The Real Lessons Of The Six-Day War Defy Conventional Wisdom
Reflecting on the Six Day War, many focus on the repercussions of that historical event, namely, the occupation or liberation (depends on where you stand) of territories which, on one hand, are part of the biblical Land of Israel, and on the other are populated with many Palestinians. On its fiftieth anniversary, then, the spoils of that war seem to dominate the discussion. In contrast, from the vantage point of half a century, I’d like to examine what the lessons of the Six Day War itself can teach us today.First of all, the euphoria after the smashing victory obscured the embarrassing fact that in May-June 1967 Israel was taken by surprise. It is common to associate surprise with the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but the truth is that on February 27, 1967, in an assembly in Tel Aviv of all the high ranking officers of the IDF, then-Chief of Military Intelligence, Gen. Aharon Yariv, stated unequivocally that there was no war with Egypt on the horizon, at least till 1970.
However, only three months later, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser drove his army into Sinai, closed the straights of Tiran and kicked out the UN peacekeeping forces, thus opening the door to war.
A lesson to be learnt from this is the need to be more modest about our capability to forecast the future, whether it is war, the fall of the Soviet Union, Brexit or the victory of Donald Trump.
The second issue is the causality and inevitability of the war. The common wisdom is that it was the aggressive moves of Nasser in May 1967 that triggered the war, in which Israel launched the preemptive strike in an act of self defense. The truth, however, is more complex.
In the years preceding the Six Day War it was Syria, not Egypt, who caused the greatest military headache to Israel. The Syrians harassed with their artillery the Israeli kibbutzim in the north, tried to divert the sources of the Jordan River and actively supported terrorist infiltrations into Israel.
Weary by this attrition and frustrated with its inability to stop it, the IDF came to the conclusion that since the conventional countermeasures had failed, only a heavy military blow to Syria would work. On September 18, 1966, Gen. Rabin gave a special interview for Rosh HaShana to Bamahane, IDF’s weekly magazine, in which he said that the way to deal with the Syrian aggression was by acting “against the perpetrators and against the regime that supports them.” If this threat wasn’t clear enough, then Rabin added: “Basically, then, the issue with Syria is a collision with the regime.”
That interview infuriated Prime Minister Eshkol, who publicly reprimanded Rabin. Except that Damascus listened nervously to Rabin, not to Eshkol. Six weeks later, much to the surprise of the Israeli intelligence, a mutual defense accord was signed between Syria and Egypt (to be joined by Jordan in May 1967). Then, on April 7, 1967, a tactical skirmish deteriorated into an air battle with strategic ramifications, when the Israeli Air Force shot down six Syrian aircraft not far from Damascus. For the Syrians, this humiliating act was a clear proof of an Israeli plan to topple their regime, although the Eshkol government had nothing of the sort in mind.
Then, another actor intervened, sending the Middle East further down in the slippery slope leading to war. In mid May 1967, the Soviets, for reasons which remain unclear even today, gave their Syrian and the Egyptian allies false information about Israel allegedly massing offensive forces on its border with Syria. Damascus was in panic and Nasser, rushing to save his Syrian allies, responded by moving his troops into Sinai. The rest is history.
The lesson to be learnt from this fateful chain of events is the danger of miscalculation, and the need to exercise caution and prudence both in rhetoric and action.
Finally, there is the issue of self confidence. Waiting in my squadron for the signal to take off, my comrades and I had full confidence in our Air Force and our morale skyrocketed. We wouldn’t listen to depressing rumors floating around in those days, and had we heard such ghastly gossip about mass graveyards being secretly prepared, we would have laughed it off. We had a superb operational plan, ours were the best pilots and aircraft, we were well trained and we had excellent tactical intelligence and great air leaders. Winning the war was for us not a question of if, but of when.
The lesson for today is that the Israeli leadership shouldn’t scare us with doomsday prophesies, and certainly shouldn’t invoke the Holocaust into the discourse. It should instead nurture the self confidence of Israelis – and of Jews worldwide – in the ability of Israel to cope and persevere. The means may differ: In June 1967 it was the lightning-like strike on the Egyptian airbases, and today it’s the Israeli technological ingenuity, the hotbed of Iron Dome which has curbed the Hamas rockets, and David’s Sling and Arrow, which will wipe Iranian missiles off the skies. What remained the same over the last 50 years is the courage of Israeli men and women of arms, willing to fight for their country.
Summing up, the victory in the Six Day War was phenomenal, and we should be very proud of it. I just don’t want us, on its 50th anniversary, to only revel at how great we were in 1967, but rather to look back with an analytical eye and learn from the war’s lessons how we can be successful in the future, when we are called to face great challenges again.
Col. Uri Dromi, IAF (Ret.), was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments, 1992-96. He currently serves as director general of the Jerusalem Press Club.