The June 1967 war was immediately seen in the Arab world as an event of catastrophic proportions. It destroyed the credibility of radical Arab nationalism, strengthened the position of Israel in the region, and left Israel in control of large areas of Arab territory — Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank. (Gaza and the West Bank were parts of Palestine occupied by Egypt and Jordan in 1948.)

Like all crises, 1967 appeared to present opportunities as well as setbacks. Out of this catastrophe, many people in the region came to believe that new political perspectives and possibilities had opened up. In Egypt itself, the military defeat coincided with heightened social tensions. Peasants, workers and students, in a movement that began with the Qamshish peasant uprising of 1965, challenged the social compromises of Arab socialism. In other Arab states, the 1967 defeat was followed by military coups in which nominally radical groups seized power: Iraq in July 1968, Sudan in May 1969, Libya in September 1969.

Most importantly, the crisis of the Arab states produced by the dual military and social conflicts of the mid-1960s led to new extensions of revolutionary struggle. The Palestinian resistance seemed to thrive in Jordan and the occupied territories. The forces of the National Liberation Front triumphed over their Cairo-backed rivals in South Yemen in November 1967. Guerrilla war spread rapidly into the Dhofar region of Oman. The political landscape of the region indeed seemed to resemble a prairie afire.

Yet in the core states the political realignments of the regimes moved them decisively to the right. This dual situation was summarized in a much used phrase of the time — “the crisis of the petty bourgeois regimes.” This referred most pointedly to the crisis of the leading Arab state, Egypt. A crisis there was, but the end result was not a region-wide radicalization to the left. Rather, a conservative resolution of the crisis of the regimes ripened during the 1970s into the conservative and enfeebled Arab world of today. The consequences of this have been felt throughout and beyond the Arab states themselves.

The first major lasting consequence of 1967 was the rightward shift of the Egyptian regime. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970 accelerated and facilitated this trend, but it began well before that. Nasser’s March 30 (1968) program seemed to promise a revitalized, democratic structure that would safeguard the social achievements of Egypt’s revolution. In fact, it masked a growing accommodation with the Egyptian bourgeoisie at home and with Arab conservative regimes in the region. Under Saudi and Kuwaiti pressure, Nasser precipitately abandoned the North Yemeni revolution and withdrew Egyptian troops in November 1967.

Elsewhere, the space opened by 1967 for the Palestine Liberation Organization proved deceptive: while the political cause of the Palestinians in their own right, not as generic Arabs or “refugees,” was internationally recognized in a fundamentally new way, the practical consequences of this for the Palestinian people were not unequivocally positive. The Israelis have continued for two decades to tighten their control of the occupied territories and implant themselves there. The plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians outside, in refugee camps and shantytowns, has become increasingly desperate. Today, in 1987, the Palestinian reality is not that of political triumph but a litany of horrors evoked by the names of their camps — Sabra, Shatila, Burj al-Barajna and before them Tall al-Za‘tar — where the Palestinians have been hounded and massacred by Israelis and by fellow Arabs.

The Arab states in time recouped their repressive powers which had been weakened by 1967. Jordan’s 1970-1971 “Black September” campaign and then the protracted and bloody anti-Palestinian pogroms of Lebanon, in which Syria played such a cynical and opportunistic role and which continue as we write, have defined Arab-Palestinian relations in the post-1967 era.

The third process that developed out of 1967 was the ascendancy of the oil-producing states in the region and, through them, the region’s closer integration into the international capitalist system. This directly affected the economic and political hierarchy of the Arab world. A new economic integration of oil producing and labor-exporting economies took place. Politically it led to the growth of Iranian power in the Gulf, with the consequent exacerbation of Arab-Iranian relations and Iran’s counter-revolutionary role against Iraq and in Dhofar in the 1970s.

By the mid-1970s, the confessional conflict of Lebanon was gathering force and Egypt, encouraged by Washington, prepared its separate and divisive peace with Israel. The revolutionary movements had been crushed or contained. In the erstwhile radical states such as Libya and Iraq, new military-bureaucratic dictatorships, festooned with nationalist conceits, were consolidating their power.

The agenda inherited from 1967 is one that the ensuing two decades have done little to advance. It will take many years to overcome successfully the legacy of that war and the crises it engendered. Four components stand out. The first concerns the social tensions within Middle Eastern societies: the changes fueled by oil revenues have produced fragmentation, inequality and dislocation on a vast and enduring scale. The “over-building” of physical plants, from military bases to petrochemical factories, masks a process of growing underdevelopment. Domestic resources and skills have been dissipated and lost. Countries are more dependent than ever on an external income, from oil, that will in time run out. Iran has undergone a social revolution as a result of these tensions. Many other Middle Eastern societies are also facing profound internal dislocations.

A second element is the mounting sectarianism and chauvinism of Middle Eastern politics, evident in the Iran-Iraq war, in Lebanon’s strife and in the growing confessional conflict in Egypt. This phenomenon also embitters and complicates the Arab-Israeli dispute, pitting a triumphalist intransigent nationalism in Israel against an often chauvinistic nationalism and blind rejectionism dominant among Arabs. The rise of religiously formed political ideologies has had nefarious consequences. The core internationalist hope of 1967, that a common movement of anti-colonial Israelis and Palestinians would emerge, has not been realized. Both the oppressor nation, Israel, and the state allies and leaders of the oppressed Palestinians must bear responsibility for this impasse. The chief victims remain the Palestinian people. A Palestinian or Arab unity based on an unthinking rejection of a political solution will only consolidate Israel’s predominance.

A third unresolved dimension of the Middle East crisis, one postponed and rendered worse by the oil boom, has been that of political development. The need to develop political democracy and autonomy for oppressed classes, women and ethnic groups is as pressing today as in 1967. Finally, there remains the starting point of Arab and Iranian nationalism, namely the independence of the Middle Eastern states from external intervention and control. The past two decades have been replete with indirect economic and political control, enhanced by the divisions and social weaknesses of the Middle Eastern societies themselves. If 1967 exposed the deep problems facing the Middle East, and the Arab world in particular, the ensuing years have only underlined the need for clarity and political decisiveness in the search for solutions.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "1967 and the Consequences of Catastrophe," Middle East Report 146 (May/June 1987).

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