Twists and Turns of Standoff

24 June 2002

Twists and Turns of Standoff

By Gwynne Dyer

Thirty-five years is not much as anniversaries go, but there are things to discuss so it will have to do. It is just thirty-five years since Israel won a crushing victory in the June, 1967, war and quadrupled the amount of territory it controlled in less than a week. It was a calamity for both sides, though only one side realized it at the time.

For the Arabs, the catastrophe was complete, immediate and largely irreversible. In their first two wars with Israel, there had been excuses for defeat despite their huge numerical superiority. This time, there was none.

In Israel’s 1948-49 war of independence, its Arab neighbours were just emerging from centuries of colonial rule, and still lived under the rule of corrupt and incompetent monarchs like Egypt’s King Farouk.

In 1956, when Israeli forces attacked the Suez Canal in secret alliance with Britain and France, the Arab defeat could be blamed on their great-power opponents.

But in 1967 the Israelis were on their own, and revolutionary young officers across the Arab world were promising unification, material progress and, above all, victory over Israel. For ten years they made blood-curdling threats about ‘a battle of destiny’ – and then were dumbfounded when the Israelis took their threats at face value and struck first.

The Arab front-line states lost their air forces in the first hour of the war. Over the next 132 hours they also lost the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip (Egypt), East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Jordan), and the Golan Heights (Syria). The despair and psychological demobilization across the Arab world were so great that even the regimes responsible for the defeat were allowed to survive. (Indeed, they survive still.) And that should have been the end of it.

Like most other countries, Israel is built on land that was previously occupied by somebody else. It’s no big deal, historically speaking. There is usually a good deal of fighting in the early stages, as the previous tenants resist eviction and their neighbours lend a hand, but then if you win a few wars they accept your borders and the confrontation subsides. By 1967, Israel had effectively reached that stage – so why is there still an Arab-Israeli conflict 35 years later?

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol understood that the 1967 victory could be the basis of a peace settlement guaranteeing Israel’s place as an accepted if unloved neighbour of its former enemies.

On June 19, 1967, less than a week after the shooting stopped, his cabinet secretly agreed to withdraw to Israel’s pre-war frontiers in the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, returning all the captured land in return for peace, diplomatic recognition, and demilitarization of the territory that would be returned to Egypt and Syria.

But that offer was never actually sent to the Egyptians and the Syrians, and the cabinet was never able to agree on returning the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem at all. After four months, it even dropped the idea of a land-for-peace’ swap with Egypt and Syria.

Poor little Samson, as Eshkol put it: the choices opened up by the 1967 victory completely paralyzed Israeli diplomacy.

The problem was that Israel’s victory was too big. Ultra-nationalist and messianic elements in Israel seized the opportunity to expand into the new territories, setting up settlements everywhere with the explicit purpose of making the conquests politically irreversible by creating facts on the ground.

If anybody objected, they argued that the old borders were unsafe – although Israel had just beaten all its plausible opponents without even working up a sweat.

A surprise Arab attack in 1973, though launched for strictly limited objectives and rapidly defeated by Israel, subsequently persuaded Menachem Begin’s government to trade the Sinai peninsula for peace with Egypt, by far the biggest of Israel’s Arab neighbours, but all the rest of the land captured by Israel 35 years ago is still under its control.

Many Israeli leaders have tried to create a domestic consensus on trading it for a lasting peace, but it’s just too tempting to hang onto it.