BY ALL contemporary accounts, it was one of the most stunning military victories in history. In six intense days of fighting that began on June 5, 1967, Israeli forces saved their country from an imminent existential threat, defeated three major Arab armies and almost quadrupled the territory under their country’s control.
Israeli flags flew on the banks of the Suez Canal, over the Golan Heights and above the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism. The victory was so great that Israelis naturally assumed that this would be their last war and that the spoils of their triumph could be traded for a permanent peace.
Needless to say, it did not come to pass. Today, Israel still occupies much of the land it conquered in 1967, while peace remains maddeningly elusive. This week, 40 years after they astonished the world, and themselves, with their lightning-quick feat, many Israelis are questioning whether they indeed won the Six-Day War — or whether it was in fact a Pyrrhic victory leading to more wars, prolonged occupation, internal political turmoil and terror.
But that view ignores history and fails to consider Israel’s position before the war began. Compare, for example, Israel’s diplomatic and strategic situation on June 4, 1967: The country was surrounded by Arab states bent on its destruction, utterly isolated and outgunned. Egypt alone had five times as many soldiers as Israel, and 10 times the tanks. Beyond the Middle East, Israel faced an inimical Soviet bloc that generously armed the forces of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, as well as the animosity of China and India. Though generally friendly, the United States still refused to sell weapons to the Israelis, who remained militarily dependent on France. Worse yet, on the eve of the war, the French concluded that they had more to gain from Arab oil producers and abruptly switched sides, imposing a total arms embargo on Israel.
All of that changed within a week. Having begun the conflict with Arab guns pointed at all of its cities, Israel concluded the war with its own troops in artillery range of every neighboring Arab capital — an achievement that convinced Arab leaders of the impossibility of destroying the Jewish state by conventional means. Israel, as a result, was eventually able to reconcile with Jordan and to trade territory captured in the 1967 war for a peace agreement with Egypt, its strongest Arab adversary.
The victory over Soviet arms hastened the collapse of the Kremlin’s influence in the Middle East and impressed the Indians and the Chinese, who later established excellent relations with Israel. Most significantly, the United States, which previously regarded Israel as a friendly country but one that impaired its relations with the Arab world, suddenly realized that the Jewish state was in fact a regional superpower. The U.S. subsequently forged an alliance with Israel that has remained robust ever since.
In addition to bringing geopolitical advantages, the Six-Day War vastly enhanced Israel’s relationship with Jewish communities abroad. Before the war, some of the leading Jewish organizations in the U.S. were reserved, if not distant, in their relationship with Israel. Political mobilization for the Jewish state was minimal. But as Arab armies massed on Israel’s borders, Diaspora Jews confronted the possibility of witnessing a second Holocaust within a single generation, and later, reveled in the joy of Israel’s success. Many were inspired by the reunification of the state of Israel with the biblical Land of Israel — with Bethlehem, Hebron and, above all, Jerusalem. Contributions poured into Israel, enabling it to strengthen its economy and its ability to absorb new immigrants, and American Jewish organizations lobbied for its defense.
Of course, there can be no overlooking the fact that the Six-Day War led to the establishment of controversial Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, to the ongoing conflict over Jerusalem and to the relentless debate over Palestinian statehood. And yet it was also the 1967 war that inaugurated the peace process — U.N. Resolution 242, enacted in its wake, remains the cornerstone of all negotiations — and created the conditions for Palestinian self-rule. The current Arab League peace plan calls for “full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, lines,” and the “road map” plan endorsed by the United States and much of the international community provides for the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
None of this would be possible if the West Bank and Gaza were still occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, as they were in 1967, and if the Arab world were still consumed with how best to make war, rather than peace, with Israel.
Even the most justified wars can have untold, negative consequences — World War II, for example, inaugurated the Cold War and communist control of Eastern Europe. The American Revolution, it could be argued, prolonged slavery in the United States and set the stage for the Civil War.
The Six-Day War was no exception. Though it resulted in a turbulent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and contributed to the rise of terror, it also saved Israel from destruction and strengthened its economy, society and foreign relations. Most important, it opened opportunities for resolving the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict (which had already been underway for decades), for guaranteeing Israel’s security and legitimacy and for achieving Palestinian independence.