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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Fifty Years On: Reflections on the Six-Day War

In 1967, Israel’s future was anything but certain. Amassed on its borders, the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq created a seemingly invincible Arab alliance bent on eliminating the 19-year-old Jewish state. Then, in late May, Egypt expelled the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli commerce, paving the way for an Egyptian invasion of Israel.

Surrounded by 500,000 troops, 5,000 tanks and almost 1,000 fighter planes, Israel repeatedly appealed to her neighbors and the international community. But no help was forthcoming. So on June 5, fearing another Holocaust and forced to protect her citizens, Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt. In six astonishing days, the Jewish state overcame an existential threat from the encircling Arab armies, captured vast territories and reunified Israel’s historic capital, Jerusalem.

While the military victory was resounding, the Six-Day War created unresolved challenges that Israel grapples with to this day. In the 50 years since 1967, Israel has continued its pursuit of peace—making generous offers and repeated, significant sacrifices in exchange for genuine peace with her neighbors—and continuously looking for ways to end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all. The Six-Day War also bolstered America’s pro-Israel community and helped to further reinforce the foundation of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and America’s pro-Israel community.

The Six-Day War proved that Israel must always be able to defend itself—by itself—against any threat.

After the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, Israel believed it would receive protection from the international community should Egypt once again blockade the Straits of Tiran—a vital waterway through which Israel received 90 percent of its energy and other critical imports.

But in 1967, Arab nations colluded to destroy the Jewish state while encountering limited international opposition.  Egypt amassed troops along its border with Israel, and demanded the withdrawal of the 3,400-person United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping force stationed in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. The U.N. complied, removing the primary political obstacle to an Egyptian invasion of Israel. Then on May 23, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping—an act of war.

All the while, Arab leaders called for Israel’s annihilation:

  • May 20, 1967, Syrian defense minister (later president) Hafez Assad: “I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

  • May 27, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.”

  • May 31, 1967, Iraqi President Abdul Rahman Aref: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear—to wipe Israel off the map.”

On May 24, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban travelled to Paris, London and Washington in an attempt to rally the international community to keep its promise to reopen the Straits of Tiran.

These efforts ultimately failed. Israel was abandoned by the world in a time of its greatest need: Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, Arab armies encircled the Jewish state and the U.N. peacekeepers in the Sinai and Gaza Strip left their positions. Israel had no choice but to surprise its adversaries with a preemptive strike.

This experience taught Israel a valuable lesson: It must be prepared to solely rely on itself to defend itself. As former Prime Minister Menachem Begin would later say, “There is no guarantee that can guarantee a guarantee."

The Six-Day War bolstered the U.S.-Israel relationship both at the grassroots and governmental levels.

Israel’s stunning victory galvanized the American pro-Israel movement, enhancing American affection and commitment to the young democracy. In the aftermath of Israel’s victory, the U.S. government began to view Israel as a strategic ally. Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson approved critical arms sales to Israel, setting the precedent which ultimately led to current U.S. policy in support of Israel’s qualitative military edge.

The war also generated a sense of deep pride among American Jews. Barely 20 years after the Holocaust, the tension of May and the salvation of June 1967 became a transformational period that led to a new connection with the Jewish state. Israel’s extraordinary battlefield accomplishments converted the world-wide perception of the Jewish people from one of weakness to strength.

Since then, the United States has dramatically increased its support for Israel.  Most recently, on May 4, 2017, Congress approved $3.175 billion in security assistance to Israel as well as $600.7 million for joint missile defense programs. Security assistance to Israel is laid out in 10-year agreements, known as memoranda of understanding (MOU). In September 2016, the United States and Israel signed a new MOU that sets funding levels at $3.8 billion per year from 2019 to 2028.

Of note, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not a one-way relationship. America greatly benefits from Israeli technological advances and the two countries collaborate not only in the defense sphere, but in fields like cybersecurity, energy, agriculture and water security.

The Six-Day War reunified Jerusalem and opened it to all faiths.

The 19-year period from 1948 until 1967 marked the only time in history that Jerusalem was divided and Jews were unable to pray at their holiest site. In 1948, Jordan evicted Jews from the Jewish quarter for the first time in millennia. Jordan even banned Israeli Muslims from visiting Islamic holy shrines under its control and permitted Israeli Christians to visit their holy sites only on Christmas.

In June 1967, Israel reunified Jerusalem and immediately abolished Jordanian restrictions on the free exercise of religion. Jews, Christians and Muslims could once again worship at their respective holy places. In search of peace, Israeli authorities also immediately granted Jordanian Islamic religious authorities jurisdiction over the Temple Mount—Judaism’s holiest site—which contains the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel remains deeply committed to the pursuit of peace with its neighbors.

After the war, America secured international support for the concept that Israel required secure and recognized borders. Unlike the aftermath of the 1956 Arab-Israeli war, the land Israel captured in 1967 would not be returned unless its neighbors agreed to cease hostilities. This was the genesis of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 “land for peace” formula, passed on Nov. 22, 1967.

The Jewish state remains committed to negotiating an end to its conflict with Palestinians and the Arab world, despite incessant terrorist attacks and war. Israel has made significant security and territorial compromises to achieve historic peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994, to the great benefit of all three countries.

Israel is also committed to a two-state solution—a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state. Since signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel has made multiple offers to exchange up to 96 percent of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians. These offers were declined or were never responded to.

Despite Israel’s efforts to resolve the conflict, many issues remain to be solved. Jewish settlements in the West Bank constitute a key point of contention, but in fact are but one element among a set of final- status issues—including borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees, mutual recognition and an end of claims—that must be resolved in direct talks between the parties.

The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is an opportunity to celebrate and reflect.

Israel defied the odds and overcame an existential threat. Jerusalem was once again reunited and open to all faiths; the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship began to flourish, and Israel made peace with two of its bordering Arab neighbors in the years that followed.

But the Six-Day War teaches us that we can take nothing for granted.  Israel will continue to require that the United States help provide the resources it needed to defend itself against mounting threats. The United States must also stand with Israel in the international arena and support direct negotiations between Israel and her Palestinian and other Arab neighbors and the best path to help bring the peace that Israel has sought since her creation.   

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