Efraim Karsh is Professor Emeritus of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London and Professor of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, where he also directs the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
The June 1967 war was a major watershed in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, second only to the 1948 war.
For one thing, Israel’s capture of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ended two decades of Egyptian and Jordanian occupation of these territories, brought the fledgling Palestinian national movement back from the dead, and made the future of the Palestinians a question of the first order.
At the time Palestinian nationhood was rejected by the entire international community, including the Western democracies, the Soviet Union (the foremost champion of Arab radicalism), and the Arab world at large. Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which established the principle of “land for peace” as the cornerstone of future Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, did not even mention the Palestinians by name, affirming instead the necessity “for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem”—a clause that applied not just to Arabs but to the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab states following the 1948 war.
All this changed dramatically following the 1967 war. By the mid-1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had made itself into the “sole representative of the Palestinian people,” and in short order Jordan and Egypt washed their hands of the West Bank and Gaza. This led to a fundamental reinterpretation of Resolution 242 as implying a two-state solution: Israel alongside a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza living side by side in peace.
The astounding Israeli victory punctured the pan-Arab bubble of denial forced at least some Arabs to confront the reality of Jewish statehood. If the 1967 war was fought with a view to destroying Israel, the next war, in October 1973, had the far narrower objective of triggering a political process that would allow Egypt to regain the territories lost in 1967. Israel’s remarkable military recovery in October 1973 after having been caught off-guard further reinforced Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s determination to abandon pan-Arabism’s most celebrated cause and culminated in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979. Jordan’s King Hussein followed suit fifteen years later, in October 1994.
Yet it would be wrong to construe that treaty as a fundamental acceptance of Israel's legitimacy. While one can only speculate about Sadat’s ultimate intentions (he was assassinated in October 1981 by an Islamist zealot), there is little doubt that his successor, Hosni Mubarak, viewed peace not as a value in and of itself but as the price Egypt had to pay for such substantial benefits as increased U.S. economic and military aid. So did the PLO, which perceived its 1990s peace agreements with Israel as a pathway not to a two-state solution but, in the words of prominent PLO official Faisal Husseini, as a “Trojan Horse designed to promote the organization’s strategic goal of “Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea” — that is, a Palestine in place of Israel.
In Arab eyes, then, with the partial exception of Jordan’s King Hussein and his son and heir King Abdullah, contractual peace with Israel has represented not a recognition of legitimacy but a tacit admission that, at least for the time being, the Jewish state cannot be defeated by force of arms. Yet while Israel’s national security is infinitely stronger than it was fifty years ago—with the likelihood of an all-out war virtually nil due to the ravages of the recent Arab upheavals, and many Arab regimes covertly collaborating with the Jewish state on pressing security issues (notably the containment of Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions)—the Palestinian leadership’s unwavering rejectionism, and the advent of a new generation of Palestinians for whom the 1967 defeat is but a dim memory, one more historical injustice that has to be redressed by any means necessary, makes the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace as remote as ever.