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The turning point that was the Six Day War

Before 1967, the IDF prepped well for war and it showed. Then attrition changed the terms, and the territories may hold the future in the balance
Mordechai Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May 1967. (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA/Mazel123)
Mordechai Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May 1967. (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA/Mazel123)

The Six Day War of 1967 was undoubtedly a great military victory. Israel’s maneuvers were mostly successful, and while no war is perfect, most battles were well-fought and won, on the northern, eastern, and southern fronts.

Tactically, at the command level — from the platoon and company level, to the division level, and beyond — were exemplary, as was Southern Command’s handling of the Egyptian front. The war represented the height of the IDF’s tactical success.

Those tactical victories combined to form a strategic vector, marked by significant short and long-term ramifications for the State of Israel.

In the short-term, the war led to the rise of a dangerous arrogance among the Israeli defense establishment, and a complacency that enabled Egypt and Syria to surprise Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The Six Day War led to the idea, among the military establishment and wider society, that Israel was invincible and to the trivialization of our adversaries. In the run-up to the 1973 war, Israeli leaders stated that there was no chance of another war breaking out.

Israel paid a very heavy price for that complacency.

In the longer term, the Six Day War represented a watershed moment for Israeli society. It went on to shape the entire political map; from that day to this.

ISRAEL IN THE TERRITORIES

Our presence in the territories, which was originally intended to be short-term, and to serve as a strong bargaining chip, turned into a long-term occupation. In 1968, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol talked about returning the territories, once negotiations with Arab states ripened, but that day never came.

Instead, in Israel, a messianic movement arose. It viewed the Six Day War as the continuation of a messianic process, one which began in the 1948 War of Independence.

For religious Zionists, this chain of seminal events represented an inevitable process of divine redemption. That led to large-scale settlement construction, beginning in Gush Etzion and Hebron, and spreading out from there.

The Gush Emunim movement fueled this process further, and right-wing governments accelerated the construction.

Our presence in these territories constitutes Israel’s greatest strategic challenge; above Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas. What is at stake is Israel’s identity, and the ability of different components of our society to live together.

Today, the political system is aligned along a deep fault line, created in 1967, between the pro-annexation camp and the camp that favors a separation from the Palestinians.

The long-term impact of the Six Day War continues to confound Israeli opinion. On both sides of the fault line, whether one listens to those coming from the messianic bloc or the Israeli bloc that opposes annexation, one notes that both trace their roots and rationale back to the outcome of the war, pinning their logic upon the lessons they each draw from the same events. In simple terms, the Six Day War has directly shaped our contemporary, political reality.

PALESTINIANS & PAN-ARABISM

For the Palestinians, the war demolished the hope that Arab states would come to the assistance of the Palestinian-Arabs, invade Israel, and turn back the clock.

The war represents a breaking point in the Palestinian experience. It ended their trust in Arab states, birthing a new ethos of self-reliance.

Prior to the Six Day War, Fatah was a small clique with limited resources, mostly relying upon Syrian support. After the Six Day War, it became the central Palestinian movement, and launched a series of terror attacks against Israel throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

The two intifadas that occurred in recent decades directly result from the Palestinian shift, toward a mindset of handling the conflict with Israel independently; one shocked into existence after the Six Day War.

In the Arab world, the war destroyed the Pan-Arab movement, which peaked under the leadership of Egyptian President Gammal Abdel Nasser. After the resounding defeat of 1967, and the death of Nasser in 1970, Pan-Arabism lost its influence in the Middle East.

IMPACT ON THE IDF

Prior to 1967, the IDF enjoyed a healthy equilibrium among its air, land, and sea branches, and well-organized reconnaissance, artillery, and intelligence units.

As a result, it fought well.

That was undone after 1967. Based on the flawed conclusion that the tank is the most important element in the arsenal of victory, other sections of the ground forces – the infantry, artillery, and engineering – were allowed to erode.

As the IDF faced an entirely new kind of conflict – the War of Attrition launched by Arab states, with new forms of violent clashes, decision-makers struggled to form clear objectives or to define what victory meant under the circumstances of attrition.

Prior to the conflict, the IDF was almost constantly training. A mere eight companies was all it dedicated to continuous security missions.

But following the conflict, the number of companies engaged in ongoing security and counter-insurgency missions grew to 66 by the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Constant training was a thing of the past.

The burden continuous security missions place upon the IDF is a negative consequence of the war. Lacking warfare training, the IDF’s combat readiness has been eroded.

While continuous security missions do instill some operational capabilities, they are no replacement for training for actual war.

The situation following the Six Day War enabled Israel’s enemies to support Palestinian terrorism and insurgency, rather than seeking to tackle Israel directly; a new phenomenon that took the IDF many years to internalize and adapt to.

Despite two Palestinian uprisings and waves of terror attacks, the area of counter-insurgency still remains underdeveloped as a professional military field in the IDF.

Given the likelihood that Israel’s future generations will also have to engage in counter-insurgency missions, our military must increase its professional knowledge of this area.

The legacy of the Six Day War and the military victory that it was, looms large today. Whether we categorize those as an asset or a liability in terms of Israel’s long term future, depends on how we affix policy in the territories today.

About the Author
Yair Golan is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute, a serving Member of Knesset and the immediate past deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
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