Fifty years later, Israel lives and copes with the mixed consequences of the Six Day War. The war ended a grave crisis, established Israel as a major military and regional power, upgraded its relationship with the United States and laid the basis for an Arab Israeli peace process by providing Israel with the bargaining chips it had not possessed at the end of the War of Independence. The concept of "territories for peace" has underlain the process that led to peace with Egypt and Jordan, to mutual recognition between Israel and Palestinian nationalism and to significant normalization in Israel's relations with parts of the Arab world.
But the war has also burdened Israel with the need to deal with its territorial gains. It took a decade to convert Israel's capture of the Sinai into peace with Egypt. Twenty years of an intermittent effort to apply the same to the Golan Heights and Syria have failed and currently, given the Syrian civil war, the issue is moot. The brunt of the issue is in the West Bank and Gaza (Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005 but is still perceived as an occupying force). This is the single-most important and divisive issue in Israeli politics and public life. It defines the notions of Left and Right. The war released a messianic wave in Israel that transformed the dovish National Religious Party into the spearhead of a new, radical nationalism, an ideology that puts the land above the people and the state.
The nationalist and religious claim to the original Land of Israel is compounded by security considerations and by the threats posed to Israel by jihadi and radical Muslim actors and by Iran. The Jewish claim to the land is matched by a Palestinian refusal to offer Israel finality and end of claims, a sense that time is on the side of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.
The Right's claim to the land and security arguments are countered by the Center Left's argument that holding on to the land will erase Israel's Jewish majority and ultimately either its Jewish or democratic character, that loss of international legitimacy is more dangerous than guns and missiles.
Ironically, the Chief of Staff of the IDF, Yitzhak Rabin, whose army captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 became the Prime Minister who tried to resolve the issue through the Oslo process, He paid for it with his life. The Oslo process is stalled, but its impact is still palpable. The Palestinian recognition of Israel enables other Arabs to have a relationship with the Jewish State and the existence of the Palestinian Authority releases Israel from the onerous need to govern directly and administer the bulk of the population in the West Bank. This is a tenuous situation. It is misleading to speak of the status quo because what passes for a status quo is in fact of process of gliding toward one statehood. This has far reaching ramifications for Israel's international position as well as for the Jewish people. Jews are affected by the decline in Israel's legitimacy and many young Jews are taking their distance. The deep divisions in Israel are matched by similar divisions in Jewish communities. This can be changed. There may not be any swift, miraculous solutions but a way forward needs to be charted. This is the challenge of leadership and statesmanship that are so sorely lacking.
Itamar Rabinovich, the president of the Israel Institute (Washington and Jerusalem), is Israel's former Ambassador to the United States and former Chief Negotiator with Syria in the mid 1990's and the former president of Tel-Aviv University (1999-2007). Currently he is Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern History of Tel Aviv University, Distinguished Global Professor at NYU and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Prof. Rabinovich has been a member of Tel Aviv University's faculty since 1971 and served as Ettinger Professor of the Contemporary History of the Middle-East, Chairman of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Director of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Dean of Humanities and Rector.