January 24, 2019

Political lessons for June

Two big things are happening in the coming week: the California primary and the 49th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Absolutely no relation? Think again. There are lessons in what happened on June 5, 1967, that can help guide the decisions we make on June 7, 2016, and in November.

We all know about the election, but a quick refresher on the war: In the months leading up to June 1967, tensions mounted between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Dozens of terror attacks by Palestinian fedayeen plagued Israel’s northern border, followed by Israeli reprisals. Egypt massed tanks and troops on Israel’s southern borders, expelled United Nations peacekeeping troops from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli vessels, a clear act of war. Egypt sent fighter jets over Israel’s nascent nuclear weapons installation at Dimona, and Egypt, Syria and, eventually, Jordan signed a mutual pact to create a united Arab front against the 19-year-old state. 

As Arab leaders envisioned a victory lunch in Tel Aviv and Arab mobs in the streets called for “Death to the Jews,” Israelis waited for the inevitable attack. Though Israel held a qualitative military edge, the combined Arab nations had several times Israel’s number of planes, guns, tanks and soldiers. Israel had no margin for error.

“The vast array of Arab forces on all of Israel’s borders, combined with the anti-Zionist frenzy sweeping the Arab world, produced a momentum for Israel’s destruction that no Arab leader could resist,” Michael Oren says in an interview addendum in his book, “Six Days of War” (2002), the best history on the subject.

Then, at dawn on June 5, 1967, the Israelis launched “Operation Focus,” a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. Within hours, the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan lay in smoldering ruins. By the last day of the war, Israel had captured territories four times its former size. The war changed the map of the Middle East — of the world — in ways so profound, the fight over the spoils of that conflict continue to this day.

So what are the lessons?

Leadership Matters

Let’s start with Levi Eshkol. He was prime minister of Israel during the war and seemed to be a nebbish, a kind of nothing. At least, that’s what most Israelis thought of him. He was soft-spoken and deliberate, a shtetl-born, Yiddish-speaking bureaucrat who had none of the charisma or youth of the younger generation of sabras like Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. One joke about Eshkol — there was literally a whole book of them — was that when a stewardess asked Eshkol if he preferred coffee or tea, he responded, “I’ll take half and half.”

Yet, in hindsight, Eshkol is the unsung hero of the war. He held out against his generals’ and his Cabinet’s repeated calls for action in order to give America and the rest of the world a chance to intervene diplomatically. What looked like dithering insecurity was actually a keen awareness that, after the war, Israel would still need to rely on foreign leaders and international opinion to rearm and maintain security.

Experience Matters

Eshkol knew the nation’s infrastructure because he’d helped build it. He was a man of wide learning and substance. Dayan, Rabin and other generals were already battle-tested. The other men and women at Israel’s helm at its moment of greatest crisis were seasoned military, political and national leaders. If it had been amateur hour in Israel’s war room, it would have been lights out.

Strategy Matters

One huge difference between the bellicose Arab leaders and the Israelis was that the Israelis had a plan. The Arab leaders gave blood-boiling speeches that whipped up the crowds and played like gangbusters on television. Eshkol could barely orate — he fumfered his way through one infamous radio address. But the Israelis had spent five years meticulously and quietly perfecting a first-strike capability should the need arise. Eshkol didn’t focus on empty promises and big speeches, but on policies and plans.

Allies Matter

As the noose tightened around Israel’s neck, Eshkol’s reason for waiting and waiting can be summed up in two words: Lyndon Johnson. Eshkol understood that a small country — every country, for that matter — needs friends. Privately, Eshkol was livid with Johnson for his refusal to push for a diplomatic or international solution to the crisis. But to his generals, he made the case that without Johnson’s tacit “green light,” Israel would be alone in battle, and in victory. It was a smart move. Once war broke out, Johnson kept the Soviets from rushing to Egypt’s side. When the war was over, America swung firmly into Israel’s camp. Of the billions of dollars America has given Israel in foreign aid, the vast majority came after 1967.

So those are the lessons. Sure, the crises of today may not be as immediate as the one Israel faced, or the solutions as lightning-quick. But our challenges — from nuclear weapons to climate change — are no less existential.

Feel free to decide which of the candidates for president of the United States best understands and could follow these lessons. I’m not naming any names. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman