The War that Changed the Middle East

Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.

Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries.

Israel was a 19-year-old country that was in a de facto state of war with all its neighbors. Its economy was much more centrally controlled than it is now, and the country was much poorer. Palestinians who remained within Israel after the 1948 war were mostly granted technical citizenship, with voting rights, but lived under martial law until 1966. Those restrictions were hauntingly similar to what Palestinians in the West Bank live under today. Curfews, travel permits, administrative detention, land confiscation through the manipulation of the law, and summary expulsions were all traits of the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Although Israel had been building its military strength since 1948, the extent of its military might was both far less than it is today and untested. The United States supported Israel and saw it as a Cold War ally, but the relationship was not nearly as close as it is today. Israelis did not need a Benjamin Netanyahu to scare them. They faced real threats from countries around them and had no idea if their military was sufficient to counter that threat. The populace was always afraid of a major war, and that fear rise to a fever pitch in spring 1967.

The West Bank was controlled by Jordan, which had annexed it in 1950, an act that no other country, save the United Kingdom, ever recognized. Nonetheless, Palestinians living in the West Bank as well as in the rest of Jordan were granted full citizenship. But there was virtually no contact between Palestinians on the West Bank and those in Israel, splitting families apart for many years.

East Jerusalem was also under Jordanian control. The city’s status as an economic hub declined sharply as it had lost its connection to the coast and was no longer a true capital, but its religious significance remained. In a decision that continues to have political repercussions, which peace advocates too often ignore or minimize, Jordan barred Jews from the city.

Egypt captured the Gaza Strip, and, again not unlike the situation today, it really wanted no part of it. The Nasser government kept Gaza isolated and cut off from the rest of Egypt, causing the already poor Strip to fall deeper into economic hardship. The flow of refugees from the 1948 war into Gaza had been considerable, generating the overcrowding that would plague Gaza to this day.

A Changed Landscape

The war, which lasted from June 5 to 10, changed the entire landscape of the region. The regional influence of Nasser’s Egypt, which had been an uneasy but valued Soviet ally and a serious concern for Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, dropped precipitously. Pan-Arabism was largely dead after the war.

Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was intolerable to Egypt. In the absence of any effective international diplomacy that offered hope of persuading Israel to withdraw, Egypt launched a gradually building war of attrition, which would last until a cease-fire in 1970.

Nasser was never able to make headway in regaining the Sinai. His successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, would eventually succeed with a show of military strength that got Israel’s attention, a clear pivot away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States, and a bold political initiative that included an appearance before the Israeli Knesset in 1977.

The eventual resolution of the Sinai issue established a number of precedents. One was the concept of “land for peace.” This was a concession to the fact that UN Security Council Resolutions had proven ineffective at prying concessions from Israel. Another was the primacy not only of US diplomacy but of US military aid in the region. Both Egypt and Israel continue to reap the benefits of that agreement.

The return of the Sinai also had a profound effect on the Palestinians. When the final agreement was struck between Israel and Egypt, it included a section on a broader peace that would involve the settlement of the “Palestinian problem.” The wording, however, was vague, included no references to Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees, and was deliberately framed by Israel to limit Palestinian aspirations to “autonomy,” not independence. In practice, the agreement changed nothing for the Palestinians and was widely seen as an Egyptian departure from the Arab consensus and betrayal of the Palestinians. It would cost Sadat his life.

In Syria, the swift defeat and loss of the majority of the territory of the Golan Heights in 1967 was the spark that eventually led to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power. His predecessor, Salah Jadid, had been very active before the war in provoking Israel, with frequent air raids and mortar fire into northern Israel. After the defeat, Jadid was able to hold onto power for a while, but he immediately lost support to his minister of defense, Assad. By 1970, Jadid was out of office and in prison and the more pragmatic, but quite ruthless, Assad was in power.

Although Saudi Arabia was not involved in the war, it nonetheless saw a massive transformation in its foreign policy as a result of it. Prior to the war, the Saudis had led one side of a “regional cold war,” with the pro-Soviet and Pan-Arabist Egypt leading the other. Soon after Israel’s victory, the Saudis and Egyptians ended their conflict, which was largely playing out in Yemen, not unlike today’s competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

King Faysal bin Abdelaziz al Saud had been a close friend of the United States and had, in the past, worked very diligently at building up that relationship. But, angered at the US response to the war, he supported an Iraqi initiative to cut oil exports to the US and United Kingdom, which had little impact on the US but was a precursor to the embargo that did affect the US a few years later. Saudi policy became focused on positioning the country as the leader in supporting the Palestinian cause, after largely staying in the background on the matter for years before. The Saudis established themselves as the top backers of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Impact on Palestinians

Indeed, the 1967 war transformed the Palestinian situation in major ways. Palestinian politics had been largely in shock since 1948. There was very little real activity; even the initial formation of the PLO was largely a broader Arab project.

