Six Days and 50 Years of War

By Bret Stephens

New York Times

June 2, 2017


In June 1967 Arab leaders declared their intention to annihilate the Jewish state, and the Jews decided they wouldnít sit still for it. For the crime of self-preservation, Israel remains a nation unforgiven.

Unforgiven, Israelís milder critics say, because the Six-Day War, even if justified at the time, does not justify 50 years of occupation. They argue, also, that Israel can rely on its own strength as well as international guarantees to take risks for peace.

This is a historic nonsense.

On June 4, 1967, the day before the war, Israel faced the fact that United Nations peacekeepers in Sinai, intended as a buffer with Egypt, had been withdrawn at Cairoís insistence; that France, hitherto Israelís ally, had imposed an arms embargo on it; and that Lyndon Johnson had failed to deliver on previous American assurances to break any Egyptian blockade of the Israeli port of Eilat.

On June 5, the first day of the war, the Israeli government used three separate diplomatic channels to warn Jordan ó then occupying the West Bank ó not to initiate hostilities. The Jordanians ignored the warning and opened fire with planes and artillery. Some 6,000 shells landed on the western side of Jerusalem alone.

On June 19, 1967 ó nine days after the end of the war ó the Israeli cabinet decided it would offer the return of territories conquered from Egypt and Syria in exchange for peace, security and recognition. The Arab League categorically rejected peace with Israel at its summit in Khartoum later that year.

In 1973 Egypt and Syria unleashed a devastating surprise attack on Israel, puncturing the myth of Israeli invulnerability.

It took a decade after 1967 for the Egyptian government of Anwar Sadat finally to accept Israelís legitimacy. When he did he recovered every inch of Sinai ó from Menachem Begin, Israelís right-wing prime minister. Syria remains unreconciled.

It took another decade for Yasir Arafatís Palestine Liberation Organization to recognize Israel and formally forswear terrorism. But its pledges were insincere. Only after the Soviet Unionís collapse and Arafatís disastrous support for Saddam Hussein in the gulf war did the P.L.O. finally seem to get serious. It led to the Oslo Accords of 1993 and further Israeli withdrawals.

In 2000, at Camp David, Israel offered Arafat a state. He rejected it. ďI regret that in 2000 he missed the opportunity to bring that nationĒ ó Palestine ó ďinto being,Ē was Bill Clintonís bitter verdict on the summitís outcome. Within two years Arafat was calling on a million ďmartyrsĒ to march on Jerusalem.

In 2005, another right-wing Israeli government removed its soldiers, settlers and settlements from the Gaza Strip. Two years later Hamas seized control of the territory and used it to start three wars in seven years.

In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a Palestinian state in Gaza and 93 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected the proposal out of hand.

This is a truncated history. Israel is not a nation of saints and has made its mistakes. The most serious of those is proliferation of West Bank settlements beyond those in historically recognized blocs.

But before we fall prey to the lazy trope of ď50 years of occupation,Ē inevitably used to indict Israel, letís note the following:

There would have been no occupation, and no settlements, if Egypt and its allies hadnít recklessly provoked a war. Or if the ďinternational communityĒ hadnít fecklessly abandoned Israel in its desperate hours. Or if Jordan hadnít foolishly ignored Israelís warnings to stay out of it. Or if the Arab League hadnít arrogantly rejected the possibility of peace.

A Palestinian state would most likely exist if Arafat hadnít adopted terrorism as the calling card of Palestinian aspirations. Or if he hadnít rejected the offer of a state 17 years ago. Or if he hadnít renounced his renunciation of terror.

A Palestinian state would also most likely exist if Arafatís successor, Mahmoud Abbas ó now in the 13th year of his elected four-year term ó hadnít rejected it again nine years ago, and if Gazans hadnít turned their territory into a terrifying model of Palestinian statehood, and if the United Nations didnít treat Hamasís attacks on Israel as a nuisance but Israelís self-defense as a crime against humanity.

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist purports to answer the question ďWhy Israel Needs a Palestinian State.Ē The argument isnít wrong. It just isnít wise.

Israel needs a Palestinian state to safeguard its democratic future ó in the long term. But the character of such a state matters at least as much as its mere existence. The Middle East doesnít need another failed state in its midst. Israel doesnít need another Hamastan on its border. Palestinians in the West Bank donít need it over their heads.

In 1967 Israel was forced into a war against enemies who then begrudged it the peace. Egypt, at least, found its Sadat. The drama of the Six-Day War will close when Palestinians find theirs.