The Arab-Israeli conflict has been around seemingly forever. Yet the issue at the center of the dispute — Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home to 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs — stems from a seismic event that happened 45 years ago this week: the Six-Day War of 1967.
While Israel’s quick defeat of three Arab armies found it holding the Sinai Desert and Gaza Strip, previously ruled by Egypt, and the Golan Heights, formerly in Syrian hands, Israel withdrew from the first on the basis of a peace treaty with Egypt and from the second unilaterally, and maintains a so-far durable stalemate with Syria over the third.
It is the issue of Palestinians living under Israeli rule that gets the headlines, stirs international debate and United Nations resolutions, and poses a continuing threat to peace. Israel is often blamed for the impasse based on a misreading of history — that an expansionist Israel “occupied” Palestine in 1967 and set up settlements aimed at stifling Palestinian nationhood. Hence, it is said, removing the settlements will bring a just peace. In fact, settlements are more a symptom than the cause of today’s conflict.
The primary cause is that Palestinian leaders, like the Arab states in 1967, refuse to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist within any borders.
In 1967, there was no Palestinian state. Two decades earlier, the Arab world had rejected the U.N.’s two-state solution. Indeed, Arab leaders could have created a state in the West Bank and Gaza between 1948 and 1967. The West Bank and East Jerusalem were in Jordanian hands, and Jews were denied access to their holy places, in violation of international agreements. The Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control. Syria shelled Israeli farming communities from the Golan Heights. And the “Green Line” that separated Israel from its neighbors was not a formal border but an armistice line, indicating where the armies stood in 1949, after Israel fought off the five Arab armies that sought to strangle it at birth.
In June 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran . This was an act of war. He also got the U.N. to remove its peacekeepers from the Sinai, leaving no buffer between the mobilizing Egyptian army and Israel. Mr. Nasser and his Syrian allies announced that the coming war would bring Israel’s annihilation.
“The existence of Israel has continued too long,” proclaimed Radio Cairo on May 16. “The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.”
After their requests for international help went unanswered, Israeli leaders felt compelled to launch a preemptive attack. The war’s end found not only Gaza, Sinai and the Golan under Israeli control but the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well. Perhaps naively, the Israelis believed that they could barter their newly acquired territories for peace. But even dramatic defeat could not persuade the Arab world to accept a Jewish state.
The Arab Summit Conference in Khartoum on Sept. 1, 1967, resolved “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations” with Israel.
Israel has shown its readiness for territorial compromise in exchange for guarantees of peace by relinquishing the Sinai and Gaza. It remains ready to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership, which, sadly, avoids face-to-face talks and refuses to even acknowledge Jewish historical ties to the land.
As politicians, diplomats and journalists continue to grapple with the consequences of the Six-Day War, a clear picture of the dramatic events of that time is essential for moving toward a resolution.
Rachel Miller, is director of the Palm Beach County Regional Office of the American Jewish Committee.