Alan Silverstein

Senator Sanders: Here Is Why ‘The Occupation’ Has Lasted Since 1967

Senator Bernie Sanders has been a long-time advocate of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Yet he appears in a photo proudly holding a sign with members of IfNotNow, reading “Jews against the Occupation.” Since presidential aspirant Sanders blames Israel alone for the diplomatic stalemate, he is being targeted as a potential ally by IfNotNow. IfNotNow’s stated objective is “to bring the crisis of the Israeli military Occupation over the Palestinian people to the forefront of the 2020 campaign.” IfNotNow does not affirm the existence of Israel as a Jewish State within any borders whatsoever.

Senator Sanders, please do not undermine efforts to achieve two states, one Jewish and one Arab, living side by side in peace and security. Do not succumb to a one-sided narrative! Please keep in mind the history and context of the conflict.

Here Is Why “The Occupation” Has Lasted Since 1967

What Is “Occupation” in International Law?

Land acquired in unjust warfare [a war of aggression] is characterized as “occupied territory.” This has been the case in China’s conquest and continued occupation of Tibet since 1950, Turkey’s conquest and occupation of one third of Cyprus ever since the early 1970s. Russia’s conquest and occupation of Crimea in 2014 and so forth.

Land acquired in a just war [self-defense] is “disputed territory,” a negotiating basis for restoring a stable peace.

Was Israel the Aggressor in 1967, Seeking the Conquest of More Land?

No! Israel did not seek additional territory. Israel faced an imminent war of aggression in the spring of 1967. Egypt and Syria had unified their military command. In May, they closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, cutting off the trade lifeline of the Jewish State. They imposed a blockade of the port city of Eilat and expelled the UN Emergency [peace-keeping] Force. These steps qualified as a casus belli, a declaration of war. They were accompanied by a massing of hundreds of thousands of Arab troops, poised “to drive the Jews into the sea.”

As noted by Daniel Gordis in his recent volume, “A Concise History of Israel”:

“The situation was dire. The Egyptians had at least 100,000 troops and 900 tanks in the Sinai. To the north, Syria had readied 75,000 men and 400 tanks, while the Jordanians had amassed 32,000 men and almost 300 tanks. In total, Israel faced a potential force of 207,000 soldiers and 1,600 tanks.”

“Israel prepared for the worst. Rabbis across the country cordoned off areas to be used as mass graves. The Ramat Gan stadium was consecrated as ground for the burial of up to 40,000 people. Hotels were cleared of guests so the facilities could be used as massive emergency first-aid stations. Schools were converted into bomb shelters, there were daily air raid drills.”

Was Israel Justified in Launching a Pre-Emptive Strike in Self-Defense?

After weeks in pursuit of failed diplomatic resolution to the conflict, Israel launched a Just War [self-defense]. The IDF fended off the would-be Egyptian and Syria attackers, as well as Jordanian aggressors once Jordan subsequently opened an eastern front to the battle.

After six bloody days and many casualties on both sides, a UN cease-fire was imposed. The Israeli armed forces marched into the Sinai desert, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza, as well as the former Jordanian sector of Jerusalem.

Israeli leaders were unwilling to return the status quo of 1948-67 of no peace treaties, constant terror and periodic military assaults. They saw the captured land as a bargaining chip in gaining long-sought recognition and stability.

Did Israel Offer to Trade Land for Peace?

Nine days after the ceasefire took effect, the Knesset rushed to return “land for peace” to both Egypt and to Syria in exchange for a final peace. The Israeli overture was rejected by both countries.

The Arab League met and built upon these rejections. They answered with the infamous “3 No’s” — “no negotiations, no recognition, no peace.”

Did the UN Insist Upon Israeli Unilateral Withdrawal by Israel in the Absence of Peace?

No! The UN Security Council met and issued Resolution 242. The Resolution offered a formula to deal with “disputed territory” in the context of a final peace agreement. Resolution 242 called upon Israel to relinquish “territory” acquired (specifically rejecting the phrase “all” territory or identical territory) in exchange for comprehensive treaties that would yield “defensible borders” and an end to all claims against the Jewish State.

NOTE: Resolution 242 stipulated that Israel transfer land only in exchange “for peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

Israel responded in the affirmative to 242, immediately seeking to negotiate treaties, but to no avail.

The Jewish State remained determined to pursue the trade of “Land for Peace,” Israel subsequently relinquished 85% of the territories in exchange for Treaties with Egypt and Jordan, as well as within a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza [see below].

Was Israel Justified in Holding on to the Remainder of the Disputed Territory Pending a Final Peace?

International Jurist Stephen Schwebel researched and reported upon legal principles governing the acquisition of land in a war of self-defense.

