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Then as now, Fatah members carried out terror attacks from the West Bank
Wisdom of waiting
Lessons of Six Day War still applicable in face of ongoing rocket attacks

The Palestinians are resorting to terrorism to attack Israel, Syria is threatening to embark on a war, hostile elements exploit southern Lebanon as a base for launching attacks on Israel – and the world condemns any Israeli attempt to defend ourselves through revenge attacks.

 

This scenario is very familiar to us through our daily existence, but it also describes the situation Israel found itself in 40 years ago, during the process that led to the Six-Day War's outbreak.

 

Then as now, Fatah members carried out terror attacks from the West Bank, while other Palestinian groups emerged from southern Lebanon with the aim of hitting Israeli targets. Syria, which at the time was also controlled by the Baath party, frequently called for war to liberate "occupied Arab land."

 

Israel did not sit idle in the face of these threats, but rather, carried out defensive operations such as the paratroop raid on a terrorist stronghold in the West Bank village of Samua in November 1966. This operation was harshly condemned by the international community, and particularly by the US Administration.

 

On the face of it, there can be no comparison between the 1967 Israel, a relatively poor country surrounded by hostile regimes and lacking any powerful allies, to current-day Israel: A high-tech powerhouse boasting peace agreements with two of its neighbors and a close alliance with the world's only superpower.

 

Yet despite the changes, Israel still faces the threat of terrorism, which could turn large sections of Israeli territory into no-man's land, along with existential threats – which today originate in Iran rather than in Egypt – that may lead to an all-out war that could last six minutes rather than six days.

 

Therefore, instead of merely marking the Six-Day War's 40th anniversary, we should examine the Israeli government's decision-making process in the pre-war period and learn the appropriate lessons. We can point to two decisions that significantly affected this process.

 

The first decision was taken in November 1966, when the revenge operation in Samua was approved. Although Syria, rather than Jordan, was behind Fatah attacks, ministers were concerned about punishing Damascus because of the possibility of confrontation with the Syrian army and its Soviet patrons. Therefore, the government preferred to approve an operation against Jordan.

 

Eshkol rejected generals' recommendation

However, en route to their targets the paratroopers encountered a Jordanian force, and the operation turned into a battle. This incident had two results: The Americans slammed the operation and referred to it as madness, while Jordan's King Hussein, who was greatly humiliated, attempted to cast the blame for the disaster on his archrival, Egyptian President Nasser, claiming that he was hiding "behind the dresses" of the UN force in the Sinai and Gaza.

 

The latter, in response, sought any pretext to remove the UN force – a pretext provided by the Soviets in mid-May 1967, after they told Nasser that Israel seemingly intends to attack Syria.

 

Nasser quickly discovered that the story was baseless, yet he used this pretext to remove UN forces and deploy his troops in Sinai, block the Tiran Straits that lead to Eilat, and form military alliances with Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. As it was surrounded by tens of thousands of Arab soldiers excited about the prospect of eliminating it, Israel was forced to decide whether it should resort to a pre-emptive strike.

 

The second decision was undertaken by then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who rejected the recommendations submitted by IDF generals and senior ministers to attack Egypt at once. Eshkol insisted on waiting another three weeks in order to prove to the world, and particularly to the Americans, that Israel exhausted all possibilities to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means.

 

This "waiting period" is remembered today as a highly tense period, and Eshkol was harshly condemned for it. Yet Israel used this period in order to prepare the IDF for action and justify its position to international public opinion. Therefore, once the war broke out on June 5th, the IDF was ready and Israel enjoyed broad sympathy in European capitals and in Washington.

 

It would be worthwhile to take note of two lessons from the Six-Day War: First, instead of rushing into battle, we should utilize the period of (relative) "restraint" in 2007 to make Israel's case – we cannot sustain Qassam rocket attacks on a daily basis. The second lesson is that undue fears, rather than exaggerated bravery, could lead to escalation, and that there is no alternative to addressing the source of the threat.

 

In other words, we should be waiting enough time in order to strengthen, improve our just argument, and prepare to thoroughly address those who stand behind the attacks – the Palestinians and Syrians.

 

The writer is a historian and author of the book "Six Days of War"

 

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