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Experts Assess Mideast Progress Four Decades After Six-Day War

June 7, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: June 5th marked the 40th anniversary — a milestone Palestinians observed noisily, and Israelis quietly — of the Six-Day War, an event that has defined the Palestinian-Israeli relationship ever since.

The 1967 war began when Israel, fearing an Arab invasion, launched a preemptive attack on Egypt. In quick succession, the Israelis seized Gaza and the Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem from Jordan, a monumental victory for Israel and a catastrophe to Arabs.

Since 1967, the plight of the Palestinians has become a flashpoint for the whole Middle East. Over time, Israel gave back some of what it captured in the war. The Sinai Peninsula returned to Egypt after the Camp David accords. In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn; that led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority. And in 1994, Israel made peace with Jordan, which had earlier relinquished its claim to the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally disengaged from Gaza, forcibly removing Israeli settlers from their homes. But Israel still controls predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, the home of religious sites of critical importance to Jews, Muslims and Christians. More than 400,000 Israelis also continue to live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, and Israel has now built a separation barrier hundreds of miles long, dividing Israel from the West Bank.

In 2000, Arab-Israeli conflict resumed following a decade of negotiation and relative calm. This period was known as the Second Intifada, or “uprising,” and has left more than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead.

Today, both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, are significantly weakened among their home constituencies. Olmert’s popularity, severely damaged by last year’s Lebanon war, is now in single digits.

The Palestinians are currently without any effective government, as Abbas’ Fatah political faction is locked in a roiling conflict with its main rival, the Hamas Party, which controls the legislature. For months, a cycle of intra-Palestinian fighting has brought them to the brink of civil war. Olmert and Abbas were supposed to meet today in the West Bank at the prodding of the Bush administration, but the meeting was cancelled earlier this week.

Security forces loyal to President Abbas today asked the Israelis, who control all imports and exports to Gaza and the West Bank, to allow the importation of anti-tank missiles, grenades and millions of rounds of ammunition, as a tenuous truce between Fatah and Hamas appears to be collapsing.

Hopes for diplomacy

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Middle East then and now, we get two perspectives. Barry Rubin is director of the Global International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary University at Herzliya, Israel, and author of the new book, "The Truth About Syria."

Hisham Melhem is Washington bureau chief for the Arab satellite network al-Arabiya and Washington correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar.

And, Barry Rubin, did anyone on the Israeli side have the prescience, the forward look to understand that today's situation was a possible outcome of that war 40 years ago?

BARRY RUBIN, Director, Global International Affairs Center: Oh, absolutely. The debate following the war was between two camps. One camp said that they believed that the territories captured in 1967 were bargaining chips which would be used to attain peace with the Arab side when that became possible. The other side said that it did not believe that the Arab side or Arab parties would make peace for a very long time.

Now, where those two positions came together in a consensus was they need to hold territories until there could be a negotiated agreement. So, in a sense, a lot of people -- certainly half the population -- wouldn't be shocked. The shock, of course, came because, in the 1990s, there was a process with the PLO which was hoped that it would result in peace. And then, of course, when it came to the crunch in 2000, and Yasser Arafat was offered an independent Palestinian state and $22 billion in aid as the first offer, he turned it down, so it took a downturn.

So from the point of view of 1967, it's less of a shock than, let's say, from the point of view of 1997, when there were great hopes that there was going to be some kind of diplomatic resolution.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying, if I understand you, that there were people who understood that Israel might be in those territories for decades to come?

BARRY RUBIN: Well, I think everyone foresaw the possibility of it taking decades. But, again -- well, just very briefly to explain this...

RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly.

BARRY RUBIN: So the two views were, hold the territories until peace is going to happen. Some people thought it would happen sooner, some people later. In the 1990s, most people went over to the view that peace was possible, but what happened in 2000 confounded both sides.

As a result, what we have today is the analysis goes like this: On the one hand, the great majority of Israelis say they're ready to have an independent Palestinian state and they're ready to leave the remaining territories, but at the same time they say they're very skeptical about the ability of the other side to get it together.

A 'setback' for Arabs

RAY SUAREZ: Hisham Melhem, did anyone on the Arab side imagine the possible outcome at the beginning of the 1967 war?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, An-Nahar: No, absolutely. Many Arabs convinced themselves that victory would be easy and, in fact, in the first few days of the conflict, the whole military operations were covered with lies, claims about achieving decisive breakthroughs against the Israelis.

RAY SUAREZ: So people back home in Cairo, in Damascus, in Amman were hearing about great battlefield victory?

HISHAM MELHEM: Initially believed that, absolutely, initially believed all these myths surrounding the military operations at that time. Hence, the shock afterwards, six days later, total humiliation, total disaster. It was an unmitigated disaster, although the leader of Egypt at that time, General Abdel Nasser, called it "an-Naksah," which means in Arabic "setback." It was an unmitigated disaster.

But then the Arabs at that time lived maybe in denial. They were totally humiliated, and they went to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, for the first Arab summit, in which they said no to the recognition, no to negotiations, no to peace. But at that time, these governments were seen as -- the defeat was seen as a defeat for Arab nationalism and its Nasserite stripe in Egypt and its Baathist stripe in Damascus.

At that time, ironically, the Palestinians came into their own. And from that moment, they projected themselves as the alternative to these weak, corrupt Arab governments. And they gained a tremendous popular support in those countries and throughout the Arab world.

And it was at that time, by the way -- interestingly enough, historically enough -- when the Islamists began their long project of inheriting the Arab world, because they presented themselves as the alternative to these failed so-called secular ideologies that dominated the Arab world at that time.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah, so you say the Palestinians came into their own, the Islamists began to gel.

