Rethinking Israel's David-and-Goliath past

Discussion in 'Politics' started by Nabuchodonosor, Jun 5, 2007.

  1. Rethinking Israel's David-and-Goliath past

    Written by Sandy Tolan

    At a little after 7 on the morning of June 5, 1967, as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's commanders were finishing their breakfasts and driving to work, French-built Israeli fighter jets roared out of their bases and flew low, below radar, into Egyptian airspace. Within three hours, 500 Israeli sorties had destroyed Nasser's entire air force. Just after midday, the air forces of Jordan and Syria also lay in smoking ruins, and Israel had essentially won the Six-Day War -- in six hours.

    Israeli and U.S. historians and commentators describe the surprise attack as necessary, and the war as inevitable, the result of Nasser's fearsome war machine that had closed the Strait of Tiran, evicted United Nations peacekeeping troops, taunted the traumatized Israeli public, and churned toward the Jewish state's border with 100,000 troops. "The morning of 5 June 1967," wrote Israel's warrior-turned-historian, Chaim Herzog, "found Israel's armed forces facing the massed Arab armies around her frontiers." Attack or be annihilated: The choice was clear.

    Or was it? Little-noticed details in declassified documents from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, indicate that top officials in the Johnson administration -- including Johnson's most pro-Israeli Cabinet members -- did not believe war between Israel and its neighbors was necessary or inevitable, at least until the final hour. In these documents, Israel emerges as a vastly superior military power, its opponents far weaker than the menacing threat Israel portrayed, and war itself something that Nasser, for all his saber-rattling, tried to avoid until the moment his air force went up in smoke. In particular, the diplomatic role of Nasser's vice president, who was poised to travel to Washington in an effort to resolve the crisis, has received little attention from historians. The documents sharpen a recurring theme in the history of the Israeli-Arab wars, and especially of their telling in the West: From the war of 1948 to the 2007 conflict in Gaza, Israel is often miscast as the vulnerable David in a hostile sea of Arab Goliaths.

    "You will whip the hell out of them," Lyndon Johnson told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban during a visit to the White House on May 26, 1967. The president's conclusions were based on multiple intelligence reports, including a CIA assessment that Israel "can maintain internal security, defend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts, launch limited attacks simultaneously on all fronts, or hold any of three fronts while mounting successfully a major offensive on the fourth." As Nicholas Katzenbach, U.S. undersecretary of state at the time, recalled: "The intelligence was absolutely flat on the fact that the Israelis ... could wipe out the Arabs in no time at all."

    A key discrepancy lay between U.S. and British intelligence reports and those conveyed to the administration by the Israelis. On May 26, the same day Eban met with Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, relayed a message from Israel indicating "that an Egyptian and Syrian attack is imminent." In a memo to the president, Rusk wrote: "Our intelligence does not confirm this Israeli estimate." Indeed, this contradicted all U.S. intelligence, which had characterized Nasser's troops in the Sinai as "defensive in nature" and only half (50,000) of the Israeli estimates. Walt Rostow, the national security advisor, called Israeli estimates of 100,000 Egyptian troops "highly disturbing," and the CIA labeled them "a political gambit" for the United States to stand firm with Israelis, sell them more military hardware, and "put more pressure on Nasser."

    As for the Egyptian president, there was a huge difference between his public and private signals. He had threatened Israelis with "annihilation," causing fear bordering on paralysis for a population devastated by the Holocaust. He had closed the Straits of Tiran, a source of less than 10 percent of Israel's shipping, but nevertheless a casus belli as far as Israel was concerned. He had expelled the U.N. peacekeepers from Sinai, further raising fears of war. (Israel, however, refused to accept those same peacekeepers -- a move that would have diminished the chance of war.) And, as the leader of the "Arab nation," Nasser was under great pressure from other Arabs to cut short Israel's nuclear ambitions and deliver the Palestinians back to the homes they had fled and been driven out of in the war of 1948.

