Guy Laron, The Six-Day War (Yale University Press, 2017).
Amidst the forest-felling libraries of literature on the question of Palestine, Israel’s 1967 war of aggression is perhaps responsible for the largest clear-cuts. So much is manufactured. Yet so little is useful or new. Part of the problem is the massive industry – literally – whose product is perpetual dispute over the most basic facts. Colonial expansion generates resistance. Both processes require intellectual support. For that reason, ideological and political battles occur on epistemological and methodological planes.
At least one consequence of the revisionist denial of Palestinian dispossession is that nationalist accounts predominate even in the critical literature. Amidst this historiographical morass, Guy Laron’s The Six-Day War sets itself most sharply against accounts fixating on the supposedly bumbling run-up to the war. The book’s novelty is to discuss the material conditions – local, regional, and global – in the run-up to the war. It sets a wider and longer historical compass than most histories of the war, tracing trends from the post-World War II period until the war itself. He gives pride of place to several structural-institutional factors. One, the tension between civilians and generals. And two, the global condition within which that tension heightened: balance of payments crises in Syria, Egypt, and Israel.
Laron argues that Egypt and Israel – as part of a global dirigisme moment – attempted industrialization using import-substitution (ISI) or export-oriented (EOI) models. Foreign aid supported these processes. But in Egypt, the United States saw its “aid” failing to bridle Egyptian radical nationalism. Meanwhile the Soviet Union too moved to trade over aid. Both states armored allies or clients. Amidst domestic unrest or unease “civilian supervision over the military in contiguous countries weakens. As a result, the regional situation becomes enflamed and ignitable….The victory of hawkish generals in one country strengthens the hand of hawkish generals in other countries.” Instability builds, and breeds instability. War results.
Laron’s model goes as follows: developmentalist policies’ failure leads to the instability of civilian rule. That leads to a breakdown of democratic procedures, and the empowerment of actors who might move to war to avoid dealing with such instability on the internal plane. As method, his exercise melds international relations with a form of political economy analysis. He gives due attention to internal factors of social stress, business interests and their concerns with wage compression, and peoples’ demand for development.
Bringing these regional countries onto a global plane of analysis is a welcome correction to dizzyingly myopic literature fixated on this or that armistice line skirmish in late May 1967. And tracing internal class division within the dominant Israeli Jewish sector and its role in the move towards further war and colonization is an important if partial corrective to court histories of Israeli defensive war. But how far from palace accounts does Laron go?
In what follows I offer a three-part review of the book. The first focuses on his account of Israel; the second, the Arab states; and the third, moves to questions of concept formation and mechanisms of social change, particularly war.
Laron’s builds his account of Israel around a sharp tension between a civilian leadership wary of further war under Levi Eshkol, and a military leadership rearing for further war and territorial acquisitions. The military perpetually sent in tractors to work on land in the northern demilitarized zones. This was a deliberate provocation. They justified it by insisting that it was “Jewish land.” They knew Syria would eventually respond by firing on the encroaching tractors, or by shelling.
Domestically, the GDP was growing massively – ten percent a year. Meanwhile, the Histadrut, a corporatist-colonial labor institution charged with wage containment, was beginning to fail at its task. Unemployment was too low, wildcat strikes were too high. Jewish labor was beginning to gain too strong a position within the corporatist balancing act. Thus, the government “inflicted” a recession. The consequence was further labor unrest, especially among Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. Here the facts drape oddly over Laron’s model. First, there was no ineluctable progress from balance of payments crisis to any particular policy outcome. As he notes, in 1964, reserves were at 500 million US dollars and “Israel could have settled at least some of its debts.” In fact, it is difficult to see why he characterizes this as a balance of payments crisis in the same sense as occurred in Egypt, as we will see. Israel chose to impose a recession on the lower class of the dominant Israeli Jewish sector in part to discipline labor and prevent what Michel Kalecki called the “political consequences of full employment.” Wages in general decreased by .4 percent, but in some sectors they increased massively. The government did not inflict the recession evenly.
