Six Days of Incompetence

The Six-Day War was first and foremost about the international community’s failure to stand up to an aggressor.

Just a couple of weeks ago, almost 40 years after the fact, the Senate foreign relations committee released the transcripts of its closed hearings from 1967. It is a lengthy document of minor significance, providing yet another building block to the almost complete body of evidence now available to those wanting to understand the origins and actions leading to Israel’s stunning victory over its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War.

The senators grilled then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk about the meaning of the crisis just days before the war and kept asking questions during and right after the war—debating America’s obligation to defend Israel, to try to prevent a possible war, and to stand up to the aggressor, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser; and how to balance all those things with a military that was stuck in the Vietnam quagmire.

Near the end of a May 23 session, two weeks before the war began, Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., declared: “We have to make the other free nations understand the relation of freedom in this matter, because if they do get into a war, then you have got totalitarianism seeking to drive this country into oblivion.” He was referring to the reluctance of the international community to intervene in a way that would make it clear to Egypt that blocking the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping was an unacceptable act of aggression.

A statement like that from a senator like Morse, notes Kenneth Baer, co-editor of Democracy, in the Summer 2007 issue of that magazine, was no small thing. After all, “[H]e was one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution three years earlier and [his] outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War helped cost him his seat the following fall. He is remembered today, if at all, as a hero of the antiwar movement.” In the days preceding the 1967 war, he proved to be smart enough to see the difference between Vietnam and the Middle East and to make the distinction between a victim and an attacker. That kind of perception is lacking in many of the numerous articles about the Six-Day War that have been published in the last few days.

The story line in most of these pieces is quite predictable: Israel won the war and lost the peace; it defeated the Arab militaries but is still stuck with the Palestinian territories. The articles highlight the many shortcomings of the Arabs before the war—they were foolish enough to think they could defeat Israel—but they focus mostly on those of Israelis after the war—they were shortsighted enough to think that they could keep biblical “Judea” and “Samaria” in Israel’s hands permanently.

All this might be true—as might the other conclusions these articles often reach: The decisions leading to the war were not made in an orderly fashion, and Israel acted out of irrational fear, sentimentality, or hubris. True, true, true—that’s the way it was with the Six-Day War, as it is with most other wars, successful or not. Wars, dreadful as they are, aren’t usually conceived and fought in an orderly manner.

Putting the emphasis on the 40 years of occupation that followed the war, or on the haste with which Israel entered and conquered East Jerusalem, is merely playing politics with history. Talking about the bad consequences of a justified war—and there’s no reasonable way to describe the occupation as a desired outcome—is only convenient as long as it avoids the discussion of the alternative scripts, the parallel histories that never happened. The what-if questions that no one can really answer, such as: What would have happened to Israel if it had avoided going to war? What would have happened to the Palestinian people if Israel had decided to give the West Bank back to Jordan right after the war? What would have happened to Egypt and the region if Nasser had been successful in his plot? The what-ifs are numerous, and the alternative scenarios are endless—and the possible outcomes aren’t always more positive.

On June 5, the first day of the conflict, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a letter to President Lyndon Johnson explaining his reasons for going into the war. “As you know, Mr. President,” he wrote passionately, “nothing effective had been done or attempted by the U.N. against a ruthless design to destroy the state of Israel.” He might have exaggerated the actual power of Nasser to harm Israel, but he was accurate enough in describing the impotence of the international community.

Egypt defied international law and previous agreements when it closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. President Johnson toyed with the idea of sending an international naval convoy to break the Egyptian blockade, but there were no enthusiastic takers for this idea. The United Nations, terrified of Nasser, quickly pulled out the forces separating Egypt and Israel, much to the annoyance of Rusk and Johnson. The lesson Nasser learned from this was quite understandable. “As of today,” he declared, “there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the U.N. about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.”

So, in the game of what-ifs that everyone seems to want to play on the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, this is the possibility that is really worthy of more consideration: What would have happened if the world had acted more decisively to prevent Nasser from violating his commitments? What would he have done if the United Nations had made it clear that such acts and statements would be met with a show of resilience and even force? In short: What would have happened if the world had been more attentive to Sen. Morse’s wisdom and advice? Could the miseries of both the war and the occupation have been avoided?