The Six-Day War -- 46 Years Later

Israel's great leap forward.

flags_and_planesIt is hard to believe that 46 years have passed since the Six-Day War of June, 1967. The world has changed a great deal since then. Technology has revolutionized communications and warfare. Instead of war between nations and world wars, most of today’s conflicts occur within states as witnessed in recent years in the Arab world. Facebook and Twitter broke the Arab governments’ monopoly over information, and enabled millions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and now Turks to rally against their arbitrary and oppressive governments. Hostility towards the Jewish state did not, however, change much. Still, Israel today is much stronger vis-à-vis her enemies than in 1967.

The countries that played key roles in the Six-Day War drama have undergone changes, albeit not all of which bode well for the future. The Jordanian (monarchy) government made peace with Israel and is no longer an enemy of the Jewish State. Syria never made peace with Israel and is currently involved in a civil war that might spillover into a conflict with Israel. Egypt, Israel’s most serious protagonist, made peace with Israel, but its current Islamist (Muslim Brotherhood) government is hostile to Israel and major elements within the civilian leadership would very much like to abrogate the 1979 Peace Treaty and engage the Jewish state militarily. Non-Arab Iran, a friendly state led by the Shah that sold oil to Israel in 1967, is now ruled by a radical Islamist regime that poses an existential threat to the Jewish State.

Marked changes have also taken place in Israel -- in its society, economy, political landscape, and demography. Prior to the Six-Day War, Israel was a small, intimate society governed by the paternalistic Mapai (Israel’s Labor party) elite. To a great extent, Israel was, at that time, an egalitarian society with few opportunities for conspicuous consumption or ostentatious living, as we see in Israel today. There were no shopping malls in every town. Most people did not own cars nor were there four lane super highways.

For decades before and during the Six Day War, Mapai was the dominant force in Israel’s political life. In control since the pre-State days, Mapai’s socialist economic orientation was responsible for jobs, housing, health-care, and other necessities of life. The non-socialist Likud party has been in power for many of the recent decades, as well as today, and has freed the Israeli economy from government-controlled enterprises by major privatization. Both the private sector and exports have grown enormously, especially in the high-tech sector. In 2010, Israel joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which brings together the wealthiest nations in the world.

Israel’s population in 1967 was 2,745,000, while, on the eve of 2013, Israel’s population stood on the cusp of 8 million (7,981,000). More than 1 million Jews (and non-Jewish relatives) arrived from the former Soviet Union, as well as over 100,000 from Ethiopia. Israel has become one of the few Western states with a healthy demographic growth of about 2% a year.

Poverty, lack of economic opportunity, political and social chaos, and frustration remain the reality in Egypt and Syria. Islamism has replaced Arab nationalism as the dominant ideology in the Arab world. In Syria, the Islamist opposition is fighting to topple the Baathist (Arab national-socialist) regime of Bashar Assad. The only significant growth that has occurred in Egypt and Syria is in population. Egypt’s population in 1967 was 33,947,380, Syria’s was 5,771,876. Today, Egypt has a population of 85,668,335, that it can barely feed, and Syria’s is 21,133,056. Nearly 100,000 have been killed in the civil war, and millions have fled to other states.

The events that led to the Six-Day War began with Egyptian President Abdul Nasser’s decision to expel United Nations troops from the Sinai Peninsula and blockade Israel's port of Eilat. This action, according to international law, was a casus belli – an act of war. Nasser succumbed to belligerent Arab threats to destroy Israel. In addition, many of the provocative actions can be traced to Soviet meddling and misinformation, which escalated tension and skirmishes between Syrian and Israeli forces along their mutual border.

At the end of Day 1 of the war, June 5, 1967, the air forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq no longer existed. Israel’s pilots and ground crews helped the IDF demolish the armies of Egypt in the Sinai, capturing huge arsenals of Soviet armaments. On the third day of the war, Israeli troops reached the Suez Canal, and had most of the Sinai Peninsula under IDF control. Jordan, who entered the war in spite of the urging of Israel’s PM Levi Eshkol to stay out, lost the territory on the West Bank. Israel liberated its lost Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and reunited its capital. On the fifth day of the war, Israel battled the Syrians on the Golan Heights, capturing the entire Golan.

In the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, diplomatic outreach was the order of the day. However, the war had done little to bring the sides closer together, and at a summit in Khartoum, Sudan, Arab countries repudiated peace and reaffirmed their rejection of Israel. More diplomatic headway was made in the United Nations Security Council. After some wrangling, the international community agreed on several principles that would be the basis of a "just and lasting peace" in the Middle East. UN Security Council Resolution 242 called on the parties to make full peace in exchange for “territories,” but not all the territories that Israel captured. Israel was assured of secure and defensible borders.

The Six-Day War had many long term implications on the region. Israel came into control of a large number of Arab refugees, some of whom were among those displaced since 1948 and who were then able to return to the Israeli-controlled West Bank. They, along with their neighbors, witnessed unprecedented economic growth over the course of the next two decades. Israeli investment in the infrastructure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, along with policies that allowed Arabs to move freely, increased the standard of living of Palestinians, who were now able to work both in Israel and in the oil rich countries of the Middle East.

The relative prosperity and peace in the West Bank and Gaza was broken by the first intifada of December 1987. Yasser Arafat’s PLO, operating from Tunis, opposed the continued occupation and simultaneously refused to establish a state alongside Israel (the PLO charter sought to replace Israel and erase the Jewish State). Arafat instigated terror and unrest in the territories, which in turn prompted Israel to increase its security measures.

The Six-Day War enabled Israel to reach a peace treaty with Egypt by returning the entire Sinai Peninsula, including the oil fields of Abu Rudeis and Ra’s Sudr. Israel subsequently (August 2005) withdrew from the Gaza Strip without a peace treaty -- a move which failed to end violence against Israel from that territory.

The “occupation” mantra has been mischaracterized as the primary, if not the sole cause of the conflict, rather than an effect of it. Many journalists unfamiliar with the relevant facts and context mistakenly believe that the starting point of Mideast tensions is the ”occupation” rather than Arab and Islamic intolerance towards the existence of a Jewish State in their midst.

The Six-Day War gave Israel bargaining chips with their hostile Arab enemies. Land for peace has not made the Arab Palestinians more amenable to living side by side with Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Nevertheless, the Six Day War fostered massive immigration and support for Israel, which made it stronger and a major regional player. And, while peace with the Palestinians remains elusive, it is no longer impossible.

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