The Six-Day War began at 7:10 a.m. on June 5, 1967. By 10 a.m., it was clear Israel had already won.
In the tense months before the war started, no one predicted such an astonishing victory. Israel was a small nation surrounded by enemies who had twice the soldiers, twice the tanks, four times the fighter jets.
And yet, hours after taking to the skies in a daring surprise attack, Israeli warplanes obliterated the air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria on the ground.
National Security Adviser Walt Rostow sent a report to his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, hours after that now historic feat.
“Herewith the account, with a map, of the first day’s turkey shoot,” Rostow wrote.
The victory was lightning fast, but not sudden. Israel’s leaders had planned for the eventuality of a preemptive strike. Fighter jets flew practice runs over models of Egyptian airfields constructed in the Negev Desert, over and over again, for five years.
After the attack, the war progressed in bitter battles on different fronts: the Sinai, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights. In each case, Israel prevailed, and the world was a far different place by the end of a week of fighting.
And so it remains.
The idea of a preemptive war no doubt inspired the architects of the Iraq War — many of whom came of age as the world looked in awe at Israel’s victory. They got the preemption right — but not the planning or the purpose. So our children have come of age with wars that drag on without end, to indeterminate effect.
The war helped birth Islamic extremism, as Arabs turned for salvation from failed national leaders. It also cracked the façade of Arab despots — in that way, the Arab Spring is yet another battle of the 1967 war.
The war forged the strategic bond between the United States and Israel — the defining diplomatic alliance for America in this century. From 1949 to 1967, U.S. aid to Israel averaged about $63 million per year. Since 1967, it averages about $2.5 billion.
The Six-Day War also put the Palestinian cause on the center of the world stage. As Arabs saw their conventional armies go down in defeat, the Palestinians “innovated” modern terrorism.
And the war birthed a messianic, triumphalist faction of Zionism whose most concrete manifestation — the settlement movement — still preoccupies American policy makers 46 years to the day since the war.
Israeli tanks advancing on the Golan Heights on June 10, 1967. Photo by Assaf Kutin/© The State of Israel Government Press Office
This week, after visits in Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “time is not on Israel’s side” for reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians over the territories Israel conquered in June 1967.
Kerry was, in essence, reiterating a set of principles President Johnson outlined on June 19, 1967, after the war dust had settled: the right of every state in the region to exist, freedom of navigation, arms control, territorial integrity and the need for a solution to the refugee problem.
Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a diminutive, quiet shtetl Jew, had by the war’s end forged an unlikely partnership with Johnson, the tall, gregarious Texan. He called Johnson’s formulation “masterful.”
Indeed, in the intervening decades, there have been no further lessons to be learned that weren’t apparent to Johnson and Eshkol the moment the war ended.
I thought of that late last month when Dan Meridor stopped by our offices. Meridor, a scion of the right-wing Likud Party, maintained for years that Israel has the right to build settlements wherever it wants in the territories captured during the war.
Meridor, who served as minister of intelligence and atomic energy and deputy prime minister in the last government, spoke about how his thinking has evolved.
“In the long run, what we have now is very dangerous,” Meridor told me. “Because one day the Palestinians on the West Bank will say, ‘We don’t want a state, we want a vote. After 45 years, we cannot live like that in Hebron: 1,000 Jews vote and 100,000 Arabs don’t vote. We want one man, one vote.’ Even without Gaza, that adds 2 million more Arabs, and you can’t have them without equal rights.”
The relative lack of terror attacks compared to the years of Intifada, the chaos of the Arab Spring beyond Israel’s borders, the rise of Hamas and the weakness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have convinced most Israelis, said Meridor, that negotiations now are unwise or unnecessary — despite Kerry’s entreaties.
Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin talking to soldiers in the field during the Six-Day War. GPO, 30/05/1967
Perhaps, Meridor said. But in the meantime, Israel must take steps to increase, rather than decrease, the chances for a negotiated settlement.
His message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
“You say ‘Palestinian state,’ but you are building all over the place, so they don’t believe you,” Meridor said. “They think you are a liar. You need to have coherence between your stated peace policy and your settlement policy.
“I speak all over the world, and there is only one topic I can’t explain, even to 90 percent of the congressmen in America, and that’s settlements,” Meridor continued. “Even if there’s no agreement, don’t create a situation where you cannot cut one.”
At the end of our conversation Meridor told me he was a tank commander in June 1967. “Did you ever think,” I asked him, “the Six-Day War would last this long?”
(Ed. Note: This Internet version was altered to correct the impression in my paraphrase of Meridor's statement that there are no ongoing incidents of terror attacks against Israelis.]