Triumph and tragedy

On the 46th anniversary of that great drama, we can only wish that it had never happened, that it was all a dream.

June 9, 2013 21:24
4 minute read.
Rabinovich with paratroopers during Six Day War.

rabinovich and paratroopers six day war. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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No Wagner opera could have been more dramatic. It seemed to be directed by a genius.

It started low-key. A little piece of paper was thrust into the hand of prime minister Levi Eshkol as he was reviewing the Independence Day parade. It said that Egyptian troops were entering the Sinai peninsula.

From there on alarm grew. Every day brought menacing new reports. The Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, issued blood-curdling threats.

UN peacekeepers were withdrawn.

The entrance to the Gulf of Eilat was mined by the Egyptians. In Israel, worry soon turned into fear. Eshkol sounded weak. People started talking about a second Holocaust, about the destruction of Israel.

I was one of the very few who remained cheerful. At the height of public despair, I published an article in Haolam Hazeh, the news magazine I edited, under the headline “Nasser has Walked into a Trap.” Even my wife thought that was crazy. My good cheer had a simple reason. A few weeks before, I had given a lecture at a kibbutz on the Syrian border. As is customary, I was invited to have coffee after the lecture with a select group of members. There I was told that “Dado” (general David Elazar), OC Northern Command, had lectured there the week before, and then had coffee. Like me.

After swearing me to secrecy, they disclosed that Dado had told them – after swearing them to secrecy – that every evening, before going to bed, he prayed to God that Nasser would move his troops into the Sinai desert.

“There we shall destroy them,” Dado had assured them.

Nasser did not want the war. He knew his army was quite unprepared.

He was bluffing, in order to please the Arab masses. He was egged on by the Soviet Union, whose leaders believed Israel was about to attack its main client in the region, Syria, as part of a worldwide American plot.(The Soviet ambassador, Dmitri Chuvakhin, invited me for a talk and disclosed the alleged plot to me. If so, I said, why not ask your ambassador in Damascus to advise the Syrians to stop their border attacks on us, at least temporarily? The ambassador broke into laughter. “Do you really believe that anyone there listens to our ambassador?”)

At the height of the crisis, when the bow was strained to near breaking point, the Israeli army attacked. The troops – mostly reserve soldiers who had been abruptly torn from their families and who had been waiting impatiently for three weeks – rushed forwards.

I was attending the Knesset session that day. In the middle of it, we were told to go to the bomb shelter, because the Jordanians in nearby east Jerusalem had begun to shell us.

While we were there, a friend of mine, a high-ranking official, whispered in my ear: “It’s all over. We have destroyed the entire Egyptian Air Force.”

When I reached home that evening after driving through the blackout, my wife did not believe me. The radio had said nothing about the action. Radio Cairo was telling its listeners that “Tel Aviv is burning.” I felt like a bridegroom at a funeral.

Israeli military censorship forbade any mention of victories – the airwaves continued to be dominated by terrible forebodings.

Why? The Israeli government was convinced – quite rightly – that if the Arab countries and the Soviet Union realized that their side was nearing disaster, they would get the UN to stop the war at once. This indeed happened – but by that time our army was well on its way to Cairo and Damascus.

Because of this series of events, when the victory was announced, it looked immense – so immense, indeed, that many believed in an act of God. Our army, which had been formed in the small state of Israel as it was at that time, had conquered the entire Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. From the “second Holocaust” to miraculous deliverance, in just six days.

So, was it a “defensive war” or an “act of naked aggression”? In the national consciousness, it was and remains a purely defensive war, started by “the Arabs.” Objectively speaking, it was our side which attacked, though under utmost provocation.

Years later, when I said so in passing, a leading Israeli journalist was so upset that he stopped talking with me.

Be that as it may, the Israeli public reaction was stupendous. The entire country was in delirium. Masses of victory-albums, victory songs, victory this and victory that amounted to national hysteria. Hubris knew no bounds. I cannot claim that I was entirely untouched by it.

Ariel Sharon boasted that the Israeli army could reach Tripoli (in Libya) in six days. A Movement for a Greater Israel came into being, with many of Israel’s most renowned personalities clamoring for membership.

Soon the settlement enterprise was under way.

But, as in a Greek tragedy, hubris did not go unpunished. The gold turned to dust. The greatest victory in Israel’s history turned into its greatest curse. The occupied territories are like the shirt of Nessus, glued to our body to poison and torment us.

On the 46th anniversary of that great drama, we can only wish that it had never happened, that it was all a dream.

The author is a journalist, former Knesset member and founding member of Gush Shalom.

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