Thirty Years On: Has Anything Changed?

by Gerald Steinberg

For those of us who lived through the period before and during the 1967 war, the images remain vivid: the threats created by the sudden withdrawal of the UN buffer forces from the Sinai; the troops massing for attack along the borders; the military alliances between Egypt, Syria and Jordan; the naval blockade in the Red Sea; and most hauntingly, the wild cheering by the masses in Arab capitals in response to Nasser's declarations of his intention to "throw the Jews into the sea".

In Washington, Israeli representatives were received politely and even sympathetically, but the US did not dispatch a carrier task force or air force squadron to deter an Arab attack. In those days, Israel's only real ally was France, but in the midst of this crisis, De Gaulle decided that there was more to be gained by supporting the Arabs, and he cut off Israel's supply of weapons. During this "waiting period", in Israel and in the Diaspora, from California to Moscow, the unspoken fear was that 4,000 years of Jewish history was going to end, while the world expressed sympathy and did nothing.

Thirty years have passed since those days, and on the scale of individual lives, this is a long time--more than a generation. The optimists among us (and there are still some) argue that the Middle East has changed profoundly since then. The most obvious change is the peace process beginning with Sadat's visit and the 1979 Peace Treaty, and more recently, the Madrid conference, the Oslo agreement, and the 1994 treaty with Jordan.

These have replaced the "three noes" of the Khartoum conference of Arab leaders after the war, when they rejected negotiations with Israel, recognition of the Jewish state, and peace. The Soviet Union, which was the main source of weapons and other resources for the Arab states, has disappeared.

However in terms of Middle East history, in which time is measured in centuries and millennia, three decades count for very little. Maybe all of these changes are little more than illusions, and the result of wishful thinking and war weariness. Despite the peace agreements, Palestinian terror continues, and the Arab states are still spending billions annually on weapons, ignoring the devastating poverty of their cities and villages.

In the Arab and Islamic world, the voices that accept Jewish sovereignty as legitimate, even restricted to the post-1948 borders, are still a small minority. Arafat refers to the day on which the State of Israel was declared as "Palestinian Holocaust Day", and Palestinians who are suspected of selling land to Jews are marked for death. In other words, the hatred that led to terror and war still flourishes.

From this perspective, the peace agreements are seen as tactical measures, designed to produce Israeli withdrawals until the pre-1967 borders are restored and the full-scale assault on Israel can resume. In 1967, the Egyptian army was equipped with chemical weapons, which it used in Yemen a few years earlier. Many of the thousands of graves that were prepared in Israel before the war were designated for victims of gas attacks. Now, we all have gas masks, as not only Egypt, but also Syria and Iraq are equipped with chemical weapons and missiles to deliver them. In the past year, both Egypt and Syria have held large scale military exercises, and the Palestinians now have a sizeable military force to harass the deployment of the IDF during war.

And the radius of conflict has expanded, with the addition of Iran, and its ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and continued threats to destroy the "Zionist entity". Unlike 1967, we know that the Israeli army is formidable, but the fundamental fact, that Israel cannot survive a single defeat, remains.

Internationally, if the 1967 scenario were to be repeated, Israel would be entirely on its own again. Although support from the US has increased to an extent that was not imaginable 30 years ago, this can erode quickly, as was seen during the Bush administration and the 1991 Gulf War. Most of Europe can still be counted on to support the Arabs, regardless of the threats, and in the UN, 180 nations are ready to condemn Israel under almost any circumstances. The Soviet Union may be gone, but now Russia is selling billions of dollars in tanks, planes, and missiles to Iran and the Arab states.

Although it would be comforting and reassuring to believe that, as the optimists tell us, everything has changed in 30 years, the evidence does not allow for this luxury. Perhaps the strength of Israel, the alliance with the US, the growing acceptance of reality by the Arabs, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, may yet create "a new world order" and, one day, may even produce a "New Middle East".

But for now, these are only distant dreams and wishful thinking, and stark reality is that the strategic threats that Israel faced in 1967 have not disappeared.

The author is a Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies. This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on June 6, and is used with permission.

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