The lasting legacy and central remnant of the Six Day War is the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, which continues to fester, and to divide Israeli society.
Fifty years after the start of the Six Day War, it is worth reviewing how this seminal event affected Israelis on a personal and a national level, and continues to have a major effect to this day.
When the war broke out, on June 5, 1967, I was in the fourth grade. I remember with clarity the tense weeks and days that led up to the outbreak of hostilities.
The run up to the conflict was a time marked by great concern, and a total mobilization of the general public, as reserves were called up by the government.
In our Jerusalem neighborhood, as well as around my school, strange things – from a child’s perspective – had begun to happen. Trenches were dug around my playgrounds.
All of the windows were darkened and plastered, and people rushed food stores, stocking up for a war that looked imminent, and whose length was unknown.
Israeli television did not yet exist, and everyone was glued to the radio, hungry for information, and waiting for the someone to inform them that life could return to normal.
But the news reports coming in indicated that the opposite was happening, and that the situation was deteriorating. Egypt had cut off Israel’s naval access in the Red Sea, and had kicked UN peace-keeping forces out of the Sinai Peninsula.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser was making his intentions clear. Egypt mobilized its army to Sinai, and in Cairo, mass demonstrations were held, with the main theme being the destruction of Israel. In the rest of the Arab world, things were not much better.
Yet, on June 5, 50 years ago, the existential fears of Israelis were replaced by a series of shock, lightening battlefield victories, in the skies over the Middle East, and on the ground.
In only six days, the Israeli armed forces defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, as well as forces from Iraq, sent to assist the Jordanians. The war is still viewed as one of the most amazing military campaigns in modern times. Suddenly, Israel had grown in size greatly, and Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s ancient national capital, had been united.
In very little time, the mood in Israel switched from deep concern to euphoria. The soldiers came home to a hero’s welcome, including my older brother, who fought with the Armored Corps that engaged Egyptian forces and reached the Suez Canal, on the southern front.
The IDF’s generals were elevated to celebrities in the country, and their pictures hung in the markets.
Fears of annihilation turned into exuberant relief. Some sought a divine explanation for the military victory of a small, besieged country, over multiple, larger foes.
After the war, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hoped he could trade the lands taken in the conflict – the Golan Heights, Sinai, and the West Bank – for an historic recognition of Israel and peace with the surrounding Arab states.
Eshkol’s hopes were short lived. In August 1967, the Arab states met in Khartoum, Sudan, and adopted a hard-line resolution, issuing the “three no’s”: No recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel.
But this rejectionist Arab stance did not bother Israel very much. The IDF’s military superiority seemed total, and the national borders had moved out, far from the country’s population centers. The belief was that military power canceled out the dangers that stemmed from Arab hostility.
In the years that followed, Egypt and Syria rebuilt their militaries, with enormous Soviet assistance, and in 1973, launched a coordinated surprise attack, knocking Israel off- balance. It took three weeks for Israel to repel the attack and go on the offensive, at a terrible cost – over 3,000 battlefield casualties. The psychological impact of that war reverberates in Israel to this day.
Five years later, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reached an historical peace agreement, in which Israel returned Sinai to Egypt.
Egypt broke away from the Arab consensus, and recognized Israel. In 1994, a year after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, Jordan followed in Egypt’s footsteps, signing a peace deal with Israel.
Jordan, by now, had relinquished all claims to the West Bank, which it controlled between 1948 and 1967.
Nevertheless, during the events of 1967, the seeds for the next phase of some of Israel’s most bitter conflicts – those with the Palestinians – had been planted.
In addition to the Arab rejectionism, there were elements, mainly among Israel’s national religious camp, that were emboldened by Jerusalem’s unification, and Israel’s new control over Judea and Samaria.
They began settling in areas containing biblical sites, where the Jewish nation’s ancient historical story had begun.
Israeli governments at first opposed this push to settle Judea and Samaria, believing that these areas could still be used as bargaining chips to achieve Arab recognition in the future. Records released recently also show that Eshkol and most members of his cabinet were warned of the demographic impact of continued Israeli control of the West bank.
But persistent Arab rejectionism poured cold water on those hopes, and the Israeli Right grew stronger. It established a growing number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and resistance to this by the Israeli governments grew weaker, until it vanished.
This process has continued for decades, leading to a current demographic reality that is starkly different to the one that existed in 1967.
Any future arrangement with the Palestinians will have to take this complex reality into account. The challenge is enormous.
In recent years, among the Israeli Right, there have been a growing number of voices calling for an official policy that rejects any territorial compromise in the West Bank.
These elements are today part of the ruling coalition, and its members include the Jewish Home Party, and parts of the Likud Party.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must take these voices into account, as they are vital for the survival of his government. On the other hand, Netanyahu probably remains committed to a pledge he made to the US and the international community, calling for a two-state solution.
Netanyahu has told Israelis in the past that a two-state solution will prevent a bi-national reality from taking hold, a scenario, he said, that Israel seeks to avoid.
Fifty years after the Six Day War, Israel has undergone a near total revolution. It retains peaceful relations with Egypt and Jordan, and maintains close security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s large, armed police forces.
There are also, it seems, closed-door contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and other moderate Arab states, in an effort to check Iranian regional aggression.
Since 1967, Israel has succeeded in creating a change in the attitude in much of the region towards it, yet Israel and the Palestinians remain entangled with one another. They are unable to create a solution that addresses Israel’s needs and concerns, and Palestinian national demands.
There are many who believe that the current time represents the very last opportunity to peacefully reach a two-state solution, before the demographic changes underway – settlement construction in the West Bank – will turn this option into an impractical, unrealistic relic of the past.
A deep ideological argument divides Israelis into two camps; those who believe that the country must continue to hold on to the West Bank, even if this significantly decreases the Jewish majority in the state, and those who believe that the Zionist vision necessitates a separation between the Arab population of the West Bank and the Jewish majority population in Israel.
The latter camp believes that separation is the only way to safeguard a firm Jewish majority nation-state, and one that is democratic, thereby living up to the Zionist vision and values, set out in the 1948 Declaration of Independence.
The Israeli – Palestinian issue continues to prove to be the most complex, difficult, and emotional remnant of the 1967 Six Day War.
Edited by Yaakov Lappin
Co-edited by Benjamin Anthony (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.