The constant refrain of Israel’s critics in the last few decades has been the need for the Jewish state to withdraw from every inch of territory it won in the Six-Day War and to return to what they erroneously refer to as the “1967 borders.” But as Israelis celebrate the 46th anniversary of the re-unification of their capital city today that was made possible by that war, it’s appropriate to ask why peace did not reign in the Middle East on June 4, 1967 prior to the beginning of the “occupation.”
There may be reasonable arguments to be made about the need for Israel and the Palestinians to live under separate sovereignty rather than the unsatisfactory status quo. But the problem with most of the discussions about the topic is the assumption that merely recreating the situation that existed before that war will bring about peace. Hard as it may be to ask news consumers to think that far back into history, it is necessary to remind those who harp on “1967” as the only possible solution that when there was not a single Jew living in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, there was no peace. Not only that, prior to that war, when the area now dubbed the “occupied territories” were in the possession of Jordan and Egypt, the focus of the Arab and Muslim world was not on the creation of a Palestinian state but on ending Jewish sovereignty over the territory of pre-1967 Israel.
The 1967 borders actually were not internationally recognized but merely the armistice lines that marked where the armies were standing when a cease-fire ended Israel’s War of Independence. In particular, those lines left the city of Jerusalem, which had a Jewish majority since the mid-19th century, divided. The Old City of Jerusalem, which fell during the fighting during a siege of the city conducted by Jordan’s Arab Legion, was off limits to Jews from 1948 to 1967. The Western Wall never heard Jewish prayer and was used as a garbage dump. The Jordanians paved a road through the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives and used some of the tombstones as construction material. A wall ran through the city much like the barrier that divided Berlin.
But those parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by the Jordanians (only the United Kingdom and Pakistan recognized their annexation of part of the city as well as the West Bank, which got that illogical name because it differentiated it from the East Bank–which is now Jordan) did not constitute a Palestinian capital. Nor was Egyptian-occupied Gaza considered part of a Palestinian state.
What those who demand a return to the 1967 lines also forget is that Israel’s liberation of the city marked the beginning of the first period in Jerusalem’s modern history that complete religious freedom and open access to all holy sites was protected.
But the situation prior to that war did bear some resemblance to what is happening today. The territories under Jordanian and Egyptian control were used as bases for Palestinians who attempted to infiltrate into pre-1967 Israel and carry out terror attacks. And it was along those borders that Arab armies massed in May 1967 while their leaders repeated threats that they would drive the Jews into the sea.
Israel survived that perilous month of waiting as the world wondered whether a second Holocaust would ensue from those Arab threats by striking first and defeating its enemies. At that moment, the Jewish state ceased to be seen as a latter-day David standing up to the Goliath of an Arab world that outnumbered its forces and became the bogeyman of the international press.
As much as that dismal pre-1967 era seems like ancient history, what those who harp on 1967 ignore is that there has been no sea change in Arab opinion about Israel since then. Even in those countries like Egypt and Jordan that have signed peace treaties with Israel, the prevailing sentiment among the populace remains one of support for their neighbor’s destruction.
Until that happens and Palestinians come to terms with the permanence of the Jewish return to the land, arguing that just forcing Israel to give up the territory it won in a war of self-defense will solve the conflict is not only illogical; it’s a demand for national suicide.
For all of contemporary Jerusalem’s problems, its re-division would immeasurably worsen the quality of life there, as well as compromise open access to holy places (the only exception to that is the Temple Mount where Jews and Christians are still forbidden from praying in order to appease the Muslim religious authorities).
As Ruthie Blum wrote in Israel Hayom, Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem didn’t start a conflict that had already existed for decades, “it was precisely the pan-Arab attempt to eliminate the ‘Zionist entity’ that sparked the three-front war in the first place. And it was Israel that liberated Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation.”
As she notes, the day Jerusalem was reunited, then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan issued the following statement:
This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour — and with added emphasis at this hour — our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.
Israel has kept its promise, but the Palestinians and most of their supporters have never come to terms with the reality or the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. Peace may be possible when the Palestinians change. But let us hope Jerusalem will never again be torn apart as it was in 1948 when Arab armies invaded and that the security of Israel will never be compromised or rights to the ancient homeland of the Jewish people abrogated merely in order to recreate the dangerous situation of June 4, 1967.