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The legacy of the Six Day War

Monday, 3 July 2017 10:40am

Image of William Harris 2016The Department of Politics, at the University of Otago, turns 50 in 2017. This is the sixth in a series of celebratory reflections on politics over the past 50 years. This month, William Harris looks at the Six Day War of 1967. 

Fifty years ago, the Six Day War of June 5-10, 1967, in which Israel defeated neighbouring Arab states and conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, changed the face of the Middle East.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, two main developments convulsed the region, neither having much to do with Arab-Israeli affairs. First, British and French colonialism retreated, marked by Anglo-French humiliation in the 1956 Suez crisis and the rivers of blood that flowed in Algeria's desperate war of independence from France.

Second, Cold War competition brought the United States and Soviet Russia into this crucial and fractured geopolitical arena, the world's primary oil reservoir. The West and Russia both favoured repressive pet authoritarian regimes, contributing to a bitter harvest to be reaped decades later in the so-called Arab spring.

The Six Day War came as a surprise into this scene, elevating Israel and the Palestinian Arabs and making their concerns the central story of the Middle East for almost four decades. Stiff Israeli warnings to the militant Ba'athist (''resurrection'') regime in Syria alarmed the Russians, who told Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser that Israel was getting ready to attack Syria, which was not correct.

The Egyptian leader then ordered the United Nations out of the demilitarised Sinai Peninsula, sent Egyptian troops into this buffer territory, and closed sea access to the Israeli port of Eilat. Nasser thereby essentially declared war, even if he did not want it; Syria and Jordan committed themselves to Egypt; and the nervous Israelis had their justification for preemptive strikes. The war resulted from multiple miscalculations, and the rest is history.

How did the war change the Middle East? First, Israel, previously widely perceived as a small state with an unsettled but contained conflict with Palestinian and other Arabs, instantly took on the stature of a regional power equivalent to the Arabs in general. Also, as the now inflamed Arab-Israeli conflict came to dominate Middle Eastern affairs, Israel entered a new strategic alignment with the US. Although delicate, this position actually gave the US ascendancy among the Arabs as the indispensable mediator.

Second, the Palestinian Arabs, more than half of whom were refugees after the creation of Israel in 1948 and who were largely passive and under the thumbs of Arab regimes in following years, assumed autonomous energy with the discrediting of Arab states in 1967.

Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip removed respective Jordanian and Egyptian control of these segments of former British mandatory Palestine. It made a territorial base for a Palestinian Arab state a practical question again, for the first time since the 1947 United Nations partition resolution divided Palestine between proposed Jewish and Palestinian Arab states.

Yet Israel's own claims to East Jerusalem and substantial parts of the West Bank, with multiplying Israeli settlements across the pre-5 June 1967 lines, soon appeared to be closing off the revived ''two state'' Israeli-Palestinian solution.

Third, Palestinian militarisation after the 1967 Arab humiliation spilled into Jordan and Lebanon. Palestinian armed factions challenged Israel from Jordan and threatened the sovereignty of the Jordanian monarchy. King Hussein smashed them in a fierce little war in 1970, and then expelled them to Lebanon.

Nonetheless, with the new wave of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank to add to those of 1948, Jordan acquired a Palestinian Arab majority in its core territory east of the Jordan River. This put a question-mark over the future of the monarchy.

After 1970, Palestinian energy focused on Lebanon as the last refugee and insurgent base to use against Israel. The Palestinians got involved in Lebanon's internal disputation, backing leftist and Muslim assertion against Maronite Christian political advantage. Their embroilment tipped Lebanon towards its own war and to Israeli and Ba'athist Syrian interventions in that war.

The chain reaction from the Six Day War thus steered Lebanese history, for example sparking militarisation of Lebanon's disadvantaged Shi'a Muslim community under revolutionary Iranian patronage. This in turn produced Hezbollah (''the Party of God'') and its own chain of conflict with Israel.

These are only a sample of the ripples of the Six Day War, which made the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio a ''cause celebre'' for the international community as ''the Middle East problem''. Yet other matters do exist in the Middle East. The 1960s saw not just the 1967 war, but also the takeover of Syria and Iraq by the absolutist Arab nationalist Ba'ath party, leading to the decades of tyranny under the Assads and Saddam Hussein that brutalised millions of people.

Ultimately, Bashar al-Assad and Saddam led their countries down the road to ruin, whether domestic implosion in Syria or the disastrous American occupation of Iraq.

Since 2011, while the Syrian regime has run its firestorm against a large part of the Syrian people and nightmare jihadism has afflicted Syria and Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff has sunk into secondary status. Saudi Arabia even looks to Israel as an ally against Iran.

However, any such linkage can only be limited as long as stagnation prevails between Israelis and Palestinians. The legacy of the Six Day War still separates Arabs and Israelis, which gifts the Shi'a Islamic revolutionary theocracy in Iran the strategic advantage over both of them.

  

Reproduced with permission from the Otago Daily Times. Read the original article here.

View Professor William Harris' staff profile