With the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War just a few weeks away, Charles Krauthammer reminds us of how the war came about and the lesson Israel took from the war [excerpts]:
… On May 16, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser demanded the evacuation from the Sinai Peninsula of the U.N. buffer force that had kept Israel and Egypt at peace for 10 years.What’s changed since June, 1967? Is the Arab world more moderate, more willing to live peacefully with Israel?
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. ...
[The] three-week period between May 16 and June 5 helps explain Israel’s 40-year reluctance to give up the fruits of the Six Day War - the Sinai, 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 tried to rustle up an armada of countries to run the blockade and open Israel’s south. The effort failed dismally.
It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks. …
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 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.
We know the rest of the story. Rabin recovered 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 Jordan’s King Hussein 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 on the war - and on the peace of the ages that awaits if Israel would only return to June 4, 1967.
But Israelis are cautious. They remember the terror of that unbearable May when, with Israel possessing no occupied territories whatsoever, the entire Arab world was furiously preparing Israel’s imminent extinction. And the world did nothing.
If the Israelis again “traded land for peace,” who would assure that peace? The U.N.? The European Union?
The U. S. can’t assure Isreal’s safety. Look at the trouble we’re having in Iraq.
Who can’t understand the Israeli’s reluctance to trust the Arabs; and their realization that if they don’t look out for themselves, no one else will?
Krauthammer’s column is here.