The 1967 Six-Day War
As the current Israeli-Syrian peace talks bog down, perhaps just
temporarily, over the issue of the Golan Heights, I thought we''d
take a moment to review just how Israel came to control this
But first, when one looks at the Middle East and the decades of
the 1950s and 1960s, you see one dominant theme, that being
Arab nationalism and its main proponent, Gamal Abdel Nasser
Nasser became the first president of the new republic of Egypt in
1956 and he emerged as a champion of the Arab world due to the
nationalization of the Suez Canal during that year. Nasser
sought a close union of Arab countries, one independent of the
super-powers, and he also promulgated social reforms in terms of
greater equality amongst the Arab peoples.
Nasser had the idea of a socialist, neutralist, form of Arab
nationalism. Through the use of the Arab states oil revenues, he
wished to create a strong bloc under his own, Egyptian
As he championed the Arab cause, he was propelled into the
central problem for most Arab states, their relationship with
Israel. For some nations like Syria, Nasser was too cautious.
And then there was the PLO, organized in 1964 by the Arab
League, which through splinter groups began to take action
inside Israel during the course of 1965. The Israelis then began
to retaliate against the nation where most of the PLO members
were coming from, Jordan.
By 1967 the population of Israel stood at 2.3 million, with Arabs
representing roughly 13%. The economy was gaining and the
Israeli armed forces were also growing, particularly the air force.
The government felt that it was stronger militarily than its Arab
neighbors, thus the best course was to show its strength which, it
was hoped, would eventually lead to a more stable peace
agreement. But Israel also wanted to capture some territory it
failed to gain in its fight for independence back in 1948.
Meanwhile, Nasser received a report that Israel may attack Syria.
He decided to close the straits of Aqaba in the Suez to Israeli
shipping. Nasser had decided that should Israel attack, the U.S.
would intervene to negotiate a settlement which would look like
a political victory for him, or, if it came to war, Egypt''s armed
forces would be strong enough to win.
But Israel had different thoughts. They felt their own armed
forces were stronger and, even if they should falter, the U.S.
would be there to offer its support.
Tensions mounted as May rolled into June in 1967. Jordan and
Syria made military agreements with Egypt. Suddenly, on June
5, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack on 25 Egyptian air bases,
virtually destroying the whole air force. Jordan and Syria
quickly joined the fighting. The Soviet Union declared its
support for the Arab states.
On June 6, President Johnson said he was exerting as much
pressure as possible on the Israeli''s to cease the fighting. On
June 7, the UN Security Council called for an unconditional
cease-fire but Israeli military operations continued unchecked.
On June 10, Moscow broke diplomatic ties with Israel. [More on
this later]. For days, President Alexei Kosygin had been in touch
with LBJ on the "hot line,"demanding that Israel comply with the
UN Security Council resolution. Kosygin hinted that the Soviets
could take military action (though none was ever planned). The
U.S. 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean was speeding to the conflict.
[On June 8, Israel had accidentally attacked the U.S.
communications ship, Liberty,'' killing 34.]
In the end the hot line helped to ease the tension. It prevented
each side''s perception of the other''s intentions from becoming
dangerously uncertain to a point that might have precipitated rash
actions in support of either side.
Late on June 10, Israel ended its military operations on all fronts,
and cease-fire agreements were signed. The Six-Day War dealt a
devastating defeat to the Arab nations. Egypt lost the Sinai
peninsula, Jordan the West Bank and Syria the Golan Heights.
[The Sinai was regained by Egypt as a result of the 1979 Camp
David Peace Accords, the West Bank is being gradually turned
over to the Palestinians, and the Golan Heights is part of the
current Israeli-Syrian discussions. The captured territories are
being traded for security guarantees, or "land for peace."
*This was actually mandated back on November 22, 1967 by UN
Security Council Resolution No. 242.]
The Six-Day War had a profound impact on Israelis as well as
Arabs and Palestinians. Many Jews considered the West Bank
the heartland of Jewish history, which produced a mood of
religious fervor that found expression among the groups that
immediately began to establish settlements there.
The Arab defeat led to a new mood among the Palestinians.
Huge numbers of volunteers found there way into Yassir Arafat''s
arms, specifically the newly organized Fateh organization
dedicated to the concept of armed struggle against Israel. By
1969, Arafat had taken over the main institutions of the PLO.
The war also changed the balance of forces in the Middle East.
Israel was clearly the leading power, militarily. The swift
victory made them more desirable as an ally of the U.S.
And the war also left its impact on Soviet foreign policy in the
region. Former Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin has written of
the break-off in relations between the Soviet Union and Israel
that, "In the long term this proved to be a grave miscalculation
because it practically excluded the Soviet Union from any
serious role in a Middle East settlement."
As a result of the Six-Day War, the conflicts between Arabs and
Jews that had been previously fought on a more localized basis,
suddenly found a worldwide stage.
Next Week, the 1973 Yom Kippur War...and the scary role
played by Washington and Moscow.
Main sources: "A History of the Arab Peoples," Albert Hourani.
"In Confidence," Anatoly Dobrynin