A consequence of this imposed recession was further unrest and the government’s resulting unpopularity. Still, budgetary allotments to the military continued to grow as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, structurally empowering the military. And the industrial lobby was increasingly uneasy with Eshkol’s policies. Textile magnates and other actors in the private sector saw an opportunity to displace the Mapai government. They made an alliance with the military. By late May, Yediot Aharonot was attacking the government for “capitulating to aggression” from the Arab frontline states. Other papers called for war cabinets.
Now, one oddity is that Laron assimilates the end of German “reparations” (which he does not explicitly discuss) to the broader breakdown in aid to Egypt, as doppelganger socio-historical mechanisms moving the societies to greater military control. But Israel received reparations at least in part because it was woven into the social and political fabric of Western capitalism. Israel also has played a unique role in the symbolic de-Nazification of Germany – and its decision to whitewash rather than reckon with its past. Capital flows for political and historically specific reasons. Would such funds have gone, for example, to the regional Jewish populations had they stayed at home, or the populations which did stay at home? Did any other regional country receive such gushers of aid?
Another fairly large gap is the underexplored tension between structural moves towards greater power of the military within Israel and an excessive focus on institutional analysis of the relative power of the civilian versus military sectors. Eshkol, Ben Gurion, and Dayan were different figures. But they differed within hard financial parameters as well as secular tendencies within the relative distribution of government spending. In the first place, Eshkol supported the armouring of Israel, increasing the military budget as a portion of GDP, especially the air force. In the second place, he green-lit numerous aggressions against the Arab states. In 1967, “Eshkol told Rabin that he wanted to make Syrians pay, but he felt like doing something new, something creative.”
Laron’s focus on process-tracing is important. His emphasis on civilian-military dissensus is less convincing. The ideology of expansion, an expression of a very material desire for land, was the calling card of colonialism. To take land requires force, and Israel’s constitution and concentration of social resources in armaments was a secular tendency. Ideology and colonial state-formation provide the parameters within which political actors act. Laron’s model seems to place undue emphasis on the move from civilian to military decision-making as a qualitative shift which led to war. But his evidence shows clearly enough that Eshkol was moving towards ever-more-belligerent actions over the course of 1967 in any event, often explicitly endorsing further aggressions. The role of the military in pushing for the 1967 war is clear. Laron seems to place undue weight on this institutional mechanism for further aggression. Historians bear the task of avoiding the Scylla of teleology and the Charybdis of providence. Still, if there is a counterfactual, it would ask this. Given the clear tendencies in state budgetary disbursements and the in-built mechanism for Israel to soothe internal social tension through war, would it have been possible for Israel to have ceased further aggressions against abutting states and stayed within the 1967 armistice lines? Whether such a counterfactual would have been possible is impossible to say. But the likelihood of this possibility is less than dim.
The Six-Day War and the Arab States
Laron’s account of the Arab states involved in the six-day war is actually an account of Syria and Egypt. He largely brackets Jordan, and leaves Iraq to the side. According to Laron, Egyptian industrialization rested on the unstable foundation of foreign aid flows from the United States and the USSR. When such flows slowed amidst the transition from John F. Kennedy’s carrot approach to Lyndon Johnson’s fuite en avant, the power of the Egyptian civilian establishment under Nasser decreased relative to that of the military. The former oriented more to building strength through developmental policies. The latter oriented more towards a frontal confrontation with the Israeli threat.
In Syria, anti-Nasserist civilians lost power to more redistributionist and left-Ba’thist generals amidst civilian discontent with Nasser’s roll-back of the land reforms and nationalizations of the United Arab Republic. Laron traces the battles between, on the one hand, the Ba’th leadership and its lower-level cadre agitating for more widespread social redistribution, and on the other, the ancien regime – conservative landholders, their accomplices among the ulema, and the petty bourgeoisie. Such social tensions, essentially about class, ripped through Syria throughout the 1960s as some forces fought for forceful redistribution of power and others pushed for the status quo ante.
Laron’s model does not quite equate the Egyptian and Syrian situations, but like any model, there is a tendency towards reduction and a search for similarity. He claims that “balance of payments crises…strengthened generals and humbled civilians.” He creates an ideal-typical model and tension: between civilians tacking towards less belligerence and generals tacking towards more. Post-1973 Syria basically falsifies this model. More to the point, behind a notion of “civilian” versus “military” rule is an implied value judgment that civilian institutions somehow express the will of a “robust civil society” whereas “civil society tends to be weaker in post-colonial countries, which accept the rule of the gun indifferently.” But the 1961-1963 “democracy” in Syria was the fruit of a right-wing coup d’état, which represented the “land and factory-owning families… [and] religious movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.” In turn, a “democratically” elected Maruf al-Dawalibi pushed through massively unpopular regressive social measures, creating social instability which led to a “soft” coup: “so unpopular was the regime that there was no resistance.”
Laron’s notion of civil society in post-colonial states and his model of military-civilian tensions does not offer clarity in understanding this period of Syrian history. It is more accurate to state that some Syrians accepted “the rule of the gun” – really, a gun aimed a certain way – because of anticipated developmentalist policy. Other Syrians, including some in civil society, called for the guns to aim at their enemies precisely in the service of a different vision of Syria. The divide was along lines of class. The very brief currency crisis was more than anything a symptom of a class conflict interlocked with a question concerning Arab states’ orientation to Israel. Furthermore, the suggestion of Arab indifferent acceptance of an essentialized “rule of the gun” is also more than a little discomfiting, a discomfort magnified when one reads both false and frankly sectarian formulations such as Laron’s diagnosis of post-2011 Syria as having “recently disintegrated into its various ethnic, religious, and geographical components.”
More to the point, the model sets up each case as instances of a global moment. But the character of that global moment is underspecified. Laron’s country-size analytical units are sufficiently porous to permit – partially – global developmentalism to exist as a systemic phenomenon, manifesting differently in each state. But Laron deals with anti-colonialism on the country-level, and as an issue concerning politicians and generals. This framing overlooks the broad ranging and mass based support for Palestine and decolonization more broadly. This sentiment was rooted in a shared experience – that of millions of people watching the loss of Palestine to largely European colonists. That experience also crystallized in organizational form: for example in the Arab Nationalist Movement, flowing freely over borders and seas. Human experience, the sentiment it produced, and the organizations which emerged to turn sentiment into action were the material basis for anti-colonialism and support for Palestine to become what Laron minimizes as a local “cog” in the Arab cold war.
Furthermore, support for such struggles, especially in the Arab world at that time had human avatars – leadership – which might be beyond any specific border. Thus, Nasser was more popular in Jordan in the 1960s than was the monarch. This is the inescapable background against which both the Syrian and Egyptian states outbid one another as they aimed to lead the Arab world.
Laron’s point about how Nasser escalated as a response to Syrian escalations speaks to how anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiment was not merely a factor of legitimation but an index of democracy in the regional state system. Moving to armed confrontation with Israel and support for the Palestinian cause was a response to popular will and demand. This explains the Jordanian state’s reluctant participation and the Iraqi state’s willing participation in the war. Governments which confronted Israel were more popular than those that did not. Ostensibly value-free models which reduce democracy to institutional structures expose a liberal bias, eliding democracy in the substantive sense of popular rule. Addressing these factors would have accounted for the inclusion of Iraq in the war, as well as addressing state formation, the social bases of the state, and popular social incorporation.
Also, Laron frames the global moment vis-à-vis national developmentalism and its relationship to capital flows in a limited way. Broadening the historical analysis provides a deeper explanation of aid distribution. Egypt, for example, received aid as geopolitical rent, in order to usher the national project under the aegis of US anti-Communist foreign policy. The Kennedy administration used aid to support non-Communist developmentalism and forestall Communist governments coming to power. It is true the United States “acquiescence[d]” to Nasserism, as Laron terms it, after 1958. It is also true that the United States viewed Nasserism as preferable to the Communist threat then flourishing in Iraq. The United States played a role in exterminating that threat in 1963. Acquiescence emerged contrapuntally amidst a globally oriented US foreign policy. The United States allowed developmentalism only when it was forced to do so. In Syria, on the other hand, there was a brief currency crisis due to capital flight and an outflow of professionals. Austerity, to the extent it took place, was a reaction to the middle- and upper-classes starving the Syrian government of developmental resources. This looks nothing like what occurred at that time in Israel. Laron’s ideal types fail to historicize and specify such capital flows.
