The Arab Losses of the Six-Day War Persist
Arab analysts now see the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict as the start of a long decline in pan-Arab nationalism
AMMAN, JORDAN — IN the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser gave a speech on the radio calling Israel's victory a "setback" for the Arab world, and telling millions of listeners in a dozen Arab countries that he would lead a complete recovery of the lands that Israel captured.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Today, 25 years after the conflict began, a consensus is emerging among Arab analysts that the 1967 war was the beginning of a rapid decline of the pan-Arab nationalism that peaked in the 1950s.
Even though none of the Arab states except Egypt has officially recognized Israel, all of them have effectively accepted the existence of the Jewish state. Their demands in the United States-brokered Middle East peace negotiations are now confined to an Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967.
The move to a more pragmatic position has been compelled by successive Israeli victories and an Arab failure to unite.
This shift has been forced by Egypt's unilateral treaty with Israel in 1979, which removed the most populous Arab country from the conflict; by the collapse of the Soviet Union; and by the destruction of the Iraqi military capability in the Gulf war, say Arab analysts from several countries.
During the 1967 war, Israel occupied the Palestinian West Bank (which was under Jordan's control) and the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian administration), as well as the Egyptian Sinai and the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. Israel gave back the Sinai peninsula to Egypt after the 1979 Camp David accords.
The victory gave the Israelis control over water resources in the West Bank's Jordan River valley and the Golan Heights.
Another important implication of the war, one that has now become a major factor in the region, is the emergence of an independent Palestinian nationalist movement in reaction to the failure of Arab governments to promote the Palestinian cause.
The armed Palestinian movements that mushroomed in Jordan after the war succeeded in 1969 in turning the Palestine Liberation Organization from a weak, Arab-sponsored forum to placate angry Palestinians into an independent nationalist movement.
"Israel ... inadvertently sparked the renaissance of an independent Palestinian movement," says Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian West Bank activist. Waning fervor
But although the war initially prompted a wave of anti-Israeli fervor and support for the Palestinian cause, some Palestinian observers now worry about the war's impact on their interests.
"The balance of power that resulted from the 1967 war ... finally paved the way for peace talks, and could lead to a normalization of Arab-Israeli relations [that would] exclude the national rights of the Palestinian people," argues Dr. Barghouti.
"If it were not for the 1967 defeat, it is very unlikely that Egypt could have shifted dramatically in favor of a unilateral peace treaty with Israel," adds Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Jordan University Centre for Strategic Studies.
Egyptian philosopher Mahmoud Amin al-Alem argues that the Arab world could have prevented the military defeat from turning into a political loss if Egypt under its late President Anwar Sadat had not "bowed" to the West.
"It is wrong to assume the 1967 military defeat has automatically led to a political defeat. The defeat ignited nationalist feelings and it could have been a turning point toward Arab unity and independence were it not for the death of Nasser and the emergence of a pro-Western leader from within the nationalist regime," says Dr. Alem, referring to Sadat's rise.
Haysam Ayoubi, a Paris-based Syrian military expert, agrees with Alem that the 1967 defeat had the potential to trigger a build up of the Arab ability to counter Israel. "The 1967 defeat alarmed the Arabs to the importance of redressing the balance of power and achieving strategic parity with Israel," says Mr. Ayoubi. Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in a military coup three years after the war, has long sought to achieve such parity.
Ayoubi also claims the Egyptian treaty turned 1967 into a political defeat. He argues that the Camp David accords and later the crushing of the Iraqi military have made the objective of strategic parity with Israel close to impossible.
Parallels between the 1967 war and the Iraqi defeat by the US-led coalition in the Gulf war are often drawn by Arab politicians and analysts. Both are seen to have resulted in the consolidation of the US grip on the region, further inhibiting Arab unity and providing Israel with the upper hand.
But analysts see differences in the long- and short-term effects of the two defeats. More focus on democracy
While the 1967 defeat initially strengthened pan-Arab nationalism, the Gulf war subdued this trend.
It has not, for instance, given rise to popular political movements. Yet the Gulf war has prompted Arab activists and intellectuals to confront the urgency of democratization in a way that did not exist even at the peak of the resurgence of Arab nationalist revolutionary movements immediately after the 1967 defeat.
"At that time, the movement in the Arab world took a Stalinist revolutionary style. The emphasis was on liberation of Palestine [and] independence, but not much thought was given to the issue of democracy," observes Dr. Hamarneh. "Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war underscored the importance of democracy in the struggle for independence."
One reason the Gulf war had such a different effect is the shock that the Arabs suffered from the fact that unlike the 1967 war, Arabs were divided into two fronts during the Gulf conflict, and it was not a matter of liberating Arabs lands from a foreign occupier.