Israel's Legacy: Six Days That Shaped a Nation

10 MINS READJun 5, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
A portrait of an Israeli soldier taken during the Six-Day War.
The Six-Day War, waged from June 5-10, 1967, would reshape Israel's borders and regional dynamics for the next half-century.
(Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
It seems almost inconceivable today that a war could be fought and won in less than a week. The current Afghan conflict has been running off and on for the time it takes a child to grow up and prepare for high school graduation. Even the combat phase of the first Persian Gulf War, waged by the most militarily capable coalition on Earth, took over a month to complete. And yet, 50 years ago today, Israel achieved a decisive military victory against overwhelming odds in the span of six days during the summer of 1967. Not only did the Jewish state eliminate all immediate threats to its very existence, it secured regional military dominance, something it maintains a half-century later.
Israel succeeded in defeating five Arab nations on the ground and in the sky, amassing roughly three and a half times more landmass in the process, including the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and much of the West Bank of the Jordan River. This enabled the country to effectively redraw its borders, and those of Israel's immediate neighbors, too. But more to the point, it proved that the Israelis would strike first if they felt threatened, and do so in a conclusive manner.
The conflict is often portrayed as Israel's ultimate achievement in solidifying its own security, and some consider the victory a prelude to the death of pan-Arabism. Yet both characterizations are often exaggerated. While the Six-Day War was indeed a wildly successful conventional military win, it also laid the groundwork for a more surreptitious (yet equally deadly) security threat to Israel.

The Conditions for Crisis

Leading up to the events of June 5-10, 1967, the tense region was nothing short of a powder keg waiting to explode. The State of Israel had existed for less than 20 years at that point and was surrounded by nations harboring various degrees of hostility toward it. Calls by Arab nationalists for Israel's destruction echoed down the old streets of Cairo. Palestinian militants — often funded and equipped by Damascus — launched frequent cross-border raids from Jordan and Syria, making Israeli borders increasingly treacherous. But of even greater concern was the positioning of massed Syrian army units to the northeast. After all, small countries don't generally win wars on multiple fronts against numerically superior enemies, especially when they are the ones defending territory. 
This fact was not lost on Israel's military and political leaders. They were facing a catastrophic scenario in every sense and had little ability to determine the full intent of their adversaries. Though Israel had what it believed to be a qualitative military edge, that didn't change the fact that its defense forces were encircled and outnumbered. Military commanders were also deathly afraid of allowing a potential enemy to seize the initiative, which could result only in Israel's annihilation. Pre-emptive action, it seemed, was the only viable option for leveling the playing field. And once justified as a course of action, the catalyst for execution became razor thin, with little to no margin for error.
Israel was already acutely on guard when King Hussein of Jordan chose to side with Egypt and Syria in the wake of a deadly West Bank raid by Israeli forces. And when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser withdrew from the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) and ordered Egyptian troops in Sinai to move close to the Israeli border, it provided the impetus Israel felt it needed. The Israelis determined that a pre-emptive strike was not only inevitable but also necessary for their continued survival.

Actions Speak Louder

Many years prior to the opening salvo of the Six-Day War, Israel realized that its forces had no choice but to train harder, fight smarter and employ more sophisticated tactics and equipment than their adversaries to stand a chance against them. When hostilities opened on June 5, 1967, Israel did not hesitate and it did not hold back. Taken completely by surprise, the Arab nations arrayed against the small state were nothing short of stunned by the ferocity and swiftness of the attack. Furthermore, they were slow to react, permitting Israeli forces to take the early initiative and make significant gains. A full military account is beyond the scope of this assessment, but the resoluteness of Israel's actions cannot be overstated. 

Advancing Israeli troops pass the wreckage of a Russian-supplied, Egyptian air force MiG-15 near El Arish air base in the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War, June 1967.

(Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Within two hours of the attack order being given, the Israeli air force had destroyed the bulk of Egypt's Russian-supplied air force, a toll exacted from other nearby Arab nations as well as Israel ruthlessly took control of the skies. (None of the Arab states had expected Israel to attack at the time, so their aircraft were arranged on their airfields in neat lines, making it easy for Israeli strike aircraft to destroy them.) On the ground, Israeli forces were similarly dauntless. Despite suffering nearly 1,000 fatalities over the course of the war, Israel inflicted well over tenfold that number on its opponents, winning decisive victories and seizing not only key terrain, but also new territory to expand into. At the end of the conflict, Jordan's air force was practically destroyed along with the major airfields at Mafraq and Amman; only 15 percent of Egypt's military hardware was still functional; and the Syrian army embarrassed itself at every opportunity, sustaining significant casualties as it did so.

Israeli troops inspect captured Syrian tanks, June 12, 1967. 

(Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Israel was jubilant in victory and in proving its military dominance over the nation's erstwhile aggressors. But what is hard won can just as easily be lost. It wouldn't take long for Israel's larger and more populous neighbors to regroup, and just six years later, the Yom Kippur War dealt a serious blow to the State of Israel. Spearheaded by Egypt and Syria, supported by a host of local Arab expeditionary units, the surprise attack resulted in bloody fighting and, ultimately, an exchange of territory. Forced to cede a large swath of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel bristled at the incursion and the losses it sustained, though the war did demonstrate a level of international support for Israel and its ability to repel a serious assault. The return of Sinai was grudgingly accepted as a necessary trade for peace, and after much cajoling from the United States, the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty was eventually signed in 1979.

Pray for Peace . . .

In the years that followed, Israel experimented with a new weapon intended to eliminate some of the threats against it. Already in possession of a prodigious military capability — including nuclear weapons — Israel instead turned to diplomacy to alleviate some of its enduring concerns. The early 1990s was a particularly fruitful period for peacemaking, with the Oslo Accords assuaging some of the security angst surrounding the Palestinian territories. Israel granted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representative rights and, in return, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel's existence. Then, with the Israel–Jordan peace treaty of 1994, Israel removed one of its few remaining conventional threats. For the most part, the only danger left to it was that posed by a conventional Syrian force. But the eventual rise of the Islamic State, coupled with the attrition of the country's ongoing civil war, has depleted Damascus' capabilities. The Syrian state is still an enemy to Israel but a significantly weaker one, its military fractured and embroiled in its own conflicts.
Even with its traditional opponents on peaceful terms or otherwise marginalized, the State of Israel has had little opportunity to draw breath. Threats to the country's security and stability are as present as ever, though they have shifted from destruction at the hands of a conventional force to a nonconventional and insurgent menace, mostly emanating from territory just across Israel's borders.
Such insurgency manifests in different forms, and Israel remains afflicted by near-continuous attacks from entities such as HamasHezbollah, the PLO and various affiliated groups. While a persistent nuisance, they lack the resources and conventional edge of Israel's traditional adversaries. However, they are almost impossible to subdue, primarily because Israel is not willing to concede, either in terms of territory or by granting concessions that could be interpreted by a domestic audience — and foreign powers, for that matter — as signs of weakness.
The reality is that much of Israel's government considers it impossible to relinquish any land, not within Jerusalem and certainly not in the West Bank, Gaza or the Golan Heights. Israeli leaders view these spaces strategically, creating depth that will ensure the nation's physical security. Despite cycles of dialogue and incessant rumors of new peace agreements, bolstered partly by U.S. President Donald Trump's efforts to restart peace talks, Israel will not yield ground. Unlike some territories claimed in 1967, such as Sinai, any land that swaddles and insulates the Israeli core has never been deemed tradable by all factions within Israel's political, military and intelligence establishment. The contested territories also support the notion held by religious Israelis of a "Greater Israel." The issue is complex, largely because Israel's possession and occupation of contested territories 50 years ago has actually fueled hostility, fomenting more militant attacks and regionwide condemnation. And as seen so often throughout history, even as recently as the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, territorial gains are a double-edged sword.
Though Israel has less to fear from other states, the country's borders have in fact blurred over time. In lieu of a framework that is broadly acceptable to all, Israel's fringes exist in a state of flux, especially along the disputed territories. This feeds the asymmetric battle Israel finds itself fighting, one that is much less straightforward than confronting a known, conventional threat. On one hand, the immediate danger is less than that posed by the forces of a belligerent nation. But on the other, the insurgent threat is nearly impossible to solve with a decisive military campaign like the Six-Day War. Instead, Israel is regularly drawn into low-grade conflict with little power to impose a military solution.
There have been no signs of the unconventional threats to Israel abating. And while the state can bask in its technological superiority and training, many nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia, are looking to enhance their own military capabilities, partly in response to regional instability, including civil wars and runaway cross-border militancy. Just as the threats Israel now faces are not the same ones it faced in 1967, its security environment will continue to evolve in the years to come. Israel may find itself with an entirely different set of problems — and enemies — 50 years from now, as it celebrates its centennial anniversary of the Six-Day War.
The only thing we can know for certain is that peace in Israel, or its surrounding neighborhood, will not come quickly or easily. It seems fitting that a UNEF observer to the crisis that sparked the Six-Day War a half-century ago has the final words. When Indar Jit Rikhye was informed in 1967 of Nasser's intent to dispel the UNEF force in Gaza and Sinai, precipitating the Israeli offensive, Rikhye simply said, "I think you're going to have a major Middle Eastern war and I think we will still be sorting it out 50 years from now."


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