Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A blessing and a curse

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Sharyn Mittelman

 

Daily Telegraph - 8 June 2017

 

This month marks 50 years since the Six Day War - which is pivotal to understanding the modern Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it did not start that conflict, which began with Arab rejection of Israel's existence prior to its establishment in 1948, it has drawn the map from which proposals for two states must be carved out.

The Six Day War is viewed by many Israelis as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because little Israel miraculously won a war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan in six days, and increased its tiny and vulnerable territory to include both strategic depth and the Jewish people's holiest sites - most significantly the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City.

In 1948, after Israel had declared its independence and fought invasion from five Arab national armies, the Arab states had made it clear repeatedly that they anticipated and were preparing for another existential war.

Then in early May 1967 a false Soviet warning to Egypt of a large scale Israeli troop concentration along the border with Syria would set off the regional powder keg that had existed since 1948. Egypt deployed about 100,0000 troops to the Sinai Peninsula, which had been formally demilitarised since the 1956 Suez War.

However, when Egypt learnt that there were no Israeli troops on Syria's border, Egypt did not withdraw its troops from the Sinai Peninsula and instead demanded the removal of UN peacekeepers, and blockaded the Strait of Tiran, a vital Israeli shipping route.

It also forged anti-Israeli alliances with Jordan and other Arab states, and Arab leaders unleashed a barrage of bloodcurdling rhetoric against the Jewish state. Israel feared an imminent attack and launched a series of pre-emptive strikes that would enable it to win the war in six days.

The 1967 war is also seen as a curse by some Israelis because as a result of gaining territory in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan, Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, Israel became responsible for governing millions of Arabs who viewed Israel as their "enemy".

Israel had hoped its territorial conquests would lead to peace agreements, but the Arab League famously declared in the 1967 Khartoum Resolution, "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it ..."

It was not until 1978 that Israel reached a peace agreement with Egypt in exchange for withdrawal from all of the Sinai - territory larger than pre-1967 Israel and all the other lands captured in 1967 combined.

In 1994, peace was reached with Jordan, and both Amman and Cairo have had productive relations with Israel ever since. Meanwhile, today Israelis are thankful they never reached an agreement with Damascus to return the Golan to Syria despite repeated proposals and offers. If the Golan were in Syrian hands today, extremists, including Islamic State, would likely today have a strategic foothold on Israel's border. A peace agreement with the Palestinians has proved much more elusive.

While the status quo created by the 1967 war is unacceptable to Palestinians, one can nonetheless also argue that the results of the Six Day War actually brought Palestinian selfdetermination closer and helped create the contemporary international consensus for a two-state solution - including a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Prior to 1967, Jordan had control of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, while Egypt had control of the Gaza Strip. Neither proposed to turn them into a Palestinian state.

Today, both Jordan and Egypt have relinquished those lands in favour of Palestinian statehood. The Oslo Accords in the 1990s affirmed Palestinian self-determination and established the Palestinian Authority to govern the Palestinian people and lay the ground for a two-state peace. And since the Oslo Accords, Israel has offered to establish a Palestinian State, based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, under prime ministers Ehud Barak (2000-01) and Ehud Olmert (2008). Unfortunately, both offers were rejected by the Palestinian leadership, without any serious counteroffer.

Now US President Trump is seeking to revive US leadership on an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and there is an encouraging amount of receptiveness on both sides. In his recent visit to the Middle East, Trump met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and said both leaders are ready to work towards a peace agreement. Trump also received support from Saudi Arabia for a regional peace agreement with Israel based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

The 1967 war transformed the Middle East in numerous ways - it ended Arab hopes to destroy Israel with conventional military attacks, damaged the appeal of the Pan-Arabist ideology that once dominated the region, made peace between Israel and neighbouring Arab states possible, and helped galvanise Israel into the hi-tech "startup" nation powerhouse it is today. The potential it opened for an IsraeliPalestinian two-state solution has, sadly, so far been unfulfilled.

Today, with many Arab states seeing Israel as something of a strategic ally in the face of the rising regional power of Iran, there appears to be yet another chance to finally turn this potential for peace into reality.

Sharyn Mittelman is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

 

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