Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael Oren
A review by Tony Judt
Thirty-five years ago this summer, in one of the shortest wars in modern
history, Israel confronted and destroyed the combined armies of Egypt, Syria,
and Jordan, established itself as a regional superpower, and definitively re-configured
the politics of the Middle East and much else besides. Since we are still living
with its consequences, the Six Day War itself seems somehow familiar. Its immediacy
is reinforced by the presence today at the head of Israel's government of one
of the generals who played an important part in the victory in 1967, and by the
salience of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (occupied in the course of the campaign)
in contemporary international politics. The detailed implications of Israel's
lightning victory are etched into our daily news.
In truth, however, 1967 was a very long time ago. Hitler had been dead just twenty-two years, and the state of Israel itself had not yet celebrated its twentieth anniversary. The overwhelming majority of today's Israeli citizens were not yet born or not yet Israelis. Nineteen years after its birth, the country was still shaped by its origins in turn-of-the-century Labor Zionism. The only leaders whom Israel had known were men and women of the Second Aliyah, the Russian and Polish immigrants of the first years of the twentieth century; and the country was still utterly dominated by that founding generation and its sensibilities. A time traveler returning to Israel in 1967 must traverse not just time, but also space: in many crucial respects the country still operated, as it were, on Bialystok time.
This had implications for every dimension of Israeli life. The kibbutzim, curious communitarian progeny of an unlikely marriage of Marx and Kropotkin, dominated the cultural landscape no less than the physical one. Even though it was already clear to some observers that the country's future lay in technology, in industry, and in towns, the self-description of Israel drew overwhelmingly on a socialist realist image of agrarian pioneers living in semi-autarkic egalitarian communes. Most of the country's leaders, beginning with David Ben-Gurion himself, were members of a kibbutz. Kibbutzim were attached to national movements that were affiliated with political parties, and all of them reflected, to the point of caricature, their fissiparous European heritage, splitting and re-splitting through the years along subtle doctrinal fault lines.
Political conversation in Israel in those years thus echoed and recapitulated the vocabulary and the obsessions of the Second International, circa 1922. Labor Zionism was sub-divided over issues of dogma and politics (in particular the question of Socialist Zionism's relationship to communism) in ways that might have seemed obsessive and trivial to outsiders but were accorded respectful attention by the protagonists. Laborites of various hues could indulge such internecine squabbles because they had a monopoly of power in the country. There were some religious parties, and above all there were also the "Revisionists," the heirs of Vladimir Jabotinsky and his nationalist followers, now incarnated in Menachem Begin's Herut party (the forerunner of today's Likud). But the latter were in a permanent minority; and anyway it is significant that Begin and his like were still referred to disparagingly as "revisionist," as though it were the doctrinal schisms of the early twentieth century that still determined the colors and the contours of Israeli politics.
There were other aspects of Israeli life and Zionist education that echoed the founders' European roots. On the kibbutz where I spent much time in the mid-1960s, a fairly representative agricultural community in the Upper Galilee affiliated with one of the splinter parties to the left of the main Labor Party (Mapai), the concerns of the early Zionists were still very much alive. The classical dilemmas of applied socialism were debated endlessly. Should an egalitarian community impose sameness? Is it sufficient to distribute resources equally to all participants, allowing them to dispose of these according to preference, or is preference itself ultimately divisive and taste best imposed uniformly by the collective? How far should the cash nexus be allowed into the community? Which resources and activities are communal in their essence, which private?
The dominant tone on the kibbutz and in the country was provincial and puritanical. I was once earnestly reprimanded by a kibbutz elder for singing "inappropriate" popular songs, that is, the latest Beatles hits; and Zionist education went to great lengths to encourage intracommunity fellow feeling and affection among the young while eviscerating it of any hint of the erotic. The prevailing ethos, with its faith in the redemptive value of Land and Labor, its scout-like clothing and communal dances, its desert hikes and dutiful ascents of Masada (the hard way, of course), its lectures on botany and biblical geography, and its earnest weekly discussion of socialist "issues," represented nothing so much as a transposition into the Middle East of the preoccupations and mores of the Independent Labour Party of 1890s Britain, or the Wandervogel walking clubs of late Wilhelminian Germany.
