Saturday, June 02, 2007

Facts Forgotten or Intentionally Misplaced #2

Myth: Israel's attack was unprovoked.

Fact: In speeches for at least the previous two years, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been threatening war. Terrorists supported by Syria and Egypt dramatically increased their attacks, from 41 raids in 1966 to 37 in the first four months of 1967. Syria used the Golan Heights as a platform to continue the shelling Israeli villages near the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). On April 7, 1967 Israeli retaliated, shooting down six Russian-built Syrian MiG fighters. Early in May, Moscow falsely told Syria that Israel was mobilizing forces for a massive attack. Syria then invoked its joint defense treaty with Egypt.

On May 15, Israeli Independence Day, Egypt began moving troops into the Sinai Peninsula toward Israel's borders. The following day, it requested that the United Nations Emergency Force — installed to help keep peace after the 1956 Sinai Campaign — evacuate, which UNEF did. By May 18, Syrian troops were ready for battle along Israel's northern frontier. The same day the Voice of the Arabs radio declared that "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."

On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and all foreign ships bound for Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, an act of war that cut the route from Israel's main oil supplier, Iran. Nasser continued to threaten Israel, asserting on May 27 that coexistence was out of the question and that "the war with Israel is in existence since 1948." Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt on May 30. Other Arab countries sent forces to Egypt and Jordan to assist, and by June 4, approximately 250,000 enemy troops with more than 2,000 tanks and 700 aircraft surrounded Israel. By then on a socially and economically unsustainable alert for three weeks, Israel's best option was to pre-empt Arab attack, which it did on June 5, first knocking out the Egyptian air force. Years later, Salah al-Hadidi, the Egyptian judge presiding over trials of army officers held accountable for the his country's defeat, admitted Egypt's responsibility for causing the war: "I can state that Egypt's political leadership called Israel to war. It clearly provoked Israel and forced it into a confrontation" (Michael Oren, Six Days of War, 310-11).

Myth: Israel sought war in 1967 so it could conquer territory.

Fact: In what they perceived as the existential crisis leading to the Six-Day War, no Israeli political leader argued in favor of conflict on the basis that it would enable the country to conquer new lands. The debate was over how to avoid what appeared to be impending destruction, not how to expand. While a pre-emptive strike was seen as one way to avoid being wiped out, Israeli Prime Minster Levy Eshkol looked for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, and insisted on delaying all military action as long as possible so that to allow for diplomacy to run its course — even whil military officials warned that delays would work to Egyptian's advantage by allowing them to build their forces.

That Israel had not considered a war for conquest became clear almost as soon as the fighting ended on June 10, 1967. The national unity government appeared to be looking for a way to shed most of the newly-acquired territory. (The Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, West Bank [Judea and Samaria] and Gaza Strip more than tripled the area under Israel's control.) In Defense Minister Moshe Dayan's phrase, Israel was "waiting for a telephone call" from Arab leaders, expecting to hear that now they were ready to negotiate peace. Some Israeli leaders asserted that the country would never return to the vulnerable, pre-war armistices lines of 1949 and 1950 or permit the newly-reunified Jerusalem to be divided again; nevertheless, Foreign Minister Abba Eban said the Jewish state would be "unbelievably generous in working out peace terms." In direct talks with Arab countries, "everything is negotiable," he said.

But Arab leaders rejected negotiations, rejected recognition, and rejected peace. Even so, rather than annex the West Bank or Gaza Strip, for example, Israel instituted a military administration and maintained their status under international law as disputed territories, subject to eventual negotiations. This suggested that the country did not intend to absorb these areas, or the bulk of them, into Israel proper. Further, Israel eventually negotiated the return of the Sinai - site of Israeli-developed oil fields, Israeli-built air bases, and the newly-constructed Jewish town of Yamit with its surrounding agricultural settlements - to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty. The 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and their provisions for final status talks by 1998 on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, much of which were to be administered by the new Palestinian Authority, likewise confirmed that the Six-Day War had not been launched for territorial conquest.

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