Half a century has passed since the Six-Day War of June 1967, when Israel surprisingly defeated the armies of three major Arab countries — Egypt, Syria and Jordan. This is the most tragic part of the Arab modern history. The Arabs have never suffered such humiliation in their recent history since the Anglo-Franco colonial takeover after the First World War. Recently-released transcripts of Israeli cabinet emergency and top-secret meetings on the eve of that war show how the Israeli leadership shifted from a state of total fear when the war began, to a state of euphoria two days later and to a state of arrogance at the end of the sixth day.
Prime minister at the time, Levi Eshkol, was quoted only days before the hostilities started as saying he was afraid of “a real massacre”. From a deeply horrified defence minister, Moshe Dayan, came an urgent warning that there was “a limit to our ability to defeat the Arabs”. Only two days later, following the Israeli control of the sky over Egypt, Israeli officials reverted to arrogant statements as Dayan himself was quoted as saying that Israeli army “could even be in Beirut within a few hours”.
Few weeks later, the question of what to do with the Arabs in the newly-occupied territories, and specifically ‘what to do with the Palestinians’ in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem, started to dominate the cabinet’s official meetings. “If it were up to us,” Eshkol seriously suggested, “we’d send all the Arabs out to Brazil”.
On June 6, the second day of the war, the Israeli chief-of-staff and other cabinet ministers, including the foreign minister, Abba Eban, convened again with euphoria totally replacing fear. “It is possible to occupy the whole West Bank,” Dayan told the ministers. “It is possible to reach Sharm Al Shaikh ... it is also possible to reach the Litani in Lebanon.” Next day, on June 7, Israeli army entered Jerusalem and the Old City, taking control of the Western Wall and the Al Haram Al Sharif and totally occupying the West Bank. The war ended immediately after the Israeli aggression army opened a confrontation along the Syrian front and took over the Golan Heights on June 10.
But the reality of the situation and the significance of the Arab defeat in a world that was deeply and bitterly divided at a time when the Cold War between East and West had reached its height, could not be more dramatic. The then Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban summarised the moment when he told the ministers on June 14 with euphoric arrogance: “In the history of mankind, there has been nothing like the public diplomacy success [that] Israel has had this past month.” Immersed in a colonial victory of achievement, he continued: “Israel is expanding ... and the world is applauding.”
Eban couldn’t have been more precise. Britain, France, the United States and the entire western world were exceptionally jubilant at Israel’s victory. This writer vividly remembers public celebrations in the streets of Central London and how Israeli flags of Star-of-David were paraded in most parts of the capital. The House of Commons held a special session called by the then Labour government of prime minister Harold Wilson, at the end of which, the Eshkol government was congratulated for its aggression. The photos of journalist Winston Churchill, who was elected as a conservative member of the British parliament in 1970, a grandson of the second World War veteran, sitting on the surface of a British-made Israeli tank crushing the borders into Jerusalem, dominated the front pages of the four afternoon issues of the Daily Evening Standard on the fourth day of the war. Churchill was particularly known for his anti-Arab feelings and his defence of the old British Empire, as well as his defence of the white minority governments in both Ian Smith’s southern Rhodesia and PW Botha’s apartheid South Africa. This is precisely what Eban meant when he said the world was applauding the Israeli invasion of the Arab countries.
Even the supposed friends of the Arabs, particularly the Soviet Union, were indirectly criticised on Day Six of the June War by the then de facto Arab national leader, Egypt’s president Jamal Abdul Nasser. In his resignation speech at the end of the war, Nasser said we were betrayed by our friends and allies, clearly implicating the Russians who advised him not to launch the attack. Moscow’s advice was supposedly based on information they had received from the Americans. Nasser did not, but the Israelis did and the rest of the story is well-known.
The Middle East of the 1960s was only one part, and a small part for that matter, of a hugely complicated world trapped in dangerously contested wars and confrontations in every continent, including Europe, deeply divided by dividing Germany early in the 1950s into East and West. The contest between the two super powers from 1961-1968 had polarised the US during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on the one hand, and the Soviet leadership of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev on the other. The Soviets had so many international worries at hand and the Middle East was merely one of them, and not necessarily a major one.
In addition to the Laos crisis of 1960-1963, there was Congo and the decolonisation process between 1960 and 1965 and the start of the Cold War and arms race. The US backed the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and its aftermath between 1961 and 1962, followed by the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Then came the major negotiation between the two super powers that led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
In 1964, the US war in Vietnam reached its first peak. Meanwhile, the war between India and Pakistan was raging in 1965. Then came the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, at a time when the world was witnessing further escalation in devastating war and invasion culminating in America’s war in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, both in 1968. In that year too, Moscow and Washington had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, putting an end to a turbulent decade that the world had not seen since the Second World War.
Therefore, the 1967 Arab defeat is considered by many historians as merely a footnote in the long list of events in the 1960s, no matter how deeply the Arabs felt cheated and heart-broken.
Mustapha Karkouti is a former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. You can follow him on Twitter at @mustaphatache.