A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 5, 2009

June 5, 42 Years On: Some of the "What Ifs?"

Tom Segev has a piece in today's Haaretz noting that soon after the 1967 war Yitzhak Rabin suggested a Palestinian state linked in some way to Israel to Levi Eshkol, and that this "two-state" solution was not considered a radical idea at the time. (Segev's book 1967 is probably the best overview of the war in the context of Israeli society, as opposed to a military narrative like Ambassador to the US-designate Michael Oren's Six Days of War.)

Forty-two years on, the 1967 war still haunts the region. Most peace plans center around the ceasefire lines as they stood on June 4, 1967. Settlements beyond those lines remain the great obstacles to finding a solution. Although the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal to some extent offset the humiliation of Egypt's defeat in 1967 (making it possible for Sadat to go to Jerusalem in 1977), the military one-sidedness of 1967 served to transform the situation: surrounded little Israel became seen by many as Israel the occupation power, and Israelis themselves, until 1973, came to believe in their own invincibility. The Bar-Lev line was once as famous as the Maginot Line, and as evanescent when the time came.

Segev's article is a reminder that so many things that now, in retrospect, seem set in stone were not always so. History is a series of contingent decisions. Change one of those decisions and much else may change. Alternative history is always a useful intellectual exercise, if of course in the end a futile one: it can make us think about how things might have been averted, but we can't go back and change them. A few of the "what ifs" we may reflect on on the Fifth of June:
  • What if, while striking a threatening pose and ordering the United Nations Emergency Force out of Sinai and threatening to close the Strait of Tiran, Nasser had at the very least taken the precaution of dispersing his Air Force? There are sound reasons to believe Nasser intended to push to the brink but no further, and simply was unprepared for an Israeli pre-emptive strike, though he gave them the pretext by committing technical acts of war. The destruction of the Arab air forces on the morning of June 5 made the remaining five and a half days of war inevitable. Yet no defensive precautions were taken.
  • Egyptian Vice President Zakaria Mohieddin was scheduled to travel to the United Nations within the next few days; many believe Nasser planned to stand down gracefully when he arrived. He never got the chance. There are still many questions about the timing of the Israeli pre-emptive strike, but at least in part it seems to have been intended to make sure that Nasser not have time to save face, since Israel calculated it would do better against the Arabs in 1967 than a few years later.
  • What if Eshkol had taken Rabin's advice, as noted in the Segev article above?
  • What if the Khartoum Summit in September 1967, instead of the "three nos": no peace, no recognition, no negotiations, had offered to negotiate something like the current Arab Peace Initiative? At the time, Israel might have welcomed it.
  • What if the Cold War had not gotten in the way? The way in which the US-Soviet rivalry had been grafted onto the Arab-Israeli conflict distorted the regional issues out of all recognition and made US and Soviet responses dependent not on their regional interests but on global competition.
  • Many of the mysteries of the 1967 war are still coming to light. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez' Foxbats Over Dimona has sparked a lot of debate (including in the book review pages of The Middle East Journal), and any discussion of the Liberty incident still sparks battles 42 years later. (And Ginor and Remez tell me they have something more to unveil later this year. Stand by.) Without getting into those issues right now — the literature is vast and polemical, and I'll refer you to it rather than summarize it — we may still have more to learn.
But, of course, what happened happened, and more than four decades later we are still struggling with the decisions made in 1967. I'm not even certain that Obama was aware that he was speaking in Cairo the day before the annniversary (he didn't allude to it), but Israelis were clearly aware of it.

One could, of course, write a book on this; many have. I just wanted to raise a few thoughts on the anniversary.

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