This week marks the 46th anniversary of the Six-Day War and it cannot be said that the Palestinian Authority has neglected to remember the occasion. Earlier this week the PA’s chief “peace negotiator” Saeb Erekat schlepped a group of foreign journalists to Latrun, the crossroads town that once served as the choke point for the 1948 siege of Jerusalem to remind them—as well as Palestinians and Israelis—that what he is asking for is not negotiations for peace but an attempt to turn back the hands of time and return the region to the moment in history before the Israeli victory in 1967 changed the strategic balance in the region. As the New York Times reported:
“I am sure many of you are asking why is Saeb Erekat bringing you to this point,” Mr. Erekat said to a group of diplomats and reporters as he stood against a backdrop of green fields, a reservoir and an Israeli settlement of red-roofed houses in the valley below.
“It is not because I want to demarcate the maps or finalize the negotiations,” he said, referring to the intensive efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to get the Israelis and Palestinians to return to peace talks. “I just want to stand here and say, ‘It is 46 years later.’ ”
Erekat’s candor is in a sense quite commendable. Latrun is a potent symbol of the nature of the Israel that existed in those halcyon days before the obstacle to peace was the presence of Jews in the West Bank and in which a small state with indefensible borders and a capital that could be isolated with ease stood on the precipice of destruction as Arab armies began to mass on its borders. Erekat was sending a clear message to Israelis that if they thought the PA would ever accept the fact that the world had irrevocably changed in those 46 years they could just keep dreaming.
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 Six-Day War ended 45 years ago today. In his comprehensive history, Michael Oren noted the war was one of the shortest in recorded history, but that in that brief period Israeli fatalities were the equivalent, in per capita terms, of 80,000 Americans.
Two days after the war ended, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol summarized what had led to it: on May 15, Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal; by May 18 they were deployed on Israel’s border; Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces and on May 23 closed the Strait of Tiran to shipping both to and from Israel; on May 30, Egypt signed a military agreement with Jordan and another one with Iraq on June 4; together with the one already in place with Syria, the encirclement of Israel was complete, and secret orders had been issued to prepare for the attack on Israel. Then Eshkol addressed the Arabs directly:
“To the Arab peoples I want to say: we did not take up arms in any joyful spirit. We acted because we had no alternative if we wanted to defend our lives and our rights. Just as you have a right to your countries, so we have a right to ours. The roots of the Jewish people in this country go back to primeval days. Throughout the generations, Israel in dispersion maintained its spiritual and material links ….
“There is no parallel in the annuals of the nations to this unique bond between our people and its Land. Perhaps the fact that we have successfully survived the three wars that have been forced upon us will finally convince those who refuse to recognize this fundamental truth …”
Jewish Ideas Daily continues its weeklong commemoration of the Six-Day War, with a summary of June 7, 1967, the day on which Israeli forces liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from the illegal 19-year-old Jordanian occupation. It was, in the words of an official Israeli remembrance, “a fundamental moment in the history of religious tolerance, opening the city of Jerusalem to worshippers of all faiths, permitting Jews to return to the Western Wall and other holy sites, and allowing Israeli Muslims and Christians to visit those sacred places in eastern Jerusalem from which they too had been barred since 1948.”
In Moshe Dayan, the latest addition to Yale University’s series on Jewish Lives (which will be published on June 18), Mordechai Bar-On offers this description of what happened:
That morning, Dayan gave instructions for troops to enter Jerusalem’s walled Old City. … [Col. Motta] Gur broke through the Lions’ Gate, one of eight gates into the Old City, crossed the compound of mosques on the Temple Mount, and from there descended to the Western Wall. Many of the paratroopers wept. … In the afternoon, Dayan strode through the Old City with General Rabin and General Narkiss. … Dayan inserted a note in a crack of the Western Wall, with three Hebrew words: Lu yehi shalom – “May there be peace.” He also briefly addressed the soldiers and gathered journalists who printed his words in every Israeli newspaper the next day:
“We have returned to our holiest site so as never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors, Israel stretches out its hand in peace, and the members of other religions may rest assured that all their religious rights and freedoms will be fully protected. We did not come to conquer the holy sites of others or to restrict their religious rights, but to ensure the integrity of the city and to live there with others in brotherhood.”
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.
Today is the 45th Jerusalem Day in Jerusalem, Israel – the annual commemoration on the 28th of Iyar, the anniversary of the Six-Day War on the Hebrew calendar, when Israel liberated the eastern part of the city from Jordanian occupation. It is also worth recalling a little history on this day.
After the defeat of Turkey in World War I, President Wilson received a 1919 report from two American commissioners to the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey. The commissioners wrote that they “doubted whether the Jews could possibly seem to either Christians or Moslems proper guardians of the holy places”:
The places which are most sacred to Christians — those having to do with Jesus — and which are also sacred to Moslems, are not only not sacred to Jews, but abhorrent to them … [T]he Moslems, just because the sacred places of all three religions are sacred to them have made very naturally much more satisfactory custodians of the holy places than the Jews could be.