June 5th marks the 50th anniversary of a preemptive Israeli airstrike that destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground, paving the way for Israel to defeat Egypt, Jordan and Syria in what came to be known as the "Six Day War."
Israel’s lightning victory over its Arab neighbors in June of 1967 stunned the world and surprised even the Israelis themselves. Most analysts agree that the Six Day War transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Middle East as a whole, and U.S.-Israeli ties forever.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert with the Brookings Institution, listed some of the far-reaching changes that followed the conflict in 1967: “You know, the Israeli pushback of the combined Arab armies and the conquest of territory suddenly gave Israel cards to play in negotiations with the Arab states that it did not have before. There's a direct line from the 1967 war’s outcome in Israel's conquest of Sinai and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.”
“And in some ways, it was the defeat in 1967 and the need to get the Sinai back that helped shift Egypt out of the Soviet orbit toward the United States," Cofman Wittes added. "And ultimately, to get Egypt to conclude that historic peace with Israel, which really changed the fundamental reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict and began a diplomatic process led by the United States that we are still involved in today.”
Sarah Yerkes, another Middle East expert, works for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In her view, it is key that Israel won control of Jerusalem and increased the buffer zone separating the Jewish state from its neighbors: “At that time in 1967, when you have enemies coming from all sides, expanding your territory is important, just militarily and strategically.”
However, that expansion meant that Israel was suddenly controlling a large Palestinian population. The occupied territory and the claims by both Israelis and Palestinians for their own independent state form the crux of the unresolved conflict five decades later. Two generations of Israelis and Palestinians have never known anything but physical and psychological separation, and that has framed their views.
“Young Israeli and Palestinian are more skeptical than their parents and grandparents of the prospects for a two-state solution," said Cofman Wittes. "Majorities of Israelis and Palestinians still prefer a two-state outcome to any other outcome of their conflict. But they believe less and less that it’s going happen in their lifetimes.”
The Brooking Institution analyst said that skepticism is a real obstacle to any leader who might want to take big steps toward peace.
During a recent visit to Israel, President Donald Trump said he is personally committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace agreement, and that he believes leaders on both sides want peace.
Carnegie analyst Sarah Yerkes cautions that even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders could overcome domestic pressures to try to forge a peace deal, the negotiations themselves would require a lot of U.S. manpower and focus. She also noted the Trump administration continuing inability to fill key positions at the State Department to sustain such an effort.
Cofman Wittes, who describes herself as skeptical about the near-term chances for an agreement resolving the Middle East crisis, said Trump’s avowed intention to move the peace process forward as best he can should be taken seriously.