty miles of an Arab soldier, or worse, a jihadist. After all, the 1949 armistice lines failed to hold as permanent lines of separation in 1967, and unilateral withdrawals by Israel from Gaza and south Lebanon have neither ended grievances nor violence. Meanwhile the Palestinians, now seemingly incapable of drawing their Arab patrons into full-blown war, instead seek to perpetuate the conflict through political means, advancing the narrative of their misfortune in the halls of the United Nations, the Church synod, the trade union assembly and the university campus. All in all, the prospect of a harmonious Middle East appears as fanciful now as it was in that week in June 1967.

Alex Ryvchin is director of public affairs at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. His new book is The Anti-Israel Agenda – Inside the Political War on the Jewish State (Gefen Publishing House, 2017)