History of Israel

The June 1967 War

By the spring of 1967, Nasser's waning prestige, escalating Syrian-Israeli tensions, and the emergence of Levi Eshkol as prime minister set the stage for the third Arab-Israeli war. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Nasser was the fulcrum of Arab politics. Nasser's success, however, was shortlived; his union with Syria fell apart, a revolutionary government in Iraq proved to be a competitor for power, and Egypt became embroiled in a debilitating civil war in Yemen. After 1964, when Israel began diverting waters (of the Jordan River) originating in the Golan Heights for its new National Water Carrier, Syria built its own diverting facility, which the IDF frequently attacked. Finally, in 1963, Ben-Gurion stepped down and the more cautious Levi Eshkol became prime minister, giving the impression that Israel would be less willing to engage the Arab world in hostilities.

On April 6, 1967, Israeli jet fighters shot down six Syrian planes over the Golan Heights, which led to a further escalation of Israeli-Syrian tensions. The Soviet Union, wanting to involve Egypt as a deterrent to an Israeli initiative against Syria, misinformed Nasser on May 13 that the Israelis were planning to attack Syria on May 17 and that they had already concentrated eleven to thirteen brigades on the Syrian border for this purpose. In response Nasser put his armed forces in a state of maximum alert, sent combat troops into Sinai, notified UN Secretary General U Thant of his decision "to terminate the existence of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) on United Arab Republic (UAR) soil and in the Gaza Strip," and announced the closure of the Strait of Tiran.

The Eshkol government, to avoid the international pressure that forced Israel to retreat in 1956, sent Foreign Minister Abba Eban to Europe and the United States to convince Western leaders to pressure Nasser into reversing his course. In Israel, Eshkol's diplomatic waiting game and Nasser's threatening rhetoric created a somber mood. To reassure the public, Moshe Dayan, the hero of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, was appointed minister of defense and a National Unity Government was formed, which for the first time included Begin's Herut Party, the dominant element in Gahal.

The actual fighting was over almost before it began; the Israeli Air Corps on June 5 destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground. King Hussein of Jordan, misinformed by Nasser about Egyptian losses, authorized Jordanian artillery to fire on Jerusalem. Subsequently, both the Jordanians in the east and the Syrians in the north were quickly defeated.

The June 1967 War was a watershed event in the history of Israel and the Middle East. After only six days of fighting, Israel had radically altered the political map of the region. By June 13, Israeli forces had captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and all of Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The new territories more than doubled the size of pre1967 Israel, placing under Israel's control more than 1 million Palestinian Arabs. In Israel, the ease of the victory, the expansion of the state's territory, and the reuniting of Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism, permanently altered political discourse. In the Arab camp, the war significantly weakened Nasserism, and led to the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the leading representative of the Palestinian people and effective player in Arab politics.

The heroic performance of the IDF and especially the capture of Jerusalem unleashed a wave of religious nationalism throughout Israel. The war was widely viewed in Israel as a vindication of political Zionism; the defenseless Jew of the shtetl (the typical Jewish town or village of the Pale of Settlement), oppressed by the tsar and slaughtered by the Nazis, had become the courageous soldier of the IDF, who in the face of Arab hostility and superpower apathy had won a miraculous victory. After 2,000 years of exile, the Jews now possessed all of historic Palestine, including a united Jerusalem. The secular messianism that had been Zionism's creed since its formation in the late 1800s was now supplanted by a religious-territorial messianism whose major Yisrad objective was securing the unity of Eretz Yisrael. In the process, the ethos of Labor Zionism, which had been on the decline throughout the 1960s, was overshadowed.

In the midst of the nationalist euphoria that followed the war, talk of exchanging newly captured territories for peace had little public appeal. The Eshkol government followed a two-track policy with respect to the territories, which would be continued under future Labor governments: on the one hand, it stated a willingness to negotiate, while on the other, it laid plans to create Jewish settlements in the disputed territories. Thus, immediately following the war, Eshkol issued a statement that he was willing to negotiate "everything" for a full peace, which would include free passage through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Tiran and a solution to the refugee problem in the context of regional cooperation. This was followed in November 1967 by his acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" in exchange for Arab acceptance of Israel. Concurrently, on September 24, Eshkol's government announced plans for the resettlement of the Old City of Jerusalem, of the Etzion Bloc-- kibbutzim on the Bethlehem-Hebron road wiped out by Palestinians in the war of 1948--and for kibbutzim in the northern sector of the Golan Heights. Plans were also unveiled for new neighborhoods around Jerusalem, near the old buildings of Hebrew University, and near the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus.

