Israel’s myth-making industry is having a field day as the country celebrates the Golden Anniversary of the Six Day War.
Even the progressive Israeli newspaper Haaretz saw fit this morning to describe the 1967 war as “a just war; a war of no choice,” before going on to lament the “enormous harm wrought by the war” – namely, the continuing occupation of Palestine and the Palestinians.
The war, according to Haaretz, “changed the character of the state, gave birth to a sub-state in the occupied territories, bolstered messianic religious ideology, distorted the justice system so that it became, in part, a tool that judicially sanitizes the occupation, and cracked the foundations of the Zionist dream.”
All that is true – and it was true long before the 1967 war. The war didn’t create or change the character of the state, the messianic religious ideology or the distorted justice system. All it did was exacerbate what was already in existence.
Encapsulated in the Haaretz editorial are two key myths about the Six Day War: That the war was forced on Israel, which had no option but to launch the first strike; and that the occupation is at the heart of the dispute with the Palestinians. Had Israel not been forced into occupying the West Bank, the narrative goes, everything would be peachy. While the ‘just war’ myth has become integral to the national collective memory and is shared by virtually all Israelis, the ‘occupation as the root of all evil’ myth is the foundation stone of the anti-occupation Zionist left.
Both are equally false. The 1967 war was the culmination of nineteen years of mutual provocation and aggression between Israel and an Arab front comprising Syria, Egypt and Palestinian refugees-turned-guerillas. The armistice lines agreed at the end of the 1948 war – and particularly the disputed areas which the UN described as “no-man’s land” – satisfied no-one. Refugees seeking to return to land occupied by Israel in 1948 were shot by the hundreds, if not the thousands, and Israel encouraged kibbutzim to cultivate land in the disputed areas, resulting in repeated military retaliation by Syria, including dogfights over the Golan Heights.
It was widely believed in both the IDF and the government that Israel had missed a golden opportunity in 1948 by not grabbing the entire biblical Land of Israel. “I’ve never forgiven the Ben-Gurion government – it didn’t let us finish the job in 1948-1949,” said Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach in 1948 and subsequently Israel’s foreign minister. There is ample historical evidence that the 1967 war was regarded by many prominent Israelis as an opportunity to correct the mistake made in 1948.
In the years leading up to 1967, Allon, Moshe Dayan and many other leading soldiers, politicians and cultural figures constituted a Greater Israel lobby that actively promoted and planned for the conquest of the West Bank. According to Tel Aviv University Professor Yehouda Shenhav, “In June 1963, when Levi Eshkol took office as Prime Minister, Chief of Staff Tzvi Tzur and his deputy Yitzhak Rabin presented him with Israel’s desirable borders: the River Jordan, in the depths of the Jordanian West Bank; the Litani River, 30 kilometers into Lebanon; and the Suez Canal, beyond the Egyptian peninsula of Sinai.”
On the Arab side, the Palestinian refugee problem created in 1948 was regarded as an immense wrong that needed to be righted. Thus, both sides indulged in continuous needling and military provocation, attempting to overturn a status quo that was not acceptable to either of them. An Israeli attack on Syrian forces on the Golan Heights in April 1967 was described by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin as an attempt to “humiliate Syria.”
There was brinkmanship before June 1967, particularly during a crisis on the Israel-Syria border in 1960, which was finally defused by UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The latter was no stranger to imperial ambitions – only a very blunt message from US President Dwight Eisenhower prevented him from declaring the Sinai as part of the “Third Kingdom of Israel” after the 1956 Sinai Campaign – but he had come around to the belief that the demographic consequences of ruling over the Palestinians would be fatal for Israel.
The repeated tit-for-tat provocations and brinkmanship that preceded the 1967 war were hardly new; what had changed was the environment. Hammarskjold and Ben-Gurion were no longer in office to calm the passions on both sides, the Greater Israel lobby was waiting for an opportunity to make its move and Egypt’s over-confident president Nasser miscalculated how far he could go. It was a war waiting to happen, but it was neither just nor a war of no-choice. And Israel made the first move.
The second myth – that the occupation is the core issue that needs to be resolved – totally ignores the historical roots of the conflict. Jews and Palestinians didn’t live in peace and harmony until 1967; they had clashed repeatedly since the start of large-scale Jewish immigration to Israel in the early twentieth century. Returning the borders of Israel to the so-called Green Line – with or without settlement blocs, land swaps and all the other enduring legacies of the occupation – may remove a major irritant, but it won’t resolve the root cause.
Returning to the Green Line is favored by the Zionist Left because it would leave the kibbutzim, the moshavim and the original Ashkenazi political-economic elite with all the Palestinian land and property they expropriated in 1948 and from which they have profited ever since. It would also enable them to continue living in their self-created moral bubble, according to which Israel was a just and moral society until 1967.
But that, as Trump might put it, is fake reality. The Palestinian land and property confiscated in 1948 and the 700,000-odd refugees driven from their homes are the very crux of the problem. As is, at a deeper level, the Zionist mindset that persists until today in which the Israeli right to the land is exclusive and Palestinians can be dealt with unilaterally. Zionists have always prayed for the Palestinians to simply disappear, like the unfortunate millions in the TV series “The Leftovers.” Many still do.
Even if the Palestinian Authority – under the same inexorable Israeli and American pressure that caused Arafat to cave in at Oslo – were to agree to the sort of limited, non-sovereign and non-contiguous solution offered by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, it will be no more successful than Oslo. Real peace can’t be forced. And it will require solutions to the real problems – land, refugees and Israeli disdain for the Palestinians and their rights – rather than an exclusive focus on Israeli security and other Israeli concerns. After almost seventy years of statehood and fifty years of occupation Israelis remain staggeringly incurious about what drives the Palestinians.
As Israel marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 war, its collective memory remains impervious to change. Israel is just, noble and wise; Arabs were responsible for all the country’s wars and there is still no partner for peace. Onward to the next fifty!