'Like Dreamers' author on the Six Day War's true impact

Author Yossi Klein Halevi discusses how 1967 profoundly changed Israel and leaves us wrestling with tough questions a half century later

Smoke rises in east Jerusalem during a battle in the Six Day War (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rises in east Jerusalem during a battle in the Six Day War
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In an interview with ‘Jerusalem Post’ Op-Ed Editor Seth J. Frantzman, Yossi Klein Halevi applies the lessons and consequences the 1967 war to our situation today.
Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His 2013 book Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation won the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Book of the Year Award. The Hebrew edition is being published next month by Zmora Bitan.
Can you describe the momentous events of 1967 and how they impacted your life?
I came of age in my relationship to Israel in 1967. I turned 14 in the middle of the Six Day War and a few weeks later I was in Israel for my first time. I flew there with my father, a Holocaust survivor. He had two brothers here who had survived the war and whom he hadn’t seen since. The Six Day War suddenly made it urgent for him to be in Israel and with his brothers.
The war created a sense of urgency in many ways. To understand June 1967’s impact on Israeli society, you need to go back to May 1967. In those weeks leading up to the war, the dread of another Holocaust suddenly erupted. My strongest memory of that time was sitting with my father and watching the news every night, watching crowds of demonstrators in Cairo and Damascus chanting “Death to Israel!” That was the first shock; the genocidal impulse had not been exhausted by the Shoah. Jews still faced existential threat. The second shock is that we were alone. No country, not even the US, was ready to stand with us against aggression.
[President] Eisenhower had promised [prime minister] Ben-Gurion when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1957 that should Egypt block the Straits of Tiran, the US would lead an international flotilla. Abba Eban reminded president Lyndon Johnson of this, but Johnson told him that he was bogged down in Vietnam and there was nothing he could do. May 1967 has been permanently imprinted in the consciousness of a large part of the Jewish people.
I divide the Jewish people today into May 1967 Jews and June 1967 Jews. The May Jews remember aloneness and vulnerability and that impacts on their willingness to take risks for peace and to trust international guarantees. June 1967 Jews recall the astonishing victory and have as their starting point the renewal of Jewish power and the moral responsibilities that come with power and being the strongest country in the Middle East, so when June 1967 Jews consider taking risks for peace, it’s not vulnerability but power that shapes their decisions. I am a Jew of both May and June 1967. That defines the deep ambivalence I’ve expressed over the years about a Palestinian state. I am constantly struggling to balance vulnerability and power and what do we do with the last 50 years of our history. That defines my life as an Israeli and my work as a writer.
Do you find difficulty expressing the feelings of 1967 to younger audiences who have not experienced it and who have grown up in an era far removed from those experiences of fear of another Holocaust?
Younger Israeli audiences absolutely [understand] it. One strength of Israeli society is that we have a contiguity of memory between the generations. Even in terms of our culture, the Israeli music that is shared here spans generations to some extent, and certainly all the generations share the same struggle of vulnerability and power.
In terms of younger Jews in the Diaspora, I have less and less of a shared language with them. I was at the AIPAC policy conference a few weeks ago [in March 2017] and saw the Jewish kids demonstrating against AIPAC. I felt that I wouldn’t know where to being to explain to them why their target is misguided. These were committed Jews, kids in kippot. I have friends in the Jewish community whose kids were demonstrating against AIPAC. I don’t know what to say to young Jews who have no place for May 1967 in their DNA, whose only frame of reference is June 1967 and [whose] Jewish imagination cannot reach beyond the comfort they have grown up with in America.
At the same time, I do understand their frustration with Israelis like me who live with the occupation because we feel we have no choice, and so in some sense we are seeing a disconnect between May and June 1967.
IDF humvees lead a column of paratroopers past the Old City walls into central Jerusalem during a Jerusalem Day parade in 1998 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF humvees lead a column of paratroopers past the Old City walls into central Jerusalem during a Jerusalem Day parade in 1998 (photo credit: REUTERS)
How important is 1967? It is 50 years ago, but 50 years before 1967 was 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration. Do we exaggerate 1967’s importance as a central year in Israeli history?
That is one question I was struggling with when I was working on Like Dreamers [HarperCollins, 2013]. One could make a case that 1973 is a turning point, or 1977 when Sadat came to Jerusalem or 1982 when Israel fought its first divisive war. Until the Lebanon War, the security threat united Israel, then it divided us. And then came 1987, the first intifada, and 1993 and the Oslo process and then 2000, the second intifada and the collapse of the dream of peace.
There is so much history condensed into these 50 years; one could make a credible argument for drawing the line at any one of these moments. Nevertheless, I still see 1967 as the moment that created modern Israel.
I’ll give a few examples [of how we live] in the shadow and light of 1967. The state between 1948 and 1967 did not have a single significant Jewish holy place. Think about that and what it says about the place of religion in Israeli identity in those years. The state the Ashkenazi socialist founders created had little place for religion as an animating force of identity.