The Arab states, however, rejected outright any negotiations with the Jewish state. At Khartoum, Sudan, in the summer of 1967, the Arab states unanimously adopted their famous "three nos": no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel concerning any Palestinian territory. The stridency of the Khartoum resolution, however, masked important changes that the June 1967 War caused in inter-Arab politics. At Khartoum, Nasser pledged to stop destabilizing the region and launching acerbic propaganda attacks against the Persian Gulf monarchies in exchange for badly needed economic assistance. This meant that Egypt, along with the other Arab states, would focus on consolidating power at home and on pressing economic problems rather than on revolutionary unity schemes. After 1967 Arab regimes increasingly viewed Israel and the Palestinian problem not as the key to revolutionary change of the Arab state system, but in terms of how they affected domestic political stability. The Palestinians, who since the late 1940s had looked to the Arab countries to defeat Israel and regain their homeland, were radicalized by the 1967 defeat. The PLO--an umbrella organization of Palestinian resistance groups led by Yasir Arafat's Al Fatah--moved to the forefront of Arab resistance against Israel. Recruits and money poured in, and throughout 1968 Palestinian guerrillas launched a number of border raids on Israel that added to the organization's popularity. The fedayeen (Arab guerrillas) attacks brought large-scale Israeli retaliation, which the Arab states were not capable of counteracting. The tension between Arab states' interests and the more revolutionary aspirations of the Palestinian resistance foreshadowed a major inter-Arab political conflict.

The War of Attrition

The tarnished legitimacy of the Arab states following the June 1967 War was especially poignant in Egypt. Israeli troops were situated on the east bank of the Suez Canal, the canal was closed to shipping, and Israel was occupying a large piece of Egyptian territory. Nasser responded by maintaining a constant state of military activity along the canal--the so-called War of Attrition-- between February 1969 and August 1970. Given the wide disparity in the populations of Israel and Egypt, Israel could not long tolerate trading casualties with the Egyptians. The Israeli government, now led by Golda Meir, pursued a policy of "asymmetrical response"-- retaliation on a scale far exceeding any individual attack.

As the tension along the Egyptian border continued to heat, United States secretary of state William Rogers proposed a new peace plan. In effect, the Rogers Plan was an interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242; it called for the international frontier between Egypt and Israel to be the secure and recognized border between the two countries. There would be "a formal state of peace between the two, negotiations on Gaza and Sharm ash Shaykh, and demilitarized zones." In November Israel rejected the offer, and in January 1970 Israeli fighter planes made their first deep penetration into Egypt.

Following the Israeli attack, Nasser went to Moscow requesting advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other military equipment. After some wavering, the Kremlin committed itself to modernizing and retraining the Egyptian military. Egypt's new Soviet-made arsenal threatened to alter the regional military balance with Israel. The tension in Israeli-Soviet relations escalated in July 1970, when Israeli fighter planes shot down four Egyptian planes flown by Soviet pilots about thirty kilometers west of the canal. Fearing Soviet retaliation, and uncertain of American support, Israel in August accepted a cease-fire and the application of Resolution 242.

Following the June 1967 War, the PLO established in Jordan its major base of operations for the war against Israel. Throughout the late 1960s, a cycle of Palestinian guerrilla attacks followed by Israeli retaliatory raids against Jordan caused much damage to Jordan. In September 1970, after militant factions of the PLO (who previously had stated that "the road to Tel Aviv lies through Amman") hijacked four foreign planes and forced them to land in Jordan, King Hussein decided it was time to act. Throughout September the Jordanian military launched an attack to push the PLO out of Jordan. Jordan's attack on the PLO led to an escalation of Syrian-Israeli tensions. It was widely believed in Washington that deployment of Israeli troops along the Jordan River had deterred a large-scale Syrian invasion of Jordan. As a result, President Richard M. Nixon increasingly viewed Israel as an important strategic asset, and the Rogers Plan was allowed to die.

While negotiating a cease-fire to the conflict in Jordan, Nasser died of a heart attack. The new Egyptian president, Anwar as Sadat, quickly realized, just as Nasser had toward the end of his life, that Egypt's acute economic and social problems were more pressing than the conflict with Israel. Sadat believed that by making peace with Israel Egypt could reduce its huge defense burden and obtain desperately needed American financial assistance. He realized, however, that before some type of arrangement with Israel could be reached, Egypt would have to regain the territory lost to Israel in the June 1967 War. To achieve these ends, Sadat launched a diplomatic initiative as early as 1971, aimed at exchanging territory for peace. On February 4, 1971, he told the Egyptian parliament:

that if Israel withdrew her forces in Sinai to the passes I would be willing to reopen the Suez Canal; to have my forces cross to the East Bank . . . to make a solemn declaration of a cease-fire; to restore diplomatic relations with the United States and to sign a peace agreement with Israel through the efforts of Dr. Jarring, the representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Sadat's peace initiative, similar to the Rogers Plan, was not warmly received in Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir stated unequivocally that Israel would never return to the prewar borders. She also commissioned the establishment of a settlement on occupied Egyptian territory at Yamit, near the Gaza Strip. Her rejection of the Egyptian offer reflected the hawkish but also complacent politico-military strategy that had guided Israeli policy after the June 1967 War. Advised by Minister of Defense General Moshe Dayan and ambassador to Washington General Yitzhak Rabin, the Meir government held that the IDF's preponderance of power, the disarray of the Arab world, and the large buffer provided by Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights would deter the Arab states from launching an attack against Israel. Therefore, the Israeli government perceived no compelling reason to trade territory for peace. This view had wide Israeli public support as a result of a growing settler movement in the occupied territories, a spate of Arab terrorist attacks that hardened public opinion against compromise with the Arabs, and the widespread feeling that the Arab states were incapable of launching a successful attack on Israel. Israel's complacency concerning an Arab attack was bolstered in July 1972 by Sadat's surprise announcement that he was expelling most Soviet military advisers.

Israel History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress