When peace seemed possible

When peace seemed possible

Just before 8 on the morning of June 5, 1967, my friends and I gathered in our high school cafeteria waiting for the bell to ring sending us to homeroom. We were 10 days from graduation, so the banter was hardly focused on anything serious.

Amid this typical teenage jocularity came this comment from one of my closest friends: "Boy, you guys are really giving it to the Arabs."


I had not listened to the news that morning, but my friend had. Israel had launched its pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and was succeeding on all fronts. My heart raced as I heard this short account. My friends knew how important Israel was to me, but this was all so unexpected.

Days before, the Egyptians had closed the Straits of Tiran, blocking Israel’s sea access to its South. Cairo also had demanded that United Nations peacekeeping troops in the Sinai Peninsula be removed. The bellicosity of official pronouncements from Arab capitals foreshadowed untold hardship ahead for Israelis. We have relatives in Israel, and our thoughts and prayers had been with them from the onset of this crisis. We expected the worst.

I don’t remember if I went to my first class, but I do recall checking in with the radio in the school office all day. I called my father several times from school — something I never did. Upon returning home, I immediately put on the radio to listen to bulletins from Israel on CBS reported by Michael Elkins and others.

By 4 p.m. Israeli spokesmen reported that Israel had destroyed all three Arab air forces on the ground. In the days that followed Jerusalem would be reunited and Israel would be in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the west bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Our pride for Israel grew.

On TV we raptly watched the special sessions of the U.N. Security Council and the statements by the U.S. representative, Arthur Goldberg. We wondered if the international community would demand that Israel stop in the midst of its military successes. The rhetorical venom of Syrian Ambassador George Tomeh opened an even wider window on the broader question of Arab hatred of Israel and its desire to see the country destroyed.

Seeing and hearing all this was cathartic; after all, it was occurring barely more than ‘0 years after the Holocaust. And even though Israel was established in 1948, already it had been forced to roll back from advanced positions in the 1956 Suez Campaign. It was the target of terrorism on its border with Egypt and from Syrian gunners and Damascus-backed terrorists on its northern border.

Together with its lightning military strikes led by generals with names like Dayan, Rabin, Hod, and Narkiss, Israel also had one of the ‘0th century’s greatest orator-statesmen making its case at the United Nations. This was Abba Eban’s finest hour. Israel’s foreign minister, in Churchill-like tones, bested his adversaries at the Security Council table with his moving defense not only of Israel’s military action but its rightful place in the family of nations.

We had every right to expect that after such a stirring and complete military victory, the Arabs would sue for peace. They did not. The war of attrition along the Suez Canal from 1968 to 1970, encouraged by the Soviet Union, killed hundreds of Israelis and wounded many more.

On the diplomatic front, Egyptian President Abdel Gamal Nasser led the Arabs in 1969 in pronouncing what became known as "the three nos": no recognition, no negotiations, and no peace with Israel.

In the face of rejection, Israel offered plans, proposals, and suggestions to start a peace process. Moshe Dayan enjoyed good relations with many Palestinian notables, the heads of leading families in the west bank and Gaza, but they did not necessarily speak for the governments of Jordan or Egypt. In July 1967, Foreign Minister Yigal Allon proposed a plan that encompassed an Israeli pullback to a defensive line more or less following the old Israel-west bank border, with modifications included to make Israel more secure than it had been before the war.

The answer on the Arab side was a closer relationship with Moscow and a buildup of the Egyptian and Syrian armies. Nasser’s death in 1970 led to even more uncertainty.

Peace was still a distant dream, a painful realization for Israel. But its victory in the Six Day War caused a generation of young Jews the world over to develop an unparalleled attachment to the country, the land, and the people.

Thousands of college students streamed to Israel for kibbutz and learning experiences. Popular Israeli war songs made their way to American shores. Jews everywhere listened to what became a new Jewish anthem, Naomi Shemer’s "Jerusalem of Gold." We all took pride in the photos of Israeli soldiers that appeared on the pages of Life and Look magazines, and we laughed at the jokes comedians made about the swiftness of Israel’s win over the Arabs.

The world seemed to be caught up in this miraculous victory. My parents circulated a petition in support of Israel in our hometown of Keene, N.H., and no one turned down the request to sign. Our small synagogue held a fund-raiser for Israel, and there was near unanimous participation. I gave my first-ever donation, $’5, as part of that campaign.

Those of us who toured the area after the war saw the Syrian machine-gun nests overlooking the Golan and the trenches used by Jordanian soldiers overlooking western Jerusalem. A mood of "can-do" optimism pervaded Israel in those days. Notwithstanding the rejectionism of its neighbors, it had the wherewithal not only to defeat them, but also to make it clear that Israel was here to stay.

But Palestinian terrorism, which included a string of airline hijackings, bombings, and kidnappings, left Israel little time for savoring its victory after 1967. The PLO covenant called for Israel’s destruction, and even denied that the Jewish people had a historic attachment to the biblical land of Israel. The war against the PLO and its various terrorist elements served as a precursor for the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which dashed the sense of confidence we and our relatives found in each of our visits to Israel.

The long wait for peace began in the aftermath of that war. Treaties were signed with Egypt (cold) and Jordan (warmer). And though we have lived through frustration and disappointments, false hopes and special envoys, Security Council resolutions, wars, and incessant terrorism, we still hope that what seemed so reasonably attainable after those six days of June in 1967 — peace for Israel and its full acceptance in the region — is possible. But new threats, from Iran and Islamic extremists, loom.

On June 6, 1967, Eban closed his address to the U.N. Security Council with words of magnanimity rarely seen from such a decisive military victor: "Israel, in recent days, has proved its steadfastness and vigor. It is now willing to demonstrate its instinct for peace. Let us build a new system of relationships from the wreckage of the old. Let us discern across the darkness the vision of a better and brighter dawn."

Which brings us back to the eve of the Six Day War. Our dejection then was palpable. Few optimists were around, and it looked as if the world was not interested in what would happen to that tiny square of Mideast territory. There was a remarkable reversal of fortune that even four decades later allows us to hope for the day when we celebrate 40 years of peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.