As changes in the Middle East continue to unfold today, this week’s 50th anniversary of a war that changed the region’s landscape may be more than just a history lesson. It offers insight into today’s complicated situation.
Egypt and Jordan have penned peace agreements with Israel, contrary to popular perception, largely as a result of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. Both nations have accepted Israel as a legitimate, independent Jewish state. In seeking peace today, the challenge lies with other players in the region, including the Palestinians, to do the same.
Fifty years before that war, recognition of the right of the Jewish people to live in their historical homeland was declared and adopted by the precursor to the United Nations. Nevertheless, the international legal and moral endorsement of Jewish rights in the land has always been rejected by the majority of Palestinian Arab leadership.
In 1947, the UN adopted a partition plan to create two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. The Jews agreed to the plan, but the vast majority of the Arabs vowed never to recognize a Jewish state in their midst and rejected the deal. A war of terror began the night the resolution was passed.
When Israel declared its independence on May 14 1948, the Arab states surrounding Israel declared a war of annihilation, and invaded the fledgling state. After fierce fighting, a ceasefire agreement was reached. The ceasefire lines acted as de facto borders between Israel and neighboring Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon – but the Arab states still refused to seize this opportunity to recognize the Jewish State. Israel was admitted to the UN.
From 1949 until 1967, the eastern part of Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied by Jordan, while the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt. Jews were expelled from Jordanian-controlled territory, including from the Old City of Jerusalem. Every synagogue was bombed and desecrated. Although the ceasefire agreement guaranteed access to all holy sites, Jews were prevented from visiting the places most holy to them.
No effort was made to establish a Palestinian state in the areas controlled by Jordan and Egypt after the 1948 war. The goal, instead, was to wipe out Israel. This was the raison d’etre of the Palestine Liberation Organization, founded in 1964 “to achieve through armed struggle the liberation of Palestine,” i.e. to destroy the state of Israel in its pre-1967 borders.
In 1967, another war of annihilation against Israel began. Surrounded by hostile Arab nations that made no secret of their intention to destroy the Jewish state, Israel fought for its existence. Against all odds, Israel prevailed and gained control of the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai desert (which it later relinquished in exchange for peace with Egypt).
For the first time since Israel’s independence, Jews now had access to Judaism’s holiest sites and historical landmarks in Jerusalem. Israel tore down the concrete wall that had split the city for 19 years and transformed Jerusalem into a city serving all its diverse residents – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Since 1948, Israel has strived for peace with its Arab neighbors; this desire is enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. At the end of the 1967 War, Israel announced that it was prepared to negotiate and compromise for peace.
The Arab response was once again a full-fledged rejection, the famous “Three Nos”: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.”
Since then, Egypt and Jordan have extended their hand, accepted Israel, and signed peace treaties in 1979 and 1994. President Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan made courageous decisions to end their nation’s conflict with Israel.
Israel continues to extend an olive branch to the Palestinians as it did in 1948 and 1967. Peace will come when the path to achieving its goals comes not through hatred, violence and rejection of Israel, but rather through real negotiation, recognition, respect and coexistence.
Aviv Ezra is Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, based in Chicago.