The war that began on June 4, 1967, proved to be the beginning of the end of this period of turmoil, the end of the Arab Cold War and also the beginning of the end of the global cold war in the Middle East. There is a direct line from the outcomes of the 1967 war – the defeat of the combined Arab armies, and Israel’s unexpected conquest of territory including Sinai, East Jerusalem and the West Bank – to the regional order that came after. Egypt’s turn from the Soviet Union to the West, the historic 1977 visit of Sadat to Jerusalem, and the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords cemented a new Middle East that was dominated and protected by American military and diplomatic leadership, and that served interests of the United States, Israel, and America’s Arab partners pretty well.
That Middle Eastern order is what fell apart in the violence that followed on the Arab uprisings of 2011. The grievances that drove the Arab uprisings were in large part due to the failures and repression of the Arab leaders that prevailed under that order. Indeed, that’s why U.S. presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama pressed those leaders to respect human rights and advance political and economic reforms. Instead, popular protests in Syria, Libya and elsewhere were met with violence, giving rise to civil wars and lending space to ISIS and other radical armed groups.
There has now been six years of renewed turmoil and intense geopolitical competition in the region, including competition between Sunni-led Arab states and Iran, and a new competition between more traditional state leaders and transnational ideological movements that are trying to supplant those leaders. Again, both sides see their struggle as existential.
The question is whether today, fifty years after 1967, we are also at the beginning of the end of a period of regional turmoil. Because as much as this upending of the region has generated tremendous conflict, a lot of human suffering, and a lot of anxiety and uncertainty for states across the region including Israel, it also presents opportunities to build new kinds of partnerships to restore order and stability to the region, under the banner of peace and conflict resolution.
Right now, Israel and the Arab states share a common sense of threat from Iran and its allies like Hizballah, and from violent extremist Sunni groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hamas. President Trump’s visit to the Middle East was intended to cement a regionwide coalition against these threats. But stabilizing the region will require more than a shared sense of threat – it will require Arabs, and Israelis with them, to develop a shared vision for the region they want to build, including two key features: means to resolve longstanding conflicts on which terrorist groups prey, and a plan for constructing effective, just and sustainable governance in areas where ISIS and other such groups have been holding sway. A new regional order that protects the interests of America and its allies will not emerge solely from battlefield victories, but from investments in a shared future. President Trump’s ambitious rhetoric about driving out evil, particularly when combined with his request for severe cuts to US diplomacy and assistance, will not get that job done; let’s hope Arab and Israeli leaders will get to work together on filling the gaps in both strategy and resources.
The 1967 war came at the tail end of a period of tremendous ferment in the Middle East. This period featured intense competition in the region between traditional monarchies and Arab dictators spouting a secular transnational ideology of pan-Arabism. As part of this struggle, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were locked in a proxy conflict in Yemen – just as Saudi Arabia and Iran are today. Historians call this era the Arab Cold War, because it was so intense a debate over how Arab states should be organized, and because it was viewed as existential on both sides.
Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings. Wittes also oversaw the Middle East Partnership Initiative and served as deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions.