Commentary Magazine

Israel, the Arabs, and World Opinion

For Eighteen Years, a state of almost permanent crisis, involving countless coups d’état and a war, left the political map of the Middle East virtually unchanged. Then, in a few hours of fighting on June 5, 1967, it was all at once spectacularly redrawn. True, many of the old landmarks remain: the oil, Arab nationalism, and Israel’s will to survive in a hostile environment. Most of the actors are still around, too, including President Nasser. Before June 5, Middle Eastern affairs resembled a chess game (or a war game) that had been played many times before and that allowed of no variation in the moves. A lasting solution has not become any easier to find since June 5. But the game has become far less predictable, for it is now being played on a different board and with a number of new pieces.

Though the prehistory of the crisis of 1967 dates back at least a decade, the actual fighting lasted only four days; it was dramatic and it was conclusive. The first accounts are now being published, and the Israeli victory will no doubt become a textbook case studied by staff officers all over the world. In Israel the war has already turned into a legend, while most Arabs are reacting as many Germans did after World War I, blaming their defeat on a stab in the back.

Every war is a misfortune, and when the debris has been cleared away it may appear that in a wider perspective even this one has changed less than it seemed at first to have done. Could the war have been prevented? Reviewing the situation in Egypt two years ago I wrote:

Nasser has waited patiently for a longer time than most observers thought he would; he has not only shown perseverance rare among Arabs, but also fortitude in the face of setbacks. But pressure on him is mounting, and he may be driven into seeking a desperate remedy for Egypt’s ills even though he is militarily not yet ready for any target more formidable than Libya. He probably has no masterplan, no blueprint, no timetable. But the inner logic of Egypt’s situation is driving him in the direction of war—an attack on Israel or an attempt to take over the oilwells of Arabia, or both. These eventualities may be retarded by a variety of circumstances, but it is difficult to see at present how they can be deflected altogether.1

There are no certainties in politics, only probabilities. In the case of Egypt, given the growing discrepancy between Nasser’s ambitions and the country’s basic weakness, given Soviet support and above all the nationalist fever and the expectations aroused by Nasserist propaganda, a new war seemed inevitable. The pressures on Nasser were overwhelming. Though cautious in his policy, though convinced that the time for the final settlement of accounts with Israel would not come for another ten or twenty years, he was to a large extent a prisoner of the general climate in the Arab world and of his own propaganda.

Among other factors, Egypt’s worsening economic situation and the unpopular measures Nasser was forced to adopt to cope with the breakdown of his seven-year plan precipitated him—prematurely, and in all probability against his own better judgment—into a more reckless policy. On the one hand, the war in Yemen was going so badly that it made it more difficult for him to engage in another campaign. On the other hand, it was becoming imperative to regain the prestige he had lost in the Arab world over his failure to come to the help of sister Arab states whenever Israeli retaliatory actions occurred—such as at Samu (Jordan) in November 1966 and in Syria in April 1967.

There was yet another important new factor. In February 1966 the left wing of the Ba’ath party had come into power in Syria. The new government, headed by Dr. Yusif Zuayin, backed by some army officers, and possessing hardly any popular support, concentrated its efforts on three related objectives: purging the Ba’ath from which it had split, carrying out ultra-Left reforms, and establishing on Syrian soil units of the Palestine Liberation Army for launching a “People’s War” against Israel. The propaganda of this Syrian government was extreme to the point of insanity; precisely because it had so little popular support, the regime felt it had to outdo Nasser. In the military field the application of “Maoist methods” proved to be disastrous. Though Israel hit back merely on a local basis against repeated acts of terrorism emanating from Syria, such retaliations were enough to shake the Damascus regime and send its emissaries scurrying to Cairo for help.

Nasser, who had followed the adventures of the Syrians with misgivings, was not surprised, and he probably exploited the opportunity to explain that he was not to be outflanked from the Left. Yet at the same time pressure mounted on him to come to the aid of the Syrians. A new generation of young Arabs, which had been educated in the belief that a holy war was inevitable and that the Arab might was invincible, had by now reached maturity. Arab newspapers and radio stations were announcing every hour of the day that America was a paper tiger, that Europe did not count, and that the Arabs had the full support of the Soviet bloc. They believed that on the day of reckoning the whole Arab, indeed the whole Islamic, world would rise as one man to throw the Jews into the sea. Ahmad Shukeiry, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had declared that hardly a Jew would survive to be repatriated to Europe. If this was so, what was the point of waiting? Should not the cancer be removed from the body politic of the Arab world immediately and once and for all?



According to most observers in the Arab capitals, the general mood—not only in Cairo—in April and May could be expressed in the simple formula: “We want war.” Hassanein Heykal, Nasser’s close confidant, reflected prevailing sentiment in Cairo when he wrote in his column on June 2:

Israel is definitely heading toward final collapse from within or without. . . . It has been and still is an artificial state of poor quality, brittle material—something like plaster—which can change only when it breaks up.

Dr. Zuayin, the Syrian prime minister, said on May 29:

We are now on the threshold of the battle for the destiny of all Arab people. Conditions today are most favorable for waging the battle of Arab destiny.

So too Ahmad Shukeiry, in a press conference on May 28:

Zero hour has come. This is the hour our people have been awaiting for the last nineteen years. The UAR army alone is capable of destroying the Israeli aggression within a few hours.

And President Aref of Iraq told the Iraqi soldiers who were leaving for Jordan a week before the outbreak of hostilities:

This is the day of battle. . . . We are determined and united to achieve our clear aim—to remove Israel from the map. . . . We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Nasserite officials counseling prudence were shouted down at meetings. What about Nasser himself? In his “abdication speech” on June 9, he said that the news of an impending Israeli invasion of Syria had reached him from both Syrian and Russian sources. The Russians had told Nasser’s close confidant, Anwar as-Sadat, when he was on a tour of the Soviet Union, that the security committee of the Knesset had decided in its session of May 9 to invade Syria on May 17, and there is some reason to believe that Nasser’s Syrian sources also had their information from the Russians. No such Israeli decision had ever been made, but it is not clear whether the Russians deliberately spread false rumors in order to provoke a crisis, or whether they were genuinely misinformed.2 We also know that on the night of May 26, the Soviet Ambassador requested an urgent meeting with Nasser and asked him in the name of the Soviet government “not to fire the first shot.” On the evidence at present available, all one can say is that the Soviet government during the first phase of the crisis helped to exacerbate it, and that later on it played, without much success, a restraining role. But many questions still remain.

Initially, Nasser acted as if he were engaged in a limited exercise in brinkmanship—one that seemed to be going brilliantly. It has been argued that Nasser did not expect U Thant to give in immediately to his demand to withdraw the UN observers and that only U Thant’s refusal of a partial withdrawal forced him to seize Sharm el-Sheikh. But this is not so: Egyptian troops reached the Straits and ordered out the forty-five UN soldiers encamped there even before Nasser had contacted the Secretary General. Nasser (as he said in a revealing speech on May 26) for the first time felt confident of military victory.

By June 4, he had scored a major triumph. He had humiliated Israel and rallied all the Arabs around him, again emerging as their undisputed leader. Yet Nasser’s appetite grew with the eating. After his first success he announced that it was no longer merely a matter of the Straits of Tiran: the whole Palestine issue was to be reopened, the Arab homeland to be liberated. He did not have to fire the first shot, he could sit and wait for Israel to be strangled under his grip—or to make a last desperate attempt to resist. As Heykal wrote in Al Ahram: “I say that Israel must resort to arms. For many reasons, chiefly psychological, Israel cannot accept nor remain indifferent to what has happened. Israel has to reply now. . . . An armed clash between the UAR and the Israeli enemy is inevitable.” Heykal’s appraisal was quite correct; a failure to react would have had the gravest consequences for Israel. Only seven days later, Heykal and his friends had forgotten about the “inevitable war.” All they now talked about was Blitzkrieg, Pearl Harbor, and that dastardly, treacherous surprise.

This, then, was the situation on Sunday, June 4. Twenty-four hours later, it had dawned on Nasser that a Bismarckian policy cannot be pursued without the equivalent of Prussian battalions to back it up. Nasser, normally a rational man in the means he applies to pursue his policy, had become so enmeshed in the world of make-believe which he had helped to create that he threw all caution to the winds and embarked on what was obviously a collision course for which, despite all the rodomontade, he was not militarily prepared.



Arabs have many engaging qualities but they also have an almost unlimited capacity for self-delusion. This is a streak in the Arab character that cannot be too strongly stressed, for it explains not only the coming of the war but also its aftermath. The constant stream of propaganda disseminated by the mass media from Algiers to Baghdad about Arab cultural distinction, economic progress, military might, and political power is accepted by the Arab public out of a deep emotional need. They are a proud people which has excelled in many respects in past centuries but has not been able to come to terms with its place in the modern world, and feels resentful about it. Hence the necessity to create a fantasy in which the enormous problems besetting the Arab world would have not merely been tackled, but already solved. The official communiqués published during the six-day war show that such fantasies clouded not only Arab attitudes in general but made it impossible for them to cope with the most immediate problems facing them. On the first day of the fighting, Cairo announced:

The battle has begun. We have defeated Israel on the first day of the battle. We will defeat it every moment and every hour. We will conquer it in the air and on land and destroy it forever. Bid farewell, Israel.

The same day the Syrian defense minister broadcast over Radio Damascus:

Israel has been bragging about the strength and supremacy of its airforce. Today you have ended this myth forever. You have trampled the enemy air force in the mud (June 6, 00.05 GMT).

In another broadcast, Damascus announced:

Jewish settlements are wiped out, mountains are aflame. Syrian Arabs are sweeping plains and hills in a day of victory. Jewish flags are trampled underfoot and Arab flags are waving. The Zionist enemy is completely finished (June 6, 12.15 GMT).

On the same day, and at a time when the Arab air forces had ceased to exist:

Pack your suitcases, Wilson. The aircraft is waiting to take you quickly to Jamaica. You have exposed the British air force to massive destruction at the hands of the Arab eagles (June 6, 10.00 GMT).

On Wednesday, June 7, when the war had already been decided, Damascus announced:

The enemy’s nerve has collapsed in the battle. The enemy posts along the entire Syrian front have fallen. The enemy’s resistance has collapsed along the entire Sinai front. The rabbits of the Jewish army are falling like rats. . . . The march on Tel Aviv is thus a question of hours, not of days (10.25 GMT; 12.18 GMT).

On Thursday, June 8, when the war was virtually over, Ahmad Said, one of Cairo’s star commentators, declared:

Ask your cowardly enemy, where is the so-called Moshe Dayan? Where is he? Dayan, where is your so-called manhood? Where is your empty boasting? (05.35 GMT—the question could have easily have been answered: Dayan, or at any rate his soldiers, were at the gates of Ismailia).

A few hours later Cairo radio again went on the air:

Today Moshe Dayan, the mouse of the desert, is speechless. Today his tongue is motionless, his bravado wrecked. Today Moshe Dayan is silent after our forces in Sinai have minced his armored brigade, destroyed it, and turned it into fragments and shambles of burnt iron. How you were bragging about your armor, Dayan. Now your armor is in hell. It has been destroyed and wiped out (07.35 GMT).

These few examples, chosen at random, are typical of the whole performance of the Arab press and radio during the campaign. But it would be incorrect to seek the explanation for such delusions solely in terms of the Arab national character, or even of simple wartime morale-boosting. In some ways the world situation during the last decade has been conducive to dreams of Arab power; to some extent even the United States and the Soviet Union have been susceptible to them. In the United Nations, at any rate—itself, according to unkind observers, a dream world—the Arab countries with their many friends and supporters certainly count for far more than Israel, whom they can easily outvote. Yet for the time being, the really decisive issues are not settled in the United Nations. There was more than a grain of truth in the comment of a British conservative writer (Peregrine Worsthorne) that the Arab-Israeli war was the first post-colonial contest between an advanced country and the underdeveloped world—the first time a modern Western-type state had been challenged frontally and was able to fight back unhindered by a colonial guilt complex.

After a few hours of fighting it was obvious that the Egyptian army had suffered a setback almost unprecedented in military history. To admit this was impossible; hence the story about Anglo-American air cover. Western diplomats were stupefied by this story, and there were angry comments about Egyptian mendacity. Had these diplomats studied Egyptian or Syrian propaganda over the last fifteen years they would have been less astonished. Within three days Nasser had already convinced himself that the Anglo-American air “umbrella” had actually existed, for without it, as he declared in his resignation speech, the united might of the Arabs would have been more than sufficient to defeat Israel.

Nasser’s hold over Egypt was never really in danger; after the mass demonstrations following his speech, he returned with more power than ever. Nor was the make-believe world in which the average Egyptian had been living by any means shattered by the defeat. Western observers returning from Cairo all agreed that the Egyptian people had no conception whatever of the magnitude of the disaster that had overtaken them: it was merely a “setback” and “with Gamal Abdel Nasser at the helm again the final outcome cannot be in doubt.”

True, one day the soldiers will come back and reveal the losses. But the scapegoats have already been named: “Nasser has acted correctly, he has dismissed the generals who let us down.” There have been some lone voices calling for self-examination—for example, the Jordanian Al Destur:

The catastrophe which has befallen the Arab nation is the result of many factors, causes, and defects prevalent in Arab society and in our social and political morality. . . . When armed confrontation takes place, false claims vanish. What count are the strength and the weakness of each side (June 12, 1967).

But these are voices crying in the wilderness; it can be predicted with near certainty that nothing is further from the mind of Nasser and the Ba’ath than genuine self-criticism or a sober re-examination of past events. Heykal and a few others in Cairo had second thoughts. Had it really been that clever to put so much emphasis on the physical destruction of Israel? (“We shall not spare women and children,” the Cairo-based Voice of Palestine had declared.) Even the Arabs’ best friends had been embarrassed. “We often say things we do not really mean,” Heykal suggested. Yet the following week, Akher Sa’a, the leading Cairo illustrated weekly, carried a long report about Jewish ritual murder and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In short, most Egyptians and Syrians, not having been directly affected by the war, have reacted with increased hatred of Israel, and of the Western powers which during the crisis did so little to deserve their enmity.




Israel was taken unawares by Nasser’s demand for removal of the UN forces and his imposition of the blockade. It had been the underlying assumption of Israeli policy that Nasser was by no means ready for a third round; the war in Yemen, it was believed, ruled out a new Egyptian offensive for the time being. At first, therefore, the Israelis were unclear as to whether Nasser’s move was just another political maneuver or a real challenge. The first news of Egyptian troop movements reached Jerusalem on May 15, the date of the Independence Day parade. On the afternoon of the next day, in a meeting between Eshkol and General Rabin, a partial mobilization of the reserves was decided upon. But during the many deliberations that went on during that day and even as late as May 17, it was still generally thought, both in army circles and in the government, that Nasser was merely out for a political demonstration. The security subcommittee of the Knesset which met on May 17 reached the conclusion that no immediate Israeli reaction on the military level was called for.

It was at a Mapai-Achdut Avoda executive meeting on the 18th that suspicions were first voiced that the danger of a war was nearer than had originally been supposed; the same night, in a meeting between Eshkol and the army command, an Egyptian blockade was first mentioned as a distinct possibility. In the weekly government meeting three days later (May 21), General Rabin reported that there were now 80,000 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai—more than ever before. By that time, there were notable differences of opinion within the government. One faction (which included Eshkol) maintained that a war was now very nearly inevitable, and that Israel must, if necessary, be prepared to go it alone; the moderates argued that Israel should not fight unless it had the support of at least one major power. The moderates won, and it was decided to make further diplomatic approaches in the Western capitals. Washington was contacted and advised Jerusalem to wait two days, by the end of which period Nasser had announced the blockade. Washington then told Eshkol to wait another fourteen days, so that diplomacy could play its role.

On May 23, upon Nasser’s announcement of the blockade, a decision was taken at a meeting between the government and the leaders of the opposition parties (including General Dayan) to send the Foreign Minister to Paris, London, and Washington. Apparently, the only skeptics were Golda Meir and Moshe Carmel, the Minister of Transport, who expressed doubts as to the usefulness of Eban’s mission. Their skepticism proved to be justified. President de Gaulle showed great personal warmth, but advised Eban not to annoy the Soviet Union and not to regard the closing of the Straits of Tiran as a casus belli; only through a four-power conference, said de Gaulle, could the problem be solved. The reaction in London was a little, but not much more, encouraging. Prime Minister Wilson promised to do something about the blockade, but it was obvious that Britain would act only in unison with others. At the meetings in Washington, President Johnson made it clear that he would be willing to act with other maritime countries to remove the blockade, but he refused to take Eban’s warning about Egyptian troop concentrations in Sinai very seriously.

By this time, the chance for an immediate counterblow had passed. Nasser soon extended his demands, declaring that he was not just closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, but that he also intended to undo 1948—not merely 1956. The other Arab countries rallied around him—even Hussein, the “CIA dwarf from Amman,” as the Cairo Voice of Arabs used affectionately to call him. The big powers made it clear that they would not use force to open the Straits; Russia fully supported the Arabs; and French official circles thought that legally Nasser had a strong case. Press opinion in the West was that Israel had suffered a decisive political defeat: was this perhaps the beginning of the end? True, not a single shot had been fired, and the military balance had not been affected. But in a part of the world where credibility counts for so much, Israeli stock had plummeted. Israel had always maintained that any interference with its freedom of shipping would be a casus belli, yet now that a blockade had been instituted Israel had countered with nothing more than ineffectual diplomatic maneuvers, obviously because she did not dare to resist the combined might of the Arabs.

