Bret Stephens: Most of the conventional wisdom about the Six Day War is wrong

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.]

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.

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....
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George Robert Gaston - 6/22/2007

Is it possible that at some point Jordan may be considered the “winner” of the six-day war? According to some sources Jordan could not effectively employ its military because so much of it was providing internal security. This was due to the fact that some Palestinian and Syrian factions kept trying to overthrow the government and kill King Hussein, as they did his father.

At first blush the loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem appears to be a severe loss. However, the loss of these areas has been the key to a great measure of the country’s internal stability.

Take a look at what Hussein accomplished subsequent to the war.

In September 1970 the Jordanian Army removed the PLA; and soundly defeated a Syrian force that was coming to the Palestinian’s aid. This, along with defeating a brigade sized Israeli incursion into Jordan improved Hussein’s prestige, lessened the internal threat to the regime and removed the cause of continued military pressure from Israel.

In 1988 Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank. This left Israel to deal with the problem on its own. I think the action was also intended to end the idea of Jordan as the Palestinian state. This left the country free to develop its own economy and to modernize its government.

All the time Israel is stuck with a long, expensive and bloody occupation that has cost them dearly in terms of treasure and international support.

It seems of late that Israeli and American politicians are talking about Jordan being part of an overall solution to the problem of the West Bank. I have doubts if Jordan will be a willing partner in governing (occupying) the West Bank. There are just some fights you just can’t afford to win.