1967 changes the place of religion in Israeli identity in basic ways. Judaism is now central to Israeliness. In the early years of the state, the culture war that divided Israel was fought between two camps, that I call ironically the “Israelis” versus the “Jews.” The “Israelis” believed they were creating a new identity severed from 2,000 years of Diaspora history, and the “Jews” insisted that what we are creating here is a continuity of 4,000 years. If you look at Israel today the “Jews” won. The victory of the “Jews” is 1967 with the shock of the return to our sacred landscape. Pre-1967 Israel pretended it was inhabiting a secular landscape, and the absence of the religious sites encouraged that illusion. 1967 ends the notion that you can bring the Jews back to Zion and bypass Judaism.
Another major transformation we experience here every day is the rescue and reclamation of the lost Jews of the Soviet Union, and that begins during the Six Day War when a generation of almost completely assimilated Soviet Jews, the product of decades of forced amnesia by the Communist regime, rediscover their Jewish identity and inexplicably develop this longing for a country they didn’t know. Natan Sharansky in Fear No Evil [Random House 1988] writes about the thrill he felt when Israel conquered the Temple Mount, even though he didn’t know what the Temple Mount was, and that really was emblematic of a generation of Soviet Jews. Now we have 1.5 million former Soviet Jews in this country who have changed the culture and the economy of this society, and it is a direct gift of the 1967 war.
Now we are divided over peace and war and settlements and occupation, and this of course is the ongoing burden of 1967. 1967 confronted us with a moral dilemma that the Jews were not prepared for only 20 years after the Holocaust. What does it mean for this people with our history to be controlling another people? I think it took us many years to realize the depths of the dilemma. The turning point happened in 1987, 20 years after the Six Day War, it happened with the first intifada that broke out when we woke up from the dream of 1967 and faced some of the painful consequences.
Why didn’t we wrestle with this in the first 20 years of running the West Bank and Gaza, before the outbreak of the first intifada?
We didn’t make a decision as a people that we were permanently keeping Judea and Samaria. Half of Israel made that decision and half did not. As long as we have been in Judea and Samaria there has been a debate over its future. As long as half the country still held out the possibility of an eventual agreement, it allowed us to not confront the consequences.
The other reason was that until the first intifada the territories were calm – true, not as calm as we seem to remember it being, there were upheavals and security issues all along. Still, compared to what happened afterward, the situation was relatively benign. Israelis convinced themselves that we are the most benign occupiers. Maybe we were, but we were still occupiers.
I use the term “occupation” in a very specific way. I will not refer to [our presence in] Judea and Samaria as occupation. We didn’t occupy, we returned to our ancestral lands in the most legitimate way, in a war of self-defense against attempted genocide. I use the word specifically in reference to the Palestinians. We are not occupiers of the land but of the people, and that creates dissonance. That leads to an inability to confront the consequences of occupation. If you factor in the profound historic and religious attachments that we have for this land, not only the just way we returned to that land, but the security element, the lack of a credible peace partner among the Palestinians – put all of those factors together and you can begin to understand why Israeli society has been so frozen and reluctant to make a move that would lead to a withdrawal.
I feel that same ambivalence. On the one hand I am desperate to end the occupation. I think it undermines our most basic sense of who we are as a people. But I acutely worry about returning to pre-1967 borders as the Middle East disintegrates around us. That explains the current stalemate that exists in Israeli society, a clinging to the status quo because the alternative is too frightening.
Isn’t a return to 1967 a myth? People keep talking about it, but are they ignoring reality?
The discourse is changing here. More people say we are kidding ourselves and we need an alternative, but I haven’t heard a credible alternative to a two-state solution. I am open to it, I also see reality. I don’t think we’ve reached the point of no return in settlement building. What is the next step? Do we need to make one more push in a regional framework, which is being discussed in circles here and Washington? Or acknowledge that the two-state solution is dead and what are some of the alternatives which will preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a credible democratic state.
The solutions I hear from my friends in the settlement movement are self-deceptive. Can we preserve the two pillars of our identity, Jewish and democratic, in a one-state solution? I hate a two-state solution, giving up Judea and Samaria and returning to vulnerable borders. I hate the thought of removing fellow citizens from homes they built legitimately, and where they have raised children and grandchildren. We have three generations living in Judea and Samaria, as organically as any of us in this land. The problem is, that we have another people in this land, and I don’t want a binational state. The only thing worse than a two-state solution is a one-state solution.
A Palestinian wearing a mask holds a cut-out of a key during a rally ahead of the ‘Nakba Day’ in Bethlehem in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian wearing a mask holds a cut-out of a key during a rally ahead of the ‘Nakba Day’ in Bethlehem in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Someone born in the year 2000 is now 17. If they were born during the Oslo Accords, they are now 25, and those born in 1967 are now 50. When we look at those generational gaps, how does history impact us?
My generation came of age in the first and second intifadas. The first convinced many of us that the Left had been correct in warning of the danger of occupying another people, and the second convinced us of the dangers of making peace with a Palestinian movement that doesn’t accept our legitimacy. Many of us are a product of the combined insights of the two.
