This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. In these six days, Israel overcame an existential threat from encircling Arab armies and reunified its historic capital, Jerusalem. Israeli authorities immediately abolished Jordanian restrictions on access to the Old City and have since ensured that Jews, Christians and Muslims can worship at their respective holy places. The Jewish state also remains undeterred in its desire for peace. Israel made significant security and territorial compromises to achieve historic peace treaties with two former Six-Day-War adversaries—Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994—to the great benefit of all three countries.
At AIPAC’s Policy Conference in March, three prominent Israeli figures—Michael Oren, Nir Barkat, and Yossi Klein Halevi—spoke about the war and its impact. Times of Israel founding editor David Horowitz moderated the discussion. The video can be found here. Below is a transcript of the panel’s remarks as delivered:
David Horovitz: “Fifty years ago, Israel fought a war for its survival. By the summer of 1967, 250,000 Arab troops amassed on Israel’s borders. Forced to protect its people, Israel mounted a pre-emptive strike. Over just six days, Israel defeated the Egyptian air force, retook the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and reunified the city of Jerusalem.
“The Six-Day War redefined Israel and American Jewry’s relationship with the young Jewish state. So tonight we come together to discuss the war, and its impact…
“With us this evening to talk about the Six-Day War and its impact are three incredible guests. Michael Oren is the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, as some of you may know, and now serves a member of Knesset and as the deputy minister for diplomacy in the prime minister's office. He's also the author of Six Days of War, one of the most highly regarded books on the Six-Day War. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, again, Ambassador Michael Oren.
“Nir Barkat left an impressive career in the high-tech industry to enter politics. He's not only a native of the city of Jerusalem, but he is currently serving his second term as its mayor. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat.
“And Yossi Klein Halevi is one of Israel's leading authors and thinkers. His book Like Dreamers chronicles the story of the Israeli paratroopers who reunified Jerusalem. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Yossi Klein Halevi.
“Nir, let's start with you. You were the only one of the four of us actually living in Jerusalem during the war. What do you remember of the days leading up to and during the war?”
Nir Barkat: “Well, I was seven years old and I remember, pre-war, helping the soldiers dig trenches and fill sandbags right around my home. We were a few hundred yards from the demilitarized zone separating between Jordan and Israel, and we were shelled and bombed, and I remember our parents put my brother and I underneath the beds. And when I think about it today, the risk we were at is hard to believe.
“We were shelled and bombed. Some of our neighbors were wounded and I remember going out after the war to see the wrecks around our home. And then, I saw the adults cry and I couldn't understand why the adults were crying when we won the war. The excitement, then, from an eyes of a seven-year-old, it took me years to understand the huge opportunity that we have by reuniting the city of Jerusalem. And until today, I pinch myself every morning when I go to work on the huge opportunity and the honor we have to live in our era in a united city of Jerusalem.”
David Horovitz: “Michael, you literally wrote the book on the Six-Day War. Many people in this room, I'm sure, know the basics of what happened, but you're an expert. So what do you know about the war that you wish other people knew?”
Michael Oren: “Okay. Thank you, David. Shalom, AIPAC, first of all. The book that I wrote was full of revelations for me. I grew up not in Jerusalem, but in the United States, and I remember my parents sitting in front of a television set during those three horrible weeks of waiting before the war broke out and tearing their hair out. I remember this. Thinking that we would witness another Holocaust within a single generation and the world would do absolutely nothing.
“Israel, a country which had indefensible borders, eight miles wide, Jerusalem divided, surrounded by Arab armies on all sides that swore to drive us into the sea. We had a friendship with the United States, but not a strategic alliance with the United States. Israel fought with French bullets and the French, on the evening of the war, switched sides.”
David Horovitz: “Right.”
Michael Oren: “Fighting against a Soviet bloc of countries, against China; even a hostile India. It's hard to imagine today Israel completely alone in the world and six days later, everything changed.
“A great revelation for me was encountering the great, the almost incalculable depth of fear on behalf of Israel leaders. We read about Moshe Dayan, Levi Eshkol, people we grew up with thinking had no fear anywhere. These people were facing what they believed was an existential threat and you really encountered it reading in the documents.
“But there was one moment when researching the book, which literally, my jaw fell open. It was a document written on June 7th, 1967, at nine o'clock in the morning. At that moment, the Israeli paratroopers had completed the encirclement of the city of Jerusalem. They were on the Mount of Olives waiting the order to in and reach the Kotel. At that moment, Prime Minister of Israel Levi Eshkol wrote a letter to King Hussein of Jordan.
“And he said, Your Majesty—you could do this back then; you could send a letter—Your Majesty, if you agree to a ceasefire, if you agree to entry into peace talks with the State of Israel, the paratroopers will not enter the Old City. Here is the leader of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years who is prepared and poised to reunite the Jewish people with their holiest sites, is willing to give up that historic opportunity to make peace with one Arab country. Imagine the depth of our commitment to peace. That was extraordinary for me, David.”
David Horovitz: “That is extraordinary. And I'm sure not widely known. Let's pick up on that, Yossi. What most people don't realize is that Israel's plans during the war never included Jerusalem. In fact, Israel made every effort, as we just heard, to keep Jordan out of the war, but they were pulled in by the Egyptians and the Syrians. Yossi, your book, "Like Dreamers," tracks the lives of the Israeli paratroopers who reunified the city. What did you learn?”
Yossi Klein Halevi: “Well, the question that has long preoccupied me about Israeli society is how do we manage to hold together despite the tremendous internal strains that could tear another society apart, especially the left-right debate over the future of Judea and Samaria, the territories; because each camp sees the vision of the other as a kind of existential threat to the country itself.
“And as I was researching the story of Brigade 55, which liberated the Wall, I realized that some of the leaders of both the future settlement movement and the future peace movement were sharing the same metaphorical tent, the same army tent, and in some cases, literally the same tent. And so the extraordinary inner story of Israel is how we manage to pull together. We do reserve duty every year. And then in the intervals between reserve duty, we argue with each other about the consequences of the victory that, the victories that we bring together.
David Horovitz: “This was left and right fought together, liberated Jerusalem, and you think that that most basic of connection prevails still? It still holds us together?”
Yossi Klein Halevi: “Absolutely.”
David Horovitz: “Let me ask you again, Michael, let's start with you, the lasting impact of the war on Israel, in your opinion. The lasting impact of the war.”
Michael Oren: “The lasting impact of war was to change the Middle East, irrevocably, and to create among other things the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance. People forget that we fought this war without that alliance and it was only on the seventh day of the war, as it were, that American policymakers woke up and said, whoa, there's this little superpower in the Middle East that just defeated all these Soviet-backed armies. Maybe we should have an alliance with that country. So in many ways, what you see happening here, David, is a direct product of the Six-Day War.
“The Six-Day War was what gave us peace with Egypt. It's what gave us peace with Jordan. It's what gave us the reunification not only of Jerusalem, but the State of Israel with the Land of Israel, and was a tremendous infusion of Jewish identity, both in Israel and in the United States, indeed throughout the Jewish world. And the Six-Day War gave us security. It gave us secure borders. We didn't have secure borders before that. The State of Israel, the Middle East, in many ways the world would look completely different today without these six short transformative days in June 1967.”
David Horovitz: “Mayor Barkat, Nir.”
Nir Barkat: “I would add to that, that it created internally within Israelis the understanding that we have to win all wars, we have to excel, we have to outsmart an enemy. The whole high-tech sector and the whole bravery of Israeli soldiers comes from the '67 war. Because if we beat all the Arab armies then, it creates a very, very powerful, strong belief in ourselves. And I think that since then, something good has happened to the people—the Israelis—[we are] very willing to be aggressive, seeking peace, but we know how to fight. And that created some very internal powers.
“I, myself, remember the '67 war. When I saw the soldiers, the paratroopers, liberate Jerusalem, that's when I decided to be a paratrooper, and then the company commander in the paratroopers later when I was a young adult. So for me, it was a milestone in Israeli history.”
David Horovitz: “So a moment that sort of cemented a sort of national self-confidence. Yossi?”
Yossi Klein Halevi: “Well, I study the psyche of Israel, the soul of Israel, and so my answer will be a little more abstract. May 1967 bequeathed us a permanent sense of the possibility of vulnerability, the fear of being alone again in the international community, and the sense that the threat of genocide was not exhausted by the Holocaust, which I think was an enormous shock to the Jewish psyche.
“On the other hand, June 1967 bequeathed us this sense of power. Not invulnerability, but certainly the sense that we can protect ourselves quite adequately. And also it conveyed to us a sense of the responsibility of power and the complexity of the consequences of power. And so I feel that the people of Israel are constantly weighing, in some sense, the lessons of May '67 and the lessons of June '67; and how do we apply those lessons to the various challenges that we face.”
David Horovitz: “Nir, that prompts a question to you, really about Jerusalem and that people are hearing the stories of the Jerusalem divided from before the Six-Day War, the separation—and now, a separation of east and west. What are the stories that aren't getting told and how are you continuing to work most specifically to unify the residents of the city?”
Nir Barkat: “Seven days ago, Monday morning, I took seven ambassadors of UNESCO that abstained in the last terrible vote. They wanted to see me in the office. I took them to the City of David to see the Siloam Pool where Jesus blessed the blind. We walked on the stones and I said to them, ‘This is where kings and prophets walked.’ And we went up the paved road that is now uncovered in the City of David and went to a balcony and I showed them the city, the churches, the mosques, the synagogues, that in one square kilometer, we have more holy sites than anywhere else in the world.
“And they were stunned to see not just our past, but how Jerusalem is open, how many people live and breathe in the city, how it works in an amazing way. Then we shared with them what's happening in our high-tech [sector], the fact that Jerusalem just entered the 25 largest cities in high-tech in the world, [in] 2016, and how our high-tech sector is working.
“I would like the world to see what those UNESCO ambassadors saw, what a lot of people in this crowd saw, our roots and our history and our holy sites on one side and the connectivity to the future and making a better world for the benefit of all people from all over the world. This is something we'd like to showcase, and share Jerusalem with the world.”
David Horovitz: “That brings me, really, to the last question I have to ask you, fairly briefly. You know, the traditional gift for a 50th anniversary is gold and, of course, Jerusalem is known as ‘Jerusalem of Gold.’
“So on the golden anniversary of the city's reunification, Michael, let's start with you, what wish do you have for the city's future?”
Michael Oren: “I think Jerusalem should be viewed by the people of the Middle East, and not only by the people of the Middle East, as an example of what can be done, not what can't be done. You know, whether I'm conducting diplomacy in the prime minister's office or representing my Kulanu Party in Knesset, I'm always reminded of the fact that I'm basically a two-hour drive from ISIS. I'm a four or five-hour drive from the civil war in Iraq, three-hour drive from the civil war in Sinai, an hour-and-a-half-drive from Hamas in Gaza.
“And yet, here we are in this capital of Israel, in Knesset, Jews of various stripes and observances and political outlooks, Christians, Muslims, Druze, debating the hardest issues. We debate them loudly and we decide democratically, without anybody raising a fist, much less firing a gun. Jerusalem is an example to the Middle East and the world of what the Middle East can be. Jerusalem, my wish, should be recognized, not just by the United States, but by all of humanity, as a light unto nations.”
David Horovitz: “Beautiful. Nir, very, very briefly. Your hope for the city's future?”
Nir Barkat: “Jerusalem has a role in the world. It's an inclusive role. It's enabling all people from all tribes—mind you that Jerusalem was never divided into tribes—Jews and non-Jews alike, to come and enjoy the holy city of Jerusalem, connect our future to our past, and excel. It can be done, it is being done. I just want to fuel and work faster to fulfill that role year after year even better than we did before.”
David Horovitz: “Beautiful. And Yossi, very briefly and finally.”
Yossi Klein Halevi: “My prayer for Jerusalem, my city, our city, is that the international community will recognize the Jewish people as the legitimate custodian of Jerusalem and that we will see ourselves as the custodians of Jerusalem for humanity.”
David Horovitz: “Ladies and gentlemen, what a wonderful, energizing, invigorating 50th anniversary conversation. Yossi Klein Halevi, Nir Barkat, Michael Oren, thank you very much. Thank you everybody. Thank you.”
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