The 31,755 day war
June 9th, 2007
Seth J. Frantzman
Forty years have passed since the ‘Six Day War’ and therefore, given the Western predilection for celebrating anniversaries it has been a media fest. We are all hearing the same tune, the same mantra: The Six Day war changed the Middle East. The war is supposed to be the seminal event, upon which a ‘re-creation’ of the Middle East took place. The logic goes like this: the 1967 war ended with Israeli occupation, thus leading to the Intifada and the ‘Peace Process’, the 1967 war created more than 400,000 Palestinian and, oft forgotten Syrian refugees, the 1967 war caused the destruction of the famed ‘maghrebi quarter’ of Jerusalem and the occupation by Israel of the holy sites of Christianity and Islam, the 1967 was the turning point between Arab national and Islamism in the Middle East, the 1967 war made Israel a colonial apartheid power, the 1967 war helped fan the flames of terrorism across the Middle East and may have led to the Sept. 11 attacks, the 1967 war caused the Arabs to lose pride and suffer humiliation, forcing them to yearn for revenge.
If this were all true and accurate the event would indeed be revolutionary. It would be a ‘turning point’ and the six day battle that made up the war would indeed be one of those decisive battles alongside Stalingrad(1942), Hastings(1066), Agincourt(1415), Salamis(480 B.C), Lepanto(1571), Tours(732) and Hattin(1187). But what if the prevailing opinion was wrong about 1967, what if it wasn’t the end all be all turning point, the source of all the troubles in the Middle East, and even the world?
There is new revisionist history being written about the Six Day War, primarily coming from the likes of Tom Segev and other ‘new historians’ who seek to prove that anything hitherto considered positive about Israel is in fact a ‘myth’. Segev has trotted out the best and most eloquent arguments in his new book. He argues that the Israeli leadership in May of 1967 was split between the locally born Sabras such as Moshe Dayan who called themselves the ‘Prussians’ and the foreign born elders such as Levi Eshkol, the Prime Minister, who Dayan and his ilk called ‘the Jews’. Dayan and his young bucks were pressing for a surprise attack. The argument continues, claiming that Israel was whipped up into a frightened, illogical, hysterical frenzy following the Egyptian decision to order the U.N peacekeepers out of Sinai on the 16th of May, 1967 and the decision by Egypt’s president Nasser to blockade the straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping on the 22nd of May. At the time Egypt and Syria were a union and the two countries were run by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who threatened, through his radio broadcasts, to destroy Israel. But the argument of Segev is that the Israeli leadership knew that Nasser was bluffing and that in fact there was nothing for the ‘Jews’ to worry about. All the talk in May of 1967 about a ‘new Holocaust’ was just a scare tactic, like the modern ‘war on terror’. The stories circulating in the Israeli press about German scientists working for Egypt and free copies of ‘Mien Kampf’ being handed out to Egyptian soldiers were either fabrications or gross misrepresentations(in fact both were true). The ‘evidence’ for this line of reasoning is, like the ‘evidence’ for Israel’s culpability in the 2006 war with Hezbollah, that Israel planned the war beforehand. By this logic, the existence of military plans, drawn up long before the 1967 war, and plans for the conquest of the Golan and the West Bank, all point to a conspiracy by the Young Turk generals around Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin to conquer territory and destroy the Arab armies. The ‘Prussians’ secretly knew that the Arab armies, despite outnumbering the Israeli army by 3:1 or more, were in fact weak. Even though Egypt and Syria had modern Soviet equipment and Jordan had British tanks, the Israelis ‘secretly’ knew they would win and that Israel in fact provoked the war. Then the argument tells us that Israel conspired to take over the West Bank, that it was part of a ‘secret’ plan from long before the creation of Israel and that Israel was just waiting, chomping at the bit, to steal these lands from Jordan. Apparently where all this scholarship leads is to a determination that Israel was sort of like Nazi Germany. Just as Hitler whipped up the Germans to believe they were waging a defensive war against an onslaught by the West, so the Israelis made the people feel frightened while a militaristic government schemed for war. After all didn’t Moshe Dayan refer to himself and his generals as ‘Prussians’? The ‘Prussians’ is a code word for the German military establishment and ‘Blitzkrieg’, the type of lightning warfare practiced only by Nazi Germany and Jewish Israel. The connection is obvious.
