Nearly 40 years ago, Israel and the Arab world fought a war that altered the course of Middle Eastern history. Now, as the region teeters on the brink of a new and potentially more violent cataclysm, it is important to revisit the lessons of the Six-Day War, a conflict that few Middle Eastern countries wanted and none foresaw.
By 1967, 10 years after the Sinai campaign, the Arab-Israeli dispute had settled into an uneasy status quo. The radical Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser still proclaimed its commitment to liberating Palestine and throwing the Jews into the sea, as did its conservative rivals in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but none of these states made any attempt to renew hostilities.
On the contrary, Egypt remained quiescent behind the U.N. peacekeeping forces deployed in Sinai, Gaza and the Straits of Tiran since 1957. Jordan maintained secret contacts with the Israelis. Israel, for its part, had long learned to ignore bellicose Arab rhetoric and to seek back-door channels to even the most vituperative Arab rulers. As late as April 1967, officials at Israel's Foreign Ministry were speculating whether Nasser might be a viable partner for a peace process.
But one Arab state did not want peace. Syria, then as now under the rule of the belligerent Baath Party, wanted war. Having tried and failed in 1964 to divert the Jordan River before it crossed the Israeli border -- Israel Defense Forces jets and artillery blasted the dams -- the Syrians began supporting a little-known Palestinian guerrilla group called Al Fatah, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat.
Using Lebanon as its principal base, Al Fatah commenced operations against Israel in 1965 and rapidly escalated its attacks. Finally, at the end of 1966, Israeli officials felt compelled to retaliate. But, fearing the repercussions of attacking Soviet-backed Syria, they decided to strike at an Al Fatah stronghold in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.
The raid unfortunately led to a firefight between IDF and Jordanian troops and to Jordanian claims that Nasser had not done enough to protect the West Bank Palestinians. Desperate to restore his reputation, Nasser exploited a spurious Soviet report of Israeli war plans to evict U.N. peacekeepers.
Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, concentrated 100,000 of his troops along the Israeli border and forged anti-Israeli pacts with Syria and Jordan. The Arab world rejoiced at the prospect of annihilating Israel, and even the Soviets, eager to find some means of distracting American attention from Vietnam, were pleased. Israeli leaders had no choice but to determine when and where to strike preemptively.
And so, suddenly and unexpectedly, a regional war erupted that the principal combatants -- Israel, Egypt and Jordan -- neither desired nor anticipated. The lesson: Local conflicts in the Middle East can quickly spin out of control and spiral into a regional conflagration.
The lesson is especially pertinent to the current crisis. Then, as now, the Syrians have goaded a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, to launch raids against Israel from Lebanon. Then, as now, the rapid rise of terrorist attacks has forced Israel to mount reprisals. If the Soviets in 1967 wanted to divert America's attention from Vietnam, the Iranians -- Syria's current sponsors -- want to divert American attention from their nuclear arms program. And once again, Israel must decide when to strike back and against whom.
Back in 1966, Israel recoiled from attacking Syria and instead raided Jordan, inadvertently setting off a concatenation of events culminating in war. Israel is once again refraining from an entanglement with Hezbollah's Syrian sponsors, perhaps because it fears a clash with Iran. And just as Israel's failure to punish the patron of terror in 1967 ultimately triggered a far greater crisis, so, too, today, by hesitating to retaliate against Syria, Israel risks turning what began as a border skirmish into a potentially more devastating confrontation.
Israel may hammer Lebanon into submission, and it may deal Hezbollah a crushing blow, but as long as Syria remains hors de combat, there is no way that Israel can effect a permanent change in Lebanon's political labyrinth and ensure an enduring cease-fire in the north. On the contrary, convinced that Israel is unwilling to confront them, the Syrians may continue to escalate tensions, pressing them toward the crisis point. The result could be an all-out war with Syria, as well as Iran, and severe political upheaval in Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf.
The answer lies in delivering an unequivocal blow to Syrian ground forces deployed near the Lebanese border. By eliminating 500 Syrian tanks -- tanks that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad needs to preserve his regime -- Israel could signal its refusal to return to the status quo in Lebanon. Supporting Hezbollah carries a prohibitive price, the action would say.
Of course, Syria could respond with missile attacks against Israeli cities, but given the dilapidated state of Syria's army, the chances are greater that Assad will simply internalize the message. Presented with a choice between saving Hezbollah and staying alive, Syria's dictator will probably choose the latter. And the message of Israel's determination will also be received in Tehran.
Any course of military action carries risks, especially in the unpredictable Middle East. But if the past is any guide and if the Six-Day War presents a paradigm of an unwanted war that might have been averted with an early, well-placed strike at Syria, then Israel's current strategy in Lebanon deserves to be re-thought. If Syria escapes unscathed and Iran undeterred, Israel will remain insecure.
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