10 June, 2007

Another 1967

This year, last year, and next year have some interesting anniversaries. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the Suez caper, in which the UK and France teamed up with Israel only to discover that they were no longer major world powers. Next year will mark sixty years since the foundation of the state of Israel, or sixty years since al-Nakba, the catastrophe that saw several hundred thousand Palestinians forced from their homes. This year, meanwhile, sees the fortieth anniversary of the Six Day War, in which the Israelis stuffed the combined armies of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.

The Six Day War is still seen a major turning point in the affairs of the Middle East. I suppose at one level it changed the rules of the game - it was no longer possible for anyone to claim that Israel's military defeat was possible, and Israel's neighbours implicitly or explicitly switched to more modest goals. More crucially for Israel itself, the country found itself in possession of all of mandate Palestine (as well as Syrian and Egyptian territories), and a much enlarged population of sulky non-Jews. Shortly after the conquest of the West Bank, Israeli settlers began to move in there, in an effort to tie the land to Israel forever. The acceleration of their programme in the 1990s plays a major role in preventing resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Given that 1967 was such a turning point, it is interesting to imagine how things might have turned out differently then. The war is an interesting illustration of the importance of contingency in human affairs, with the various actors in the struggle having real choices that were important determinants of what eventually happened. I gather from my old pals in Points of Divergence, an alternate history APA, that there are more than no pieces in which people imagine the consequences of an Arab victory in 1967. Given the imbalance of forces at the time, and the actual totally rubbish performance of the Egyptian and Syrian armies, this would be a rather fanciful outcome and not one that could seriously be considered. More interesting, though, is a speculative piece by Doron Rosenblum that appeared in Ha'aretz last week. Rosenblum imagines what might have ensued had Israel's civilian leadership faced down the militarists who were calling for a first strike on Egypt. In some ways the piece is a triumph of the plus-ça-change,-plus-c'est-la-même-chose school of alternate history, where you make a big change but then have everything turning out more or less the same. Nevertheless, the piece is interesting in terms of suggesting how things could have turned out differently, with Israel being spared the moral corrosion that ensues from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

You could of course imagine any number of other alternate 1967s - what if Nasser had pursued a less risky strategy, what if Jordan had stayed out of the war, what if the Egyptian army was not completely rubbish (or at least had leaders who played to its strengths rather than its weaknesses), what if the USS Liberty incident had provoked extreme US sulkiness, and so on. We of course do not get to live in these imagined worlds, but merely thinking about them should be enough to make us appreciate the importance of human agency and reject gonzoid determinism.


One Slim Boy said...

Any thoughts on this?

ian said...

I will read the article more closely and come back to you, probably with another piece on the Six Day War and how people love to tell fibs about it.