By Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies; and a senior researcher at the Center for Iranian Studies—both at Tel Aviv University
The Six-Day War was burned into the Arab consciousness as a “naksa,” meaning “defeat.” The war represents a crossroads in the history of the Arab world, a proverbial fall into a bottomless abyss. Bound together with the military defeat was the decline of the revolutionary ideology that sought to create a unified Arab world. The Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had captured the imagination of the Arab public by championing Arab unity and the “new Arab man,” but the false promises of Arab nationalism, Arab socialism and Nasserism shattered following the ’67 defeat, and left the Arab public exhausted, disillusioned and in mourning.
The Palestinian national movement turned to armed struggle and terrorism to pursue its objectives. Revolutionary Islamist movements, inspired by Sayyid Qutb and others, found a growing constituency in the wake of the Six-Day War. Today’s Salafi-Jihadi ideology and terrorism were influenced by Qutb’s ideas and their advocates in the Arab world.
The immediate result of the ’67 defeat was the increasing fragmentation of the Arab region. In other words, every state increasingly adhered to its own particular interests. Since then, a core group of authoritarian states was able to survive until the events of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. But this survival was achieved through fear rather than the rule of law. In tandem, substate elements—ethnic groups, tribes, extended families and regional communities—persevered but were nevertheless forced to accept the state’s coercive power.
Religion, having been sidelined by the secular banner of Arab nationalism, demonstrated its resilience through the popular slogan, “Islam is the solution” (“al-Islam huwa al-hall”).
Since the naksa, the Arab world has moved from bad to worse, and each crisis—from the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-’90 to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—has only further shattered the stability of the Arab region. During each crisis, the public asked, “Where are the Arabs?” in a broad allusion to the great idea of unity whose demise was revealed by the 1967 defeat.
The decline of the Arab world was mirrored by the gradual rise of non-Arab regional actors. Iran and Turkey emerged as contenders for regional hegemony during the last 20 years of the 20th century, as they attempted to fill the vacuum left by the Arab states. Interestingly, both countries—once viewed as solidly pro-Western—now embraced Islamist (Sunni and Shiʿi, respectively) ideologies. It is an irony of history that both countries had emerged from the maelstrom of the First World War as ostensible beacons of anti-religiosity and anti-clericalism, but now wrapped themselves in the cloaks of rival Islamist sectarian identities.
The third state to benefit from the Six-Day War was the victor, Israel. The dramatic results transformed the country into a miraculous example of economic, technological and military success. More broadly, the conception held by Israel’s founders of a hostile and monolithic Arab world evaporated in the aftermath of the war. Arab dogmatism was to be replaced by a more pragmatic approach that facilitated the signing of peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors (Egypt and Jordan) and the building of discrete alliances with Arab states on the basis of shared interests.
Of course, Israel’s ostensible victory was far from complete, and the spoils of success have been bittersweet. The political unification of Jerusalem, and the rapid conquest of the West Bank, which includes many of Judaism’s most holy places, introduced many Israelis to the Land of Israel, whose interests are often in tension with those of the State of Israel. The intractable challenge of a political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, with no prospect of resolution in sight, has also led to polarizing polemics and serious moral questions alongside significant security burdens.
The traditional binary equation in which the struggle of the Arab states against Israel was the one and only framework through which the Middle East was viewed has been proven false. In light of the events of the past decade, that struggle is clearly neither the most acute nor the bloodiest, given the mass slaughter between Sunnis and Shi’is, Turks and Kurds, Arabs and Persians.
One broad lesson that we may take away from the aftermath of the Six-Day War and the present reality is that incremental practical solutions—those that take into account the depth of the challenges facing the region—have a greater chance of success than the grand designs and revolutionary ideas that lead to disaster. Israel was able to make peace first with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, and later with Jordan’s King Hussein, on the basis of very sober calculations of power and mutual state interests.
Israel’s history, including the 1967 war, has taught that whatever security decisions Israel and its neighbors face in the future will also be made on the same kind of cold calculations of power and interests.