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Unnerving echoes of the Six-Day War

By Leanne Piggott - posted Thursday, 27 July 2006

The hostilities in Lebanon and Israel are approaching their climax. This crisis may prove to be one of those watershed moments that shape regional relationships and transform global politics for at least a generation.

There are some eerie parallels to the events leading to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, another landmark in the region's history. Back then, Egypt's president Gamal Nasser was making an aggressive bid for regional hegemony with the support of the Soviet Union.

Nasser's radical brand of Arab nationalism was aimed not only at Israel but also at pro-Western Arab regimes such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. His rivals were the leaders of Syria and Iraq. In what is known as the Arab Cold War, Israel was aptly described by Middle East analyst Malcolm Kerr as merely "a football for the Arabs, kicked into the field by the discontented Syrians, then back again by Nasser".


Not surprisingly, the Israelis had a rather different view of themselves. In May 1967, Nasser's belligerency shifted from rhetoric to action when he expelled the UN peacekeepers in the Sinai and ordered the blockade of Israel's southern port and the deployment of more than 100,000 Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula. Syria and Jordan were locked into confronting Israel by military pacts with Egypt.

Israel responded with a pre-emptive strike against Egypt on June 5. The Syrians and Jordanians then attacked Israel and the war widened. In six days the Arab air forces and armies were devastated. Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula, Syria lost the Golan Heights and Jordan lost the West Bank.

To continue Kerr's analysis, "it became a case of the football kicking the players".

Historians have endlessly debated why Nasser chose that particular time to abandon his earlier caution against military engagement with Israel. There is as yet insufficient evidence to provide a definitive answer. One theory is that he was put up to it by his Soviet backers, with the tacit approval of the US, to pressure Israel not to join the nuclear club by acquiring an atomic bomb, which it was then on the verge of developing.

Whether the theory is right or wrong, it highlights how dangerously unstable things can become just before a state develops a nuclear weapons capability. Iran is at that point right now. And as with Egypt in 1967, Iran is making a bid for regional hegemony, led by a man who openly calls for Israel's destruction.

The timing of Hezbollah's attack on Israel and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers is the key to understanding the regional and international context of the events of the past two weeks. Iran's nuclear program is on the agenda at this week's meeting of the UN Security Council.


Iran's defiance of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations to submit to all of the monitoring and inspection requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency has given the Security Council ample reason to impose sanctions.

If the matter does come to a vote, Iran will depend on a double veto by Russia and China. The Russians are seeking to regain their former superpower status in the Middle East by riding on the back of regional forces, while China is dependent on Iranian oil for its ever-growing economy.

But Iran's recent diplomatic threats make it clear that it wants to avoid the ignominy of being referred to the Security Council in the first place.

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First published in The Australian on July 25, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Leanne Piggott lectures in Middle East Politics at the University of Sydney and is director of Academic Programs of the Centre for International Security Studies. She is the author of A Timeless Struggle: Conflict in Land of Israel/Palestine (forthcoming, Science Press).

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