The 1967 Arab-Israeli War lasted six days and was a resounding military victory for Israel but failed to achieve a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1966 border incidents and incursions into Israel by Fatah Palestinian guerrilla fighters increased, and Israeli launched a major military raid into Jordan in the fall of 1966. In spring 1967 the Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol—a dove by Israeli political standards—responded to demands for a stronger stance against Arab provocations by agreeing to the cultivation of demilitarized zones along the border with Syria. Predictably Syria opened fire, and Israel retaliated by shooting down a number of Syrian jet fighters. The Syrians, presumably encouraged by their Soviet allies, believed they were about to be attacked by Israel and appealed to their ally Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt for help.
In an attempt to gain diplomatic support and to look like he was doing something for his Arab allies, on May 16 Nasser asked that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping troops from the frontier posts in the Sinai Peninsula. Nasser mistakenly believed that a protracted period of negotiations would follow; however, according to the UN Charter troops could only be placed in a territory at the invitation of the host country. Consequently, the UN secretary-general U Thant promptly acceded to the Egyptian request and ordered the withdrawal of the peacekeeping force. Egyptian units occupied the posts including the vital Sharm al-Sheikh position along the Gulf of Aqaba, on May 21. Nasser then gave conflicting statements as to whether the waterway would be closed to shipping going to the southern Israeli port of Elath. After the 1956 Arab-Israeli War, Israel had announced that it would view any closure of the waterway as casus belli, or cause for war. On May 23 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson publicly announced that the United States considered the waterway an international one, thereby supporting the Israeli position.
Eshkol advised caution in an attempt to avoid full-scale war, but military leaders and hawks in Israel favored immediate action. A flurry of diplomatic activity ensued, with Nasser seeing UN and U.S. representatives in Cairo and Abba Eban of Israel touring the Great Powers to secure their support in the event of war. The Soviets feared a full-scale war that might escalate into a confrontation between the superpowers and used the hotline to Washington to prevent either power from becoming directly involved.
After receiving notes from both Johnson and the Soviets urging calm, Eskhol convinced most of the Israeli cabinet ministers on May 28 that all diplomatic measures should be used before recourse to war. However, irresponsible rhetoric by Arab leaders inflamed fears among Israelis that they were about to be overrun by Arab forces and also convinced Arabs that their militaries would win any war with Israel. Although the CIA and other experts predicted that Israel, with its military superiority, would quickly win any war with its Arab neighbors, the general public in the West, especially in the United States, was also convinced that Israel was in peril.
On May 30 Egypt and Jordan joined in a joint defense pact, and the PLO was allowed to open offices in Jordan. Iraq also joined the pact. Nasser was approached by both the Soviets and the United States urging a diplomatic settlement and apparently believed that Israel would not attack as long as diplomatic negotiations were in process.
On May 31 General Moshe Dayan, a noted hawk, became the Israeli defense minister, and war seemed likely. On June 5 the Israeli air force launched surprise attacks against Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. Within two hours over 400 Arab planes had been destroyed, almost all on the ground. In spite of the boasts by Arab leaders, their militaries had not been prepared for war. With total air superiority Israel launched a three pronged attack (almost a repeat of the military action in the 1956 war) and easily cut through the Egyptian forces, taking the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt) and also moved across Sinai to the east bank of the Suez Canal. On June 8 Israel and Egypt agreed to a ceasefire in the Sinai. On June 5 Israeli forces also moved against Jordanian forces in the West Bank, taking all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by June 7. Over 100,000 more Palestinians became refugees as thousands fled across the Jordan River to escape the war. On June 27 the Knesset agreed to a proclamation that Jerusalem was one city.
On June 8 Israeli forces moved against Syria in the north while the UN was still negotiating a cease-fire. In a still unexplained attack, Israel, on the same day, torpedoed the USS Liberty, a spy ship deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. By June 9 Israel had taken the Golan Heights from Syria, and a cease-fire was agreed to on June 10.
Taking responsibility for the disastrous defeat, Nasser resigned on June 9 but was brought back to power by popular acclaim. In support of their Arab allies the Soviet bloc severed diplomatic relations with Israel in the following days. In the war, the Arabs suffered over 26,000 killed, wounded, captured, or missing and lost over 1,200 tanks. Israel lost 6,000 killed, wounded, captured, or missing; 100 tanks; and 40 airplanes.
UN Resolution 242 called for the return of territories taken in war but pointedly did not specify all of the territories; this would become a point of contention in future negotiations. The war had been a humiliating loss for the Arab states. Owing to its decisive victory, Israel expected a full settlement, but no Arab government could hope to survive if it accepted an agreement with Israel that did not provide for the return of the newly conquered territory and the recognition of some form of Palestinian state. The impacts of the war were far-reaching and continue to reverberate in the region to the present day.
After the war, Israel announced that it would only accept face-to-face negotiations with the Arabs. From June 14 to 16, Arab leaders met at Khartoum, Sudan, and forged a united front. They announced that there would be no negotiations with Israel until it withdrew from the Occupied Territories and that no separate peace would be made by any individual Arab state. This caused Egypt’s ostracism from the Arab world following Sadat’s unilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979. As a consequence of the impasse, Israel continued to occupy all of the Sinai Peninsula (Egyptian territory), the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights (Syrian territory).
The Soviets rearmed Egypt and Syria and increased their presence in the region. From 1968 to 1970 Nasser waged a war of attrition along the canal, and the Israelis built what they believed to be an impregnable defense line on the east bank of the canal. The line was breached by an Egyptian offensive in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
Initially Israel was probably willing to return most of the Occupied Territories in exchange for a full peace and recognition by the Arab states. The longer Israel held the territories and the more Israeli settlements were established, the less land it was willing to trade for peace.
As a result of the war Palestinians concluded that the Arab governments would not be able to achieve their goal of an independent Palestinian state and that they would have to rely on themselves. This directly contributed to the growth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It also set the stage for a cycle of violence between Palestinian and Israeli forces that continued into the 21st century.
- Dayan, Moshe. Story of My Life. New York: Morrow, 1976;
- Ennis, James J., Jr. Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship. New York: Random House, 1980;
- Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East. New York: Vintage, 1984;
- Laqueur, Walter. The Road to War: The Origins and Aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1967– 68. London: Penguin Books, 1969;
- Neff, Donald. Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days that Changed the Middle East. New York: Linden Press/Simon and Schuster, 1984.
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