Michael Oren is a current member of the Knesset for the Kulanu party and the Deputy Minister for Diplomacy in the Prime Minister's Office. He is the author of the New York Times best-selling Power, Faith and Fantasy and Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which won the Los Angeles Times History Book of the Year Award and the National Jewish Book Award. Oren retired as Ambassador to the US in 2013.
A month after the war, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem but it also offered to return almost all of land captured from Syria and Egypt in exchange for peace. The Arabs responded with the three ‘’noes"—no negotiations, no recognition, no peace. Nevertheless, that November, the United Nations passed Resolution 242, affirming the right of all Middle Eastern states to “secure and recognized borders” and establishing the principle of “territory-for-peace.” That concept served as the basis for Israel’s 1979 peace agreement with Egypt which, in turn, enabled the Israel-Jordan treaty of 1994. The peace process, as it came to be known, is a product of the Six-Day War.
So, too, is the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance. The war wakened the White House to the existence of a democratic, pro-American, Middle Eastern powerhouse that just defeated several Soviet-backed armies. Today, America’s military and intelligence relationship with Israel is deeper and more multi-faceted than with any other foreign state.
The war also galvanized Jewish identity. The reuniting of the State of Israel with the Land of Israel—Haifa is not in the Bible, but Hebron, Jericho, and Bethlehem are—made the country much more Jewish. The war also enabled American Jews “to walk with our backs straight” and their organizations became proudly pro-Israel. For Soviet Jews, especially, who could be sentenced to prison merely for studying Hebrew, the war served as a source of inspiration and courage. After playing a key role in bringing down the USSR, nearly a million of these Jews would immigrate to Israel and help transform it into the world’s most innovative nation.
Due in part to its display of strength in the Six-Day War, Israel today has flourishing ties with China, India, and the former Soviet Bloc countries. Though unthinkable a half-century ago, the Sunni Arab states now view Israel not as an enemy but as an ally in the struggle against ISIS and Iran.
But what about the occupation of Palestinians, who consider the war al-Naksa—the Setback—a period of profound humiliation and a sense of abandonment. Paradoxical as it might sound, and without diminishing their trauma, the Palestinians were fundamentally transformed by the Six-Day War.
Before the war, with Jordan in possession of the West Bank and Egypt occupying Gaza, nobody spoke about a Palestinian state or even about the Palestinians at all. But then, for the first time since 1948, the three major centers of Palestinian population—in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel—were brought together under a single country's governance (Israel's). The result was a tremendous reinforcement of the Palestinians' identity, rooted in the realization that they could no longer look to Nasser or any other Arab leader to fight for their cause. Not accidentally, shortly after 1967, the PLO merged with al-Fatah under Arafat and launched high-profile terrorist attacks. Seven years later, that same Arafat received a standing ovation in the UN General Assembly. The Six-Day War put the Palestinian issue on the international political map.
For Israelis, though, the ultimate legacy of the Six-Day War is the belief that the “swift sword" with which they defeated their enemies could someday be beaten into ploughshares. Wars in history do indeed become wars of history, but they can also result in reconciliation. Gazing from Mount Hermon fifty years ago, the Israeli soldier could glimpse a scorched and still-dangerous landscape, but one that nevertheless held the possibility of peace.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The New York Daily News.
All wars in history inevitably become wars of history. No sooner do the guns grow silent then the debate begins over whether the war was justified and its outcome positive. The arguments surrounding the Civil War, for example, or even World War II, fill volumes. But few wars in history have proved as contentious as the Six-Day War. Now, on its fiftieth anniversary the battle lines are clearly drawn. On the one side are those who insist that the Arabs never seriously threatened Israel which initiated the fighting to expand territorially. The war resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the building of Israeli settlements. Rather than a victory, the war transformed Israel into colonial, apartheid state. The other interpretation maintains that Israel had no choice but to fight and that this defensive war provided the state with secure borders, vital alliances, peace treaties, and a renewed sense of purpose.