Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East


After Victory
by Tony Judt

Post date: 07.18.02
Issue date: 07.29.02
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael B. Oren
(Oxford University Press, 446 pp., $30)
Click here to purchase the book.


Thirty-five years ago this summer, in one of the shortest wars in modern
history, Israel confronted and destroyed the combined armies of Egypt,
Syria, and Jordan, established itself as a regional superpower, and
definitively re-configured the politics of the Middle East and much else
besides. Since we are still living with its consequences, the Six Day War
itself seems somehow familiar. Its immediacy is reinforced by the presence
today at the head of Israel's government of one of the generals who played
an important part in the victory in 1967, and by the salience of the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip (occupied in the course of the campaign) in
contemporary international politics. The detailed implications of Israel's
lightning victory are etched into our daily news.

In truth, however, 1967 was a very long time ago. Hitler had been dead just
twenty-two years, and the state of Israel itself had not yet celebrated its
twentieth anniversary. The overwhelming majority of today's Israeli citizens
were not yet born or not yet Israelis. Nineteen years after its birth, the
country was still shaped by its origins in turn-of-the-century Labor
Zionism. The only leaders whom Israel had known were men and women of the
Second Aliyah, the Russian and Polish immigrants of the first years of the
twentieth century; and the country was still utterly dominated by that
founding generation and its sensibilities. A time traveler returning to
Israel in 1967 must traverse not just time, but also space: in many crucial
respects the country still operated, as it were, on Bialystok time.

This had implications for every dimension of Israeli life. The kibbutzim,
curious communitarian progeny of an unlikely marriage of Marx and Kropotkin,
dominated the cultural landscape no less than the physical one. Even though
it was already clear to some observers that the country's future lay in
technology, in industry, and in towns, the self-description of Israel drew
overwhelmingly on a socialist realist image of agrarian pioneers living in
semi-autarkic egalitarian communes. Most of the country's leaders, beginning
with David Ben-Gurion himself, were members of a kibbutz. Kibbutzim were
attached to national movements that were affiliated with political parties,
and all of them reflected, to the point of caricature, their fissiparous
European heritage, splitting and re-splitting through the years along subtle
doctrinal fault lines.

Political conversation in Israel in those years thus echoed and
recapitulated the vocabulary and the obsessions of the Second International,
circa 1922. Labor Zionism was sub-divided over issues of dogma and politics
(in particular the question of Socialist Zionism's relationship to
communism) in ways that might have seemed obsessive and trivial to outsiders
but were accorded respectful attention by the protagonists. Laborites of
various hues could indulge such internecine squabbles because they had a
monopoly of power in the country. There were some religious parties, and
above all there were also the "Revisionists," the heirs of Vladimir
Jabotinsky and his nationalist followers, now incarnated in Menachem Begin's
Herut party (the forerunner of today's Likud). But the latter were in a
permanent minority; and anyway it is significant that Begin and his like
were still referred to disparagingly as "revisionist," as though it were the
doctrinal schisms of the early twentieth century that still determined the
colors and the contours of Israeli politics.

here were other aspects of Israeli life and Zionist education that echoed
the founders' European roots. On the kibbutz where I spent much time in the
mid-1960s, a fairly representative agricultural community in the Upper
Galilee affiliated with one of the splinter parties to the left of the main
Labor Party (Mapai), the concerns of the early Zionists were still very much
alive. The classical dilemmas of applied socialism were debated endlessly.
Should an egalitarian community impose sameness? Is it sufficient to
distribute resources equally to all participants, allowing them to dispose
of these according to preference, or is preference itself ultimately
divisive and taste best imposed uniformly by the collective? How far should
the cash nexus be allowed into the community? Which resources and activities
are communal in their essence, which private?

The dominant tone on the kibbutz and in the country was provincial and
puritanical. I was once earnestly reprimanded by a kibbutz elder for singing
"inappropriate" popular songs, that is, the latest Beatles hits; and Zionist
education went to great lengths to encourage intracommunity fellow feeling
and affection among the young while eviscerating it of any hint of the
erotic. The prevailing ethos, with its faith in the redemptive value of Land
and Labor, its scout-like clothing and communal dances, its desert hikes and
dutiful ascents of Masada (the hard way, of course), its lectures on botany
and biblical geography, and its earnest weekly discussion of socialist
"issues," represented nothing so much as a transposition into the Middle
East of the preoccupations and mores of the Independent Labour Party of
1890s Britain, or the Wandervogel walking clubs of late Wilhelminian

Not surprisingly, Arabs figured very little in this world. In discussions of
the writings of Ber Borochov and the other iconic texts of Labor Zionism,
much attention was of course paid to the question of "exploitation." But in
accordance with the Marxist framework in which all such debates were
couched, "exploitation" was restricted in its meaning to the labor theory of
value: you exploit someone else by employing them, remunerating them at the
minimum required to keep them working productively, and pocketing the
difference as profit. Accordingly, as seen from the perspective of
kibbutz-based Labor Zionists, to hire Arabs (or anyone else) for wages was
to exploit them. This had been the subject of animated practical quarrels as
well as doctrinal arguments among kibbutz members--historically it was part
of what distinguished kibbutzim from the labor-employing village
cooperatives, or moshavim. But beyond such rather abstruse considerations,
which were of little relevance to the real Israeli economy, relations
between Jews and Arabs were not much discussed.

It is easy, looking back, to see in this curious oversight the source of our
present troubles. And critics of the whole Zionist project are quick to
remark that this refusal to engage with the presence of Arabs was the
original sin of the Zionist forefathers, who consciously turned away from
the uncomfortable fact that the virgin landscape of unredeemed Zion was
already occupied by people who would have to be removed if a Jewish state
was ever to come about. It is true that a few clear-sighted observers,
notably Ahad Ha'am, had drawn attention to this dilemma and its
implications, but most had ignored it. And yet I do not believe that the
matter was quite so simple, to judge from my own recollection of the last
years of the old Zionism. Many Israelis of that time rather prided
themselves on their success in living peacefully alongside Arab neighbors
within the national borders. Far from deliberately denying the Arab
presence, they boasted of their acquaintance with Arabs, and especially with
Druze and Bedouins. They encouraged the young to familiarize themselves with
local Arab society no less than with the flora and the fauna of the

But that, of course, is just the point. For pre-1967 Zionists, Arabs were a
part of the physical setting in which the state of Israel had been
established, but they were decidedly not part of the mental template, the
Israel-of-the-mind, through which most Israelis saw their politics and their
environment. Taking the Jews out of Europe did not take Europe out of the
Jews. Notwithstanding the presence of Yemenite and North African Jews,
condescendingly tolerated by the Ashkenazi majority, Israel in 1967 was a
European country in all but name. The country was born of a European
project, and it was geographically and sociologically configured by the
vagaries of European history. Its laws were shaped by European precedent,
its leaders and ideologists were marinated in late-nineteenth-century
European socialism and nationalism.

However much they had consciously turned their backs on Europe--and a
significant proportion of the adult population of that time consisted of
concentration-camp survivors with few fond memories of the old
continent--Israelis were European to the core. I do not just mean the
German-speaking Jews on Mount Carmel who reproduced every little detail of
life in late-Habsburg Vienna and never bothered to learn Hebrew, or the
English-speaking Jews drinking tea, eating fruitcake, and playing cricket in
Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi; I am speaking about the whole country.

The result was an uncomfortable tension in Israeli sensibilities. A part of
the Zionist enterprise was the wholehearted commitment to Zion, after all.
It entailed a root-and-branch rejection of the old world: its assumptions,
its comforts, its seductions. At first, this had been a choice; later,
thanks to Hitler, Zionism became an urgent necessity. The European Jews who
ended up in Palestine after 1945 were committed to adapting to life in a
small state of their own making in far Western Asia. But the process of
adaptation had not advanced very far by the mid-1960s, and Arabs (like the
Middle East in general) were simply not at the center of most Israelis'
concerns. There was nothing particularly anti-Arab about this. As I recall,
many Israelis were just as prejudiced against local Jews from North Africa
or the Near East as they were against Arabs, and perhaps more so.


The Six Day War was to change all that, utterly. And yet, for all its
lasting consequences, there was nothing particularly unusual about the
origin of the conflict. Like its predecessor, the Suez War of 1956, the war
of 1967 is best regarded in the light in which Israel's generals saw it at
the time: as unfinished business left over from the War of Independence.
None of the parties to that earlier conflict was happy with the outcome, and
all regarded the 1948 armistice as temporary. Although Israel had succeeded
in expanding its borders beyond those of the original partition, it was
still left with what were regarded, in the military calculations of the
time, as virtually indefensible frontiers.

