International Relations

On the Anniversary of the 1967 War

Jun 5 '13

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.