June 5, 2017 - Fifty years to the Six-Day War

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses whether the Six-Day War was a just war from Israel's standpoint; the benefits that came from Israel's victory in the war; the costs at the regional strategic level; the Palestinian issue coming out of the war; where we are today; and what Israel should have done after the war in 1967, in hindsight.

 

Q. Let’s get straight to the point. Was this a just war from Israel’s standpoint?

A. Yes. We were under siege. Arab armies were gathering all around us. Egypt’s President Nasser had closed off the Bab al-Mandeb Straits--an act of war. (For two years, Syria had been trying to divert Israel’s water sources, also an act of war.) Arab media were calling to “kill the Jews” and “throw them into the sea”. In a gross breach of trust, the United Nations yielded to Arab pressure and withdrew its peacekeeping force from the Sinai Peninsula. France’s de Gaulle condemned us and Washington hesitated to honor its commitment from 1957 to intervene if the Straits were closed.

The danger of invasion on three fronts was growing from day to day. Israel had no strategic depth to absorb such an attack. High school kids were digging trenches in Jerusalem.

The three-week period of waiting for the outside world to honor its commitments was nerve-wracking. Even IDF Chief of Staff Rabin had to be confined to his home for a day due to “nicotine poisoning”. As a young first lieutenant in IDF Intelligence at General Staff Headquarters, I can bear witness to the prevailing assessment that every extra day of not acting meant heavy additional losses. We now have the report in the New York Times that Israeli nuclear officials were considering the need to stage a deterrent nuclear blast on a Sinai mountaintop if it looked like we were about to lose the impending war.

(Note, it is not clear from this report whether the higher political and military echelons shared this assessment. Rather, the publication reinforces the sense that the Israeli security establishment was extremely concerned about the possibility that Israel could lose this war.)

So, yes, this was a just war, a legitimate existential struggle. I cannot agree with revisionist assessments appearing lately to the effect that Israel did not have to attack preemptively on June 5, 1967; that, had we waited, perhaps we could have avoided this war. This is a willful rearranging of history by people who understandably fear, 50 years later, the disastrous consequences of our rule over millions of Palestinians.

There was no viable peace partner on the other side. The Arabs led by Nasser were determined to suffocate us and the world was abandoning us. My problem is not with the war but with what came afterwards. And even that is a mixed bag of costs and benefits.

 

Q. Let’s start with the benefits as you see them.

A. Israel became a regional power to be reckoned with. It entered into a stable long-term security alliance with the United States. Within months, the United Nations had established the territories-for-peace principle. Within ten years and following two more bloody wars with Egypt (the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War), that principle was applied to an Egypt-Israel peace that has proved remarkably stable and lasting. In ensuing years it was applied to Israel-Jordan peace and, almost, to an Israel-Syria peace treaty which in retrospect Israel was fortunate to have avoided.

True, in the years following 1967 the Israeli security and political establishment was drunk with victory and reluctant, to say the least, to trade territories for peace. Conceivably the 1973 Yom Kippur War could have been avoided. But this does not diminish the fact that UN Security Council Resolution 242 emerged from the 1967 war.

This points to a double-edged outcome of the war, half benefit, half drawback. The international community viewed this as a just war. Accordingly it allowed Israel to hold on to all the territories it had conquered in six days until peace could be negotiated. This was most decidedly not what Israel anticipated. The leadership, recalling international ultimatums to withdraw from conquered territories in Egypt and Lebanon (1949) and again Egypt (1957), fully expected to confront similar demands in June 1967.

This explains the haste with which Israel annexed and radically expanded East Jerusalem: we thought we needed to beat the next ultimatum by creating a fait accompli regarding at least one piece of land we would not give up. And it explains why the new borders of Jerusalem were so clumsily drawn. It was assumed that once we withdrew from the rest of the West Bank--once again withdrawal without peace--Jordanian Arab Legion snipers would again take potshots at Jerusalemites. Hence the need to annex all the surrounding hilltops with their large Arab population. This created “United Jerusalem Eternal Capital of Israel”. It is neither united nor eternal nor, frankly, a place where most Israelis wish to live.

 

Q. And the costs at the regional strategic level?

A. The victory went to Israel’s head. Naked hubris. Israel failed to anticipate the Arab drive for vengeance to the extent of mortgaging the Arab soul to massive Soviet military domination. The Arabs recovered militarily much more quickly than expected, first renewing warfare along the ceasefire lines, then launching the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Scholars of the Arab world also argue that the Arabs’ colossal defeat by Israel in 1967 so severely discredited the Arab regimes that it marked the effective end of the Arab nationalist wave led by Nasser. This in turn sowed the seeds of the Arab Islamism that the world is dealing with today. Note that both the nationalists in their day and the Islamists today call for Israel’s destruction, whereas the Arab monarchies, which mainly (Jordan excepted) contributed token forces to the wars against Israel, have survived and adopted a more pragmatic approach to coexisting with us and even confronting shared enemies.

 

Q. That brings us to the Palestinian issue.

A. Israel, the Arabs and the international community all failed to understand the ramifications of the war for the Palestinian issue. Prior to 1967 there was no “Palestinian issue”, only a “refugee issue” and an Arab-Israel state-to-state conflict. Since 1967 Israel has been embroiled and immersed in an increasingly religious and internationalized conflict with the Palestinian people.

Even that recognition did not emerge quickly. Recently released minutes of immediate post-war Israel Cabinet meetings record a few high-level comments expressing concern for the demographic burden Israel had taken on by conquering the West Bank, but no move to act on those concerns. Then too, note that 242, enacted in November 1967, never even mentions the Palestinians, only “refugees”. For the next 20 years, Jordan was the internationally designated partner for negotiations over the West Bank and East Jerusalem (it is still officially in charge of the mosques on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif).

During that period, prior to the first intifada, of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a variety of Israeli leaders invoked a variety of solutions. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan seemingly believed in “economic peace” when he erased the green line boundary and encouraged full commercial interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. Some Israeli military leaders thought they could perfect a “humane occupation” and sustain it forever. Some on the left wanted to return most but not all of the West Bank and none of Jerusalem to Jordan’s King Hussein; he wanted all or nothing. Foreign Minister Yigal Alon presented a plan for partial annexation that determined the initial course of Jewish settlement.

The settlement movement was based on an anachronistic perception that what was feasible prior to 1948 under the British Mandate--where you settled was where the border would be--was still possible in an age of human rights and the non-admissibility of territorial acquisition by force (at least by small and friendless countries like Israel). The contention that settlements provided the country security was equally outmoded in view of their incendiary effect on millions of Palestinians and the changing nature of warfare. Indeed, the settlements are a huge burden on the security establishment.

The settlement movement was led by a religious messianic vanguard that believes the Land of Israel belongs only to the Jews and that settling it is the ultimate vehicle to redemption. As of June 2017, it has won the day, even if redemption is farther off than ever. It did so initially by charming and conning the Israeli political left that continued to rule exclusively until 1977. The left simply refused to face up to a demographic challenge that could then easily have been handled unilaterally if not by dint of negotiations.

Since 1967 the settlers have triumphed primarily by working their way into national institutions and collaborating with secular right wing political movements, mainly the Likud. The secular right appears to have little faith in peace with the Palestinians as a genuine element of Israeli security. And it is not particularly alarmed by the prospect that long-term rule over Palestinians will endanger Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

 

Q. Where does this leave us today?

A. Here is the substance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a nutshell, correct as of June 1967. The latest reliable Tel Aviv University/Israel Democracy Institute poll shows that most Israelis believe Israeli rule in the West Bank is not occupation. Half believe the settlement policy since 1967 is correct. Nearly half actually believe that Israeli control over the West Bank contributes to Israeli democracy and want to annex the territory. Most cannot tell you if the largest settlements are in Israel or in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Jews have become a minority in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean: the CIA World Factbook lists 6.5 million Arabs and 6.1 million Jews as of 2016.

The dominant right wing in Israeli politics is busy reframing and falsifying the conflict. Deputy Minister Michael Oren writes in the New York Times that “The conflict is not about territory captured in the Six-Day War, but about whether Palestinians accept the existence of a Jewish state”. He is wrong. It is not about either. It is now about whether Israel can survive as a Zionist democracy; whether eventually Israelis themselves will still believe they live in a Jewish state. Ben-Dror Yemini argues in Yediot Aharonot that Israel, far from killing Palestinians or destroying their culture, has showered upon them the blessings of 50 institutions of higher education where not one existed before, along with radically declining infant death rates. This patronizing attitude justified rule over another people 150 years ago. Not today.

This leaves us not too far from where in April 1968 Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz predicted we would end up: “Within a short while there will be neither Jewish laborers nor Jewish farmers in the country. The Arabs will be the working people and the Jews will be managers, inspectors, clerks and police. Especially secret police . . . . The corruption characteristic of every colonialist regime will stick to Israel too. A state that rules a hostile people . . . will become a police state. There is a danger that the army too, which until now was a people’s army, will be corrupted into an occupying army.”

Want an example? The Elor Azaria case: a soldier in Hebron shoots and kills a helpless wounded terrorist on camera in 2016, claims “he deserved it”, and a majority of Israelis lionize the soldier as a hero. To its credit, the IDF top brass court-martials Azaria. So we have not yet completely fulfilled Leibowitz’s prophecy. How much longer do we have?

 

Q. With hindsight, what should Israel have done after the war in 1967?

A. Israel should have done what Leibowitz went on to propose in 1968: “Accordingly we have no alternative--out of concern for the Jewish people and its state--but to get out of the territories. As to the “religious” arguments for annexing the territories . . . these are turning the religion of Israel into a cover for militant Israeli nationalism.”

We were wise to hold onto relatively empty lands conquered from Egypt until we could exchange them for peace. We were wise to try this formula with Syria, too, and lucky we failed. But we should have walked out of the West Bank and Gaza and left them either to Jordan and Egypt or, preferably, to their indigenous inhabitants and refugee population. At a bare minimum, we should have avoided any and all Jewish settlement in these heavily populated Palestinian lands, maintained a security force at the Jordan River, and held the territories on deposit pending peace. Considering Palestinian failures at state-building and coexistence, that might take a long time. But at least our hands would be clean.

Yes, we would have given up strategic depth. Yes, more wars involving those territories might still have erupted. The wars with Hamas in Gaza since the 2005 withdrawal testify to this. This is significant, given the chaos prevailing today throughout much of the Arab world. But we would have remained Jewish and democratic. We would not be embarrassed by what we are doing to Palestinians to this very day. We would have lived up to the promise of an independent homeland for the Jewish people. With all the dangers involved, that is a worthwhile trade-off. That is the only trade-off.

 

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