Posts Tagged Six-Day War

Ben-Gurion and land for (true) peace

In the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, Israel’s founder is made to seem eager to exchange territory for peace. That was in 1968, when he was 82 and long out of power. We see him say this to an interviewer: “If I could choose between peace and all the territories that we conquered last year [in the Six-Day War], I would prefer peace.” (Excluded: Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)

In my April essay at Mosaic Magazine, I showed that Ben-Gurion had a very different take on territory back in May 1948, when he declared Israel’s independence from the pinnacle of his political and analytical power. But what about the later Ben-Gurion?

In my “last word” in the month-long discussion of my essay, I track his thinking on Israel’s borders, from the later months of 1948 through 1972, the year before his death. It turns out that the quote in the film, torn from its context, is utterly misleading. I restore the context, and you may be surprised to discover where the “Old Man” ended up.

In the course of telling that story, I touch on a few of the most interesting points raised by my distinguished respondents: Efraim Karsh, Benny Morris, and Avi Shilon. I’m grateful for their insights.

“Israel’s Situation Today Looks Much as Ben-Gurion Envisioned It,” my “last word”—read it right here.

Ben-Gurion in his study

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    MLK and the Six-Day War

    As veteran readers of this blog are aware, over the years, I’ve researched Martin Luther King, Jr. and Israel, and twice reported my findings. I traced King’s famous quote on anti-Zionism, and revealed why King canceled a planned visit to Israel. A chapter in my new book The War on Error now completes the trilogy, examining what King said in confidence about Israel’s Six-Day War victory.

    Now, courtesy of my publisher Transaction, you can read this chapter online, just in time for Martin Luther King Day. Go here. “I think the Israelis will have to have access to the Gulf of Aqaba,” said King after Israel’s victory. “I mean the very survival of Israel may well depend on access to not only the Suez Canal, but the Gulf and the Strait of Tiran. These things are very important. But…” The rest of the quote at the link.

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      Was “Censored Voices” censored?

      This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on November 24.

      Censored Voices posterCensored Voices, the manipulative documentary film by Israeli director Mor Loushy on the Six-Day War, had its U.S. theatrical release last Friday. It’s now playing in Manhattan and Bethesda, Maryland, and it will open in Los Angeles this weekend. Loushy, it will be recalled, resurrects conversations among Israeli soldiers recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War. Some of these testimonies were published a short time later in a book called Soldiers’ Talk. But Loushy retrieved material which had been omitted from Soldiers’ Talk—according to her, by order of the Israeli military censor, partly because the soldiers discussed Israeli war crimes. These weren’t just a few redlined paragraphs: the censor, Loushy alleges, cut seventy percent of the original testimonies.

      As I showed at Mosaic Magazine over the summer, this quantified claim is entirely bogus. It’s an out-of-thin-air “statistic” that seems to have been fabricated in order to boost the marketing of the film. And it still works. See, for example, the latest review by film critic Daniel M. Gold in the New York Times: “The Israeli military permitted only about 30 percent of the material to be published then.” What’s the evidence for this claim, aside from the bald assertion of the filmmakers? None whatsoever. I won’t repeat my forensic analysis of who did censor the voices—go to my Mosaic piece for the full story. It matters because the relentless repetition of this mythical number is exemplary of the filmmaker’s propensity for elision and distortion in her spin of the Six-Day War itself.

      Now that the film is out, I want to pose a different question. Was Censored Voices, the film now on the American big screen, censored by the Israeli military censor? Loushy suggested as much to New York Times correspondent Judi Rudoren, who reported on the film in a news piece back in January, after the film premiered at the Sundance film festival:

      She [Loushy] was deep into the project before she discovered that the film, too, would be subject to censorship, she said.

      Israel forbids the filmmakers to reveal how much they were forced to change, and the military censor’s office refused to discuss it.

      “For us as a society to mend and to improve ourselves, we can’t censor,” Ms. Loushy said. “I think it’s important that we look the truth in the eyes.”

      Rudoren’s wording suggested that the censor had indeed “forced” changes; the only question was “how much,” and that couldn’t be known because Loushy was gagged and the censor wouldn’t talk. Critics of Israel immediately seized upon this passage to claim that Israel was still censoring some of the same voices it had allegedly censored nearly fifty years ago. At the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, far-left academic Stephen R. Shalom wrote this:

      Rudoren’s article also provides the significant information that even Censored Voices was censored and hence doesn’t tell the full story of the war crimes that occurred: “Israel forbids the filmmakers to reveal how much they were forced to change, and the military censor’s office refused to discuss it.”

      Loushy’s next reference to censorship of her film came in a March interview:

      Unfortunately, I had to submit my film to the censorship, like all filmmakers in Israel. Luckily it was only minimally censored. Maybe Israeli censorship has become much more liberal since 1967.

      According to Loushy, then, the “much more liberal” censor still had compelled her to take some small amount of material out of the film. In some way, however “minimal,” Israel continued to silence voices.

      So it stood until this fall, when Loushy began to talk about her encounter with the censor. In an October interview at a London film festival, she said that she couldn’t say much about it, but “the film wasn’t censored at all, eventually” (here at minute 3:00). Then this month, at another film festival in New York, she gave a fuller account. Setting aside the unverifiable details in her dramatic telling, the bottom line was this: “Eventually, the film was not censored at all” (here at minute 19:00). Not only did the film make it past the censor with no changes. According to Loushy, this outcome was settled before the Sundance premiere—and, so, before Rudoren’s article appeared.

      If so, then why did Loushy lead Rudoren to believe that the censor might have “forced” changes in the film? (That prompted Rudoren to put in a query to the censor.) And why did Loushy say, in a subsequent interview, that the film had been censored, “minimally”? Why has she not consistently repeated this simple sentence: “The film was not censored at all”? I haven’t an answer to these questions.

      I do know that the notion of Israel as the ever-vigilant censor, forever “silencing” voices, is the convenient bogeyman of Censored Voices. Israel censored then, and it censors now. But in truth, both then (as I showed in my long piece) and even more so now (as Loushy admits), censorship in Israel isn’t a diktat, it’s a negotiation. If you’re savvy and pushy, and don’t traffic in military secrets or classified information, you can get nearly everything approved (the case of Soldiers’ Talk, the book), or even the whole thing approved (the case of Censored Voices, the film).

      Despite the doubts that envelope this film, it keeps marching on. Reviews in the American Jewish press have been admiring, and Jewish reviewers have gushed enthusiastically in the Washington Post (“an essential documentary”) and the New York Times (“an essential amendment to the historical record”). All of which is more proof that liberal American Jews remain vulnerable to bedtime stories of Israeli misdeeds and cover-ups, provided they’re accompanied by we-have-sinned chest thumping and end-the-occupation agitprop.

      Censored Voices has qualified for the big field in the running for an Oscar. Stay tuned.

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        Israel likes its U.S. presidents strong

        The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

        What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

        Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

        Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

        Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

        2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

        “Not worth five cents”

        Eban and Johnson, May 26, 1967

        What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

        Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

        President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

        We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

        If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

        The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

        Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

        Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

        In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

        I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

        I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

        The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

        The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

        After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing.

        There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

        “Too big for business as usual”

        In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

        In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

        Views differ differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, should it conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

        And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

        Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

        As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

        That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has urged that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

        Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

        This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 17. 

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          1967 and memory

          How did the outcome of 1967 change the way Arabs think about themselves and the world? It was the late Malcolm Kerr, one of America’s leading Arabists at the time, who perfectly summarized the consensus. (Kerr was a UCLA professor, later president of the American University of Beirut, who was killed there in 1984.) He put it thus, in a famous passage written only about four years after the 1967 war:

          Since June, 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days most Arabs refused to take themselves very seriously, and this made it easier to take a relaxed view of the few who possessed intimations of some immortal mission. It was like watching Princeton play Columbia in football on a muddy afternoon. The June War was like a disastrous game against Notre Dame which Princeton impulsively added to its schedule, leaving several players crippled for life and the others so embittered that they took to fighting viciously among themselves instead of scrimmaging happily as before.

          I leave aside the identification of the Arabs with Princeton. Kerr was a Princetonian, but so am I, and I would have preferred to identify the Arabs with Columbia, for all sorts of reasons. But it is the way Kerr contrasts pre-1967 with post-1967 Arab politics that is striking—and misleading. Even in 1967, Arab politics hadn’t been “fun” in a very long time: as early as the 1940s, they had become a serious and deadly game of costly wars and bloody coups. True, Kerr was writing in the aftermath of Black September in Jordan, a time when Arab politics seemed to have come completely unhinged. But the idea that 1967 put an end to the “good old days” of Arabs “scrimmaging happily” was a pure piece of nostalgic romance in the grand Arabist tradition.

          Unfortunately, such nostalgia is seductive. For years, it has been at the root of a notion that persists even today: if we could somehow undo the 1967 war—if we could undo the injury inflicted in those six days—we could put the Middle East back to where it was in the “good old days.” In this view, the Arabs and the world could have “fun” again if only we could erase the Arab memory of that war—by erasing its every consequence.

          But the “good old days” analysis is entirely false, and not only in its distortion of Arab politics prior to 1967. It is false because it overlooks how the 1967 trauma trimmed the ideological excess of the pre-war period, and opened the way to pragmatic Arab acceptance of Israel.

          That ideological excess, known as pan-Arabism or Nasserism, rested upon a prior sense of injury, in which 1948 played the major part. In that earlier war, Israel succeeded in defeating or holding off an array of Arab armies, and three quarters of a million Palestinian Arab refugees ended up in camps. The injury of 1948 was so deep that, over the following twenty years—Kerr’s “good old days”—there was no peace process. The Arabs nursed their wounds and dreamed only of another round.

          1948 also had a profoundly destabilizing effect on Arab politics. Three coups took place in Syria in 1949, and often thereafter; Jordan’s King Abdullah was assassinated (by Palestinians) in 1951; Free Officers toppled the monarchy in Egypt in 1952. Everywhere, the 1948 regimes were faulted for their failure to strangle Israel at birth. Military strongmen seized power in the name of revolution, and promised to do better in the next round. Those “good old days” were in fact very bad days, during which Arab politics became militarized in the certainty and even desirability of another war with Israel.

          In 1967, the other war came, and these regimes suffered a far more devastating defeat, delivered in a mere six days. Unlike 1948, when they had lost much of Palestine, in 1967 they lost their own sovereign territory. The shock wave, it is generally assumed, was even greater.

          Yet what is telling is that the regimes didn’t fall. Nasser offered his resignation, but the crowds filled the streets and demanded that he stay on—and he did. The defense minister and air force commander of Syria, Hafez Asad, held on and ousted his rival two years later, establishing himself as sole ruler. King Hussein of Jordan, who had lost half his kingdom, also survived, as did the Jordanian monarchy. The only regime that failed to withstand the shock waves of 1967 was Lebanon’s, and Lebanon hadn’t even joined the war. Kerr wrote that 1967 had left the Arab players “crippled for life.” In the three Arab states that lost the war, the regimes survived, the leaders ruled for life, and they are now being succeeded by their sons.

          What explains the fact that 1967 didn’t destabilize the Arab system as 1948 did? It is true that even before 1967, these regimes had started to harden themselves. The evolution of the Arab state as a “republic of fear” dates from the decade before 1967, and this probably helped regimes weather the storm. Unlike in 1948, there weren’t many refugees either—the Arab states lost territory, but the war was quick, and most of the inhabitants of the lost territory stayed in their homes.

          But I believe the reason 1967 didn’t destabilize the Arab order is this: Arab regimes and peoples drew together in the fear that Israel could repeat 1967 if it had to, and that it might show up one day on the outskirts of Cairo or Damascus (as it threatened to do in 1973), or come right into an Arab capital (as it did in Beirut in 1982).

          The memory of 1967 thus became the basis of an implicit understanding between the regimes and the peoples: the regimes will avert war, and in return the people will stay loyal, even docile. The regimes have upheld their end, by gradually coming to terms with Israel, and by leaving the Palestinians to fight their own fight. Pan-Arabism—which largely meant sacrificing for the Palestinians—faded away because no Arabs were prepared to risk losing a war for them. The skill of rulers in averting war has helped to secure and entrench them.

          I call this understanding implicit—it doesn’t have an ideological underpinning. Pragmatism rarely does. But the evidence for it is that no Arab state has entered or stumbled into war with Israel in over thirty years. The memory of the 1967 trauma has been translated into a deep-seated aversion to war, which underpins such peace and stability as the region has enjoyed. 1967 thus marks the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict—the conflict between Israel and Arabs states, which had produced a major war every decade. 1973 marks the end of the end, in which two Arab states stole back some honor and territory, precisely so they could lean back and leave Israelis and Palestinians to thrash out their own differences. This narrower Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a sore, but its costs have been limited compared to a state-to-state war.

          It is important to note that pan-Arabism did survive elsewhere in the Arab world, where its illusions continued to exact a very high cost. I refer to Baathist Iraq, which wasn’t defeated in 1967, and where pan-Arabism continued to constitute one of the ideological pillars of the regime, vis-à-vis Iran and the West. There it also led to miscalculation, war, and defeat, on a truly massive scale. The Iraq wars—there have been three in the last three decades—provide a striking contrast to the relative stability in Israel’s corner of the Middle East—a stability which rests, I suggest, on the Arab memory of 1967, which restructured Arab thinking in the states surrounding Israel, away from eager anticipation of war, and toward anxiously averting it.

          So in regard to Arab politics, I have offered a possible revision of the usual view of 1967: perhaps its memory, far from making the Arabs angry and volatile, underpins the stability of the Arab order and regional peace. If so, then perhaps we should recall it as a year of net benefit all around—as compared, say, to 1979, the year of Iran’s revolution, or 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The impact of 1967 was to create a new balance, and push ideology to the margins of politics. The impact of 1979 and 2003 has been to unbalance the region and strengthen radical ideologies. 1967 ultimately produced a process that led to the finalizing of borders between states. The combined impact of 1979 and 2003 threatens to erase borders from the map.

          The risk today, over forty years later, is not that the consequences of 1967 are still with us. It is that memory of 1967 is starting to fade, and its legacy is being eroded. I am struck by the subtitles of the two leading books on 1967. Michael Oren’s is June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Tom Segev’s goes even further: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. If only it were so. The problem is that the Middle East continues to be remade and transformed by subsequent events, whose legacy is much more damaging than the legacy of 1967.

          What then happens when the Arab world is dominated by generations that no longer remember 1967 or, more importantly, no longer think Israel capable of reenacting it? What memories are replacing the memory of 1967? The 2006 summer war in Lebanon? (To rework Kerr’s analogy, that was like Columbia playing Notre Dame to a draw.) Without the memory of that defeat of forty years ago, the ranks of the Islamists could swell with people who imagine victory. Without the fear of war, peoples could turn away from those rulers who have made peace—away from the implicit understanding that underpins order. Will it be possible to build stability and peace on other memories, or other promises?

          This post originally appeared at Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) on November 13, 2008. Earlier versions were delivered at two conferences in Jerusalem last year, marking the 40th anniversary of the war.