By David K. Shipler
On the seventh day, after its dizzying six-day victory 50 years ago this week, Israel turned a corner from a sense of extreme vulnerability to a period of triumphalism. The armies and air forces of the surrounding Arab countries lay in shambles, the Goliath slain by the tiny Jewish state. Moreover, with Israel’s territory greatly expanded into ancient biblical lands, a hybrid of religion and nationalism found fertile ground. The movement then grew, even more than its adherents had expected, until it gained lasting power to shape the map for the next half century or more.
And that has saddled Israel with a moral and political burden. The euphoric victory in the Six-Day War brought a heady sense of Jewish self-reliance after a long history of persecution. But by holding onto the West Bank of the Jordan River, where Palestinian Arab residents have minimal say in how they are governed, Israel has undermined its democratic values and exposed itself to international condemnation.
To withdraw, however, would incur security risks and meet resistance from the religio-nationalist movement, which has gradually moved from the political margins into the cabinet. The movement calls the West Bank by its biblical names Judaea and Samaria, and regards it as the Jewish birthright, which Genesis says God gave to Abraham and his seed. The territory has been widely settled by religious Jews (along with secular Jews drawn there by housing subsidies). Many would have to be uprooted if a Palestinian state were to be created there under a peace agreement.
The outcome of a war, which seems obvious at the moment, can look simplistic in hindsight. Nothing of this conundrum was foreseen in June of 1967. Nor in 1973, when Israel nearly lost the Yom Kippur War, was it apparent that Anwar Sadat of Egypt may have felt that his near victory had burnished his warmaking credentials enough to then offer peace; he made a dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and followed with an Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Similarly, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which succeeded in driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country, exposed Israeli soldiers to close-in attacks that eroded Israel’s image in the Arab world as a formidable juggernaut.
How a war ends—in the good old days when wars ended with one side winning and the other losing—can give rise to misinterpretation. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon after the 1982 war as it had always intended, for example, the move was widely viewed in the Arab world as a sign of weakness.
In expanding the areas under Israeli control, the Six-Day War provided strategic depth against conventional forces. The West Bank and the walled Old City of Jerusalem, with places holy to the three monotheistic religions, was captured from Jordan; the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula from Egypt; and the Golan Heights from Syria. Sinai was returned to Egypt under the treaty, and Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.
The pullout from Gaza, in the absence of a treaty or other agreement, was seen by many Palestinians not as an opportunity for them to build a peaceful relationship with Israel but rather as an Israeli defeat and retreat. The radical Hamas movement took over, smuggled arms into Gaza through tunnels from Sinai, and has periodically rained rockets down on Israeli towns.
The Gaza experience has eroded the concept, popular for years on the left, that Israel could trade land for peace. Security-minded Israelis believe that the same thing could happen if Israel removed its army from the West Bank, parts of which are much closer than Gaza to Israeli population centers. Sporadic Palestinian terrorism has driven the Israeli public to the right, and the long brutalization of the occupation has radicalized Palestinians, locking many into uncompromising postures on several key issues.
One is the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital and neither is now willing to share. Some accommodation on Jerusalem was included in territorial concessions offered by two prime ministers, Ehud Barak before the Gaza departure and Ehud Olmert afterwards, that were rejected or ignored by the Palestinian leadership.
Taking risks for peace requires self-assurance and a strong sense of security. But for Israel, the ecstasy of the 1967 victory has long vanished into a mixed assessment of power and dread. Yossi Klein Halevi noted Israel’s isolation and vulnerability in May 1967, the month before the war, as Egypt expelled UN peacekeeping forces at Israel’s frontier, sent its military into Sinai, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
“The abrupt transition from trauma to triumph has shaped the Jewish state ever since,” he wrote in The New YorkTimes. “Consciously or not, when confronting challenges, Israelis ask themselves: Is this a May 1967 moment that demands wariness? Or is this a June 1967 moment that requires the self-confidence of victors?”