Photo of Jerusalem by Flick user Dan
I can remember that week 50 years ago, after Israel triumphed in what came to be known as the Six-Day War, when it seemed that the Jewish state might have cleared a path toward Middle East peace.
But while the war completely changed the Middle East’s political landscape, it ultimately did not bring progress toward peace. In fact, it substituted national adversaries with whom Israel could potentially negotiate for an amorphous, stateless entity called “the Palestinians,” who for decades failed to provide a counterparty with whom Israel could definitively conclude the conflict. Even today the Palestinian side is divided between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, one of which is unwilling to negotiate with Israel and the other politically unable to do so on terms Israel is prepared to accept.
Before June 1967, Egypt owned Sinai and controlled the Gaza Strip. Jordan had annexed the West Bank after 1948 and also held East Jerusalem; the country had granted citizenship to Palestinian inhabitants of both. Syria controlled the Golan Heights, on Israel’s northern border, from which it periodically shelled nearby Israeli settlements. Lebanon was divided between its Christian and Muslim populations and, while tilted diplomatically toward the Palestinians, mostly kept to itself.
In the spring of 1967, Arab troops massed near Israel’s borders. Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israeli access to the Red Sea from its southern port of Eilat. The Israelis reasonably concluded that they were the target of an imminent attack and pre-empted it, wiping out Egypt’s air force on the first day of the war. They then proceeded to capture all of Sinai, the West Bank and part of the Golan Heights, which left them in control of more than twice their previous, pre-1967 area, with an Arab population over half the size of Israel’s citizenry.
Thus opened a brief window in which an ultimate settlement might have been possible. Israel had no desire to be in charge of this large Arab civilian population – except in East Jerusalem.
In the years between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan controlled Jerusalem’s holy sites, all Israelis had been banned. Even Americans and other foreign tourists were required to produce baptismal certificates or other evidence that they were not Jewish. As soon as the Six-Day War ended, it became immutable Israeli policy not to surrender Jerusalem. Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said at a ceremony marking the recent anniversary, “The war brought us back to our homeland, back to the inheritance of our patriarchs, in the heart of which is a united Jerusalem.”
But apart from Jerusalem, there was reason in 1967 to hope that Israel’s neighboring Arab governments would be eager enough to reclaim their lost territory that they would make peace with Israel, or at least recognize its right to exist. That hope lasted through the summer, before being dashed in Khartoum at an Arab League summit that produced a declaration that came to be known as the “three noes:” no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.
Khartoum blocked a potential path to a formal peace agreement, but provided no alternative. The results quickly became evident. Displaced and factionalized Palestinians first turned on the government of Jordan. After being expelled from that country in the “Black September” of 1970, they then helped destabilize Lebanon, where a 15-year civil war broke out in 1975. In the meantime, Israel repelled another military assault in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after which Jordan essentially washed its hands of the West Bank altogether and Egypt abandoned the residents of Gaza to their fate.
The Palestinians were then left to fend for themselves diplomatically and through terrorist violence. The latter, ultimately, only cost them international support. Meanwhile, conservative governments in Israel permitted and even encouraged their people to settle in areas that has made an ultimate “land for peace” deal much more difficult, if not impossible, in the West Bank.
Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula after Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, and Jordan signed its own treaty in 1994. Without the umbrella of these front-line states, the Palestinian cause has morphed from a secular nation-state conflict into the Islamist cause that now plagues the entire world, exploited by more distant powers and actors – notably Iran.
What seemed to be a lightning victory for a Western-oriented democracy 50 years ago did produce greater security for Israel by providing a territorial buffer and laying the groundwork for the treaties with Egypt and Jordan that followed. But if the past 50 years have taught us anything, it is that security and peace are not always the same thing. Israel has never achieved peace; neither has the rest of the region, or the world.