All the new research on 1967 is suspect because of its emphasis on ascribing so many problems to one event. It seems easy to say that ‘six days changed the world’. After all, the Bible says the world was created in Six Days, so it has poetic logic to it. But the Six Day War did not take place in a vacuum. It was not truly a ‘turning point’. It is not like the battle of Tours from which the Umayyad Muslim invasion of France never recovered(in Edward Gibbon’s words in 1776: ‘had the Muslims triumphed we might today hear the cry of the Muezzin from the steeples of Oxford’). It is not like Salamis, that led to the end of the Persian invasion of Greece. Perhaps the Six Day War should be compared to the wars of Pyrrhus of Epirus of the 3rd century B.C, from whose name the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ is derived because the Greek general lost half his army in a series of battles trying to frustrate Roman expansion in Italy. Perhaps it should be compared to one of the many decisive battles of the Punic or Peloponnesian wars. In retrospect it could be compared to Hattin or Agincourt, but only because those decisive battles were part of a longer conflict.
The Six Day War was not a war, it was a Six Day Battle, a massive decisive battle where Israel destroyed three Arab armies and captured a great amount of territory. But it was six days in a 31,000 day war, an 87 year war. It didn’t cause Islamism to break out in the wake of the failure of Arab Nationalism to uproot the ‘Zionist entity’. It didn’t cause the Arab’s pride to be so damaged that they all turned to religion, all 250 million of them. It didn’t cause Muslim terrorism. History shows that Muslim terrorism, especially against Israel, had been employed since the 1930s and there were the famous Muslim ‘Fedayeen’ terrorists who killed hundreds of Israelis between 1948 and 1967. The Six Day battle didn’t cause the occupation of the Palestinians, they were occupied between 1948 and 1967 by Jordan and denied their rights to vote and their right to self-determination.
The 1967 war was planned by Israel, but that is because it is the nature of militaries to plan wars, just because an army plans for a war doesn’t mean it is involved in a conspiracy. The U.S planned for war with England during the 1930s under a secret document known as Plan Orange that envisioned the invasion of Canada. It may be true that Moshe Dayan referred to Levi Eshkol as a ‘Jew’ and that he was alluding to the idea that, as an Eastern European born Jew, Eshkol was a shtetl dweller, a weak and cowardly person. This seemingly racist insult might not have been out of place in an Israel that largely tried to forget about the Holocaust between 1948 and 1967 and an Israel that looked upon the weakness and lack of self defense of the Jews of Europe in the face of Nazism as a pathetic response(in fact the drive to fight in 1967 among Dayan and the generals was encouraged by a revulsion to the Holocaust, they wanted to show the world that as Jews they would go down fighting, not like sheep). Eshkol, the Israeli Prime Minister was an accountant and leading bureaucrat during the 1930s while Dayan and Rabin and the other generals of 1967 were leading the Haganah, busy fighting the British and the Arabs. Should it have been a surprise that they viewed themselves as young bucks, or ‘Prussians’ ready to fight while the old men twiddled their thumbs? The ‘Prussians’ understood in late May of 1967 that every day that went by gave the Arabs another day to call up soldiers and prepare for war. But Israel had efficiency on its side and interior lines which allowed it, as a small country, to call up large numbers of troops and commit them to battle on any of the three fronts of the war. The allusion to ‘Prussian’ is not a bad one here, for it brings back the memory of 1914 when the Prussian generals such as Von Molkte explained to Kaiser Wilhelm II in July of 1914 that Germany had to mobilize in order to fight a two front war against France and Russia. It wasn’t a German conspiracy to begin the First World War, but the Germans launched the war because a countdown had begun in Sarajevo with the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand. This sequence of events has been told in detail in various books such as Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought. Israel followed the German model of 1914, not the Nazi model of 1939.