In the course of the early 1950s, the Egyptians encouraged guerrilla
incursions across Israel's southern border, inviting regular retaliation
from Israel, whose military had by 1955 decided to provoke Cairo into open
conflict. In October 1956, taking advantage of Anglo-French alarm at Gamal
Abdel Nasser's nationalist ambitions, Israel conspired with Paris and London
to mount an attack on Egypt. Although initially successful, the campaign was
cut short under pressure from Moscow and Washington. The European powers
were humiliated, and Israel was obliged to withdraw back to the 1948 line.

In these circumstances Israel was as insecure and vulnerable as ever.
Acknowledging this, the United States undertook to guarantee that the
Straits of Tiran, leading from the Red Sea to Eilat, Israel's port on the
Gulf of Aqaba, would henceforth be kept open.  In the meantime United
Nations forces were to be stationed along the Egypt-Israel frontier, and
also at Sharm-el-Sheikh, at the entrance to the Straits on the southeastern
tip of the Sinai peninsula. Thereafter the Egyptian frontier was quiet, and
it was Syria--whose Ba'athist leaders nursed ambitions to displace Nasser at
the head of Arab radicalism--that emerged in the early 1960s as Israel's
chief antagonist.

In addition to providing hospitality to Palestinian irregulars raiding
across Israel's northeast borders or through Jordan, Damascus had various
well-attested plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River. Largely
for this reason, Israeli strategists had by 1967 come to regard Syria as the
main short-term threat to national security. From the Golan Heights above
the Sea of Galilee, Syria could and did target Israeli kibbutzim and
villages; and it was a destabilizing influence on neighboring states, Jordan
especially. Still, it was Nasser's Egypt that had by far the larger armed
forces. Were Israel seriously to entertain going to war with Syria, it would
inevitably have first to neutralize the threat from its historic enemy to
the south.

here is good reason to believe now that the chain of events leading to the
outbreak of war on June 5 began with at least a partial misunderstanding.
Frustrated by Syrian obduracy and the continuing cross-border attacks on
frontier kibbutzim, Israeli jets struck Syrian targets in the spring of
1967. In April, Israeli generals (including Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin)
publicly threatened Damascus with worse to come if the border harassments
did not stop. Rabin himself seems to have favored toppling the Syrian
regime, but Prime Minister Levi Eshkol felt otherwise: Syria was a client
state of the Soviet Union, and Eshkol had no desire to provoke the Russians.
He was not alone in his assessment. The former Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan,
not yet in the government, is quoted by Michael B. Oren as regretting
Rabin's outburst: "He who sends up smoke signals has to understand that the
other side might think there's really a fire."

And that, in effect, is what happened. Russian intelligence misconstrued
Israeli intentions and secretly advised the Syrians that the Israelis were
planning to attack--an interpretation given some plausibility by Rabin's
broadcast threats, widely commented upon in the foreign press. The Syrians
duly informed Cairo. Nasser had no immediate plans to go to war with Israel,
for whose military he had a well-founded respect; but he felt constrained to
offer public backing for Syria or else lose standing in the Arab world. In
practice, such backing took the conventional and not unfamiliar form of
bombastic public expressions of full support for Damascus and grand promises
to confront Israel at some unspecified future date.

So far, so commonplace. What ratcheted the crisis from rhetoric into war was
Nasser's grandstanding demand, on May 17, that U.N. forces be withdrawn from
Gaza. The Egyptian dictator almost certainly calculated thus: either the
United Nations would do his bidding and withdraw, giving him a cost-free and
highly visible public success, or else it would refuse the request and Egypt
would score a moral victory as the aggrieved party. Nasser surely did not
anticipate the reaction of the U.N.'s ineffective Secretary-General U Thant,
which was to order the immediate withdrawal of all U.N. troops the following
day not just from Gaza but from the whole Sinai peninsula.

There is some reason to think that Nasser would have preferred that U.N.
troops not be withdrawn from Sharm-el-Sheikh. He could hardly be seen to
regret U Thant's strange decision, which in practice returned all of Sinai
to Egyptian control, but it put him in a predicament. He was obliged to move
Egyptian armies forward to the Israeli border and down to Sharm-el-Sheikh,
which he duly did; but with Egyptian soldiers once again stationed across
from the island of Tiran, Nasser could not resist the temptation, on May 22,
to announce that once again the Straits were closed to all Israel-bound
shipping, as they had been in the early 1950s.

