Tuesday marks the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the question remains: Which side will win?
Yes, many people are under the impression that Israel already won. It’s true that the first phase of the war -- which began with Israeli strikes on the Egyptian air force and ended with Israel in possession of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- represented an unambiguous military triumph.
But it’s an open question whether the seemingly endless second phase -- occupation, failed peace negotiations and Jewish settlement of the West Bank -- will lead to Israel’s ultimate defeat.
The original occupation of the West Bank was justified. Jordan, which then ruled the territory, had used the West Bank to fire on Israel, and Israel’s seizure was an act of self-defense. In the days after their conquest, Israeli leaders searched for Arab interlocutors who would negotiate withdrawal in exchange for peace. They found none. That’s when the logic of settlement began to take hold.
Given that many Israelis in 1967 feared their country might very well be eliminated by an Arab onslaught, they could be excused for believing they had just experienced a miracle when the battle ended.
Some of them quite literally saw the divine hand guiding their army to victory. Noting that Israel had taken possession of the biblical heartland -- the West Bank is the Judea and Samaria of the Bible, and where the Jewish people were born -- these religious nationalists succumbed to ecclesiastical temptation and agitated for Jewish settlement of these territories. Successive Israeli governments gave in to their demands.
Forty-five years later, the settlements -- in particular those planted deep in the West Bank -- are obstructing the emergence of a Palestinian state, and have brought Israel low. A country once perceived as progressive is now seen by much of the world as illiberal and imperial; a country that once seemed to have been at least partly successful in separating synagogue from state now seems to be in the thrall of religious fundamentalists. A country that was founded to give a homeless people a home now seems indifferent to the demands of another people for a home of their own.
It is more complicated than that, of course. For one thing, the Palestinians have done a terrible job of bringing about their own independence. Their leaders have squandered opportunities to negotiate a comprehensive treaty with Israel, and their long detour into terrorism, while gaining fame for their cause, did nothing to convince Israelis they were interested in compromise.
Lately, though, Palestinians have stumbled on a more effective method of fighting Israel: waiting.
Many Palestinians realize that although they cannot defeat Israel militarily, they can wait for Israel to defeat itself. In the not-too-distant future, the number of Arabs under Israeli control will equal the number of Jews. The Palestinians will then simply demand the vote. Many Arabs already vote in Israel (a quarter of Israel’s population is non-Jewish), but the Arabs of the West Bank don’t. Their neighbors in the Jewish settlements do have a vote, and this already strikes much of the world as unfair. It is only a matter of time before Israel finds itself the target of a broad international campaign to grant these Palestinians the right to vote. (This campaign is already taking place on the margins.)
Then Israel’s government will be forced to make a choice: Give up the settlements, or give up the idea of a democratic Jewish homeland. A decision that could have been made gradually and responsibly will have to be made in a crisis -- and in a crisis Middle Eastern countries tend to act in stupid and self-destructive ways.
It doesn’t take special powers of discernment to understand that the time isn’t ripe for a comprehensive peace treaty. Palestine is divided into two warring camps -- one led by Hamas, the other by Fatah -- that continually threaten to unite, and then fail to do so. The more moderate Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is weak and corrupt, and Abbas recently walked away from negotiations with Israel, according to Jordanian officials who helped organize the talks. Hamas is devoted to Israel’s physical destruction -- not ideal for a negotiating partner.
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear Iran. He is a powerful prime minister, but his right-leaning coalition, still dependent on the settlers and their supporters, could thwart even modest compromise, especially in the absence of a compelling Palestinian partner.
Still, there is something Netanyahu can do: He can have an honest conversation with the Israeli people about the consequences -- military, moral and demographic -- of the settlements. And he can contemplate a notion advanced by a growing number of the country’s security experts: a unilateral pullout of some settlers from the most distant reaches of the West Bank.
“Unilateralism” has a bad name in Israel, given that the country’s pullout of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 led to a Hamas takeover. But a unilateral departure from the West Bank could be carried out in slow motion, and in a way that leaves the Israeli army in place until negotiations resume in earnest.
A pullout of settlers would signal to the Palestinians that the Netanyahu government is serious about compromise. It would show the world that Israel is not interested in being an occupying power forever. And it would show Israelis that their government is interested in finally winning the Six-Day War.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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