Brig. Gen. (IDF, res.), a Senior Visiting Fellow with BICOM and a Milton Fine International Fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a veteran Israeli peace negotiator
In a way, Israel’s history divides ‘before’ and ‘after’ this watershed event. The war erupted in an atmosphere of acute public anxiety. I vividly remember sheltering in a trench we dug at our backyard in Tel Aviv, while the Jordanians were shelling our neighborhood and my late father, Chaim Herzog, was calming the nation through his radio broadcasts. With our military victory the atmosphere sharply turned into a post-war euphoria. Above all, it was an emotional rollercoaster for an old-young nation reconnecting to its Biblical lands. This was felt first and foremost in Jerusalem, which had been part of Jewish history and subject to centuries of Jewish yearning and prayers.
Israel’s then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, was one of the first to sober up from the euphoria and pose a simple strategic question: “What do we do with the Arabs?” On June 19, 1967, his government adopted a formal resolution expressing willingness to withdraw to the pre-war boundaries in Sinai and the Golan Heights (with some modifications) in return for a genuine peace with Egypt and Syria, while leaving the door open to a future deal with Jordan (with whom he conducted a secret dialogue) regarding the West Bank.
Eshkol understood that the legacy of the Six-Day War should not only be the brilliant military victory but, no less important, a Clausewitzian translation of Israel’s military might and enhanced deterrence into a set of political agreements which could provide Israel with peace and security while safeguarding a solid Jewish majority in the Jewish state for generations to come. When circumstances ripened, Israel was wise enough to follow this vision and reach a long-standing and stable peace with Egypt and Jordan. It also made a genuine effort towards Syria.
However, Israel was unable to resolve the most critical of all issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But not for lack of trying. Resolving this conflict requires reconciling clashing aspirations under the heavy weight of history, religion and emotions. Unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict, here are two national movements seeking self-determination and holding claims in the same piece of land. The Six-Day War enhanced these claims. It unleashed strong sentiments in Israel pushing to perpetuate Israel’s control over the disputed territories, while boosting an independent Palestinian national movement.
Fifty years following the war and after numerous failed peace efforts (in most of which I actively participated) the parties seem at a dead end. Many are despairing in the prospects of peace. Israel’s society is torn. However, we do not have the luxury of despairing, nor should we prioritize mixing the two parties rather than separating them. We are gradually sliding into a bi-national reality, which in my view is the most serious long-term danger to the Zionist idea.
The window to political separation is still open. New opportunities are born out of an evolving sea change in Arab-Israeli relations, as well as a renewed push for peace by a new US administration. But, if stalemate persists, the sweet taste of the great 1967 victory in the West Bank may increasingly turn sour.
Israel was only nineteen years old when the 1967 war broke out. Israel then was young, dynamic and characterized by a pioneering spirit and a degree of naiveté. Our society oscillated between Israeli ‘chutzpah’ and existential anxieties – stemming from fresh memories of the Holocaust and Arab hostility towards the nascent Jewish state.