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1967: The war that never ended

Dana Regev DW-Englisch Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Dana Regev
June 5, 2017

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Allegedly, the shortest war in Israel's history. But de facto, it continues to this very day, writes DW's Dana Regev.

Israel Sechstagekrieg 1967 Mosche Dayan in Jerusalem
Image: AFP/Getty Images

The events leading to the Six-Day War didn't leave Israel with much doubt: Egypt had blocked the Straits of Tiran, a move defined as casus belli; Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai, to which Israel reacted with a broad reserves draft; increasing tensions with Syria over control of water sources - all this led Israel to attack Egypt on June 5, 1967.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol didn't want to attack first, as the international community - and the US in particular - made it clear that the first to shoot would carry full responsibility for the consequences.

But the upper military echelon protested, claiming that victory was possible only if Israel initiated the campaign.

"If we are forced into a state of defense we would lose the only advantage we have, which is initiation, and determination of facts on the ground," said Knesset member Moshe Dayan, who would soon be appointed defense minister.

"Only if we attack first do we have a chance to achieve something," he added, according to newly released protocols from top-secret government meetings.

Judging by Israel's immense conquests and the crushing defeat of the Egyptian air force, one must admit that he was right militarily. But politically? A resounding failure.

The war may have lasted for six days on paper. But in reality its seventh day has lasted 50 years. Occupation, annexation and control over some of the world's holiest sites have not only escalated the conflict, but marked the turning point in much of the world's view on Israel: from David to Goliath.

Complete euphoria

Dana Regev
Dana Regev is an Israeli journalist who lives in GermanyImage: DW/M. Müller

On the Israeli side, the atmosphere prior to the war was defined by annihilation. "People who were 50 or 60 at the time felt like the Holocaust was chasing them," Yaron London, an Israeli journalist who was a young radio reporter during the war, told Israeli media.

"They felt like this project called Israel was about to end - this time for good."

The political leadership was seen as weak and obsequious, while the military pushed for an immediate attack. Top commanders went as far as calling Eshkol a "lobbyist" who was begging for approval from the superpowers.

Under extreme public pressure and after the green light from the US, the war started.

On the first day it was already clear that Israel had the upper hand. But what started off as a "necessary evil" soon turned into complete euphoria over conquering the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

'We will become a ghetto'

A minority of ministers and activists warned: "The Arabs will not go away."

Eshkol voiced his concern, claiming that "a military victory will not be the end." Minister of Education Zalman Aran asked: "Say we conquer Jerusalem - when will we give it back, and to whom?" adding that Israel "will suffocate in the West Bank."

"In times of global decolonization, who would accept this?" asked Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, referring to Dayan's suggestion to have a "self-governing regime" by the Palestinians, "with military control by Israel."

"We are done with the Zionist project. We will become a ghetto," Shapira said - but in vain.

Israeli troops guard captured Egyptians and Palestinains
Israeli troops capturing Egyptians and Palestinians in Rafah. 'In times of global de-colonization, who would accept this?'Image: Getty Images/GPO/David Rubinger

The conquests were most likely based on a gut feeling rather than on a diplomatic vision. In fact, a few months prior to the war, an official paper concluded that annexing the West Bank would be a terrible idea.

But while historians are still debating whether Israel simply jumped on the opportunity to conquer territories or planned the annexations in advance, one thing is clear: Its leadership was naive at best - if not delusional.

A 50-year-old crossroads

Israel is far from being the only player in this campaign, but it is also no longer under threat of extinction.

It has a remarkably strong army and is capable of handling terror - not without casualties, but without fearing for its future. If anything, it is standing at a 50-year-old crossroads - a "temporary situation" which has lasted to this day - far longer than it should have.

Just a week ago, Israel received an offer from the Jerusalem Waqf - the Islamic custodian of the Temple Mount - that might help ease tensions over the holy site and return to the status quo. But experts say the government is likely to reject it, since it has no apparent reason to make any steps toward compromise.

However, it is clear that no future political deal will ever be reached without a compromise on Jerusalem - and Israel knows that.

Moreover, almost no one even thought about annexing East Jerusalem 50 years ago, and those few who dreamed of it were deemed zealots. It is therefore astonishing that today even the smallest concessions on Jerusalem are categorically rejected.

Until Israel reaches a deal with the Palestinians, the Six-Day War won't really be over. It has cold-yet-stable peace agreements both with Egypt and Jordan. Now is the time to take further brave measures.

Israel should initiate peace negotiations, not only stand idly by. But all the more so when an actual offer lands on the table - like the one from the Jerusalem Waqf. Israel should invest everything within its power to execute it.

Not only for the sake of millions of Palestinians, but also - and perhaps primarily - for the sake of Israel's own dwindling democracy.