How the Six Day War Changed the Middle East

It’s rare for one discrete historical event occurring over a few days to have an impact that persists for decades. Israel’s 1967 Six Day War–from June 5 to June 10, 40 years ago this week–is just such an event.

Though perhaps not immediately apparent at the time, the war’s aftermath cast a huge shadow over the Middle East and the world. During the war, Israel’s high-tech military routed the forces of Jordan, Egypt and Syria, and began the occupations of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

The war thrust onto the world agenda all of the issues still at the center of Middle Eastern politics today.

Israel began one of the world’s longest-running military occupations, which continues to be one of the greatest sources of Arab resentment against not only Israel, but its main cheerleader, the U.S. Israel’s military prowess decisively shifted the U.S. into the pro-Israeli camp in the Middle East.

Plus, the Israeli occupation created the context for a “peace process,” the seemingly never-ending quest of Israel to trade occupied land for “peace”–in other words, recognition of Israel by Arab governments.

The outcome of the Six Day War also contributed to a historical narrative–largely based on myth–that has colored Western perceptions of Israel and the Middle East since. The image of plucky little Israel, threatened with destruction, winning a smashing victory in a pre-emptive war against its more powerful neighbors, has become commonplace.

Yet subsequent historical research has shown that Israel was well aware of its military superiority over its neighbors, and that its long-term strategic plans in the region led it to goad its neighbors into a war it knew it would win.

In a 1997 New York Times interview, Moshe Dayan, defense minister during the 1967 war, explained that Israeli settlers’ “greed for the land” led them to provoke the Syrian army to shoot at them, opening the way for the Israeli invasion and seizure of the Golan Heights.

Likewise, the main casus belli for the war–Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran and its military buildup in the Sinai–amounted more to bluff than threat. In a 1982 speech to the Israeli National Defense College, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin said: “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [Egyptian President] Nasser was about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

One thing that was clear at the time was the absolute illegality of Israel’s occupation and creeping annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians lived.

No country or international body recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Occupied Territories. Even the U.S. approved the pivotal United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242, which emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and explicitly called for the “[w]ithdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

But rather than look for a way to disengage from the territories, subsequent Israeli governments built settlements and encouraged Israeli settlers to create “facts on the ground”–particularly the West Bank–to assert Israeli control.

A secret document prepared for the Israeli foreign ministry in 1967, which was made public only recently, showed that the highest reaches of the Israeli establishment knew that its settlement policies in the Occupied Territories violated the Geneva Accords, according to the Guardian.

While this may have discomfited Western elites, they looked overwhelmingly with favor on Israel’s victory in the war. The London Daily Telegraph hailed it as “the triumph of the civilized.” Le Monde commented: “In the past few days, Europe has in a sense rid itself of the guilt incurred in the drama of the Second World War, and before that, the persecutions which accompanied the birth of Zionism.”

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BUT THE most important reaction to the war occurred in Washington. Until 1967, the U.S. had not been convinced that Israel could serve as the main prop to American power in the region, so it maintained ties with Arab regimes, including Egypt, throughout the 1950s.

U.S. strategic doctrine relied on building a network of pro-Western states to hem in any Arab regime that bucked the West. Over the years, the U.S. relied on combinations of Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, Israel and the Gulf monarchies to forge this alliance. But Israel became the first among these only after its quick victory in its 1967 war.

Nothing proved Israel’s value to the U.S. better than its destruction of the Arab states’ armies. The U.S. was even willing to forgive and forget Israel’s attack on a U.S. surveillance ship, the USS Liberty, anchored off the Sinai coast, in which 34 U.S. sailors were killed.

The payoff from the U.S. to Israel was immediate. Between 1967 and 1972, total U.S. aid to Israel jumped from $6.4 billion a year to $9.2 billion a year. U.S. loans for Israeli purchases of U.S.-made weapons jumped from an annual average of $22 million in the 1960s to $445 million a year between 1970 and 1974.

The U.S. Congress even allowed the Pentagon to hand weapons to Israel without expecting any payment. House Speaker John McCormack noted in 1971 that “Great Britain, at the height of its struggle with Hitler, never received such a blank check.”

Israel had finally gained its desired status as “strategic asset” to the U.S. in the Middle East. Democratic Sen. Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, nicknamed the “Senator from Boeing” for his hawkish views, pronounced in May 1973 that “the strength and Western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Persian Gulf safeguards U.S. access to oil.”

The failure of Arab nationalists like Nasser and the Syrian Baathists to defeat Israel opened the door to a new generation of Palestinian militants, organized under the Palestine Liberation Organization, who argued for a strategy for liberation rooted in resistance in the Occupied Territories.

Only seven years after the Six Day War, and following further betrayals of the Palestinian cause by Arab leaders, the PLO leadership began to adjust itself to the “peace process” and to bargain for a piece of Israeli-occupied territory to become a Palestinian mini-state. But having seized the territories, Israel has had little interest in withdrawing from them.

Today’s crises in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights remain the bitter fruit of the Six Day War.

LANCE SELFA writes for the Socialist Worker.