From Generation to Generation – The Origins of the 1967 War

10 February 1972

in Articles, Israel in a Historical Perspective, The Other Israel

This is an edited version of an article written by Moshé Machover and Haim Hanegbi.

 

They Rise Up to Destroy Us

Natan Yalin-More, writing in the September 1968 Aheret, insists that “the June war was a defensive war against a clear attempt at genocide on the part of Egypt.”

On December 22, 1967, Ha’aretz published an interview with Yitzhak Rabin, Army Chief of Staff at the time of the June war:

Question: There are some people who believe the Six Day War was one which no one wanted. Do you agree with this version?

General Rabin: To the best of my knowledge, the war broke out not from the wish of any one side, not because one of the sides decided two months before the war to attack at that time in order to achieve this or that aim. The war was a result of a whole development, and there had been a number of deteriorating elements.

Question: On both sides?

Rabin: It was not we who initiated the development that brought on the war. When Nasser, under Russian influence, decided that his prestige required some action to prove to the Arab world that he, Nasser, had not lost his power to aid the Arab world, when he started to concentrate his forces in the Sinai, he must have assumed that war might break out. But there is a difference between concentrating forces in order to get into a war and making a move that, while it might end up in war, is not aimed at war but at something else. I think this is what was at the basis of Nasser’s thinking.

Question: You seem to think that Nasser made an incorrect calculation, that he thought he could get away without war but was trapped.

Rabin: Yes, that’s my evaluation. He confronted a situation in which he preferred the danger of war to backing down.

Question: And this, despite our deterrent force?

Rabin: Yes.

According to the October 18, 1967, Yediot Aharonot, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said: “The deployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai and the general military activity there indicate that an Egyptian defensive formation was being built there.”

Yalin-More is familiar with these quotations. We included them in our Letter to All Those “Once-Good” Israelis 1, to which his article is a reply. Yet he avoids any direct and explicit comment on them. He does not explain how Eshkol’s and Rabin’s judgments that the Egyptian formations were defensive and that Nasser’s aim was not war at that time can be reconciled with his evaluation that at tibat moment Israel was defending herself from attempted annihilation. Instead, he hides behind a curtain of racist Egyptian quotations – they make up over half his article – which are well known to us. Of Rabin’s and Eshkol’s evaluations, he can only say, “I honor truth more than I honor them.”

The “truth” here is his interpretation of the events. But no matter how important his interpretation was to him, it was not he who made the decision to begin the war. Yalin-More’s version can, at best, explain to us his position with regard to the war. But to understand the considerations of the leaders who actually decided to begin the war, we ought to listen to what they have to say. Yalin-More’s talk about honoring truth” is simply an evasion of the task of analyzing Rabin’s and Eshkol’s statements. The host of Egyptian racist quotations is simply an attempt to justify a different version of the statement “I supported the decision to begin the war – a decision made by someone else – because in the light of Egyptian statements I was convinced that we were facing annihilation.”

But what, for example, was Moshe Dayan convinced of? Unlike Yalin-More, Dayan actually participated in the decision making. Here is his statement in a March 30, 1968, Ma’ariv interview: “What do you mean, [the war was] unavoidable? It was, of course, possible to avoid the war if the Straits [of Tiran] had stayed closed to Israeli shipping.”

Yalin-More sees that this estimate of Dayan contradicts his evaluation that Egypt was preparing to attack Israel in June 1967 in order to destroy it. He understands that Dayan’s words contradict his assertion that the June war was “a defensive war against a clear attempt at genocide on the part of Egypt.” But he doesn’t admit it explicitly. Instead, he shifts to a somewhat different position – that the war was a preventive war. Again, he does not say so explicitly, but this is what hides behind the following formulation:

The Egyptian Government saw a possibility that Israel might accommodate itself to the fait accompli. Perhaps this is what it wanted, since it knew that such acquiescence would finally bring about the same longed-for aim – the elimination of Israel by strangulation. Many months might pass before the end of Israel’s independence, more than the six months that separated the Munich agreements from the Nazi army’s entry into Prague. In essence, though, there was no reason to expect a different outcome.

