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The battle between principle and Arab world realpolitik

A small, outnumbered, country waved its fist at a belligerent enemy and demonstrated that the present would not imitate the past.

    “The crowds cheered wildly when the announcement came that 40 Israeli planes had been shot down, then 70 planes and then 86 — against a loss of two to the Egyptians whose pilots were saved.”

    So wrote the Associated Press correspondent in Cairo on 5 June 1967. Fake news has its forefathers.

    Yet such falsehoods deepened the existing fear amongst West Europeans and North Americans that the Shoah was about to be repeated. A Washington Post editorial commented that ‘Israel’s claim upon the western world — more than any specific commitment over the years — makes it unthinkable for the US or its allies, to permit the Jewish state to be destroyed.’

    Governments were caught between public apprehension and their desire to remain on good terms with the Arab states — and thereby ensure the continued flow of oil. On the outbreak of war, there was a spasm of selling on the New York Stock Exchange and the Dow Jones index fell by 2.5% within the first hour of opening. The British Foreign Secretary, George Brown, while proclaiming Israel’s right to exist, was hesitant to commit the UK.

    A spokesman for the State Department summed up this mindset, telling reporters that the US was “neutral in thought, word and deed”. In France De Gaulle refused to stage a parliamentary debate because its outcome might have invalidated his past claims to objectivity.

    The first survey of US citizens during the war indicated that most people actually had no strong feelings for one side or the other. Indeed other current events, such as the death of actor Spencer Tracey or the public appearance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the company of the Queen after decades of ostracism, attracted greater interest. When the respondents were asked if they were more sympathetic to Israel than to the Arabs, 39% of Catholics, 41% of Protestants (and 99% of Jews) replied in the affirmative.

    The Communist, Islamic and developing world blocs broadly lined up in support of Nasser. Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro followed the lead of the Soviet Union. In Beijing, there were demonstrations outside the office of the British chargé d’affaires.

    Just before his defection from Beirut where his cover was as a working journalist, the Soviet spy Kim Philby, had written an adulatory article about Nasser in the Observer. It reflected the Kremlin’s huge investment in Egypt and Syria and its desire to bring the developing world concretely into the Soviet orbit. Yet ironically, due to poor intelligence the KGB only discovered that war had broken out from intercepted Associated Press reports. There was profound anger in Moscow when Israel achieved victory literally within hours.

    According to Guy Laron, a Hebrew University lecturer, Soviet naval forces were ordered to prepare for a landing on the Israeli coast — an order which was later rescinded. The compromise between the competing factions in the Soviet leadership was the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel.

    African states such as Senegal and Mali which Israel had helped in the 1960s came under Arab economic pressure and were therefore critical of Israeli action. Greece traditionally feared for its communities in the Arab world.

    Some on the European Left viewed Israel as a colonial settler state and drew a parallel with White Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Yet other progressives, such as film makers Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini in Italy and the philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, in France, signed public declarations of support for Israel.

    In Britain, the daily papers of the Right – the Telegraph, Express and Mail – were decidedly pro-Israel with The Times more ambivalent. The deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Peregrine Worsthorne, however wrote that Israel’s victory was ‘a magnificent assertion of western civilisation over the backward Arabs’. Chaim Bermant rebuked him in the JC and reminded readers that ‘one of the by-products of western civilisation were the crematoria at Auschwitz’.

    There was a collective sigh of relief by politicians and journalists in the West that the initial cry of the Egyptian street, ‘On to Tel Aviv!’, had not come to pass.

    An outnumbered small country had waved its fist at a belligerent enemy and demonstrated that the present would not imitate the past.

    Read all our coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War' here

    Colin Shindler’s next book The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History will shortly be published by Rowman and Littlefield.

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