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The Six Day War of 1967 was a turning point for Arab-Israeli relations. The war was a bloody, yet brief conflict fought between Israel and the Arabic states of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. After years of diplomatic disagreement and discontent, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) pre-emptively staged airstrikes that crippled the Egyptian military (Shlaim and Louis, 2012). Israel then seized the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The war ended quickly with a ceasefire brokered by the UN, but the conflict’s legacy is one that continues to dictate Arab-Israeli relations. For the Arabic world, the war meant the end of Nasser-led pan-Arab nationalism and, as a result of this disenfranchisement, the return of conservative Islam. On the fringes of Arabic society, this fundamentalism led to a rise in terrorism; now routinely used to discredit the Arabic side in Arab-Israeli relations. Similarly, the success of Israel in the Six Day War strengthened conservative Zionism within Jewish society. As a result of this boost, right-wing fundamentalist culture continues to control Israeli foreign policy toward the Arab world. Perhaps most important, however, is the US-Israel bilateral relationship that arose from the Six Day War. The relationship created a dangerous co-dependence that continues to see Israel hold the greatest military and economic strength in the region. The Six Day War led to the rise of extremism in both the Arab and Israeli worlds and the interference of the US, devastating Arab-Israeli relations.
The Six Day War led to the decline of Arab nationalism and, subsequently, the rise of Islam fundamentalism, which is frequently used by Israel and its allies to discredit Arab foreign policy in Arab-Israeli relations. In the early 20th century, there were efforts to construct a pan-Arab nationalism more aligned with liberalist and socialist principles than traditional Islam. The greatest expression of this newfound nationalism was Nasserism, based on the thinking of Nasser, the second president of Egypt. This model hoped to create Arabic unity in the conflict against Western colonialism and Zionism. However, the decline of Nasserism in the face of the Six Day War discredited this ideology and was replaced with a return to Islamic fundamentalism. It was believed by many across the Arab world that the ‘abandonment’ of Islam led to the loss of 1967 – “Every single one of the Islamic Jihadists I interviewed said 1967 marked a watershed [moment] for them – a brutal awakening that Arab socialist leaders had deceived them”. After the war, the power of Islamic groups grew as increasing numbers of embittered nationalists abandoned socialist and liberalist ideologies in favour of fundamentalism. Ayman al-Zawahri’s journey illustrates this rise. Fifteen at the time, Ayman recounted how the defeat of 1967, along with the execution of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Sayyid Qutb, a year earlier empowered him to create an organisation to replace Nasser with an ‘Islamist Caliphate’. Many felt the same way, Jihadist expert Fawaz Gerges, after interviews with those who would later join Islamic Jihadist groups, concluded the six day war defeat ‘can be considered the most pivotal event which helps us understand why Islamic militancy has become a potent force in the region’ (2005). In 1978, Ayman al-Zawahri became leader of a faction of Islamic Jihad, calling for Palestinian liberation. In 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Islamic Jihad. Two years earlier, Sadat had signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 1988, Osama Bin Laden and others, among them Ayman Zawahri, issued a fatwa calling for the overthrow of US-friendly governments titled ‘World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders’. This kind of extremism has frequently been used by Israel to discredit Arab foreign policy in Arab-Israeli relations – “Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon now presides over the UN Security Council. This means, in effect, that a terror organization presides over the body entrusted with guaranteeing the world’s security” (Netanyahu, 2011). Indeed, the Prime Minister of Israel freely admits the way Islamic fundamentalism has been used to discredit Arabs – “We are benefiting from one thing, and that is the attacks on the twin towers and the pentagon and the American struggle in Iraq. These events swung American public opinion in our favour” (Netanyahu, 2008). Pre-war pan-Arab nationalism was shed in the aftermath of the Six Day War to be replaced with a return to fundamentalist Islam that would, in Israeli eyes, pollute future Arabic foreign policy.