The regional framework, as limited as it is, also fails to attend to broader global trends. The US sent immense rents to South Korea and Taiwan during this time. The acuteness of the threat of neighbouring Communist China, and its radical agrarian reforms, enabled post-war developmentalism in East Asia. Syria and Egypt had no neighbouring China to induce the United States to support ISI or EOI and to prevent a harder-left turn. Post-1967 geopolitical rent to each state, which helped their balance of payments and underpinned Syrian ISI, rested on regional states like Saudi Arabia’s multifaceted need to confront -- and yet contain their confrontation of -- Israel. Laron’s model building leads him to lean analytically on ostensibly similar balance of payments crises. But this approach overlooks historical processes and difference. Meanwhile, a comparative approach with sees bleached units such as “capital flows,” states, within them, undifferentiated “civilian” and military classes, reifies rather than historicizes these dynamic concepts.
How does the role of war – as mechanism, as event, as process, as catalyst – appear in Laron’s account? Again here, Laron privileges singularity over historical specificity. There are very different kinds of wars and social formations resort to kinetic warfare to achieve socio-political aims in widely divergent ways.
Laron offers a critical account of Israeli motivations, especially those of the generals, for entering the 1967 conflict, and for causing the political friction that predated it. He traces two essential and interlinked logics. One is territorial aggrandizement. Two is the internal constitution of the surrounding states. Rabin “told his generals on April 24 that Israel should continue confronting Syria until the Baath’s fall from power,” Laron notes. In Tehran on April 1967, Rabin stated, “it is in our mutual interest to deal with [Iraq, Syria, and Egypt]. We should contain Nasser in the southern Arab peninsula, neutralize the Iraqis and screw the Syrians.” For Israel, war was a means – a successful one – to prevent neighbouring or nearby nations from neutralizing Israeli freedom of action. For Israel, taking land and preventing development were two sides of one coin.
This imperative was linked to the question of Palestine. When Syria proposed a ceasefire in the demilitarized zone in the summer of 1966, Rabin was irked. He felt there should be no ceasefire while the Syrian government gave safe haven to Palestinian guerrillas. Thus, from Israel’s perspective, its neighbours’ attitudes towards Palestinian anti-colonialism and anti-colonialism more broadly determined its orientation towards those states. “Internal” pressures also weighed on Israeli war-making. The generals’ perspective was embedded in the offensive-defense ethos of mainline Zionism. Arms were crucial to building an “offensive army that was capable of expanding Israel’s borders.” A devil’s brew – territorial aggrandizement, militarism, the imperative of suppressing an anti-colonial struggle on its Palestinian and broader Arab planes –produced war.
Laron is critical of the post-1967 Israeli expansion. So he is harshly critical of the elements and tendencies within Israel society which he considers to have produced that expansion. But his hesitance in describing pre-1967 Israel as colonial leads to him to avoid any focus on the colonial nature of Israel’s interaction with the Palestinians, and a framing which would cast Israel as a source of regional instability. For example, he writes of Fateh’s guerrilla raids over Israeli armistice lines as a catalyst for the 1967 war. He also describes Syria in the 1960s as akin to Serbia in 1914 – “a terrorist haven that was a source of regional instability, and which provided the spark that ignited the crisis.” One cannot accept calling the exiled Fateh fighters “terrorists.” Indeed, one might equally present the 1967 war as a moment in a protracted and regionally implicated national struggle over the land. There can be no value-free answer to whether Palestinians had and have the right to pursue that “most essential value,” in Frantz Fanon’s words: the land. Moreover, when Laron speaks of the “dovish worldview” of Eshkol, this is a value judgment legitimating the 1948 war of colonial conquest – or that moment of primitive accumulation. It is also simply odd given the number of offensive military actions Eshkol explicitly endorsed. Placing the positions of Eshkol and the generals further rather than closer is a moment of value-laden interpretation within social science. A focus on tensions between them incants 1967 as an inflection point. A focus on tension amidst shared values might have created 1948 – or 1882 – as an inflection point.