Within Israel, once the first surprise had been overcome, anger began to mount. There was disillusionment with de Gaulle (“We thought we had a friend and we had only a supplier”) and with the African and Asian countries to whom so much help had been given by Israel over almost two decades. (About Russia, needless to say, there had not been many illusions of which to be disabused.) But above all there was a growing irritation with the irresolution of the Eshkol government, which seemed invariably to trail after the events. Eshkol’s declaration of apparent trust in the great powers, including even the Russians (“Spirit of Tashkent”), and Eban’s unsuccessful flight to Washington, left the impression that the government lacked the stamina and determination to cope with the situation; open criticism of Eban and other ministers was widely voiced. The Soviet and Communist press spoke constantly of the “adventurist policy of the bellicose ruling circles in Tel Aviv,” but the ruling circles, as it happened, were miles behind public opinion. The specter of Munich haunted the Israeli public; references to Neville Chamberlain, and the futility and danger of a policy of “peace in our time,” became more and more common. There was dissatisfaction within the army, and some were asking whether Ben Gurion’s bitter personal attacks on his former colleagues in the government might not have been justified.

To be sure, the hawks (including apparently Ben Gurion) had been as surprised as Eshkol himself by Nasser’s move. But was there much reason for surprise? The government had received intelligence reports—quite specific ones, too—that something was afoot in Egypt, and in an interview with the Israeli broadcasting station on May 13, Eshkol had referred to the threat to bar Israeli shipping from the Red Sea. Evidently, however, he had not taken the reports or the threat very seriously.



Without knowing any details of what was going on behind the scenes, the Israeli public suspected that nothing was being done and that the situation was growing steadily worse. A spontaneous demand for a National Government arose in the press, in conversations, in meetings; demonstrations even took place. The actual political intitiative came from the Liberal and religious parties who threatened to leave the coalition unless a National Government was established. Menahem Begin, leader of the right-wing Herut party, contacted Ben Gurion, his bitter enemy, who, he suggested, should in this hour of national emergency again become prime minister in a war cabinet, with Eshkol as his deputy for civilian affairs. Ben Gurion refused to cooperate, as did Eshkol, who said he would rather step down altogether if necessary. The next day, Moshe Shapiro, Minister of the Interior, suggested that Eshkol should continue but that the defense ministry should be handed to Ben Gurion, a plan which was also rejected by those concerned.

By Tuesday, May 30, a stalemate had been reached, but public clamor for a National Government continued to grow. Petitions were circulated in the streets, groups of women demonstrated outside Mapai headquarters in Tel Aviv, Eshkol and Eban were attacked as “appeasers.” The public was unaware at the time that in a cabinet meeting on Sunday, May 28 (after Eban’s report from Washington), Eshkol had again sided with those in favor of military action and had again been outvoted. The coalition parties, now in permanent session, suggested bringing in four opposition leaders, including Dayan and Begin, as ministers without portfolio; their candidate for the ministry of defense was Yigal Allon, the former commander of the Palmach. Dayan refused and the religious parties again threatened to leave the coalition unless the “victor of Sinai” was appointed. Inside Mapai there was bitter resistance to Dayan by Golda Meir and some others of the old guard—a resistance stemming partly, no doubt, from the legacy of bitterness left by the Mapai-Rafi dispute (in which Dayan joined Ben Gurion in splitting off from Mapai to form the new party), and partly from the fact that they did not think him superior as a military leader to Allon or some other generals who did not even figure in the running. But the Mapai old guard was unable to resist popular pressure. They were outvoted at an executive meeting, in the course of which even some of Eshkol’s closest friends deserted him. Allon withdrew as a candidate and on Thursday evening, June 1, agreement was reached about the inclusion in the cabinet of Dayan, Begin, and two other members of opposition parties.

Public relief was immense. It was not merely that the new government had a majority of 112 out of the 120 Knesset members; confidence in the leadership was also restored. When war broke out on June 5, even the Jewish Communists (Maki) supported the “government of national unity.” “Everything for victory,” Ha’aretz wrote in an editorial which recalled the emotions of World War II and expressed the conviction that the country’s very existence was at stake in this war that had been forced upon the Jews of Israel. By Monday evening it was clear that the war had already been won and that the end was only a question of time. From Tuesday on there was euphoria: the victory was more complete than anyone had expected or hoped. By the middle of the week, everyone felt so secure that party polemics were revived, and Allon, the Minister of Labor, was attacked for allegedly belittling Dayan’s part in the victory. Again it was asked whether Eshkol should not give way to someone else, and whether Eban was really the best man for his job. Everything was back to normal.

It appears in retrospect that the Eshkol government’s failure to act had no crucial influence on the course of events. War would not have been averted by a firm immediate response to the blockade, nor could an earlier war have been fought in circumstances more advantageous from Israel’s point of view. Similarly with U Thant’s withdrawal of UNEF. Instead of acceding instantly to Nasser’s demands, U Thant should of course have stalled, thus giving the big powers valuable time for diplomatic consultation. But again, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this would have made little difference, for there was no chance that any constructive action would have been taken. Whether decisive American action would have prevented the war, and whether as a result America’s position in the Middle East would have been stronger than it is now, is a more difficult question to which no authoritative answer can yet be given.

There was probably more than one reason for the hesitation of the Israeli government during the first days of the crisis. Israel has a citizen army which may not have been ready for an immediate counterblow on a massive scale. At the time, no one could have known that a delay of almost three weeks would make no difference to the outcome. If Israel had reacted immediately, the other Arab countries would still have rallied to Nasser while America, England, and the rest would have condemned Israel for preventing them (as they would have claimed) from finding a peaceful solution. And it is by no means certain that what would have begun as limited fighting at Sharm el-Sheikh would not have spread quickly into full-scale war.



What immediate lessons did Israel draw from the war? Above all, that big-power guarantees cannot be trusted: the copy of Dulles’s letter which had been mislaid by the State Department was symbolic. Whether the United States would have intervened militarily had Israel faced extinction is a moot point in the eyes of most Israelis, and no one wanted Washington to be put to this test. Whatever the circumstances of the conflict, Britain and France would have been strictly neutral, the Soviet Union bitterly hostile. There has been a tendency in Israel for many years to discount threats and promises from the outside world. The feeling both before the war and after was that militarily Israel had little to fear, and even less to hope for, from the big powers.

