Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Prior to returning to the Institute in 2011, he served two years as special assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gamal Abdel Nasser presented himself as the hero who would lead the Arabs back to greatness, but other Arab leaders did not take kindly to his efforts to subvert them. In the 1960s both the monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco – and the radical nationalists – Syria and Iraq – taunted him and his reluctance to take on Israel.
However, all his troubles with other Arab leaders seemingly disappeared when the UN complied with his demand to withdraw the UN Emergency Forces from the Sinai and he declared that he had mined the Straits of Tiran. Instantaneously, Nasser was again a hero. On May 29, 1967, he declared to his parliament that he was in the process not just of reversing the results of 1956—when, as a consequence of the war, the Straits had been opened to Israeli shipping—but of 1948 as well. A day later, King Hussein flew to Cairo and put his forces under Egyptian command, and the president of Iraq declared that the Arab armies would meet in Tel Aviv.
In the fateful weeks leading up to the war, this is what Israelis heard. They were digging trenches around their cities, expecting a war of survival. While the Israeli military leaders were confident, they, too, felt the price would go up the longer Israel delayed after six Egyptian divisions were suddenly on their borders.
Because the war was one the Israelis did not expect, there was literally no planning for the aftermath of a war that now left Israel occupying the Sinai, the Golan Heights and the West Bank and Gaza. On June 19, 1967, the Israeli Cabinet secretly adopted a resolution that would have provided for Israel to withdraw to the international border with Egypt and Syria in return for peace.
Nasser’s three no’s—no to negotiations, no to recognition, and no to peace with Israel—at the Arab summit in Khartoum in August 1967, convinced the Israeli government subsequently to rescind this secret decision.
It is noteworthy that West Bank was not included in the June 19 resolution. On this, there was a need for more discussion. Some in the IDF intelligence and planning sectors were already suggesting that occupying what then was more than 1 million Arabs in the West Bank was not sustainable, and they argued for creating a de-militarized Palestinian state.
It is interesting that fifty years later, we are again focused on the future of the West Bank and Gaza. Is Palestinian statehood more likely today than it was fifty years ago? Internationally, there is a wide consensus favoring a two state outcome and a Palestinian Authority also exists. Neither, of course, existed in 1967. Indeed, Arab leaders largely assumed the responsibility, at least rhetorically, for the Palestinians prior to 1967. After the defeat that was no longer the case.
Ironically, today, Palestinians claim a responsibility for themselves, but are divided. Even if there could be an agreement based on two states for two peoples, it could not be implemented any time soon, given Hamas’ control in Gaza—and no one has an answer to that. Could it be that the Arabs may now decide to play a role for the Palestinians again? Shared threat perceptions of Iran, its use of Shia militias, and ISIS and other radical Sunni Islamists, have produced discreet security collaboration between Israel and the leading Sunni states. US president, Donald Trump, has just left the region where he spoke of the possibility of building on this cooperation for peace. His interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab interest in having the US remain in the region to address the threats they fear most may produce an Arab leader willingness to contribute to that peace.
It would be welcome because both the Israelis and Palestinians need an Arab “cover” to concede anything. Because very few in Israel believe any concession made to the Palestinians will yield anything from the Palestinians, they are only likely to contemplate such concessions if they will produce something tangible from the Arabs. As for the Palestinians, their weakness, division, and sense of grievance have created a belief that they should not have to concede anything to Israel. However, should the Arabs call for such moves, they could be defensible.
The Arabs have never played such a role in the past—and no doubt for them to do so now, they would feel the need to show they are producing for the Palestinians what they cannot produce for themselves. I don’t have high expectations that they will necessarily to play this role, but given the new regional circumstances, I do believe it is essential to test what might be possible. Fifty years after 1967 maybe it is time for the Arabs again to assume a responsibility for the Palestinians—not to take their place but to help them establish a state living in peace next to Israel.
Fifty years have gone by since the Six Day War of June 1967. In the years following Israel’s war of independence, there was a deep sense of betrayal in the Arab world, and many regimes were swept from power. Replaced by military officers, they had one thing in common: they were going to avenge the loss of Palestine. However, as Malcolm Kerr wrote in his classic book, The Arab Cold War, Palestine was not a unifying issue in practice; rather, it was the issue over which every leader sought to proclaim his purity and to decry the absence of steadfastness in his Arab rivals.