If time truly clarifies the full meaning of past events, then we have much to digest this week as we mark the 49th anniversary of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War in the midst of warfare, suffering, and state fragmentation across many Arab countries.
In retrospect, the consequences of that terrible defeat would mark a historical turning point in modern Arab history, in several realms. June 1967 provided important but largely still unlearned lessons about nationalism, populism, emotionalism, governance, Arabism, Zionism, and sustainable, citizen-based state-building. Three particular ones stand out in my mind.
Israel’s military defeat of the Arabs in 1967 was followed by some Arabs defeating themselves politically. We lost that war because we never properly harnessed our natural, human, economic and strategic resources to set our Arab region on a path of sustained and equitable development. Governance did not centre on enhancing the capabilities, rights and well-being of the citizenry, but rather sought to perpetuate the incumbency and enrichment of a small circle of people who had seized power.
The second significant lesson from the 1967 war was the importance of political power and national advancement being anchored in populist participation. This lesson is partly evident in the burst of development of the Palestinian national movement after 1967, when it was clear than pan-Arab action would not restore Palestinian rights. This movement has not achieved its main goals, to be sure; but it has registered some meaningful gains.
Its determined political activism rescued the cause of Palestine from the oblivion it was headed for in the early 1960s. Its promotion of Arab popular support for the just cause of Palestine across the Arab region harnessed Arab government support as well. It tapped into global support for Palestinian rights, in national manifestations and in global forums.
Perhaps most importantly, it showed how a largely unified political movement based on consultative, participatory decision-making within Palestinian national institutions could make the historic transition from hardline militarism and absolutist political demands to a more reasonable set of compromises that would allow Palestinian rights to be restored alongside the state of Israel whose secure existence was a clear global demand.
That was the noteworthy road travelled from the 1967 defeat to the Saudi Arabian-shepherded Arab Peace Plan of 2002 that remains central today to diplomatic efforts by American, French, UN and other global leaders to find a just and permanent resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Most of all, however, the third key lesson we should recall from the 1967 defeat is about the very high price we pay for the absence of democratic pluralism in most Arab societies.
We lost that war because we were militarily and diplomatically unprepared, but those conditions were due to our being delinquent in our own governance. Modern history’s verdict is unambiguous: societies that tap the dynamism and protect the rights of their own citizens will achieve national wellbeing more often than those that subjugate citizens and stifle their will.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The enduring, harsher lessons of June 1967’.