Six Days That Shook Mideast: A Pivotal War Reverberates
On 30th anniversary of Six-Day War, Israel asks: Was the price of victory too high?
TEL AVIV — Thirty years ago, Col. Meir Pi'el was deputy commander of a Sinai desert battalion fighting what was widely seen as a battle for the very survival of what was then the 19-year-old state of Israel.
But as the anniversary of the Six-Day War approaches this week - with the fanfare befitting a victory that allowed Israel to alter the map of the Middle East and ensconce itself as a regional power - the retired colonel decided to skip the military reunion for his division.
Maybe some of the old comrades he fought alongside would not be there.
But more important, Colonel Pi'el is still ambivalent about how, or whether, to celebrate the spoils of the 1967 war, which pitted neighboring Egypt, Jordan, and Syria against the Jewish state - and left Israel occupying territories that formerly belonged to each of those Arab foes.
Pi'el is among the many Israelis who are still grappling with questions of whether the Six-Day War brought a Pyrrhic victory whose heavy price Israel continues to pay as the many core problems of the Middle East conflict remain unresolved.
"I was and I still am proud militarily of our performance, but I am sad that our leaders didn't succeed in creating a political peace out of it," says Pi'el, a vocal advocate of territorial compromise and head of the Defense Research Center in Tel Aviv.
'Blessing or curse?'
A three-day conference at Tel Aviv University last week summed up with a symposium entitled "The Six-Day War: The Blessing and the Curse."
The theme seems to embody the sense among some here that Israel's postwar occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been a corrupting burden that weighs heavily against the gains of June 1967.
"The question of was it a blessing or a curse? Did it bring peace or did it prolong it? The copyright of this title belongs to Yitzhak Rabin," says Anita Shapira, a historian chairing the conference held at a university center named for the late prime minister.
"This was his saying, because he was well aware of this dubious blessing," Professor Shapira says.
In addition to taking the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria, Israel took in Palestinians from Jordan who did not want to be part of Israel and to whom Israel could not afford to offer citizenship if it was to maintain a Jewish majority.
Settlement as solution
A solution to that dilemma was quickly advocated by Israelis who saw the hand of God in the return of the Jews to their biblical homeland, which is predominantly in the West Bank, not the land of Israel proper.
They argued for intensive settlement of the land, and found backing for their goals with military hawks who argued that maintaining the occupied territories was key to Israel's security and would help make room for more immigrants.
But critics of that policy see it as one that has only complicated Israel's quest for peace. Many of them also point to the Six-Day War, which ran from June 5 to June 10, 1967, as the birth of a new messianic nationalism that would produce the deep schisms that plague Israeli society today.
Birth of nationalism
"From the political and cultural point of view, the messianic trend that started with the direct contact with the land of the forefathers brought about a change in the national mood, a very aggressive and very troubling change," Shapira says.
Israel as a ruler
It was also the turning point in which Israel went from being a nation with a tenuous future to one that could stop living in fear that the Arab states might realize their threat to "drive the Jews into the sea," she says.
But this change had an effect on Israeli society that dismays its elders.
"Twenty years later, a new generation came into being, for whom Israel ruling another people is taken for granted and the territories are considered part of Israel, and they don't know a different reality," she adds. "These territories were pledged to be returned as soon as peace arrived, and now they have become a hindrance to peace."
Still reason to celebrate
Such self-criticism, of course, is not to say that Israelis won't mark the war's anniversary this week with festive events.
Indeed, most Israelis view the war as a great national triumph and are especially nostalgic about their emotional reunification with the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem's Old City, the holiest site in Judaism.
The capture of East Jerusalem and the Old City - until then in the hands of Jordan - will be commemorated this week on Jerusalem Reunification Day, June 4.
Among all the territories Israel gained control of in 1967, Jerusalem is the one Israelis feel most strongly about retaining under their sovereignty.
An Arab embarrassment
Naturally, Israelis are not the only ones who will be reflecting on the war whose aftermath still defines the Middle East conflict. The Arab states have very different interpretations of the war and see Israel as having acted as the aggressor with the backing of the United States.
But because of the embarrassing defeat of their armies, much less emphasis is put on the war. Herman Eits, who was US ambassador to Egypt from 1972 to 1979, says the war remains a somewhat off-limits subject.
"It was distasteful to talk about it," says Dr. Eits, now a professor of international relations at Boston University.
A 'new consciousness'
For the Palestinians, the war was also a crucial factor in the re-emergence of their national independence movement.
The West Bank Arabs who had been Jordanian subjects and suddenly found themselves without citizenship were united behind a new consciousness of themselves as "Palestinians."
Mohammed Muslih, a Palestinian academic at Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y., says that a few years after the war Palestinians began to give up on the hope that Arab armies would rebuild themselves and undo the war's outcome.
"There was a feeling that the Arab governments were too busy fighting each other to deal with the Palestine question," he says.
"Before 1967, the focus was on Arab unity. Until then, no one had discussed the future of Palestine as a serious question, no one had a clue what we would do after it was liberated."
Did both sides gain?
Optimists say that both peoples might ultimately have gained something from the Six-Day War. Israel won land with which to barter for peace, and brought Israel's Arab neighbors to the negotiating table with the promise of a more prosperous and secure future.
Says Shapira: "Ironically, had there been no occupation, we have to wonder if the peace process would have happened."