Few historical events are inevitable, but the 1967 June Arab-Israeli War was virtually fated to occur.
Its roots can be traced to 29 November 1947, the date on which the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted Resolution 181 Recommending the Partition of Palestine. The Zionist movement accepted the resolution, on the grounds that it conferred international recognition upon the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. A number of Zionist leaders – Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and the other forbearers of today’s Likud Party – rejected it because the territory allotted to the Jewish state excluded 44 per cent of Palestine as well as Transjordan, over which they also claimed sovereignty. Yet for David Ben-Gurion and his associates who dominated the Jewish Agency for Palestine and World Zionist Organization, the territorial aspects were secondary; the boundaries of their state would be determined by force of arms, not a United Nations document.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the 1948 War the newly-established state of Israel controlled no less 78 per cent of Palestine and refused to declare its borders. During the war, Israeli commanders such as Yigal Allon had advocated seizing the remainder of Palestine in violation of covert agreements with Jordan’s Hashemites to divide the country between them, but were overruled by a political leadership that considered it more expedient to use Arab weakness and defeat to achieve regional diplomatic recognition. When such plans were frustrated by the assassination or overthrow of compliant Arab leaders and the ascendancy of nationalist regimes, Israel reverted to the military option. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, it colluded with Britain and France and occupied the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula in a failed scheme to overthrow Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Under severe international, including American pressure, Israel was in early 1957 additionally forced to evacuate the occupied territories. Contingency plans to expel the remaining Arab population within Israel and seize the West Bank from Jordan were not activated.
The statements of Israeli military and political leaders, and a voluminous body of scholarship, conclusively demonstrate Israel’s determination to find a way to succeed where it had failed in 1956. Its objectives were unchanged: to deal a fatal blow to Egypt’s Nasser, seize more territory, and –an Israeli obsession since 1948 – relocate the Palestinian refugee population of the Gaza Strip away from its borders.
The opportunity finally presented itself in 1967. Amidst Israeli threats against Damascus, Israel began mobilizing forces on the Syrian front. Pursuant to its mutual defense treaty with Syria, Egypt deployed forces in the Sinai Peninsula. It also called upon the UN to remove most of the peacekeeping contingents based in Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. As Israel’s chief-of-staff, Yitzhak Rabin, stated before and after the war, Egypt’s deployment was defensive in nature and Nasser sought to deter Israel from attacking Syria rather than initiate war. Had Israel been seeking a reduction in tensions, it could among various measures have permitted the UN to station peacekeepers on its side of the border. Instead, it on 5 June launched Operation Focus, which air force commander Ezer Weizmann among others would freely admit had been in preparation for a decade. Similarly, Teddy Kollek, mayor of West Jerusalem, was before the war told he would soon rule the east of the city as well. Declarations that Israel was confronting existential threats and was initially attacked by the Arab states made for good propaganda, but had no basis in fact. American military and intelligence assessments correctly predicted Israel would rout its Arab adversaries in less than a week, and Israel felt sufficiently confident about the purported threat on the Syrian front that it launched the offensive to seize the Golan Heights only on the penultimate day of the war, after Damascus had accepted a ceasefire.
In six days Israel occupied territory triple the size of its pre-June 1967 boundaries. It immediately incorporated East Jerusalem into Kollek’s fiefdom (the annexation of the Golan Heights would follow in 1981), and almost immediately began establishing colonies in the occupied Arab territories and laying the groundwork for permanent rule. Once again, it refused to declare its borders, erased the Green Line from official maps, and for good measure renamed the West Bank “Judea and Samaria”. Israel’s categorical rejection of territorial withdrawal in exchange for peace until the aftermath of the 1973 October War (Moshe Dayan in 1969 famously quipped, “I would rather have Sharm Al-Shaikh without peace than peace without Sharm al-Shaikh”), conclusively demonstrates this was never a military occupation as conventionally understood under international law, and that Israel’s ambitions far exceeded leveraging the occupied territories to compel Arab recognition of Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries. No sooner had the ink dried on the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, then Israel began claiming it had fulfilled its obligations under UNSC 242 because it had withdrawn from more than 90 per cent of the territories occupied in 1967. To the extent Israel was unable to ethnically cleanse and annex territory as it had in 1948, or fulfill its obsession with regard to the refugee population of the Gaza Strip, this reflected a changed world and international order rather than a changed Israel.
The period since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which rather than producing a suspension of Israeli expansionism or phased Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries has witnessed an exponential acceleration of Israeli colonization, demonstrates once again that the 1967 War was launched to correct what Israel viewed as the territorial injustice of the 1947 partition resolution. A half century later, we can continue to pretend the Israeli occupation is no different than other instances in which armies seize territory on a temporary basis to improve their government’s bargaining position, and thus continue to promote a negotiated peace, or recognize that Israel’s continued presence in these territories is by its very nature illegal and thus must be terminated as a matter of principle.