Forty, the Talmud teaches, is the age for understanding. Twenty is an age for hot-blooded quest, and 30 is the age of force and power. By 50, we are expected to be imparting and accepting wise counsel. Forty is the turning point: the age of understanding, the time, as it were, for the light to break through, for the boldness of youth to start giving way to thoughtfulness and stocktaking.
Next Tuesday, June 5, marks the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, the lightning 1967 campaign by which Israel rescued itself from what seemed certain annihilation. Much has been said and written in the decades since then — about the euphoria of victory and the quickly dashed hopes of Arab acceptance, about the never-ending threat of Palestinian terrorism, Israel’s quest for peace and its need to survive by force of arms. Much has been said, too, about the seemingly miraculous return of Judaism’s holiest shrines, the unification of Jerusalem, the mystical quest for redemption of Greater Israel and the forceful collision of rival nationalisms.
Four decades of quest and dreams and force and violence. Now, at 40, it is time for understanding. What are we to understand?
First, the simple fact that 40 years have passed. This is not a mere statistic. Israel has been an independent state for nearly 60 years. For two-thirds of that time, it has lived in the continuing aftermath of that long-ago war. It was, in a sense, a six-day war whose seventh day has lasted four decades.
These 40 years mean that Israel has lived fully two-thirds of its existence as a military occupier of disputed territory, ruling over an unwilling population of millions of Palestinian Arabs who are not its citizens, who have no clear rights and who largely wish it ill. Two-thirds of its existence has been spent in a tug of war with the rest of the world as Israel created enclaves for its own citizens in the territories under its military rule, provoking unanimous international condemnation, inflaming the local Palestinian population and bitterly dividing its own citizenry. Two-thirds of its existence has been spent training the best of its youth to be, in effect, prison guards.
Less obviously, the war marked a turning point in Israel’s quest for peace with its neighbors. Before 1967, Israel sought nothing more than peace and recognition of its right to exist. Right after the war, realizing that it now had something with which to bargain, Israel announced its readiness to return captured territories in return for the long-sought peace. Almost immediately, however, it qualified the offer. It annexed the eastern half of Jerusalem and began to create Israeli settlements in the holiest and most emotionally fraught spots on the West Bank, starting with Hebron and Gush Etzion. Over the next 40 years, those holdings grew, and with them the conditions and caveats of Israel’s intentions. In effect, Israel spent the first third of its existence seeking in vain nothing more than peace and recognition, and the second two thirds of its existence hedging the offer.
Even less obvious, those 40 years can themselves be divided precisely in half. The first two decades, beginning in 1967, were a time of hope among Israelis and their closest supporters that the occupation could be benign, that familiarity might lead to some form of neighborly coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. The second two decades, beginning in 1987, have been decades of open revolt — first one intifada and then a second, more violent intifada, punctuated only by the halting, ill-fated attempt at national reconciliation known as Oslo.
Put differently, Israel has spent one-third of its 60 years of statehood as an idealistic young pioneering society, embattled but widely admired; one-third as a reluctant occupier crying out for recognition and peace, and one-third locked in a violent death grip with a neighbor that it cannot live with and cannot separate from.
Many foolish and wicked words have been spoken over the years about Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza. The occupation has been called, over and over, the world’s most serious human rights violation, as though the mass slaughters in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda or the rape of Zimbabwe were mere trifles. It has been called, repeatedly, an “illegal occupation,” even though Israel captured the territories in war and remains the legal occupier, under the Geneva Conventions, until their final disposition is determined in negotiations. Israel may have violated specific provisions of the Geneva Conventions in its execution of its duties, most egregiously the explicit ban on settling citizens of the occupying power in the occupied zone. But violations do not make the occupation itself illegal.
On the other hand, they do help to make Israel very unpopular in some critically influential circles. There are many, in Israel and around the world, who look at these turbulent 40 years and call the Six Day War a pyrrhic, poisoned triumph, “Israel’s wasted victory,” as The Economist termed it this week. Much of the criticism is motivated by rank bigotry. Still, looking at the cold, hard facts of Israeli-Palestinian relations today — including the steadily deteriorating conditions of Palestinian life — it is hard to deny that the criticisms hold some truth.
Even so, it is only half the truth. The other half of the Six Day War’s legacy is a 40-year period of steadily widening circles of recognition. The war touched off a chain of events that led, painfully but inexorably, to the formal recognition of Israel by Egypt in 1979, by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, by Jordan in 1994. Finally in 2002 came a promise of recognition by the entire Arab League, all 22 states, if Israel will agree to some severe compromises. The united front that existed before 1967 of Arab determination to destroy Israel has gradually been transformed, in the aftermath of that war, into a united Arab effort to find some form of coexistence.
The reasons for this thaw are not hard to discern. Israel’s 1967 victory dealt a crushing blow to Arab military confidence. This led to a sense that destroying Israel was not an achievable goal — and, eventually, that coexistence was the only meaningful alternative.
Solidifying that Arab drift toward accommodation was Israel’s growing alliance with America. Before 1967, Washington saw Israel as little more than a distant, minor drama. Following the 1967 victory, Israel became a military and strategic asset to be cultivated and nurtured. Successive administrations showered Jerusalem with weapons and cash. Prodded by Jewish organizations, Washington adopted a policy of near-total diplomatic solidarity with Israel. In Arab capitals, America’s show of support had the effect of dispelling any last hopes of destroying Israel. And so, with time, Israel’s original post-1967 offer to return the captured territories in return for recognition and peace began to look like an attractive deal.
But is the offer still on the table? Israelis look at the Arab side and see tottering regimes that could not keep their side of the deal as Islamic rage sweeps the streets. Arab leaders look at Israel and see a nation dug in, reluctant to part with the assets it holds and unwilling to face down the messianic radicals among it in return for a faintly remembered dream of peace.
What hope, then? Only this: that the alternative is chaos that will consume all around it in a whirlwind of destruction, and that is no alternative at all. The Israeli government and people — battered, uncertain and embittered though they may be — must reach out to the weakened, uncertain, angry regimes around and begin to talk. They must talk and talk and talk until they come to terms. The age of grand dreams is long gone. The time for force is at an end. Now is the time for wisdom.