If, in fact, it was a preventive war, if it was the closing of the Straits of Tiran (and not any danger of immediate annihilation) that justified the June war in Yalin-More’s eyes, then why does he denounce the “preventive” war that Israel waged in 1956? Before the Suez war, too, the Straits were closed to Israeli shipping; then, too, racist declarations came from various Egyptian sources. If the 1967 war was launched only in anticipation of “liquidation by strangulation,” why is he not ready to see the 1956 war in the same light? Is his negative attitude toward the 1956 war perhaps due to Israel’s co-operation with certain imperialist powers at that time? If so, why does he not try to analyze the connection between the 1967 war and the general structure of relations between the Arab world, Israel and imperialism? It is strange that not once in Yalin-More’s article is the United States even mentioned.

We do not claim that there was no difference between the Suez war and the Six Day War. We do not exonerate the Arab rulers of provocative actions in preaching genocide. Our point is quite different. It is one that Shalom Cohen (former co-editor with Uri Avnery of Ha’olam Hazeh) made on the eve of the war:

“Tanks, artillery pieces, helicopters and armor. For a whole week you could not watch Egyptian TV without seeing the flood of armaments which flowed towards the Sinai and the Israeli border. And in every broadcast, the unequivocal declaration: ‘If Israel attacks Syria, the Egyptian Army will intervene!’ The idea that all this propaganda tries to get across is that the Egyptian Army occupies a powerful position. The truth is that the Army has got itself in a trap. Everyone who has any strategic sense realizes this … I assume that Nasser knows it too.” 2

We don’t know what Yalin-More thinks of this evaluation, but we share it. And the Israeli general staff arrived at a similar one.

How do these quotations accord with our interpretation of the chain of events from May 15 to June 5, 1967? Beginning in 1966, Fatah actions began to disturb the Israeli Government. This was not primarily because these actions seriously affected the feeling of security but rather because with Fatah a Palestinian actor appeared on the stage, one hostile to Jordan, independent of Egypt and, while based in Syria, independent of the Syrian regime. But any appearance of an independent Palestinian factor in the Middle East threatens to undermine the political status quo and bring Israeli policy back to 1947. Israel was ready to negotiate with the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, but it was not ready to accept the Palestinians as a factor in and for themselves with whom Israel should negotiate.

Thus, worried by the Fatah presence, the Israeli leaders threatened Syria. These threats forced Nasser to declare that he would stand by Syria should it be attacked. Under nationalist-chauvinist pressure from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who had a direct interest in getting Nasser embroiled, he adopted the tactic of “going to the brink of war.” He began to make a show of posing military and political threats to Israel, but in fact, he was afraid of war.

The Israeli leadership understood the situation well. The “activists” wished to exploit this opportunity: namely, that Nasser had fallen into a trap by deploying his army in a static formation in the Sinai and by appearing as an aggressor in the eyes of world public opinion. War was bound to come in any case within a few years, these activists argued, and it would be wise to use the opportunity to smash Egypt

But most of the Israeli leaders objected to this for two reasons. First, there was no green light from Washington. The United States was certainly interested in crushing Nasser, but it was leery of anything that might compel direct American intervention. Secondly, there was no satisfactory political pretext. But when Nasser announced the blockade of the Straits, it became clear to the Israeli leadership that ithad to fight.

The reason for this was neither economic nor military, but political To understand it, we must recognize the fundamental method of Zionist policy from the beginning of the century until today. Everything the Yishuv 3 in Palestine acquired – land, “Conquest of Labor,” political sovereignty-it obtained not through agreement with the Palestinian Arabs but by the creation of faits accomplis, at the expense of the Arabs. Then these faits accomplis would be made secure by force with the help of the British and by political alliance with the imperialist powers. And since 1948, the entire Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Arab world has been based on this method. It is sufficient to recall how the freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran was achieved in 1956 to understand the method.

By blockading the Straits in 1967, for the first time since the beginning of the Zionist colonization of Palestine, Nasser broke the continuity of the chain of faits accomplis, thus creating a situation that Israel could not accept. Even if negotiations between Israel and Egypt might have led to a reaffirmation of freedom of navigation in the Straits – as part of an agreement with Egypt – this would have set a precedent of relations not based on force. It would have created a precedent in which an Israeli “fact” had been broken by an Egyptian “fact”. This was a situation the Zionist leaders could not tolerate.

It is impossible to understand the 1967 war in abstraction from the entire struggle between Zionism and the Arabs during the past seventy years. Yalin-More tries to do just this; he tries to separate this war from the continuity of the Zionist-Arab conflict From the moment Nasser proclaimed the blockade, the Israeli leadership had an urgent interest in breaking by force the Egyptian attempt to create a fait accompli.

Thus, after the blockade, only one obstacle remained – the hesitations in Washington. The Israeli Government plunged into the effort to convince the White House that the .United States would not have to intervene directly and that the war would end in a few days with an Israeli victory. As long as President Johnson remained unconvinced of the soundness of these two evaluations, he refused to give the green light, and the “defensive war against an attempt at genocide” had to be delayed. As soon as he became convinced, he cabled a diplomatic formulation of the go-ahead signal to Jerusalem (on June 4). The war Cabinet met and reached the final decision. 4

We don’t have any evidence at present that the Israeli leadership aimed, in advance, at launching the war in order to annex territory. The reality was probably more complex: The war was fought for political reasons, and only after the territories were conquered did the Zionist instinct and the chauvinist madness that are an inherent part of it come to dominate policy.

The abundant evidence that has come to light since the war leaves no room for doubt. 5 No arguments about the necessity for “defence against a clear and present danger of liquidation” played important roles in the deliberations of the government and the general staff. There were Egyptian threats and boasts – but not the ability to realize them. In fact, the threats and boasts were forthcoming precisely to cover up this incapability. And the Israeli general staff knew this full well.

However, the idea of a “defensive war against an attempt at genocide” fits nicely into a certain Jewish philosophy of history, which can be summed up in the famous sentence “From generation to generation, they rise up to destroy us.” 6 Into this formula, everything can be forced, including the wars of ’47, ’56 and ’67. It is no accident that these wars entered into the consciousness of much of the Jewish public as “wars of existence.”

This self-justifying and self-righteous philosophy of history customarily seeks to comprehend the Jewish fate in separation from – and even in opposition to – the fate of the Gentiles. Yalin-More’s apologetic is by and large a repetition of this accepted formula. In this light we can understand his attempt to deal with the June ’67 war in isolation from the past seventy years of Arab history and the policies of the big powers. As we mentioned earlier, he does not once refer to the United States in his piece. But US policy occupied a very important place in the considerations of the Israeli war Cabinet.

A group that insists on fabricating an ethnocentric interpretation of its own history, and then of becoming the object of that interpretation by letting its actions be guided by it; revolves in a vicious circle of its own making. Whoever accepts the assumption that discrimination against national minorities is inherent in human nature must also accept the Zionist solution to the Jewish problem. He should not be surprised that from his political analysis the assumption he started with stares back at him.

“From generation to generation, they rise up to destroy us” – in the past, in the present, in the future. This is the principle that has determined the selection of historical and political facts.

 

  1. Matzpen, No.43 (July 1968), an answer to Amos Kenan’s Letter to All Good People of the World, defending the Israeli position.
  2. Ha’olam Hazeh, May 29, 1967.
  3. The Jewish community in Palestine before 1948.
  4. Cf., for example, the chronology of events given by U. Dan in Ma’ariv, May 3, 1968.
  5. On March 19, 1972, Ha’aretz reported:

    “Dr. M. Peled said that the thesis that in June ’67 Israel faced a danger of annihilation and that the state of Israel was fighting for its physical survival is ‘a tale which was born and elaborated only after the war.’ Dr. Peled, who was in the Army general staff during the ’67 war, is now a professor of history at the Shilo’ah Institute. He further noted that in May ’67 there was no danger of annihilation to Israel: The Egyptians concentrated 80,000 soldiers, while we mobilized against them hundreds of thousands of men.’”

    These observations of Peled were fully endorsed in Ha’aretz the following day by E. Weitzman, the former commander of the Israeli Air Force and a former Herut cabinet minister.

  6. This is a saying that has been repeated throughout Jewish folklore as an expression of their persecution.

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