Israel may have won the war in 1967, but it was still looking for recognition.
Israel has won the war, but there is little jubilation in Tel Aviv today as all eyes focus intently upon the more difficult battle for peace that lies ahead. Israel’s pride in the dramatic force, the amazing swiftness with which it destroyed the Arab ring of steel, bursting the bubble of Nasser’s threat of “obliteration,” is muted by two sobering considerations. The more immediate curb on celebration here is the price in human life paid for this national breathing spell. In so small a nation, so intimately integrated, few families could feel themselves remote from the front, or escape the tragedy of battle. In longer range, the Israelis perfectly understand that the other side of the victory coin they have stamped out in Sinai is the bitter humiliation of Nasser. Whatever may be said here concerning Nasser’s military skill, no one underestimates his pride. Born itself from the ashes of Hitler’s holocaust, Israel is not unconscious of the revivifying potential of humiliation and defeat. Naturally, every Israeli hopes that Nasser and his allies are capable of learning a lesson from the disaster that struck them in June, but some fear that the utter humiliation may only fan fresh flames of Arab hatred. Israel has not been lulled by victory into a mood of deceptive self-confidence.
The crucial problem confronting Israel at present is how to secure national integrity without future fighting. It hopes to retain strategic outposts captured in Jordan and Syria, as well as the Old City of Jerusalem, but fears that its startling display of military strength will in itself undermine world support for the claim that such positions are essential to its continued existence. No one speaks of attempting to remain permanently in Sinai or in the vast bulk of land taken from Jordan. Any such occupation would overextend Israel’s army and place an impossible burden upon its economy. Israelis have no desire to repeat the errors of Western Europe’s 19th-century imperial expansionism. Even if they had the resources, they express no wish to maintain martial rule over the more than 1 million Arabs living in the borderland regions their armies have overrun. What they do want is unequivocal recognition by each of their neighboring states, full and open acceptance of their national status in consonance with its reality. They insist, moreover, that international force assure them that no life line as vital to Israel’s survival as the Strait of Tiran be arbitrarily closed to them again.
Modest as these demands may seem after the spectacular victory, the Israelis recognize that neither goal will be easy to win. They fear that in the world debate oil interests and Afro-Asian votes will seek to deprive them of the advantage they have won in battle. Their anxiety today stems from recognition that in the world’s council chambers they remain virtually alone. Israelis are convinced that, until peace treaties are signed, Egypt and Syria will continue to divert their impoverished populations from the complex problems of internal development by raising the cry of “liberation for Palestine.” Diplomatic recognition would relieve the claustrophobic feeling of isolation and apprehension, and Israel is ready now to establish contacts at every level of diplomatic, economic and cultural activity with all of its Arab neighbors. People with whom I have spoken are convinced that once such relations are launched the walls of hatred, mistrust and fear will begin slowly to crumble, and through them will pass roads of cooperation and mutual respect, if not friendship.
These recent weeks have taught Israel many things, not only about itself but about its place in the eyes of the world. U Thant’s capitulation of May 19 to Nasser’s demand just one day earlier that UN troops be withdrawn from the borders cannot be understood by Israelis in any terms other than betrayal. The hypothesis that U Thant surrendered in order subsequently to strengthen his bargaining position in Cairo is even less acceptable to the Israelis than it had been to Americans. Given the personality and professed goals of Egypt’s ruler, Israelis ask how any rational mind could have failed to realize that Nasser would be emboldened to increasingly aggressive action. Despite the green light from U Thant, however, few Israelis can believe that Nasser would have been capable of so supreme a level of self-deception as to think that he could beat Israel if he had not counted on firm support from Russia. Pan-Arab unity was forged with Russian support and, though it desperately appealed to the United States, Britain and France, Israel found itself alone.
The transformation of Near Eastern power has given Israelis the confidence to think in terms that were hitherto impossible. Some speak, for example, of creating a “Palestine Nation” out of the borderland regions of Gaza and those conquered from Jordan. Until now, the “refugee” problem could never have been openly discussed here as a nationalist movement of Palestinian people. It may still be impossible to gain support from any of the governments involved for the creation of a state of Palestine next to the state of Israel, yet this may ultimately prove to be the only way in which the “refugees,” used for the past nineteen years by Egypt, Jordan and Syria as saboteurs against Israel, can be persuaded to settle down to peaceful pursuits. With a homeland of their own, Palestine Arabs could regain their pride, and though Israel could not be expected to return any of the land it claims, it might he willing to pay compensation, or at least to help its neighbor in the early years. Whether Eshkol, Nasser, Hussein, or leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization itself would seriously consider such a scheme remains to be seen. The significance of its unofficial articulation here is the evidence it shows of Israel’s intellectual flexibility and creative endeavor now to force a truly permanent peaceful settlement.
Whatever solution is reached among the nations of this troubled region, Israel knows that at least its immediate workability must depend upon the joint efforts of the great powers. Russia’s break of diplomatic relations is recognized here as a sop to Nasser, and Israelis hope that the pragmatism of Russia’s long-range international policy will prevail over present-day Arab partisanship.
Naturally, Israel looks to the United States for strong diplomatic support. The general disappointment felt here at our failure to take a firm stand on the crisis caused by the closing of the Strait of Tiran is tempered by Israel’s faith in our often reiterated commitment to its national survival. The heat wave of popular sympathy for Israel’s plight that rolled across America has also been a source of hope, and helped counterbalance Washington’s official position of cool neutrality. Yet Israel will not soon forget that when the chips were down and the wheel of Near Eastern destiny began its perilous spin toward war, the United States of America left it to stand alone.