The Six-Day War: Fifty years on

On 5th June 1967 the Israeli Air Force launched a surprise attack on Egyptian air bases in the Sinai province, beginning what came to be known as the Six-Day War and ending with Israel occupying the West Bank, Gaza, the whole Sinai Peninsula and shortly afterwards also the Golan Heights. To this day the Palestinians have had to live with the consequences.

This first act effectively finished the war as a contest, decimating Egypt’s air capabilities. Half the Egyptian Air Force was destroyed in half an hour. The IAF then moved on to Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi air fields. 452 planes were later reported to have been destroyed, amounting to the entire air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Within four days the Israeli army had taken Eastern Jerusalem from Jordanian forces and had occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the whole Sinai Peninsula. After the three Arab states had agreed to a ceasefire, on 9th June Israel launched a further attack on the Golan Heights, rapidly annexing the bulk of the area from Syria.

Fifty years on, as Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy recently wrote, “In retrospect, it should be called the 50 Year War, not the Six-Day War, and judging by the political situation, its life expectancy appears endless.” The occupation of Palestinian territories from 1967, expanding the imperialist project of 1948, has led to the most barbaric oppression of the Palestinian people in the decades which have followed. Periodically, when tensions flare or when it serves as a convenient distraction for the Israeli ruling class, their land is transformed into a bomb site. The rest of the time they are treated as prisoners in their own country, scarcely afforded the right to live and work and commonly deprived of basic necessities and infrastructure by the Israeli state. Meanwhile their own reactionary leaders beat the drums of nationalism or Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand, while negotiating away their freedoms in various deals with imperialists on the other.

The mutual belligerence between Israel and Egypt continued after 1967, resulting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The peace treaty between the two which came about in 1979 reflected more than anything Egypt’s growing subservience to US imperialism, the chief backer of Israel. Today Egypt maintains a relatively stable relationship with Israel by acting as a prison guard on the southern border of the Gaza strip. The Egyptian government is currently refusing to provide the people of Gaza with electric power (cut off by the Israeli state) until Hamas give in to their security demands. Any aid Palestinians receive via this channel is dependent on the Egyptian regime’s own political interests and requires the compliance of the Israeli state. Israel and Syria have continued to be in a state of war up to the present day, coming into direct conflict at several points since 1967. Tensions between the two countries have actually been cut across for the time being by the destructive civil war raging in Syria. The decisive intervention of Russia and Iran in this war has relegated Israel to the position of a secondary power in the region and ironically, at the same time, has weakened its relations with US imperialism.

Why did the war happen and what were its consequences?

An article detailing and analysing in-depth the events and background of the Six-Day War can be found here (http://www.marxist.com/oldsite/1967-war-230805.html). Suffice it to say that in the years leading up to the war, hostilities were increasing between Israel and these three Arab states. Its neighbours recognised Israel’s ambitions to expand in the region, backed by the most powerful imperialist nation in history. Egypt, Jordan and Syria were known at the time as the United Arab Commonwealth, with closely interlinked political interests.

However, their leaders did not place the accompanying Pan-Arab ideology on a class basis, which could have exposed the limitations of their regimes on the domestic front, instead using it to whip up nationalistic sentiments against Israel. The Israeli ruling class did not need an invitation to launch an attack, but the approach of the Arab regimes certainly played into their hands.

On the basis of intelligence from the Soviet Union (the details of which turned out to be false) that Israel was planning to attack Egypt, Egyptian head of state Abdel Gamal Nasser sent two divisions of the army to Northern Sinai in May 1967. Israel began preparing to strike. When in June he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, this gave them the excuse they needed. In actual fact, Israel had been discussing the potential justification for precisely this attack since October 1966. Israeli Defence Minister at the time Moshe Dayan later admitted in his memoirs that in the days prior to the attack the government had been discussing what excuse they could use. It was suggested that a scenario could be presented “in which we returned fire, and that is how the war began.” However, Dayan himself opposed this because “every lie will be found out in the end and could have serious consequences” which could “waste the moral and just setting of our actions.”

In the end, the Israeli government went with Dayan’s ‘smaller’ lie to maintain the spotless banner of Zionism (!):

“Right after the aerial attack, there will be a general announcement that won’t go into details and won’t say anything about who attacked first – something along the lines of ‘Hostilities broke out,’ and then the background that made it necessary for Israel to break the noose.”

