In 1967, the not-two-decades-old state of Israel and its Arab neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan engaged in one of the briefest wars in history. By all accounts, June 5 through June 10, 1967, marked the Six-Day War, in Arabic “al-naksa,” or “the setback,” from beginning to end. But its consequences still reverberate, unresolved, to the present day.
As a result of its overwhelming airpower and military strength, Israel ended up gaining a surprising amount of territory in 1967. From Egypt, its generals pressed forward to take the Sinai Peninsula. From Syria, the Israelis took the strategic Golan Heights, from which artillery can reach Jerusalem or Damascus. And from Jordan, Israel took Jerusalem and the West Bank.
None of this was particularly planned, at least according to Gershom Gorenberg’s book “The Unmaking of Israel.” Israel’s generals just simply thought they could press on, without a plan of what exactly to do with the territory once they acquired it. It was a bit like the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the United States drove in, removed the regime, secured the area and…what next? We, too, had no plan. It took eight years, but we left.
Israel hasn’t yet. While the war ended in six days — I once had an Arab professor who argued it ended in six hours, when Israel took out opposing airpower — its consequences have not. A plan was never really, concretely developed to return the territory, which has never been recognized under international law as a legal acquisition of land. Instead, Israel began an at times halting, at times full-throttle campaign to settle the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.
In 1979, Israel handed the Sinai back to Egypt as part of a hard-fought peace process. Egypt paid a steep price for its willingness to deal with Israel: its membership was suspended in the Arab League and relations with its Arab neighbors suffered greatly. But it gained significant aid from the United States and stable relations with a much more powerful neighbor. Now that treaty is in doubt, at least according to some; I believe there is simply no way Egypt’s military will let the treaty simply go away. But there is no question the treaty hasn’t done anything to improve Israel’s popularity in Egypt.
That’s due to its oft-neglected second part, which Egyptian president Anwar Sadat insisted on: Israel must make an effort to establish a state for the Palestinian people. The Camp David Accords were settled in 1979. Israel gave up land for peace. Tell me, is there a state of Palestine?
The answer is no. Israel never quite figured out what to do with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It never negotiated much with Palestinians. And how could it, when the Palestine Liberation Organization had been kicked out of Jordan in the early 1970s after years of violence, and after the PLO was forced to leave Lebanon following the 1982 war with Israel? Eventually, a peace process was successfully begun. But it has been abandoned as many times as it has been pursued.
The Six-Day War’s consequences are still entirely visible on the ground. Growing Palestinian frustration with the occupation boiled over into the First Intifada in the early 1990s (mostly non-violent) and then again in the Second Intifada in the early 2000s (mostly violent). Responses to these movements have ranged from the start of the Oslo peace process (good) to building a wall between the West Bank and Israel (bad for Palestinians, good for Israelis) to checkpoints and travel restrictions on Palestinians and sympathizers. I saw the wall in 2010 and have passed through checkpoints. None of this equals a Palestinian state.
At best, Israel has been half-hearted in allowing the creation of Palestinian institutions. The Palestinian Authority has extremely limited security control, despite admirable results in the areas it directly controls. Its governing institutions, due to divides between Hamas and Fatah, the main political parties, are deadlocked, and that’s the PA’s fault. But the West Bank today is a patchwork of settlements, segregated roads, villages, illegal outposts, walls and checkpoints.
This isn’t a sustainable status quo. Everyone recognizes it — Israel will not remain Jewish and democratic long if it continues to deny citizenship and rights to all the residents of the West Bank. But the settlements, as Jeffrey Goldberg points out, make it awfully hard to credibly make the case for two states. He advocates a partial withdrawal from the settlements in the West Bank (done in a much more gradual manner than the quick withdrawal from Gaza) to prove to the Palestinians that Israel is serious about two states.
The United States is often a critic of unilateral moves on either side — the Palestinians in their statehood bid at the U.N., the Israelis in settlement activity — but in this case a measured unilateral move makes a lot of sense. At some point, Israel needs to take the steps necessary to actually win the Six-Day War.