The scenes were flashed around the globe: lines of burnt-out Egyptian vehicles stretching across the desert, Syrian bunkers blown up and abandoned on the Golan Heights, Jordanian tanks smoldering on the roads to Hebron and Nablus, and the Israeli flag fluttering along the Suez Canal, atop Mount Hermon, and over the Temple Mount. In six short but intense days starting on June 5, 1967, Israeli forces had accomplished one of the greatest victories in military history, decimating the combined Arab armies and conquering territories more than three times the size of the Jewish state. Israel and the Middle East — one might even say the world — would never be the same.
For the Arab world, the impact of the Six-Day War was both far-reaching and profound. It sounded a death-knell for pan-Arabism, the secular nationalist movement that had dominated the region's politics for the previous 50 years. Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the venerated embodiment of that idea, had been humiliated, as had the forces of Baathist Syria and Iraq. No longer would Nasser, or indeed any other pan-Arab leader, effectively demand Arab unity or command the allegiance of millions in the so-called Arab street.
In place of the discredited Arabism, modeled on modern European nationalist movements, arose a far more indigenous and long-standing idiom: Islamic extremism. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded in Egypt in 1929 and subsequently suppressed, traced its resurgence to the Six-Day War (or the June War, as Arabs insist on labeling it). The emergence of the Brotherhood's many offshoots, among them Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, also has roots in the events of June 1967.
For the Palestinians, especially, the war proved transformative. Prior to 1967, the Palestinians were deeply divided both geographically and organizationally. Terrorist groups such as Fatah, founded by Yasir Arafat in 1958 and responsible for a series of small-scale attacks against Israel in the mid-‘60s, were miniscule and void of political influence. Inaugurated by Nasser in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Movement was widely regarded as an Egyptian propaganda tool. Most Palestinians, whether in the Egyptian-occupied Gaza or in the West Bank, which had been annexed by Jordan, looked to Nasser as the future liberator of Palestine.
All of that changed with the massive Arab defeat. Suddenly, the Palestinians realized that they could no longer look for salvation from any Arab state or Arab leader; that they could only rely on themselves. Consequently, a mere year after the war, the PLO emerged as an umbrella organization uniting most of the Palestinian factions, and a year after that, Arafat became the PLO's chairman. Palestinian national identity, meanwhile, was vastly strengthened by the physical reunification of the majority of the Palestinians for the first time since 1948. In Gaza and the West Bank, in Galilee and the Negev, the Palestinians were now linked under a single government: Israel's.
The war radically altered Arab and Palestinian politics, but the changes it brought to Israel were little short of seismic. Though the fact is largely forgotten today, the Israel Defense Forces fought that war with French, and not American, arms. The United States, even under the friendly presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, had refused to sell offensive weaponry to Israel and had even rejected an Israeli proposal for establishing military liaisons with the IDF.
Israel was dramatically reunited with its biblical homeland: Hebron, Jericho, Beth-El, Shiloh, and above all, Jerusalem.
American standoffishness ended, however, in June 1967, as Israeli Mirage fighters destroyed hundreds of the Arabs' made-in-the-USSR warplanes and as Israel ground forces smashed the Soviet-supplied armies of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Once perceived by American policy-makers as a diplomatic liability, Israel now appeared in American eyes as a strategic powerhouse, the ultimate Cold War ally. Johnson proceeded to conclude a sale of advanced Patton tanks and Phantom jets to Israel. Out of the fire of 1967, the U.S.-Israeli alliance was forged.
More fundamental than the change in Israeli ties with the United States, however, was the transformation in Israel's self-conception. An overwhelmingly secular state prior to 1967, situated largely in the coastal area and the Negev, neither of which had been centers of ancient Jewish settlement, Israel was dramatically reunited with its biblical homeland: Hebron, Jericho, Beth-El, Shiloh, and above all, Jerusalem. The effect was to make Israel less Israeli and much more of a Jewish state. And in the absence of Arab peace partners, many Israelis could not resist the urge to settle these sacred areas.
The war also revolutionized Israel's connection with diaspora Jewish communities. American Jews in particular claimed that the war had enabled them to "walk with straight backs," and vastly strengthened their commitment to Israel. Diaspora contributions flooded the country and aliya skyrocketed.
The Six-Day War also had negative influences on Israel, to the degree that many Israeli writers today refer to the war as "the curse of 1967." The conquest of Gaza and the West Bank contributed to a dangerously delusional Israeli machismo and to the two mortally opposed movements — the right-wing Gush Emunim and Peace Now — that bitterly divided Israeli politics. The Yom Kippur War, the War of Attrition, the intifada, the terror war, the unending procession of UN resolutions condemning alleged Israeli abuses in the territories — all are outcomes of the events of June 1967.
Yet it would be mistake to allow the fallout of the Six-Day War to obscure its monumental benefits. Israel today has treaties with Egypt and Jordan thanks to its 1967 victory, and a relatively quiet border with Syria. The war gave rise to UN Resolution 242, which remains the building block of any Arab-Israeli negotiation, and to the peace process that continues to this day. And if the Palestinians now have an opportunity to achieve statehood in areas evacuated by Israel it is because of, not in spite of, the Six-Day War. Indeed, few events in history, whether in the Middle East or beyond, have had such massive ramifications, precipitating further rounds of bloodshed but also opening unprecedented opportunities for peace.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Week.