>From this point on, as Nasser probably realized, war would be hard to
>From the outside Nasser's moves seemed self-evidently the prelude to a
declaration of war; and in any case the closing of the Straits of Tiran was
itself, for Israel, a casus belli. Surrounded by enemies, and accessible
from the outside only by air and sea, Israel had once again lost its vital
link to the Red Sea and beyond. But even so, as Foreign Minister Abba Eban
explained at the time, what mattered was not so much the Straits themselves
but Israel's deterrent capacity, which would lose all credibility if the
country accepted Nasser's blockade without a fight.

Still, Israeli diplomats tried at first to bring international pressure to
bear on Egypt to re-open the Straits; and at the same time they asked the
Great Powers openly to express their backing for Israel's response. The
British and the French refused point blank, De Gaulle confining himself to a
warning against any preemptive Israeli strike and an embargo on all French
arms deliveries to Israel. (This was a time when the Israeli air force was
overwhelmingly dependent on French-made Mirage and Mystre jet fighters.)

The Americans were a bit more sympathetic. Lyndon Johnson tried
unsuccessfully to round up support for an international convoy of merchant
ships to "run" the Straits and to call Egypt's bluff. He assured Eshkol and
Eban of American sympathy, and of American backing in the event of an
unprovoked attack on Israel. But more he could not give, despite John Foster
Dulles's guarantee in 1957; in the mood of the time, he pleaded, Congress
would not allow an American president openly to back Israeli aggression,
however justified. Privately, his military experts assured Johnson that the
Israelis had little to fear: given the freedom to "shoot first," they would
win within a week. But to Eshkol, Johnson merely announced that "Israel will
not be alone unless it decides to go it alone."

That, of course, is what Israel did. The Israeli military, with Dayan newly
installed by popular demand as defense minister, resented being made to wait
for two long weeks of "phony war," but Eshkol's diplomatic strategy surely
paid dividends. The Soviet Union put considerable pressure on Egypt not to
start a war, but with rather greater success--at the end of May, at the last
minute, Nasser abandoned a plan to attack Israel first, and he seems to have
assumed that the crisis he had half-reluctantly set in motion had been
defused. Israel, meanwhile, was seen to have tried every diplomatic means to
avert a fight--even though most Israeli leaders and all the generals were
now committed to war unless Nasser re-opened the Straits, which they rightly
assumed he would not do.

The American military experts who anticipated an easy Israeli victory were
well-informed, but they were in a minority. Many civilian Israelis feared
the worst. From President `Abd al-Rahman Muhammad 'Aref of Iraq ("Our goal
is clear--we shall wipe Israel off the face of the map. We shall, God
willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa") to Palestinian leader Ahmed
al-Shuqayri ("We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants and as for the
survivors--if there are any--the boats are ready to deport them"), Arab
leaders appeared united in their determination to demolish the Jewish state.
Their threats seemed credible enough: between them, the armies of Egypt,
Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and their friends comprised some nine hundred combat
planes, five thousand tanks, and half a million men. At best the Israelis
had one-quarter that number of planes, one-fifth the tanks, and only 275,000

he story of the war itself is well known. On June 5, Day One, Israeli planes
struck first and demolished much of the Egyptian air force on the ground,
destroying 286 combat planes and killing nearly one-third of Egypt's pilots.
On Days Two and Three, the Israeli army shattered or dispersed the bulk of
the Egyptian armed forces in Sinai, thanks in large measure to Israel's
complete domination of the skies. Meanwhile, ignoring Eshkol's invitation to
stay out of the war, Jordan's King Hussein--believing that his survival
depended upon his being seen to join the struggle against Israel--aligned
himself with the Arab coalition ("the hour of decision has arrived"). In the
ensuing battles the Israelis, after some hard fighting, seized all of
Jerusalem and Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River.

