The Six-Day War at 45: Then and Now

It was 45 years and one day ago when Israel launched the aerial preemptive strike that started the Six-Day War that ended with the Sinai Desert, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem being under Israeli control. Today, there are riots in various cities in Israel launched by right-wing radicals, protesting the decision by PM Netanyahu to abide by the Supreme Court decision to demolish a few illegal buildings in the village of Beit-El, near Ramallah. So, as is so customary in Israel, past and present combine together.

Some historic context is in place here. The preemptive strike was in reaction to the Egyptian blocking of the Straights of Tiran, which by international law was a casus belli. On top of that, there were the troop concentrations on the borders of Israel with all its neighbors, and the mass demonstrations in Arab capitals, calling upon the Arab rulers to finish the job started by Adolph Hitler. The Gaza strip was then under military Egyptian occupation, which started in 1948. On October 21 of that fateful year, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, a protégé of the Egyptians, established his All-Palestine Government in Gaza, but the Egyptians decided, after a time, that they had no need for Al-Husseini, threw him out of Gaza, and blocked the establishment of an independent Palestinian state there.

The West bank and Jerusalem were, on June 4, 1967, illegally occupied by the Hashimite kingdom of Jordan, who under King Abdallah annexed them on April 24, 1950, an act which was never recognized by the Arab League or the UN. Only Great Britain and Pakistan recognized it. Parts of the Sinai Desert were occupied by Israel in the war of 1948-9, but were returned to Egypt as part of the cease Fire agreement signed in Rhodes in 1949. So, what can be learned from all that?

First, when pushed to the wall, with a deep, genuine fear of extinction, the Israelis act, even against the odds. In June of 1967, it seemed to the vast majority of Israelis that the Zionist venture was on the verge of destruction, so they acted, despite international pressures not to do so. Any possible relevance to the Iranian situation? Yes, though not inevitable. The talk in Israel about Iran being an existential threat is a reflection of a genuine sense of insecurity coupled with the burden of the past. Do all the Israelis view this situation in such a way? Clearly no, but a lot do, so no one should believe that the debate in Israel about the best possible way to deal with Iran is in itself an impediment to an independent Israeli action at some point in the foreseeable future. Yet the Israeli leadership is advised to remember that the decision to start the war of self-defense in 1967 was approved by a national unity government, supported by the vast majority of the people.

That is to say that crucial national decisions better be taken by a government enjoying this level of support. PM Netanyahu presides today over a coalition that includes over 90 out of 120 members of the Knesset. He may not have the same level of public support that the Israeli government enjoyed on June 5, 1967, but he has enough support to lead to big actions. Iran may not be the immediate number 1 priority on his list, but the Palestinian question could be.

His actions in recent days with regard to the controversy over Beit-El indicate that he is fully aware of the new political situation in Israel and the wide range of options which it opens to him. The developing confrontation between him and the settlers and their supporters is not going to be a light affair. This is, for all intents and purposes, a family feud, the type of situation that tends to be acrimonious and painful. The settlers are the ones, who push for a full-fledged confrontation with Netanyahu, who, by all accounts, is a PM who feels strongly about Jewish rights in the disputed lands. Yet if a confrontation is what is in store for him, there should be a winner, and Netanyahu can be the one, if he will continue to display leadership in actions, not just in words.

What is at stake here is a struggle over the final fate of the territories which Israel was forced to occupy in 1967. The lesson of this year is that the leaders that dare are the leaders that win.