Different inflection points are also the fruit of different analytical paradigms. If we interpret the 1967 war within a settler-colonial framework several crucial elements become clearer. First, the Israeli resort to external aggression, or colonial expansion, was to some extent a move to allay internal social contradictions. Settler-states such as the United States and Israel export their internal contradictions onto indigenous populations. Such a dynamic was distinct from the Arab move to confrontation. Some of the Arab states did implement this strategy, in part, to contain and divert internal social contradiction concerning class. But such a strategy, whatever the complex of motivations within the state institutions, also expressed a clash of interests between the colonizing and colonized peoples.
Because Laron does not really consider the question of colonialism, the matter of anti-colonialism’s social content is absent from this account. Can one evaluate from a value-free position the question of Palestine from 1948-1967, or offer an objective perspective on Palestinian anti-colonial claims? Can, or should, one offer a neutral account of pre- and post-1967 Arab developmental trajectories? Here the gap in scientific formulation is not merely Laron’s; it is a gap in most Western social science writ large. The colonial question is two questions. The first is a national question of land. A second is, in the words of Amilcar Cabral, “to free the process of development of the national productive forces.” The colonial question is, then, one about people’s control over national productive forces. Furthermore, Israeli elites understood the war as a mechanism for hammering Arab developmentalism. In the words of Harman, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, “Syria was becoming a Middle Eastern Cuba.” The Israeli attack was a factor forestalling such an outcome.
These questions allow for an understanding of Palestinian anti-colonialism and the broader Arab sentiments that give it strategic depth. They also allow us to question the implicit equation Laron creates between the warfare of colonial and anti-colonial states. Laron’s tableau equates these social dynamics through the mechanism of civilian-military conflicts with the latter base of institutional power opting for war. This is problematic even on its own terms. As he shows clearly, the 1967 war required manufacturing consent in the Israeli Jewish sector. Confronting Israel did not require any kindred manufacture of consent in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, or Jordan, where such policies were massively popular. Social science must recognize the difference between war as an elite versus a popular project, which also means understanding how popular sentiment hardens in the form of specific state institutions and takes form through specific state policies. Assessing whether or not such states were cynical in so doing allows for a deeper understanding of the moment. It does not invert the judgment.
But on a deeper level, equation of the Arab republics with Israel erases what makes Israel distinct: its colonial character, that is, its relationship to a dispossessed, occupied, and exiled Palestinian people. The model that sees states interacting with internal classes as the sole drivers of regional social development and de-development effectively erases the Palestinians from Laron’s history of the 1967 war.
Finally, there is the US role. Laron is clear: the US green-lit the war. This is an important contribution, and one which most reviewers have understandably underplayed. But the aggregate evidence is irrefutable. A common and correct explanation is that a violent defeat of the Arab armies would deal a blow to the national-developmentalist Arab projects – a projection borne out by the Corrective Movement in Syria and Sadat’s infitah. Even more to the point, the Arab project suffered a blow hard enough to leave it comatose or quiescent for some decades, a consequence Laron does not delve into in any depth. In a moment in which a great deal of critical historiography on Palestine is increasingly shearing off the question of Israel from questions of imperialism, this book puts the centrality of the US-Israel Special Relationship and its role in regional dynamics from 1967 onwards at the center of materialist interpretations of Palestine’s present and past. It is perhaps there that it makes its signal contribution.
But it is also a flawed contribution. It has received praise, I think, for responding to an intellectual demand for political economy frames of analysis. But such frameworks have never been politically innocent. If they are historical materialist – Marxist – they write from a certain perspective and offer a map of the social world. No map is innocent. A given cartography implies or suggests political movement.
