How Six Days in 1967 Shaped the Modern Middle East

How Six Days in 1967 Shaped the Modern Middle East

Israeli soldiers in front of the Dome of the Rock.
Israeli soldiers in front of the Dome of the Rock. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the war’s fiftieth anniversary, five scholars discuss how Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Arab world were remade.

June 2, 2017 10:09 am (EST)

Israeli soldiers in front of the Dome of the Rock.
Israeli soldiers in front of the Dome of the Rock. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

After the saber-rattling Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula on May 18, 1967, and mobilized the Egyptian military, Israel attacked. Swiftly defeating the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian militaries, it captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Golan Heights, and tripled the territory under its control. The victory gave the small country the “strategic depth” that some of its founders believed was needed to protect it from attack; Israel is less than ten miles wide at the narrowest stretch between the Mediterranean and the Green Line, the partition that marks Israel’s internationally recognized eastern border. It also brought large Arab populations under the Israeli military’s control.

More From Our Experts

The Arabs’ defeat battered the prestige of Nasser’s pan-Arabism and left the Palestinians to press for a state on their own. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements have proliferated in the West Bank, while Palestinians there have lived under continued Israeli military rule, at times mediated by the Palestinian Authority, an interim body for self-rule.

More on:

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Palestinian Territories


Wars and Conflict

Below, five scholars reflect on the outsized influence six days in 1967 had in shaping today’s Middle East.

Israeli Force Led to Arab Accommodation

Israel’s overwhelming victory in the 1967 war caused the defeated Arab states to face and eventually accept the reality that they would never liberate all of Palestine. They could achieve no more than Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it conquered during those six days in June.

Signs of Arab accommodation came quickly. At the first Arab League summit after the war, in Khartoum in September 1967, the Arab states famously declared the principles of “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” What received far less notice was the preceding sentence. It affirmed not just that the Arab states sought Israel’s withdrawal only from the “lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5,” but also that they sought to achieve it nonviolently, through “political efforts at the international and diplomatic level.” Following the summit, Israel’s director of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Yariv, informed the Knesset that the Arabs had decided to seek a political solution.

More From Our Experts

But Israel was not eager to give up the lands it conquered in 1967, so it rushed to denounce the Khartoum Resolution as a display of intransigence, dubbing it the “three noes.” In fact it was a significant, capitulatory step toward formally accepting Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries.

Two months later, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, calling for peace in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from territories it began occupying during the war. It was accepted by Egypt, the most powerful Arab state, as well as Jordan. Fifteen years later, the Arab states gathered at a 1982 summit in Fez, Morocco, where they endorsed these principles by calling for Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for “peace among all states of the region.” That proposal is nearly identical to the Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted by the Arab League twenty years later, in 2002.

More on:

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Palestinian Territories


Wars and Conflict

Once the Arabs conceded Israeli control of the 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine that Israel held prior to the 1967 war, the Palestinians, whose entire strategy had been premised on entangling the Arab states in a war to liberate all the land, stood no chance of gaining anything more than the remaining 22 percent—that is, Gaza and the West Bank. They were far too weak to secure even that on their own, and over the two decades following the war, the Palestinian national movement, too, came to admit the new reality.

Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, is author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, from which this piece is adapted. Copyright © 2017 by Nathan Thrall. All rights reserved.

Egypt: From June Defeat to March Reforms

In the eleven years between Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, in July 1956, and the Six Day War, in June 1967, the set of ideas that came to be known as Nasserism— anti-colonialism, pan-Arab nationalism, statism, and socialism—seemed to work. Egypt experienced economic growth, its people were afforded new opportunities in education and the social mobility that came with it, and the country achieved a modicum of international influence and prestige. Yet Israel’s crushing blow on June 5 laid bare just how shallow the changes had been.

When Nasser resigned in the aftermath of the defeat, tens of thousands poured into the streets to call him back to office, but this display of popular support obscured growing opposition to the political order that the Egyptian leader and his junta had been building. There had been minor protests against Nasser in 1966, but in February 1968, Egypt’s university campuses—primarily the engineering faculties—erupted in an explosion of anger. The proximate cause for these protests was the relatively light sentences meted out to the commanders of Egypt’s air force for the June defeat, but the students articulated broader concerns.

