“Overtaken by Events” was the title a professor in graduate school gave a memoir of his years as a U.S. diplomat.
That phrase aptly describes the difficulty of staying well-informed these days, and I say this as someone who spent many years relatively close to the center of a large news-gathering operation.
Technological advances have increased the volume of news generated around the world and the speed at which it’s transmitted. Unfortunately, technology cannot produce more time to evaluate that enhanced flow.
Evidence that keeping up with and assessing critical information were no less a challenge 50 years ago can be found in the deliberations of Israel’s government before, during and after the June 1967 Six-Day War.
The online magazine Tablet has published reviews (Part 1 and Part 2) by Israel’s state archivist of hundreds of pages of transcripts from within the inner circle of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government from January to July 1967.
“The very point of their committee (the Security Cabinet) was to manage Israel’s military challenges. Yet none of the ministers saw the approaching war until it was almost upon them; not a single one of them foresaw its outcome,” Yaakov Lozowick wrote.
By the night of Saturday, May 27, “key world leaders were all demanding Israel not attack; the ministers all knew war was inevitable but couldn’t agree on a course of action. If we attack first, what will the international cost be? If we’re hit first, how many lives will we pay with? (Many thousands, they expected.) If we wait, what do we gain? At what cost? If we don’t wait — at what cost?”
On Sunday, June 4, “one after another, each of the ministers had his say. All agreed war was inevitable. Most tried to justify the waiting period, hoping Israel had gained credibility in the eyes of the world. Haim Gvati gently mocked his hesitant colleagues: ‘I’m surprised by those who think the great powers will ever, ever say to us that the time has come and we can attack our enemies. They never will.’ ”
Israel launched a pre-emptive strike the next day, decimating Egypt’s air force, then responded to attacks by Jordanian and Syrian forces.
The surprising pace of battlefield successes made political debate something of an afterthought.
“Perhaps the single most important decision in millennia — that the Jews should rule in Jerusalem — was probably made early on June 7 by Moshe Dayan (the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, named defense minister as the war began), not by Israel’s government. Because the IDF was already advancing deep into the West Bank, the government simply OK’d an advance that had already happened in the heat of battle. The most portentous decision in Israel’s history, to control the entire Land of Israel and its Arab population, was made almost in a fit of absent-mindedness,” Lozowick wrote.
On June 15, the Cabinet began discussing a previously unimaginable future, starting with the fate of Arabs living in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City since 1948.
“By meeting’s end, it was decided to reunite Jerusalem and to prepare a plan for the removal of the Arabs in the Jewish Quarter to alternative homes in Jerusalem or its vicinity. Even before beginning the discussion about the territories, the future of Jerusalem had been decided,” Lozowick wrote.
“Just as Israel’s Cabinet ministers never foresaw their crushing military victory, so they never foresaw the decades we’ve been living in since. As they convened for their first postwar discussion, it never crossed their minds they were forging a conundrum that would remain unsolved for generations,” the archivist wrote.
Now that the 50th anniversary of the war has passed, Israel looks to its 70th birthday next year. The issues on Israel’s front burner in 1967 remain on the front burner today and have become no less vexing. No crystal ball can predict whether, 50 years in the future, this conundrum will have been solved. What will remain constant is the struggle by decision-makers to avoid being overtaken by events.