Fifty years ago this week, the young state of Israel faced the threat of extermination — a second Jewish Holocaust in a single century. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser stated candidly what he and other Arab leaders envisioned. “Our basic aim will be the destruction of Israel,” he said.
“High time to destroy the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland,” echoed Hafez Assad, Syria’s minister of defense, later to become its dictator. Added Iraqi President Abdul Salam Arif: “Our goal will be to wipe Israel off the face of the map.”
Their confidence was justifiable. Not only did Arab forces vastly outnumber those of Israel, they also had five times as many tanks and more than four times as many planes. On May 31 1967, a cartoon in Al Jarida, a Lebanese newspaper, showed a figure with a large, hooked nose and wearing a Jewish star standing on the edge of a ship’s gangplank. Eight cannons point at him. Labels in Arabic identified them as the guns of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Algeria.
The war began on June 5. Three days later, in the Egyptian newspaper, Al Goumhourya, another cartoon showed three intertwined serpents — one with an American flag, one with a British flag and one with a Star of David. A bayonet is being plunged into the Israeli snake. The caption reads: “Holy War.”
But on June 10, that war came to a sudden end. Those who had intended to exterminate the Israelis were soundly defeated. Yitzhak Rabin, then chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, later to be prime minister, gave the conflict a modest name: the Six-Day War. President Nasser called it al-Naksa, the reversal.
In other ways, too, it soon became clear that this would not be the last war fought to annihilate the re-established homeland of the Jewish people. On Sept. 1, at an Arab s summit in Khartoum, a resolution was passed proclaiming what became known as the “Three No’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.
Nevertheless, some Israelis thought the outcome of the war presented a unique opportunity to resolve what was then known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. They had taken the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan from Syria. Perhaps they could trade these territories for an end to hostilities.
The principle of “land for peace” would be formally established in U.N. Security Council 242, passed in November 1967. Eventually, the Israelis did withdraw from the Sinai in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt.
Over the decades to come, a “two-state solution” appeared the obvious answer to what became known as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And on several occasions, the Israelis made specific offers of statehood to Palestinian leaders. Each time, however, those leaders declined, putting no counteroffers on the table.
And in 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon embarked on a bold experiment. Despite vehement domestic opposition, he withdrew from Gaza based on this simple theory: If the obstacle to peace with the Palestinians was Israel’s “occupation” of territories the Palestinians wanted for a state of their own, giving up one of these territories should ease tensions and, over time, lead to meaningful progress.
The experiment failed. Within two years, Hamas, an Islamist terrorist group and branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, had taken control of Gaza and begun firing missiles into Israel. A blockade of Gaza was the response to those and subsequent attacks — not the cause.
Despite this history, some of President Trump’s longtime friends are now advising him that he has a unique opportunity to broker “the ultimate deal” — a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. They point out that the Middle East is changing. The Sunni Arab states are threatened by Shia Persian Iran, which has troops in Iraq and Syria, supports Houthi rebels in Yemen, and both finances and instructs Hezbollah, the most powerful militia in Lebanon. The Islamic State, al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadi groups present a danger as well.
The rulers of the Sunni states also are smart enough to recognize that Israelis would never put a missile on their breakfast tables without cause. Why not get those states to press the Palestinians to negotiate, offer concessions and, finally, resolve the conflict?
The problem with this theory is that it does not overcome the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a successful peace process. Among them: Hamas regards every inch of Israel as “occupied territory” and, more significantly, as an endowment from Allah to the Muslims. It is not conceivable that Hamas would or could recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist.
As for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he, too, has declared that he cannot accept Israel as the sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people. That inconvenient fact notwithstanding, might he make the compromises necessary to ensure that the West Bank, following an Israeli withdrawal, would not become another terrorist haven — this one within mortar-range of Israel’s largest population centers and international airport? And were he to exercise such leadership, would a critical mass of Palestinians follow?
If, as I believe, the answer to both questions is no, President Trump would be wasting precious time and political capital attempting to do anything more — at this moment — than mitigate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A half-century ago, Nasser’s dream of destroying Israel was deferred. The sad truth is that it persists. Until that changes, a serious and enduring peace will remain out of reach.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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