Fifty years ago this week, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against its neighbors. That surprise attack resulted in a stunning victory that transformed Israel and the Middle East, and both the region and the world continue to deal with its impact. Remarkably, the size of the victory may have created as many problems as it solved.
Israel was carved out of the British Mandate Palestine. While a Jewish state had been created according to the United Nations Partition Plan, Palestinians resident in the territory and neighboring Arab states opposed any division and launched a war against the Israelis in 1948, a conflict that resulted in the death of as many as 1 percent of the Jewish population.
While the state of Israel was born, its survival was precarious. The country had few resources, few allies and was surrounded by better armed and more populous enemies on all sides. At its narrowest point, Israel was just 15 km wide and its cities were in artillery range of its neighbors. Arab governments and the groups that spoke for the Palestinians, particularly the Palestine Liberation Organization, regularly threatened to exterminate the Israelis and drive them into the sea. Israelis faced a truly existential threat.
In May 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser expelled U.N. peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, returned his army to the territory and then closed the Straits of Tiran — an action that Tel Aviv had long warned would be considered a casus belli — cutting off Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Governments once hostile to Nasser joined him in a mutual defense pact and spoke of “Israel’s death and annihilation.”
Recognizing that possibility, Israel in a bold and daring gambit, struck first, attacking and destroying the Egyptian Air Force on June 5 in a pre-emptive assault. After air superiority was gained, the Israeli Army rushed into and seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, expelling the Egyptians. To prod other Arab powers to come to his rescue, Nasser falsely claimed that he was winning the battles; the armies of Syria and Jordan promptly joined the fray, only to be defeated by Israeli counterattacks. As a result, Israel took the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.
When the war was over and a cease-fire was imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the region had been transformed. Israel now ruled over nearly 1 million Arabs in the vast expanse of occupied territories that gave the country new strategic depth. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into exile. The Israeli Defense Forces had been established as the region’s most formidable army — a reputation that would nearly prove its undoing during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and Israel’s Arab neighbors would nurture a desire for revenge.
The occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip transformed Israel. Its identity as a democratic and Jewish state is threatened by demographic forces and Israelis are now being asked to choose between the two identities. The challenge of administering an occupation has eaten away at many moral certainties among many Israelis.
For others, however, the seized territories were a signal of God’s favor and the realization of the biblical Israel. For those Israelis, the new territory could never be renounced. They formed political and social movements that colonized those lands, building settlements that created facts on the ground and ensuring that divisions within the region and the grievances of the displaced would only grow.
For Arabs and Palestinians, the occupation provides a focus for anger and disaffection. Yet Israel is not the source of many of the grievances of those peoples or the failures of their governments. In some cases, the symbolism of the Palestinian cause has proven more important than the reality of the Palestinian people. After all, Israel has not committed war crimes against the Syrian people as has the Assad government, nor effectively destabilized a neighboring state as Damascus and Tehran have done in Lebanon.
Fifty years after the Six Day War, Israel has still not found peace. The terrorist threat is a constant and relations with neighbors remain strained. The country remains in a state of siege — at least in the minds of its leaders. Israelis have yet to reach consensus among themselves on the borders of their own state and they cannot make peace with their neighbors until they do.
Those same neighbors have proven unable to reach their own conclusions about the compromises that they will strike and the political capital that they are willing to expend on the Palestinians. Thus, a half century after a bloody war, the peace remains uneasy and the prospects for an enduring settlement few.