Published on June 6th, 2017 | by Mitchell Plitnick3
The War that Changed the Middle East
by Mitchell Plitnick
Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.
Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries.
Israel was a 19-year-old country that was in a de facto state of war with all its neighbors. Its economy was much more centrally controlled than it is now, and the country was much poorer. Palestinians who remained within Israel after the 1948 war were mostly granted technical citizenship, with voting rights, but lived under martial law until 1966. Those restrictions were hauntingly similar to what Palestinians in the West Bank live under today. Curfews, travel permits, administrative detention, land confiscation through the manipulation of the law, and summary expulsions were all traits of the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Although Israel had been building its military strength since 1948, the extent of its military might was both far less than it is today and untested. The United States supported Israel and saw it as a Cold War ally, but the relationship was not nearly as close as it is today. Israelis did not need a Benjamin Netanyahu to scare them. They faced real threats from countries around them and had no idea if their military was sufficient to counter that threat. The populace was always afraid of a major war, and that fear rise to a fever pitch in spring 1967.
The West Bank was controlled by Jordan, which had annexed it in 1950, an act that no other country, save the United Kingdom, ever recognized. Nonetheless, Palestinians living in the West Bank as well as in the rest of Jordan were granted full citizenship. But there was virtually no contact between Palestinians on the West Bank and those in Israel, splitting families apart for many years.
East Jerusalem was also under Jordanian control. The city’s status as an economic hub declined sharply as it had lost its connection to the coast and was no longer a true capital, but its religious significance remained. In a decision that continues to have political repercussions, which peace advocates too often ignore or minimize, Jordan barred Jews from the city.
Egypt captured the Gaza Strip, and, again not unlike the situation today, it really wanted no part of it. The Nasser government kept Gaza isolated and cut off from the rest of Egypt, causing the already poor Strip to fall deeper into economic hardship. The flow of refugees from the 1948 war into Gaza had been considerable, generating the overcrowding that would plague Gaza to this day.
A Changed Landscape
The war, which lasted from June 5 to 10, changed the entire landscape of the region. The regional influence of Nasser’s Egypt, which had been an uneasy but valued Soviet ally and a serious concern for Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, dropped precipitously. Pan-Arabism was largely dead after the war.
Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was intolerable to Egypt. In the absence of any effective international diplomacy that offered hope of persuading Israel to withdraw, Egypt launched a gradually building war of attrition, which would last until a cease-fire in 1970.
Nasser was never able to make headway in regaining the Sinai. His successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, would eventually succeed with a show of military strength that got Israel’s attention, a clear pivot away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States, and a bold political initiative that included an appearance before the Israeli Knesset in 1977.
The eventual resolution of the Sinai issue established a number of precedents. One was the concept of “land for peace.” This was a concession to the fact that UN Security Council Resolutions had proven ineffective at prying concessions from Israel. Another was the primacy not only of US diplomacy but of US military aid in the region. Both Egypt and Israel continue to reap the benefits of that agreement.
The return of the Sinai also had a profound effect on the Palestinians. When the final agreement was struck between Israel and Egypt, it included a section on a broader peace that would involve the settlement of the “Palestinian problem.” The wording, however, was vague, included no references to Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees, and was deliberately framed by Israel to limit Palestinian aspirations to “autonomy,” not independence. In practice, the agreement changed nothing for the Palestinians and was widely seen as an Egyptian departure from the Arab consensus and betrayal of the Palestinians. It would cost Sadat his life.
In Syria, the swift defeat and loss of the majority of the territory of the Golan Heights in 1967 was the spark that eventually led to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power. His predecessor, Salah Jadid, had been very active before the war in provoking Israel, with frequent air raids and mortar fire into northern Israel. After the defeat, Jadid was able to hold onto power for a while, but he immediately lost support to his minister of defense, Assad. By 1970, Jadid was out of office and in prison and the more pragmatic, but quite ruthless, Assad was in power.
Although Saudi Arabia was not involved in the war, it nonetheless saw a massive transformation in its foreign policy as a result of it. Prior to the war, the Saudis had led one side of a “regional cold war,” with the pro-Soviet and Pan-Arabist Egypt leading the other. Soon after Israel’s victory, the Saudis and Egyptians ended their conflict, which was largely playing out in Yemen, not unlike today’s competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
King Faysal bin Abdelaziz al Saud had been a close friend of the United States and had, in the past, worked very diligently at building up that relationship. But, angered at the US response to the war, he supported an Iraqi initiative to cut oil exports to the US and United Kingdom, which had little impact on the US but was a precursor to the embargo that did affect the US a few years later. Saudi policy became focused on positioning the country as the leader in supporting the Palestinian cause, after largely staying in the background on the matter for years before. The Saudis established themselves as the top backers of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Impact on Palestinians
Indeed, the 1967 war transformed the Palestinian situation in major ways. Palestinian politics had been largely in shock since 1948. There was very little real activity; even the initial formation of the PLO was largely a broader Arab project.
After the war, the Fatah movement led by Yasir Arafat gained primacy and took over the PLO. Arafat gave the PLO sufficient legitimacy that it would eventually be recognized by the entire Arab world, and in time the entire international community, as the official representative body of the Palestinian people. In addition to the massive dispossession the Palestinians suffered in 1948, which only increased after 1967, a large Palestinian population under Israeli law had no guaranteed rights.
The occupation brought a new layer to the conflict over Israel. It soon spawned real consideration of a two-state solution. At the 1974 Arab League Summit in Rabat, Morocco, the PLO first began to consider a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one, at least as a temporary measure. It began the diplomatic push that, two decades later, would see Jordan renounce its claims to the West Bank.
Before the war started, the United States was confident that Israel could triumph over the combined forces of its neighbors. Israeli leadership was less fully confident, and the Israeli public was absolutely terrified at the prospect. After the war, triumphalism swept the country. Although some voices, most notably David Ben-Gurion, called for returning most of the territory Israel had just captured, the mood of the public and the leadership was overwhelmingly opposed to such ideas.
Israel’s victory established it as a reliable client for the United States in the region, although those who supported a more conciliatory policy toward the Arab world would continue to plead their case, especially in the State Department. Although the United States supported UN resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal, it was not inclined to take strong action to enforce them.
Israel’s stunning victory also made the government feel that it had no reason to compromise. This thinking resulted in the years-long war of attrition and the near-calamity of the 1973 War.
History, of course, has evolved greatly over the ensuing 50 years, and many notable, important, and tragic events have occurred. But no single event has so dramatically reshaped the dynamics of the entire region since the war of June 5-10, 1967.
Photo: Clashes between Israel and Egypt in 1967 (Wikimedia Commons).