Not surprisingly, Arabs figured very little in this world. In discussions of the writings of Ber Borochov and the other iconic texts of Labor Zionism, much attention was of course paid to the question of "exploitation." But in accordance with the Marxist framework in which all such debates were couched, "exploitation" was restricted in its meaning to the labor theory of value: you exploit someone else by employing them, remunerating them at the minimum required to keep them working productively, and pocketing the difference as profit. Accordingly, as seen from the perspective of kibbutz-based Labor Zionists, to hire Arabs (or anyone else) for wages was to exploit them. This had been the subject of animated practical quarrels as well as doctrinal arguments among kibbutz members historically it was part of what distinguished kibbutzim from the labor-employing village cooperatives, or moshavim. But beyond such rather abstruse considerations, which were of little relevance to the real Israeli economy, relations between Jews and Arabs were not much discussed.
It is easy, looking back, to see in this curious oversight the source of our present troubles. And critics of the whole Zionist project are quick to remark that this refusal to engage with the presence of Arabs was the original sin of the Zionist forefathers, who consciously turned away from the uncomfortable fact that the virgin landscape of unredeemed Zion was already occupied by people who would have to be removed if a Jewish state was ever to come about. It is true that a few clear-sighted observers, notably Ahad Ha'am, had drawn attention to this dilemma and its implications, but most had ignored it. And yet I do not believe that the matter was quite so simple, to judge from my own recollection of the last years of the old Zionism. Many Israelis of that time rather prided themselves on their success in living peacefully alongside Arab neighbors within the national borders. Far from deliberately denying the Arab presence, they boasted of their acquaintance with Arabs, and especially with Druze and Bedouins. They encouraged the young to familiarize themselves with local Arab society no less than with the flora and the fauna of the landscape.
But that, of course, is just the point. For pre-1967 Zionists, Arabs were a part of the physical setting in which the state of Israel had been established, but they were decidedly not part of the mental template, the Israel-of-the-mind, through which most Israelis saw their politics and their environment. Taking the Jews out of Europe did not take Europe out of the Jews. Notwithstanding the presence of Yemenite and North African Jews, condescendingly tolerated by the Ashkenazi majority, Israel in 1967 was a European country in all but name. The country was born of a European project, and it was geographically and sociologically configured by the vagaries of European history. Its laws were shaped by European precedent, its leaders and ideologists were marinated in late-nineteenth-century European socialism and nationalism.
However much they had consciously turned their backs on Europe and a significant proportion of the adult population of that time consisted of concentration-camp survivors with few fond memories of the old continent Israelis were European to the core. I do not just mean the German-speaking Jews on Mount Carmel who reproduced every little detail of life in late-Habsburg Vienna and never bothered to learn Hebrew, or the English-speaking Jews drinking tea, eating fruitcake, and playing cricket in Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi; I am speaking about the whole country.
The result was an uncomfortable tension in Israeli sensibilities. A part of the Zionist enterprise was the wholehearted commitment to Zion, after all. It entailed a root-and-branch rejection of the old world: its assumptions, its comforts, its seductions. At first, this had been a choice; later, thanks to Hitler, Zionism became an urgent necessity. The European Jews who ended up in Palestine after 1945 were committed to adapting to life in a small state of their own making in far Western Asia. But the process of adaptation had not advanced very far by the mid-1960s, and Arabs (like the Middle East in general) were simply not at the center of most Israelis' concerns. There was nothing particularly anti-Arab about this. As I recall, many Israelis were just as prejudiced against local Jews from North Africa or the Near East as they were against Arabs, and perhaps more so.