Laron’s account successfully analyzes the internal social stresses and stressors in Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and the global aspects of aid flows. He is less successful in understanding national developmentalism as a world-systemic process, the United States’ opposition to it as a global phenomenon, and the role of colonialism in both. Colonialism writ large was a process of constrained and distorted development on a global scale. Settler colonialism largely has meant dedevelopment, often to socially fatal levels. Decolonization sought to eliminate the mechanisms which produced such distortions – lack of tariff walls, colonial currency systems, and dispossessed populations lacking land and livelihoods and so unable to participate in demand-led development. The US opposition to the removal of such mechanisms has meant that it has almost without fail supported elements within post-colonial countries seeking less redistribution versus those seeking more. Within that project, on the regional scale Israel has played a key role. It has diverted regional resources for human development to preparation for warfare. It has also inflicted serial military defeats on the Arab states. Those defeats have empowered social layers oriented towards national unity in the face of Israel, rather than, as with Yusuf Zuayn and Salah Jadid in Syria, those urging more radical redistribution as a means to the same end. If decolonization is about the restoration of both economic and political sovereignty, Israel has been a tool not merely to prevent Palestinian political sovereignty, but furthermore to ensure that social layers seeking a fuller economic sovereignty were not able, for the most part, to acquire power in regional states (Iraq is an exception, and for that reason had to be destroyed).
Laron’s flaws are symptomatic of broader trends in the political economy turn in contemporary social science. First, there is an urge to engage with Marxist literature without identifying explicitly with the Marxist tradition and its political commitments. Second, there is a Eurocentric bias which continues to dominate even the Marxist tradition, sidestepping the constitutive role of primitive accumulation in the past and ongoing kinetic violence in contemporary accumulation. Imperialism as a concept is out of favor – or worse, a slur. Correspondingly, cases are dealt with as independent, rather than constituting a world in which the core-periphery divide remains crucial for the present and future of social formations.
Such turns have an uneasy relationship with 1967 as an inflection point in Israeli-Palestinian relationships. For from a certain perspective, little was novel about 1967. It was part of a long history of Zionist colonization. Imposing it as a massive gravitational force may rip apart the historical continuities that give 1967 another meaning entirely.
As Sherene Seikaly points out,
The historian’s task, then, is to decolonize Palestinian and Arab periodization… Perhaps, for example, we can begin the history of the fedayeen not in the 1960s, but the 1950s, the 1930s or indeed the nineteenth century. Perhaps, for another example, we can think again and anew about the central question of land in Palestine, and its inextricability from histories of global and regional capital, whether in the bantustans of the contemporary West Bank or the coastal strip and interior hinterlands of nineteenth-century Palestine.
An intriguing part of the recent settler-colonial turn in Palestine scholarship has been an engagement with the US indigenous question. Perhaps less examined has been the relationship between that question and 1492, and 1882. The first was the moment when colonialism as a world-historic process began to extend European sovereignty forcefully outwards over both the southern and eastern Mediterranean littorals and across the Atlantic. The second was when Zionist colonists started modern settler-state formation in Palestine. That project and its further ramifications have been one aspect of the broader and longer colonial process – tying 1882 to 1492. Another aspect of modern settler-colonialism has been the enfoldment of Israeli state-formation into British, then French, then US imperialism. All of these relationships and processes also find their full meaning amidst the historical process of accumulation on a world scale.
So if we broaden out the scope of 1967 – and such a scope, is implicit, I think, in the call to decolonize periodization – we may see 1967 a bit differently. We can see it as a moment when the Rise of the South in its Middle Eastern incarnation, a process which challenged both global accumulation and was the outcome of challenging colonialism, suffered a sharp defeat. Perhaps it further suggests 1967 as an inflection point when the process of substantive decolonization and the full reacquisition of sovereignty in the Middle East, underwent a secular, but not permanent, one hopes, reversion. Such a rewriting or reframing of the parameters within which we understand 1967 does not at all preclude a meticulous examination of the minutiae of the 1967 war. It provides the appropriate context within which to understand the global forces and tendencies which produced that war in the first place.