Amman, May 31, 2007
Israel's attack on Egypt, Jordan and Syria on June 5, 1967, is widely recognised as a defining date for this region. It left Israel in control of all geographic Palestine, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Syria's Golan Heights, Lebanon's Shebaa Farms and wedges of Jordanian territory, and precipitated 40 years of constant conflict.
Egypt and Jordan regained lost territory and made peace with Israel in 1979 and 1994, but the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese are still struggling to secure their rights on the basis of the land-for-peace formula recognised by the Arabs and the international community as the foundation of a comprehensive settlement. Until peace is achieved on this basis, the war will go on.
The search for an end to the conflict is not helped by ignorant and pro-Israeli commentators who continue to regurgitate myths spun four decades ago about the "Six-Day War". These fabrications hold that the ‘67 conflict was a "war of survival" because the Arabs wanted to obliterate Israel and Israel's victory was "miraculous".
These commentators ignore the testimony of Israeli politicians and analysts who soon dispelled these fabrications with hard facts.
In February 1968, Yitzhak Rabin, chief-of-staff during the 1967 war, told Le Monde: "I do not believe [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent to Sinai on May 14 would have not been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it."
General Mordechai Hod, commander of the Israeli air force during the war, asserted in 1978: "Sixteen years of planning had gone into those initial eighty minutes [when an Israeli air raid destroyed 90 per cent of the Egyptian air force, winning the war for Israel]. We lived the plan, we slept on the plan, we ate the plan. Constantly we perfected it."
Finally, in 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin dubbed the 1967 offensive as a "war of choice". Thus, the June war did not just "happen", it was made to happen. Israel carefully prepared for the day it would have a pretext to attack neighbouring states and conquer territories Zionist ideologues claimed as part of Eretz Israel or believed to be valuable assets.
The June war was a well-planned campaign of territorial conquest which was promptly followed up by a well-planned Israeli drive for the colonisation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan and the Sinai.
On May 26, the Independent of London published a report revealing that Theodor Meron, the Israeli foreign ministry's legal adviser in 1967, told the government as early as September 1967 that it was illegal to build settlements in occupied territory, citing the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The government ignored Meron's advice and went ahead with colonisation, flouting international law and undercutting efforts at peacemaking. Ilan Pappe, a leading member of the group of Israel's "new" historians argues that the international community was complicit in this drive.
Most Western and Arab commentators writing on this dark anniversary, focus on the political impact in the Arab world of this war and neglect psychological, economic and social consequences which have shaped regional politics for the past 40 years.
Although dealt a heavy blow by the emergence of Israel in 78 per cent of Palestine in 1948, the Arabs began to recover their balance in the 1950s. Nasser, whose charisma was bolstered by the tripartite (British, French and Israeli) attack on Egypt in 1956, launched a programme of far-reaching reforms and initiated efforts to achieve Arab unity. Arab nationalist officers who seized power in Iraq after the 1958 coup against the British-backed monarchy took their cue from Nasser. Egypt and Syria forged the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 as a first step in a project to unite the entire Arab world.
Arab optimism was strengthened by the election in 1960 of John F. Kennedy, an aristocrat with considerable understanding of the Third World, to the presidency of the US. He soon declared his intention of seeking rapprochement with Nasser, who had been shunned by Britain and France since the Suez debacle. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 was a major blow to US-Arab relations.
Although the UAR faltered and was dissolved in 1961, Arab economists and politicians proposed alternatives to unity involving creation of a common Arab market and promotion of a common Arab political front through the Arab League. Arab states initiated land reform and industrialisation, and tried to expand inter-Arab trade by lowering tariffs and barriers. It was predicted that some Arab states would soon reach the "take off" stage in economic development.
On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel erased 19 years of advancement in the key Arab frontline states. The effect of the Israeli victory was amplified by the stance adopted by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, who threw the entire weight of the US government behind Israel, declaring the Jewish state Washington's chief strategic regional ally because it could be counted on to back the US in the cold war.
The ‘67 debacle was far worse than that of 1948-49 because it led to another 40 years of conflict, which has hampered the Arab ability to build modern, secular, democratic societies. Since then, there have been a dozen conflicts involving Israel, two Palestinian Intifadas, a 15-year Lebanese civil war, eight years of war between Iran and Iraq, and two US wars on Iraq. In all these conflicts there has been direct or indirect Israeli input. Today two Arab countries of major geopolitical significance are occupied: Palestine by Israel and Iraq by its ally, the US.
1967 and the conflicts it spawned killed Arab optimism and aspiration and led to the deterioration of the socio-economic fabric of Arab society. This left Arab youth with a vision of unending struggle and resulted in the gradual emergence of radical Muslim fundamentalist factions which seek to overthrow Arab regimes and take revenge on the US and Israel. Radical fundamentalists claim and enjoy legitimacy since these powers are regarded by an overwhelming majority of Arabs as their archenemies.
This ugly scenario was preventable. The US and its Western allies could have exerted pressure on Israel to come to terms with the Arabs by withdrawing from all the territory occupied in 1967. But this did not happen because Western leaders did not have the political will to tackle Israel and its powerful allies in the diaspora. The 2001 attacks on the US should have forced the West to change its approach. But the strikes on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, symbols of the US military-industrial complex which fuels Arab-Israeli wars, were blamed on anonymous "terrorists" who want to destroy Western "freedom" and the Western "way of life".
Few analysts and still fewer politicians dared to speak of young Arabs so deeply frustrated by powerlessness and hopelessness that they chose to die to prove they exist.