How the Six-Day War turned Israel into regional superpower

Conflict in 1967 shifted Israel’s sense of security and hardened positions on both sides

A report this week in the New York Times, revealing that Israel had developed a doomsday plan to detonate an atomic bomb in Egypt's Sinai peninsula if it faced defeat in the 1967 conflict, underscores the prevailing mood in Israel in the days leading up to the Six-Day War, which took place 50 years ago this week.

The "Samson Option", outlined by Yitzhak Yaakov, a retired brigadier general who was arrested in 2001 for revealing Israel's nuclear secrets, entailed detonating the nuclear device to deter Arab states and to force the international community to intervene to prevent Israel's destruction.

After Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai in May 1967 and announced a blockade of Israel's access to the Red Sea via the Straits of Tiran, war appeared inevitable.

As both sides massed troops, an unprecedented anguish gripped Israel. Military projections spoke of the possibility of tens of thousands of fatalities and public parks were designated as makeshift cemeteries. The Israeli leadership questioned whether a victory was even possible as generals pressed the politicians to give the green light for a decisive first strike. Jewish communities overseas spoke of an imminent disaster reminiscent of the Holocaust.


Prime minister Levi Eshkol’s cabinet finally gave the order for the air force to attack on June 5th and within hours the overwhelming majority of the Arab air forces had been destroyed while still on the ground.

Strategic nightmare

The decisive military victory in less than a week left Israel in control of the Golan Heights in the north and the Sinai peninsula in the south. The biggest change came in central Israel, where the capture of the West Bank from Jordan removed the possibility that the enemy could suffocate Israel at its narrowest point – 11km between the Palestinian town of Tulkarm and the coastal city of Netanya – a strategic nightmare since Israel's inception.

Israel suddenly had strategic depth and bargaining chips it could leverage in favour of a future peace deal.

A new regional superpower had emerged and Israel experienced a shift in its overall sense of security.

Yet, beyond the goals of eliminating the Egyptian threat and destroying Nasser’s army, the country’s leaders had not prepared for an outcome which resulted in Israel occupying territory three times its pre-1967 dimensions.

After the 1956 Suez crisis, where Israel had joined forces with Britain and France against Egypt, the international community had forced Israel to swiftly withdraw from all the territory it had captured. Israeli leaders assumed the same would happen after 1967.

But any hopes of a speedy land-for-peace deal quickly evaporated as Arab leaders meeting in Khartoum in September adopted what became known as the Three Nos: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations.

Lacks cohesive policy

A consensus quickly developed among the Israeli leadership that Jerusalem could never again be divided and that the river Jordan valley would remain the country's eastern security border. Above and beyond this, no decision was taken on the future of the West Bank.

The “temporary” occupation of the West Bank has now continued for 50 years and Israel still lacks a cohesive policy on the future of the territory and the status of the more than 2.7 million Palestinians residing in the area.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed this week that Israel will maintain security control over the entirety of the West Bank, with or without a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, he said that Israel seeks “true peace” with its neighbours.

“For that reason, in any agreement, and even without an agreement, we will maintain security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan river.”

Moment of truth

Despite unprecedented American military aid, Mr Netanyahu said the main lesson from the 1967 war is that Israel cannot rely on its allies for its defence.

“In the moment of truth, Israel must be prepared and capable to deliver a serious, even deadly blow to anyone who wants to harm it. In the Six-Day War, Israel learned that it had to defend itself on its own. We withstood that test, and we will never go back and leave our fate in the hands of others.”

A poll released this week shows that only about one-third of Israelis believe in the possibility of a genuine peace arrangement with the Palestinians. Sixty-two per cent have already lost faith. A Palestinian state, if it should be established, will be – in the opinion of two-thirds of the citizens and three-quarters of Jewish respondents – a Hamas stronghold that will shower Israel with missiles.