The Six Day War was to change all that, utterly. And yet, for all its lasting consequences, there was nothing particularly unusual about the origin of the conflict. Like its predecessor, the Suez War of 1956, the war of 1967 is best regarded in the light in which Israel's generals saw it at the time: as unfinished business left over from the War of Independence. None of the parties to that earlier conflict was happy with the outcome, and all regarded the 1948 armistice as temporary. Although Israel had succeeded in expanding its borders beyond those of the original partition, it was still left with what were regarded, in the military calculations of the time, as virtually indefensible frontiers.
In the course of the early 1950s, the Egyptians encouraged guerrilla incursions across Israel's southern border, inviting regular retaliation from Israel, whose military had by 1955 decided to provoke Cairo into open conflict. In October 1956, taking advantage of Anglo-French alarm at Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalist ambitions, Israel conspired with Paris and London to mount an attack on Egypt. Although initially successful, the campaign was cut short under pressure from Moscow and Washington. The European powers were humiliated, and Israel was obliged to withdraw back to the 1948 line.
In these circumstances Israel was as insecure and vulnerable as ever. Acknowledging this, the United States undertook to guarantee that the Straits of Tiran, leading from the Red Sea to Eilat, Israel's port on the Gulf of Aqaba, would henceforth be kept open. In the meantime United Nations forces were to be stationed along the Egypt-Israel frontier, and also at Sharm-el-Sheikh, at the entrance to the Straits on the southeastern tip of the Sinai peninsula. Thereafter the Egyptian frontier was quiet, and it was Syria whose Ba'athist leaders nursed ambitions to displace Nasser at the head of Arab radicalism that emerged in the early 1960s as Israel's chief antagonist.
In addition to providing hospitality to Palestinian irregulars raiding across Israel's northeast borders or through Jordan, Damascus had various well-attested plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River. Largely for this reason, Israeli strategists had by 1967 come to regard Syria as the main short-term threat to national security. From the Golan Heights above the Sea of Galilee, Syria could and did target Israeli kibbutzim and villages; and it was a destabilizing influence on neighboring states, Jordan especially. Still, it was Nasser's Egypt that had by far the larger armed forces. Were Israel seriously to entertain going to war with Syria, it would inevitably have first to neutralize the threat from its historic enemy to the south.
There is good reason to believe now that the chain of events leading to the outbreak of war on June 5 began with at least a partial misunderstanding. Frustrated by Syrian obduracy and the continuing cross-border attacks on frontier kibbutzim, Israeli jets struck Syrian targets in the spring of 1967. In April, Israeli generals (including Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin) publicly threatened Damascus with worse to come if the border harassments did not stop. Rabin himself seems to have favored toppling the Syrian regime, but Prime Minister Levi Eshkol felt otherwise: Syria was a client state of the Soviet Union, and Eshkol had no desire to provoke the Russians. He was not alone in his assessment. The former Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, not yet in the government, is quoted by Michael B. Oren as regretting Rabin's outburst: "He who sends up smoke signals has to understand that the other side might think there's really a fire."
And that, in effect, is what happened. Russian intelligence misconstrued Israeli intentions and secretly advised the Syrians that the Israelis were planning to attack an interpretation given some plausibility by Rabin's broadcast threats, widely commented upon in the foreign press. The Syrians duly informed Cairo. Nasser had no immediate plans to go to war with Israel, for whose military he had a well-founded respect; but he felt constrained to offer public backing for Syria or else lose standing in the Arab world. In practice, such backing took the conventional and not unfamiliar form of bombastic public expressions of full support for Damascus and grand promises to confront Israel at some unspecified future date.
So far, so commonplace. What ratcheted the crisis from rhetoric into war was Nasser's grandstanding demand, on May 17, that U.N. forces be withdrawn from Gaza. The Egyptian dictator almost certainly calculated thus: either the United Nations would do his bidding and withdraw, giving him a cost-free and highly visible public success, or else it would refuse the request and Egypt would score a moral victory as the aggrieved party. Nasser surely did not anticipate the reaction of the U.N.'s ineffective Secretary-General U Thant, which was to order the immediate withdrawal of all U.N. troops the following day not just from Gaza but from the whole Sinai peninsula.