What were Israel’s war aims? Not much thought was given to this question—hence the confusion after the swift victory. Politically the war was defensive. Everyone agreed that it would end in victory, but that Israel would gain no lasting benefit from it, only a respite. On the eve of the war a columnist in an Israeli paper called for a National Government: “Party keys, socialism, and other pastimes will have to wait until we retreat from Sinai under American pressure.” Mr. Ephraim Kishon is a humorist by profession, but on this occasion he was in dead earnest, and was moreover fairly accurately reflecting public opinion. But with the sweeping victory, expectations rose. In an address to the army on the first day of the fighting, General Dayan said that “we have no aims of territorial conquest; our only aim is to foil the attempt of the Arab armies to invade our country and to destroy the encircling blockade and aggression against us.” Two days later, he declared that the Old City would never be given up. This was subsequently reiterated by Eshkol in a speech in the Knesset. There was some talk about Jewish settlement in the hills of Hebron (Ben Gurion), and about keeping the Gaza Strip (or part of it), Sharm el-Sheikh, Jordan west of the river, and the Syrian heights. Israeli attitudes hardened as it appeared that the Arab countries would refuse to negotiate directly, and were hardened still further by the decision of the Soviet bloc countries to break off diplomatic relations. There was going to be a protracted struggle ahead, and Israel could ill afford to give up in advance any of the advantages it had gained. Political parties, individual leaders, and newspapers continued to proclaim their private war aims. The government, wisely no doubt, merely announced that there should be no illusion that Israel was prepared to return to the situation prevailing before June 5, 1967.




The Israeli-Arab war had a profound impact on public opinion throughout Europe. It became a major domestic issue in France and Italy, it split the Left in several countries, it caused a number of minor political crises, it made temporary philo-Semites even of many Austrians and Poles, and it induced the Spanish Communists for the first time in their history to support General Franco. It could have such an impact because journalistically this was the best covered war in history. For the first time, the individual soldier through his transistor knew not only what was happening ten yards in front of him, he also learned at once about events on all other fronts, military as well as political. There was a feeling of immediacy, of direct personal concern, not only in the United States and Europe, but even in faraway Japan which had its TV camera crews ready for instant relay in Tel Aviv and Cairo. It is indeed uncertain whether Nasser would have survived politically but for television; within minutes of his resignation speech, his supporters throughout the Arab capitals organized mass demonstrations and the Rais returned to office on a wave of popular enthusiasm.3

Politically, the reaction inside France was the most interesting. At first de Gaulle took a strictly neutral line; later he became openly pro-Arab. This was part of a very complicated maneuver in which bigger issues were at stake than Israel and the Arab states. But it won Arab congratulations and caused disappointment to Israel.

To a certain extent, the French reaction was to be expected, de Gaulle and his ministers having worked for a reconciliation with the Arab world since the liquidation of the Algerian war. The trust put by some Israeli politicians, notably Ben Gurion, Dayan, and Peres, in de Gaulle’s professions of lasting friendship had thus been a little naive and quite misplaced. But there were still strong pro-Israeli sympathies among rank-and-file Gaullists, and at one stage the general faced a revolt in his own party. French public opinion, with one important exception (the Communists), condemned government policy, and even the Communists, after taking an all-out pro-Nasser stand, had to retreat later on, partly because of the general mood in their own ranks.

The genuine wave of sympathy for Israel among the French Left came close for a while to threatening the recently established link between the Communist and non-Communist Left. Mendès-France published an impassioned plea to the Kremlin, Mitterrand after some initial hesitation followed suit, and countless intellectuals, including Sartre and some of the most vigorous opponents of American policy in Vietnam, in turn followed him in emphasizing Israel’s right to survival. Perhaps most remarkable was the reaction of a group of Sorbonne professors who had been prominent for years in sponsoring all the causes of the Left—Vietnam, Algeria, and, of course, Arab-Jewish understanding. They now admitted (like Robert Mizrahi) that they had looked in vain for partners in the Arab camp, for even the most progressistes of the Arabs included the destruction of Israel as part of their program. This raised disturbing questions in their minds about the character of the Arab Left. Could a party (or a government) which advocated the destruction of a neighboring country and its inhabitants be considered socialist and progressive?

There was much sympathy for Israel in Britain, though it was less apparent in parliament and in sections of the press than among the general public. Prime Minister Wilson reputedly leaned toward Israel, and so did some of his closest colleagues like R. H. S. Grossman and George Wigg. But George Brown, the Foreign Secretary, was thought to incline toward the Arab cause; he had met Nasser and in contrast to his predecessors formed the opinion that he could get along with him. The left wing of the Labour party was fairly evenly split between pro-Israelis and Nasserites. When Emanuel Shinwell, a former Minister of War, suggested in the House of Commons that the Prime Minister congratulate Israel in its hour of victory, he provoked a major fracas. There was no marked sympathy for either side in the Foreign Office or the editorial offices of the Times; the Observer and the Guardian (once the avowed champion of Zionism) wavered between neutrality and cautious support of the Arabs. The Economist, in an editorial on June 3, wrote Israel off: the Israelis had been outmaneuvered, they were no longer arguing from a position of strength, they had to make territorial concessions:

President Nasser has to choose between being a local Arab Bismarck and a statesman with a claim to world stature. The Israelis have the unhappier and lesser choice of seizing the ball of peace if and when it is thrown toward them.

During the actual fighting, the general tenor became friendlier in the press. On British radio, TV, and in the press a great deal of unsolicited advice was offered to Johnson and Kosygin, and to Eshkol especially; it is doubtful whether anyone would have been better off had he taken it.

The state of affairs in Italy was much like that in France. The government took a strictly neutral position and refused to support the Israeli claim to freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba. Fanfani, Moro, Gronchi, and other leaders of the Demo-Christian party referred to Italian business interests in the Arab countries, and for once they had the support of the Communists. However, public opinion was behind neither the government nor the main opposition party; if the Communist party executive, including some of its Jewish leaders such as Sereni, gave strong support to Nasser (contrasting Moshe Dayan to—of all persons—Anne Frank), its Rome branch went its own way. Nenni and many others subjected the strange bedfellows to scathing criticism; there were mass demonstrations; and in Bologna the local Communist-Socialist municipal coalition fell in consequence of a quarrel over the Middle East.

