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The Guardian/UK

1967: The Price of Victory

It Was Israel's Stunning Success In The 1967 War That Led To Many of The Middle East's Problems Today.

Martin Woollacott

The completeness of Israeli victory in 1967 shackled the peoples of the Middle East to a ball and chain which has ever since crippled their development. The shackle was Israeli military dominance, the chain was the unwavering alliance between Israel and America, the ball was the ever more oppressive and onerous occupation of Palestinian lands.

The character of the regimes in both the Arab states and Israel, the policies of their governments, and the psychological state of their citizens have all been shaped, or distorted, by the consequences of the Six Day War.

At the moment of victory, it now seems odd to recall, the opposite seemed to be the case. The Israelis, excitedly canvassing the opportunities for peace with Egypt and Syria, and exploring options for the political future of the West Bank which even included the establishment of a Palestinian state, saw a new beginning.

The Americans, not then as committed to near-automatic support of Israeli decisions as they later became, also thought there was an opportunity for a permanent regional settlement.

Even the Arab leaders, although initially stunned and angry, were privately ready to think along the same lines. Nasser, the Egyptian president, quickly indicated that there were possibilities, although he wanted them to be realised under international auspices. The Khartoum Summit's famous three negatives - No to peace, No to negotiations, No to recognition of Israel - represented in fact a partial success for Arab moderates. As King Hussein of Jordan was later to explain, they were intended to leave room for the creation of a state of peace, but not a treaty, for dealings with Israel through a third party, but not face to face, and for acceptance rather than formal recognition of Israel. The hard fact of Israeli military supremacy made Arab states ready for peace, even though they wanted it to appear to be imposed.

Yet this apparent room for manoeuvre was gone, if it had ever really existed, in some instances within days of the first cabinet discussions of peace proposals. The Israelis at first thought there would be superpower intervention and began by thinking they would just keep East Jerusalem. Then, as it became clear there would be no superpower fiat and as the Arabs failed to respond to their proposals, they added the Golan, then the West Bank, then Sinai. Not too long afterwards, the first settlers were headed for Hebron. The Arab lack of response to the peace feelers was one cause, but the main one was that victory went to Israel's head, as well as opening up the ideological divisions in Israeli society.

There was no plan, the pragmatists lost the arguments, romantics and extremists set the pace, and soon Israel had a prime minister, Golda Meir, who had no interest whatever in returning any territory to the Arabs and who denied the existence of a Palestinian people. At the same time, the American conviction that Israel was a strategic asset in the Cold War hardened. Israel now had a reliable great power protector which would in any conflict help it to win or at the very least prevent it from losing, and one which would never, as it turned out, exert enough pressure to undo the expansion it contemplated or strip it of the nuclear weapons it was developing.

The 1967 victory thus led, by way of two further conflicts, to an end to the possibility of general war between Israel and the Arab states. In the War of Attrition, back and forth across the Suez Canal, Egypt showed there was a price to be paid for continued occupation of its territory. In the 1973 war, Anwar Sadat tried to bring Israel, and the United States, to their senses. But his success was only partial.

In 1979, peace between Egypt and Israel removed the biggest and strongest Arab country from any possible military line-up against Israel and meant, in effect there would not be another inter-state war. The Iran-Iraq war, together with the Osirak raid, took another contender, Iraq, out of the picture. King Hussein, always the closest Arab leader to Israel, had made up privately with the Israelis soon after 1967. Syria, alone among the front line states, remained hostile, yet that hostility would have almost certainly ended if Israel had been ready to return the whole of the Golan.

Israel's security, as far as inter-state war was concerned, was thus absolutely assured, without having to give up, apart from Sinai, any of the territories it had seized. It could, it seemed, indulge its fantasies, let every political tendency in the land, however harebrained, have its way, and carry on as if it could have both peace and territory.

Yet the 1967 victory had greatly reinforced two processes which came to bulk larger and larger - Palestinian resistance, and the radicalisation of Arab societies, both, as the years went by, acquiring a more and more Islamist character. Israeli dominance was the obvious cause of the first, but only one of the causes of the latter. Secular Arab governments disappointed their peoples in many other ways, yet the failure to make Israel return what it had taken in 1967 was an important element in the disillusion and disorientation of their citizens.

Israel set out to achieve as complete a victory over these new, non-state enemies and their protectors as it had over Arab states in 1967. But the military efforts, in Lebanon and in the occupied territories, brought no such victory. Hesitantly they began to consider concessions, but they subverted their own diplomacy, and that of others, by their constant failure to deliver, a failure which turned the peace process into a travesty.

Everything that happens cannot spring from one event. Yet it is permissible to wonder what might have happened in the Middle East if the 1967 war had ended in a more messy way, leaving all the participants at some disadvantage. America might not have jumped to the conclusion that Israel was a uniquely vital ally. Arab governments might have been freed of a burden and a shame which has helped undermine them. And Israel might have realised that no state, and particularly one in her situation, can have everything it wants.

Martin Woollacott, former foreign correspondent, foreign editor and commentator on international affairs for the Guardian, covered the final years of the Vietnam war, the Bangladesh war, the Indian emergency, the Iranian revolution, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq, among other stories.

© 2007 The Guardian

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