By the end of Day Four, the war was effectively over. At the United Nations,
the United States and the major European powers (including the Soviet Union)
had from the outset been pressing urgently for a cease-fire as the Israelis
had anticipated: when the war began, Abba Eban estimated that the Israeli
armed forces would have at most seventy-two hours before the superpowers
intervened. But the Egyptians rejected a cease-fire--their ambassador at the
United Nations, Mohammad El Kony, was assured from Cairo that things were
going well for the Arabs and that time was on their side; and he in turn
blithely reassured his Soviet counterpart Nikolai Federenko that the
Israelis were bluffing and that the planes they had destroyed were plywood

The Israelis were lucky, and they knew it: had the Egyptians accepted a U.N.
cease-fire on June 6, when it was first proposed, instead of on June 8, when
Nasser finally acknowledged the extent of the catastrophe, they might have
saved at least part of their army, and Israel would never have occupied the
Old City of Jerusalem or the West Bank. Once the cease-fire was agreed (and
Israel could hardly oppose it, having fought what was officially a
"pre-emptive defensive war"), Dayan took a snap decision on his own
initiative to attack Syria--the real object of Israeli concern--before the
cease-fire could take effect. This incurred the enduring wrath of Moscow and
ran the risk of undoing the benefits of all Eban's painstaking pre-war
diplomatic maneuvers, but it paid off. After some tough hours on the slopes
of the Golan, the Israelis overran the Syrian defenses and literally raced
to Quneitra to occupy the Heights themselves before time ran out.

The scale of Israel's victory was unprecedented and took some time for all
the parties fully to appreciate.  Egyptian losses alone amounted to perhaps
fifteen thousand men and eighty-five percent of the country's pre-war
military hardware. Between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand
Arabs fled Gaza and the West Bank into exile, many of them already refugees
from 1948. Israel now controlled land covering an area four and a half times
its pre-war size, from the Jordan to the Suez Canal, from the Lebanese
uplands to the Red Sea. The fighting had not been quite so one-sided as the
brevity of the war and its outcome might suggest--had it not been for their
utter superiority in the air, the Israelis might have been quite closely
matched, especially by some of the Jordanian units and the best Egyptian
divisions; but it was the result that counted. One outcome of the war,
certainly the most important from the Israeli perspective, was this: no
responsible Arab leader would ever again seriously contemplate the military
destruction of the Jewish state.


Michael B. Oren, in his new history of the war, tells the story in gripping
detail. He has done an immense amount of research in many sources, Hebrew,
Arabic, Russian, and English, and although his narrative is keyed to the
Israeli perspective, this produces no significant distortion. The Egyptian
and Jordanian viewpoints are acknowledged, and Israel's responsibility for
pre-war misunderstandings and wartime errors (notably the bombing of the
American ship Liberty) is given reasonable prominence. One particular virtue
of Oren's book is that it pays full attention to the international dimension
of the conflict, especially the concerns and the actions of the two
superpowers. This allows Oren to set what was in one sense a very local war
into its wider context: the war nearly did not happen thanks to
international efforts at prevention, and it certainly would not have been
allowed to go on much longer, as the Israelis fully understood.

Oren is good, too, on some of the personalities of the time, especially the
Israelis, for whom I think he has a better feel. The stories of Rabin's
near-breakdown on the eve of battle, of Dayan's rakish duplicity, of
Nasser's horror at the scale of his defeat, are all skillfully told. Some,
such as Yigal Allon, the hawkish leader of the left-leaning Achdut Ha'Avodah
Party and the sometime hero of the Independence War, come off badly: hungry
for battle, eager for territory, loath to relinquish any land in exchange
for peace. Others, such as the much underestimated Levi Eshkol, receive a
distinct boost in their reputation. It was Eshkol who admonished General
Ariel Sharon (when Sharon offered to destroy the Egyptian army "for a
generation") that "nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs
will still be here." And it was Eshkol who asked his military adviser Yigal
Yadin, the day after the lightning conquest of the West Bank: "Have you
thought yet about how we can live with so many Arabs?" (Yadin's reply is not

And yet Oren's book, for all its great learning and vivid writing, is
somehow unsatisfactory. This is not because of his weakness for verbal
infelicities: we read of someone seeking to "palliate the Syrians," that
"Hussein was once again caught between clashing rocks," and so forth. Nor is
it because Oren's grasp grows insecure as he moves beyond the Middle East:
France in 1956 assuredly did not conspire with Israel because its government
"shared Israel's socialist ideals" (how then account for the
co-conspiratorial enthusiasm of Britain's Conservative leaders?); and it was
President Eisenhower's economic arm-twisting, not Marshall Bulganin's empty
threat to "use missiles," that brought the Suez War to an abrupt end. These
slips suggest that Oren may be out of his depth in the broader currents of
international history, but they do not vitiate his project.

