The Twin Wars

How the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War shaped Israel.

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The Six Day War was a watershed event in Israel's history that fundamentally shaped the country's collective psyche. Forty years later, however, the war's impact must be understood in light of an equally cataclysmic experience--the 1973 Yom Kippur War. To this day, Israel's politics, international relations, and self-image are dominated by the legacy of the twin upheavals of this brief period. 

Strategic Impact

The Six Day War's most immediate impact was strategic. By June 10, 1967, Israel had conquered the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The area controlled by Israel more than tripled--from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles. These conquests boosted Israel's defensive capabilities by shortening its borders, giving it control of commanding mountain ranges, and providing previously lacking strategic depth.

female soldiers six day war

Female Israeli soldiers in the Six Day War

The decisive military victory over three Arab armies brought about a shift in Israel's self-perception. Overnight, small, beleaguered, and fragile Israel had become a regional superpower. Not only had David defeated Goliath, David had become Goliath.

Credit for this startling victory went to the Israel Defense Force. Where in the past soldiers had been largely anonymous figures, they now became folk heroes and larger than life celebrities, embodying the values of Zionism and the legacy of biblical warriors. The Six Day War initiated a new period of faith in the army--almost a cult of military might--the belief that Israel, watched over by her infallible defense force, was undefeatable.

An Unexpected Triumph

The weeks leading up to the Six Day War had been a time of tension. Fearing an Arab invasion, the Israeli authorities prepared hospitals and cemeteries for thousands of anticipated casualties. Jews everywhere steeled themselves for the possibility of defeat, the destruction of the Jewish State, and--just twenty-two years after the Second World War--the potential massacre of Israeli civilians. The unexpected triumph swept world Jewry along on a cathartic surge of pride and solidarity with Israel--accompanied by an unprecedented wave of aliyah from the United States and other western countries.  

As fears of a second holocaust were put to rest, Israelis hoped for a transformation in their relations with the Arab world. While isolated voices on the Left called for an immediate withdrawal from the territories occupied in the war, Israel's official position was that these territories should be used as a bargaining chip in the peace talks which, presumably, were just around the corner.

Yet even as Israel's negotiating position became stronger, the need for an agreement became less urgent. Time seemed to be on Israel's side: she was in possession of thousands of square miles of Arab territory and, as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan commented, the Arab military threat had been destroyed for a generation.

No to Peace

In September 1967, eight Arab heads of state published the Khartoum declaration: no to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel, no to negotiations with Israel. In the absence of a partner for peace, groups within Israel began pressing for the annexation and settlement of the territories. These voices included Menahem Begin's Gahal (later Likud) bloc, the National Religious Party, and settlement-oriented elements from within the ruling Labor movement. Even those committed to territorial compromise--among them Cabinet minister Yigal Allon--began to articulate the need to retain strategically important parts of the West Bank.

Motivated partly by security concerns, partly by the desire to up the negotiating pressure on the Arabs, and partly by the wave of religious and nationalist euphoria which swept the country with the liberation of Jerusalem and other holy sites in Judea and Samaria, the government approved settlement plans for Jerusalem, the Etzion bloc, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.

But at the same time, the Six Day War brought about a demographic shift that would ultimately pose the biggest challenge to the vision of undivided Israel. The war's conquests brought over one million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli control.

The Yom Kippur War

The optimism--and perhaps hubris--of the post-'67 period was abruptly shattered by the outbreak of war on Yom Kippur 1973. The surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, the failure of military intelligence and the army's lack of readiness, the near defeat and the desperate fight to rebuff the invasion, all stood in stark contrast to Israel's previous triumphs. The war forced Israelis to revisit their feelings of vulnerability and to recognize the reality of the ongoing military threat. Israel's leaders were exposed as arrogant and fallible; Premiere Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were forced to resign and, in the elections of 1977, the Labor party lost power for the first time in Israel's history.

The Yom Kippur War also contributed to the polarization of Israeli politics. The bursting of Israel's security bubble and the loss of faith in the military intensified the need for a diplomatic horizon and revitalized the peace camp, developments which ultimately led to the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978. At the same time, the perceived need to strengthen Israel's hold on the territories in the face of Arab aggression spawned the religious Gush Emunim settlement movement and brought about the Likud's eventual rise to power.

Then & Now

The dynamics triggered by the twin wars of 1967 and 1973 continue to shape Israel's political discourse today. The aftermath of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 evokes the specter of Yom Kippur, but the decision to go to war resonated with the spirit of 1967: the idea that a short, decisive military campaign could transform Israel's diplomatic and security situation. The Sharon and Olmert governments' pre-Lebanon belief in unilateralism--reflected in the disengagement from Gaza and the (abortive) Convergence plans for further unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank--stemmed from the tradition of the Six Day War, just as the current hesitant steps back towards the negotiating table reflect the sober attitude of the post-'73 period.

Ultimately, the faltering resumption of a diplomatic process is also likely to be dominated by the heritage of 1967. As a direct consequence of Israel's conquests in the Six Day War, Palestinians currently make up almost half the population (some demographers say more) of the territory west of the Jordan river. While liberal-minded Israelis have become increasingly concerned about the morally corrupting effects of sustaining military rule over a recalcitrant population,this demographic crisis is what ultimately convinced Ariel Sharon and other right wing leaders to accept the historic position held by the Left--that Israel's identity as a Jewish democratic state was incompatible with its control of the undivided land of Israel.

Yet while this insight has led all Israeli governments since 1992 to accept the principle of territorial compromise, significant practical movement in this direction has been thwarted by a more emotional aspect of the Six Day War's legacy: a sense that the struggle for independence in the Land of Israel had been consummated, and that the Jews had at last come home for good.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.