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Forty Years Later, Six Day War Still Shapes Middle East

By Pierre Atlas

Few events of such limited duration have produced as profound and lasting effects as the Six Day War, which began on June 5, 1967. Four decades later, the geo-political, ideological, and existential issues created by that war still haunt the Middle East.

It was an accidental war, provoked by misperception and miscalculation on all sides. We know this now, with the hindsight of history and archival documents. But in the tense and desperate weeks between April and early June 1967, things looked quite different. The hysterical, bloodcurdling rhetoric coming out of Arab capitals, combined with the provocative actions of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser led many observers to believe Israel was on the verge of being attacked and possibly destroyed. An "air of doom," as the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban put it, enveloped the 19-year-old Jewish state. For ordinary Israelis and Arabs alike, there was a strong sense that a "second Holocaust" was just around the corner.

It was in this volatile atmosphere of uncertainty--and with the United Nations and the United States committed to inaction--that Israel launched its pre-emptive strikes. In six days of intense combat, Israel utterly defeated its frontline enemies. It captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and the eastern half of Jerusalem (with its holy sites) from Jordan. With the West Bank and Gaza, Israel now controlled all of British Mandate Palestine.

The swiftness and vastness of the victory overwhelmed the Israelis, and profoundly transformed Israeli society and politics in the ensuing four decades. From June 1967 to this day, the Israeli polity has been split over what to do with the territories captured in the war. Should they be used as bargaining chips for peace, or kept for strategic or religious reasons? This existential divide produced a chasm wide enough to place the architect of the 1967 victory, Yitzhak Rabin, on one side, and his right-wing Jewish assassin, Yigal Amir, on the other.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the war profoundly challenged the nation's identity as both a Jewish state and a democracy. The captured land and the Palestinians living there were a package deal--and the Palestinians didn't want to be under Israel's thumb. Jewish settlement in the occupied territories made the situation even more problematic. Many of the settlers were driven by a new kind of messianic religious nationalism that grew directly from the Six Day War--whose "miraculous" victory they viewed as an act of divine intervention.

Forty years on, and 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank remain under some form of direct or indirect Israeli military rule, involuntarily sharing the land with over 200,000 Jewish settlers, bypass roads and checkpoints. Any viable peace plan will require the removal of most if not all of the settlements--and yet the settlements continue to expand.

For the Arabs, the Six Day War was a devastating defeat with existential implications. Pan-Arab nationalism and the very idea of Arab unity died in June 1967. It became clear to everyone that Arab regimes acted in their own state interests and not for the "Arab nation." Many Arab intellectuals lost confidence in their identity and culture. Some embraced anti-Semitism and convoluted conspiracy theories to rationalize the Arab defeat.

Many religious Muslims blamed the secular nature of the Arab regimes. They compared the Arab states to the Jewish state, which they (incorrectly) perceived to be a Jewish theocracy. The Jews had remained faithful to their religion and God, so they argued, and had been victorious. The Arabs, on the other hand, had abandoned the tenets of Islam for secularism and non-Islamic political ideologies, and had been utterly defeated.

The answer, they posited, was a "return to Islam" and the fusion of Islam and politics. The Six Day War laid the groundwork for a new critique of Arab politics and society: that of politicized, radical Islam. Today's jihadist ideologies were birthed in the aftermath of June 1967.

For the Palestinians, the war was transformative. Before 1967, they had placed their hopes in the Arab states and waited for them to destroy Israel. But Israel's quick victory demonstrated that this was never to be.

The war spurred the emergence of the Palestinian national movement, separate and distinct from the Arab states, which embraced international terrorism as its strategy of choice for bringing world attention to the Palestinian cause. But as many in the secular PLO eventually came to accept a two-state solution, the Islamist Hamas rose to oppose any peace with Israel. Today's increasingly violent struggle between Fatah and Hamas in "liberated" Gaza is testimony to the Palestinians' internal divide over how to deal with Israel.

Peace between the Arab world and Israel will require altering the reality created 40 years ago this week. The basic "road map" has been on the table since November 22, 1967, in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 242: withdrawal from captured territory in exchange for recognition, peace and security. It worked with Egypt, and it can work with Syria.

The situation is more complicated between Israelis and Palestinians--two peoples claiming the same land. Nevertheless, the "answer" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be summarized in seven words: two secure and viable states, sharing Jerusalem.

Those Palestinians and Israelis able to envision peace understand that this is the ultimate destination. The difficulty lies in getting from here to there. But then, making peace has often been more difficult than making war.

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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