HISHAM MELHEM: Began, right.

Dealing with the occupation

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of the other consequences of that war that we're living with today?

HISHAM MELHEM: I mean, obviously, the occupied territories are still occupied, whether in Palestine, historic Palestine, and in Syria. You had partial peace at best. What you have now is stronger Islamist tendencies. You have, in Israel, the weakest Israeli government since 1948. You have in the Palestinian territories a two-headed government. And instead of the Palestinians talking about strategies of dealing with Israel and the occupation achieving peace, they are talking about averting civil war.

So what you have now is a decisive military victory by Israel in 1967 that had many pyrrhic aspects to it, because the Israelis squandered that military victory. On the other side, the Arabs, while entertaining so many hopes for the future, resolution, Oslo and others, find themselves today now demoralized, weak.

And the overall mood in the region is one of foreboding, where we have major Arab countries on fire, like in Iraq. You had Lebanon on the brink, as always. And you had the Palestinian fighting each other. And beyond that, you have weaker Arab leaders, and Iran is ascending.

And the perception of the United States, a traditional mediator, is one of being bogged down in Iraq and much weaker. And that's why any talk about reviving the peace talks -- as the secretary is trying to do valiantly, I must add, really -- finds too many skeptics in the Arab world. There's that sense of malaise, foreboding, and conditions are more combustible than ever.

RAY SUAREZ: Barry Rubin, what do you think of that description, of a pyrrhic, at least a partially pyrrhic victory?

BARRY RUBIN: I agreed with everything else that he said pretty much except that word. Look, the fact is, in 1967, Israelis believed that there was a real chance of national extinction. And you can also see it in the meetings, at the cabinet meetings, chief of staff meetings, and the military; there was real fear, real concern. And that was ended.

The strategic position of Israel -- they have lots of problems, but in many ways it's much better off, because the likelihood of a state-to-state war with conventional armies is much lower than it was then. I mean, the '60s, '70s, and '80s, Israel faced a situation, literally any day they could face war with the Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi army, and so on. That's over.

So now we're dealing with one of the two aspects, which is terrorism, which is very serious, but is not as threatening, not as an existential question as it was then. But it was a very good summary.

One thing you left out -- and I know you would be willing to include -- is the northern front. I mean, the Syrians today are trying to make themselves the leader of using this new ideology they call resistance, which sort of combines Arab nationalism and Islamism and become the main sponsor of Islamist movements among the Arab countries.

And the truth about Syria -- which happens to be the title of my new book on the subject -- is that I think that, because Iraq has faded, because Egypt is much more preoccupied with domestic issues, that Syria has emerged as the greatest threat to regional stability and sponsor terrorism subversion among the Arab states.

HISHAM MELHEM: The problem -- if I may add, that victory in '67 was so decisive for the Israelis, at least militarily, early on, it gave them an incredible amount of arrogance. And they behaved as the new invincible superpower of the Middle East.

And although this was shaken a little bit, but not (inaudible) the 1973 war, that sense of arrogance and total victory led them to embark on a massive settlement activity, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and also in the Golan Heights. They are next to Jerusalem. They are next to the Golan Heights, and they really made it extremely difficult for many Arabs. That was before Hamas. That was before the rise of Islamists then gelled the way they are today, and before the rise of suicide bombings, and attacks on civilians, and whatnot.

And I think there is a moral political responsibility on the various Israeli governments for the calamity that we face, all of us, just as it is on the Palestinian leadership -- and you can tell from their behavior today what kind of caliber leadership we have -- and also on the part of bankrupt regimes, like the Baath Party, whether it's in Syria or in Iraq.

Prospects for Mideast

RAY SUAREZ: Well, neither of you sound very optimistic about the prospects from here forward.

BARRY RUBIN: I know that's our perception of Israeli thinking, but it's not an accurate one. I won't go any further than that.

Look, it's not -- I think we both agree and accurately agree it's not a hopeless situation. There's tremendous difficulties. But one of the things we've seen is the relative decline of importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the region. We've got Iraq; we've got Syrian ambitions; we've got radical Islamism; we have Lebanese internal politics; we have infighting among Palestinians and other issues.

So it's a very important issue, but we have a lot more issues. So what is really the central problem of the Middle East? It's not -- and it's much clearer now than it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago -- it's not the Arab-Israeli conflict. It's the question of governance, ambitions, radical ideologies which bring out these things.

I mean, Syria, for example, in my opinion, assassinated the former prime minister of Lebanon in February of 2005, has carried out 15 major terrorist attacks in Lebanon, wants to get back in control. There's an insurgency in Iraq and so on. It's a long list of items that's much more complex than it was.

RAY SUAREZ: Respond directly to that.

HISHAM MELHEM: You have to admit that the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- and by the way, the 1967 war is not even over yet, because we're still fighting its effects today, at this moment, whether in Lebanon or on Palestine. The corrosive aspects of that conflict, they were not only hurtful to the occupied, but they were also hurtful to the occupier.

And the rise of Islamist tendencies, the fact that Arab autocratic regimes remain, is in part due to the continuation of this and the failure of imagination, whether on the part of Israelis, Arabs, and the American media, to a separate issue.

But, look, it's right. I will still say that the Arab-Israeli conflict is still the most central issue there, but if you resolve it today, this is not going to be a panacea. The conflict in Iraq will continue; the bloodletting in Sudan will continue, and Algeria. But definitely, if you resolve that issue, you would deal terrorism, and extremism, and the forces of reaction a severe blow.

RAY SUAREZ: Barry Rubin, Hisham Melhem, gentlemen, thank you both.


BARRY RUBIN: Thank you.