For the Egyptian regime’s part, at the time they were engaged in a debilitating war with Saudi Arabia and British forces in Yemen. The Egyptian economy had been modernised by the progressive measures of Nasser’s regime, but was starting to come under strain from the dead weight of bureaucracy in the nationalised sectors and from capitalists reacting against the tight grip of the state on the private sector. Some of the reforms won by the Egyptian masses were going into reverse. Hussein Abdel-Razek, one of the generals of the Egyptian army in 1967, describes the position of Egypt upon entering a war with Israel:

"Egyptian forces were in Yemen, and we were fighting in Yemen a war of attrition, bigger than our capabilities. We were a developing country, that was headed to build itself, but with the deployment of large Egyptian forces and putting a huge burden on the Egyptian economy to support the military, all this led to the military forces when it entered the ‘67 war in a very weak position."

Nasser himself was against going to war from such a position. Egypt was totally unprepared for such an eventuality and the manner of the defeat only reflected the balance of forces at hand.

When the 5th June attack happened initial reports in the Egyptian state media denied it altogether, while others later suggested the attack had come from the United States and not Israel. The United States had not wanted to intervene directly in Arab-Israeli conflicts for fear of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, which was providing Egypt with military and financial backing, and had ostensibly advised Israel against a war. However, they gave Israel most of the weapons and technology they fundamentally relied upon. It has now been discovered that in June 1967 there was a plan mooted by the Israeli government to plant a nuclear device in the Sinai province, with which to blackmail Egypt. Israel did not chance upon nuclear weapons by its own devices. What is more, the United States would have been very satisfied with the immediate outcome of the Six-Day War. Its regional outpost in the Middle East had successfully rolled over three obstacles to the interests of US imperialism in under a week.

The result of the war was a disaster for the Nasser regime, which had sustained its popularity in Egypt despite growing economic problems by championing the strength of a Pan-Arab front against Western imperialism. Nasser himself had wanted to resign, but his personal popularity led to street demonstrations which pushed him to stay on. "This experience made us look on the surface that we are very strong but in reality we were very weak, we were weaker than people had thought," Razek says. The defeat, known as ‘al-Naksah’ (the setback) in Arabic, signalled the beginning of the end for Nasserism, as following Nasser’s death three years later Anwar Sadat moved the economy in the direction of privatisation and the country in the direction of US imperialism.

The Six-Day War confirmed Israel’s position as an imperialist power in the region and raised the sights of its arrogant ruling class towards further domination. The position of Israel today, however, has been affected by dramatic shifts in the regional situation and the situation in the world as a whole.

Israel as an imperialist power today

The weakened position of the United States on the global stage has been demonstrated emphatically by its diminishing role in the Syrian crisis over the past six years. Only a decade ago the American government felt itself in a position to police the whole of the Middle East, making war in Afghanistan and Iraq under the pretext of averting a global terror threat before making antagonistic noises towards Iran. When the Syrian Revolution began during the Arab Spring in 2011, the American intelligence services saw a further opportunity for the US to gain a foothold in the region and undermine powers who opposed them. The CIA, along with Saudi Arabia, helped to arm and finance all manner of reactionary Islamist groupings fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

This is one factor which in no small part helped the revolution to descend so quickly into the carnage we have seen since. Another is the disastrous results of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which far from averting a terror threat have helped to create a much greater one. And of all the powers jostling to contain the situation in Syria, it is the Russian army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who have made the difference. This has forced the United States not only to back down from its singular position as world policeman but also to work with a regime in Iran which it had only several years ago been aiming to undermine and even overthrow.

Such a change in America’s position has had an impact on its oldest and most reliable ally in the region – Israel. The regime in Iran formally refuses to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Israeli state and has for a long time used hostilities with Israel to make demagogic displays of strength. Israel, likewise, considers Iran its biggest military threat. Therefore, the coalition of US and Iranian forces in Syria undermined Israel’s reliance on the United States for military and diplomatic support. The deal in 2015 between the global powers and Iran to allow the country nuclear capabilities and to open up trade with the West dealt a huge blow to Israel.

