You can’t turn back the clock

Suppose in June 1967, after the smoke had cleared from the war, Israel, citing its reluctance to rule over a large Palestinian population, had decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including all of East Jerusalem except the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and the Wailing Wall. What new reality would it have then confronted?

We can assume that Jordan’s King Hussein, fortified by this decision, would have returned with his army and security services to rule the West Bank. The Gaza Strip, cut off from Egypt by the Israeli occupation of Sinai, might have come under the rule of a few prominent families and remained dependent on United Nations support to feed its huge refugee population.

What would have been the ensuing course of events in the Middle East? Would Israel, having more or less satisfied King Hussein’s condition for peace (total withdrawal), have then developed good relations with Jordan? Would Yasser Arafat’s Fateh movement have been allowed by Hussein to launch attacks against Israel from the West Bank? Would Jordan’s large Palestinian majority have, in the course of the ensuing years, taken over the Hashemite Kingdom? If so, would it have then targeted Israel? Would the Egyptian and Iraqi forces that entered Jordan in 1967 to fight Israel have remained, or gone home? Would Gaza have disintegrated into terrorism and anarchy? How would these and additional developments have affected the ensuing wars and peace process with Egypt and Syria? Would Israel’s own Palestinian citizens have become as radical as they are today? Would anything like the Gush Emunim settlement movement have emerged, with its huge influence on the course of events?

Obviously, the moment we make a single hypothetical supposition regarding the events of 1967–in this case, immediate and unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza–we are flooded with unanswerable questions that point to a multitude of possible new decision-making crossroads in a hypothetical history. Perhaps things would have been better; perhaps worse. You can’t turn back the clock on history.

But our very capacity to pose such fateful questions reflects the dramatic role the Six-Day War played in the region’s history, particularly with regard to Israeli-Palestinian relations. I was a young first lieutenant in IDF Intelligence at the time. Two memories stand out.

I recall standing with a group of fellow officers on a hilltop overlooking the Allenby Bridge, which was partly submerged in the Jordan River after having been bombed during the war. The war had ended a few days earlier, and Palestinian refugees were streaming across the battered bridge, bundled possessions on their backs. "Let them go, the more the better, it’s for the best", said my commanding officer, a veteran of 1948. "No, we’ll regret this," I offered. But who was I to argue with him?

A second memory was the anticipation of Russian and American intervention. That had been the pattern of the two previous wars, in 1948 and 1956, when the great powers of the day had forced Israel to withdraw from its wartime conquests in Egypt and Lebanon back to the international borders. One reason those refugees were crossing the Jordan River was because Israel, in its haste to lock onto a few ostensibly strategic territorial conquests in Jerusalem and the Latrun and Qalqilya areas and "create facts" that might withstand international pressures, had quickly bulldozed some homes and villages, then thought better of the idea and stopped.

But this time the great power intervention never came. By the time UN Security Council Resolution 242 was passed in November, the Arab League meeting in Khartoum had said "no" to peace, recognition and negotiations. For better or for worse, we were stuck with the territories we had occupied or "liberated" back in June.

For better (and here we are again speculating about alternative histories), in the sense that Egypt would probably not have made peace with us had we not occupied Sinai. Even the Asad family of Damascus might never have considered trying to negotiate peace with us had we not, to this day, occupied the Golan. On the other hand, Egypt under Sadat was apparently ready for some sort of accommodation with us by 1972, and had we not been blinded by our conquests we could have entered into negotiations and possibly saved nearly 3,000 Israeli lives in October 1973.

For worse, in the West Bank and Gaza. While we cannot know what our relationship with the Palestinian people would have been had we withdrawn right away–one could argue, for example, that without the pressure exerted by the settlements the PLO might never have sought to negotiate a two-state solution–it is clear that occupying several million Palestinians has been very bad for Israeli society, for Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state and for Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors and the world.

The ideological settlers of the West Bank would undoubtedly argue the benefits for the Jewish people of our return to our biblical heritage in Hebron, Shiloh and Elon Moreh. Nor should the strategic security advantages of our military presence in the Jordan Valley and our intelligence presence on a few West Bank mountaintops be taken lightly.

Yet it is clear to most of us today that the damage of occupying the West Bank and Gaza far outweighs the heritage and security benefits. That insight is a good sign, however slow in coming. It took us only 40 years to get here.