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Prelude to the Six Days

Prelude to the Six Days

The entire Arab world was furiously preparing Israel's imminent extinction. And the world did nothing.


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.

May 19, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 24

(24) Phil Landsberg, May 29, 2007 10:07 AM

Israel won, didn't they

Where else, ever, did the loser, in a poker game or a war, ask the winner to give back their winnings and let's start over.

(23) Lar, May 27, 2007 10:31 AM

Good Article, now get the word out.

We Jews know this story, and the never ending story, of how Right has beaten Wrong over the last 60 years. Unfortunately the rest of the world doesn't get it, not the UN, not the media (todays headlines say "Militants Slaughtered by Israeli Army", rather than "Good Guys kill the Bad Guys"), not Liberal Europe. We do need a better way to get the message out, and a better way to eliminate the Arab media influence which has clearly been winning the public relations war. The only organization that I have seen do a good job at this is The Israel Project (TIP).

(22) William J Munoz, May 26, 2007 3:34 PM

I thought this article was very informative.

I have always heard of the 6-Day War but I didn't know the cause of the war. I found that the article brought light into my understanding. Thanks

(21) Zvi Reichverger, May 25, 2007 1:36 PM

The concequence of his war has not been translated correctly. We should not forget, that we are small country and nobody in the world is ready to defence us. We can vin the battle, but we are not able to vin the war with the Arab world. We must vin every battle, but this victory should use the base of the political negotiations. We should be ready to make pease with the Arab countries, to try at least.
I sure that Juish bois and girls from the all western countries should be learned to feel solidarity with Israel, to serve with our Army and take part in our wars.
Sorry for mistakes, English is not my mother languidge.

(20) Joe, May 25, 2007 1:33 PM

Of course this article is correct,

but it is not sufficient. We are loosing the media war because we falsely assume that others know history and will reasonably wiegh out the facts. We are loosing because our enemies repeat the same lies, however outlandish, over and over, while we falsely believe that others know the truth and will discount them. In fact, that only makes it seem like there might be some truth to Arab claims. We wring our hands in a childish desire to be liked and stand disunified in the face of unified hatred. This also makes it seem like there is truth to their claims.

Either we get the truth out - on the news, in the papers, on the net, on Youtube - and shouted from the hilltops, without handwringing or apology or the world will not care. The savage actions, violent barbarity and inhuman ideals of the Arabs are our own best tool.

We must not be afraid to call evil evil. We must be willing to shout from the rooftops that monsters are monsters and that it is right and natural to combat them. Most difficult of all, we must do it with one voice, over and over again.

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