Home inFocus Six Days and Fifty Years (Spring 2017) Reflections on the Six Day War

Reflections on the Six Day War

Herbert London Spring 2017
Israeli soldiers arrive at the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. (Photo: Israel Government Press Office)

I was listening to a radio broadcast in my dormitory room at the Australian National University in Canberra. The on-air analyst said Arab troops were mobilizing for a full-scale attack. Approximately 465,000 troops, more than 2800 tanks, and 800 aircraft ringed Israel. This was half a century ago, on June 3, 1967 – two days before the war finally broke out, but it seems like yesterday to me. It was the beginning of the Six Day War. At the outset, it appeared as if the very existence of Israel was imperiled.

I recall = my dad listening intently on his old Philco radio to a vote at the United Nations 19 years earlier on the establishment of the State of Israel. When the final tally was in, my father cried. As a very young man I tried to console him, but he said these were tears of joy. “At last we are recognized.”

War broke out almost immediately, since Arab leaders refused to accept the UN decision. My dad began collecting weapons from Jews who served in World War II and had retained rifles and pistols. He wrapped the weapons in towels and sheets and deposited them in cartons ultimately delivered to ships bound for Palestine.

Now it was my turn to do something for this beloved, fledging state of Israel. I called the Israeli Embassy in Australia and asked what I could do. An elderly gentleman said, “We will put your name on a list as a volunteer for the Israeli Defense Force.” It wasn’t much of a gesture, but it made me feel as if I had done something. By the time a ship was found and organized to deliver all volunteers like me, the war was over.

Prior to the start of war, attacks conducted against Israel by Palestinian militant groups based in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan had increased, leading to costly Israeli reprisals. My apprehensions grew as the attacks became more organized and bloody than they had been earlier. By May 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had mobilized Egyptian forces in the Sinai and closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, thus effectively cutting all trade to the port city of Eilat. On May 30th, King Hussein of Jordan arrived in Cairo to sign a mutual defense pact with Egypt.

In response to the mobilization and the fear of being overrun, Israel staged a sudden preemptive air assault on June 5th that destroyed more than 90 percent of Egypt’s air force on the tarmac. A similar air assault incapacitated the Syrian air force. Without air cover, the Egyptian army was vulnerable to attack and defeat. Within three days, victory was at hand with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) capturing the Gaza Strip, all of the Sinai Peninsula up to the east bank of the Suez Canal and driving Jordanian forces out of East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. The lopsidedness of the defeat demoralized the Arab public and political elites. In Israel, there was euphoria as films of Israeli troops taking control of the Old City of Jerusalem and soldiers praying at the Wall proved to be the war’s iconic images.

A New Phase of Conflict

But the Six-Day War also marked the beginning of a new phase in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The conflict created hundreds of thousands of refugees and brought more than one million Palestinians in the conquered territories under Israeli rule. In 1967 the full effect of victory could not be appreciated. Israel’s military was the dominant force in the region. The Jewish people, known throughout history for their passivity, had transformed themselves into the lions of the Middle East. Borsht Belt comedians would soon contend that we should trade General Motors for General Dayan.

At the United Arab Republic National Assembly [March 26, 1964] Nasser said, “The danger of Israel lies in the very existence of Israel as it is in the present and in what she represents.” After ’67 the comment seemed hollow. Yet cries for the destruction of Israel, its eradication, still could be heard. In fact, these cries became even more shrill over time. The creation of a new refugee population and an enlargement of the old refugee problem exaggerated the public posture of the conquering Israeli state. Israel now ruled more than a million Palestinians, most of who were hostile to the government. Israel had secured enough territory to more than triple the size of the area it controlled, from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles.

In November 1967, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which established a formula for Arab-Israeli peace. It was presumed Israel would withdraw from territories occupied in the war in exchange for recognition and peace with its neighbors. Israel was prepared for some territorial compromise, but the Arab side would not formally recognize the state of Israel and promoted war as an extension of policy. To bridge the ideological divide, Israel created a military administration in the West Bank. Authorities avoided interference with inhabitants, albeit economic assistance was given and new homes built. Arabs were given freedom of movement; they were allowed to travel to and from Jordan. In 1972, elections were held in the West Bank. Women and non-landowners, unable to participate under Jordanian rule, were now permitted to vote. East Jerusalem Arabs were given the option of retaining Jordanian citizenship or acquiring Israeli citizenship. Palestinians were recognized as residents of united Jerusalem and given the right to vote and run for the city council. Islamic holy places were retained under the care of a Muslim council. And despite the Temple Mount’s significance in Jewish history, e.g. the site where Abraham offered his son Isaac to God, Jews were barred from conducting prayers there. These steps were designed to offset hostility and stabilize Israeli control. However, by the 1980s this plan was in disarray.

Underdog to Top Dog

For one thing, Israel, a geographic splinter in the Middle East and an obvious long-shot to survive with its rag-tag population mercilessly oppressed by the Holocaust, had been transformed from underdog to top dog. This psychological overhaul is not easy to understand or appreciate. Jews, escaping from the horror of Dreyfusards, did not display boastful gestures. They went about their business surviving in the shadow of public life. To be thrust into the limelight, as a military power no less, was exhilarating and difficult. Secular Jews in the U.S. prior to the ’67 War were uniformly, if sometimes quietly, in favor of the Israeli state. By the 1990s this support was unraveling. In fact, in surveys conducted by the Israeli Consul General’s office in New York less than half of those who responded positively to a devotion to Israel before 1967 felt the same way a decade later.

