As we mark the 50th anniversary of the longest military occupation in modern history, some are celebrating. It is fully appropriate that these celebrations will include a joint session of the US Congress and the Israeli Knesset, held via video link. For Israel’s rule over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights is only made possible by the constant support it has obtained since June 1967 from successive US administrations. This is therefore not solely an Israeli occupation: Since the very beginning, it has in fact been a joint undertaking, an Israeli-American condominium, if you will. If the various forms of violence necessary to maintain alien rule over what are now nearly 5 million people have been administered entirely by Israelis, the financial, arms, and diplomatic weight behind them has been mainly American.
The degree to which American support is the sine qua non of this 50-year occupation can be seen from the difference between how the Johnson administration and its successors treated Israel’s 1967 conquests, and how President Eisenhower reacted to those of the 1956 war. In that earlier case, the US reaction was unequivocal and forceful. Only days after the Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt, Washington pushed through a UN resolution demanding that Israel withdraw unconditionally and immediately from the occupied Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. Under powerful American pressure, Israel grudgingly did so six months later.
As an 18-year-old on June 9, 1967, I myself was witness to one indication of how much things had changed since 1956. On the fourth day of the war, I was sitting in the visitors’ gallery of the Security Council (my father worked for the UN Secretariat and I was home from college). I watched US Ambassador Arthur Goldberg stall for hours to prevent the council from forcing Israel to stop its seemingly inexorable advance toward Damascus. In spite of successive Security Council cease-fire resolutions, and thanks to such tacit US support, that advance did not stop until the following day.
Worse was yet to come. In contrast to the days that passed before it acted in 1956, the United Nations took over five months to come up with a resolution to deal with the situation created by the 1967 war. When it did so, on November 22, 1967, Security Council Resolution 242 was inspired essentially by the desiderata of Israel, with the indispensable support of the United States. Resolution 242 was far from unconditional: Indeed, it made Israel’s withdrawals from the areas its forces had just conquered conditional on the achievement of “secure” boundaries, which has proven to be an infinitely flexible term in the Israeli lexicon. This flexibility has permitted 50 years of delay where occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories are concerned. Moreover, in its English version, 242 did not call from withdrawal from all the land taken in the June war, but only from “territories occupied” during the conflict. With ample American backing, Israel has driven a coach and horses through that seemingly minor gap.
Other language in 242, such as the passage stressing the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” can be seen as balancing those major concessions to the Israeli position. However, which parts of 242 are really important is indicated by the planned joint session of Congress and the Knesset, on top of 50 years of American complaisance about an occupation that in practice is underwritten by American money, arms, and diplomatic support. This is an occupation, incidentally, that the Israeli government denies exists, and that President Trump did not see fit to mention once by name during his recent visit to Palestine and Israel.
One additional crucial point about 242 is worth mentioning. The original conflict in Palestine was a colonial one between the indigenous Palestinian majority and the Zionist movement as the latter tried to achieve sovereignty over the country at the expense of, and ultimately in place of, that majority. The nature of this conflict had been recognized in part in the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 181 of 1947, which called for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The former was to have been larger than the latter, although at that point Jewish land ownership was under 7 percent of the total, and Arabs constituted 65 percent of the country’s population, and in principle had the absolute right of self-determination in the entirety of what they reasonably still considered their country.
Resolution 242 represented a regression even on this low-water mark for the Palestinians. The Palestinians are not mentioned in the text of the 1967 resolution, nor are their rights to statehood and to return to their homes and possessions, which had been confirmed by previous UN resolutions, all of them supported by the United States. Instead, there is a bland reference to “a just settlement of the refugee problem.”
Haughtily ignoring the indigenous population and its rights and interests is in fact a typical colonial maneuver, one that has set the stage for an Israeli colonial-settler enterprise that has thrived for 50 years in the occupied territories. It goes without saying that this has taken place with full US support, accompanied by tepid criticism. British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour engaged in the same maneuver a century ago, never mentioning the words Palestinian or Arab in his famous November 2, 1917, declaration promising British support for a Jewish “national home” in a Palestine that then had a 94 percent Arab majority.
