It is one of those ironies of history that the controversy surrounding the federal government’s refusal to label any part of Jerusalem as “occupied” by Israel broke in the media on June 5, the anniversary of the start of the Six Day war in 1967.
That war is remembered principally for the Israel Defence Force’s astonishingly rapid trouncing of the combined military might of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Less well remembered is the crisis in the preceding weeks that led to the war.
The crisis began when the Soviet Union, for reasons which are still unclear, spread false rumours among its Arab client States that Israeli troops were massing at the border for an attack on Syria. Egyptian and Syrian intelligence services, and observers of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation located on the spot, all confirmed that the rumours were groundless.
Regardless, Egypt’s President, Gamal abdel-Nasser seized the opportunity to escalate tensions with Israel. Many have now forgotten the massing of 100,000 Egyptian troops, armour and artillery in the Sinai peninsula up to the border with Israel; Nasser’s expulsion of the UN peace-keeping force in Sinai; the imposition of a naval blockade by Egypt upon Israel’s southern port of Eilat; the closing of ranks of the Arab States behind Egypt; and, most ominously, the wave of popular frenzy whipped up by Nasser as vast crowds in Arab capitals exulted in the anticipated destruction of Israel.
Israel’s imminent demise was widely predicted. There was talk of a ‘Second Holocaust’. Israel’s Foreign Minister at the time, Abba Eban, recalled that diplomatic messages of support which Israel received from friendly nations had “a disturbingly valedictory tone”.
Outnumbered by more than one hundred to one, outgunned, and unable to compete with the wealth and diplomatic influence of the Arab States, Israel faced its hour of maximum danger – alone.
It is worth recalling that history to understand why, in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement with those who have repeatedly sought its destruction, Israel steadfastly maintains its control over the West Bank and the parts of Jerusalem it captured in 1967.
Revisionist writers have since tried to deny or play down Egypt’s egregious series of aggressive acts, going so far as to claim that Israel needed and wanted a war at that time. But in truth the Israelis were caught utterly unprepared by the crisis that precipitated the war, and went to extraordinary diplomatic lengths to avoid it.
It was Nasser who was intent on war and he said so openly, making his ultimate goal crystal clear. In a speech to the Arab Trade Union Congress on May 26, Nasser declared
“Egypt will, thanks to this war, at long last wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.”The Palestinians too made their intentions plain. The chief of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Ahmed Shukeiry, declared that after the Arab victory, Israeli Jews born abroad would be “repatriated”, while the native-born could stay. However, Shukeiry added, “I estimate none of them will survive.”
Egypt’s air-force, and Nasser’s dreams of conquest, were left in a smouldering ruin on the ground in the first hours of the war. In the following days its troops were driven out of the Sinai to the western side of the Suez Canal.
The Jordanians opened hostilities on Israel’s eastern front with artillery and small arms fire into Israeli cities. The Israelis responded by driving them out of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories which Jordan had conquered and annexed in 1948, but which were never at that time named “the Occupied Palestinian Territory” by the UN, as they are now.
The Syrians were driven off the Golan Heights from which they had shelled Israeli kibbutzes and towns.
Israel’s victory was widely hailed in the democratic world. The Arab states were seen as bullies who had picked a fight with a small but gallant foe and received their comeuppance.
These days, Israel’s critics claim that the sole or principal obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and its “illegal settlements”. Yet at the break of dawn on 5 June 1967, as the Arab States and the Palestine Liberation Organisation heralded the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population, there was no Israeli “occupation”, and there were no settlements.
For Israel’s critics, there is no getting around this brute fact: that the core of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was, and remains, the refusal of Palestinian leaders to reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence as the national home of the Jewish people.
*Peter Wertheim and Alex Ryvchin are the Executive Director and Public Affairs Director respectively for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.