Fifty years. More than half of them, many more, have been years of acrimony. Was the Six-Day War just a great triumph—or a triumph whose consequence is grave devastation? Was it worth it? Pick the facts that support your viewpoint: The 1967 war resulted in overconfidence that brought about the 1973 war; the 1967 war convinced some Arab leaders that Israel was no longer weak and that removing it by force was not a realistic option; the war enabled Jews to settle the more important regions of its ancient homeland; the war put Israel in charge of territory occupied by Palestinians.
Most anniversary discussions of the 1967 war and its consequences are going to focus on the hot-button item on this list: Israel’s half-century of control over the lives of Palestinians. Indeed, it is a worthy and a thorny issue. Palestinians in the West Bank are less miserable than many of their brethren in neighboring Arab countries. Still, as Israel perpetuates the status quo, it must put forward a convincing case as to why it cannot better their situation and possibly end the era of Israeli control over their lives.
To make things more complicated, such a case exists. Security needs, regional circumstances, Palestinian rejectionism—all make the status quo, with all of its imperfections, an option currently more appealing than other options. But that’s the case for the status quo today, not for—or against—the Six-Day War. The case against that war would be: Had Israel not occupied so much territory in 1967, had it not decided to keep this territory rather than evacuate it, its current situation would be better. The case for it would be: Had Israel not had such a great victory 50 years ago, its situation today would be worse.
Is this a tough question? It is—because one never knows what could or would have happened had a certain action not taken place. It isn’t—for the same reason. One never knows what could or would have happened if something else had happened differently. Thus, all we have are the facts before us. Fifty years later there is a morally and operationally troubling ongoing conflict with the Palestinians under Israel’s control. But also: Fifty years later Israel is stronger, economically and militarily; larger in territory and people; has better relations with some of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan; has tighter relations with its ally, the United States; and has a much higher standard of living.
Would Israel be better off today had it decided to evacuate the West Bank immediately after the war? Maybe, maybe not. It might easily have been worse, or just about the same, or slightly better on one front (no occupation of Palestinians) and slightly worse on another front (no incentive for Jordan to avoid the next war). Would Israel be better off today had its victory not been so decisive and indisputable? Maybe, maybe not. It might have been worse, or just about the same, or slightly better on one front (the Arabs would not have felt a need to launch the 1973 war) and slightly worse on another front (Israel would have had no territory to trade for a peace with Egypt).
There can be no doubt: 2017 Israel is different from 1967 Israel. And the Six-Day War was the catalyst. It made Israel more visible on the world’s stage as a power to be reckoned with. It gave it a shot of confidence. It boosted the connection of Israel with world Jewry. It forced Arab countries to rethink their long-term strategy. It convinced the United States that a bond with Israel would serve its interests. It also had less positive consequences. There was something about smaller Israel—so I am told, as I was born a year after the war—that was lost. Israel today is less intimate, more materialistic, less naïve, more contentious.
On balance, then, was the victory at war an achievement to celebrate or a result to mourn? As disappointing as it is for those wanting to make the 50th anniversary of the war a time for cheshbon nefesh—Hebrew for spiritual accounting, or an accounting of the soul—this is impossible to know. We can’t always look at the result of a certain action—the war, the victory, the occupation of land—and assume that the result of the opposite action would have been better.
The 50-year mark, then, is not much more than a manufactured opportunity for political activists to lay out their arguments, most of them well-rehearsed in advance. Is post-1967 Israel a country changed for the better or for the worse? We can have the debate, if we want. But it is not necessarily a very helpful debate, as the alternative post-1967 futures will be ever unknown to us.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based contributing writer for the International New York Times, the political editor of the LA Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.