by Ghassan Kadi
Like all Arabs of my age group, we all remember this war like it was yesterday. We remember how we huddled glued to our radios listening to military news reports and watching military parades and war songs on black and white TV screens, believing that the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were on a winning streak, not knowing that the war was really over before we tuned in to our radios and TV sets on day one.
What happened during those infamous six days was well recorded in history, and half a century on, the region is still reeling from the consequences of this war, at many different levels, and in various ways, recognized and unrecognized.
Nearly a decade after his monumental win in the 1956 conflict and the nationalization of the Suez Canal, in 1967 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, aka Nasser, was at his zenith. He was certain of scoring a military victory, and in a speech he gave a few days before the war, as I sat down in my family home watching my parents listen and listened with them, I remember him saying that “should Israel decide to go to war with us, we tell her you are welcome, should Britain decide to go to war with us, we tell her you are welcome, and even should America decide to go to war with us, we shall also say you are welcome”, a statement met by huge applause by his audience. But Nasser was the mega demagogue, who knew what to say to stay popular on one hand, and keep the masses motivated on the other hand. He knew he could not fight and win against the USA, but he did want to take Israel on, and he was determined to win, and after all, the 1967 war was one that he instigated.
To wind back the clock to 1964 for a moment, a time when Arab nationalism and to a lesser extent Communism were the passions overwhelming the Arab street. Fundamentalist Muslims saw big danger. It was in that year that Saudi Prince Faisal forced his older half-brother Saud to abdicate and grabbed the throne. Saud, the first king to assume the throne after the death of the founding father Abdul-Aziz, was renowned for his womanizing and wild parties. He indulged heavily in lavishing the new-found petrol wealth and did not care much about ideology. But by the time his Muslim-devoted brother Faisal had him deposed in 1964, and with Arab nationalism and Nasser’s popularity at their peak, Faisal was determined to make his mark in an attempt to gain the minds and souls of Muslim youth.
It was at that time, with the tacit support of the USA, that Saudi Arabia began to export its Wahhabi ideology to the rest of the Arab World, Muslim World, and the West.
Faisal realized that the only way for him to curb the spread of secularism in its national and communist forms was by means pulling the wallet out and spending money on Islamic education abroad, teaching the most fundamentalist of all Muslim systems to the world, the Wahhabi doctrine. He did, and his wallet was bottomless.
Back again to the Six-Day war. Its loss was a result of gross miscalculation and lack of planning. Much is said in the Arab World about treason having played a factor. The Arab street is quite conspiratorial in its thinking, but even if treason were indeed a contributing factor, it doesn’t change the fact that by the end of the war, the morale of Arabs had sunken to its lowest point in history ever.
The demise of Nasser began with that war, and with his eventual untimely death at the age of 48 three years later, the Arab World changed, or should I say regressed, to seemingly the point of no return.
Nasser was not an ordinary leader. He was a giant, a visionary and a nation-builder with progressive ideology that aimed to develop the Arab World and put it on par with the rest of the world, but his big dreams were shattered the moment that war was lost.
The loss of the war was Nasser’s loss more than that of any other leader or person, but his loss was a bonanza not only for his Israeli enemy, but also for his domestic archrivals; the Egyptian Islamists -or rather the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as they were back then the only fundamentalist Muslim organization- and also to king Faisal across the Red Sea.
The Islamists used Nasser’s loss to imply that it was a direct failure of secularism and started their recruitment drive claiming and promising the shocked Muslim youth that only by abandoning secularism, which has failed, and upon returning to Islam, that Muslims and Arabs can avert such humiliation in the future. This statement is not based on analysis. It is based on actual personal recollection of the mantra of Islamist recruiters in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
In reality however, the loss of the 1967 war had nothing to do with secularism, but the MB members and Saudi recruits and their supporters made it look like a sign from heaven and did not waste a single minute to wage a war against secularism to make it look as if it was the culprit.
It was as if the destiny of the Arab World took a diversion after this war. It was as if it hit a wall and made a ricochet hitting deep skeletons and reaching out for demons of the past, forcing a change, a change that the so-called Arab Spring is but a single link in the chain of.
But of course we cannot analyze the entire after effects of the Six-Day War without looking at its long term effect on Israel; the victor.
The war elevated the then Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, instantly to the level of a national hero. The West regarded him as a military genius and he was well received as a speaker at different forums thereafter until he had his own political demise. The Israeli army (IDF) was elevated to the level of the “undefeatable army”, and the mention of word Israel sent waves of fear and terror in the hearts and minds of all Arabs.
For many years to come after that, Arabs lived with the notion that it was only a matter of time before Israel took the next step to expand further, and further, until it reached its Biblical dream of a “kingdom” from the Euphrates east to the Nile west.
The emergence of the Palestinian Resistance caused a significant change to the superiority-inferiority formula, but not enough to upset the balance of power; especially with the unconditional and unrelenting American support to Israel at many levels. The partial victory of Egypt and Syria combined in the Yom Kippor War made a dent, but again not enough to upset the apple cart in an irreversible way.
Ironically, what did eventually dethrone Israel from its position as being undefeatable were the two most unlikely powers; Palestinian people and Lebanese people.
After many incursions into Lebanon under the guise of containing the PLO, and later on invading and occupying South Lebanon, Israel had to retreat defeated by a local resistance movement; Hezbollah. And within the regions of Palestine taken by Israel during the Six-Day War, the uprising (Intifada), in all of its phases and rebirths, made it virtually impossible for Israel to control that land it once occupied by force. After all, it is the boots on the ground that rule, not the fighter jets in the skies.
In effect, Israel’s great military victory in 1967 has turned into a nightmare, and to date, Israel is still unable to deal with its aftermath. It can fairly be said that the only thus far long term “achievement” for Israel was the series of events that led to peace with Egypt following the return of Sinai.
Fifty years on, Israel sees itself surrounded by “rogue” enemies with fire power and rockets that can hit any target in Israel as far as Eilat. The regional super power is no longer, and the name of the IDF and the sight of its fighters in the skies do not send waves of terror and panic on the ground anymore. The psychological war that Israel once won is over, done and dusted.
So as we look back at what happened half a century ago and today, who were really the winners and the losers of the infamous Six-Day War?
The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have lost their sovereignty, but despite all odds, they are slowly but surely making big marks on the score board when it comes to integrity, popular global sympathy and support.
People of South Lebanon have won strategically and militarily and do not fear Israel anymore. If anything, it seems that it is Israel who is more concerned about the outcome of another confrontation with Hezbollah after its defences failed to stop the onslaught of Hezbollah rockets back in July 2006.
For the initial victor in that war therefore, as one event led to another, Israel’s swift win has turned into a hellish quagmire.
But the biggest loser of them all was the hope of what the reforms of secularism were going to bring into the minds of people in the Arab World. As Islamists managed to capitalize on Nasser’s defeat and as mini-skirts began to be replaced by Hijab and Niqab in the streets of Cairo, Damascus and Beirut, it was clear that the Muslim Arab World decided to take a shift, a shift that was later on mirrored in all Muslim nations and by many Muslims who live in the West.
In hindsight, with the death of Nasser, secularism in the Arab World died with him. Ironically however, the rise of Nasser to prominence was not only opposed domestically and regionally by his fundamentalist rivals, but by other secular movements that swept through the Middle East, and in retrospect, had they joined efforts, they might have achieved their common objectives. However, not even today, half a century later and more, does any of them see in the Nasser era and the aura and charisma of the person a missed opportunity.
Today, Israel remains bogged down in both the West Bank and Gaza, and surrounded by states that are under direct threat of turning radical. The current state of accord between the state of Israel and many of the Islamic terrorist movements that are operating in Syria and other locations cannot and will not survive the ravages of time. It is bound to collapse as soon as the interests of both sides diverge, and this divergence will happen if and when any of those organizations, God forbid, assumes power in any of the Arab states on Israel’s borders. The sweeping military victory of 1967 has caused nothing for Israel but problems and bigger problems down the pipeline.
It seems that humanity insists not to learn from the benefit of hindsight and experience because policy and decision makers have blinkered vision and are always looking for short-term gain and they do not seem to take into account the consequential factor. Had the West known what Nasser really stood for ideologically, not politically or strategically, it should have supported him rather than push him down and destroy him like it did. After all, even though he was “dictatorial” in his hold of power, he was the closest thing to Western style democracy that could ever happen in the Arab World.
At the end, when we combine all the miscalculations and failures, short-sightedness and complacency, arrogance and denials, the Six-Day War half a century on has produced a number of partial winners and losers, and just as secularism was the biggest loser, the biggest winner was none but the Jihadi Islamists, and all of those who contributed to this outcome are partly responsible.