    But privately Nasser was sending strong signals he would not go to war. On May 31, he met with an American emissary, former Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson, assuring him that Egypt would not "begin any fight." Two days later, Nasser told a British M.P., Christopher Mayhew, that Egypt had "no intention of attacking Israel." The same day he met again with Anderson, agreeing to dispatch his vice president, Zakariya Mohieddin, to Washington, in an apparent last-ditch attempt to avoid war. (Anderson and Johnson had also spoken of a visit to Cairo by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.)

    Rostow decided that Israel should know about the secret visit. In a June 2 note to the president, the national security advisor urged that the United States inform Israel of Mohieddin's impending trip to the White House: "My guess is that their intelligence will pick it up." The same day, Nasser sent a telegram to the American president indicating that Egypt would not attack Israel, but that "we shall resist any aggression launched against us or against any Arab state."

    The archives for the 1967 war, as with the documentary evidence from other Arab-Israeli wars, thus reveal a history far more complex, and far more interesting, than the inflated portrayal of Arabs poised to crush Israel. "One against 40," declared David Ben-Gurion in describing the odds facing Israel in the war of 1948, ignoring the fact that comparisons of total populations meant little. The records show that the key Arab and Jewish forces -- a much more crucial benchmark -- were about the same, and that after a June 1948 cease-fire, a rearmed Israel had a decided advantage, which it parlayed into victory. Fifty-nine years later, in today's conflict in Gaza, the tragic, well-publicized deaths of Israelis in Sderot from crudely built Qassam missiles -- nine in the last six years -- are dwarfed by the deaths of 650 Palestinians last year (more than half unarmed civilians, according to Amnesty International) from attacks by Israel, one of the most potent and sophisticated military powers in the world, armed with nuclear weapons.

    Yet the David vs. Goliath narrative persists, obscuring a more nuanced view of the balance of power in the region. Much of this has to do with Americans' familiarity with the story of Israel as a safe haven for Jews ravaged by the Holocaust. By contrast, Arabs, especially Palestinians, have long been seen as a vaguely menacing Other, as depicted in Leon Uris' hugely influential best-seller, "Exodus." The "Exodus" history, in which Arabs are alternately pathetic or malicious, holds no room for a more layered narrative of the struggle between Arabs and Jews, in which someone like Gamal Abdel Nasser, blustering for the Arab street, may have been privately seeking a way out of war.

    Did Nasser truly want peace? We may never know. On June 3, 1967, after Secretary of State Rusk had informed Israel of the pending visit from Egyptian Vice President Mohieddin, Rusk relayed a message from the president to Nasser. "In view of the urgency of the situation," Rusk wrote, "we hope it will be possible for him to come without delay." That same day, however, at a Pentagon meeting between Mossad director Meir Amit and McNamara, the prospects for war seemed closer than ever. Amit told McNamara bluntly that he was "going to recommend that our government strike." This time, the Americans did not object; indeed, the CIA had grown sympathetic to Israel's war aims, in which Nasser, seen as too close to the Soviets, would be defanged. When McNamara asked Amit how long a war would last, the Mossad director replied: "Seven days." And so the meeting between the White House and Mohieddin, scheduled for June 7, never took place. By that time, it was already Day 3 of the Six-Day War, and Israel was already in control of Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza and the skies over much of the Middle East.

  2. I was one of the handful of foreign correspondents who reached the front during that monumentally brief battle.

    Like anyone who believes in the justice of Israel's existence, I was deeply relieved by its victory on June 10. I had heard the bloodthirsty Arab threats of a new Holocaust. I had seen the "Kill the Jews" posters in Gaza schools. I had seen the bunkers and mass graves that Israel had been forced to dig in expectation of invasion, if not defeat.

    Yet, as we mark its 40th anniversary, it's become fashionable in some circles to rewrite the history of the Six-Day War. Radicals, so-called "humanitarians" and others who love to hate Israel now claim that what was essentially a war for survival was in fact just an excuse for Zionist imperialism.

    How ridiculous! Despite the seemingly insoluble problems that have arisen over the past four decades - not the least of them, Israel's continuing rule over occupied territories and a million-plus hostile Palestinians - the war was not only necessary, it was one of Israel's finest hours.