I spoke about May and June 1967 and there is a parallel struggle between the first and second intifadas. Those who grew up after the second intifada grew up postpeace, after the peace process failed. We tried and it blew up in our faces, literally. And so now we take it one day at a time. So yes, I think that’s increasingly true of the public’s disillusionment. If you look at the polls, the percentage of support for a two-state solution has gone progressively downward and that worries me greatly. I see that as a sign of despair.
I understand the despair, but I’m not quite there yet. I have despaired of chances of negotiating a peace agreement directly with the Palestinians. I don’t think that’s possible in this generation. I hold out some hope for a regional arrangement imposed on the Palestinians by the Arab world. The conventional wisdom in the international community was that Israel needed to be pressured, but in the end it may be the Palestinians who need to be pressured. Is that likely to happen in the region? Probably not. Is it a possibility? I’m willing to explore it.
I believe deeply that the State of Israel needs to be publicly and genuinely committed to peace even when there is no chance for an agreement. What that means is we need to keep putting our offer on the table. The offer we would put on the table in 2017 is not the same offer Ehud Barak put on the table in 2000. I don’t see any chance of re-dividing Jerusalem when there is a risk Hamas could take over a Palestinian state and we could find ourselves sharing Jerusalem with Hamas, which God forbid would mean the destruction of Jerusalem.
A lot has changed, but we need to put up some kind of offer, even if there is no chance anytime soon that other side would accept it. We need to show the international community we are committed to peace; we need to prove that to our kids. We are commanded to be a people of peace – “Seek peace and pursue it.” Why not “seek peace” and also “pursue it”? I believe that applies to our situation today.
Even in the absence of a credible chance for peace, we need to pursue a long-term vision and remain a people that embodies peace. Chances for war are far greater in the region today than chances for peace. Nevertheless, even as we prepare for war, we need to project a commitment to peace – without illusions. That’s the mistake the Left makes. The major mistake [of the Left] was selling itself and the public the illusion of peace with the Palestinian national movement, which was not ready for genuine recognition of Israel – and that goes for Hamas and Fatah.
Another mistake is ceding our legitimate claim to the totality of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. I am prepared to partition this land, but only on condition that we make clear that we are giving something up that belongs to us. The Palestinian national movement claims all the land for itself, and we need to claim all the land too – and then sit down and say, “Okay, you claim all the land and we claim all the land, now what do we do?” That is the principle of partition.
In practice, as I said earlier, I don’t think we can reach a final deal with the Palestinian leadership, but I hope we can have negotiations with the Arab world and an interim agreement with the Palestinians in which each side gives up some part of its legitimate claim. When I see maps in the Palestinian Authority that erase Israel, I’m not upset, because on my internal map there is no Palestine. Because my starting point is maximalist, I accept the fact that the starting point of the Palestinians is maximalist. I’m prepared, due to circumstances, to give up part of what is mine for sake of ending the occupation of another people and saving the Jewish democratic state and the long-term possibility of a better relationship with my neighbors than we have now.
I’m not saying “peace” because the Palestinian leaders are not offering peace. I need whoever is negotiating on my behalf to emphasize that we’re giving up something that belongs to us. I don’t trust the Left to negotiate an agreement because they have emotionally withdrawn from Judea and Samaria, and I see that as a tactical failure. When you’re sitting across the table from Palestinian representatives who make no compunction about their claims to the totality of the land, then you need to make that same claim. Any agreement must come from that acknowledgment that both sides are giving up some land that they believe belongs to them. Palestinians say they lost 79% of historic Palestine, and so we need to emphasize that we will be losing part of the historic land of Israel.
How do you feel about the new nexus of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump in light of the issue of peace and Israel?
Trump and his administration seem to have no ideas about the Middle East and that’s potentially a good thing. Obama had lots of ideas and a clear ideology about peacemaking.
I remember a few months after the 2008 election, there was a headline in Yediot Ahronot, “Rahm Emanuel: Whether Israel likes it or not there will be a Palestinian state by the end of Obama’s first term.” It was clear to me then that Obama was going to fail. The reason was arrogance and naiveté, which in the Middle East is a deadly combination – along with a strong ideological predisposition of seeing the Palestinians as key to regional peace, which is a fantasy repeatedly discredited over the last eight years. Obama presided over the disintegration of the Middle East, and that is his legacy.
Trump has come in without preconceptions, and given the changes in the region and the growing security relationship between Israel and large parts of the Sunni Arab world against Iran, there may be a chance for something new to happen here. An administration without preconceived ideas and ideological disposition could be useful.
I’m worried about Netanyahu being held hostage by his Right. My feeling about Netanyahu is that he is Center Right. If you look at the history of territorial withdrawal, it was always done by leaders from the Right. The Left can’t withdraw because Israelis like me who are in the Center and in favor of withdrawal don’t trust the Left to look out for our most basic interests. Netanyahu is potentially a partner for a regional agreement in some fashion. Not a comprehensive peace – we must free ourselves from that fantasy. We aren’t going to divide Jerusalem and the Palestinians won’t give up refugee return; but there can be a basis with regional input for a long-term interim agreement.
I think Netanyahu is open to that possibility. If regional negotiations become possible, then obviously we will have to go for new elections, or else form a national unity government to replace this government.