Michael Oren: Reflections on the 6 Day War 40 years later

Historians in the News

THE 1967 SIX DAY WAR has spawned hundreds of books, perhaps most importantly Michael Oren's bestselling Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

The war's 40th anniversary commences on June 5th and Oren has continued tracking its importance. He explains now that it, "Not only created the modern Middle East as we know it today, but changed Arab society and politics profoundly. . . . It sounded the death knell for secular Arab nationalism and the man who embodied that idea, former President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, by opening the door to the ascendance of a new idiom in Islamic radicalism."

Indeed, Islam's secular Arab nationalism, which had dominated Arab politics for the previous 50 years, has been almost completely discredited by the Six Day War. Instead, Oren notes, Arabs have increasingly "looked not to Western models of secular nationalism, but their own Islamic extremism for answers to Zionism and the Jewish State."

With one exception, that is: The Six Day War sparked Palestinian nationalism, which was almost non-existent before 1967 because, according to Oren, "the Palestinians realized that they could no longer look to any Arab leader to redeem Palestine for them and so they began to look to themselves. This is why the Palestinian Liberation Organization emerges immediately after the war as a major force in Arab politics." And "while the PLO had been created by Nasser in 1954 as a sort a straw organization; it didn't command any type of legitimacy, certainly among Palestinians, before the Six Day War." However, in the immediate years that changed. As Oren tells us, "The PLO as an umbrella group began to take in all the Palestinian organizations, including Al-Fatah, which wasn't part of the PLO before that. And a year after, in 1969, we saw Yasser Arafat emerge as the chairman of the PLO."

In terms of the impact the Six Day War had on Israel, Oren says, "First, it transformed the country in the sense that it reunited the State of Israel with the Land of Israel. Israel, pre-1967, was centered mostly on the coastal areas, which included the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. The reuniting with Jerusalem and with the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people--with Shiloh, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron--made this much more of a Jewish State. Secondly, it strengthened Israel Diaspora relations in a way that hadn't existed before and led to the U.S.-Israel alliance." As Oren underlines, "People forget that Israel fought the Six Day War not with American arms, but with French arms. While the U.S. had a warm relationship with Israel before this; it wasn't a strategic relationship. Very quickly, however, American leaders woke up on June 5, 1967 and realized that Israel was not only a regional superpower, but also a very valued ally in the Cold War. And finally on an international level, the Six Day War created the peace process. There was no peace process before 1967; simply Resolution 242."

Land for peace has become commonly-accepted rhetoric in negotiations for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement since 1967. When asked if this was a mistake, Oren says no, "because the idea of 'land for peace' was already on the table in 1948, when Count Folke Bernadotte, the first U.N. mediator spoke about it. However, it didn't gain any kind of substantial support until after the Six Day War when Israel had acquired a lot of Arab land and had almost quadrupled its territorial size. Therefore, it became legitimate to ask Israel to give these lands back in exchange for Arab peace. Israel also accepted that principle."

But while the Six Day War unified the Jewish people, the international community--and in particular, the European and American left--began to turn against it in the aftermath. Explaining the shift, Oren says, "Before the Six Day War Israel was perceived as the David fighting the Arab Goliath, but after the war the immensity of Israel's military victory transformed Israel from the David into the Goliath and the Palestinians became the new David."

Asked what lessons of the Six Day War can be applied looking forward, Oren says, "The first is that when you have a context of conflicts, which you had in 1967, it doesn't take much to spark off a regional conflagration. For example, if tomorrow Hezbollah fires a rocket into Israel; it could end with a regional war that quickly transforms the Middle East. And secondly, which is perhaps the most important message, is that the Jewish State will never again go quietly to extermination and that if it is alone it will do what it has to in order to ensure its survival."

Emphasizing that last point Oren says that he likes to remind people of the following: "In 1967, the French ditched Israel. The Americans said they couldn't help and Israel struck out all alone. The moral is that at the end of the day Israel can exist without American or European support, but what we can't do without is our leaders, our viable leaders." As Oren concludes, "Israel has demonstrated again and again during its 59 years of existence that it can always deal with external threats, but that can only be accomplished if it has a profound faith in its leadership."
Read entire article at Amy K. Rosenthal at the website of the Weekly Standard

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