The 6-Day War, 40 Years On
Israel's Wasted Victory
On the seventh day Jews everywhere celebrated Israel’s deliverance from danger. But 40 years after that tumultuous June of 1967, the six-day war has come to look like one of history’s pyrrhic victories. That is not to say that the war was unnecessary. Israel struck after Egypt’s President Nasser sent his army into the Sinai peninsula, evicted United Nations peacekeeping forces and blockaded Israeli shipping through the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel’s victory opened the waterway and smashed its enemies’ encircling armies, averting what many Israelis sincerely expected to be a second Holocaust. And yet, in the long run, the war turned into a calamity for the Jewish state no less than for its neighbours.
Part of the trouble was the completeness of the triumph. Its speed and scope led many Israelis to see a divine hand in their victory. This changed Israel itself, giving birth to an irredentist religious-nationalist movement intent on permanent colonisation of the occupied lands (see article). After six days Israel had conquered not just Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights but also the old city of Jerusalem and the West Bank—the biblical Judea and Samaria where Judaism began. In theory, these lands might have been traded back for the peace the Arabs had withheld since Israel’s founding. That is what the UN Security Council proposed in Resolution 242. But Israelis were intoxicated by victory and the Arabs paralysed by humiliation. The Arabs did not phone to sue for peace and Israel did not mind not hearing from them. Instead, it embarked on its hubristic folly of annexing the Arab half of Jerusalem and—in defiance of law, demography and common sense—planting Jewish settlements in all the occupied territories to secure a Greater Israel.
The six-day war changed the Palestinians too. They had been scattered by the fighting that accompanied Israel’s founding in 1948. Some fled beyond Palestine; others became citizens of the Jewish state or lived under Egypt in Gaza and Jordan in the West Bank. The 1967 war reunited them under Israeli control and so sharpened their own thwarted hunger for statehood. When, decades later, Egypt and Jordan did make peace with Israel, the Palestinians did not recover Gaza and the West Bank. This has left some 4m Palestinians desperate for independence but in a confined land choked by Jewish settlements—along with the fences, checkpoints and all the hardships and indignities of military occupation. Ariel Sharon, it is true, dragged Israel out of the Gaza Strip two years ago. But so what? The Palestinians will not consider peace unless they get the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem too. And Hamas, the Islamists who now run what passes for a Palestinian government, says it will not make a permanent peace even then.
Is there a way out? Yes: but making peace will take courage, and too much of the energy that should have gone into peacemaking has been squandered on the blame game. There is, admittedly, plenty of blame to go round. What right had the British, in 1917, to promise the Jews a national home in Palestine? Why did the Palestinians reject partition in 1947? Why did Israel colonise the territories after 1967? Why did the Americans let Israel get away with it? Why did the Arab states leave the refugees to fester in camps? The Palestinians are terrorists, Zionism is racism, Israel’s enemies are anti-Semites. Yasser Arafat should have accepted Israel’s “generous offer” at Camp David in 2000. But, hang on, Israel’s offer was not so generous...
And so the quarrel spins, growing more bitter with each revolution and spreading far beyond the Middle East. What started as a national struggle between two peoples for one land is gradually, and often wilfully, being transformed into a war of religion, feeding poison into the wounded relations between Islam and the West as a whole. It is scandalous that the occupation has persisted since 1967. This conflict should have been resolved long ago, and its continuation is an indictment of all involved, from the warring parties for their intransigence, to regional powers that have exploited the Palestinian cause for self interest, to the great powers for their lack of sustained attention. It should end—but how?
The answer has been obvious at least since 1937, when a British royal commission under Lord Peel reported that “an irrepressible conflict” had arisen between the Arabs and Jews of Palestine and that the country would have to be partitioned. More recently, the manner of the division has become obvious too. Despite all Israel’s settlements, demography and justice still point to a border based on the pre-1967 lines, with minor adjustments of the sort Bill Clinton suggested in 2000.
As Mr Clinton’s failure at Camp David demonstrated, securing agreement for such a deal will be hard. The Clinton solution would require Israel to give up the bulk of its settlements in the West Bank, uproot a great many more settlers than it did in Gaza and share sovereignty over Jerusalem. The Palestinians would have to accept that most refugees would “return” not to their homes of 60 years ago inside Israel but to a new state in the West Bank and Gaza. Such compromises will hurt. But for either side to give less and demand more will merely tip the difficult into the impossible.
Right now both continue to offer too little and demand too much. Israel has at least abandoned the dream of a Greater Israel that bewitched it after the great victory of 1967. The illusion that the Palestinians would fall into silence has been shattered by two intifadas and every rocket Hamas fires from Gaza. Israel’s present government says it is committed to a two-state solution. But it is a weak government, and has lacked the courage to spell out honestly the full territorial price Israelis must pay. The Palestinians have meanwhile gone backwards. If Hamas means what it says, it continues to reject the idea that Jews have a right to a national existence in the Middle East.
What self-defeating madness. For peace to come, Israel must give up the West Bank and share Jerusalem; the Palestinians must give up the dream of return and make Israel feel secure as a Jewish state. All the rest is detail.