In June 2007 the Arab world will mark a bitter anniversary in its modern history, namely the passing of forty years since the six-day war with Israel. For the Arabs, their decisive defeat in June 1967 occupies a very special, if not unique place in their region's post-independence era. Perhaps this is because the event was laden with significance - political, cultural, economic and of course military - in a way that was unprecedented at the time. Indeed, one might go so far as to call it the first defining moment of the modern Arab world.
By any standards the Arabs' defeat in the war of 1948 was a momentous event, leading as it did to the establishment of the state of Israel. But the effect of the 1967 defeat was to confirm what had begun in 1948, consolidating Israel's position in a way that has gone largely unchallenged ever since. Even the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of October 1973, which Arab regimes sought to depict as a success which redressed the iniquity of their defeat six years earlier, did little of the kind.
The war of 1967 exposed the true nature of Arab governments whose legitimacy rested on their stated aim of liberating Palestine. This goal was in turn ostensibly part of a wider radical anti-colonialist agenda, which sought to sweep away so-called reactionary regimes and bring about a social transformation in the interests of the oppressed masses. Both Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime in Egypt and the Ba'athist government in Syria had such pretensions - and it is worth recalling that Nasser had carved out a place for himself in Arab hearts and minds unrivalled by anyone else either before or since.
The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been reformed supposedly in order to liberate Palestine and "avenge" the creation of the state of Israel, but in 1967 it was from the latter that they sustained a terrible blow. When the chief-of-staff of the Egyptian army, Field-Marshal 'Abd al-Hakim 'Amir, died (whether or not by his own hand), it was as if his demise were a symbol of the fate of the Arab armies on which so many hopes had been pinned and such vast quantities spent, while the Arab masses suffered under their oppression.
The Arabs' resounding defeat occurred at a time of intense polarisation between the west and the Soviet Union - a division in which Nasser's regime invested to great effect. It is also worth noting that in the 1960s, and especially the middle part of the decade, most of the world became a cold-war battlefield. During the 1950s, conflict between the superpowers had been largely restricted to Germany and Korea, but in the ten years that followed confrontation spread from Cuba to Africa, and from Vietnam to Greece. It could be argued that the events of 1967 demonstrated the impossibility of outright victory, even with as powerful a nation as the Soviet Union on one's side, with all its determination to oppose United States and western influence. By the same token, an unprecedented alliance was established between the United States and the Jewish state, an alliance without which nothing in the last forty years could be understood.
Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper al-Hayat
A full list of Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy:
(15 April 2004)
"Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes"
(17 June 2004)
"Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?"
(21 February 2005)
"Lebanon's election, no solution"
(20 June 2005)
"How to make Israel secure"
(26 August 2005)
(with Saleh Bechir) "The 'Muslim community': a European invention"
(17 October 2005)
"Left and right united: the victory of Maoism" (23 November 2005)
"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)
"The cartoon jihad"
(3 March 2006)
"Iran's politics: constants and variables" (12 May 2006)
"How the European left supports Lebanon"
(14 August 2006)
"Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?"
(20 October 2006)
"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat"
(19 December 2006)
"Sunni and Shi'a: coexistence and conflict" (17 April 2007)
A destructive obstinacy
The six-day war did not only expose the true capabilities of the Arab regimes and their armies and bloated bureaucracies; it also began to show the capacities of Arab societies and cultures, their elites and their structures both new and old. In the aftermath of war there began a transition from the inclusive rhetoric of pan-Arabism, as embodied by Nasserism and to a lesser extent by Ba'athism, towards distinct Arab indigenous loyalties. In the long term this was perhaps the most significant outcome of the 1967 conflict.
One symptom of this change was the fighting which broke out in Jordan in 1970 and 1971 between Palestinian Jordanians and East Bank Jordanians. Another was the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975. For Syria, the six-day war led to the reinforcement of the Ba'athist dictatorship through Hafez al-Assad's military coup of 1970. The origin of the Palestinian resistance dates to the battle of al-Karama in Jordan in march 1968, when Palestinian fighters scored a symbolic victory over Israeli forces; but even the resistance was unable to stand up to the fragmentation of the Arab world. Indeed, with its narrow mindset and its inception from outside Palestine itself, the Palestinian liberation movement became one of the main causes of division in the middle east.
The deeply tribal nature of most of the countries in the region soon became apparent. Egypt was historically a far more cohesive nation than its neighbours; under Anwar Sadat it chose to withdraw from the confrontation with Israel in pursuit of its own interests, despite a wave of criticism from other Arab states, and thus managed to avoid some of the tragedies that befell other Arab countries.
However, in general the middle east was pervaded by a mixture of wounded pride, a desire for justice, political rivalry between existing regimes, popular frustration and a systematic incompetence in understanding the "Zionist entity" and its strength. The result of all this was a disastrous and destructive obstinacy. A few months after the defeat of 1967, the Arab leaders responded at a summit in Khartoum with three noes: no to peace with Israel, no to negotiation with Israel and no to recognition of Israel. Needless to say, it was an entirely irrational and illogical reaction to the six-day war.
Landscape after battle
The subsequent transformation in the attitude of the Palestinians and other Arabs reached a climax in the so-called Beirut initiative of 2002, in which the Arab states belatedly offered a peace deal to Israel. But by this time it was too late to reverse the debilitating effect of the policies of the preceding forty years.
Meanwhile, the Arab response to Israeli belligerent militarism and American arrogance was to adopt a bizarre form of rhetoric. The Arabs condemn the United States as an enemy whose allegiance to Israel has been almost unconditional since 1967. At the same time they continue to complain that the US is "unfair" in its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict - as if they could expect any justice from their enemy.
This contradiction probably reflects an underlying confusion in the Arab understanding of the modern world. It is as though the Arabs are fighting their enemy in order to make him more just, like a child that smashes whatever it can lay its hands on in order to attract the attention of its hard-hearted parents. But when the child has nothing left to break, its parents no longer take any notice. Many people are to blame for this approach, but Arab intellectuals have played a particularly reprehensible role in excusing it. Indeed, they have even gone so far as to justify despotism and civil war as long as they believed them to serve the interests of this misguided agenda. The intellectual structure, as the late Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Hafez once wrote, was much worse than the military one, and its defeat was much bigger.
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