“In June 1967,” Bret Stephens writes in the New York Times for the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, “Arab leaders declared their intention to annihilate the Jewish state and the Jews decided they wouldn’t sit still for it. For the crime of self-preservation, Israel remains a nation unforgiven.
“Unforgiven, Israel’s milder critics say, because the Six-Day War, even if justified at the time, does not justify 50 years of occupation.”
Stephens disagrees, asserting that the view that Israel’s ongoing occupation is unjustified “is ahistoric nonsense.”
In fact, it is Bret Stephens who is demonstrably guilty of that charge, as his article, titled “Six Days and 50 Years of War”, does nothing more than regurgitate standard Zionist propaganda.
Distorting the 1967 War
Stephens proceeds to blame the “Six Day War” of June 1967 on the Arabs by noting that a UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula was withdrawn at Egypt’s insistence and referring to an “Egyptian blockade of the Israeli port of Eilat.”
Then Stephens writes, “On June 5, the first day of the war, the Israeli government used three separate diplomatic channels to warn Jordan—then occupying the West Bank—not to initiate hostilities. The Jordanians ignored the warning and opened fire with planes and artillery.”
By this means, Stephens disgracefully deceives his readers into believing that Jordan fired the first shots of the war.
In truth, the Six Day War was begun by Israel on the morning of June 5 with a surprise attack on Jordan’s ally Egypt that obliterated its air force while most of its planes were still on the ground.
It is true that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had instructed the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) to evacuate Egyptian territory. The conclusion readers are evidently supposed to draw is that Egypt, in partnership with Jordan, was preparing to invade Israel.
The UN peacekeeping force was “intended as a buffer with Egypt”, Stephens states. This is true, but the implication, given his provided context, is that its purpose was to protect Israel from Egyptian aggression—which is a distortion of history.
What Stephens declines to inform readers is that UNEF was established after Israel conspired with Britain and France to wage a war of aggression against Egypt in 1956, following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. UNEF’s purpose was not only to secure the cessation of hostilities and serve as a buffer to prevent future aggression, but also to supervise the required withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the occupied Sinai.
To lead readers to the desired conclusion, Stephens omits additional relevant context, such as how Nasser had been accused by its allies Syria and Jordan of hiding behind UNEF—such as failing to come to Jordan’s assistance when Israel on November 13, 1966, invaded the West Bank to collectively punish the civilian population of the village of Samu for the killing of three Israeli soldiers by the Palestinian group al-Fatah two days earlier.
Israel’s assumption was that by terrorizing the villagers, they would appeal to King Hussein of Jordan—which administered the West Bank in the wake of the 1948 war and ethnic cleansing of Palestine—to clamp down on Fatah. After rounding up villages in the town square, Israeli forces proceeded to engage in wanton destruction that included the razing, according to UN investigators, of 125 homes, a village clinic, and a school. Three civilians were killed and ninety-six wounded, and the UN Security Council condemned Israel for its “violation of the UN Charter and of the General Armistice Agreement between Israel and Jordan”.
By omitting the context of Nasser’s humiliation in the face of such Israeli aggression, Stephens leaves his readers with the impression that Egypt was preparing to attack Israel—rather than Nasser ejecting UNEF to save face in the wake of accusations that he was hiding cowardly behind the UN peacekeepers.
In fact, UN Secretary-General U Thant, after Nasser requested its evacuation from Egyptian soil, proposed repositioning UNEF on the Israeli side of the border, but this proposal was rejected by Israel.
It’s also true that Egypt had announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. In Egypt’s view, the straits were its territorial waters. Israel considered this announcement a casus belli—a justification for war—but was repeatedly warned by the US government that its grievance with Egypt over the use of the straits would need to be resolved through diplomacy, not military force.
Stephens’ reference to Egypt’s closing of the straits occurs in the context of his characterization of France and the US as having abandoned Israel in its time of need: “France, hitherto Israel’s ally, had imposed an arms embargo on it; and … Lyndon Johnson had failed to deliver on previous American assurances to break any Egyptian blockade of the Israeli port of Eilat.”
While Stephens offers no explanation for France’s refusal to supply Israel with addition arms (it was already recognized as the most formidable military power in the region), it is relevant that France had been censured along with Israel by the international community—including the US—for their joint aggression against Egypt in 1956.
Presumably an oversight, Stephens does not mention the movement of Egyptian armed forces into the Sinai Peninsula prior to the June war—a fact usually cited in such Zionist propaganda accounts as proof of Nasser’s intent to invade Israel. In fact, Israel’s own intelligence had assessed, following the Egyptian movement of troops, that Nasser had no intention of attacking Israel (they judged him not to be insane), which was an assessment shared by the US intelligence community.
