On the Anniversary of the 1967 War

We welcome another guest post from Jeremy Pressman.


Forty-six years ago today, Israel launched the 1967 War. By now, it is trite to note the way that the war radically changed the territorial and demographic dynamics on the ground. Those Israelis who long to return their country to its pre-1967 definition, or something similar to it, are reaching for a distant memory.

The war resulted from a colossal blunder on the part of Egypt’s president, Gamel Abdel Nasser. In May 1967, Nasser took a series of provocative steps that gave Israel an opening for war. Did Israel have to go to war on June 5 or risk immediate annihilation? Not according to internal Israeli and US (or here) military estimates. And the pressure on Nasser was probably large due to his rivals in the Arab world (e.g. Jordan and Syria), Israeli-Syrian clashes, and Soviet whispers of an Israel troop buildup.

But by mobilizing Egyptian military forces, asking UN peacekeepers to leave Sinai, and closing the Straits of Tiran, Egypt gave Israel an easy pretext for attack. The United States was unable to restrain Israel. Israel, afraid of looking weak, attacked. Moseh Dayan explained: “The real gravity of his closing the Straits of Tiran lay not simply in the blockade itself, but in his attempt to demonstrate that Israel was incapable of standing up to the Arabs. If we failed to disprove this thesis, our situation would steadily deteriorate.”

In the long run, the war facilitated or contributed to four central trends:

First, it facilitated the rise of Palestinian nationalism. For Palestinians, the feeble military performance of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies combined with Israel’s occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was quite sobering. If they wanted a political future, the Palestinians would have to take the lead, as the PLO then did in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Moreover, the day-to-day contact with the Israeli occupation forces ultimately sharpened the clash. From UNSC Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 – which makes no mention of a national-political Palestinian dimension – to the declaration of the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the League of Arab States (1974) to today’s widespread international support for the idea of a Palestinian state, one can see the political evolution that followed.

The core question of the conflict shifted. It became less about whether Israel should exist and instead took a different form: “should the Palestinians exist in the form of a state?” In 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. Israel and Jordan signed one in 1994, and Israel and Syria came close. The Arab Peace Initiative (2002) is the ultimate expression of this shift on a wide scale: Arab states accepting the State of Israel and calling for a State of Palestine too.

Second, and related to the first point, the one-sided results of the conventional military war of 1967 also meant the definition of Arab military victory changed. Arab actors, and usually non-state at that, argued they only had to survive and avoid getting crushed by the Israeli armed forces. In the 1973 war, Egypt lost militarily but won psychologically. Hizbollah, in its 2006 battle with Israel, and Hamas, in 2008-09 and 2012 clashes, took a similar line: If we’re still here, Israel has lost.

Third, the 1967 war confirmed a Jewish, messianic dream that, along with strategic and economic factors, propelled Israelis to move to the occupied territories with the active support of their government, or at least parts of the Israeli state. In addition to the ideological lift from the war’s outcome, the territorial point is obvious: Israel now controlled the land and could build and settle at will. And it did.

Fourth, the same Arab military debacle was a contributing factor to the rise of Islamism. Of course the story of political Islam is much more complex than just a reference to the 1967 war and Arab humiliation. But the war was seen as a major illustration of the corruption and ineptitude of Arab socialism (and secularism). It was a failed experiment, and Arabs needed a new answer. For many, Islam was that answer.

If the first trend moved the conflict toward a possible resolution, the other three have served only as obstacles to a historic territorial compromise. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry continues to push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he is staring the 1967 war in the face.

3 Responses to On the Anniversary of the 1967 War

  1. jonathan June 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Well said.

    I think I’d change the line about the core question from it being whether Israel “should” to “could” back in 1967. The 1967 victory established one half of the answer: Israel could stand on its own militarily without big power – France, Britain in the prior decade – with them and with the US constrained by the Soviets and, to a degree, vice versa (although we know Soviet pilots flew Egyptian planes in 1972).

    The other half of the “could” question was answered by the immigration by Soviet Jews because that gave Israel sufficient demographic weight. It also drove some “settlement” expansion – with the word in quotes to refer to areas outside the Western part of Jerusalem, which existed in 1967 as a weird mishmosh of boundaries established by the end of fighting in 1949. By that I mean cheaper land and people needing housing. But that’s a different story.

    I’d also argue Palestinian nationalism flourished because they were finally removed from the oppressive non-rule of Egypt and Jordan. Less Jordan but certainly Egypt, which kept Gaza isolated from the Egyptian economy and maintained the people there in a strange sort of stasis. As for the West Bank, Jordan seems to have largely done nothing there to develop its economy. They had only bits and pieces of modern farm equipment, etc. It was switching from Arab to Israeli occupation that enabled Palestinians to find a voice. Violent and often idiotic but a voice. I sometimes wonder if the West Bank would have developed along with Jordan but I have no doubt Gaza would have been left to rot by Egypt.

    I think it’s important to note that Palestinians weren’t free of occupation before 1967, just that those occupiers were their supposed friends and allies. We have of course seen this kind of treatment enacted most bluntly in Lebanon, where 60 years later they finally passed a law allowing Palestinians to apply for work permits as foreigners – meaning you could be a 3rd generation “Lebanese” but not have any rights because as a Palestinian you have no “state” and thus no citizenship and thus none of the rights even accorded to foreigners. I suspect this may be the only case in the entire world where people have been maintained as non-people, certainly not for 60+ years. The law is essentially window dressing but at least it creates the appearance of existence for Palestinians in Lebanon.

  2. Scott K June 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Interesting article. I thought I would chime in on few points.
    First, I seriously doubt that there is even one Israeli, other than a few Syrian Druze in Golan, who long to return Israel to the pre-1967 borders. Certainly, they would not like to be occupiers, and they do not like the demographic time bomb that is Judea and Samaria. But they certainly do not want Israel to have a narrow corridor that permits Arab armies of the future to destroy Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with only a short drive. They certainly do not long to give up the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, or the sites of Shechem, to an enemy who will deprive them access or, worse (as they did at Joseph’s Tomb), destroy the sites.

    Next, what you call “Palestinian Nationalism” was, in fact, new, but it amounted to a mere divorce from Palestinian Arabs being part of the larger Arab nation. The “Palestinians” were – prior to the founding of Israel, and more so after occupation – just Arabs. By divorcing the “Palestinian Nation” from the Arab Nation, they avoided the fact that there were about as many Jews now in Israel who were expelled, or strongly motivated by the treatment of the host Arab country – to leave, similar to the number of Palestinian refugees who claim a similar status.

    As for your point about the definition of Arab Military Victory, I suppose that is what they tell themselves, but that is simply the talk of losers. The platitudes of the losing party that he never really had a shot, or that he tried his hardest.

    To call the Jewish desire to re-claim Hebron, Shechem, and Jericho (not to mention East Jerusalem) as “messianic”, as contrasted to the desire to re-claim West Jerusalem, Safed and Haifa, is patently incorrect for most people. The Zionist Founding Fathers – whether labor like Ben Gurion, or “revisionist” like Z’ev Jabotinsky (my hero, along with Menachem Begin) were ALL secular in the nationalist Jewish right to the Land of Israel. Those who were messianic were generally the Anti-Zionists, such as the group of Rabbis that have cozied up to the Iranians in recent years. The messiah has not come, so end of story, the land should remain Arab, according to Messianists. The desire to re-claim, through force, whether inspired by G-D or inspired by Us v. them, the historic land of Israel – may be strategic, nationalistic, economic, and may even be religiously motivated, but is far from “messianic”.

    Finally, the birth of Israel, and the 6 day war, has done little for Islamism. Modern day Islamism was born with the Wahabists in the 18th Centure. It was reinforced by the success of Arabian Wahabist Oil interests and the spread of Madrassas throughout the Islamic world. It was further reinforced by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. And, Ironically, it was further reinforced by the alliance of the USA and Wahabist Islamists against the G-Dless Communists in the cold war.

    As one last point, the Israeli – Arab conflict has always been wrapped up in great power politics. Egypt amounted to Carter buying the Egyptians’ loyalty away from the Soviets, with part of the price tag being the treaty (that returned Sinai). Jordan only became possible when, first the Soviet Union, and later, Iraq, ceased to be important powers in the region. And now, any peace treaty is IMPOSSIBLE as long as Iran is an impact player in the region.

  3. buddy July 21, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    BTW rarely mentioned, the 1967 attack by Israel followed the Israeli 1956 Invasion of Egypt’s Sinia in collusion with UK and France. The later would enable the Jewish state’s Nuclear program. Israel would also conduct a letter bombing campaign against Egypt in late fifties. Israel would further recruit Egyptian Jews to firebomb US and UK targets in Egypt prior to 1967 attack. Captured spy Wolfgang Lotz in early sixties, would be infiltrated into Egypt to plot strike targets prior to impending Israeli attack.
    By 1967 Israel had 2 crude Nuclear weapons as backup for their “defensive war of survival”…..

    Presently Israel’s (Iran) war of survival sees it with a WMD stockpile in the hundreds. That would include Nuclear,Chemical,and Biological.

    See Operation Susannah, Lavon Affair
    Israel attack on USS Liberty