After the war, the Fatah movement led by Yasir Arafat gained primacy and took over the PLO. Arafat gave the PLO sufficient legitimacy that it would eventually be recognized by the entire Arab world, and in time the entire international community, as the official representative body of the Palestinian people. In addition to the massive dispossession the Palestinians suffered in 1948, which only increased after 1967, a large Palestinian population under Israeli law had no guaranteed rights.

The occupation brought a new layer to the conflict over Israel. It soon spawned real consideration of a two-state solution. At the 1974 Arab League Summit in Rabat, Morocco, the PLO first began to consider a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one, at least as a temporary measure. It began the diplomatic push that, two decades later, would see Jordan renounce its claims to the West Bank.

Before the war started, the United States was confident that Israel could triumph over the combined forces of its neighbors. Israeli leadership was less fully confident, and the Israeli public was absolutely terrified at the prospect. After the war, triumphalism swept the country. Although some voices, most notably David Ben-Gurion, called for returning most of the territory Israel had just captured, the mood of the public and the leadership was overwhelmingly opposed to such ideas.

Israel’s victory established it as a reliable client for the United States in the region, although those who supported a more conciliatory policy toward the Arab world would continue to plead their case, especially in the State Department. Although the United States supported UN resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal, it was not inclined to take strong action to enforce them.

Israel’s stunning victory also made the government feel that it had no reason to compromise. This thinking resulted in the years-long war of attrition and the near-calamity of the 1973 War.

History, of course, has evolved greatly over the ensuing 50 years, and many notable, important, and tragic events have occurred. But no single event has so dramatically reshaped the dynamics of the entire region since the war of June 5-10, 1967.

Gaza Peace Talks: Hamas’ Dilemma

Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues on the diplomatic front with the opening of two sets of talks this week in Cairo. One set will have Egypt brokering discussions with Fatah and Hamas on the future of governance in the Gaza Strip, while the other will see Egyptian and Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives shuttling between Hamas and an Israeli delegation.

Although Egypt brokered the ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel that ended 50 days of rockets flying out of Gaza and Israel, which devastated the tiny strip, it cannot have escaped Hamas’ notice that Egypt has an agenda of its own—and it is shared with just about every other party involved.

A sign of what Hamas will face was displayed this weekend, as UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry worked on achieving an agreement for 250-500 international observers to monitor reconstruction projects in Gaza. The purpose of the monitors would be to ensure that all materials brought into Gaza, and all the work done with them, is exclusively used to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and public buildings that were destroyed by Israel’s recent onslaught. The UN would be working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to guarantee that outcome.

Hamas is facing the consequences of the unity deal it agreed to back in April. At that time, Hamas was losing popularity in Gaza, was seeing what support it had in the Arab world evaporating, and found itself unable to pay civic employees. But the events of the summer changed things, at least for the time being.

Now Hamas is riding a wave of popularity after facing Israeli bombardment again and coming out battered but not broken. Qatar, whose support remains dubious, acted more supportive during the fighting. And, Hamas thought, the ceasefire arrangement would get the understandably disgruntled and desperate workers see some kind of paycheck. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having angered many Palestinians by wavering sharply between public condemnations of the Israeli onslaught and continued cooperation with Israeli security in the West Bank, Hamas had reason to reconsider the unity agreement.

But it accepted the agreement, which now seems like a trap. Abbas is insisting that the unity government be allowed to take over the administration of Gaza. Hamas is surely aware that in that event, the PA would have to embark on a campaign to control the violence in Gaza as it did with the West Bank. In other words, even without agreeing to disarm Gaza—an Israeli demand—the PA would, in fact, do just that. And, with no elections currently scheduled, Hamas could find itself completely marginalized.

This is, without a doubt, exactly what Egypt wants. Certainly the leadership knows that any attempt to disarm Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza would be met with resistance. But Hamas, at least, is still substantially weakened after the battle with Israel. Egypt might reasonably expect that this fact will lead to a different outcome than the 2007 battle between Fatah and Hamas, which ended in a decisive Hamas victory. Moreover, Abbas has very little legitimacy in Gaza, but if he becomes the Palestinian face of reconstruction and of a marked improvement in the lives of the people there, it would be enough to slowly drain more support from Hamas.

It may well be that, if successful, Egypt would press Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and even allow the construction of an airport and seaport there. This would create a comparative economic boom in the beleaguered Gaza Strip and could keep things calm in the region for an extended period. For Israel, the downside would be increased diplomatic pressure to get back to serious negotiations about a two-state solution. That is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared when the Palestinians struck the unity accord, and the reason why he manipulated the murder of three young Israelis to lead to a much broader attack on Hamas.

But Netanyahu also knows that if there is one thing Israel excels at it’s negotiating endlessly with no results. He also knows that Israel’s behavior in Gaza angered many leaders around the world, particularly with the repeated attacks on UN facilities and the blatant targeting of civilians. Israel’s denials and claims of accidental actions have been greeted with skepticism at best, even in Washington (everywhere, that is, with the obvious exception of the halls of Congress). Israel’s position is not nearly as strong as Netanyahu thought it would be when the fighting stopped. Therefore, it may be that Netanyahu will accept the Palestinian unity government if it can marginalize Hamas.

Egypt certainly will work hard to convince Netanyahu to do so. Netanyahu reaps some benefits from having Hamas, which maintains some degree of control over Gaza but is a frightening specter to Israelis. Israel also enjoys having the Palestinian body politic split between Gaza and the West Bank.

But Egypt, under its new-old regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is quite keen to wipe out what they see as the last vestige of Muslim Brotherhood political power in the region. Egypt gets no benefit from the Palestinian split, and in fact would probably prefer to see the PA under Abbas assume control of Gaza to sideline Hamas. The hope would be that such a PA would work with Egypt to strangle ties between Gaza and militant groups in the Sinai, enabling some indirect assistance in that endeavor from Israel.

But most of all, Sisi wants to wipe out Hamas as a player in the region. That’s not necessarily what Israel wants. But even if the PA once again controls Gaza, and the strip and the West Bank become one territorial unit again, that is a far cry from the circumstances that would create real pressure on Israel to end its occupation.

The UN simply wants to rebuild Gaza, although it’s not very happy with Hamas either, after the group was caught using UN facilities to store weapons. Still, Robert Serry is likely inclined to focus on humanitarian relief rather than regional politics. But in order to do that, it needs to work to ensure that Hamas is not involved in that reconstruction.

Hamas knows all of this, but cannot simply refuse to go to these talks just because they’re in Cairo. Without these negotiations, international relief will not come into Gaza. Egypt has them in a difficult spot.

But Hamas also must be expected to abide by the unity agreement it signed. It knew this was part of it, and if circumstances have made that agreement less palatable, that is the risk it took. What it needs to do now is press for elections as soon as possible, under the terms of that same unity agreement.

By the time such elections could be held, some of the luster will have come off of Hamas’ steadfastness over the summer. And, if it does agree to allow the PA to take over Gaza again, it will also likely be abdicating its position as the leading revolutionary group among Palestinians. From that point on, other factions will be raising weapons against Israel and, quite likely, the PA as well.

Egypt certainly believes that this will eventually lead to Hamas’ disappearance. More sober minds in Israel probably fear that this will strengthen more radical groups in the Palestinian Territories, and they are probably correct.

But in the last analysis, the Palestinians must be unified. In that future, Gaza can be helped and the Palestinians can at least potentially have a representative leadership. The pitfalls are many, and the motives of the various players are dubious to say the least. But the alternatives are all far less likely to produce progress.

US Comedy of Errors Continues in Egypt

This piece originally appeared at LobeLog

The comedy of errors that is US involvement in Egypt is reaching new heights. The Obama administration continues to be torn by

Obama seems utterly incapable of choosing a direction in Egypt

Obama seems utterly incapable of choosing a direction in Egypt

conflicting preferences and concerns. This week its blunders reached new heights after it blessed the trip of Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Egypt. The ensuing farce was inevitable.

The GOP Senators are somewhat less obstructionist than others in their party; they have not always opposed Barack Obama’s policies simply because they were his policies. While many of the current Republican crew are virtually absolute in opposing anything Obama does, McCain, in particular, has only done that most of the time. But they are certainly not Obama’s allies, and, while the administration made it clear that the duo were not their representatives in Egypt, it was almost certain they would only complicate matters. So, they did.

Continue reading

A Short-Sighted US Policy In Egypt

This article originally appeared at LobeLog. 

It’s time to ask some tough questions about US policy regarding Egypt. The most pressing being what that policy is, exactly?

John Kerry in a pre-June meeting with then Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, and then-President Mohammed Morsi

John Kerry in a pre-June meeting with then Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, and then-President Mohammed Morsi

agreed with the easily assailable decision by the Obama administration to refrain from labeling the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi a coup. It still is my belief that doing so might be consistent with US law, but would not be helpful to Egypt. Instead of taking funding away from the military which, since it now directly controls the Egyptian till, would simply divert the lost funds from other places (causing even more distress to an already reeling Egyptian economy) it would be better to use the aid as leverage to push the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) toward an inclusive political process that would include drafting a broadly acceptable constitution and, with all due speed, re-installing a duly elected civilian government. Continue reading

Limited US Influence in Egypt Can Still Do Some Good

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

When is a coup not a coup? When calling it that carries repercussions that make a bad situation worse.

US President Barack Obama is struggling with recent events in Egypt. Once again he’s presented with a situation in the Middle East where he has few good options but is still facing expectations based on a long history of US influence over events — an influence that is no longer situated in reality.

In contrast to the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the ouster of Mohammed Morsi raises some profound questions, not only for foreign powers, but for Egyptians themselves. There is no doubt that Morsi brought a lot of this on himself. He neglected the major issue for almost all Egyptians, the economy; he shamelessly tried to grab dictatorial powers; he did not follow through on his campaign promises to include the widest spectrum of Egyptians in his government; and, when confronted with all of this, he remained obstinate. Continue reading