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12 June 1967 – Israel, between Euphoria and reality

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To mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War BICOM is taking you back in time with a selection of policy briefings as if they were written 50 years ago to the day. This blog concludes our series. 

Israel’s remarkable military victory over her Arab neighbours in just six days has redrawn the map of the Middle East, yet the long-term impact is far from certain.

Reading the international media you would be forgiven to think Israelis are celebrating in euphoria. Many are, but for the majority of Israelis, life has and must return to normal straight away.

Michael Hadow, British ambassador, has already noted the quick return to life, saying that there is “something very inspiring and yet rather terrifying” about the dispassionate way the Israelis went to war, won, and returned home to business as usual. The Financial Times are reporting that the European Economic Community Commission has recommended to the Commons Market Council of Minister the opening of negotiations for a free trade area or customs union with Israel.

In typical Israeli fashion, debates about what victory means for the state are already emerging on the streets and in the cafes. Is Israel now invincible? How will Israel’s relations with the international community change after victory? And will the Arab world now accept the existence, if not the right, of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in the region?

It is too premature to give definitive answers to these questions. Moreover, because no one expected to be in this scenario a week ago, there has been no thinking among either the political or military establishments on these issues.

Yet, we can deduce a few immediate effects of the war: Israel has strengthened its military stature vis-à-vis the Arab world, which has suffered greatly from despotism; the Guardian are reporting that Britain has “lost all credit with the Arab states;” and according to Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, the Jewish people have returned to parts of their biblical homeland, including the Old City and Western Wall, “never to part from it again”.

Israel has strong historical claims to the West Bank – which it captured from Jordan – while the Sinai peninsula and Golan Heights provide the country with a level of strategic depth it has never held before and may need for a long time.

In any event, the Arab world seems to not be ready to accept the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own. Algeria’s President Houari Boumedienne said in a broadcast last night that Algeria refused to accept the cease-fire and that “the war must continue and will only stop with our victory over capitalism and Zionism”.

But more concerning for the international community, and revealing of the hostility on the Arab street, are reports of Arab communities venting their frustration and despair of defeat against the Jews in their midst, most of who were studiously apolitical and had nothing to do with the war, its outbreak or its outcome. In an re-enactment of the period after 1948, there are reports of mobs attacking Jewish neighbourhoods and burning synagogues in Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco.

In Libya, murderous assaults on Libyan Jews are occurring that is prompting an emergency evacuation by the Red Cross. And in Egypt, the government is reportedly beginning to round up Jewish men to send to jails and prison camps. Even the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria was arrested during the war.

Much of what happens now in the Middle East depends on Egypt, the strongest Arab state. President Abdel Gamal Nasser yesterday u-turned his decision to resign, but in doing so he has been forced to concede a lot of his political power to his military general. The appointment of his former Chief of Staff General Mohammed Fawzy, who forced Nasser to sign the ceasefire agreement two days ago, as the new Commander-in-Chief, and the forced retiring of several Nasserist officers, now give the army a much greater say in presidential matters, which include two outstanding issues: a settlement with Israel and future relations with the Soviet Union.

Israel’s Cabinet met last night to consider the status of the newly gained territories. According to Charles Douglas-Home, defence correspondent for The Times, there is internal political pressure on Prime Minister Eshkol to take a hard line in peace negotiations.

Dayan said in a CBS television interview yesterday that “if they [Arab leaders] do not want to talk, we shall stay where we are… then there will be an absolutely new Israel in the Middle East,” whilst Minister without Portfolio Menachem Begin reportedly proposed granting the West Bank Arabs residency status for seven years, after which they would be able to become full citizens.

On the other side of the divide, Foreign Minister Abba Eban warned of “a barrel of dynamite” in ruling over another people: “We are sitting here with two populations, one of them endowed with all the civil rights and the other denied all rights. This is a picture of two classes of citizens that is hard to defend, even in the special context of Jewish history. The world will side with a liberation movement of that one and a half million surrounded by several tens of millions.”

Israeli officials, who saw Prime Minister Eshkol before he was due to give a victory speech to the Knesset, found him slumped in his chair, asking rhetorically, “kinderlach [children in yiddish], what will we do with all this?”

As we enter a new dawn in the Middle East it will be fascinating to see what Israel ultimately decides.