    If we are to be honest about the lessons learned, it's that many in the Mideast will never, ever stop until they can wipe Israel off the map - and therefore Israel must never succumb to naivete. Indeed, the core of Palestinians - then and now - reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state, seek its dismantlement and blame it for all Palestinian woes. What self-destruction!

    Shortly after the fighting stopped in the summer of 1967, I interviewed Golda Meir and asked her to sum up the importance of Israel's victory. "The only way to understand," she said, "is to imagine what would have happened if we had lost the war."

    I still shudder to think. Israel's foes are eager to make the past prologue - only this time, with a different victor.
  3. If Israel lost the war, the Jews would have been send back to Russia and peace would have been restored to the Middle-East. Palestine would be a secular state and not a racist Jewish state. But of course, that could not have happened because the Jewish state, a nuclear power, would have executed the Samson option by taking the world down with it in a Jewish orchestrated nuclear Holocaust.

    The article you posted shows quite a bit about the objectivity of NY Daily News due to the fact that they allow a Zionist Jew to write articles on a subject which he can't impartially write about. Who said we don't have a Jewish controlled media?

    Again, we have to compare two articles. One written by a person without an anti-Semitic background who reports a couple of interesting facts about the 6 day war; and the other written by a Zionist Jew who does not adress the points raised by the former and exclusively plays the doddering Jewish suffering card.
  4. Well, that's the good scenario, the bad scenario was that the Jews would have been slaughetered. Please keep in mind that that the mass immigration from Russia actually started long after 1967. At any rate for obvious reasons either scenario was not acceptable to Israel which is why the war was absolutely morally and legally justified. Even the UN refused to condemn it.

    Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report, a columnist at the NY Daily News and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Demoracies. A two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award and a recipient of the National Press Club Award, he was formerly executive editor of Newsweek International.
  5. Israel's pre-emptive attack made Israel the agressor and not Egypt. Israel could not lose that war because they already had nuclear weapons and were willing to use them. Also, Israel already had a small but significant amount of depleted uranium ammunition in reserves at that time, which reduced Egypt's chances of victory down to zero.

    Nasser had other reasons for expelling the UN force from the Sinai, such as its inability to make Israel enforce ignored UN resolutions. The Egyptian militarization of the Sinai was seen as an act of defiance towards Western powers who interdicted it after the 1956 war, rather than a preparation of an attack against Israel.

    Israel's only reason for the war was, indeed, Zionist imperialism.

    I don't think there is a lot of difference between Russian Jews and Polish, Czech, Hungerian Jews, who immigrated before 1967.

    I'm pretty sure that Zuckerman hired Chesnoff for a specific reason, namely his Jewishness. Assigning a Zionist Jew to report on Middle-Eastern issues for an American newspaper is an affront to objective journalism.
  6. Arnie


    No Pyrrhic Victory (Wall Street Journal)
    June 5, 2007;

    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.

    Israeli soldiers by Western Wall, June 1967.
    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.
  7. Israel's pre-emptive attack made Israel the agressor and not Egypt.
    Not according to the UN.

    Israel could not lose that war
    Good. Even less reason to wait until they could actually lose a war.

    they already had nuclear weapons and were willing to use them.
    It was rumored that they had two nukes at the time, clearly not enough to defend against 300 million strong arab world. Besides they were not willing to use nukes but they were prepared to do it as a last resort. Obviously they wanted to avoid it and the pre-emptive attack did just that.

    Nasser had other reasons for expelling the UN force from the Sinai, such as its inability to make Israel enforce ignored UN resolutions.
    Enforcing UN resolutions was not the objective of the UN force in the Sinai, they were there for peace-keeping purposes, nothing more, nothing less. Expelling peace-keepers always means one thing only - you don't want peace. If Nasser's military build-up had been defensive as you claim he would have positioned his armies behind UN peace-keepers. Besides Nasser also closed the Strait of Tiran - an act of war.

