Reflecting on the Six-Day War Fifty Years Later


This past June marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War, a watershed moment in Middle Eastern history that altered the regional balance of power and dramatically increased Israel’s territorial size. Before June 1967, Israel was in constant danger of being wiped out entirely by its hostile neighbors. Although the nascent Israel Defense Forces managed to hold their own against four Arab armies during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the next seventeen years were marked by constant fedayeen guerrilla attacks and shelling. During this time, Israelis living in border areas were forced to perform everyday tasks while hiding in underground bomb shelters to avoid being attacked.

Furthermore, in the years leading up to 1967, Palestinian militant groups began to emerge. Over the course of the war in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in what became known as “al-Nakba,” or “catastrophe.” Many became refugees in neighboring countries, and some would join militant groups such as Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). These groups received funding and support from Arabs in neighboring countries. In May 1967, street protesters across the Middle East chanted slogans like “Death to the Jews!” and “Throw the Jews into the sea!”. Indeed, so great was the stress for Israelis in the weeks before the war that rabbis across the country designated areas to be used as mass graves.

The Six-Day War completely changed this dynamic. By the time the war ended, Israel had routed armies from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and taken control of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The victory was so unexpectedly quick and decisive that some Israelis even saw it as an act of divine intervention. The entire country was swept up in collective euphoria, while the Labor-led government became so overconfident in the army’s capabilities that Israel initially suffered heavy losses during the Yom Kippur War six years later. Although Israel eventually returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt after signing the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, it continues to be the region’s predominant military power.

For the Arab world, the Six-Day War spelled the end of Arab nationalism as espoused by Egypt’s then-president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. As recalled by Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem in a recent article for Foreign Policy, the “disastrous” defeat of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria at the hands of Israel in only six days discredited the leadership of nationalists like Nasser who had promised that the war would be “the final battle in Palestine.” In the war’s aftermath, prominent Arab intellectuals relentlessly criticized their countries’ ossified political and social structures, leading to a period of introspection and debate. During the 1970’s, Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood would begin to fill this ideological vacuum and assert themselves as the “authentic” alternative to Arab nationalism.

Fifty years later, Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip have damaged its international reputation and created an existential threat to its future as a Jewish and democratic state. As of 2015, there were an estimated 6.2 million Arabs living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, which is roughly equal to the number of Jews over the same territory. This fact has significant policy implications. If Israel were to annex the West Bank and Gaza and make their residents full citizens, the country may eventually lose its Jewish majority, which is the very reason for its creation in the first place. At the same time, if Israel does not give voting rights to Palestinians living under its control, its claim to being the only full democracy in the Middle East will increasingly be put into doubt. The situation is further complicated by the presence of over 380,000 Israeli Jews in West Bank settlements. Although the majority of settlers live in blocs that are located in close proximity to the pre-1967 border, others live in isolated outposts deeper in the West Bank that make it nearly impossible to create a geographically integrated Palestinian state.

Although both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit from a two-state solution, the sad reality is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. On one side, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetorical support for a two-state solution is undermined by his government’s approval of new West Bank settlements and unwillingness to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority (PA) without preconditions. Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have managed to stay in power largely due to the perception that only he can address Israelis’ security concerns. From Netanyahu’s point of view, the Oslo Accords that created the PA in 1993 and gave Palestinians greater autonomy in the West Bank only led to more terror attacks, while Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 allowed Hamas to seize control of the region and launch missiles into Israel.

On the other side, Palestinian politics have become increasingly fractured as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas struggles to maintain his power. At the age of eighty-two, Abbas is under pressure from his political rivals and increasingly unpopular with the Palestinian public. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in December 2016, nearly two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would narrowly defeat Abbas in a presidential election. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Palestinians think that the two-state solution is no longer viable due to settlement construction. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that Abbas will take any risks in order to secure a two-state solution. Fifty years after the Six-Day War, Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to reaching a final compromise.

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About the Author 

Matthew Appel is an intern with the Eurasian Conflicts Studies Project (formerly Armed Conflicts Project) at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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