A Jewish commitment to left-wing politics placed the Palestinian question in a unique “box.” The liberal Jew could be the outlier defying his political orientation or he could embrace the newly emerging view that Israel, as an occupying entity, had exploited the Palestinians through denial of their rights and territory. This latter position was reinforced at international meetings and even in the mainstream press. Israeli overtures at compromise, even Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s willingness to cede 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, never gained the same degree of political traction as the nakba or colonial narrative promoted by the Palestinians.

In my own vigorous challenge of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) I have found that many Jewish supporters of J Street and the New Israel Fund have a well-developed sense of indignation about occupation. But the antecedents to the present territorial arrangement are often overlooked. Young Jewish battalions marching for the Palestinians are convinced that if only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be more flexible, peace would be at hand.

Resolution 2334 and the “Palestinian State”

It is alarming that Fatah aims and Hamas goals are mutually compatible even if their tactics are slightly different. The Palestinian position is a nation from river to sea, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, in other words, a land that excludes a Jewish state. All of the verbal conjuring does not change that proposition. In a sense, often ignored by contemporary critics of Israel, the ’67 War is being fought yet again.

When the United States abstained in December on Security Council Resolution 2334, a vote that ruled Israeli control of any territory acquired in 1967 to be illegal, the stage was set for a Palestinian state without peace; 50 years of history were ignored and back room preparations by the U.S. delegation on behalf of this position indicated a dramatic shift in America’s diplomatic position. The Israeli settlements, representing only a few percent of West Bank territory, had become the issue; not the last three wars launched against Israel, not the terror provoked murders of innocent children, not the instability created by Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Obama-Kerry position was designed to legalize the Green Line – the 1949 Armistice Line – as the Israeli boundary and to do so without negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis. The ghosts of ’67 live in the minds of American diplomats who still view the Israeli victory in that war with the jaundiced eye of Arabists angry at Jewish success.

It is instructive that historians contend the narrative of the past is written by the victors. That was true until the Six Day War. From that June day to this one, 50 years later, a relentless undressing of events has occurred. Yes, Israel attacked first because troops were being mobilized against it. Yes, Israel needs strategic depth to withstand attacks. And yes, it is an unapologetic occupier of territory won in war.

Chicken Little Wasn’t Wrong

What Palestinians cannot gain in negotiation, they hope to gain with the support of the United Nations. In 1967 there were condemnations of Israel from the General Assembly, but the U.S. remained firmly in the Israeli camp. Clearly that is not true today. The Obama administration seized on the Palestinian position, even though President Mahmoud Abbas is in his 12th year as president on a four-year term; there isn’t a viable economy; the parliament is intimidated by Hamas and the infrastructure for a state doesn’t exist.

For a poor kid from a Zionist family this is very discouraging. The sky may not be falling but Chicken Little wasn’t completely wrong in his predication. A United States as the bulwark in Israel’s past has become an equivocal supporter. The Democratic Party of Harry Truman that promoted statehood has become a party hesitant to support Israel. Middle East studies programs are in thrall to the Palestinian position and teach the ’67 War as an act of imperialism.

To make matters more confusing, Israel’s putative allies may be found in Sunni Arab states far more concerned about Iranian ambitions than the occupation of the West Bank. These states do not support Israel in the UN – not yet anyway – but they have been more reliable as allies than former President Barack Obama.

Departing from 50 years of bipartisan precedent, Obama and company attempted to carve into stone the armistice lines of 1949. It is as if the ’67 War never occurred and the territories weren’t disputed. Secretary of State John Kerry repackaged Palestinian propaganda into UN policy. Forget negotiations, UN Resolution 2334 is questionable law from a questionable institution. It arrived as a pretext for peace as Kerry suggested, but its obvious result is a policy of war. Now, for the first time, Hamas can say it is engaged in terror to retrieve land that according to international law Israel has no claim to.

While my discouragement was palpable, the gears of history keep turning. Obama’s betrayal has become an opportunity for President Donald Trump. Ambassador Nikki Haley addressed the United Nations with a stirring defense of the Israeli position, one I would describe as Moynihanesque. And on March 1, President Trump stated in unequivocal language the U.S. commitment to the state of Israel. Admittedly, it is too early to assess the level of commitment, but after eight years of dark clouds surrounding the relationship, it is heartening to see signs the sun is peeking through.

The bearers of anti-Zionism present their bigotry as social justice. But the question remains: whose justice? If Zionist thought is the original sin, only dismantling the Jewish state can redress it. Many anti-Zionists claim that they do not oppose Judaism, only the State of Israel. Yet the main guarantor of Jewish security since the end of World War II has been the sovereign State of Israel. It wasn’t born on the ashes of the Holocaust as President Obama suggested, but it is the last fortress against reenactment.


Two years ago, at Israel’s 65th anniversary, I attended a ceremony for the Palmach Brigade, the legendary fighting force of Yitzhak Rabin, at a site where 144 young men are buried who died in the War for Independence. Sitting at a gravesite, I noticed that the headstone had only one name, Berala. After some research, I discovered that Berala was a teenager broken mentally and physically at Auschwitz. His family was incinerated and he had no remembrance of his own name. After being liberated from the camp, he wandered. One day a companion told him about life in a far away place called Palestine. Berala made it to this promised land. As soon as he arrived, he was recruited into a war he did not understand. He had never fired a rifle, but found himself fighting on the Jerusalem Corridor. In just two days he was killed.

One can lament a life taken too soon; one can honor a life that sacrificed so Israel could be born. Berala’s blood soaks Israeli soil. As the flag was raised and Hatikvah sung, I thought about this boy. He gave his life but he received something in return: a young man without an identity got one in the newly created state of Israel. He was Berala, warrior for the Jewish people.

Herbert London, Ph.d. is President, London Center for Policy Research.