Diplomacy as Endgame

As Israel celebrates the war that gave it a spectacular victory over combined Arab armies in 1967, Arabs are celebrating the hasty retreat of Israeli forces from Lebanon in the face of a few determined Lebanese fighters.

While Israel has grown even more powerful since 1967, it now fears that the Lebanon withdrawal under duress will undermine its deterrence of potential Arab attacks and provide a dangerous precedent. But the Six Day War of 1967 is a strong reminder that even decisive military victory could not provide effective deterrence.

When the 1967 war ended less than a week after it started, Arab armies were nearly destroyed and Israel found itself occupying significant Egyptian and Syrian territories in addition to the West Bank and Gaza. Many analysts at the time believed that Arab forces could not be rebuilt before the passing of another decade. In only six years, seemingly inferior Egyptian and Syrian armies, with small odds of winning, surprised Israel in waging their most successful war. No one had believed that weak Arab forces would take such risks in 1973 after the massive defeat they suffered only a few years before.

Israel’s famous success in 1967 did not provide effective deterrence because wars are as much a function of the will of a people as they are of its military potential. When Israelis felt they were fighting for survival and for acceptance in a region that universally rejected them, their will to prevail was as much a factor in their success as the power of their army.

When Arabs sought the end of Israeli occupation of their land—Syria and Egypt in 1973, the Palestinians in their uprising in the late 1980s and the Lebanese in their recent success—the will to liberate one’s own land went a long way to compensate for military weakness.

Today, the sense of a rare Arab military success in Lebanon is certainly giving a good name to the gun in the Arab world and is thus undermining Israel’s deterrence.

But here, too, there is much to learn from the 1967 war. Israel’s overconfidence after its impressive victory was in no small part responsible for its dismissal of possible Arab success in October 1973—and for the heavy price it paid in that war. Today, Lebanon has every reason to celebrate the end of an occupation for which it has paid dearly.

But the conclusions about the effectiveness of armed campaigns must not be overdrawn.

There is now an extraordinary opportunity, and intense American diplomacy, to address the outcome and the cause of the 1967 war in a comprehensive deal that reverses Israel’s occupation of Arab lands while seriously addressing its security concerns and assuring its acceptance in the region.

Although military power remains a central factor in providing effective deterrence, only such a deal can reduce the will of both peoples to fight: 33 years after the Six Day War, the vast majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza and Syrians in the Golan have been born under occupation, while Israelis have never enjoyed real peace and security.

Only diplomacy can ease this unstable, unjust, and, to both Israelis and Arabs alike, unsafe state of affairs.

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.