Goldberg: Six-Day War still without end

$altText Photo Credit: TMS illustration by M. Ryder/

advertisement | advertise on newsday

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the question remains: Which side will win?

Yes, many people are under the impression that Israel already won. The first phase of the war -- which began with Israeli strikes on the Egyptian air force and ended with Israel in possession of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- represented an unambiguous military triumph.

But it's an open question whether the seemingly endless second phase -- occupation, failed peace negotiations and Jewish settlement of the West Bank -- will lead to Israel's ultimate defeat.

The original occupation of the West Bank was justified. Jordan, which then ruled the territory, had used the West Bank to fire on Israel, and Israel's seizure was an act of self-defense. Israeli leaders searched for Arab interlocutors who would negotiate withdrawal in exchange for peace. They found none. That's when the logic of settlement began to take hold.

Some Israelis quite literally saw the divine hand guiding their army to victory. Noting that Israel had taken possession of the biblical heartland, these religious nationalists succumbed to ecclesiastical temptation and agitated for Jewish settlement of these territories. Successive Israeli governments gave in to their demands.

Forty-five years later, the settlements -- in particular those planted deep in the West Bank -- are obstructing the emergence of a Palestinian state, and have brought Israel low. A country that was founded to give homeless people a home now seems indifferent to the demands of another people for a home of their own.

It is more complicated than that, of course. For one thing, the Palestinians have done a terrible job of bringing about their own independence. Their leaders have squandered opportunities to negotiate a comprehensive treaty with Israel, and their long detour into terrorism, while gaining fame for their cause, did nothing to convince Israelis they were interested in compromise.

Lately, though, Palestinians have stumbled on a more effective method of fighting Israel: waiting. In the not-too-distant future, the number of Arabs under Israeli control will equal the number of Jews. The Palestinians will then simply demand the vote. Many Arabs already vote in Israel, but the Arabs of the West Bank don't. Their neighbors in the Jewish settlements do have a vote, and this already strikes much of the world as unfair. It is only a matter of time before Israel finds itself the target of a broad international campaign to grant these Palestinians the right to vote.

Then Israel's government will be forced to make a choice: Give up the settlements, or give up the idea of a democratic Jewish homeland.

It's clear time isn't ripe for a comprehensive peace treaty. The Palestinians are divided into two warring camps -- one led by Hamas, the other by Fatah -- that continually threaten to unite, and then fail to do so. The more moderate Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is weak and corrupt, and Abbas recently walked away from negotiations with Israel, according to Jordanian officials who helped organize the talks. Hamas is devoted to Israel's destruction -- not ideal for a negotiating partner.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear Iran. He is a powerful prime minister, but his right-leaning coalition, still dependent on the settlers and their supporters, could thwart even modest compromise.

Still, there is something Netanyahu can do: He can have an honest conversation with the Israeli people about the consequences of the settlements. And he can contemplate a notion advanced by a growing number of the country's security experts: a unilateral pullout of some settlers from the most distant reaches of the West Bank.

"Unilateralism" has a bad name in Israel, but a unilateral departure from the West Bank could be carried out in slow motion, and in a way that leaves the Israeli army in place until negotiations resume in earnest.

A pullout of settlers would signal to the Palestinians that the Netanyahu government is serious about compromise. It would show the world that Israel is not interested in being an occupying power forever. And it would show Israelis that their government is interested in finally winning the Six-Day War.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote this for Bloomberg View.

You also may be interested in: