Six-Day War memories: 30 years later, revisionists ask how war began

JERUSALEM — Three decades after the Six-Day War and the liberation of Jerusalem, debate still rages here over the conflict's place in Jewish history.

Historians have viewed it as a defensive war of salvation. However, some revisionists, citing an old interview with a now-deceased military leader, claim that on at least one front, Israel may have provoked the war.

This much everyone who lived through that time remembers: The country's soldiers, poised and straining after three weeks of nervous waiting, leaped into battle on three fronts on June 5, 1967.

Egypt had blockaded the Red Sea's Straits of Tiran from Israeli shipping, and along with Jordan and Syria massed more than half a million troops along their borders with the Jewish state. This after months of Arab leaders vowing to destroy Israel.

One Arab radio station broadcast to Israelis the sound of machine-gun fire, saying that "the only thing the Zionists understand is this."

Israel's air force struck first, nearly destroying Egypt's and Jordan's air force before they could leave the ground. Israeli troops attacked Egyptian positions along the Gaza Strip and in the Sinai Desert, and by June 8 Israel had captured the entire Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal.

With Jordan shelling Israeli settlements on its border and around Jerusalem, Israel surrounded Jordanian troops around the city June 5 and in two days controlled the entire West Bank of the Jordan River.

And from June 8 to 10, Israel moved across the Golan Heights in the north until accepting a U.N. cease-fire.

Even nonfighting units were filled with the sense of do or die, of history-in-the-making that can, on occasion, ignite an entire army and drive it to victory.

Israeli citizens, especially in Jerusalem and the Upper Galilee, were so close to the battlefronts that they shared much of the euphoric sense of triumph and salvation that swept through the fighting forces as the enemy retreated.

The war also became a watershed event for competing views of Israel's history — and of the circumstances surrounding those six fateful days.

Israel's nationalist camp and religious right never wavered in assigning the war a historic, heroic and, in many cases, neo-Messianic significance.

On the other side, at the height of the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, it was commonplace in the Israeli peace camp to speak and write of the war not as a victory and a salvation but as a curse.

The perspective of 30 years, replete with bold advances and painful setbacks on the uphill road to Israeli-Arab peace, is affording Israelis the opportunity to look back.

For most observers, it was a war of salvation that delivered Israel from a defeat that could have obliterated the Jewish state. It was a huge victory because it taught the Arab world that Israel was there to stay.

Even the 1973 Yom Kippur War was not designed by Egypt and Syria to "drive the Jews into the sea"– Egyptian President Gamal Nasser's rhetoric of the 1960s. Rather it was to defeat Israel on several fronts and bring overwhelming international pressure to bear on the Jewish state.

All the advances toward peace that have followed the Six-Day War can be seen as the fruits of that conflict. The advances would have been unattainable, indeed unthinkable, without that victory.

Israeli propaganda over the years has naturally focused on the extent of the grave danger facing the nation on the eve of the war.

For 30 years, Israeli leaders have insisted that the Jewish state was at the time in mortal peril.

They have uniformly swept aside "revisionist" assertions that the military situation was not really all that grave, and that the Israel Defense Force would have won comfortably even without its massive strike at Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian airfields in the war's first hours, when those air forces were virtually destroyed on the ground.

Thirty years is long enough for the Israeli public to have assimilated even these discrepancies between the exaggerations of the politicians and the reservations of the revisionist historians, and to emerge with its basic judgment of the Six-Day War as a milestone and a positive event in the nation's history.

But this judgment has received a new blow.

The war's 30th anniversary has fallen under the shadow of jarring posthumous pronunciations by the architect and popular hero of that war: then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

In a series of interviews that Dayan gave to journalist Rami Tal in the mid-1970s and which were recently published in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Dayan says 80 percent of cross-border clashes between Israel and Syria in the years before the war were due to Israeli provocation.

Moreover, Dayan told Tal, he strongly opposed Israel's broadening the war to encompass the Golan Heights.

But kibbutz leaders from the border area sought to annex the lush farmlands of the Golan, Dayan said, and for that reason they prevailed on then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to launch the IDF ground attack against the Golan on the fifth day of the war.

Until then, the Israelis and the Syrians had confined themselves to trading shell-fire across the borderline.

In the interviews with Tal, Dayan described his grudging agreement to fight Syria as one of the most serious errors of his life.

This version of events before and during the war flies in the face of some of the most cherished Israeli myths. Every Israeli schoolchild was taught that the brave kibbutzniks faced constant harassment from the Syrian forces that were perched on the Golan.

Dayan's version also has direct implications for the Israeli-Syrian peace process, particularly the present Israeli government's refusal to agree to a withdrawal from all of the Golan, even in the context of a full peace and satisfactory security arrangements.

Dayan insisted that Tal shelve the tapes and not publish the interviews, and the reporter respected his wishes for more than 20 years.

But Tal obtained from the late leader's daughter, Yael, a leftist Knesset member, permission to go public with Dayan's startling and thought-provoking revelations.

Some Dayan apologists on both sides of the political divide maintain that he was speaking "out of context."

Mordechai Bar-On, the general's aide-de-camp in the 1950s and more recently a Knesset member from the Meretz Party, wrote in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that had Dayan lived, he would have maintained his ban on publication because the conversations, as recorded by Tal, gave an incomplete picture.

Bar-On wrote that he spoke as someone who supports full withdrawal from the Golan. Nevertheless, he insisted, the evolution of events leading to the Israeli attack on the Golan was much more complex than Dayan depicted in those interviews with Tal.

Perhaps it will take years, or even decades, for this latest dose of revisionism to make its way through the Israeli body politic.

Only in the years ahead will the Israeli nation, with the benefit of still more hindsight and perspective, be able to come to terms with Dayan's posthumous charges and subsume them into the overall saga of that brief but monumental victory.