The CIA observed that Egypt’s forces had taken up defensive positions after having received an intelligence report from the Soviet Union that Israel was amassing forces on the border with Egypt’s ally, Syria. (“The Soviet advice to the Syrians [sic] that the Israelis were planning an attack was not far off,” State Department Middle East analyst Harold Saunders subsequently assessed, “although they seem to have exaggerated the magnitude. The Israelis probably were planning an attack—but not an invasion.”)
The CIA also accurately predicted and warned President Lyndon Johnson that the war was coming, and that it would be Israel who would start it. The documentary record of diplomatic cables during this time (i.e., the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States collection) is replete with warnings to Israel that it would not be politically feasible for the US to intervene on Israel’s side—as Israel was pushing the Johnson administration to do—if it was the party responsible for firing the first shot of the war.
“As your friend,” President Johnson wrote in a letter delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol on May 28, for example, “I repeat even more strongly what I said yesterday to Mr. [Abba] Eban [Israel’s ambassador to the US]. Israel just must not take any preemptive military action and thereby make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities.” (Emphasis added.)
Having omitted all of this relevant context and deceiving readers into believing that the first shot of the war was fired by Jordan, Stephens proceeds to characterize Israel as the party seeking peace, while the recalcitrant Arabs rejected its reasonable overtures. His evidence for this is the decision by the Israeli cabinet on June 19, nine days after the end of the war, to “offer the return of territories conquered from Egypt and Syria in exchange for peace, security and recognition.”
Had Israel wanted peace with its Arab neighbors, however, it could have simply chosen not to launch the six-day war in the first place and instead heeded the Johnson administration’s advice to seek a resolution to the escalating tensions through diplomatic means in accordance with Israel’s obligations under the UN Charter.
Cautioning his readers to not “fall prey to the lazy trope of ’50 years of occupation,’ inevitably used to indict Israel”, Stephens argues that “There would have been no occupation, and no settlements, if Egypt and its allies hadn’t recklessly provoked a war.”
Needless to say, there would be no ongoing occupation after 50 years, and no illegal Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank, if Israel hadn’t started the 1967 war with its act of aggression against Egypt and used the opportunity to engage in land-grabbing in pursuit of the Zionist dream of establishing Jewish control over all of the territory of historic Palestine.
“In 1967”, Stephens concludes, “Israel was forced into a war against enemies who then begrudged it the peace.”
In 1967, rather, Israel chose to wage war against its neighbors and then attempted to use occupied territory as a bargaining chip to draw concessions from Egypt and Syria, such as acquiescence to Israel’s rejection of the right of Palestinians who were made refugees by the Zionists’ ethnic cleansing of Palestine to return to their homeland.
In the words of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, just as in 1956, “In June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
Defending Israel’s Occupation Regime
Stephens rounds out his retelling of how the 1967 war was begun by summarizing the history since then with repetition of additional standard talking points of Zionist propaganda.
“In 1973 Egypt and Syria unleashed a devastating surprise attack on Israel,” he writes—by which he means that Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces occupying, respectively, the Egyptian territory of the Sinai Peninsula and of the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights.
He then rolls out the lazy trope (to borrow his phrase) that the Palestinians have nobody to blame but themselves for Israel’s ongoing occupation because they have rejected repeated Israeli offers of statehood under what is euphemistically dubbed the “peace process”.
Stephens characterizes “the Oslo Accords of 1993”—(the second Oslo Accord was signed in 1995, actually, not the same year as the first)—as a “serious” effort to reach a peace agreement. In reality, as I document in my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the US-led so-called “peace process” is the means by which Israel and its superpower benefactor have long blocked implementation of the two-state solution, in favor of which there is otherwise a consensus in the international community.
To illustrate, Stephens writes that, “In 2000, at Camp David, Israel offered [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat a state. He rejected it.”
In fact, what Israel “offered” the Palestinians at Camp David fell far short of sovereignty and Israeli respect for their right to self-determination. Within the proper framework of what each party has a right to under international law—as opposed to the framework adopted under the “peace process” of rejecting the applicability of international law and replacing it with what Israel wants—Israel made precisely zero concessions at Camp David.
Every single concession demanded and made rather came from the Palestinian side, which had already conceded to Israel the 78 percent of the former territory of Palestine on the Israeli side of the 1949 armistice lines (also known as the pre-June 1967 lines or the “Green Line” for the color with which it was drawn on the map).
