Forty-five years ago today, the Six-Day War began. But rather than this being an occasion for the world to remember when Israel’s existence hung in the balance, it is, instead, merely being used as an opportunity for pundits and critics to urge the Jewish state to recreate in some way the world of June 5, 1967. In one such column, Jeffrey Goldberg resurrects the now familiar theme that Israel’s famous victory was actually a defeat because it left the Jewish state in possession of the West Bank. For Goldberg, the only way for Israel to finally win the war that began on that day is for it to begin a process of unilateral withdrawal from the territories.
Goldberg’s thesis is that the demographic threat from the Arab population of both the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel to the country’s Jewish majority requires the withdrawal of Jewish settlements even if a peace accord is not in sight. Goldberg’s support for another Israeli attempt at unilateralism is misguided, because the experience of Gaza proved that such tactics lead only to grief, and no critic of Israel will think better of it if the settlers are removed but troops remain. But the assumption that the outcome of that war is still in the balance and depends on Israel’s exit from the territories is flawed. It misunderstands the nature of the conflict and Israel’s ability to transform the attitudes of its neighbors or the world. So long as the goal of Israel’s foes is its destruction and not merely withdrawal from the West Bank or parts of Jerusalem, the only way to look at the Six-Day War or the current impasse is through the prism of survival, not the world’s perceptions. That was just as true 45 years ago when Israel’s government was instructed by the world — including the United States — to sit back and wait to be attacked as it is today.
The belief that the Arabs can ultimately win the Six-Day War by waiting patiently until they outnumber the Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is based on the assumption that the status quo is untenable and must inevitably be replaced by either a two-state solution or the transformation of Israel into an Arab majority country. But that idea that Israel must choose now between the two is mistaken.
Goldberg is right that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have no wish to rule over millions of Palestinians. But the roadblock to peace that would create a two-state solution has never been the settlements. It has been, as Goldberg acknowledges, the Palestinians’ rejection of peace offers that would have given them independence in most of the territories in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and their refusal to even restart negotiations. In the absence of a sea change in Palestinian political culture that would allow them to live in peace alongside a Jewish state, peace is impossible.
As unpleasant as the status quo is for Israel, it is preferable to a return to the situation of June 1967 when Israel was, despite its underdog status, no closer to universal popularity than it is today. The assumption that it must lead inevitably to a one-state solution is foolish simply because there is no mechanism by which Israel will ever allow itself to be voted out of existence by the Palestinians. Nor is it a given that such an Arab majority will ever exist. What Israel must and can do is what it has been doing for 45 years: waiting for the Arabs to come to their senses and give up a notion of Palestinian nationalism that is rooted in negation of Zionism. That was only made possible by military victory.
The achievements of 1967 are by no means impermanent even if it led to a situation in the West Bank that is not optimal. In the wake of that war, Israel got the strategic depth as well as the confidence to survive even while it was besieged by hostile neighbors while the world looked on with indifference.
The victory won in those days also altered the relationship between Israel and the United States. It set in motion a process that has forged a strategic alliance between the two countries that is now a permanent fact in the Middle East that no amount of Arab or Muslim hatred or European hostility can erase.
What was at stake in those six days wasn’t a matter of perceptions or demography but simple survival as Arab armies massed to attempt to reverse the verdict of the 1948-49 War of Independence. What followed was a changed and often problematic new world but one that ensured Israel would not be erased, as many feared it would in the weeks before the shooting started. In winning the war with what seemed to be miraculous speed, the conflict wasn’t ended, but it was changed to one that could be managed from a position of Israeli strength.
Part of the problem with grasping this reality is the difficulty of recalling not only how dire Israel’s strategic situation was on June 5, 1967, but also how precarious its hold on the world’s sympathy was then. Jewish Ideas Daily is performing a valuable service to the public with a week-long attempt to provide perspective on the war’s anniversary, with daily summaries for both the prelude to the war and each day that provide insights on the situation then as well as subsequent evaluation. For those who have forgotten as well as those who assume that victory was inevitable or can be erased, it provides a good starting point.