In similarly ignoring the Palestinians, and giving Israel what it wanted, Resolution 242 thus constituted a diplomatic revolution that was entirely favorable to the newly expanded Israeli regional superpower. Drafted by British Ambassador Lord Caradon—who reprised the British role of slighting the Palestinians—and pushed through by the United States, this resolution has become the benchmark for Arab-Israeli peace. In view of its perverse genesis, it is no surprise that this misbegotten resolution has not produced peace but instead has been the fig leaf for an unending military occupation of Syrian and Palestinian lands.
The scene I watched in the Security Council on June 9, 1967, was only one sign of a major shift in US policy championed by President Johnson and his enthusiastically pro-Israel advisers, including Clark Clifford (who had been instrumental in advising President Truman to support Israel in 1947 and 1948), Arthur Goldberg, McGeorge Bundy, Abe Fortas, and the brothers Walt and Eugene Rostow. They and others had ensured that before the June war Israel received a prior American green light for its first strike on the Arab armies, as it had failed to do in 1956 at the time of its Suez adventure together with Britain and France. Several of these advisers were influential in brokering what eventually became Resolution 242.
By 1967, Israel had already begun to get some US arms deliveries, although it won the war of that year mainly with French and British weaponry, as it had in 1956. In the wake of its crushing 1967 victory, Israel became a major Cold War ally, commencing a much closer relationship with the United States against Arab states that were aligned with the Soviet Union. In time, this alliance has become more intimate than that with any other country, with military aid soaring to over $1 billion per year after 1973, and at over $4 billion annually today (this aid is going to a relatively rich country, one with a GDP per capita of nearly $35,000). Since 1967, Israel has been cosseted by the United States, whether its actions served or harmed US interests. This intimacy has reached the point that politicians of both parties compete with one another in proclaiming that they will allow “no daylight” between the positions of the two countries.
Notwithstanding the celebrations of this unity of views between the American and Israeli establishments about support for the continued occupation and colonization process in Palestine, a day of reckoning is on the way. There are harbingers everywhere. Already the Democratic Party is torn between its blindly pro-Israel old-guard leadership and a younger and more open-minded base that can see what is actually happening in Palestine. The resolution passed on May 21 by the California Democratic Party is a sign of the times. It condemns the failure of successive administrations, in spite of mild criticisms of the occupation, to take “actual steps to change the status quo and bring about a real peace process.” It goes on to criticize Israel’s “illegal settlements in the occupied territories,” and calls for a “just peace based on full equality and security for Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike,” as well as “self-determination, civil rights and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.”
Fifty years on from the euphoria in Israel and Washington that accompanied the beginning of the occupation, the rise of a different spirit can be discerned on college campuses, among younger people—including among many young Jewish Americans—minorities, some churches, synagogues, academic associations and labor unions, and among the grassroots of the Democratic Party. There is naturally a potent and well-financed counter-offensive against this awakening, which has traction with the Trump administration and the leadership of the Democratic Party and is echoed in much of the mainstream media. It can be seen at its most frantic in the attempts to shut down debate via unconstitutional anti-BDS bills in statehouses all over the country (19 of them already enacted into law), as well as in Israel’s banning of the entry of supporters of BDS and its laws targeting Israelis supporting BDS.
But while these measures will have some impact, they cannot for long repress the revulsion that Israel’s policies have produced among so many Americans and others around the world. External support has always been a crucial factor in the struggle over Palestine. In the first decades after the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist enterprise could not have been successful without the crucial support of Great Britain. Similarly, Israel could not have maintained its occupation for 50 years without American support. The almost hysterical reaction to the growth around the world of serious critical responses to Israel’s military occupation of Arab lands and to its colonization enterprise shows that Israel’s leaders and its supporters in the United States are fully aware of these new realities. The tragedy is that it has taken almost 70 years since the 1948 war and 50 years since 1967 to get even to this point, and we are only at the beginning of the path toward full equality, self-determination, civil rights, security, and economic well-being for Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike.