By late 1949, Israel’s willingness to accept the UN partition plan, to establish peace with its neighbors, and to repatriate refugees were all for naught. The Arab world, and especially the five confrontation states -- Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq -- insisted that although they had lost ‘round one,’ there would be another, and if need be, another, and another, until the Zionist entity was destroyed.
So Israel set about building itself into a 20th century, democratic, technologically advanced Western state with a strong army. It absorbed more than 800,000 Jewish refugees who were forcibly expelled, penniless, from their ancestral habitations in Arab countries. It focused on developing its economy, creating an infrastructure that rivaled western states, establishing 5 world-class universities, and extending a broad network of social services to all of its citizenry, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem. As the population swelled, settlements in the Negev and Galilee grew in size and number. The port of Eilat at Israel’s southernmost tip opened trade via the Red Sea with the Far East.
But the Arab states were not joking when they promised “round 2.” Unable as yet to mount another hot war, Egypt perpetrated a legal act of war (casus beli) by closing the Straits of Tiran, thus denying Israel any access to the Far East from Eilat. Egypt also supported the fedayyin (‘redeemers’, ‘freedom fighters’), a terrorist movement in the Arab refugee camps of the Gaza strip. These terrorists perpetrated almost 9,000 attacks against Israel between 1949 and 1956, concentrating primarily on civilian targets. Hundreds of Israelis died, and thousands were injured. Israel’s policy was to retaliate by mounting ‘pin point’ attacks against Egypt’s military emplacements, rather than against the refugee camps in which the terrorists hid. Without actually adumbrating it, Israel presaged President Bush’s doctrine of 9/11/01: any country that harbors and abets terrorism is itself a terrorist country and, thus, a legitimate target in the war against terrorism. By attacking military targets (and avoiding countless civilian deaths), Israel tried to force the Egyptian government to dismantle the terrorist fedayyin. It didn’t work.
In 1956, France and England induced Israel to join them in a war against Egypt. These two European powers wanted control of the Suez canal; and they had their own foreign policy reasons for desiring the overthrow of Egyptian President Nasser. Israel was to handle the ground war, and thus end the fedayyen threat, while England and France would offer air support. Israel’s Suez war was a brilliant military success. The whole of the Sinai was captured in a few days. But under pressure from US President Eisenhower, France and England withdrew their air support. Due to foreign policy and Cold War considerations, Eisenhower and the USSR threatened Israel with an invasion unless it withdrew from the Sinai. Within a few weeks, Israel had retreated, and the Sinai was unilaterally returned to Egypt, without any negotiations or peace agreements. But Nasser did agree to have a UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai, to keep the Straits of Tiran open and to refrain from any military build-up at Israel’s western border. It took less than ten years for this arrangement to unravel.
Inter-Arab rivalries during these ten years pitted Egypt against Syria, and Egyptian military interference with domestic troubles in Yemen (including the use of poison gas against civilians) had Egypt at odds with Saudi Arabia. Soon, in the context of these tensions, a number of Arab states accused Egypt of “hiding behind the skirts of the UN” instead of preparing for ‘round 3’ against Israel. As a result, Nasser began a major military build-up, with the assistance of the USSR, including the illegal construction of ground-to-ground missiles in the Sinai.
In April, 1967, the Soviets in the UN accused Israel of mounting a massive military build-up on the Syrian border. Israel denied the accusation and invited the USSR to send observers to verify the truth. The USSR refused. But the UN, under Secretary General U-Thant of Burma, sent a commission to investigate. It quickly ascertained that the Soviets were lying. There was no Israeli military massing at Syria’s gates. The reason for the Soviet deception is a matter of speculation. Most historians assume that the USSR wanted to spark a war that they were sure the Arabs would win, thanks to the armaments that the USSR had provided them. Such an outcome would cement Soviet relationships with the Arab world and push the US onto the sidelines in the Middle East.
The Arab states used the Soviet ploy as an opportunity to regroup for ‘round 3’. First, in mid-May, Egypt, Syria and Jordan formed a mutual defense pact against Israel. Then Egypt closed the straits of Tiran and expelled the UN peacekeeping forces. U-Thant very surprisingly removed the UN troops within a few days, leaving the field open to Nasser and his war machine. For that, U-Thant earned the sobriquet "bungling Burmese." Then Egypt engaged in illegal violation of Israel’s air space with aerial spying by means of fly-overs in the area of Dimona where Israel had its nuclear reactor. Finally, Egypt mobilized its troops and massed armored brigades on the Israeli border. By June 1, the stage was set for war; and Nasser began announcing to the world that it was finally time for the Zionist stain on Arab honor to be expunged with Jewish blood.
With missiles only minutes away from major Israeli cities, troops and armor and air force of hostile nations primed for attack on three separate fronts; the Straits of Tiran closed; the Arab world clamored for the destruction of Israel and the butchery of its Jewish inhabitants, while Israel approached the UN, USA, France and UK in search of diplomatic solutions. Israel’s President made a groveling speech at the UN in which he implored the Arab states, especially Egypt, to pull back from the brink of war.
