The most important aspect of continuity is the reality of occupation in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (A rather different problem appertains in the Golan Heights). 50 years of occupation has meant, of course, that occupation in late 1967 or early 1968, in many ways, meant something very different for all sides than it does in 2017. There are now over half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. The Palestinian Authority exercises a strange kind of non-sovereign rule in the Palestinian population centers of the West Bank, while Hamas controls Gaza. Israel purports to have annexed East Jerusalem, although the international community unanimously rejects this, after considerably expanding its municipal boundaries. The separation barrier, the Israeli-only roads, the network of checkpoints and military bases, and an entire apparatus of surveillance, discipline and control has been constructed over the past half-century with two primary purposes: a security imperative, in order to control and discipline the Palestinian population, who are not citizens of Israel or any other state; and a colonial imperative, to facilitate and enforce the settlement project.
Both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis have been radicalized by the experience of occupation, which has increasingly cast both, respectively, as prisoners and guards in the unhealthiest of relationships. Most members of both societies, especially the young, only know each other in this context of structural, epistemic and, all too often, literal violence. It is not nor it cannot come to good. Yet for all these dramatic and profoundly significant cultural, political, demographic, administrative and infrastructural developments that have preceded immediately and ineluctably out of the aftermath of the 1967 war, the core reality remains essentially unchanged. Rightly or wrongly, for good or ill, Israel expanded beyond its original and internationally recognized boundaries and into the only territory that could form a Palestinian state. Consequently, prospects for the creation of such a state are probably in reality as remote now as they were in 1967, because during that war Israel won a victory that can only be reversed by its own consent. Indeed, leverage, particularly on the Palestinian side, to gain consent may be less available than ever.
However, regionally, and more broadly between Arabs and Israelis, the atmosphere, and attitudes towards each other, 50 years later are virtually unrecognizable. The 1967 conflict arose in the context of a zero-sum mentality towards each other on both sides. And for many years that mentality persisted, being chipped away at by Anwar Sadat and the Israeli-Egypt peace treaty, the treaty with Jordan and the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians.
But now, in 2017, it’s clear that the key Sunni-majority Arab countries not only no longer see Israel as the enemy, but rather view it as a potential and sought-after partner in creating a regional bloc to oppose Iranian mayhem and hegemony in the Middle East. This presents Israel with a remarkable opportunity for widespread regional acceptance and legitimacy, as well as a major platform for its own long-term security, particularly in the period following the expiration of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Key Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are reaching out to Israel with the extraordinary message that a strategic alliance is sought and welcome, and that important groundwork has already been laid. The price of such acceptance for Israel has never been lower, but it’s not zero and it’s never going to be zero. The reality is that, to go further with more direct, open and meaningful forms of cooperation and coordination with Israel, these countries need Israel and the Palestinians to make progress on peace. The obstacles are considerable, and there is every reason to worry that a golden opportunity, for all sides in the Arab-Israeli conundrum, will yet again be squandered. Yet clearly the visceral hatreds and animosities that led to the 1967 war, the sense of absolute and implacable enmity, the irreducible contradictions that existed between the Arab countries and Israel 50 years ago no longer define the regional cultural or political landscape. That is an extraordinary transformation.
50 years after the 1967 war, great hope applies to how much has changed since then, and abundant caution is necessitated by how much has not. It’s worth considering both, carefully, to gauge the ongoing aftermath of this conflict, which is still a major factor in defining contemporary Middle East realities.
Hussein Ibish is a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).