Today marks 50 years since the Arab nations that encircled Israel united to cleanse the region of the Jewish State that had been born 19 years earlier. In a stunning turn of events, Israel drove back their combined armies and more than tripled its land mass, leaving it in control of over one million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren observes that wars in history also become wars of history. Many regard the 1967 war as the beginning of a disastrous Palestinian occupation that has plagued the region for half a century. Others celebrate the war’s reunification of Jerusalem and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Judaism’s holiest site.
During my tenure at Israel’s Mission to the United Nations, I encountered an almost obsessive focus with the former among members of the international community. There exists an absolute conviction that if Israel would just dismantle the settlements, it would solve its conflict with the Palestinians and bring about widespread regional stability.
Then, as now, I am surprised by the adamance that Israel’s political and strategic choices are clear or simple; a presumption that the only reason its leaders don’t do the “right” thing is that they are either stubborn or misguided.
If Israel knew that it could secure a durable peace with the Palestinians as did with Jordan and with Egypt, it would do so tomorrow. The primary impediment, however, is the absence of a partner with the will and authority to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. The Islamist Hamas group controls the Gaza Strip, while the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is the prevailing power in the West Bank. Neither can rightly claim to speak for the Palestinian people.
Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, is hardly a viable partner. Its newly released policy platform reinforces its refusal to recognize Israel and calls for “resistance to occupation, by all means and methods.”
That leaves the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. He is deeply unpopular with his people and has, on half a dozen occasions, sought to forge a unity agreement with Hamas. If this doesn’t offer insight into his willingness to embrace the existence of the Jewish state, consider that the Palestinian Authority allocates $300 million, or about seven percent of its annual budget, in payments to convicted terrorists and their families. It refuses to pay for the electricity that Israel supplies to Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, but blood payments to murderers of Israelis continue unabated.
In the absence of a legitimate and determined partner for peace, ceding territory can prove perilous. Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip created vacuums that Hezbollah and Hamas respectively seized as launching pads to wage war against Israel.
Israel finds itself in the world’s most volatile and dangerous region. The Islamic State remains firmly entrenched in Iraq and Syria. Iran continues to be the chief sponsor of global terrorism. Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian collapse, rivaled only by Syria, where almost half a million people have been killed and millions more have fled to neighboring states that don’t have the resources to adequately support them. Lebanon hasn’t had a functioning government in years and its dominant political force, Hezbollah, has an arsenal of 100,000 sophisticated rockets and missiles.
When it comes to Israel, it’s not about borders and it’s not about territory. It’s about the very character of the Middle East, and whether a region beset by extremism and intolerance can accept the presence of a small Jewish and democratic state.
The settlements have become a red herring. The very word conjures different images to different people, from a handful of caravans on a hilltop to large cities with tens of thousands of people. Yet nuance and distinction are largely absent from the debate.
About 4% of Israeli citizens live in the settlements. Of them, 80% live in blocs near the Green Line, covering about five percent of the West Bank’s territory. Given their size and proximity, it is widely acknowledged that the blocs will be retained by Israel in any peace agreement with the Palestinians, in exchange for equivalent land swaps.
There is little question that the status quo is easier on Israelis than Palestinians, but the anti-Israel narrative that has been cultivated around the settlements is an assault on truth and a distraction from the real problems plaguing the Middle East. It’s far easier to level accusations at a democratic state than to expect anything from its repressive neighbors.
Fifty years on, it’s time to set the record straight. Peace requires willing leaders and compromise on both sides. Israel has proven its readiness. If the international community wants to advance peace, it must convince the Palestinians to end the incitement, renounce violence, and accept the vision of two states for two peoples.