Anniversaries have a way of sneaking up on you. Amazingly, it has been 40 years since the outbreak of the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors on June 5, 1967. It seems like a very long time ago -- another era, really -- and yet the seeds of today's standoff in the Middle East were sown in that one, hot, incredible week in June.
My memories of it are as vivid as if it was last week. I had arrived in Jerusalem 10 days before the war as a newly-assigned and breathtakingly-green foreign correspondent for The New York Times. I covered the battle for Jerusalem, the rout of the Arab Legion on the West Bank and the Israeli drive up the Golan Heights. Then I turned to report on the devastation in the Sinai.
Israel's victory was complete: in less than a week, her armies defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria and captured some 26,000 square miles of territory, roughly three times the size of pre-war Israel.
Since then, politically at least, everything has changed, and nothing has changed. The world is still dealing with the consequences.
When the guns fell silent, some 1.3 million Palestinians awoke under Israeli occupation. That occupation continues to this day. It has been a disaster for both sides, as corrosive to the morale and morals of the occupier as the occupied. It remains what it has always been: an agony for the Palestinians, a costly, demeaning headache for generations of Israelis, an enormous obstacle to peace and the source of deep bitterness between the two peoples.
But it wasn't that way initially. In the weeks after the war, Israelis and Palestinians were intensely curious about each other. Especially in divided Jerusalem, they had lived within sight and sound of each other for 19 years, separated by a United Nations-patrolled no-man's land.
As soon as they were able, Israelis from West Jerusalem poured into the east, not only to visit the Western Wall and other holy places that had been inaccessible for two decades, but in search of bargains. Everything was cheaper in the former Jordanian sector, and Israelis flooded the shops in the Old City, snapping up imported electronics, appliances and souvenirs. I remember that carved, wooden camels were a particularly hot item.
Commerce, the great leveler, was doing its job and in the process, Israelis were discovering the quiet pride and dignity of their neighbors and the Palestinians were finding that, contrary to their pre-war image, Israelis were not 10-feet tall. It was not Camelot, not love at first sight, but some friendships were made, some barriers fell and a lot of long-held myths were shattered.
Had there been a serious move towards a peace agreement then, in those first weeks after the ceasefire, there were people on both sides ready to go along. Many if not most Israelis assumed from the outset that the newly-occupied lands would be exchanged for peace. Many Palestinians expected that they would win their own state in any settlement.
On the diplomatic front, Israel's foreign minister, Abba Eban, was calling for direct negotiations with the Arab governments.
"There are two possible maps," he told me and other reporters gathered in a conference room in West Jerusalem on August 14, 1967. "There is the ceasefire map as it exists today and there is the new map of the Middle East which could be achieved only by a peace settlement."
The Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, famously said he was "waiting for the phone to ring" from Cairo, Amman and Damascus. Everything seemed possible. Indeed, after such a total and devastating victory, only the status quo seemed unsustainable.
But the window of opportunity did not remain open for long. Dayan's phone did not ring. The Arab leaders remained defiant in defeat. In the street, the war was commonly referred to as "an-naksah," or "the setback." A setback? No one is prepared to give away the store -- in this case, recognition of Israel -- after a mere setback. A defeat, maybe, but not a setback.
And many Israelis began to question whether it made sense to return the territories. The land provided strategic depth that Israel lacked before the war. On a human level, Israelis simply became accustomed to having the West Bank as their enlarged backyard. After all, it was nice to take the family for a drive on Saturday to Ramallah or shop for a few bargains in Bethlehem.
Of course, nothing stands still in that part of the world. Before long the first zealous Jewish settlers began to set up rump outposts in the West Bank and on the Golan. For them, this was the biblical eretz Israel, or greater Israel, and they were determined to keep it.
When I asked Dayan what he and the government intended to do about these settlers, he smiled indulgently, waved his hand and said, "If we can negotiate peace with the Arab governments, believe me, the settlers will be no problem."
Today, those few pesky settlers number 250,000 in 120 government-sanctioned settlements throughout the West Bank. Another 180,000 Israelis live in the high-rise communities that encircle the annexed eastern half of Jerusalem. Along with the 16,000 settlers on the Golan Heights, they constitute a formidable, hard-line force in Israeli politics. It will not be easy to dislodge them, nor for the Palestinians to accept them as neighbors.
Four decades of occupation have hardened hearts on both sides. Young Israelis who have served in the Army on the West Bank have grown understandably bitter after being stoned and shot at. Palestinians who have had their homes blown up, their towns divided by the security wall and their roads choked with checkpoints are understandably angry.
That brief, hopeful period of good feeling that followed the 1967 war has evaporated. Those few months when peace seemed likely and shopping rather than shooting was the major interaction between Israelis and the Palestinians on the West Bank are a distant memory. Deep-seated animosity has replaced it on both sides.
But that moment of opportunity, that few months when Israelis and Palestinians were talking to each other, not shouting at each other, is worth recalling on the anniversary of the start of the war, even if it is but one of the many squandered opportunities over the last four decades.
TERENCE SMITH, is a former correspondent with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He served as bureau chief in Jerusalem for The New York Times for five years.
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