There is some reason to think that Nasser would have preferred that U.N. troops not be withdrawn from Sharm-el-Sheikh. He could hardly be seen to regret U Thant's strange decision, which in practice returned all of Sinai to Egyptian control, but it put him in a predicament. He was obliged to move Egyptian armies forward to the Israeli border and down to Sharm-el-Sheikh, which he duly did; but with Egyptian soldiers once again stationed across from the island of Tiran, Nasser could not resist the temptation, on May 22, to announce that once again the Straits were closed to all Israel-bound shipping, as they had been in the early 1950s.
From this point on, as Nasser probably realized, war would be hard to avoid. From the outside Nasser's moves seemed self-evidently the prelude to a declaration of war; and in any case the closing of the Straits of Tiran was itself, for Israel, a casus belli. Surrounded by enemies, and accessible from the outside only by air and sea, Israel had once again lost its vital link to the Red Sea and beyond. But even so, as Foreign Minister Abba Eban explained at the time, what mattered was not so much the Straits themselves but Israel's deterrent capacity, which would lose all credibility if the country accepted Nasser's blockade without a fight.
Still, Israeli diplomats tried at first to bring international pressure to bear on Egypt to re-open the Straits; and at the same time they asked the Great Powers openly to express their backing for Israel's response. The British and the French refused point blank, De Gaulle confining himself to a warning against any preemptive Israeli strike and an embargo on all French arms deliveries to Israel. (This was a time when the Israeli air force was overwhelmingly dependent on French-made Mirage and Mystère jet fighters.)
The Americans were a bit more sympathetic. Lyndon Johnson tried unsuccessfully to round up support for an international convoy of merchant ships to "run" the Straits and to call Egypt's bluff. He assured Eshkol and Eban of American sympathy, and of American backing in the event of an unprovoked attack on Israel. But more he could not give, despite John Foster Dulles's guarantee in 1957; in the mood of the time, he pleaded, Congress would not allow an American president openly to back Israeli aggression, however justified. Privately, his military experts assured Johnson that the Israelis had little to fear: given the freedom to "shoot first," they would win within a week. But to Eshkol, Johnson merely announced that "Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone."
That, of course, is what Israel did. The Israeli military, with Dayan newly installed by popular demand as defense minister, resented being made to wait for two long weeks of "phony war," but Eshkol's diplomatic strategy surely paid dividends. The Soviet Union put considerable pressure on Egypt not to start a war, but with rather greater success at the end of May, at the last minute, Nasser abandoned a plan to attack Israel first, and he seems to have assumed that the crisis he had half-reluctantly set in motion had been defused. Israel, meanwhile, was seen to have tried every diplomatic means to avert a fight even though most Israeli leaders and all the generals were now committed to war unless Nasser re-opened the Straits, which they rightly assumed he would not do.
The American military experts who anticipated an easy Israeli victory were well-informed, but they were in a minority. Many civilian Israelis feared the worst. From President `Abd al-Rahman Muhammad 'Aref of Iraq ("Our goal is clear we shall wipe Israel off the face of the map. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa") to Palestinian leader Ahmed al-Shuqayri ("We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants and as for the survivors if there are any the boats are ready to deport them"), Arab leaders appeared united in their determination to demolish the Jewish state. Their threats seemed credible enough: between them, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and their friends comprised some nine hundred combat planes, five thousand tanks, and half a million men. At best the Israelis had one-quarter that number of planes, one-fifth the tanks, and only 275,000 men.
The story of the war itself is well known. On June 5, Day One, Israeli planes struck first and demolished much of the Egyptian air force on the ground, destroying 286 combat planes and killing nearly one-third of Egypt's pilots. On Days Two and Three, the Israeli army shattered or dispersed the bulk of the Egyptian armed forces in Sinai, thanks in large measure to Israel's complete domination of the skies. Meanwhile, ignoring Eshkol's invitation to stay out of the war, Jordan's King Hussein believing that his survival depended upon his being seen to join the struggle against Israel aligned himself with the Arab coalition ("the hour of decision has arrived"). In the ensuing battles the Israelis, after some hard fighting, seized all of Jerusalem and Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River.