The West German government was also strictly neutral (though it sent 25,000 gas masks to the Israelis), whereas public opinion, with the exception of the extreme Right and the pro-Chinese sects among the students, was overwhelmingly pro-Israel. The same was true of Holland, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and even Austria, not traditionally a pro-Jewish country. The press reported the events in great detail and there were mass demonstrations. The courageous Israeli victory, said the influential Neue Zurcher Zeitung in an editorial, was a source of inspiration to all small countries because it showed that their fate did not entirely depend on big-power policies and that they could shape their destiny themselves, provided they had the resolution to do so.



According to reports from Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague, the Israeli victory was extremely popular, whatever the official propaganda had to say about the matter. Even in the Soviet Union the government found it difficult to whip up much enthusiasm among the population for Nasser, and the attacks on “Zionists,” which since Stalin’s day have had a special connotation, embarrassed important sections of the intelligentsia. Some Western Communist papers, (especially those from Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Austria), widely read in Moscow, openly dissociated themselves from the unqualified Soviet support for the Arab war effort.

There was, of course, much less support for Israel in Asia and Africa. India behaved predictably, though at the beginning, much opposition to Mrs. Gandhi’s policy was voiced. The Far East, from Japan to Indonesia, was neutral in the conflict, though some of these countries voted later in the UN for the Yugoslav resolution. In Africa, Israel suffered many disappointments (Tanzania, Guinea, Mali). Some countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, remained neutral and a few, like Malawi and Botswana, expressed sympathy for Israel. In view of the help given by Israel to these countries over many years, this was no doubt a grave setback. But it was not really surprising: Soviet-Arab propaganda about “Israeli imperialism” was more in tune with the political climate prevailing in these countries, and it outweighed all the patient Israeli efforts at constructive help.

The lineup of governments, public opinion, and newspapers was followed in Israel with interest, occasional concern, and sometimes amusement. But by and large the feeling was that though Israel would need outside support in the coming months, there was no point in devoting excessive attention to the political shifts in the world capitals. In that area Israel’s possibilities were in any case restricted, and in the last resort the country could rely only on its own armed strength and the support of the Jewish people. There were differences of opinion as to the extent of this “orientation toward ourselves.” But basically, for better or worse, this was the dominant mood in Israel on the morning after.




What next, then, in the Middle East? The Arab world, while utterly opposed to accepting Israel’s existence, is for the time being unable to effect Israel’s destruction. Nevertheless, the Arabs are firmly convinced that it is just a matter of one more try. Only peoples who have suffered total defeat, like the Germans or the Japanese in 1945, are ready to forgo the stab-in-the-back myth. The Israeli victory was quick and sweeping but in no way total; for most Egyptians and Syrians, not to mention Iraqis, the war was something outside their own experience and the reason for the Arab defeat therefore remains a riddle. The story of the Anglo-American conspiracy is universally accepted in the Arab world, even though King Hussein of Jordan has had second thoughts about it. Such a frame of mind makes a new attempt to attack Israel almost inevitable; it also makes it unlikely to succeed.

For how will the Arabs ever overcome their plight unless they have the courage to confront squarely the deeper causes of the catastrophe of 1967? Radical and painful self-criticism (a new “generation of 1898”) is almost unthinkable; it would mean sweeping away most existing governments in the Arab world, changing basic attitudes, giving up cherished beliefs. Instead, the Arab citizenry has been offered ridiculous historical analogies: did not the Prophet Mohammed also suffer bitter defeat at Uhud before moving on to final victory?

Two years ago, there was some ground for believing that, economically, Egypt would muddle through and would in ten or fifteen years be strong enough, with the help of other Arab countries, to defeat Israel. After the debacle of 1967 there is much less reason to assume that Egypt will muddle through, and Nasser cannot afford to wait another ten or twenty years. In 1965 the new Egyptian five-year plan promising “massive industrialization” was launched. It was never quite clear where the capital for investment would come from. One-third was to be provided by income from the Suez Canal, tourism, and the sale of cotton, but two-thirds was to be brought in from outside the country. In June 1966, the American government decided to discontinue its grain shipments, and the plan had to be amended; by the autumn it seemed obvious that it could never be realized. Nasser, accordingly, began to lose interest in domestic affairs and devoted more and more of his time to foreign political initiatives. At the beginning of 1967 things worsened; there was a financial crisis so acute that half the remaining gold reserves in Swiss banks had to be sold quickly to pay Egypt’s short-term debts. Meat and sugar had to be rationed, and Nasser asked his compatriots to restrict their intake of rice—their staple food.

This was not a temporary crisis, but a manifestation of the deeper malaise afflicting Egypt. True, 650 factories had been built in recent years but most of them functioned uneconomically (none has published a balance sheet since 1961) and they employed only 300,000 workers. The Aswan Dam is to be completed next year, but the experts have known all along that in view of the population explosion, the dam would only be sufficient to prevent a further decline in the Egyptian standard of living.

The economic results of the war of 1967 are incalculable. The Suez Canal is out of action, tourism at a standstill, and the cotton crop indefinitely mortgaged to the arms program. During the last ten years Egypt has been living on borrowed money skillfully extracted by Nasser from both West and East. Who will now provide loans, never to be repaid in future? Surely not private investors. Nasser can expect substantial gifts for restoring diplomatic ties with the United States, but it is unlikely that he will get them in the very near future.

The political consequences of the situation are no less somber. Nasser or whoever may succeed him will be under even greater pressure to seek a solution to Egypt’s problems outside the country. The Soviet Union will replace much or all of the arms that were destroyed, but it cannot afford to underwrite Egypt’s deficit for an unlimited period. For Nasser the only alternative, then, is to get his hands somehow, perhaps with Soviet help, on part of the royalties (three billion dollars a year) from Arab oil, perhaps by occupying Libya and Saudi Arabia. Yet militarily he is not now in a position to tackle even a country like Saudi Arabia. And what good would the oil be to him unless he could sell it to the West?