The Six Day War led to the rise of conservative religious Zionism as the dominant form of Israeli Judaism, a form which continues to shape the state’s expansionist policy on Arab-Israeli relations. On the 10th of June 1967, the mood in Israel was euphoric, the young, and relatively small nation, had captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The country was celebrating the defeat of much of the Arab world. Before the war, internal conflict within Judaism over Zionism had called into question the migration of Jewish people to Israel; many Orthodox Jews believed it was forbidden to return to Israel until the coming of the Messiah. Now, however, many saw the successful conquest of the Biblical homeland as a ‘sign of God’s providence’, legitimising the occupation of Palestine. Zionist leader, Hillel Kook, reflected this view – ‘The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] is total sanctity. It represents the rule of the people of the Lord over His land”. While some inside the Jewish community argued for the return of the occupied Arab lands, the conquest had already given a powerful voice to those who advocated for continued occupation and led to the popularity of Jewish fundamentalists who reinforced the concept of a “Greater Israel”. “It gave rise in Israel to a messianic right-wing expansionism and ideology that had not really existed before 1967. Once Israel took over the West Bank and more and more settlements were built, these became a major obstacle that worked against peace”. After the success of 1967 there remained a secular labour government in Israel. However, the Six Day War had empowered Zionists and six years later, following the Yom Kippur War, a coalition of political conservatives and religious Zionists came to power. This fundamentalist conservatism, that came to power over forty years ago, continues to dictate Israeli policy. ‘…the Six Day War taught us a permanent lesson that is the headstone: Israel will defend itself by own in the face of every enemy, and against a cluster of enemies.” This attitude has been reflected in Israeli foreign policy since the country rejected a peace treaty with Egypt in 1971. As a consequence of the Six Day War Israel has “decided to favour expansion over security” for the past fifty-two years. In the World Report 2019 Israel was found to have “continued to enforce severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights; restrict the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip; and facilitate the unlawful transfer of Israeli citizens to settlements in the occupied West Bank.” The success of Israeli conquest during the Six Day War strengthened the religious Zionist sector of Judaism, setting the aggressively expansionist Israel foreign policy agenda for decades to come.
The Six Day War was the catalyst for the contemporary US-Israel relationship. This relationship continues to see moves toward peace settlement blocked and the military and economic strength of Israel ensured. Before 1967, US support for Israel was not strong. Indeed, there are many examples of conflict between the two nations – in 1956 President Eisenhower, along with England and France, forced Israel to give up the Sinai after its occupation. However, after the Six Day War this position radically changed. In the 1960’s the British began to pull out of bases in the Gulf region (Telhami, Indyk and Stein, 2017). At the same time, Arabs were desperate enough for weapons to acquiesce to the Soviets and allow troops on the ground in exchange for weapons. Both of the US’ priorities in the Middle East; holding back the Soviet Union; and ensuring the movement of oil, were fast becoming a concern that required direct action. When Israel defeated Nasser, they performed a great service for the US. Nasser was a symbol of secular, independent Arab nationalism which posed a serious threat to the US insofar as leading a sphere of the world (Chomsky, 2002). Thus, after Israel’s 1967 conquest it was strategic to lend support to the young and now powerful country. Since this time Israel has acted as a satellite of US policy and power, used by the US to exert influence over the Middle East. This support has shaped Arab-Israeli relations since. The US relies on Israel being a nation embattled. If a peace settlement were reached in the Middle East, Israel would become an integrated part of the region, representing the area’s most technologically advanced country much like Luxembourg or Switzerland. In this situation the utility of Israel to the US would be greatly reduced, as the country’s value lies in its complete reliance on the US and thus complete reliability. Thus, the US has blocked paths toward peace settlement – using their veto in the UN Security Council power 42 times to block resolutions relating to Palestine. This is more than 50% of 83 times they have used their veto power. Israel is also dependent on the US for military and economic strength receiving $3.1 billion in military aid and $8 in loan guarantees. The Six Day War marked the beginning of a US-Israel relationship that frames the pro-Israel backdrop on which Arab-Israeli relations occur.
The Six Day War was a watershed moment in the history of Arab-Israeli relations. In just six days Israel defeated the armies of three Arab nations and seized territory from each. For the Arab world the defeat marked the failure of moderate Nasserism and a return to Islamic fundamentalism – a fundamentalism that would later to work to undermine the Arabic foreign policy. For Israel, the conquest marked the rise of religious Zionism, empowering the conservative nationalistic sector of the community which continues to set, and control, their expansive foreign policy agenda. In terms of international consequences, the 1967 war established perhaps the most influential relationship in Arab-Israeli relations. Israel formed a dependence on the US which would see peace settlements in the region blocked and the growth of Israel’s military and economic dependence on the USA. The consequences of the 1967 Six Day War, while they may have proved beneficial for some actors (the US and Israel), continue to be devastating for Arab-Israeli relations.
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