The survival of their nation was on the line as Israeli war jets took off to bomb Egypt's air force on the ground.
The pre-emptive strikes worked.
Arab states -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan -- were threatening a war of annihilation 40 years ago this week.
What they got instead was a war of humiliation.
The lightning-fast Six Day War, fought from June 5 to June 10 in 1967, proved both Israel's military pre-eminence and its durability as a nation. Arab dreams of being able to lead displaced Palestinians back to homes lost during the 1948 Israeli war of independence were at an end.
Israel was able for the first time to consider its longer-term future -- with immense swaths of seized land in the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that it could trade for peace.
In America, the spectacle of a plucky underdog cornering Soviet- armed adversaries stirred popular admiration, leading to an enduring U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership and the beginning of U.S. engagement in the search for a Middle East peace.
"As evidence of the continuing progress is the fact that I, as a [former] American official, can say Palestine' almost without wincing," says retired U.S. Ambassador Charlie Dunbar, referring to the name of a future Palestinian state. In a diplomatic career spanning four decades, Dunbar was one of the State Department's most accomplished Arabic speakers.
Yet neither Israel nor the Arab states quite got what they expected from the Six Day War.
And its legacies -- in occupied land, assertive Palestinian national ism and the expanded use of asymmetric terrorist warfare -- remain with us today.
"Rarely in modern times has so short and localized a conflict had such prolonged, global consequences," writes historian Michael Oren in the 2002 introduction to "Six Days of War," his book on the conflict.
Israel quelled doubts about its ability to survive and it reunited Jerusalem, an important goal. But it couldn't control the war's aftermath, when instead of suing for peace, Arab states redoubled preparations for war.
As a young U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia, Wat Cluverius watched Saudis try to mend their bruised sense of honor by pretending it was U.S. military jets that had bombed the Arabs into submission.
"They fooled themselves as much as anybody else," says Cluverius, immediate past president and ambassador-in-residence for the Cleveland Council on World Affairs.
Photographs of Israeli women sol diers guarding captured Egyptian soldiers encapsulated the humiliation for many Arabs.
Israel's legendary defense minister, Ezer Weisman, architect of the pre-emptive air strikes that won the war, was even prompted to ask, "What were you people thinking?" says outgoing law Professor Amos Guiora of Case Western Reserve University.
Guiora, who studied the war as an Israeli army officer in the 1980s and early 1990s, now has a 19-year-old daughter in the Israeli military. He leaves Case at month's end to take a teaching position at the University of Utah.
"The Arabs were so ashamed by their defeat at the hands of this little state that was supposed to be inferior to the forces of Allah" that they decided they couldn't negotiate until their honor was restored, says Mitchell Bard, author of the forthcoming "Will Israel Survive?" and director of the online Jewish Virtual Library.
Yet the war also "laid the predicate for a diplomatic process," says Aaron David Miller, formerly of Cleveland, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab- Israeli negotiations. In 1973, the Yom Kippur War gave Arab nations what they considered a victory, so they did begin to sit down to talk about peace, says Miller, now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
The Six Day War also created a new predicate for hostilities.
"Palestinians became heroes," says Miller, ". . . and emerged as bona fide sources of hope for hundreds of millions of humiliated Arabs."
The result has transformed the threat into a conflict between Israel and radical Islam, "and that's very different, and very difficult to fight, because you can't fight with conventional armies," says Bard.
And today, what with Iranian nuclear ambitions, a destabilized Lebanon and an Iraq tipping into civil war, the Middle East has become vastly more complicated and resistant to easy solutions, the experts agree.
Yet the key in the door remains the Palestinians' plight and what Israel proposes to do about occupied lands that no longer reside in a peace bank, but instead have become part of its political and strategic landscape.
"That is the key to unlocking doors on these other fronts" -- Iraq and Lebanon -- says retired diplomat Henry Precht, who served on the State Department's Iran desk during the Iranian revolution.
Re-engaging evenhandedly in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process "empowers our friends, helps us to marginalize our enemies and more importantly, takes away an issue that is used to stir up tremendous anger at the United States," says Miller.
"In my view, it is very irresponsible for anyone who pretends to be a steward of American security not to do everything they can in managing it."
"Never before has the security of the continental United States been more vulnerable to what happens in the Arab or Muslim East," Miller adds. "Anybody who argues the contrary does not understand the generational character of the threat we face."
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer