Middle East and North Africa

How the Six-Day War reshaped Israeli politics

Ian Black on the 50th anniversary of a turning point in the Middle East

On June 28, 1967, Major-General Yitzhak Rabin, chief-of-staff of the Israel Defence Forces, received the thanks of a grateful nation for an extraordinary victory. Three weeks earlier Rabin had overseen the triumph of what was already being called the Six-Day War – with its echoes of the biblical six days of creation – defeating three Arab armies and tripling the size of the territory controlled by the Jewish state. Speaking at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate, Rabin lavished praise on the moral and spiritual strength of the army he led.

‘Our soldiers prevailed not because of iron but because of their consciousness of a supreme mission,’ he said, ‘because of their recognition of the justice of our cause, of deep love of their homeland, and because of their understanding of the difficult task laid upon them: to ensure the existence of our people in their homeland, and to maintain, even at the cost of their lives, the right of the Jewish people to live its life in our state, free, independent and in peace and tranquillity.’ Rabin’s carefully-crafted address has gone down in history as an eloquent expression of Israel’s self-image and raison d’etre. But of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, adjusting to the new reality of military occupation, there was not a single mention. 

Fifty years is a long time in politics, and it is hard now, in a very different world, to recapture the heady mood that seized Israel and its supporters at the time. ‘They did it,’ was the headline in the Economist – similar in spirit to The Sun’s infamous ‘Gotcha’ of the Falklands War. ‘A wave of warm friendship and understanding of Israel is washing over the world,’ the Minister of Information told the Knesset. Arabs everywhere felt stunned and humiliated by the scale of the defeat.

It is now clear that the war, despite its deep roots, was more accident than carefully-plotted campaign. Cold War-era tensions, Israeli border raids, threats from Egypt and Syria, misinformation, miscalculations, and rivalries – and in the end internal Israeli pressure for a decisive pre-emptive strike – proved a dangerous mixture. But Israel’s crushing military victory was to have fateful and enduring political consequences. The striking omission of the Palestinians from Rabin’s speech is a vivid early illustration of why that happened.

The third Arab-Israeli war changed the course of the conflict and laid down the parameters that still define it today. Over the 19 years since 1948 Palestinians had lived the experience of the Nakba – the Arabic word for the ‘catastrophe’ of expulsion, flight, dispersion and dispossession that Israel’s independence meant to them. By 1967 much of the rest of the world knew only dimly of Arab refugees, fedayeen (fighters), ‘Israeli Arabs’ or Jordanians. Yet within days Israeli Defence Forces lawyers were dusting off old copies of the Geneva Conventions and working out how to rule over more than one million members of a people who, until then, had disappeared from atlases and dictionaries.

New facts were quickly established on the ground – in defiance of international law. In Jerusalem, no longer divided Berlin-style between Israel and Jordan, the Maghariba Quarter next to the Western (‘Wailing’) Wall, abutting the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, was bulldozed, its residents sent packing. Moshe Dayan, the Defence Minister, wisely ordered the removal of the Star of David flag from the Haram. But the religious dimension of the conflict was not neutralized so easily. Orthodox Jews hailed ‘the beginning of redemption.’

Israeli law was extended to the Jordanian side of the city, whose boundaries were unilaterally expanded. The word ‘annexation’ was deliberately avoided, according to recent revelations from state archives. Near the Trappist monastery at Latrun, a Jordanian salient jutting into pre-war Israeli territory, three Palestinian villages were turned into rubble and later transformed into a pleasant park. Abba Eban, Israel’s mellifluous Foreign Minister, had dubbed the 1949 ceasefire lines ‘Auschwitz borders’ – a phrase he later came to regret for its conflation of the Holocaust with Israel’s national security requirements. Others, less reflective than him, used Nazi references all too freely.

 Speed was deemed of the essence: Labour party leaders, under the famously hesitant prime minister, Levi Eshkol, remembered what had happened last time the Israeli Defence Forces celebrated a major victory. In early 1957, within months of the Sinai campaign – known as the Suez Crisis in Britain or the Tripartite Aggression to the Arabs – Israel was pressured by the US to withdraw from all Egyptian territory. If something similar was going to happen again, they wanted to be sure to have made at least some changes they hoped would be irreversible. Eshkol’s cabinet decided to inform the United States of Israel’s peace terms to Egypt and Syria. Crucially, however, discussion of Jordan was deferred – meaning that the future status of the West Bank and East Jerusalem remained undecided. It still is.

Anniversaries come and go but they do provide pause for reflection about past, present and future. Israeli government plans to mark this jubilee include one event at Gush Etzion, the West Bank settlement bloc between Bethlehem and Hebron. The significance of that, clear to Israelis, may be lost on others. Those outposts were originally established before 1948 and lost to Jordanian forces in the war: their re-establishment after 1967 was seen as a Jewish ‘return’ – parallel to the right that has always been denied to the Palestinians to go back to their lost homes and lands. It is hard to think of another historical commemoration where the issues it raises are so alive and relevant.

Memories of Israel in 1967 usually focus on the euphoria that followed when the guns fell silent – battle-hardened paratroopers weeping with emotion, frenzied shopping trips to the bazaars of Jerusalem, Nablus and Hebron – ‘hummus and falafel-land’ in the words of the writer Anton Shammas. ‘Did I dream a dream?’ was the title of a recent symposium on the war held in Jerusalem. But it is important to remember that the new reality also attracted negative and not remotely spiritual feelings from the start. The most memorable objection came from the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who warned that the Israeli Defence Forces would degenerate from
being the people’s army to an army of occupation that would be forced to rely on secret police and Quislings. It proved an uncannily prophetic statement.

Another stark warning came from the tiny Marxist anti-Zionist group Matzpen: ‘Our right to defend ourselves against destruction does not confer upon us the right to oppress others,’ it declared. ‘Occupation brings foreign rule; foreign rule brings resistance; resistance brings repression; repression brings terror and counter-terror; the victims of terror are usually innocent people.’ Other Israelis lamented the sheer scale of the victory and the arrogance and myopia it created.

Unlike in 1948, Palestinians were not driven out en masse: up to 250,000, many of them already refugees, fled across the River Jordan, not generally coerced. Palestinians found themselves living under an Israeli military regime which marketed itself as ‘liberal’ but used collective punishment without hesitation. Dayan’s policy of ‘open bridges’ across the River Jordan promoted discreet links with the Hashemite rulers of the Kingdom of Jordan – enemies of Palestinian nationalism. Early efforts to rally resistance saw the leader of a little-known group called Fatah – the Palestine Liberation Movement – secretly enter the West Bank. But he was only able to stay for a few weeks, in disguise and staying one step ahead of Israeli security agents, before having to leave. It would be over a quarter of a century before Yasser Arafat would set foot on Palestinian soil again.

Memories evolve over time and are shaped by changing circumstances, so it is instructive to look back at previous anniversaries. On the tenth, in June 1977, Israel was reeling from the election victory of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party, a supporter of ‘Greater Israel’ and the settlements, started under Labour, which promoted its expansion. It was an irony that Labour’s theoretical commitment to territorial compromise was implemented by Begin, after Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative. By then the Arab world had already recognized Arafat’s PLO as the ‘sole legitimate representative’ of the Palestinians. But Begin called them ‘the Arabs of Eretz-Yisrael’ (The Land of Israel) and offered nothing more than limited ‘autonomy.’ By 1987, it was a different story. On the 20th anniversary of the Six-Day War, there was less celebration of military prowess or divine redemption and a sharper focus on the Palestinian issue. By then an entire generation of Palestinians had grown up with no memory of Jordanian or Egyptian rule. Israel’s occupation and employment in its labour market, albeit on discriminatory terms, were ‘normal’. Palestinians filled the building sites, restaurant kitchens and garages of metropolitan Tel Aviv. Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote a best-selling book about life in the West Bank – The Yellow Wind. It described Palestinians stuck at checkpoints, a mother pleading for her child’s doll not to be confiscated, messianic Jewish settlers, and the rising cost of it all to his own people. Arthur Hertzberg, an American rabbi, lamented what he called Israel’s ‘immodesty, this exaggeration of power … the underside of the shining glory of 1967.’ 

By the end of that year, though, the first intifada was raging – the biggest challenge Israel had yet faced to maintaining the status quo. The ‘war of the stones’ did more to advance the Palestinian cause than decades of armed struggle. The Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988, the Madrid peace conference following the 1991 Gulf War and the Oslo Accords two years later all flowed from the David-versus-Goliath empowerment of the uprising.

Arafat was finally able to return, first to Gaza, and eventually to Ramallah – the seat, then as now, of the Palestinian Authority that critics see today as an authoritarian sub-contractor for the occupation. These days, Oslo is widely seen as a disaster, a trap in which the PLO accepted Israeli recognition in return for an open-ended process with no guarantees about Palestinian rights, or a viable, sovereign state. The iconic Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn looks like a confidence trick. In the 20 years since – and long after Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing Jewish extremist – the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank more than doubled so that many now believe that the occupation is physically  irreversible and that a two-state solution to the conflict is dead. Others argue that it remains a question of political will – backed up by international pressure. But it is hard to imagine: the second intifada – this time, armed – suicide bombings, Israel’s re-occupation of the West Bank, the construction of the separation wall, the rise of the Islamists of Hamas, the blockade of the Gaza Strip and repeated wars have all been successive nails in its coffin. It will take something close to a miracle – perhaps a Donald Trump deal? – to bring it back to life.

The occupation that began in 1967 has not felt temporary for a very long time. Ninety per cent of Palestinians have known no other life. Israel’s political landscape has shifted to the right and democratic norms eroded to the extent that two former security chiefs warned recently of ‘incremental tyranny.’ Annexation and ‘autonomy’ are both back on the agenda. Apartheid has become a standard element of Israeli discourse. The victory of the Six-Day War reunited Mandatory Palestine between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. But if Israelis and Palestinians cannot split themselves into two independent states and live peacefully in the same small country, or even more unlikely, find a way to live  together in a single state – then the war that transformed the Middle East half a century ago will turn out to have been as much a disaster for the victors as it was for the vanquished.