The long game: was the war ultimately good for Israel?

Israelis’ euphoria at victory reflected the fear that defeat might have meant annihilation


The Six-Day War has proven a critical milestone in Israel’s quest to secure peace with its neighbours within recognised borders. Victory made possible peace with Egypt and Jordan, a strategic alliance with the US, the absorption of two million immigrants, and an economy buoyed by foreign investment resting on confidence in Israel’s security.

Whilst the unresolved occupation endangers these achievements, it also makes possible a two-state solution and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question today is whether Israel will act wisely to advance a Palestinian state and complete the edifice for which the Six-Day War is a foundation stone.

Before 1967, Israel existed in precarious uncertainty. Defending narrow boundaries against a host of Arab enemies created a sense of siege far removed from today’s reality. The Arab states believed in destroying Israel. They sought to deny it water sources and shipping lanes, and acquired billions of dollars’ worth of Soviet weapons.

As war approached, 22 years after Auschwitz was liberated, Cairo broadcast threats of conquest and slaughter, both in Arabic to entertain their own public, and in Hebrew to terrify Israelis. Though militarily capable, Israel was without convincing great power support or strategic depth.

Israelis’ euphoria at victory reflected the fear that defeat might have meant annihilation. That, and the emotion of returning to Jerusalem’s Old City and its holy sites, from where Jews had fled in 1948, and where shuls had been dynamited. For diaspora Jews, too, this was transformative; deepening pride and identification with Israel.

Perhaps most important impact was the effect on the Arab world. It is hard to imagine how societies imbued with lust for Israel’s destruction could have contemplated peace without a shocking defeat.

UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the war, established internationally agreed principles for peace: Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, and Arab acknowledgement of Israel’s right to peace and recognition within secure boundaries.

The shooting did not stop then, but when peace with Egypt came, just 11 years later, it was on the basis of 242 and the 1967 legacy. This peace treaty has been a cornerstone of Israeli security and regional stability for 40 years.

Then, in 1988, King Hussein gave up Jordan’s West Bank claims in deference to a Palestinian state. This, in combination with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — also based on Resolution 242 — made possible peace with Jordan.

It was fitting that Yitzhak Rabin, who orchestrated victory in 1967, initiated the peace processes with Egypt, the Palestinians and Jordan. The tragic symbol of the transformation he made possible was that King Hussein was one of seven Arab state representatives to mourn at his funeral.

The chance to resolve the Palestinian question was missed in the Oslo period, and it is this unresolved question, especially the fate of the religiously and strategically laden Judea and Samaria (West Bank) that makes the legacy of 1967 so conflicted. Generations of Palestinians have grown up under Israeli occupation. The rift over whether to give up this territory, now home to nearly 400,000 Israeli settlers, is the most destructive in Israeli society.

The occupation imperils Israel’s Jewish majority, its democratic character, and its national cohesion. But it also makes it possible to glimpse an end to the conflict.

Although 1967 crushed Palestinian hopes of Arab armies sweeping Israel away and restoring the 1948 refugees, it allowed the PLO to emerge as an independent Palestinian national movement. The principle of a Palestinian state — hardly heard of when the West Bank and Gaza were in Arab hands — was accepted internationally.

It is the vision of two states for two peoples, still accepted by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, that has the potential to end the occupation and the Palestinian refugee problem, therefore resolving the legacy not only of 1967 but also of 1948.

The failures of the last 20 years have undermined Israeli and Palestinian confidence in peace and Israel faces an Arab world in chaos and Palestinians divided. Yet there are new opportunities. The shared threats of Iran and Sunni Jihadism drive together Israel and Arab rulers in de facto regional alliance, creating a potential new driver for Israeli-Palestinian peace making.

However, hubris threatens to snatch defeat from the jaws of 1967’s victory. Israel is surging with ugly, chauvinistic and messianic brands of Zionism that are also a legacy of 1967. They are reflected in unapologetic denial of Palestinian rights and demonisation of Israelis who argue occupation is bad for Israel.

In 1967, not only the Temple Mount fell into Israel’s hands, but control over her fate. Fifty years later, she still controls it. But Israel’s leaders stand once more at a crossroads. If in another 50 years we are still to think of 1967 as a blessing, and not a curse, Israel must return to the path walked by Mr Rabin, Shimon Peres and the late Ariel Sharon, of calculated self-restraint and territorial compromise.

Read all our coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War' here

Toby Greene is an Israel Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University, and a Senior Research Associate for BICOM @toby_greene_

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