GLOBAL VIEWNo Pyrrhic Victory
Most of the conventional wisdom about the Six Day War is wrong.
BY BRET STEPHENS
Tuesday, June 5, 2007 12:01 a.m.
On the morning of June 5, 1967, a fleet of low-flying Israeli jets surprised the Egyptian air force on the ground and destroyed it. This act of military pre-emption helped save Israel from what Iraq's then-President Abdul Rahman Aref had called, only several days earlier, "our opportunity . . . to wipe Israel off the map." Yet 40 years later Israel's victory is widely seen as a Pyrrhic one--"a calamity for the Jewish state no less than for its neighbors," according to a recent editorial in The Economist.
And the alternative was?
The Six Day War is supposed to be the great pivot on which the modern history of the Middle East hinges, the moment the Palestinian question came into focus and Israel went from being the David to the Goliath of the conflict. It's a reading of history that has the convenience of offering a political prescription: Rewind to the status quo ante June 5, arrange a peace deal, and the problems that have arisen since more or less go away. Or so the thinking goes.
Yet the striking fact is that all of Israel's peace agreements--with Egypt in 1979, with the Palestinians in 1993, with Jordan and Morocco in 1994--were achieved in the wake of the war. The Jewish state had gained territory; the Arab states wanted it back. Whatever else might be said for the land-for-peace formula, it's odd that the people who are its strongest advocates are usually the same ones who bemoan the apparent completeness of Israel's victory in 1967.
Great events have a way not only of reshaping the outlook for the future but also our understanding of the past, usually in the service of clarity. "Why England Slept" was an apt question to ask of Britain in the mid-1930s, but it made sense only after Sept. 1, 1939. By contrast, the Six Day War laid a thick fog over what came before. Today, the pre-1967 period is remembered (not least by many Israelis) as a time when the country's conscience was clear and respectable world opinion admired "plucky little Israel." Yet these were the same years when Israel lived within what Abba Eban, its dovish foreign minister, called "Auschwitz borders," with only nine miles separating the westernmost part of the West Bank from the Mediterranean Sea.
It is also often said today that the Six Day War humiliated the Arabs and propelled the region into future rounds of fighting. Yet President Aref of Iraq had prefaced his call to destroy Israel by describing the war as the Arabs' chance "to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948." It is said that the war inaugurated the era of modern terrorism, as the Arab world switched from a strategy of conventional confrontation with Israel to one of "unconventional" attacks. Yet hundreds of Israelis had already been killed in fedayeen raids in Israel's first 19 years of existence.
It is said that the Palestinian movement was born from Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Yet the Palestine Liberation Organization was already in its third year of operations when the war began. It is said that Israel enjoyed international legitimacy so long as it lived behind recognized frontiers. Yet those frontiers were no less provisional before 1967 than they were after. Only after the Six Day War did the Green Line come to be seen as the "real" border.
Fog also surrounds memories of the immediate aftermath of the war. To read some recent accounts, a more sagacious Israel could have followed up its historic victory with peace overtures that would have spared everyone the bloody entanglements of its occupation of the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Or, failing that, it could have resisted the lure of building settlements in the territories in order not to complicate a land-for-peace transaction.
In fact, the Israeli cabinet agreed on June 19 to offer the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace deals. In Khartoum that September, the Arab League declared "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it." As for Jewish settlements, hardly any were built for years after the war: In 1972, for instance, only about 800 settlers had moved to the West Bank.
It's true that the war caused Israel to lose friends abroad. "Le peuple juif, sûr de lui meme et dominateur" ("the Jewish people, sure of themselves and domineering") was Charles de Gaulle's memorable line in announcing, in November 1967, that France would no longer supply Israel militarily. Such were the Jewish state's former friends.
On the other hand, Israel gained new friends. The U.S., whose declared policy during the war was to be "neutral in thought, word and deed," would never again pretend such indifference, something that made all the difference to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Tens of thousands of American and European Jews immigrated to Israel after 1967, sensing it was a country not on the brink of extinction. Christian evangelicals also became Israel's firm friends, expanding the political base of American support beyond its traditionally narrow, Jewish-Democratic core.
None of this is to say that the Six Day War was an unalloyed (or unironic) blessing for Israel. By gaining control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel swapped its old territorial insecurities for new demographic ones. As Palestinian numbers grew, Israel's efforts to find a new strategic equilibrium--first through negotiations with the PLO, later through unilateral withdrawals--became increasingly frenetic. Who knows whether they will succeed.
Then again, when the sun rose on June 5, 1967, Israel was a poor, desperately vulnerable country, which threw the dice on its own survival in the most audacious military strike of the 20th century. It is infinitely richer and more powerful today, sure in its alliance with the U.S. and capable of making concessions inconceivable 40 years ago. If these are the fruits of Israel's "Pyrrhic victory," it needs more such of them.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.
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