It is important to understand that at this point Egypt had perpetrated six specific actions which, in international law, qualify as casus belli, legal justification for war.
- Conspiring with other belligerent countries (in this case, Syria and Jordan) for a coordinated attack.
- Closing Israel’s access to international waterways (the straits of Tiran).
- Violating the terms of the 1956 armistice by re-militarizing the Sinai.
- Expelling the UN and USA peace-keeping troops form the Sinai.
- Perpetrating illegal spy-plane fly-overs to reconnoiter Israeli sensitive areas.
- Massing troops and tanks on Israel’s borders.
Israel could have legally launched a defensive war after any one of these casus belli. It chose, instead, to try diplomacy, which not only failed to resolve the problem, but gave Egypt and Syria time to accelerate their own preparations for invasion.
Finally, in the early morning of June 5, when Israeli intelligence indicated that Egypt was about to attack, Israel launched its pre-emptive strike. In doing so, it applied the Kennedy doctrine developed during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): no state need wait until attacked before taking defensive action. The Soviet missiles in Cuba were adequate provocation for the US blockade. The Arabs’ massive build-up and threats of annihilation were adequate provocation for Israel’s attack.
On 6/5/1967, in a pre-dawn raid, Israeli jets destroyed almost all the fighter planes of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq before their pilots could get them off the ground. With most of their air forces a smoldering wreck, the Arabs had lost the war almost as soon as it had begun. Arab armor without air cover was destroyed by Israeli planes; and Arab infantry without armor was no match for the Israeli land forces. In six days, Israel re-gained the Sinai, drove the Jordan Legion from the West Bank, and took control of the Golan Heights within artillery range of Damascus. Suddenly there was a new order in the Middle East.
Israel had done much more than is generally acknowledged to avoid this war. It struck only after working for weeks under threat of annihilation to exhaust all reasonable diplomatic channels, and after begging the Arab states to honor their cease-fire agreements. But even more compelling, unnoticed by many but thoroughly documented in diplomatic archives is the communication between the Israeli government and King Hussein of Jordan. On Tuesday, June 5, several hours AFTER the Jordan Legion had begun its bombardment of Jerusalem and Petakh Tikvah, Israel sent a message via the Rumanian Embassy to King Hussein. The message was short and clear: stop the bombardment now and we will not invade the West Bank.
But King Hussein had already received a phone call from Nasser. This call was monitored by the Israeli Secret Service. Even though he knew that his air force was in ruins, Nasser told Hussein that Egyptian planes were over Tel Aviv and his armor was advancing on Israeli positions. Hussein believed him, and disregarded Israel’s plea. Had Hussein listened to Israel, the West Bank would still be in Jordanian hands. Instead, he sent his troops into the Israeli section of Jerusalem. Only AFTER its territorial integrity in Jerusalem was violated did Israel mount an assault on the Jordanian West Bank.
A few days after the UN cease fire of 6/11/67, Abba Eban, Israel’s representative at the UN, made his famous speech. He held out the olive branch to the Arab world, inviting Arab states to join Israel at the peace table, and informing them in unequivocal language that everything but Jerusalem was negotiable. Territories taken in the war could be returned in exchange for formal recognition, bi-lateral negotiations, and peace.
Israel wanted peace. Israel offered land in exchange for peace. As Lord Carendon, the UK representative at the UN, noted with considerable surprise after Abba Eban’s speech, never in the history of warfare did the victor sue for peace -- and the vanquished refuse.
Twice within a few weeks of the war’s end, the USSR and the Arab Bloc floated motions in the UN General Assembly declaring that Israel was the aggressor. Both motions were roundly defeated. At that time, the world knew that the Arabs were the aggressors, and that Israel, victim of aggression, had sued for peace both before the war and after their amazing victory.
Unable to brand Israel the aggressor, and in disarray following Israel’s public request for peace and reconciliation, The Arab world faced what for it was a difficult choice. Recognize Israel, negotiate for the return of conquered territories, and make peace…or not.
Rather than respond to Israel’s invitation, the Arab states met in Khartoum, Sudan, for a conference in August, 1967. They unanimously decided in favor of the now famous three Khartoum “NO’s”: No recognition, No negotiation, No peace. This was only round 3. The Arab world could suffer many more defeats before its ultimate victory. Israel could suffer only one defeat. Better that Israel hold on to the territories taken in the war. Better that the refugees continue languishing in their squalor and misery. Better that the Arab states re-arm for round 4…than to recognize Israel’s right to exist or negotiate toward a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
With the Khartoum “NO’s”, the Arab world forced Israel to unwillingly assume control over the approximately million Arabs living in the West Bank, Golan Heights, Sinai and Gaza Strip.
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