What Arafat was seeking at Camp David was an agreement that would allow the Palestinians to establish their state in the remaining 22 percent of the territory comprising the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. (Israel’s moves to annex East Jerusalem have been repeatedly recognized by the UN Security Council as illegal, null and void; and it remains under international law “occupied Palestinian territory”, to quote the International Court of Justice on the matter.)
Israel’s “offer” at Camp David included the demand that the Palestinians give up even more of their land by acquiescing to Israel’s annexation of about 9 percent of the occupied West Bank—including East Jerusalem and some of the best land where Israel had established settlements in violation of international law.
Another non-starter for the Palestinians was Israel’s demand that they surrender the right of refugees from the Zionists’ 1948 ethnic cleansing to return to their homeland.
“Our people will not accept less than their rights as stated by international resolutions and international legality”, a frustrated Arafat told US President Bill Clinton.
Contrary to Stephen’s characterization, Israel’s supposedly generous offer at Camp David fell far short of Israeli compliance with international law and respect for Palestinians’ rights.
In the same vein, Stephens writes that, “In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a Palestinian state in Gaza and 93 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected the proposal out of hand.”
He doesn’t bother to explain to readers why the Palestinians should have agreed to accept Israeli annexation of 7 percent of the occupied West Bank, including of course East Jerusalem, as well as the surrender of Palestinian refugees’ internationally recognized right to return to their homeland. (Olmert’s “offer” also consisted of the demand that the Palestinian Authority—the administrative body established under the Oslo Accords to effectively serve as Israel’s collaborator in enforcing the occupation regime—oust Hamas and regain control of Gaza. Limited in the extent of his own collaboration with Israel by the will of the people he claimed to represent, Mahmoud Abbas justifiably dismissed the series of ultimatums dubbed an “offer” as a “waste of time”.)
“In 2005,” Stephens continues, “another right-wing Israeli government removed its soldiers, settlers and settlements from the Gaza Strip. Two years later Hamas seized control of the territory and used it to start three wars in seven years.”
In reality, Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, masterminded by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was simply a means of gaining the political leverage required to expand and further entrench its illegal settlement regime, including the illegal construction of an annexation wall within the occupied West Bank.
It’s true that Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, but what Stephens declines to inform Times readers is that this was a consequence of a joint effort by the US and Israel to overthrow the Hamas-led government after it legitimately gained power through democratic elections the previous year.
To punish the civilian population of Gaza for having voted the wrong way, Israel then implemented a siege of the territory, severely restricting the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza.
The purpose of Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza was summed up by Sharon’s senior advisor Dov Weissglass thus: “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.”
The US government was well aware of Israel’s intent to collectively punish the civilian population of Gaza. A cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv to senior Bush administration officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice relayed that “Israeli officials have confirmed to Embassy officials on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis”—with “humanitarian crisis” being used euphemistically to mean the point at which Gazans would begin to drop dead from outright starvation.
As for the three “wars” Stephens refers to, this is his euphemistic description for Israel’s military assaults intended to inflict further punishment on the defenseless civilian population of Gaza: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
In fact, prior to each of these attacks on Gaza, it was Israel that violated ceasefire agreements with Hamas.
In 2008, for example, while Hamas strictly observed a ceasefire that had gone into effect that June, Israel routinely violated it with its continuation of the blockade, cross-border shootings, and a November 4 incursion that killed six Hamas members.
Its 2012 assault was launched the day after Hamas had again persuaded other military factions to abide by a ceasefire agreement, which Israel used to draw a senior Hamas official out of hiding in order to assassinate him at the start of its planned operation.
And in 2014, by the time the Hamas launched its first rocket attack against Israel, on July 6, Israel had already been bombing Gaza for a week (and rejected Hamas’s efforts through Egyptian mediators to reestablish a ceasefire).
In each of these military assaults on the defenseless Gaza Strip, Israel effectively implemented what its military establishment has dubbed the “Dahiya doctrine”—a reference to the leveling of the Dahiya district of Beirut to collectively punish its civilian population during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon.
It requires a great deal of chutzpah for Brett Stephens to accuse others of “ahistoric nonsense” while himself doing nothing more than regurgitating standard Zionist propaganda and deliberately misleading readers of his New York Times column into believing that it was not Israel that started the June 1967 war.
He reinforces this deception by falsely characterizing Israel as also not having been the party responsible for violating ceasefire agreements with Hamas prior to its operations in Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.
And while Stephens tries to defend Israel’s ongoing occupation by characterizing the Palestinians as unreasonably rejecting its supposed offers of peace, the reality is that the Palestinian leadership has long accepted the two-state solution, which has since its inception been rejected by Israel and its superpower benefactor, the government of the United States of America.
This article was originally published at Foreign Policy Journal.