Whatever the economic prospects, pressure for revenge on Israel will be overwhelming. The military lessons of the defeat seem to be lost on Egypt and Syria. It is generally believed in the Arab capitals that the combined might of the Arab armies is more than a match for Israel; they would have won the war if only they had got in a first strike before the Israelis did. All this makes a new military adventure extremely probable not in ten or twenty years, but well before. And the next round of the Arab-Israeli conflict may be nuclear; the big powers could impede this, but what could they do to prevent it? To be sure, if Nasser were to pin his hopes on a devastating first nuclear strike, he would be able to destroy Israel only at the price of self-destruction, for Egypt, with its concentration of population around Cairo and the Delta (not to mention the Aswan Dam), is as vulnerable as Israel. But can a balance of fear be relied upon to prevent a nuclear war in the Middle East, as it has so far done in the world at large? With so much hate and fanaticism now rampant in the Arab world, and with the lack of realism among both Arab masses and leaders, a nuclear war in the Middle East cannot be ruled out.

Whether Egypt in the coming years will be ruled by Nasser or by some other military ruler is almost immaterial. In its present violent mood Arab public opinion is unlikely to stand for a more moderate policy or for a reorientation in foreign affairs—toward Africa, for instance. There may on the other hand be a relapse into anarchy. The mob carried Nasser back to power on June 10, but mobs are notoriously fickle. Thus an Egyptian or a Syrian “cultural revolution” is at least a possibility.

The long-term economic prospects of Syria and Iraq are better than those of Egypt; Jordan at present carries little weight. Syria faces basically the same problems as Egypt: it has to industrialize and lacks the means to do so; unlike Egypt, however, it has no population explosion to worry about. As for Iraq, it has a considerable income from oil, which covers almost 90 per cent of its imports. But if the economic potential of these countries is more promising than Egypt’s, their present governments are worse and there are few signs of any change for the better. Some Arab governments, notably those which have no oil themselves, are great believers in an embargo on oil exports. Those more intimately concerned with the problem know that the long-range movement is away from oil toward other sources of energy, and that the production of oil in other parts of the world could easily be stepped up. It is not really a propitious situation in which to threaten anyone.


The magnitude and excitement of the victory made most people in Israel forget for a while the enormity of the problems facing the Jewish State. It was clear from the beginning that Israel would be under tremendous pressure to surrender the occupied territories. Since Russian military intervention seemed most unlikely and other sanctions probably doomed to failure, at least in the short run, there was only the danger of isolation in the United Nations. Israel faced that danger with equanimity, believing that the country could hold on indefinitely to its conquests in the absence of a real peace settlement.

But were the conquered territories worth holding? The administration and policing of large areas populated by Arabs were bound to create nightmarish problems. It could be predicted with near certainty that there would be an increasing number of acts of sabotage, and that the Israeli authorities would have to respond sharply. And it was easy to imagine world reaction to such incidents. Meanwhile, the occupation of Sinai was already creating problems of a logistical character. But these were minor considerations in comparison with the long-term difficulties facing the state: the absorption of more than a million Arabs would decisively affect its character in a way unacceptable to most Israelis. The various schemes outlined by Israeli leaders (of an Israeli-Jordan co-dominion, or a semi-independent Arab state with Israel in effective military control) were unworkable hybrids. Was it all really worthwhile? A violent dispute over this question was likely to erupt sooner or later between annexationists and their critics, and there were weighty arguments on both sides. The annexationists were already saying that since the Arab countries were openly preparing for a new round of warfare, it would be madness to give up any military advantage. Their critics answered that the undoubted advantages were outweighed by other military and political considerations, and that in any case sweeping annexations were undesirable, for Israel’s ultimate aim was to win not merely the war, but also the peace.

Sometimes the claims of the annexationists ran a little wild: there was a mass petition not to give up a single inch. Moshe Dayan got in trouble over the Gaza Strip but he had wide support among the populace. Never before had there been so much public discussion outside the established political parties—in ad hoc conventions, newspaper advertisements, and the letter columns of the Israeli press. Criticism of Eshkol and, above all, Eban continued, and there was an outcry over the failure of Israeli propaganda: was the victory on the battlefield to be lost as a result of the shortcomings of the Israeli information services? Committees and commissions were set up in Jerusalem, Paris, and London; there was a lot of good will but usually it was not channelled in the right direction. Some brilliant minds suggested calling in advertising agents and public-relations experts. As if public relations, a doubtful institution in the best of times, could replace a clear policy. And a clear policy about borders and refugees Israel simply did not have.

It was a most difficult situation, and no one familiar with all its complexities was likely to choose without hesitation the one solution or the other. Israel had obviously planned far more efficiently for war than for peace; a peace-planning committee was not established until a week after the cease-fire. Already some opportunities had been missed. Immediately following the ceasefire Israel should have made it absolutely clear that the war had not been fought for territorial gain, that Israel’s only concern was to live in peace with the Arab world. A gesture of compassion and of active help to the new Arab refugees who had suffered from the folly of their leaders was made in the end—but the Israeli government still had no agreed-upon policy on this issue.

But the nation was hardly in a mood for such actions and gestures; if the war had brought out many sterling qualities in the people, it had also hardened feelings. It is, of course, easy to be generous from afar; perhaps it was too much to expect magnanimity toward an enemy who had vowed to destroy the state and its inhabitants.

As the implications of the victory became clearer, euphoria began giving way to a more sober view, even to partial disillusionment. There was a growing realization that the victory had only removed the immediate threat of an Arab attack, and that there would be months and years, perhaps decades, of great tension and dangers ahead. Immigration remained the basic problem. The Jews of other countries had shown great solidarity with Israel during the crisis, but how many of those who had participated in demonstrations or given money were willing to settle in Israel? The basic purpose of the Zionist movement had been to restore dignity and security to the Jewish people in its own land. The land had been restored and the dignity, but there was still no security. In the country that had been built to make the Jews secure, they were less safe than in any other part of the world, and they had to reconcile themselves to an unlimited period of siege. For the advice of some of their well-wishers to the effect that Israel ought to integrate itself into the Middle East is not really very helpful. There has been much talk about a convergence in the world at large toward a single industrial civilization. Perhaps one day there will be a convergence in the Middle East—but convergence toward what kind of society and what kind of political regime? If it is to be a modern, reasonably civilized, and democratic society, it is the Arab countries that will have to do the converging, not Israel. It is doubtful that Israel would want to become a country similar to Egypt or Syria, and it is even less doubtful that this would be a desirable objective.

