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“They Did It”: How The Economist Reported Israel’s 1967 Victory

“They Did It.” Thus ran the laconic headline of The Economist on June 10, 1967, above a grainy, black-and white photograph of an Israeli tank behind rubble. In six days, Israel had tripled in size by conquering the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Desert and Golan Heights—and the British newspaper crowed with triumph.

This Jerusalem Day, one year before the fiftieth anniversary of this historic pivot, offers a special opportunity to look back at how a major actor in the foreign media celebrated Israel’s “astonishing” and “brilliant” victory. “Nothing quite like this has happened since John Kennedy pulled the rug from under Nikita Khrushchev over Cuba in 1962,” wrote the dazzled editors. Looking back, it is difficult to believe that Western media coverage of Israel was ever so nauseatingly gushing. “Israel’s tank commanders are unusually bright and tough,” kvelled the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent. “Israel has the most intelligent [infantry] sergeants in the world.”

The Six-Day War concluded on June 10, but The Economist had already gone to print when it appeared that Israel had won a “two-day campaign,” before the final push on the Golan Heights in the final days. Indeed, the paper warned—and this as the ceasefire came into effect on all fronts—that “unless the Syrians follow the Egyptian example, they will be clobbered (and rightly) by the Israelis too.”

In assigning responsibility for the war, The Economist was unambiguous in endorsing the Israeli position. If the decision to go to war is a calculation of expected loss of life from combat versus inaction, it is “difficult to argue that they [the Israelis] were wrong” in light of Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s threats to commit a massacre. Egyptian and Syrian leaders, therefore, were singularly to blame for “not behaving like sane men.”

Looking forward, The Economist argued that Israel would have to cede territories it had captured. Here, the editorial line was confused. On the one hand, the editors argued that Israelis were “entitled to use their victory to get some rock-solid security within their present frontiers,” and were moreover “in a position to insist on it.” But on the other, The Economist was not talking about a comprehensive, final settlement as a condition for withdrawals. Instead, Israel should make an “initial act of self-abnegation” after receiving some basic concessions: namely, “safe[ty] from Syrian guerrillas” and “guarantees of safe access to Eilat,” either by an Israeli position at the Tiran straits or an international force that Egypt would not be at liberty to expel again.

Indeed, The Economist wrote that a final peace agreement was “best discussed when the Israelis have [already] pulled their troops back inside their borders. Moreover, the paper was skeptical that Israel could receive formal recognition of its existence from the Arab states in the context of such agreements, though “it is not impossible that the Arabs can be gradually coaxed in this direction.” Israel, of course, ultimately achieved precisely this by conditioning territorial withdrawals on such recognition and a conclusive peace.

The key lesson of previous wars such as World War I, pontificated the editors, was that “the winning side is storing up trouble for itself if it insists on grinding the loser’s face into the dirt.” As such, The Economist speculated that while “there may just possibly be Arabs who are beginning to tell themselves…that Israel as they know it is too strong to be removed from the maps,” the Arabs would no doubt “get ready for the next round” if those maps include an expanded Israel, with which they could never reconcile. Although it would “no doubt be tempting” to permanently annex the conquered territories, the “reply [of the international community] should [therefore] be quite plain: a permanent expansion of Israel is out of the question.”

There is no reference to international law or the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination (they are not mentioned once in the editorial, other than in context of the Arab refugee problem). Instead, the logic for Israeli magnanimity was based on realpolitik. As such, The Economist endorsed a surprising degree of flexibility on the question of the retention of territory. Calling for “minor border changes where the old cease-fire lines violate common sense,” it endorsed changes that in today’s climate do not sound quite so minor: “The Israelis have a good claim to the old city of Jerusalem, and they are now in occupation of it; they will probably stay there,” it argued, asking Israel to accept the internationalization of the holy sites.

Israel’s victory, The Economist argued, had global ramifications. By denying Nasser a victory and thereby the means to uniting the Arab world, Israel denied the Soviet Union “a position of enormous influence” in the Middle East. Such preponderance would have given the USSR the upper hand in the Cold War, making life “a lot more uncomfortable for the West” across the globe. “Mankind has reason to be grateful that the speed of Israel’s glittering victory has averted the immediate danger of a start of the super-clobbering,” wrote the editors in adulation.

But perhaps the most powerful conclusion in The Economist’s coverage was the recognition of the Six-Day War as a watermark in Jewish history. “What matters,” concluded the Jerusalem correspondent, “is that Israel can look anyone in the eye anywhere in the world. For Jewry to be envied: that is a change indeed.”

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.

[Photo: David Rubinger]