Prisoners captured by Israeli forces at the Straits of Tiran.
Prisoners captured by Israeli forces at the Straits of Tiran. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The students demanded political reforms including representative government and greater personal freedoms. In one dramatic moment, student organizers presented their demands to Anwar al-Sadat, who at the time served as president of the National Assembly. Although Sadat assured them that their concerns would be broadcast to the nation, his promise was never fulfilled. Still, Nasser later issued what would be called the March 30 Program. It articulated the reasons for Egypt’s poor military performance (primarily the incompetent and corrupt cadre of officers around Defense Minister Abdel Hakim Amer), emphasized the achievements Egypt had made in the ten months since Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, and called for a new constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression, thought, religion, and the press. The document stressed the need for democratic practices to rehabilitate Egyptian society and mobilize it in preparation for a decisive confrontation with Israel.

The political opening that the program promised was quickly forgotten, however. The mobilization of Egyptian society through the subsequent War of Attrition with Israel across the Suez Canal and in preparation for the military crossing of the canal on October 6, 1973, which precipitated what would be known as the Yom Kippur War, would take place within the politically circumscribed contours of the national-security state that Nasser built.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

Victory Invigorated the Religious in Israeli Politics

The Zionist movement and the early Israeli state were dominated by secular and socialist Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe. Labor Party leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres believed that the Orthodox Judaism of the European diaspora, as well as that of Jews from Arab countries, was doomed to disappear in the new land.

Such men, and one woman, Golda Meir, held the reins of power until Menachem Begin's victory in 1977. Since then, religious parties—both the ultraorthodox and those in the national-religious camp—have played a key role in Israeli politics.

This change in the balance in Israeli politics is customarily attributed to demographic and sociological factors: the orthodox had more children, and Jews from Arab lands rebelled against what they saw as discrimination by the Ashkenazi elite, whose prestige was diminished by the 1973 war.

Religious Jews dance at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, in July 1967.
Religious Jews dance at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, in July 1967. (Manuel Litran/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Too little attention is paid to the role of 1967. For the many Israelis who were still believers, the unexpectedly quick and complete victory must have seemed like proof that, after centuries of exile and then the Holocaust, God had kept His biblical promises. Their ancestors had prayed three times daily for Jerusalem, and now it was in their hands. For the first time in two thousand years, Jews controlled the Western Wall. Jews who had lived in the West Bank—the biblical Judea and Samaria—under the British Mandate were massacred or driven out, but now that land too was theirs. Surely this was God’s hand in history.

Their faith renewed and deepened, the religious were dismissive of leaders who thought their prowess alone explained Israel’s astonishing victory. The religious movements could now stake a far more confident claim that they too had the right to rule.

They hardly represented all Israelis; they could never win an election alone and never dominated the coalitions that governed Israel. But far from being a dying remnant of traditional Judaism, they would henceforth demand to be heard.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at CFR and author of the forthcoming book Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring.

How the Settlements Were Normalized

“Am Yisrael chai!” (The nation of Israel lives!) sang future Israeli settlers at a sit-in at the old train station in Sebastia, in the northern West Bank, in the summer of the 1975. The Woodstockesque festival was attended by messianic followers of the premier extraparliamentary settler activist group, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), which was committed to building civilian settlements in biblical Israel after the 1967 war to redeem the land and its people.

Yet fifty years since the first Jewish Israelis came to settle the occupied territories, the national-religious fringe that was the face and guiding force of the movement has given way to a much more complex mosaic of ideologies, constituencies, and discourses. No longer a historical vanguard, the Israeli settlement enterprise has grown to be a heterogeneous coalition of some 400,000 individuals (550,000, if including Jewish residents of the parts of municipal Jerusalem over the Green Line, which Israel annexed after the war). While both scholars and the media continue to propagate the stereotype of settlers as millenarian activists, today’s settlements are more likely to comprise economic opportunists, the ultraorthodox (who comprise the single largest demographic bloc), or native Israelis and Jewish immigrants of mixed religious and ethnic backgrounds, including some sixty thousand from the United States—the subject of my new book.

As the Israeli settler movement celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, the diversity and dynamism of the enterprise is a testament to the success of the state’s securitized suburbanization initiative. Since the 1980s the Israeli government has invested major economic and military resources in the occupied territories. Dispersing its population from major urban areas in territorial Israel, it uses civilians to achieve strategic aims and normalize the occupation (so much so that Israeli Jews born since 1967 don’t know where Israeli sovereignty ends). As links between the metropole and its colony have deepened, disengagements have become ever more difficult and the settlement project ever more entrenched.

The erasure of the Green Line raises questions about the existence and future of any Zionist or Palestinian entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the possibilities for partition—or any other political configuration—on this small piece of real estate. Both the left and right are converging on the idea that there is little difference between the Israeli settlement of Tel Aviv and the Jewish colony of Tekoa, south of Bethlehem, but their visions for the future of Jews and Palestinians in a one-state reality diverge sharply.

While the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 war is a moment for deep reflection, even if every settlement disappeared tomorrow, the roots of the conflict, dating to 1948, would still remain.  Historical narrative matters, and reaching a final-status agreement on settlements will not resolve other issues or provide for a just and claims-ending agreement. Fifty years on, we must acknowledge that neither Israelis nor Palestinians may now consider it possible—or preferable—to pursue a two-state solution.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn, university research lecturer and Sidney Brichto fellow at the University of Oxford, is the author of City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement.

The 1967 War and the Palestinian National Movement

The June 1967 war did not create the contemporary Palestinian national movement, but did establish the conditions for its meteoric rise and its ability to wrest custodianship of the Question of Palestine from the Arab states. The development has had far-reaching consequences to this day.

From the conclusion of the 1936–39 Great Arab Revolt against the British Mandate in Palestine until the 1967 war, the Palestinians were often little more than spectators to the regional and international decisions and developments that determined their fate—first and foremost the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, which resulted in their collective dispossession. Although Palestinian nationalist movements, such as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), began to emerge within a decade of the 1948 nakba (Catastrophe), throughout the 1950s and 1960s most Palestinians sought and expected salvation from a mobilized Arab world. More Palestinians joined the various pan-Arab, communist or Islamist movements proliferating throughout the region, or pledged allegiance to specific Arab leaders or regimes, than volunteered for organizations bearing a distinctly Palestinian agenda. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was in fact established by the Arab League in 1964 as a mechanism through which the Arab states, particularly Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, could control growing levels of Palestinian nationalist activism and thereby perpetuate their custodianship over the Question of Palestine and thus leadership of the Arab world.

Yasir Arafat walks with Jordanian official Bahi Lagdham in October 1970.
Yasir Arafat walks with Jordanian official Bahi Lagdham in October 1970. (AFP/Getty Images)

A mere six days in June 1967 transformed these realities. From the comprehensive defeat of the Arab militaries and thorough discrediting of the Arab regimes emerged one new Palestinian nationalist movement after another. George Habash, who had previously founded the pan-Arab Movement of Arab Nationalists, reemerged in December of that year as the general secretary of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. As Palestinians made Jordan into a Palestinian guerrilla base, Fatah seized control of the PLO in 1968–69 and installed Yasir Arafat as its new chairman. By the mid-1970s the PLO had successfully established itself as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and in so doing it effectively saw off the claims of Jordan’s King Hussein to the West Bank and representation of its population, and of Israel to deny the Palestinians’ very existence.

The centrality of the Question of Palestine to the Arab-Israeli conflict and of Palestinian self-determination to the international agenda were critical if unanticipated consequences of the June 1967 war. Transforming the Palestinian people from a dispersed demographic reality into a unified political actor remains the Palestinian national movement’s signal achievement. Yet today, seemingly unable to confront the relentless advance of Israeli settler-colonialism, this is at risk. More fragmented, dispersed, and divided than at any point since 1948, the Palestinians risk once again becoming a politically inconsequential demographic reality. It is only by arresting and reversing the disintegration of the national movement that took form after 1967 that Palestinians will be able to convert their dream of liberation and freedom from a receding mirage to political reality.

Mouin Rabbani is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail

Top Stories on CFR



The closely watched elections on July 28 will determine whether incumbent President Nicolás Maduro wins a third term or allows a democratic transition.

International Law

The high court’s decision could allow future U.S. presidents to commit grave abuses of power with impunity, with serious implications for U.S. foreign policy and national security.