Two Surprising Lessons of the Six-Day War

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Egypt was in deep crisis in the spring of 1967. Fully a third of its army was mired in an interminable war in distant Yemen. Instead of preparing for war with Israel, the army hemorrhaged blood and treasure chasing terrorists around the remote mountains of southern Arabia. Out of growing frustration, the Egyptians decided to use chemical weapons against the recalcitrant tribesmen of the north; they even threatened war against Saudi Arabia, the rebels’ patron and Egypt’s great adversary in the “Arab Cold War” of the 1960s.

Growing tensions with the oil kingdom precipitated a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington.

The resultant suspension of US economic aid drove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser more deeply into the arms of the Soviets and brought the Egyptian economy to the brink of collapse. In response, the government announced unpopular austerity measures.

Basics such as bread and cooking oil began to disappear from the shelves. The Egyptian street boiled with anger.

And the foundations of the regime began to shake.

One need not be a strategist to recognize that Egypt was not prepared for war with Israel at the beginning of 1967. And yet, on May 14, Nasser marched his army into the Sinai desert and precipitated a crisis that ended in war. Why? The causes of the Six Day War are complex. But they boil down to a simple truth – and one that is uncomfortable for many on opposite sides of the conflict. Neither Israel nor Egypt wanted war. The war came about because Israel got caught up in an inter-Arab struggle that had nothing to do with Israel or the Jews.

Nasser ignited the front with Israel in an attempt to shift attention from his foreign and domestic failures to the one subject whose legitimacy in the Arab world superseded all internal disputes: the common struggle against the Zionist enemy. In other words, the great Arab-Israeli war was in fact derivative of a war among the Arabs themselves.

Much has changed over the past 50 years. The Cold War has ended, peace treaties have been signed, and the regional order has collapsed. Yet from a structural perspective, one can observe more continuity than change.

The region is once again riven by a great power struggle, this time between the Shi’ite Persian republic of Iran and the Sunni Arab kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Iran has assumed Egypt’s former role as the neighborhood bully. Predictably, it has chosen anti-Zionism as its weapon of choice in the contest for regional hegemony.

Just as in the 1960s, the belligerents have elected to carry out their struggle by indirect means and at the expense of third parties – this time Yemenis, Syrians and Iraqis. Today, as then, the United States and Russia have taken familiar sides.

What lessons does the experience of 1967 offer Israeli policymakers in the present? On one level, the origins of the ‘67 war serve as a clear warning: wars between Israel and its neighbors may break out less out of genuine hostility toward Israel and more as a byproduct of internal conflict within the Muslim world. Therefore, as rival factions tear Syria apart, Israelis must remember the speed with which an Arab conflict can turn into an Arab-Israeli war, and be careful of attempts to drag them into other peoples’ civil wars.

At the same time, the story of 1967 also illustrates how easily Israel can be dragged into regional conflicts despite its utmost efforts to stay out of them. This suggests a rather different lesson: whether we like it or not, Israel is a Middle Eastern state. Notwithstanding its unique position in the region – a liberal democracy, surrounded by Muslim hostility, strongly aligned with the West – Israel is a principal actor in a region that ostensibly rejects it. The demographic realities of contemporary Israel, which place it more in the East than in the West, reinforce this basic strategic insight.

The Jewish state is an integral part of the Middle East no matter how insistently Israelis – and their detractors – claim they dwell in a (European) villa in the (Arab) jungle.

In this sense, the Six Day War presents an enduring challenge to Israeli conceptions of their collective identity and its bearing on national security strategy. On the 50th anniversary of the war, just months shy of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state, it is time for Israelis to define their role in the neighborhood, which, for better or worse, they will continue to inhabit for centuries to come.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.