By the end of Day Four, the war was effectively over. At the United Nations, the United States and the major European powers (including the Soviet Union) had from the outset been pressing urgently for a cease-fire as the Israelis had anticipated: when the war began, Abba Eban estimated that the Israeli armed forces would have at most seventy-two hours before the superpowers intervened. But the Egyptians rejected a cease-fire their ambassador at the United Nations, Mohammad El Kony, was assured from Cairo that things were going well for the Arabs and that time was on their side; and he in turn blithely reassured his Soviet counterpart Nikolai Federenko that the Israelis were bluffing and that the planes they had destroyed were plywood decoys.
The Israelis were lucky, and they knew it: had the Egyptians accepted a U.N. cease-fire on June 6, when it was first proposed, instead of on June 8, when Nasser finally acknowledged the extent of the catastrophe, they might have saved at least part of their army, and Israel would never have occupied the Old City of Jerusalem or the West Bank. Once the cease-fire was agreed (and Israel could hardly oppose it, having fought what was officially a "pre-emptive defensive war"), Dayan took a snap decision on his own initiative to attack Syria the real object of Israeli concern before the cease-fire could take effect. This incurred the enduring wrath of Moscow and ran the risk of undoing the benefits of all Eban's painstaking pre-war diplomatic maneuvers, but it paid off. After some tough hours on the slopes of the Golan, the Israelis overran the Syrian defenses and literally raced to Quneitra to occupy the Heights themselves before time ran out.
The scale of Israel's victory was unprecedented and took some time for all the parties fully to appreciate. Egyptian losses alone amounted to perhaps fifteen thousand men and eighty-five percent of the country's pre-war military hardware. Between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand Arabs fled Gaza and the West Bank into exile, many of them already refugees from 1948. Israel now controlled land covering an area four and a half times its pre-war size, from the Jordan to the Suez Canal, from the Lebanese uplands to the Red Sea. The fighting had not been quite so one-sided as the brevity of the war and its outcome might suggest had it not been for their utter superiority in the air, the Israelis might have been quite closely matched, especially by some of the Jordanian units and the best Egyptian divisions; but it was the result that counted. One outcome of the war, certainly the most important from the Israeli perspective, was this: no responsible Arab leader would ever again seriously contemplate the military destruction of the Jewish state.
Michael B. Oren, in his new history of the war, tells the story in gripping detail. He has done an immense amount of research in many sources, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and English, and although his narrative is keyed to the Israeli perspective, this produces no significant distortion. The Egyptian and Jordanian viewpoints are acknowledged, and Israel's responsibility for pre-war misunderstandings and wartime errors (notably the bombing of the American ship Liberty) is given reasonable prominence. One particular virtue of Oren's book is that it pays full attention to the international dimension of the conflict, especially the concerns and the actions of the two superpowers. This allows Oren to set what was in one sense a very local war into its wider context: the war nearly did not happen thanks to international efforts at prevention, and it certainly would not have been allowed to go on much longer, as the Israelis fully understood.
Oren is good, too, on some of the personalities of the time, especially the Israelis, for whom I think he has a better feel. The stories of Rabin's near-breakdown on the eve of battle, of Dayan's rakish duplicity, of Nasser's horror at the scale of his defeat, are all skillfully told. Some, such as Yigal Allon, the hawkish leader of the left-leaning Achdut Ha'Avodah Party and the sometime hero of the Independence War, come off badly: hungry for battle, eager for territory, loath to relinquish any land in exchange for peace. Others, such as the much underestimated Levi Eshkol, receive a distinct boost in their reputation. It was Eshkol who admonished General Ariel Sharon (when Sharon offered to destroy the Egyptian army "for a generation") that "nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs will still be here." And it was Eshkol who asked his military adviser Yigal Yadin, the day after the lightning conquest of the West Bank: "Have you thought yet about how we can live with so many Arabs?" (Yadin's reply is not recorded.)