The problem lies in the project itself. Oren announces at the outset that he
plans to put the Six Day War back in its context, and to present its origins
and its outcome in such a manner that they will never be looked at in the
same way again. And with respect to the origins he does indeed offer a
comprehensive, if narrowly diplomatic, account. The story of the war itself
is very well told, and for its source base alone this book should now be
considered the standard work of reference. Yet neither the origins nor the
war come across, at least to this reader, in any strikingly novel way. More
thorough than previous accounts, to be sure. Better documented, certainly.
Better balanced than many previous histories, no question. But different?
Not really.

s for the long-term outcome of the most fateful week in modern Middle
Eastern history, Oren does not even begin to engage it. To be fair, any
serious attempt at assessing the war's consequences would require another
book. But the main consequences of Israel's victory can be summarized fairly
succinctly. There was a widespread belief among Arab commentators, swiftly
communicated to the Arab "street," that the United States and Britain had
helped Israel--how else could its air force have achieved such dazzling
successes? This prepared the way for a significant increase in anti-American
sentiment across the region, a change of mood that proved lasting and with
the consequences of which we are living still.

The ironic outcome is that whereas American public support for Israel in
June 1967 had actually been rather lukewarm--Washington feared alienating
moderate Arab opinion--the two countries did draw much closer thereafter.
Israel was now a force to be reckoned with, a potential ally in an unstable
region; and whereas in June 1967 Johnson's advisers had warned him against
committing America openly to the Zionist cause, future administrations would
have no such anxieties. With Arab states increasingly hostile, the United
States had less to lose. France, meanwhile, released from the embarrassment
of its imbroglio in Algeria, turned its back on the Jewish state ("un peuple
sr de lui et dominateur," in De Gaulle's notorious phrase) and made the
strategic decision to re-build its bridges to the Arab world.

International public opinion also began to shift. Before the war, in Europe
as well as the United States, only the far right and the far left were
avowedly anti-Israel. Progressives and conservatives alike were sympathetic
to Israel, the underdog seemingly threatened with imminent extinction. In
some circles comparisons were drawn with the Civil War in Spain just thirty
years earlier, with Israel cast as the legitimate republic besieged by
aggressive dictators. Throughout Western Europe and North America, in South
Africa and Australia, a significant effort was mounted from May 1967 to send
volunteers to help Israel, if only by replacing in the fields the men called
up to fight.

I played a very minor role in these events, returning in my own case from
the United Kingdom to Israel on the last commercial flight to land there
before the outbreak of hostilities. Consequently I met a lot of these
volunteers, in Europe and then in Israel. There were many non-Jews among
them and most would have classed themselves as politically "left." With the
trial of Eichmann and the Frankfurt trials of concentration-camp personnel a
very recent memory, defending Israel became a minor international cause.

According to Abba Eban, speaking in the aftermath of victory, "Never before
has Israel stood more honored and revered by the nations of the world." I am
not sure that this was so. Israel was certainly respected in a new way. But
the scale of its triumph actually precipitated a falling-away of support.
Some might plausibly attribute this to the world's preference for the Jew as
victim--and there was indeed a certain post-June discomfort among some of
Israel's overseas sympathizers at the apparent ease with which their cause
had triumphed, as though its legitimacy were thereby called retrospectively
into question.

But there was more to it than that. The European Old Left had always thought
of Israel, with its long-established Labor leaders, its disproportionately
large public sector, and its communitarian experiments, as "one of us." In
the rapidly shifting political and ideological currents of the late 1960s
and early 1970s, however, Israel was something of an anomaly. The New Left,
from Berlin to Berkeley, was concerned less with exploited workers and more
with the victims of colonialism and racism. The goal was no longer the
emancipation of the proletariat; it was rather the liberation of the
third-world peasantry and what were not yet called "people of color."
Kibbutzim retained a certain romantic aura for a few more years, but for
hard-nosed Western radicals they were just collective farms and as such a
mere variant of the discredited Soviet model. In defeating the Arab armies
and occupying Arab land, Israel had drawn attention to itself in ways
calculated to encourage New Left antipathy, at just the moment when hitherto
disparate radical constituencies--Ulster Catholics, Basque nationalists,
Palestinian exiles, German extra-Parliamentarians, and many others--were
finding common cause.

As for the conventional right, through the 1950s and 1960s it
enthusiastically took Israel's side against Nasser--the bte noire of every
Western government, Raymond Aron's "Hitler on the Nile." With Nasser
thoroughly humiliated, however, and with the colonial era retreating into
memory, many European conservatives lost interest in Israel and sought
instead to curry favor among its oil-producing neighbors: before the energy
crisis of 1973, but especially afterwards.

In a variety of ways, then, the international context after 1967 turned
increasingly unfavorable for Israel, despite, and even because of, its
dramatic victory. Yet the most important change of all, the transformation
that would color all of Israel's dealings with the rest of the world, took
place in the country itself. Relieved of any serious threat, ostensibly
sufficient unto themselves, Israelis became complacent. The attitude of Yael
Dayan, addressing her diary as the war ended, is quite typical: "The new
reality in the Middle East presented Israel as the strongest element, and as
such it can talk a different language and had to be talked to differently."
The prickly insecurity that characterized the country in its first two
decades changed to a self-satisfied arrogance.

>From 1967 until the shock of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel was "dizzy
with success." The apparent ease of the June victory led both the public
and--less forgivably--the generals to believe that they were invincible. The
image of the Israeli Defense Forces was burnished to a shine.
Self-congratulatory (and implicitly contradictory) myths were espoused: that
the Six Day War had been won with consummate ease thanks to the technical
and cultural superiority of the Israeli forces; that the climactic battles
(for Jerusalem, for the Golan) had seen heroic feats of soldiering against
harsh odds.

Books such as Yael Dayan's Israel Journal reflected and nourished a
widespread sense of spiritual superiority. Attached to Sharon's Southern
Command during the war, she sneers at the contents of captured Egyptian
officers' tents: thrillers, nylons, candies. "I knew what our officers'
bedside tables contained. An Egyptian soldier would have found a few pens,
writing paper, a few books and study matter-- perhaps a book of poems."
Comparing the two sides, Dayan concludes that the Egyptians had the material
advantage, but "we had spiritual superiority."

Perhaps, perhaps not. As I recall Israeli junior officers' quarters on the
Golan in the late summer of 1967, there were more pin-ups than poems. But
from encounters with soldiers at the time I can confirm the astonishingly
quick transition from quiet confidence to an air of overweening superiority.
Sharon was not the only one to sweep his arm across the captured landscape
and declare (in his case to Yael Dayan) that "all this is ours." And the new
mood was reinforced by the appearance in fairly short order of a new kind of
Israeli. The great victory of 1967 gave Zionism a shot in the arm, with a
new generation of enthusiastic immigrants arriving from America especially;
but these new Zionists brought with them not the old socialist texts of
emancipation, redemption, and community, but rather a Bible and a map. For
them, Israel's accidental occupation of Judea and Samaria was not a problem,
it was a solution. In their religious and jingoistic eyes, the defeat of
Israel's historical enemies was not the end of the story, but rather the

In many cases their aggressive nationalism was paired with a sort of
born-again, messianic Judaism, a heady combination hitherto largely unknown
in Israel. In the aftermath of the capture of Jerusalem, the chief rabbi of
the army, Shlomo Goren, had proposed that the mosques on the Temple Mount be
blown up. The general in command on the Jordanian front, Uzi Narkiss, had
ignored him; but in years to come the voice of intolerant, ultra-religious
Zionism would become more insistent and not so easy to turn away.

The demography of Israel was altered in other ways, too. In the aftermath of
the Six Day War, Jews in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere were
subjected to persecution and discrimination, and the rate of Jewish
immigration to Israel from Arab lands rose sharply. Hitherto it had been
mostly confined to Jews expelled or fleeing from the newly independent
states of the Maghreb; these continued to come, either directly or via
France, but they were no longer a small minority of the overall population.
These new Israelis not only did not share the political and cultural
background of the earlier European immigrants. They had strong and
distinctly unfriendly opinions about Arabs. After all, relations between
Jews and Arabs in the places they had come from were often based on little
more than mutual contempt. When the old Labor parties predictably failed to
attract their support (or did not even bother to try), they turned to the
erstwhile revisionists, whose chauvinist prejudices they could appreciate.
The rise to power of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and their successors,
literally unimaginable before June 1967, now became possible and even

his was the irony of the victory of 1967: it was the only war Israel ever
won that gave the country a real chance to shape the Middle East to
everyone's advantage, its own above all--but the very scale of the victory
somehow robbed the country's leaders of imagination and initiative. The
"overblown confidence" (this is Oren's apt phrase) after June 1967 led to
the initial disasters of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when, unable to imagine
that Arab military planning was as good as their own intelligence suggested,
the Israeli general staff was caught napping. That same misplaced confidence
led Israel's politicians to let policy drift in the course of the 1970s, at
a time when the initiative was still very much in their hands.

As for the occupied territories, Eshkol's question to Yadin remained
unanswered. The habit of encouraging frontier settlements in the name of
security--a building block of the original Yishuv (the Jewish community in
pre-1948 Palestine) and the origin of many kibbutzim--made sense in the
military circumstances of the 1930s. But half a century later it was an
utter anachronism. It was in this context, however, that mainstream
politicians connived, sometimes unwittingly, at the subsidized establishment
in the West Bank of tens of thousands of religious and political extremists.
Some politicians--Allon, Sharon--always intended to install a permanent
Israeli presence on the captured lands. Others merely preferred not to
oppose the mood of the hour.

Nobody thought much about how to remove the settlements when the time came
to exchange land for peace, though it had been clear from the outset that
come it would.  On June 19, 1967, the Israeli cabinet secretly voted to
accept the principle of returning occupied land in exchange for lasting
peace. As Eshkol had noted when the war began: "Even if we conquer the Old
City and the West Bank, in the end we will have to leave them."

It is easy to wax nostalgic for the old Israel, before the victories of 1967
and the disturbing changes they brought in their wake. The country may have
had what some now refer to as "Auschwitz frontiers," but its identity within
them was at least clear. Yet if the Jewish state was ever to be at home in
the Middle East, to be the "normal" polity that its Zionist founders
envisaged, then its curious European orientation, a time-space capsule in an
alien continent, could not last. And there is no doubt that, for better or
for worse, since June 1967 Israel has entered fully into the Middle Eastern
world. It, too, has crazed clerics, religious devotees, nationalist
demagogues, and ethnic cleansers. It is also, sadly, less secure than at any
time in the past thirty-five years. The idea that Jews in Israel might lead
their daily lives oblivious of the Arab world, as many did before 1967, is
today tragically unthinkable.

Short of forcibly expunging the Arab presence from every inch of soil
currently controlled by Israel, the dilemma facing Israel today is the same
as it was in June 1967, when the aging David Ben-Gurion advised his fellow
countrymen against remaining in the conquered territories. A historic
victory can wreak almost as much havoc as a historic defeat. In Abba Eban's
words, "The exercise of permanent rule over a foreign nation can only be
defended by an ideology and rhetoric of self-worship and exclusiveness that
are incompatible with the ethical legacy of prophetic Judaism and classical
Zionism." The risk that Israel runs today is that for many of its most vocal
defenders, Zionism has become such an "ideology and rhetoric of self-worship
and exclusiveness" and not much more. In that case, Israel's brilliant
victory of June 1967, already a classic in the annals of pre-emptive
defensive warfare, will have borne bitter fruits for the losers and the
winners alike.

Tony Judt is a contributing editor at TNR.


Yossi Klein Halevi on reality striking back.
The Bomb's Diameters
Martin Peretz on the delusion of the Oslo accords.

After Peace
Leon Wieseltier on the unreality, and the necessity, of peace after
>From Fascism to Jihadism
Want to understand Islamic fanaticsm? Look to Europe--and its history from
the 1930s.

The Poet and the Murderer
Martin Peretz on the poet and the murderer.
Hitler Is Dead
Against the ethnic panic of American Jews.

Does Poverty Cause Terrorism?
A close and skeptical look at the economics of suicide bombers.
Not So Fast
Hillel Halkin repudiates Tom Segev's myths of Zionism.

The Wall
How despair is transforming Israel.
Anchors Away
Yossi Klein Halevi on the new mood that has sailed into Israel.

Copyright 2002, The New Republic