Six Days: Twenty-three years later

An Israeli perspective

By , Yaakov Levy is consul general of Israel to New England.

THIS month marks the 23rd anniversary of the Six-Day War of 1967. Today the focus in the Arab-Israeli equation is on the Palestinian aspect. However, when Israelis confront the Palestinian question their point of departure is the wider circle of Arab-Israeli relationships. Are Israelis mistaken when examining the Palestinian issue through this wider prism? We think not. When Israelis examine the Middle East arena searching for a counterpart they are confronted with many Arab actors. One stands out boldly: Egypt, which made peace with us over a decade ago. Differences which still exist between us are ironed out by ambassadors at the bargaining table or through arbitration. In the past they were settled on the battlefield. Egypt is the exception in the Arab world.

So much attention has been focused on marginal and sensational elements of Arab-Israeli relations that some basic tenets have been overlooked. Even 23 years after the 1967 war there is not one additional Arab state that is willing to meet and sit down with Israel as a nation or with individual Israelis. Arab citizens of every nationality are welcome to visit Israel. No Israeli citizen may set foot on Arab soil, for whatever reason, except in Egypt. Would it not be a more forthcoming policy on behalf of the Arab states to open their borders to Israelis as individuals, to let them come and see the Arab nations, meet their people, and dispel stereotypes, thus reducing fear and mistrust?

When Israelis consider concessions to Palestinians in order to address their grievances, they have in their minds the implications of such concessions as far as the rest of the Arab world is concerned. Could not territorial concessions be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the eyes of many Arab nations and invite them to continue their struggle against Israel from more advantageous borders? The concessions demanded of Israel are different in nature from those the Arabs are expected to make. We are asked to make concrete steps: surrender land the Arab nations lost when they launched the 1967 war, and carve out new borders, a step the Arab neighbors resisted between 1949 and 1967.

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All these steps are tangible and measurable. The concessions demanded of the Arab side are intangible. Words, statements, and signatures on documents. Because of the tangible and irreversible nature of the concessions we are called upon to make, should not very careful consideration be given to Israel's reluctance to give up important elements of her security, especially at a time when some of her adversaries are resorting to very explicit threats?

At the recent Arab summit meeting at Baghdad, the Libyan leader vowed to turn Israel into a cemetery. The host of the summit, Iraq's president, warned that he would set half of Israel on fire with the chemical weapons he has acquired and used against segments of his own population. When Israeli leaders weigh the risks and opportunities of peace with Palestinians, they have to take into consideration the attitudes and policies of the Arab states that have positioned themselves on the Palestinian's side and might participate in any future conflict.

Israelis are asked to be ever alert to Palestinians' concerns and sensitivities. Is not the reverse equally imperative? Recent Arab and particularly PLO and Jordanian reactions to immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel is a case in point. Even those Israelis who are most attuned to Palestinian concerns, and there are many of them, are aghast at the insensitivity displayed toward Jews immigrating to Israel. We have heard calls upon the USSR to stop immigration, threats against airlines that may carry them to Israel and against the immigrants themselves, even before they have left the Soviet Union.

The recent Arab threats against immigration go to the heart of what is most dear to Israelis. The state of Israel was founded to offer a safe haven to Jews in peril. Arabs have opposed immigration since the 1930s when Jews became endangered under the Nazi regime. The reason then and now was not the question of whether they would settle in a particular area, as some claim. Few Soviet Jews select to live in areas under dispute. Most have opted to live in Tel Aviv and the coastal plain.

When Israelis address the Palestinian issue, they are unable therefore to address it in isolation from these more far-ranging aspects. When the wider Arab-Israeli environment is less threatening, more conciliatory, and open to these considerations and equally legitimate Israeli concerns, Arabs will find Israelis more forthcoming and magnanimous. When the focus of a gathering of Arab leaders is on confrontation and threats to immigration (as at the recent Baghdad summit), is it surprising that Israelis would be suspicious and more concerned with their own security?

Could not a series of Arab steps contribute to the change of such an environment? For example: open borders for Israelis to come and visit, end the threats to immigration of Soviet Jews, eliminating the 44-year-old economic boycott of Israel, the termination of cross-border raids from Lebanon and the sea, and an end to the placing of bombs in marketplaces in Israel.

Once some of these steps are taken, would it not be more conducive for Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians to sit together and try and reconcile their hopes and concerns in order to enable them all to mark the 24th anniversary of that war in peace and harmony?

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