Could it happen again?
Concerned now with defence, Arab countries can no longer be defeated in the same way as in 1967, meaning Israel can never again win on the same scale, writes Mohamed Abdel-Salam*
Jarring as they were, the events of 1967 cannot happen again. History doesn't repeat itself, at least not in the same way. Israel has fought three major, or semi-major, wars since 1967, and won none. In the Lebanon war of 1982, the Israeli army walked into a quagmire of which it emerged only with difficulty and nothing to brag about. In the second Lebanon war of 2006, the Israelis failed to score a victory, at most scoring a draw. In the 1973 War, the Israeli army lost.
All our military commanders who witnessed the 1967 War are still having difficulty imagining how things went so wrong. The 1967 War was extraordinary, if not outright irrational. One of our commanders still argues that this wasn't even a war, but a military exercise that went horribly awry, and that was prompted by the worst political miscalculation in Egypt's recent history. Any cadet in the Egyptian army could have foreseen the catastrophe, many would argue. What happened in 1967 was nothing but a masquerade. The army didn't even fight. So how can we say it was defeated? But this is how history will remember 1967.
Israel's documents about the war reveal a more disturbing fact. Although it appeared that Egypt was the country escalating the situation and ready to attack, while Israel was concerned with self-defence, the truth of the matter was that the Israelis knew they had an edge. They knew that the decision to start the war rested with Tel Aviv, not Cairo. Their problem was to choose the right time for the war. Israel sent its troops to occupy the passageways of Sinai, but as soon as this goal was achieved, it became clear that the Egyptians were no longer putting up resistance, so the Israelis pushed through to the Suez Canal. Had the Israelis been met with the least resistance, they would have stopped. And the course of history would have changed.
Such a scenario cannot be repeated. Since 1967, Egyptian leaders have refrained from military bluffing. Egyptian leaders have -- against the wishes of their public and that of other countries -- refused to use the army for political posturing. And their military defence and offence tactics have grown more sophisticated over time. Within six years, Egypt had learned its lesson, rebuilt its armed forces from scratch, and became capable not only of defence but of effective offence.
One thing we should keep in mind is that although Israel scored a decisive victory in 1967, and although the scope of the defeat was -- unlike the case in 1956 -- impossible to deny, the Egyptian leadership never accepted the presumed terms of defeat, and the Egyptian people never accepted the resignation of the man responsible for that defeat. So Egypt went on to fight a few limited battles, just to show that it wasn't going to give up. Despite the humiliation, the Egyptians refused to accept defeat.
General Andre Beaufre, the French strategic thinker, once said that the defeated deserve to lose for their defeat was more the outcome of their mistakes than the skills of their enemy. This classic theory is now common in politics. Often, the opposition wins elections not just on its own merits, but because the public is fed up with those in power. Egypt lost in 1967 because of fatal errors it committed, not because it had to. So the 1967 outcome was more of an Egyptian defeat than an Israeli victory.
Curiously enough, the balance of power in 1967 wasn't in Egypt's favour. A study by the late Brigadier General Hassan Al-Badri shows that in every single war, even before 1967, Israel commissioned more troops and better weapons than the Arabs did. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Israel had a quantitative advantage, not only a qualitative one, in its wars. So even had the 1967 War proceeded in a more customary fashion, Israel would have won. This doesn't justify the scale of the Arab defeat, but it goes to show that the outcome was not due to Israel's performance alone.
The same balance of power, more or less, existed in 1973. But in that war, Egypt had a military commander who was thinking in terms of a limited war and a small shift in the balance of power. In the 1982 war in Lebanon, the balance of power was quite tilted, but the defenders were ready to fight back for over two months under siege. In the 2006 war, Israel had a frightening edge, but the Israeli army performed very poorly, by the admission of the Winograd report. The Israeli army fumbled and failed in the face of a few war games and a limited show of fireworks.
The time of resounding defeats and glorious victories is over. The Americans demolished the Iraqi army in less than a month in 2003, but were unable to achieve their political objectives for the following four years. So Iraq is not a victory for Washington. These days, small and determined groups seem to be able to undermine the political objectives of their enemies. Everyone is thinking twice before starting a major war. The current debate about a possible war between the US and Iran is a case in point. Wars are no longer an easy option. They are becoming, once again, the last option.
What happened in 1967 was a case of "ill-advised war". Perhaps some leaders in the region haven't yet learned how to avoid such wars, as was seen in the case of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But at least as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned, ill-advised wars are unlikely to recur. You have only to analyse the conduct of Arab countries neighbouring Israel to get the picture. Wars have become mostly defensive. Arab countries can no longer be defeated in the manner that happened in 1967, nor can Israel win on the same scale. When you think of war these days, it is hard to think in terms of victory. It is easier to think in terms of defeat, at various levels, for all those involved.
* The writer is a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.