And yet Oren's book, for all its great learning and vivid writing, is somehow unsatisfactory. This is not because of his weakness for verbal infelicities: we read of someone seeking to "palliate the Syrians," that "Hussein was once again caught between clashing rocks," and so forth. Nor is it because Oren's grasp grows insecure as he moves beyond the Middle East: France in 1956 assuredly did not conspire with Israel because its government "shared Israel's socialist ideals" (how then account for the co-conspiratorial enthusiasm of Britain's Conservative leaders?); and it was President Eisenhower's economic arm-twisting, not Marshall Bulganin's empty threat to "use missiles," that brought the Suez War to an abrupt end. These slips suggest that Oren may be out of his depth in the broader currents of international history, but they do not vitiate his project.
The problem lies in the project itself. Oren announces at the outset that he plans to put the Six Day War back in its context, and to present its origins and its outcome in such a manner that they will never be looked at in the same way again. And with respect to the origins he does indeed offer a comprehensive, if narrowly diplomatic, account. The story of the war itself is very well told, and for its source base alone this book should now be considered the standard work of reference. Yet neither the origins nor the war come across, at least to this reader, in any strikingly novel way. More thorough than previous accounts, to be sure. Better documented, certainly. Better balanced than many previous histories, no question. But different? Not really.
As for the long-term outcome of the most fateful week in modern Middle Eastern history, Oren does not even begin to engage it. To be fair, any serious attempt at assessing the war's consequences would require another book. But the main consequences of Israel's victory can be summarized fairly succinctly. There was a widespread belief among Arab commentators, swiftly communicated to the Arab "street," that the United States and Britain had helped Israel how else could its air force have achieved such dazzling successes? This prepared the way for a significant increase in anti-American sentiment across the region, a change of mood that proved lasting and with the consequences of which we are living still.
The ironic outcome is that whereas American public support for Israel in June 1967 had actually been rather lukewarm Washington feared alienating moderate Arab opinion the two countries did draw much closer thereafter. Israel was now a force to be reckoned with, a potential ally in an unstable region; and whereas in June 1967 Johnson's advisers had warned him against committing America openly to the Zionist cause, future administrations would have no such anxieties. With Arab states increasingly hostile, the United States had less to lose. France, meanwhile, released from the embarrassment of its imbroglio in Algeria, turned its back on the Jewish state ("un peuple sûr de lui et dominateur," in De Gaulle's notorious phrase) and made the strategic decision to re-build its bridges to the Arab world.
International public opinion also began to shift. Before the war, in Europe as well as the United States, only the far right and the far left were avowedly anti-Israel. Progressives and conservatives alike were sympathetic to Israel, the underdog seemingly threatened with imminent extinction. In some circles comparisons were drawn with the Civil War in Spain just thirty years earlier, with Israel cast as the legitimate republic besieged by aggressive dictators. Throughout Western Europe and North America, in South Africa and Australia, a significant effort was mounted from May 1967 to send volunteers to help Israel, if only by replacing in the fields the men called up to fight.
I played a very minor role in these events, returning in my own case from the United Kingdom to Israel on the last commercial flight to land there before the outbreak of hostilities. Consequently I met a lot of these volunteers, in Europe and then in Israel. There were many non-Jews among them and most would have classed themselves as politically "left." With the trial of Eichmann and the Frankfurt trials of concentration-camp personnel a very recent memory, defending Israel became a minor international cause.
According to Abba Eban, speaking in the aftermath of victory, "Never before has Israel stood more honored and revered by the nations of the world." I am not sure that this was so. Israel was certainly respected in a new way. But the scale of its triumph actually precipitated a falling-away of support. Some might plausibly attribute this to the world's preference for the Jew as victim and there was indeed a certain post-June discomfort among some of Israel's overseas sympathizers at the apparent ease with which their cause had triumphed, as though its legitimacy were thereby called retrospectively into question.