Clear divisions have now opened up between United States and Israeli interests in the Middle East. This much was already clear back in 2014 when under public pressure then-President Obama condemned the Israeli bombing of a school in Gaza, and later called for a two-state solution. Several heated exchanges have since taken place between the dog and its master, in particular over the Iranian nuclear deal. One commentator in late 2014 described the relationship as “now the worst it’s ever been”. Superficial observers in Israel like to assume that the good old days of US-Israeli relations have returned with the election of President Donald Trump. And it goes without saying that all the strong words haven’t prevented the US from continuing to provide enormous military and financial backing to the Israeli state. But it is telling that before he visited Israel, Trump’s first foreign visit since his election was to Saudi Arabia to agree a $350bn arms deal.

Israel needs the United States but the need is no longer mutual to the same extent. There may come a time again where Israel is restored to its prior position as an invaluable asset to the United States in the Middle East. For now, however, the shrinking stature of the US on a world scale has meant accommodating some of the very powers against whom Israel was supposed to be acting as a buffer.

Tiran Island

The Straits of Tiran, whose closure by Egyptian forces to international vessels was used by Israel as the provocation they needed to start the Six-Day War, is named after Tiran Island which stands at its entrance. In recent days, the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has signed an executive order to hand Tiran Island and Sanafir Island next to it over to Saudi Arabia, who want to build a causeway to Sinai, in exchange for billion-dollar bailout packages and investments.

This decision has provoked uproar across Egypt, not least because of the significance of the islands in Israeli-Egyptian wars. Tiran was held by Israel from 1967 until it was returned to Egypt in 1982, and the Egyptian government even had to write to Israel for permission to give away the island before announcing it. Israel – no doubt gleefully – approved.

Such an act from a regime which presents itself as the dependable rulership of a strong army is justifiably seen by ordinary Egyptians as a betrayal of all those who fought to free Sinai from Israeli occupation. It is an act which exposes the weakness of a regime that in its desperate cynicism is prepared to sell off bits of Egypt for a few more Saudi dollars. The economic situation in Egypt clearly demands such drastic measures under capitalism. Nevertheless, the immediate consequence is that most of what little confidence was left among the masses in this already unstable presidency is now shattered.

The weakness of imperialism and the potential for revolution

In Israel, inequality is rife and the poverty rate is now the highest of any OECD country. In government Netanyahu’s bourgeois Likud party is increasingly relying on hard-right, racist elements to maintain its rule. As illustrated by the ongoing Western Wall crisis, in which parliament has overturned a decision to create a mixed-gender prayer space under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, there is a backlash developing in Israeli society against this reactionary government. As regards the 50th anniversary ‘celebrations’ of the war, Gideon Levy correctly predicted: “I think most Israelis will be quite indifferent. It is a society totally preoccupied with private affairs. No one but the settlers will celebrate. In Tel Aviv, people couldn’t care less and no artificial effort by the government can change that.” The Zionist imperialist project has utterly failed to unite Israel on a national or religious basis, or to provide even the Jewish working class with stable working and living conditions. At bottom Zionism is a capitalist ideology and under the weight of capitalist contradictions it is bound to fail.

Meanwhile, Palestinians and other oppressed elements of Israeli society live and die through fear and horror on a daily basis. In Eastern Jerusalem, which Israeli troops apparently “liberated” from Jordanian occupation, an attorney for the Israeli population registry describes a scene in which thousands of Arabs cross a checkpoint just to register as citizens of their own city: “At a certain point, a woman who was afraid that if she moved she wouldn’t be able to return, nursed her baby inside the revolving entrance gate.” With conditions of such brutality, in plain view of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians alike, soon Zionism will sooner or later also be weakened in its ability to cut across the class struggle.

In Egypt, another military regime is being stripped of its illusory ‘strongman’ facade. But unlike in 1967, this embarrassing spectacle comes after revolutionary upheavlas, only a few short years since the removal of two previous regimes and several governments by the masses. And this time what is exposed is not simply the weakness of a single desperate politician, but the faceless, borderless greed of an entire system and Egypt’s present enslavement to it.

The legacy of the Six-Day War is not only one of imperialist adventure, barbaric war, nationalist fervour and vicious oppression. It has also helped to set in motion a chain of events which have included the two Palestinian Intifadas and several mass revolutionary movements. This chain of events can only be completed with the socialist transformation of society, or it will rumble on with dire consequences for millions more across the Middle East.