This is the week where every analyst and commentator on the Middle East, let alone on Israel, writes about the substantive legacy of the Six Day War fifty years later. I myself have already done so in two other places, so rather than write yet another argument about 1967’s legacy, I thought I’d write an argument about the argument, which is that the debate over whether the legacy of Israel’s victory and its occupation of the West Bank is a positive one or a negative one is itself pointless.
The arguments over 1967 are well-tread territory, and that they have become particularly heightened this week as the war’s anniversary is upon us makes them no less familiar. There is the camp that celebrates Israel’s incredible victory over its foes in what was undoubtedly a war of necessity. Not only did Israel smash its enemies and establish a measure of deterrence that it had never previously enjoyed, the capture of Jerusalem and the Biblical heartland were causes for genuine and legitimate jubilation. Even if you are not a member of the religious Zionist camp that views 1967 as a major step in the Jewish people’s redemption from millennia of exile, the idea of Jewish sovereignty throughout the land of Israel and particularly over Jerusalem is a powerful one.
On the other side, there is the camp that largely sets Israel’s victory aside and views 1967 through the lens of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. For this group, this week marks half a century of an illegal occupation of another people and their land, and is the anniversary of the beginning of an ethical disaster that tramples Palestinian rights and degrades – or entirely negates – Israeli democracy. Any good that came out of the Six Day War, either in terms of Israel’s security or Jewish religious rights to pray at holy sites previously closed to them, is outweighed by the injustice still being done to the Palestinians.
These dueling narratives about 1967 and how to treat it are, to my mind at least, misplaced in one very important way. The first group wants to treat 1967 by the standards and circumstances of fifty years ago and use it to justify what Israel does today. The second group wants to treat 1967 by today’s standards and circumstances to condemn what Israel did fifty years ago. Both of these are wrong ways to look at the situation.
The Six Day War should not be judged by what is the case today, but by what was the case in 1967. There is no country on Earth that would have acted differently from Israel in seizing the opportunity to deal nearly fatal blows to surrounding countries that literally treated Israel as a mortal enemy as they were massing for an invasion on multiple fronts. There is no country on Earth that would have won the victory that Israel did and then returned the captured territory for nothing in return. There is no country on Earth that would not jump at the opportunity to control its majority population’s holy places, particularly after being excluded from them. Not to stand in Israel’s 1967 shoes is to not understand what Israel faced at the time and how its actions fifty years ago were entirely rational and eminently defensible.
By the same token, Israel’s situation in 1967 should not be used to justify what Israel does today. The fact that Israel had real cause to worry about its survival fifty years ago is not relevant to a world in which Israel has the region’s most powerful military by orders of magnitude, a presumed nuclear deterrent, peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and is no longer threatened by Arab armies on its borders. It does not mean that Israel’s security is perfect, that it does not still have to contend with Palestinian terrorism, or that it could – or should – withdraw from the West Bank tomorrow. But using the 1967 frame to argue for what Israel should or should not do today is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty.
Furthermore, intertwining the events of June 1967 with today’s situation in Israel and the West Bank creates the illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily driven by the events of fifty years ago, or that righting the historical wrongs that were born from those events will solve today’s issues. The gearing up on all sides to seize the anniversary’s opportunity to litigate how 1967 is remembered and framed makes the Six Day War and its aftermath more important than it actually is. I do not mean to downplay the significance of Israel’s achievement in the war or to downplay the seriousness for the Palestinians of their continuing statelessness under Israeli military rule. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on both sides primarily a function of 1948; the drivers of today’s morass – without implying equivalence of morality or blame – are the general Palestinian refusal to acknowledge that 1948’s consequences are permanent, and the general Israeli refusal to acknowledge that what Palestinians demanded in 1948 are not what they demand today. 1967 compounded these problems but it did not create them, and reversing some of 1967’s more damaging consequences will mitigate the stalemate but will not end it.
We would all be better off if we separated June 1967 from policy debates over what path Israel should now take. It is undeniable that the actions Israel took fifty years ago and the consequences of those actions for Israel and the Palestinians reverberate half a century later. That is how history works. But whether you think this week’s anniversary is a cause for celebration or a cause for despondency – and the appropriate answer is both and neither – it should not impact how you feel about 2017. Israel’s actions at the time were on balance the right ones to take and should be judged on their contemporary merits. Israel’s actions today pose real problems that they did not pose fifty years ago, and should be judged based on today’s circumstances. Let us by all means reflect on how the Six Day War changed the Middle East and the world, but our collective time would be better spent leaving it in the past when arguing about how the Middle East and the world should operate today.