But there was more to it than that. The European Old Left had always thought of Israel, with its long-established Labor leaders, its disproportionately large public sector, and its communitarian experiments, as "one of us." In the rapidly shifting political and ideological currents of the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Israel was something of an anomaly. The New Left, from Berlin to Berkeley, was concerned less with exploited workers and more with the victims of colonialism and racism. The goal was no longer the emancipation of the proletariat; it was rather the liberation of the third-world peasantry and what were not yet called "people of color." Kibbutzim retained a certain romantic aura for a few more years, but for hard-nosed Western radicals they were just collective farms and as such a mere variant of the discredited Soviet model. In defeating the Arab armies and occupying Arab land, Israel had drawn attention to itself in ways calculated to encourage New Left antipathy, at just the moment when hitherto disparate radical constituencies Ulster Catholics, Basque nationalists, Palestinian exiles, German extra-Parliamentarians, and many others were finding common cause.
As for the conventional right, through the 1950s and 1960s it enthusiastically took Israel's side against Nasser the bête noire of every Western government, Raymond Aron's "Hitler on the Nile." With Nasser thoroughly humiliated, however, and with the colonial era retreating into memory, many European conservatives lost interest in Israel and sought instead to curry favor among its oil-producing neighbors: before the energy crisis of 1973, but especially afterwards.
In a variety of ways, then, the international context after 1967 turned increasingly unfavorable for Israel, despite, and even because of, its dramatic victory. Yet the most important change of all, the transformation that would color all of Israel's dealings with the rest of the world, took place in the country itself. Relieved of any serious threat, ostensibly sufficient unto themselves, Israelis became complacent. The attitude of Yael Dayan, addressing her diary as the war ended, is quite typical: "The new reality in the Middle East presented Israel as the strongest element, and as such it can talk a different language and had to be talked to differently." The prickly insecurity that characterized the country in its first two decades changed to a self-satisfied arrogance.
From 1967 until the shock of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel was "dizzy with success." The apparent ease of the June victory led both the public and less forgivably the generals to believe that they were invincible. The image of the Israeli Defense Forces was burnished to a shine. Self-congratulatory (and implicitly contradictory) myths were espoused: that the Six Day War had been won with consummate ease thanks to the technical and cultural superiority of the Israeli forces; that the climactic battles (for Jerusalem, for the Golan) had seen heroic feats of soldiering against harsh odds.
Books such as Yael Dayan's Israel Journal reflected and nourished a widespread sense of spiritual superiority. Attached to Sharon's Southern Command during the war, she sneers at the contents of captured Egyptian officers' tents: thrillers, nylons, candies. "I knew what our officers' bedside tables contained. An Egyptian soldier would have found a few pens, writing paper, a few books and study matter perhaps a book of poems." Comparing the two sides, Dayan concludes that the Egyptians had the material advantage, but "we had spiritual superiority."
Perhaps, perhaps not. As I recall Israeli junior officers' quarters on the Golan in the late summer of 1967, there were more pin-ups than poems. But from encounters with soldiers at the time I can confirm the astonishingly quick transition from quiet confidence to an air of overweening superiority. Sharon was not the only one to sweep his arm across the captured landscape and declare (in his case to Yael Dayan) that "all this is ours." And the new mood was reinforced by the appearance in fairly short order of a new kind of Israeli. The great victory of 1967 gave Zionism a shot in the arm, with a new generation of enthusiastic immigrants arriving from America especially; but these new Zionists brought with them not the old socialist texts of emancipation, redemption, and community, but rather a Bible and a map. For them, Israel's accidental occupation of Judea and Samaria was not a problem, it was a solution. In their religious and jingoistic eyes, the defeat of Israel's historical enemies was not the end of the story, but rather the beginning.
In many cases their aggressive nationalism was paired with a sort of born-again, messianic Judaism, a heady combination hitherto largely unknown in Israel. In the aftermath of the capture of Jerusalem, the chief rabbi of the army, Shlomo Goren, had proposed that the mosques on the Temple Mount be blown up. The general in command on the Jordanian front, Uzi Narkiss, had ignored him; but in years to come the voice of intolerant, ultra-religious Zionism would become more insistent and not so easy to turn away.
The demography of Israel was altered in other ways, too. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, Jews in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere were subjected to persecution and discrimination, and the rate of Jewish immigration to Israel from Arab lands rose sharply. Hitherto it had been mostly confined to Jews expelled or fleeing from the newly independent states of the Maghreb; these continued to come, either directly or via France, but they were no longer a small minority of the overall population. These new Israelis not only did not share the political and cultural background of the earlier European immigrants. They had strong and distinctly unfriendly opinions about Arabs. After all, relations between Jews and Arabs in the places they had come from were often based on little more than mutual contempt. When the old Labor parties predictably failed to attract their support (or did not even bother to try), they turned to the erstwhile revisionists, whose chauvinist prejudices they could appreciate. The rise to power of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and their successors, literally unimaginable before June 1967, now became possible and even inexorable.
This was the irony of the victory of 1967: it was the only war Israel ever won that gave the country a real chance to shape the Middle East to everyone's advantage, its own above all but the very scale of the victory somehow robbed the country's leaders of imagination and initiative. The "overblown confidence" (this is Oren's apt phrase) after June 1967 led to the initial disasters of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when, unable to imagine that Arab military planning was as good as their own intelligence suggested, the Israeli general staff was caught napping. That same misplaced confidence led Israel's politicians to let policy drift in the course of the 1970s, at a time when the initiative was still very much in their hands.
As for the occupied territories, Eshkol's question to Yadin remained unanswered. The habit of encouraging frontier settlements in the name of security a building block of the original Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine) and the origin of many kibbutzim made sense in the military circumstances of the 1930s. But half a century later it was an utter anachronism. It was in this context, however, that mainstream politicians connived, sometimes unwittingly, at the subsidized establishment in the West Bank of tens of thousands of religious and political extremists. Some politicians Allon, Sharon always intended to install a permanent Israeli presence on the captured lands. Others merely preferred not to oppose the mood of the hour.
Nobody thought much about how to remove the settlements when the time came to exchange land for peace, though it had been clear from the outset that come it would. On June 19, 1967, the Israeli cabinet secretly voted to accept the principle of returning occupied land in exchange for lasting peace. As Eshkol had noted when the war began: "Even if we conquer the Old City and the West Bank, in the end we will have to leave them."
It is easy to wax nostalgic for the old Israel, before the victories of 1967 and the disturbing changes they brought in their wake. The country may have had what some now refer to as "Auschwitz frontiers," but its identity within them was at least clear. Yet if the Jewish state was ever to be at home in the Middle East, to be the "normal" polity that its Zionist founders envisaged, then its curious European orientation, a time-space capsule in an alien continent, could not last. And there is no doubt that, for better or for worse, since June 1967 Israel has entered fully into the Middle Eastern world. It, too, has crazed clerics, religious devotees, nationalist demagogues, and ethnic cleansers. It is also, sadly, less secure than at any time in the past thirty-five years. The idea that Jews in Israel might lead their daily lives oblivious of the Arab world, as many did before 1967, is today tragically unthinkable.
Short of forcibly expunging the Arab presence from every inch of soil currently controlled by Israel, the dilemma facing Israel today is the same as it was in June 1967, when the aging David Ben-Gurion advised his fellow countrymen against remaining in the conquered territories. A historic victory can wreak almost as much havoc as a historic defeat. In Abba Eban's words, "The exercise of permanent rule over a foreign nation can only be defended by an ideology and rhetoric of self-worship and exclusiveness that are incompatible with the ethical legacy of prophetic Judaism and classical Zionism." The risk that Israel runs today is that for many of its most vocal defenders, Zionism has become such an "ideology and rhetoric of self-worship and exclusiveness" and not much more. In that case, Israel's brilliant victory of June 1967, already a classic in the annals of pre-emptive defensive warfare, will have borne bitter fruits for the losers and the winners alike.
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