1967, the year that shaped the Middle East
This month represents the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours. This is the war that shaped the Middle East after the Arabs suffered a calamitous loss and a massive dent to national pride.
In sections of the Arab media and academia, the war is known as an-Naksah (the Setback) but such a timid word typically denotes a state of temporariness. The 1967 war has not proven to be a temporary setback but a permanent loss and the sense of helplessness has since run very deep into the Arab subconscious, resulting in a state of collective paralysis.
Such was the extent of this loss that any mainstream advocacy for a two-state solution to the Arab- Israeli conflict refers to a solution amounting to a reversion to the borders immediately before the 1967 war. The Arab loss had been so emphatic that it has confined any talk of an independent Palestine to territory much less than what was originally offered with the creation of Israel in 1948.
Within six days, the outcome of the war had meant that Israel had trebled in size, much to the joy of its own population. While Gaza and the Sinai desert may have since been returned, the West Bank and the Golan Heights remain in Israeli control. The initial capture of Gaza, despite the physical evacuation from the strip in 2007, has since formed the basis of the current air, sea and land blockade.
That this war has shaped the Middle East is an understatement. Since 1967, more than 500,000 Israelis have moved into the West Bank and created major settlements. These settlements are expanding.
Just four days after the war, then-US Secretary of State Dean Rusk said the Palestinians would spend the rest of the century trying to get back the West Bank if Israeli held on to it. He was both right and wrong.
He was right that the Palestinians spent the rest of the century trying to get the West Bank back. However, his words implied there would be a measure of success by the end of that century. Instead, not only was the rest of the century spent trying to get back the West Bank but, by June 10, 2017, the Palestinians will have spent half a century — and counting — trying to get it back.
There are other more subtle and nuanced aspects of the 1967 war that are arguably more important than the obvious consequences of loss of land and the raw numbers of the military loss.
That loss of the 1967 war meant that the failure of Arab nationalism contributed to the early development of political Islam.
While Israel was and remains a creation fuelled by religious conviction in some interpreted form, the Arabs’ reaction and early response to Israel was not fuelled by religion but by a sense of nationalism and a common linguistic and cultural heritage. After the Arab loss in 1967, the development of political/militant Islam, which is a misnomer unconnected to the true form of Islam, commenced in a more direct fashion. Certain mosques began to provide the answers, whether incorrectly or otherwise, to the questions that the secular henchmen of the Arab world could not provide and had failed to provide
The failures of pan-Arab nationalism — repeated in the 1973 October war — coupled by the onward successes of a spiritually united and resolute mujahideen in Afghanistan from 1979-89 against a much larger enemy in the Soviet Union had provided ample evidence that the solution did not lie in any form of nationalism. This has provided fertile ground for religious extremism in the Middle East.
The other consequence of the 1967 war that is often ignored is the effect on the collective Israeli psyche. At that time, Israel, as a political entity, was 19 years old. Israel was outnumbered and outflanked militarily both in the air and on the ground. It was clear that the consequences of a loss would mean the overall cessation of Israel as a political entity.
Following its victory, Israel realised that it could not put itself in a situation to face an imminent existential threat. Israel realised that, militarily, its 1948 borders were too narrow and confined to maintain any form of sustainable defence. It needed a buffer and this belief remains etched and woven into the national psyche.
For that reason, while the world speaks of a two-state solution reverting to pre-conflict 1967 borders, it remains the unspoken and hushed-up position that Israel will never support or endorse such a reversion.
The 1967 war has not just shaped the Middle East, it has caused a permanent deadlock so that any future solution remains as distant as the long 50 years that have since passed.