Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Six-Day War: Israel's Costs vs. Its Benefits

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Six-Day War: Israel's Costs vs. Its Benefits

Article excerpt

The June 1967 war was a major watershed in Israel's political history. The astounding military victory was a key factor in driving parts of the Arab world to confront the reality of Jewish statehood. The war's territorial acquisitions, by contrast, are often seen as a mixed blessing. For although these gains gave birth to the land-for-peace formula (commonly associated with Security Council resolution 242 of November 1967), which led to the historic March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel's continued control of the Golan Heights and the West Bank has put it under persistent international pressure. The fiftieth anniversary of the war offers an auspicious vantage point for rethinking the pros and cons of retaining these territories.

Military and Strategic Importance

There is little doubt that the foremost gain attending Israel's 1967 victory lies in the transformation of the international discourse about the country's future borders, with the June 1967 line (or the Green Line) becoming the starting point for any such discussion. This represents a sea change for Israel, whose neighbors had previously refused to accept its very existence, let alone its initial borders.

The highly restrictive borders delineated by the U.N. partition resolution of November 1947 have almost entirely dropped off the international agenda, their only residual remnant being the international refusal to recognize West Jerusalem (internationalized by the resolution along the city's eastern part) as Israel's capital. Also overlooked are the repeated Arab attempts to slash Israel's pre-1967 territory, notably through the annexation by Egypt and Jordan of the Negev region, some 60 percent of Israel's territory, an idea that received occasional favorable hearing in London and Washington.1

The massive political and diplomatic achievement by Israel notwithstanding, the war's territorial acquisitions entailed a string of important military and strategic advantages. Control of the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley, for one, gives Israel far better military lines of defense than it had before 1967. The current Golan border is the watershed line of the region, allowing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to hold the high ground with its clear defensive advantages. Nor is there any other line on the Golan to which Israel could withdraw while maintaining its topographical edge. The top of the cliffs that mark the western edge of the heights, sometimes mentioned as a possible line of withdrawal, would prevent the Syrians from having direct view into Israel, but it is no higher than the terrain to the east.

In addition, the IDF's presence on Mount Hermon enables the gathering of intelligence on goings-on in nearby Syrian areas and even further into the country. The claim that spy planes and satellites can replace the Hermon's intelligence value is only partially true as these measures have limited intelligence-gathering capabilities compared to the unlimited capabilities of the Hermon station. Moreover, there are weapon systems for downing airplanes and destroying satellites while it is exceedingly difficult to down a mountain. The presence of Israeli military forces just 60 kilometers from Damascus also has a deterrent value as it is far easier to attack the Syrian capital from the Golan Heights than from the Green Line. Indeed, the IDF's advance on Damascus in the October 1973 war was among the reasons why Syria agreed to end the war. Conversely, without Israel's defense line on the Golan, the Syrians would have managed to invade its territory at the beginning of that war-for the first time since the 1948 war-with tragic consequences for the Jewish state. Instead, the security margins provided by the Golan allowed the IDF to contain the Syrian offensive, to regroup, and to move onto the counterattack.

The demilitarization arrangements in the Sinai Peninsula, which served to stabilize Egyptian-Israeli strategic relations and paved the road to their historic peace treaty, are hardly applicable to the Golan given the marked size difference between the two arenas: a 200-kilometer-deep demilitarized zone in Sinai compared to the Golan's maximum width of 24 kilometers. …

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