The Arab-Israeli war has gone on for a long time. Since the riots of 1920 there have been 8-10 major battles(‘wars’ in the official parlance). That is how they should be looked at in such a conflict. There was the 1929 riots where Jews were massacred and cleansed from Hebron. There was the Arab revolt of 1936-1939 where the Jewish villages in Palestine came under unending attack by guerillas led by Hajj Amin Al Husayni. There was the 1948 battle, Israel’s war of Independence when some 600,000 Arabs fled the new state of Israel and five Arab armies invaded Israel, three of whome were defeated while the Jordanians occupied the West Bank. There was the 1956 conflict when Israel invaded Egypt alongside the U.K and France. There was the 1967 battle when Israel fought Syria, Egypt and Jordan and Iraqi units and secured herself the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan. There was the 1973 battle when Syria and Egypt surprised Israel and defeated her for the first days of the conflict. There was the 1982 conflict when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to rid itself of the PLO run Palestinian bases there. There was the 1987-91 Intifada where the Palestinians rebelled against Israeli control. There was the 2000-2004 Intifada II where the Palestinians carried out massive numbers of suicide bombings, again to rid themselves of occupation. There was the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah battle.
Why call all these events wars? It is convenient. In the 14th and 15th centuries it was also convenient for the Knights of England to differentiate between Agincourt(1415) and Crecy(1346), but we can’t help but lump them together as part of the Hundred Years War. Who can distinguish between Lutzen(1632) and Brietenfield(1642), all part of the Thirty Years War. Do we distinguish between Pylos(425 B.C) and Notium in 406 BC, both part of the Peloponesian war. We have come to accept these long and ancient conflicts as lasting over long periods. But in the Arab-Israeli conflict we have come to consider it as part of a series of wars. This is incorrect. Perhaps the ‘Six Day War’ was a turning point in the overall 87 year conflict, perhaps it is akin to an Austerlitz(1805), where Napoleon famously marched his army from the English Channel to Austria in a lightening campaign, destroying the Austrian and Russian armies and winning one of his greatest victories. Might we recall that it is called the Era of Napoleon for a reason. We are living in an Era of Israel in the Middle East, perhaps. The ‘myths’ of 1967 were not myths. It was a plucky little Jewish state that destroyed the massed Arab armies. Without the victory perhaps the setback of 1973, the Yom Kippur War, would have come earlier and its consequences been worse(ironically the Arabs refer to the 1967 war as ‘al Nahsa’ or ‘the setback). The idea that Israel ‘conspired’ to take land from the Arabs is misleading. Of course the Jewish people wanted to have access to the their Holy sites in the Old city and the West Bank(which they were forbidden by Jordan to visit from 1948-1967). They did bide their time. And they won. Land changes hands all the time in war. How many times was Alsace-Lorraine owned by Germany? Why is East Prussia today called Kaliningrad and owned by Russia? How exactly did Morocco come to own the Western Sahara, Pakistan to rule half of Kashmir, China to rule Tibet or Turkey to rule half of Cyprus? One would like to know.
Perhaps its time people learn the story of Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion the way we learn about Pericles and Alcibiades or Napoleon and Ney. Perhaps its time the names Manachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Bashir Asad and Gamal Abdel Nasser resonate with us the way Paul Von Hindenberg, Lord Kitchner, Douglas Haig and Joseph Joffe do. Which is to say without the extreme emotion heaped upon them today by historians, without the extreme prejudice, without the accusations of conspiracies and ‘racism’ and without the subjecting of the past to our modern notions of ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’. Once the idiotic emotions are taken away from the Arab-Israeli conflict it becomes like other great struggles, it becomes truly a great tale. However due to the predelictions of the West for emotionalizing everything and for the Muslims of attributing the most extreme rights and wrongs to everything there is little chance of this. Only in places such as India and China, removed from the monotheistic-pluralistic Muslim-West relationship might one have a chance of appreciation, rather than condemnation, hatred and judgement.