On Friday, the eminent Israeli political philosopher, diplomat, and public intellectual Shlomo Avineri died at the age ninety. An expert on the thought of G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx, Avineri wrote several books on the history of both Zionism and socialism, as well as numerous articles on contemporary Israeli affairs. The essay quoted below was published in March 1968, and examines the lessons and aftermath of the Six-Day War. It begins with an assessment of Israeli (and Western) misreadings of Arab intentions that today sounds eerily familiar.
In 1956, the IDF scored a military victory over Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the Sinai, after which the U.S. forced it to give up its gains. For the next ten years, there was relative peace, until Nasser, and his Syrian allies, surprised everyone by making aggressive and threatening moves, leading to Israel’s spectacular preemptive strike in 1967:
Prior to the rapid political deterioration, and the equally rapid military escalation, of late May and early June 1967, most Israeli observers were convinced that although the basic tensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict were far from having been resolved, a more or less dependable, long-term stalemate had emerged in the Middle East. Ever since the Sinai campaign of 1956, according to these observers, an undeclared, pragmatic normalization had set in, as a result not of negotiations and treaties but of mutual recognition based on a balance of terror similar to the one prevailing between the United States and the Soviet Union.
[Although] Radio Cairo exhorted the Arabs to unite and reform in order to push the Jews into the sea, relaxed Nasserologists in Jerusalem were patiently pointing out that such rhetoric should not be interpreted as a call to a Holy War against Israel; rather, it represented a shrewdly calculated act of statesmanship on the part of Nasser, who, it was argued, was shifting his position toward a greater concentration on internal issues and was not about to plunge into precipitate foreign adventures. Most Israelis, then, felt that even though the day was still distant on which swords could be beaten into ploughshares, the Arab world nevertheless was slowly, painfully beginning to recognize Israel as a fact of life.
All this sounds awfully like the Israeli government’s pre-October 7 determination that Hamas had been deterred. To this, Avineri added another observation, about the “independent force of rhetoric in the Arab world.” This force does much to explain the behavior then and now of Jordan, a country at peace with the Jewish state—indeed dependent on the IDF for its security—and strategically opposed to Hamas, that has done nothing but condemn Israel since the Hamas invasion:
Nasser, it is true, played a very cautious political game in his relations with Israel in the period from 1956 to 1967, but his caution was unaccompanied by any diminution in the violence of his anti-Israel rhetoric; and it seems that when the chips were down, the Arab world was found lacking in the internal societal mechanisms necessary to prevent the takeover of politics by rhetorical outbursts.
As tempers began to rise, one feat of rhetoric followed another; pro-Western Jordan [also] became as belligerent in egging Nasser on as “leftist” Syria.