Israel now faces hard times. There is a massive propaganda onslaught from the East about the new Hitlerites and their barbarous atrocities; already we have heard about Israeli Gauleiters and Lebensraum, and next, no doubt, there will be talk of an Israeli Gestapo and Israeli extermination camps. The impact of such propaganda should not be underrated—some of the dirt always sticks. This will be a difficult period for the Jews of the Soviet Union, too, and the other East European countries. However emphatically they dissociate themselves from Israel, their loyalties will be suspect in the eyes of the regime—not a small thing in those parts. There may in time be second thoughts on the Middle East in Moscow; after all, the Russians too have good reason to feel aggrieved with the performance of an ally which has shown little to commend itself. The Soviet leaders are unlikely to forget that they were told by the Arabs before June 5 that Russian military intervention was not needed—and that they were bitterly criticized later on by every Arab from President Nasser down for not having fought their battles for them. Yet even if the Arabs have made a poor showing, even if they cannot be controlled by Moscow at a time of crisis, no radical reorientation of Soviet policy in the Middle East can be anticipated in the foreseeable future.

Pressure will be exerted on Israel not only from the East. France needs the Arabs for its big-power ambitions, Italy wants to get a stronger foothold in the Arab oil industry, England is fearful of the withdrawal of Arab funds from the City, Turkey and Greece want Arab support for their respective claims on Cyprus. The list could be prolonged indefinitely.

On the other hand, neither European nor American interests in the area are vital—the oil can be replaced, and the importance of the strategic bases has greatly decreased over the years. Indonesia alone has a larger population than the whole Arab East from Morocco to Bahrein. The Arab world in brief needs the West far more than the West needs the Arabs. If this could be made clear to the Arab capitals, forcefully and. over an extended period, it would be the best contribution toward a cure of Arab ills. While passions would not necessarily die down, the governments and the peoples of these areas would realize that the Middle East is not the center of the world. The Arabs still would not accept Israel, but the conflict might be reduced to manageable size.



There is at present little hope that this will happen, for the belief that the Middle East is economically and strategically one of the world’s key areas dies hard. Western statesmen will continue to devote much of their energy to regaining Arab good will. There will be no lack of honest brokers in London and New York, Paris and Rome, offering their services to restore a “just and equitable” peace: restoration to the Arabs of the land occupied by the Israelis, security guarantees for the Israelis. (The word “guarantees” has a hollow sound at present, but perhaps it can be refurbished.) The Middle East has become a vacuum of ideas, says the London Times—as if peace in the area depended on brilliant new ideas. Only the passage of time and the deflection of general attention away from that unhappy part of the globe can lead to peace. Perhaps a new major world crisis elsewhere will bring this about; perhaps the Chinese will make their contribution. An agreement on some limited aspect such as the Suez Canal seems possible, because the Egyptians badly need it, and the maritime powers also want it urgently. But will Israel accept this short of a general settlement? The Arab states have been beaten, but they have not been decisively defeated; they want to renew the war, but they will not be able to do so for some time to come. The Soviet Union does not want a war that may spread, but neither does it want real peace, and it will not impose a solution the Arabs do not like. The outlook in the Middle East, in short, is neither for war nor for peace.




1 “Bonn, Cairo, Jerusalem,” COMMENTARY, May 1965.

2 Some observers believe that it was a speech by the Israeli chief of staff, General Yitzhak Rabin, that had alarmed the Syrians and the Russians. According to reports published in both the Soviet and the Western press, Rabin had threatened to “overthrow” the Syrian government; this news was based apparently on a UPI report from Tel Aviv quoting a highly placed Israeli personality. However, it had not been General Rabin but Prime Minister Eshkol speaking in a closed Mapai meeting on May 11. Nor had there been any talk about overthrowing the Syrian regime. Eshkol had only warned that unless the murderous attacks across the border ceased, a counterblow as extensive as the one on April 7 would be delivered.

3 From a professional point of view, Le Monde and the French radio (Europe I) provided the best coverage throughout the crisis. British and American coverage of the actual fighting was often excellent; the war reporters and photographers showed their usual daring. But they were much weaker on the complicated political ramifications of the crisis. The moment it became a political story once more, the reader of the British and American press in search of full and reliable information found himself at a loss. Italian, German, Swiss, and Swedish papers had countless representatives in the Middle East and devoted many pages to their reports.

At first, the Soviet press played the conflict down, for several days not even mentioning the Straits of Tiran. Nor could any Russian who did not listen to foreign radio stations have possibly understood why the story should suddenly have erupted into the front-page headlines. Nor had there been anything to prepare him for an Israeli victory. The accounts of protest meetings in a Minsk factory against “Israeli aggression” were more numerous than direct reports from the Middle East. The Israeli press was not very informative on the fighting—the reports in Western newspapers were often more interesting and vivid. Neither the feeling of isolation and the deep concern (in late May) nor the elation of victory were clearly reflected in the Israeli press; the Israeli radio, on the other hand, did a very competent job. Perhaps—a question for Mr. McLuhan—it was the medium after all. The radio could convey the drama which was so often missing in the press. As for the Egyptian press and radio, the less said, the better.

Nor was the performance of the Middle East experts convincing. In Britain and France (and, I believe, to a lesser extent in the United States) the majority of the specialists had been mistaken in their assessment of the real strength of the Arab countries. That most of them were pro-Arab is only natural; area experts often develop a genuine liking for and identification with their chosen region. There are more prosaic considerations too. In order to function as area experts, they have to be at least on speaking terms with the powers-that-be in the Middle East and they realize better than political commentators who lack a Middle Eastern background that the Arabs have a genuine case. Yet their concentration on the Arab world and its problems tends to distort their judgment. They will think of many extenuating circumstances to explain the lack of real progress in the Arab world under its new masters; for searching criticism of basic ills of Arab society one will look to their writings in vain.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.