Middle Israel: The seventh day
As it enters its 50th anniversary year, the Six Day War looms, for better and worse, as the most pivotal moment in the state’s history. ‘You say you want peace,” said Lyndon Johnson to Levi Eshkol, “but actually you just want a piece of this and a piece of that.”
Both men laughed, as they did frequently when the US president hosted the Israeli premier, who looked, sounded and joked like a Lower East Side tailor, but actually emerged from the recent Six Day War as the greatest Jewish conqueror since King David. The fact was that Eshkol had no idea what he wanted, other than that the Arab states should shed their animosity and make peace, in which case he would have retreated from the vast territories Israel conquered seven months earlier in six days.
Plan B, to muddle through as long as Arab hostility persists, is where the Jewish state proceeded then and still remains today, as the war that constituted the most pivotal moment in Israel’s history enters next Sunday its 50th anniversary year.
IN MANY WAYS , the war’s seventh day has yet to end. Diplomatically, its lasting legacy is the land-for-peace formula.
What had previously been irrelevant now became formal policy, as Israel initiated and obtained the United Nations’ adoption of Resolution 242, which a decade later generated the first Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
Militarily, the war that made good use of the German blitzkrieg tactic was actually part of the conventional war’s swan song, along with the subsequent Yom Kippur War and the Iran-Iraq War and Falklands War. Otherwise, there has been no great clash of air forces, navies, infantries and armored divisions, and none is likely anytime soon. Instead, modern armies have been facing guerrillas like Vietnam’s, Afghanistan’s and Lebanon’s, or terrorists like those that now pose the international system’s main security threat.
Still, the Six Day War has been pivotal in that it consolidated Israel’s position in the region and convinced many who wished its extinction, and others who just predicted it, that Israel is here to stay.
Similarly, the war dealt a devastating blow to the Soviet Union’s weaponry and military guidance, resulting in the Egyptian Army’s subsequent replacement of its Soviet-made matériel with American alternatives.
Politically, the war’s effects on both of its sides was far more profound. On the Arab side, the Six Day War exposed the limits and risks of pan-Arab nationalism.
The gospel whose bearers hoped would unite the Arab world and restore what they portrayed as its lost greatness produced instead defeat, shame and despair.
On the Israeli side, the war’s unexpected conquests fractured the Zionist consensus and created within Israeli society divisions that did not previously exist.
Lastly, the war delayed Israel’s economic modernization, in two ways. First, faced with surplus capital in Israel and surplus labor in the territories, Israel made a mistake by bringing the surplus labor to the surplus capital, inviting unskilled laborers from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel as its hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Today it is clear that Israel should have done the opposite, namely, lead the surplus capital to the surplus labor, by encouraging the establishment of factories, financial institutions and commercial centers in the West Bank and Gaza.
That way, Palestinians would have worked in Palestinian areas for Palestinian employers, rather than work in Israeli towns for Israeli bosses, a daily experience that in due course multiplied envy, hatred and violence.
Second, the war created an illusion of Israeli prosperity, having initially sparked a big construction drive while enshrining a statist and centralized economy that begged reform. Indirectly, the Six Day War delayed the Israeli economy’s transition from its socialist origins to its capitalist future. If not for the war, the great transition that began in 1985 might have arrived earlier, and thus preempted rather than followed hyperinflation and near-bankruptcy.
Having said all this, some of Israel’s greatest achievements are also attributable to that year’s military cataclysm.
THE BIGGEST benefit from 1967 has been, paradoxically, the Russian immigration.
The Soviet Union’s role in igniting the war remains unclear. Yet there is no arguing that the communist superpower’s military and political prestige were badly hurt in the wake of the Six Day War.
For that very reason the vast Jewish community trapped at the time beyond the Iron Curtain was suddenly injected with a dose of pride, defiance and optimism that no one in Jerusalem planned and no one in Moscow foresaw. The same thing happened in Jewish communities throughout the West, where the cause of Soviet Jewry now became an obsession. The result was a titanic effort joined by the entire Jewish people with the help of Western governments, all of which ultimately resulted in an exodus that 50 years ago was unthinkable.
The post-Soviet immigration energized Israel economically and bolstered it demographically. Economically, it first boosted the retail sector, as demand for housing, food and consumer goods multiplied, and it then helped intensify the spirit of entrepreneurship which sprouted in Israel following the 1985 economic reforms.
Demographically, the Soviet immigration made a decisive contribution to the growth of Israel’s Jewish population over the past half-century, from 2.5 million to 6.3 million. This would not have happened without the Six Day War.
The other benefit was diplomatic.
Initially, the war caused diplomatic ruin, as the East Bloc severed ties with the Jewish state and an Arab-Soviet axis agitated distant countries against Israel.
This effort bore fruit following the Yom Kippur War, when 30 African states severed ties with Israel.
However, the impact of 1967 soon proved stronger, when Africa, Russia, the rest of East Europe and also China and India established full diplomatic relations with Israel by 1992. This, too, was a belated result of the Six Day War, which convinced most of the world that Israel was there to stay, and that engaging it offered more benefits than alienating it.
At the same time, the Six Day War also complicated Israel’s strategic situation, both internally and externally.
IDEOLOGICALLY , the settlement ideal, which originally was a Zionist tenet of faith and a pillar of the Israeli consensus, became a subject of controversy.
The debate that began immediately after the war was initially led by secular literati, from poet Natan Alterman on the Right to novelist Amos Oz on the Left. However, since the late 1970s the settlement cause gradually became identified with a messianic thinking that was alien to the secular majority.
The tension between messianic and anti-messianic Israelis is also a result of the Six Day War, and its future is unpredictable.
Israelis on both sides of the political divide agree that the assassination of the Six Day War’s victorious commander, Yitzhak Rabin, constituted the lowest ebb in Zionist history. It, too, would not have happened but for the war, which unleashed a messianic euphoria that soon produced frustration, violence and heartbreak. Externally, the Six Day War made Israel the ruler of a large Palestinian population for which Israel is the antichrist.
This new situation caught Israel completely unprepared. Though relentlessly searching after a peace formula that would be agreeable to the Palestinians, or even just to Israel’s divided citizenry, the Jewish state has yet to produce one.
In this regard, the war that otherwise inspired the Jewish people and helped consolidate Israel’s place among the nations has humbled the Jewish state.
The war began with Egypt’s blockade of the Red Sea, military deployment in Sinai and eviction of the UN from Gaza, only to end with three Arab armies destroyed and four Arab air forces’ combined 469 planes either destroyed on the ground or shot down in dogfights.
The consequent euphoria in Israel and throughout the Jewish world created the illusion that Israel could reshape the Middle East and lead it to peace. This confidence animated two Israeli misadventures – the First Lebanon War in 1982, in which Israel thought it would democratize an Arab neighbor, and the Oslo Accords, through which Israel planned to inspire a New Middle East of borderless economies.
Most Israelis concluded from these two failures that the Middle East’s direction can be decided only by its Arab majority.
When they want war, even peace enthusiasts like Shimon Peres can’t deliver peace, just as when they want peace, even a super-hawk like Menachem Begin ends up ceding land.
That is also the lesson of the Six Day War, which was the affable, Yiddish-joking Levi Eshkol’s crowning achievement, but his Arab enemies’ choice.