The Myths About 1967 That Just Won't Die

Fifty years after the Arab-Israeli war, popular assumptions about its impact are begging to be reexamined.

Israeli border policemen secure an alley as Israeli youth march on their way to the Western Wall.
Israeli border policemen secure an alley as Israeli youth march on their way to the Western Wall. (Nir Elias / Reuters)

The Arab-Israeli war that took place in June of 1967 was undeniably a major watershed in modern Middle Eastern history and a fundamental inflection point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In conquering the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan, and east Jerusalem, Israel created new and enduring realities that would frame the pursuit of peace and the waging of wars for the next half century. For Palestinians, the experience would be particularly bitter.

At the same time, the notion that the proverbial six days of war created a figurative Seventh Day—a kind of dark shadow under which the Arab-Israeli conflict has played out, inexorably and depressingly, these many years—is too simplistic a read.

The war created its fair share of crises, to be sure. But it also generated opportunities and a new, more pragmatic dynamic among the Arab states and Palestinians, which at least partially reversed the results of the war itself and transformed much of the Arab-Israeli arena.

With this in mind, here are some myths about the war’s centrality and impact that need to be reexamined.

“The 1967 war was the most consequential and impactful of the conflicts between Israel and the Arabs.”

Not so fast. Clearly the 1967 war has a contemporary media, political, and commemorative profile higher than that of any other Arab-Israeli war. The stunning speed of Israel’s military victory; the sheer magnitude of the Arab defeat; the conquest of Jerusalem; the enduring nature of the Israeli occupation and the settlement enterprise—all these things guaranteed that high profile.

Still, a compelling argument can be made that the 1948 conflict was more foundational, creating as it did the state of Israel, the Palestinian refugee problem, and a political revolution in Arab politics that would see various coups and revolutions. And it is the “1948 identity issues”—refugees and acceptance of a Jewish state—that remain to this day among the most intractable issues in the negotiations.

Nor can we diminish the import of the October 1973 conflict. The 1967 war led to six years of impasse broken only by the 1973 Egyptian-Syrian attack and the U.S. diplomacy that followed. Indeed, it was the 1973 war, not the 1967 war, that would see Harold Saunders, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, coin the much celebrated and maligned term “peace process” during the Kissinger shuttles, and that would lay the basis for the ensuing Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

“There were very real and missed opportunities for Arab-Israeli agreements in the wake of the war.”

Not really. There was a flurry of initiatives, statements, and U.S. and Russian maneuvering during the postwar period. And in November 1967, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 established the guiding principles for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, representing the war’s most important diplomatic legacy. But counterfactuals are at best a tricky and risky business. From my personal experience serving Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations between 1988 and 2003, I can attest that diplomats and would-be peacemakers often imagined openings and opportunities where there were none.

On June 19, 1967, the Israeli Cabinet secretly decided to exchange Sinai and the Golan for peace agreements with Egypt and Syria; but no consensus was reached on the West Bank, though the Cabinet agreed to incorporate Gaza into Israel and to resettle refugees elsewhere in the region. The Cabinet proposal narrowly passed by a single vote; divisions between the military and the politicians (and within these groups, as well) made a serious initiative almost unthinkable. Meanwhile, the Arabs, reeling from defeat, were more focused on keeping their own houses in order and maintaining some measure of unity in the wake of their latest military humiliation. Even if the Israeli offer had been concretized, it would have faced impossible odds. Egypt’s launching its war of attrition and the public hardening of Arabs’ attitudes seemed to make any serious process impossible. The Arabs’ three no’s at the Khartoum summit of August 1967—no peace; no negotiation; no recognition—seemed to sum up the impasse, even though Egypt’s President Nasser was apparently prepared to consider U.S. and Russian mediation and demilitarization of the occupied territories.*

“The war was an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinians.”

Not completely. To be sure, the 1967 war (known as the Naksah, or Setback, as opposed to the 1948 war, known as the Nakba, or Catastrophe) represented another defeat for Palestinians. Depending on whether you believe Israeli or Jordanian sources, an additional 175,000 or 250,000 Palestinians left the West Bank. But the war would carry an unintended set of consequences that would redefine the Palestinian national movement. The discrediting of the Arab states, particularly the bankruptcy of Arab nationalism, would force Palestinians to strike out on their own; they, not the Arab regimes, would become the symbol of the new Arab man born in the wake of defeat but unvanquished still.

In 1968, Yasser Arafat would assume control of the Palestine Liberation Organization; in 1974, at the Rabat summit, the PLO would be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.** And Palestinians would begin to make the transition from hapless refugees in the 1940s and 1950s to terrorists and guerrillas during the 1960s and 1970s to political interlocutors by the 1980s. Politically inconvenient as it may be, despite the pain and suffering of further rootlessness and displacement, the Arab defeat reenergized Palestinian identity and put Palestinians on the political map.

“The 1967 war was a catastrophe for peacemaking.”

Not really. In strategic terms, the 1967 war created one new reality that could not be denied: Arab state weakness and the rapidly fading prospect of destroying Israel by force, even in phases. Arab rhetoric remained eliminationist. But the results of the October 1973 war—which left Israel on the verge of destroying Egypt’s Third Army, the IDF within striking distance of Damascus, and Jordan’s King Hussein sitting on the sidelines—confirmed the obvious: Whatever the leaders of Arab states felt in their hearts, their hands were just not capable of ridding the region of a Jewish state.

The conclusion of the disengagement accord with Syria in 1974 and the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 made a two-front war against Israel virtually impossible. Growing ties between Washington and Cairo and Amman would further reduce the risks of state-to-state conflict. Indeed, there had been a major Arab-Israeli war in every decade of the latter part of the 20th century: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. The 1990s was the first decade without one of these wars, and for the past 35 years there has been no inter-state conflict, although there were asymmetrical conflicts between Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Still, the growing alignment between Israel and the Sunni states, particularly in the Gulf, attests to a new pragmatism born of a common threat perception of a rising Iran and Sunni jihadis, and sheer Arab state fatigue with the Palestinian issue.

“Fifty years later, Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians are ready to solve the conflict.”

Don’t bet on it. The fact that President Trump’s commitment to make “the ultimate deal” coincides with the anniversary of 50 years of failing to do so should be a cautionary note. There is, no doubt, the possibility of a new opening: a new and unpredictable American president who is committed, at least rhetorically, to an Israeli-Palestinian accord, and a seeming willingness on the part of Sunni Arabs to reach out to Israel. The Arab states can supplement, facilitate, and complement what Israelis and Palestinians do, though they can’t substitute for it.

Still, at the core of the impasse is a reality that shows no signs of changing: the gaps on the core issues—1967 borders, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state—are Grand Canyon-like. Without their narrowing, no matter how the new peace process starts, it is hard to imagine it ending well. And in this regard, the shadows of both the 1967 and 1948 wars will likely continue to hang heavily.

* This article originally stated that the Khartoum summit took place in August 1968. We regret the error.

** This article originally stated that the Rabat summit recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians in 1970. We regret the error.