    The Egyptian militarization of the Sinai was seen as an act of defiance towards Western powers who interdicted it after the 1956 war, rather than a preparation of an attack against Israel.
    Yeah, whatever, never mind daily "Death to the Jews" rhetoric. Regardless, you can't expect Israel to be a sitting duck, idly hoping that it would just go away and Nasser would not attack despite all evidence to the contrary. Never mind the fact that Israel had to call up all military reserves - which was pretty much the entire nation. Israel is a small country, two more weeks of highest alert when everybody is in the military and can't work and the Israeli economy would have collapsed.

    Israel's only reason for the war was, indeed, Zionist imperialism.
    Whatever you say boss.

    I don't think there is a lot of difference between Russian Jews and Polish, Czech, Hungerian Jews, who immigrated before 1967.
    Well, you were the one who wanted to send Israeli jews back to Russia in 1967. Made a fool of yourself once again.

    I'm pretty sure that Zuckerman hired Chesnoff for a specific reason,
    Sure, and all the awards Chesnoff has won is also part of the Jewish conspiracy.
  9. Nonsense, they were hardly a peace keeping force.
    That's how they were universally called and that was the function they were performing.

    Nasser objected to the fact that the buffer zone was only in Egyptian territory, so he ordered them to leave.
    Lol, you're changing your story as you go, just a couple of minutes it was all about UN resolutions that they could not enforce, now it's about them being stationed in Egyptian territory. Guess what, they were there since 1956 with full Egyptian approval, there presence had never been an issue until Nasser decided to attack Israel. Even the arabs don't use such pathetic and absurd excuses.

    Nasser had every right to close the Straits of Tiran as it's located in Egyptian and S.A territory.
    He had no such right under international laws and treaties. Even your own article acknowledges that it was an act of war (casus belli).

    A 1 mile UN buffer zone and "poor Israel" would have been protected.
    No. Nasser would have been protected, I mean according to your twisted logic his military buildup on israeli border, the expulsion of the UN peace keeping forces and the closure of the Strait of Tiran were all defensive measures.

    All those countries were occupied by the soviet union and Stalin allowed plenty of Jews to go to Israel the first couple of years after WW2.
    They were still romanian, hungarian, polish etc jews, not russian jews. And most went to Israel from internment camps set up by the brits and Americans. Anyway, so you are suggesting to send Hungarian/Polish/Romanian jews back to Russia. How very original!!!
  10. They were called the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), and they were seen by Egypt as a leftover of foreign troops after the Suez crisis. This view was reinforced by the fact that the UN force was not at all on the Israeli side of the border. UN weakness in enforcing resolutions passed against Israel was another reason why Egypt eventually ordered them out.

    Just because I didn't include one reason in my post doesn't mean that I am changing my story, there were multiple reasons for their expulsion.

    The Egyptian blockage of the Straits of Tiran would only be a casus belli under the broadest interpretation of international law. According to that interpretation, the war against Japan would have been started by the United States, the 1933 Jewish war against Germany would have been a valid reason for Jewish deportations and the deliberate Israeli attack on the USS Liberty would be a casus belli for the United States to declare war on Israel (When Johnson heard of the attack, he was getting ready to nuke Cairo, but when he heard Israel did it he decided to do nothing).

    It gave Israel a nice excuse to wage an agressive war, but it was nothing more than that. At most it hindered a bunch of rich Jews from going to the red sea on cruiseships. If Israel wanted to avoid war, they could have gotten rid of the locking of the strait through diplomatic means, they had enough power in the United Nations to accomplish that.
    I thought your justification was that if Israel didn't stike "pre-emptivly", Egypt might have slaughtered the Jews in Israel? Now your argument has become that 10% of Israel's economy was worth an agressive war, which is, at least, closer to the truth than the Egyptian military invasion argument; an invasion that could have been prevented through peaceful means if Israel was truly as frightened as initially claimed.

    Russia, Khazaria to be exact, is where they initially came from anyway, so they could undoubtably return to their host nations from that place.
    #10     Jun 5, 2007