On Saturday, June 3, 1967, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol concluded a meeting of his inner cabinet with these words: “Nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs will still be here.”
Eshkol, who had for weeks resisted the eagerness of his generals and much of his public for war in hopes that diplomacy might yet avail, had finally given in to what he came to see as inevitable. But despite his confidence that Israel would win the war, and with lower costs if it struck first, he felt none of the enthusiasm or sense of gamesmanship known to abide in the hearts of some leaders at such heady times. Like his predecessor David Ben-Gurion, who also counseled patience and restraint in the face of the May-June 1967 crisis, Eshkol sensed too keenly the ironies of history — Jewish history, in particular — to allow a hope that the impending war would deliver peace and security for Israel. It would bring, he knew, mixed and unanticipated consequences, but like all successful military operations, it would probably prevent even worse ones. “Probably” is all one can say in such circumstances, however, because war prevents still worse outcomes only in an ethereal, counterfactual world where none of us can ever go to find out for certain.
Eshkol, Ben-Gurion, and other Israeli leaders from its pioneer generation thought about war in the idiom of the European intellectual tradition from which they came. More than a few American leaders and many of their countrymen with them, on the other hand, have believed that a war could be “a war to end all wars,” a war to end the scourge of aggression through collective security, or a war to transform an entire region of the world into a tidy assemblage of market-based liberal democracies. If war could be transformative and heroic, why not the Six-Day War whose drama and seeming clarity of plotline was more vivid than most? And so many Americans, particularly many American Jews, will not know quite what to make of Eshkol’s remark, for the standard account of the war still etched into the consciousness of most doesn’t admit of anticipatory irony.
That standard account goes something like this. The Arabs, led after 1952 by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, had been from the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 determined to spare no effort to destroy it. Arab aggression caused the Sinai War of 1956 and now, in the spring of 1967, the Arabs (with Soviet help) were preparing to take their revenge and push Israel and Israelis into the sea. The numbers of now united Arab soldiers and weapons massively outnumbered those of Israel. Massacre and extermination loomed. The great powers, including the United States, which had made all sorts of promises to Israel to secure its withdrawal from the Sinai in 1957, failed to honor its pledges, leaving Israel to fend for itself. Former staunch allies, like France, not only abandoned Israel to its fate, but effectively switched sides in the conflict. Even the most moderately inclined Arab leader, Jordan’s King Hussein, lost his wits in the frenzy and made the worst decision of his reign — to join the Arab war party. Alone with its back against the wall, Israel struck first in desperation and, miraculously, triumphed on all fronts against all odds. Israel’s victory heralded a new era, as Israel would graciously return territories taken from the Arabs for peace from a now humbled and more realistic group of foes. That peace is only partial even 40 years later is a bitter surprise, and wholly the fault of the Arab side.
It’s a nice story — dramatic, noble, almost Biblical in its moral dimension. But none of it, strictly speaking, is true. (Of course, some Arabs have developed an alternative “standard account” of the war that’s even less true, but that is, literally, another story.) The actual causes of the 1967 war are more complex; the real military situation, as understood by professionals at the time, was much different; and the calculations of American, French, and other statesmen were more subtle. In this small space it is impossible to detail what actually happened, though many competent historians have used archives, memoirs, and other materials to do so. But by unpacking the ten sentences of the “standard account,” the main themes of the scholarly consensus can be sketched out. From that, perhaps, something may be learned.