Still Stuck Between May and June of 1967

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The Six Day War at 50, Yossi Klein Halevi, The New York Times, 6 June 2017

JERUSALEM — As far as the world is concerned, June 5 marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. For Israelis, though, the anniversary doesn’t begin on June 5, when the fighting broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but three weeks earlier. What we remember is not only a story of our triumph and conquest, but the vulnerability and isolation that preceded the war.

On May 16, 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt evicted United Nations peacekeeping forces along the Israeli border and remilitarized the Sinai Peninsula. Israelis watched in shock as the United Nations complied with President Nasser’s demand, without so much as a Security Council debate. Six days later, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s southern shipping route. Arab leaders promised Israel’s imminent destruction. Syria and Jordan began massing troops along Israel’s borders. In Arab cities, demonstrators chanted, “Death to Israel.” Newspaper cartoons depicted massacres of hooknosed Jews. Cairo Radio’s Hebrew-language program advised Israelis to flee while there was still time.

Israelis were shocked to discover that they faced these threats alone. Foreign Minister Abba Eban of Israel reminded President Charles de Gaulle that, in 1957, following the Suez crisis, France pledged to support Israel militarily. “That was 1957,” replied de Gaulle. “This is 1967.” Mr. Eban also reminded President Lyndon Johnson of President Dwight Eisenhower’s promise to ensure Israeli passage in the Straits of Tiran. But with war escalating in Vietnam, President Johnson wouldn’t risk a conflict in the Middle East. If Israel preemptively attacked, he warned, it would find itself without American support.

Beginning on May 16, tens of thousands of Israeli reservists were mobilized. On the home front, storage rooms were turned into air raid shelters. Mass graves were dug in parks and playgrounds. The economy came to a standstill. The Israeli public — the population of only three million was composed heavily of Jews displaced from Arab countries and Holocaust survivors — reacted with existential dread and resolve.

Yet the government, at first, hesitated to act, fearing a cataclysmic war that the fledgling Jewish state might lose. Even as Israeli radio played a morale-boosting song mocking Mr. Nasser’s boast that he was waiting for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Army’s chief of staff, Mr. Rabin, overwhelmed with stress, succumbed to a nervous and physical breakdown. The government told the jittery public that he was suffering from nicotine poisoning, and he soon resumed preparations for war.

By June 7, Mr. Rabin was celebrating victory at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. And by the end of the war three days later, Israel had more than tripled its territory, having captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.

How, Israelis wondered, did we move from the edge of abyss to military mastery in a matter of weeks? The abrupt transition from trauma to triumph has shaped the Jewish state ever since. Consciously or not, when confronting challenges, Israelis ask themselves: Is this a May 1967 moment that demands wariness? Or is this a June 1967 moment that requires the self-confidence of victors?

On the one hand, Israel today bears little resemblance to the embattled nation of May 1967. The country has peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. And with a high-tech economy and a population of close to nine million, it is now the world’s largest Jewish community.

Yet Israel also faces unprecedented dangers. Hezbollah and Hamas aim tens of thousands of rockets at its population centers. Iran is attempting to create bases on Israel’s border with Syria. The Iranian nuclear threat has been delayed, but only temporarily.

Most of all, Israelis wrestle with competing existential fears over the Palestinian dilemma. For some, the nightmare is that there won’t be a Palestinian state: The status quo will continue, and Israel will become a pariah nation, ceasing to be a democratic and Jewish-majority state. For others, the nightmare is that a Palestinian state will be established and Israel will return to May 1967 borders barely nine miles wide. Soon after, Hamas will take over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rockets will fall on Tel Aviv, and Israel may be unable to adequately defend itself in a disintegrating Middle East.

In determining their political choices, Israelis struggle with the contradictory lessons of 1967. The memory of that May warns that genocidal threats remain, that international guarantees are worthless and that, at the moment of truth, the Jews will always find themselves alone. The memory of that June counters that Israel can protect itself, that power imposes moral responsibility and that the Jewish people cannot permanently occupy another people.

Over the past 50 years a pattern has emerged. When Israelis feel under siege, the traumas of the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War are reawakened and the mood turns hard-line. Yet when they sense a more sympathetic international climate, they take more risks for peace.

A May 1967 moment occurred when the United Nations General Assembly voted to equate Zionism with racism in November 1975. An outraged Israeli public sought a way to respond. Thousands of supporters of the nascent settlement movement marched in a pouring rain and squatted at an abandoned Ottoman-era railway station near the West Bank city of Nablus. They staked a sign in the mud that read “Zionism Avenue.”

Until that United Nations vote, the settlement movement was faltering. Though a handful of settlements had been established after the Six-Day War, the Labor-led government blocked most new construction, dispatching the army to uproot would-be settlers. Now, though, sensing a change in the public mood, the government permitted 30 families to move to an army base near Nablus, creating the nucleus of a future settlement and granting the settlement movement a symbolic victory.

By contrast, a June 1967 moment occurred 10 years later, when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt flew to Israel. Thousands lined the streets to cheer the man who only four years earlier had unleashed a surprise attack on Israel’s holiest day. The radio played a new song: “I Was Born for Peace.” Following the peace agreement with Egypt, the right-wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, uprooted the settlements in Sinai that had been built by his Labor predecessors.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which had led the assault on Israel in international forums, created another June 1967 moment. Eastern European and African nations, along with China and India, established relations with the Jewish state. The United Nations even repealed the noxious Zionism-racism resolution. That change in the international climate helped embolden Israel to reach out to the P.L.O. in 1992 and initiate the Oslo peace process.