The legacy of the Six-Day War
Fifty years ago, the State of Israel won a decisive military victory over the Arab world in the fastest major campaign in the history of warfare. The Six-Day War transformed the relationship between Israel and the world, permanently altered the balance of power in the region, and made the world a safer place.
The forces arrayed against Israel appeared overwhelming. Egypt alone outnumbered Israel by many times, and both Syria and Jordan had armies that appeared on paper to be robust. Beyond that, Arab nations stretching across West Asia and North Africa were added on the scales against Israel, and most of these nations contributed some forces to the conflict.
Israel had fought two wars, in 1948 and in 1956, against its enemies in the region, and Israel had won victories far from conclusive but which preserved, at least, the survival of the Jewish State. Almost from the beginning of the Six-Day War, it was clear that the Israelis were going to fight for an unmistakable and crippling defeat of those who had sworn to destroy their homeland.
Air strikes destroyed the Egyptian Air Force, which was large and had the newest Soviet fighters, in a surprise attack that set the tenor of the whole war. Sharp armored thrusts into Sinai pushed the Egyptian Army all the way back to the Suez Canal.
Jordan lost the West Bank of the Jordan River, despite possessing with the Arab Legion perhaps the finest of the Arab armies in the world. Syria lost the Golan Heights in savage fighting that cost the Israelis dearly but that the Israelis won in a few days.
Before the Six-Day War, Egypt could not only close Suez to Israel, but threaten to close the Straits of Tiran, preventing Israel from using Elath in the Gulf of Aqaba, its only port into the Indian Ocean. Jordan from the lands it held in the West Bank could literally shoot artillery clear across the waist of Israel at some places. The Golan Heights near the Sea of Galilee gave Syria the high ground in any conflict for harassing attacks against Israel.
In six days, all that changed forever. The Straits of Tiran were opened forever for Israeli maritime traffic, and Suez was closed until Egypt and Israel could reach a peace. The lands of the West Bank were lost to Jordan, probably forever, and Jerusalem was placed in Israeli hands. The Golan Heights were now an Israeli bulwark against any future wars by Syria instead of the other way around.
There would be one more way, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the balance of military power changed permanently in the region. Because of the Six-Day War, Israel had something to bargain with in its dealings with Egypt, and the 1977 Camp David Accords were a direct consequence of this acquisition of bargaining power by Israel through military operations.
The Six-Day War also meant that the Arab world, except for the largely face-saving 1973 Yom Kippur War by Egypt, would never again even attempt to defeat Israel militarily. That knowledge gave Israel some flexibility it had never had before, and because young Israelis serving as part-time soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force have no wish to fight any wars except wars for the survival of Israel, the result has been peace among the nations of the region.
Although it was not obvious at the time, the Six-Day War also was one of the earliest victories of the free world in the Cold War. The warplanes the Israeli Air Force flew – Phantoms and Mirages – were clearly superior to the Soviet MiG fighters, and the effectiveness of the Israeli Defense Force, citizen-soldiers in a free democracy, was clearly superior to the regular forces of Soviet proxies.
The sheer speed and ease of Israel's victory stunned the Kremlin, which had assumed that the pilots it had trained fighting in the aircraft it had built could compete with Western military technology and training. Not so. Much like the almost effortless victory of American-led forces in Desert Storm 25 years later, the Six-Day War suggested to the Politburo that all its vast investment had been a waste.
Free democracies hate war, but when they engage, they fight – or ought to fight – to win. That is what Israel rightly did fifty years ago, and because of that, its sons and daughters may never have to fight another war again.