Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. The year 2017 holds several important dates for Israel and Jews worldwide. It is the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. It is the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, and 70 years since the U.N. General Assembly Partition Resolution calling for two states for two peoples.
In 1967, Eli Weisel had this to say about the Six Day War: “This new Jewish awakening is part of that miracle, a part of the Jewish victory. Those who thought Jews were frightened by huge armies were mistaken, and those who thought you could separate the Jewish state from the Jewish people around the world clearly underestimated us.”
The Six Day War amazed the world when the Israel Defense Forces defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon in just six days, quadrupling Israel’s territory. Remembering the Six Day War will be a time of both celebration and somber reflection in Israel and within the worldwide Jewish community. Realizing there are both positive developments and negative consequences of this war must lead us to renew our commitment to the concept of two states for two peoples.
On the positive side, during the first two decades of its existence, Jerusalem was divided and occupied by Jordan. Jewish holy sites were desecrated, with gravestones being used to build a hotel. Access to holy sites was denied to Jews. The Six Day War changed this harsh reality. After 19 years, Jews were once again able to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall. The reunification of Jerusalem was a reason for celebration and pride.
With the addition of this territorial bargaining chip, Israel was at last able to negotiate with the Arab world. The Arab states refused to negotiate. Their response: “No recognition. No negotiations. No peace.” Twelve years later, Egypt, the largest and most powerful country in the Arab world, signed a peace treaty with Israel. As part of this agreement Israel returned the Sinai, an area almost three times the size of Israel. In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, with minor border adjustments. These agreements have stood the test of time.
The war also created unresolved challenges. Israel’s battle for survival led the Jewish state to take over the lives of millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The trauma and suffering has been felt on both sides. A look at history shows that Israel tried numerous times to achieve peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world, engaging in direct negotiations with the Palestinians, beginning with the Oslo Accords in 1993. Interim agreements resulted in numerous territorial concessions and increased terror attacks against innocent Israeli civilians and children.
Israel withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip in 2005. I remember that time period clearly. I remember writing a guest column in 2009, reminding everyone of the homes, schools, synagogues and hothouses that those who were asked to leave were giving up for a chance for peace. I remember assuring everyone that directions in Arabic were being left in every hothouse and every business so that the Gazans could step into businesses.
Imagine my shock, and that of all Israelis, when, instead of taking advantage of this golden opportunity, the Gazans chose to blow up the homes, hothouses and all that remained for their taking.
While the anniversary of the Six Day War will most likely be used to portray Israel as a “permanent occupier,” it is clear that Gaza now belongs to Hamas.
Between 2000 and 2008, Israel made or agreed to three comprehensive offers to the Palestinians. All were either rejected or ignored by Palestinian leadership. One positive outcome of these efforts is the working administrative and security relationship that Israel has developed with the Palestinian Authority.
Despite these efforts, the anniversary of the Six Day War is a painful reminder of how far we all still need to travel to find a just peace. It will require both the Israelis and the Palestinians to redouble their efforts to create two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace. The two state solution is the only viable option for a stable, long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace.
There are several actions that can be taken to move the peace process forward.
• In recent months, there was a protest from several thousand Israeli and Palestinian women, from the group Women Wage Peace. Building an infrastructure for peace through people-to-people initiatives will only be the result of supporting civil leaders in both Israeli and Palestinian society.
• We must urge both parties to act in a two-state compatible fashion. For Palestinians that means stopping the incitement against and delegitimization of Israel and rewarding the families of terrorists. For Israel, this means limiting construction to areas that will not be part of a future Palestinian state.
• We must encourage both parties, when the time is right, to resume direct negotiations. Only direct negotiations will lead to a comprehensive agreement that will end the conflict and resolve all outstanding disputes.
Let this anniversary be a reminder that we can still move forward to create a better future for both peoples.
The writer is executive director of the Augusta Jewish Federation and Community Center.