The 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, June 5th through 10th, was the occasion for a flurry of media retrospectives. Less attention will be given to a related anniversary: June 19th, 1967, when the Israelis first offered to give back most of the land that had come under their control during that conflict.
It is historically rare - if not unprecedented - for a nation to relinquish territory paid for with blood in a defensive war. So there was hope that this bold land-for-peace proposal might lead to Arab-Israeli detente. But at a summit held in Khartoum the following September, Israel’s Arab neighbors declared the “three nos”: no to recognition of Israel, no to negotiations with Israel, no to peace with Israel.
A state of war against Israel, Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser said, had been “in effect since 1948,” the moment modern Israel was born amid the carnage of World War II, on lands ruled by the Ottoman Turks for most of the past four centuries. It would continue, he and the leaders in Khartoum implied, until Israel was destroyed.
Nasser was the primarily instigator of the 1967 war, as historian Michael Oren has demonstrated using Arab sources. One example: Salah al-Hadidi, the chief justice in the court proceedings against officers held accountable for Egypt’s defeat, stated unambiguously: “Egypt’s political leadership called Israel to war. It clearly provoked Israel and forced it into a confrontation.”
Nasser did this by blockading Israeli shipping, itself an act of war. He also ordered UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai, along Israel’s western border where they had been posted after the 1956 war. He then moved 100,000 Egyptian troops and armor into the Sinai. On May 30th, 1967, Nasser declared: “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel ... while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived.”
According to the BBC – ever tendentious where Israel is concerned -- all this amounted merely to Nasser “risking” war. The BBC added that Nasser’s motives “are still debated.” Heaven knows why. Nasser said candidly that the grievance he intended to address was the “existence of Israel.” He promised that the war would result in “Israel’s destruction.” Cairo radio declared Israel would be “liquidated.”
Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Assad – father of Syria’s current dictator, Bashar al-Assad –vowed “a battle of annihilation.” Iraqi President Abdul Rahman Aref said the opportunity must be seized “to wipe Israel off the map … to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948." Ahmed Shukairy, a representative of the then three-year-old Palestine Liberation Organization was asked what would happen to Israelis after the war. “I estimate that none of them will survive," he said.
In response, Israel struck fast and hard. Fighting was intense, but within six days Israel had not only prevailed – it had gained what many military analysts called defensible borders for the first time.
Nevertheless, as noted, the Israelis were willing, even eager, to give up most of what they had gained for a sheet of paper with the word “peace” written on it. “We speak not as conquerors, but as partners,” Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said hopefully.
Eventually, Israel did trade land – the vast Sinai Peninsula – to Egypt in return for a cold peace. And two summers ago, Israel withdrew from Gaza. Palestinian leaders had an opportunity to make Gaza bloom as it never had under occupation -- with new homes and schools, farms and factories. Had they done that, Israel today almost certainly would be relinquishing most of the West Bank as well. Instead, Gaza is now more violent and squalid than ever, a place from which missiles are fired daily at villages inside Israel.
A National Pubic Radio report on the war’s anniversary acknowledged the fact that “Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza,” but added this spin: that Israel’s “continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring a comprehensive peace to the Middle East.”
No, the obvious if politically unfashionable truth is that what stymies peace today is what stymied peace forty years ago: the refusal of Arab and Muslim rulers to tolerate a neighbor that is not ruled by Arabs or Muslims; their refusal to accept the idea of self-determination for the Jewish people within their ancient homeland.