There has hardly been a Middle East peace plan in the past 40 years -- including the current Saudi version -- that does not demand a return to the status quo of June 4, 1967. Why is that date so sacred? Because it was the day before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in which Israel scored one of the most stunning victories of the 20th century. The Arabs have spent four decades trying to undo its consequences.
In fact, the real anniversary should be now, three weeks earlier. On May 16, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser ordered the evacuation from the Sinai Peninsula of the U.N. buffer force that had kept Israel and Egypt at peace for 10 years. The United Nations complied, at which point Nasser imposed a naval blockade of Israel's only outlet to the south, the port of Eilat -- an open act of war.
How Egypt came to this reckless provocation is a complicated tale (chronicled in Michael Oren's magisterial "Six Days of War") of aggressive intent compounded with miscommunication and, most fatefully, disinformation. The Soviet Union had reported urgently and falsely to its Middle East clients, Syria and Egypt, that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian border for an attack. Israel desperately tried to disprove this charge by three times inviting the Soviet ambassador in Israel to visit the front. He refused. The Soviet warnings led to a cascade of intra-Arab maneuvers that in turn led Nasser, the champion of pan-Arabism, to mortally confront Israel with a remilitarized Sinai and a southern blockade.
Why is this still important? Because that three-week period between May 16 and June 5 helps explain Israel's 40-year reluctance to give up the fruits of that war -- the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza -- in return for paper guarantees of peace. Israel had similar guarantees from the 1956 Suez war, after which it evacuated the Sinai in return for that U.N. buffer force and for assurances from the Western powers of free passage through the Straits of Tiran.
All this disappeared with a wave of Nasser's hand. During those three interminable weeks, President Lyndon Johnson did try to rustle up an armada of countries to run the blockade and open Israel's south. The effort failed dismally.
For Israel, the waiting was excruciating and debilitating.
It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks. Egypt, already in an alliance with Syria, formed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco began sending forces to join the coming fight. With troops and armor massing on Israel's every frontier, jubilant broadcasts in every Arab capital hailed the imminent final war for the extermination of Israel. "We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants," declared PLO head Ahmed Shuqayri, "and as for the survivors -- if there are any -- the boats are ready to deport them."
For Israel, the waiting was excruciating and debilitating. Israel's citizen army had to be mobilized. As its soldiers waited on the various fronts for the world to rescue the nation from its peril, Israeli society ground to a halt and its economy began bleeding to death. Army Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, later to be hailed as a war hero and even later as a martyred man of peace, had a nervous breakdown. He was incapacitated to the point of incoherence by the unbearable tension of waiting with the life of his country in the balance, knowing that waiting too long would allow the armies of 100 million Arabs to strike first his country of 3 million.
We know the rest of the story. Rabin did recover in time to lead Israel to victory. But we forget how perilous was Israel's condition. The victory hinged on a successful attack on Egypt's air force on the morning of June 5. It was a gamble of astonishing proportions. Israel sent the bulk of its 200-plane air force on the mission, fully exposed to antiaircraft fire and missiles. Had they been detected and the force destroyed, the number of planes remaining behind to defend the Israeli homeland -- its cities and civilians -- from the Arab air forces' combined 900 planes was . . . 12.
We also forget that Israel's occupation of the West Bank was entirely unsought. Israel begged King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the conflict. Engaged in fierce combat with a numerically superior Egypt, Israel had no desire to open a new front just yards from Jewish Jerusalem and just miles from Tel Aviv. But Nasser personally told Hussein that Egypt had destroyed Israel's air force and airfields and that total victory was at hand. Hussein could not resist the temptation to join the fight. He joined. He lost.
The world will soon be awash with 40th-anniversary retrospectives of the war -- and exegeses on the peace of the ages that awaits if Israel would only to return to lines of June 4, 1967. But Israelis are cautious. They remember the terror of that June 4 and of that unbearable May when, with Israel in possession of no occupied territories whatsoever, the entire Arab world was furiously preparing Israel's imminent extinction. And the world did nothing.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.