FROM MY perspective, it would be a mistake to attribute the occupation of the West Bank to the Six Day War. Israel should have handed the territories over to the Palestinians in the framework of a peace agreement long ago. If we had left the territories immediately, we would have benefited from the fruits of victory rather than paying the price of war.
There is, of course, an ongoing argument as to the necessity of superfluous provocations and the fact that some moves before the war resulted from the misunderstanding of our neighbors’ intentions. The bottom line, however, is that it was a defensive war that is not difficult to justify.
To a great extent, the war shaped the perceptions of generations of Israelis, Jews in the Diaspora, our neighbors and of people worldwide who were in awe of the IDF’s lightning victory. The war changed the mood in Israel from one of dark foreboding to one of (inflated) national pride.
For the Jewish world, the war was a seminal event that shaped its identity even more than the War of Independence. The IDF’s incredible victory meant Israel was no longer the poor relative that world Jewry needed to support and maintain, but a country that stood on its own two feet.
Identification with a threatened and beleaguered country metamorphosed into pride in a strong Israel and a deeper sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Many Jews from the West came to visit, study and live in Israel, while behind the Iron Curtain, Jews learned about the victory from clandestine media and word of mouth, creating an even stronger desire to make aliya.
Israel’s economic situation quickly improved; depression and high unemployment gave way to rapid growth. The Arab world understood that Israel was here to stay and many other nations that had yet to be convinced of the validity of the Zionist experiment – even if they were among its supporters – realized in 1967 that it was indeed a valid state.
In the wake of our victory, we should have attempted to reach a diplomatic arrangement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the spirit of proposals made by David Ben-Gurion to withdraw from all the occupied territories except east Jerusalem. King Hussein of Jordan was willing to make a deal, and we could have held on to the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights as no more than bargaining chips. If we had responded positively to the proposals put forward in 1971 by UN envoy Gunnar Jarring for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty (proposals that Anwar Sadat accepted and Golda Meir rejected), things would have worked out differently.
BUT NONE of that happened. We relinquished control over Sinai only after receiving a terrible blow in the Yom Kippur War, and in the West Bank and Gaza we set up a regime of occupation the world enabled through United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which rejected the acquisition of territories through force, but spoke of withdrawal only in the framework of a diplomatic agreement.
Because no peace treaty with the Palestinians has been forthcoming for the past 50 years, we remain the occupiers of the territories and a benign occupation has yet to be invented – not even ours.
It is true that there never was a Palestinian state, and that under Jordanian rule the Palestinians did not exercise their right to self-determination. But under Israeli rule, and even following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which resulted from the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians feel that a foreign entity rules over their lives. We, the Israelis, pay a heavy price: The world is less and less willing to accept the occupation and our decades-long presence in the territories has done nothing to change that.
The question of the territories dominates our agenda and has pushed aside crucial issues that were on the table before 1967 such as a constitution for Israel, the separation of religion and state and issues of social justice.
We have become obsessed with hasbara, public diplomacy, in a pathetic attempt to prove to the world that our presence in the West Bank is legitimate because it had no legal owners prior to us. We relate our narrative to the world, but fail to understand that our image as a Goliath facing a David will not change as long as we remain occupiers. We sent our emissaries out to show the world how extreme the Palestinian National Covenant is, and the world replied by equating Zionism with racism.
For 50 years, we have been trying to explain ourselves, yet all the embassies have left Jerusalem and in the United States the tradition continues that presidential candidates promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, yet when they are elected forget their promises.
Military service has been extended, relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel have become ever more tense, Israel’s economy came to a halt and contracted following the Yom Kippur War and only in recent years have we started to make up ground.
The State of Emergency declared in 1948 has yet to be lifted, and under the guise of emergency, laws pass in the Knesset that are contrary to the basic values of democracy.
The demographic situation raises questions as to Israel’s ability to remain Jewish and democratic and we may find ourselves in not so many years – in the name of fanatical Zionism – losing the Jewish majority.
In the early 1980s, I conducted a study of Israeli leaders from the Right and Left, all of whom believed that a solution for the West Bank and Gaza could be reached in a five-year period. Recently uncovered state archives of cabinet meetings from the period immediately after the Six Day War revealed further that both “doves” and “hawks” were totally clueless about the future of the West Bank. The Gaza Strip was much more important to them.
HAD THEY agreed to hand back the West Bank to Jordan’s King Hussein, who in December 1967 was ready for a land swap under which Israel would annex a small part of the West Bank and he would get Gaza in exchange, Israel could have saved a whole generation from dealing with the future of the territories.
The unity government formed in 1967 took upon itself a crazy responsibility without understanding it. In contrast to the huge risk taken by the provisional government under David Ben-Gurion when it decided to declare an independent state in 1948, the government of Levi Eshkol exercised the option of a non-decision when a decision should have been made.
Israel is a unique success story that could play a very different role in the world if only it could solve the Palestinian problem, which is really an Israeli problem. We don’t deserve to carry this baggage forever. We don’t deserve to be a pariah state. We don’t deserve to play the role of concubine in the international arena.
The Six Day War gave us the opportunity to get out of this situation, but we were too blind to exploit it.
One of the rare voices of sanity in the Labor party, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, said in the early 1970s that the occupied territories, which we had intended to keep as bargaining chips, had become hot potatoes. More than four decades later, they are still burning our hands.
For those who lost their lives in the episodes of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the 50 years since 1967 and in the Yom Kippur War, it is too late. For the generations that spent months and years guarding settlements and in hasbara efforts to justify their existence, that time cannot be returned. But it is not too late to reach a diplomatic agreement that will enable us to withdraw from the West Bank. Perhaps an eccentric American president who has made an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal one of his top priorities can help us out.
Yossi Beilin is a former minister of justice and Israeli statesman who has served in multiple positions in the Israeli government and was an architect of the Oslo process and the Geneva Initiative.
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