Schwebel explained that:

a) A State acting in lawful exercise of its right of self-defense [e.g., Israel] may seize and occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary for its self-defense

b) As a condition of its withdrawal from such territory, that State [Israel] may require the institution of security measures reasonably designed to ensure that the territory shall not again be used to mount a threat or use of force against it of such a nature as to justify exercise of self-defense

c) Where the prior holder [e.g., Jordan] had seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegally in 1948, the State [Israel], which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against the prior holder, better title.”

Has Israel Made Reasonable Efforts to End “The Occupation” and Achieve a Two-State Solution?


A breakthrough occurred 10 years later. In 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid a surprise visit to the Knesset, shattering the wall of distrust. He partnered with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and concluded a peace treaty two years later. Israel withdrew from 100 percent of the Sinai, three-quarters of all the land Israel had acquired in June 1967.


A second milestone took place in the mid-1990s. Under the diplomatic cover provided by the Oslo Peace Process, King Hussein accepted a peace treaty with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Once again Israel relinquished disputed border territory (11.5 square miles) claimed by a neighbor in exchange for peace, an “end of all Jordanian claims” against the Jewish State.


On the Syrian front, President Bill Clinton’s negotiating team brought peace within reach. In his memoir, the United States’ lead negotiator, Dennis Ross, affirmed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to relinquish all Golan Heights territory taken in 1967. Ross assumed that a peace agreement was imminent. To his dismay, Ross recollected that, “[Syrian President] Assad was dismissive [of Barak’s proposal] — and for the first time in the history of the process, Assad stated that [in addition to the Golan Heights] ‘the [Sea of Galilee] has always been our lake; it was never theirs.’” Once Assad demanded that Syria be given a portion of the Sea of Galilee, negotiations collapsed. Today, Syria has become a client state for Iran, Israel’s implacable enemy.


In 2005, encouraged by promises of support from President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He uprooted 8,000-plus Israeli settlers and withstood vociferous opposition by the Religious Zionist camp. President Bush’s argument was two-fold: presented with a territory and an economy to administer, the Gazans would moderate their behavior. Bush also assumed that a magnanimous Israeli gesture would evoke sustainable good will throughout the world. Regrettably, Gaza became more hostile than ever. Initial global good will rapidly dissipated.


As for the West Bank, back-channel Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in 1992 led to eight years of diplomacy. Israel accepted the parameters of the final 2000 Clinton Plan for Peace. Yasser Arafat did not. Arafat refused to surrender his demand that millions of Palestinian refugees be resettled inside pre-1967 Israel, bringing an end to an independent Jewish State. As a frustrated President Clinton reflected in his memoir, “Arafat never said no [to peace]; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes.”

The Israeli effort to diplomatically resolve the dispute resurfaced in 2008. Condoleezza Rice’s memoir confirms that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s bold territorial proposed concessions. These recommendations were even more generous to the Arab side than the Clinton Plan had been. Rice was amazed by how far the Israeli leader was willing to go. Olmert was prepared to give up nearly the entire West Bank, with equivalent land swaps between the parties. He also offered to divide Jerusalem, internationalizing the “Holy Basin” in the Old City. Rice brought Olmert’s proposal to Abbas in Ramallah. Abbas rejected it. Similar to Arafat, Abbas told Rice that the PA could not agree to a deal that prevented nearly four million Palestinians from being able to “go home” into pre-1967 Israel.

Diplomatic efforts resumed in earnest in March 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry formulated a “memorandum of agreement” outlining US parameters of a final peace. In early 2015, while campaigning for election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dovish electoral rival, Tzipi Livni, chair of the Israeli negotiating team of 2014, offered her assessment to journalist Roger Cohen. While she “acknowledged that dealing with Netanyahu on the talks had always been difficult,” Cohen wrote, “from her [Livni’s] perspective, the Palestinians caused the failure at a critical moment. On March 17, [2014], in a meeting in Washington, President Obama presented Mahmoud Abbas with a long-awaited American framework for an agreement that set out the administration’s views on major issues, including borders, security, settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. Livni considered it a fair framework. Netanyahu had indicated willingness to proceed on the basis of it, even while saying he had reservations. Abbas declined to give an answer in what his senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, later described as a ‘difficult’ meeting with Obama. Abbas remained evasive on the Kerry framework.” To this day, Abbas’ reply has not been received.


Senator Sanders — blame for the decades of diplomatic stalemate ought not to be placed upon the Jewish state alone.

At numerous points in time, Israel has been the proactive partner, awaiting reciprocity from Palestinian leadership. Peace requires both parties to agree to direct negotiations and to a spirit of compromise.

The goal remains the forming of two states for two people, one Palestinian and one Jewish, living side-by-side in peace and security.

One-sided chastising of Israel simply encourages Palestinian intransigence. It reduces the likelihood of a worthy outcome.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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