June 5, 1967: Every Israeli feared for the survival of the state as war broke
out to defend Israel against a pan-Arab threat to our very being.
Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, had committed to fight for the
annihilation of Israel and, in the wake of his rhetorical charade, the rest of
the Arab world followed. The Straits of Tiran had been closed in May that year
by motivated armies and hateful societies and Israel was now
Under the leadership of the patient and wise prime minister
Levi Eshkol, Israel was compelled to launch a preventative strike and, within
only six days, defeated all surrounding Arab armies, conquered the Sinai
Peninsula (three times the size of Israel), the West Bank (including east
Jerusalem) and Gaza as well as the Golan Heights.
Israel felt a deep
sense of relief coupled with pride bordering on euphoria, which quickly
translated into a national hubris and an illusion of omnipotence.
Arab world felt deep humiliation that quickly translated into a sense of
helplessness, frustration and rejection of any realistic approach.
two psychological realities drove Israel and the Arab states to draw
fundamentally wrong conclusions from the Six Day War, with tragic ramifications
for decades to come. The Arab states became even more entrenched in their
rejection of the Jewish State; they convened in Khartoum (in August 1967) and
declared in a loud and unified voice: No to peace with Israel, no to recognition
of Israel, and no to negotiations. The hostility to Israel weighed heavily on
the Arab world with inflated defense budgets and backward economies; political
and social reforms were sacrificed.
The result was the maintenance of
dictatorial regimes with much of their energy spent in Pan-Arab diplomacy,
sloganeering their hate and rejection of Israel, obsessed by a need for
vengeance, distanced from the West.
The Palestinians, for whom this
national struggle had originally been waged, were thrown to the political
sidelines, including by Jordan’s King Hussein in the Black September of 1970,
and were left suffering in refugee camps and reacting with PLO
The Arab states did very little to redress the 1967 defeat,
with the one important exception of Egypt. President Anwar Sadat, coming to
power in 1970 with little experience, yet much courage and wisdom, challenged
Israel both diplomatically (in 1972) and militarily (in the 1973 October
Humiliation turned into Egyptian pride, hostile policies were
replaced with rapprochement to the West and, with the historical breakthrough of
president Sadat’s courageous visit to Jerusalem, the first Arab peace treaty
with Israel and the return of Sinai. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, while not
turning Egypt toward greater openness and democracy, continued the strategy of
peace, in the national interest of Egypt, for which he is to be credited, even
to this day.
Yet the Arab world did not follow Egypt’s lead; it only
began to alter policies grudgingly and gradually, starting with the Madrid Peace
Conference in 1991.
Israel too managed, through many historical
misconceptions and mistakes, to become a big loser from what occurred in June
1967. In our hubris, we drew dramatically wrong conclusions of the victory. We
believed, and to a large degree still do, that every regional challenge has a
From the Palestinian issue through the Lebanon
quagmire, to the false notion that if we just let the IDF fight, solutions will
be found – “Let the IDF win,” as the slogan goes.
While the world
supported us in 1967 and its immediate aftermath, we felt, and still feel, best
in isolation. We also committed the mistake of underestimating the Arabs,
looking down on them, not seeing them as equals, to be rudely awakened by the
1973 War, the Lebanese wars and two intifadas.
Yet the most dangerous
process, post ’67, is linked to the fact that overnight we became the rulers of
3 million Palestinians and, quickly, became enamored with a dangerous occupation
and the rule over another people. This occupation had, and has, a heavy cost,
almost challenging our very identity as a Jewish and democratic
First and foremost we became morally corrupted by occupation. We
never attempted to treat the Palestinians as equals, humiliating them on a daily
basis for 45 years. Modern Zionism and our international appeal had been driven
by a strong moral call, stemming from our biblical heritage and from our
modern-day dramatic nation-building process. After 1967 we gradually turned from
victims – strong enough to overcome their tragic fate – to victimizers, weak
enough to not resist the temptation of force.
Not only did we not look
for ways to detach from the Palestinians in favor of our own Jewish state, but
we drove our national existence deep into the West Bank with the foolish
settlement enterprise, leading 300,000 Israelis into the territories and making
a political solution virtually impossible.
These changes turned us, in
the eyes of the nations, from a David into a Goliath, from one of the most
celebrated countries in 1967 into an island of isolation, boycotted today in
many parts of the world.
Our democracy also paid a heavy price for the
occupation, as democracy and ruling another people on the doorstep cannot
coexist in the long run. So our political and judicial systems suffer from the
surge of rightwing nationalism based on the historical view of a Greater Israel.
There is also the heavy economic price that we paid and are paying – it is
estimated, by most leading academic and security experts, that we have spent $55
billion on settlements and their security since ’67.
The value of the
houses alone in the West Bank is assessed at $20b. by institutes such as Adwa
and Macro. Sovereign Israel is turning into one of the most socially unjust
societies in the OECD club, due to the growing gap between the haves and the
have-nots and the lack of investment in education and social
And yet the heaviest price of 1967 touches on our very
identity. Without giving up the conquered West Bank, we will in the years to
come be a minority in our own land, endangering our Jewish and democratic
Forty-five years after the war, it is time for both Israelis
and Arabs to draw the right conclusions from mistakes committed due to hubris on
one side, and humiliation on the other. The Arabs must recognize that Israel as
a Jewish state is here to stay and that, within its sovereign boundaries, it has
many successes that can be shared in an improved relationship. And we need to
understand that the occupation must come to an end, in reconciliation with an
independent Palestinian state, with security, without the return of Jews into
the historical Judea and Samaria, and without a return of Palestinians to the
historical “Greater Palestine.”
The Arab countries and Israel must
finally find the courage, after a delay of 45 years, to look reality in the
face, giving up on fanatical rejectionism and humiliating occupation, and
recognizing that we are rather small powers, not omnipotent and not eternal
victims, but rather we are interdependent and dependent on a larger world.
Better much too late than never.
The writer is president of the Peres
Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.