What would Israel look like today if Jordan had not attacked Israel during the 1967 war? On the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, with the persistent questions about the meaning, necessity and ethics of Israeli control over the territory acquired as a result of that 1967 attack, it is incumbent on us to consider these questions and their relevance today.
If Israel had not acquired the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a result of the Jordanian attacks, would Israel’s security have remained at risk in the ensuing decades? What have been the consequences of that Jordanian attack for Israel’s culture, its ideals and its democratic character?
Before speculating on the counterfactual, it is worth remembering how Israel’s decision to preemptively attack unfolded. Israel faced imminent threat of invasion by multiple armies that threatened its destruction. Israelis were building mass graves in anticipation of the invasion; the economy was at a standstill for three weeks while reservists — who, together with active military personnel, constituted a significant percentage of the country’s 2.5 million people — were mobilized. Appeals to the United States to break the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran were ignored. After trying to avoid war and failing, Israel attacked rather than risking the grave consequences of waiting.
Israel informed Jordan that if it refrained from attacking Israel, Israel would not attack Jordan. However, Jordan was constrained by a military alliance with Egypt. Egypt misled Jordan into believing that Egypt was winning the war and encouraged Jordan to attack. Jordan shelled west Jerusalem and, in response, Israeli commanders chased Jordanian forces out of east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
While the necessity of Israel’s preemptive strike is widely accepted, its decisions during the war and beyond are the subject of continuing debate. Immediately upon declaring a cease fire, Israel offered, in return for peace, the West Bank to Jordan, Gaza and the Sinai to Egypt, and the Golan to Syria. Had these countries not rejected negotiating with Israel, peace may have been concluded 50 years ago.
On the other hand, had Israel not acquired these lands, then even the steps toward peace that have been made — incomplete as they have been — might not have been accomplished.
“Land for peace” generated Israel’s peace treaties with its neighbors. Without these territories as leverage, Egypt and Jordan may not have concluded peace agreements with Israel in 1979 and in 1994, respectively; Syria may not have tried to negotiate peace deals; the Palestine Liberation Organization may not have abandoned its goal of destroying Israel; and the Arab League may not have offered normalization with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders.
Perhaps all of Israel’s neighbors would have continued to reject its existence in the region. One could also argue that it was the devastating defeat of 1967 and 1973 that deterred its neighbors from attacking again.
In addition, one might argue that Israeli success in 1967 — including the seizure of these disputed areas — was decisive in leading the United States to view Israel as a strategic ally against the Soviet Union and its client states in the region. Before 1967, U.S. support of Israel at times vacillated; after Israel proved itself in the 1967 and 1973 wars and demonstrated its strategic value, the U.S. would provide billions in military support. It is possible that, had Jordan not attacked, and had Israel remained in the 1967 borders, U.S. support would not have been so certain. It is possible that future wars, against adversaries supported by the Soviet Union, without the buffers of the Golan, the West Bank and the Sinai, may have even imperiled Israel’s existence.
So one might argue that if Israel had not been attacked by Jordan in 1967, Israel might in the medium term have been less secure. However, Israel’s occupation of Palestinians in newly acquired territories came at an enormous cost, and the victory in ’67 might even be considered a pyrrhic one. Two generations of Palestinians have suffered under Israeli control and still do not exercise self-determination (which was also lacking under Jordanian and Egyptian control), and Israel’s ability to live up to its ideals has been eroded.
Tensions between Palestinians and Jews living within the 1967 border have been exacerbated. Israel’s legitimacy in many parts of the world has been undermined. Perhaps in trying to assure its security, Israel lost part of its soul.
Israel’s decisions today are no less vital than during the 1967 war. Three Israeli governments — that of Rabin, Barak and Olmert — have recognized the urgency of withdrawing from the West Bank for peace, and all made serious offers to end occupation and establish a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and most of east Jerusalem. Israel today must regain the urgency, creativity, flexibility and courage with which Rabin, Barak and Olmert tried to attain a peace agreement.
A continuing occupation threatens Israel’s existence as a place where Jews can exercise self-determination in a democracy just as much as the looming threat of multiple armies did in 1967.
Enabling Palestinians to exercise their rights to self-determination will garner greater international affirmation for Israel’s own legitimate right to self-determination. Being attacked by Jordan in 1967 might paradoxically have made Israel more secure in the medium term; similarly, giving up most of the West Bank and east Jerusalem with land swaps might now paradoxically make Israel also more secure.
Let’s hope that 50 years from that dramatic turning point, Israelis achieve peace with the Palestinians and so many members of the Arab League, finally concluding the land for peace deals originally envisioned in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Yael Aronoff is the Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Chair in Israel Studies and the director of the Michigan State University Jewish Studies program.