The United States and the legacy of the 1967 war
There is still a scholarly debate about whether the United States gave Israel the “green light” to launch the 1967 war.
US President Lyndon Johnson, bogged down in the costly Vietnam War but seeing Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as a pro-Soviet threat to the region, supposedly urged caution to the Israelis. He told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who was visiting the White House in late May 1967, not to fire the first shot and he (Johnson) would do all he could to get the Gulf of Aqaba (which Nasser had closed) open to Israeli shipping, but if war were to take place, Israel would easily defeat the Egyptians.
On the other hand, when the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Meir Amit, went to the Pentagon in the first days of June and told US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara that he was going to recommend war to the Israeli government, McNamara only asked about the number of expected Israeli casualties and the duration of the war, Amit stated in a 2002 interview with Jeremy Bowen of the BBC. McNamara reportedly stated in response: “I read you loud and clear.”
Regardless, the outcome is well known. Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria in six days in early June 1967 and greatly expanded its territory. It took possession of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Many Arab countries, believing the United States colluded with Israel, broke diplomatic relations with Washington for several years.
However, this war — a great victory for the Israelis and a humiliating defeat for the Arabs — has complicated the achievement of a regional peace ever since. Even Johnson, who was very pro-Israel, warned that by the time the United States was finished with the fallout from this war, it was “going to wish the war never happened.”
After the war, Johnson set out parameters for US policy that the scholar William Quandt has noted has been remarkably consistent in terms of US policy: 1) there should be land for peace; 2) the status of East Jerusalem to be settled in peace negotiations; 3) settlements in the West Bank are obstacles to peace; 4) whatever outcome for the Palestinians should not include unrestricted return to homes within the 1967 lines and; 5) the United States would support Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbours.
Although the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 achieved “land for peace” for one section of the conflict — restoring the Sinai to Egyptian control in exchange for diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel, the issues of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with settlement building in the West Bank, continue to preclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
All US administrations since Johnson’s have struggled with these issues and all have come up short. The popular perception in the Arab world is that the strong support the United States gives Israel encourages Israeli leaders to build settlements with impunity and ignore Palestinian national aspirations.
Although strong support for Israel has continued unabated under US administrations, it is misleading to think that the United States can simply dictate policy to Israel and the Israeli government will comply.
When the United States has applied strong pressure on Israel on settlements — such as in 2009 during former US President Barack Obama’s first year in office — the most Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was willing to do was to freeze settlement construction for ten months and with caveats — such as exemptions for settlement construction in East Jerusalem and “natural growth” within existing settlements.
The United States can indeed support leaders interested in peace. President Jimmy Carter’s mediation in the Camp David Accords in 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was crucial to achieving an agreement but US presidents cannot “force” a deal.
The large number of settlements that have been constructed in the West Bank since the 1967 war do indeed pose a problem for a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Less land for the Palestinians means a less viable Palestinian state.
Ultimately, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have to agree on clear steps forward. Israel needs another Yitzhak Rabin who, as a hawk for most of his career, came to the realisation that indefinite control of the West Bank would not only dilute the Jewish character of the Israeli state but would make Israel a perpetual occupying power. His assassination was a severe blow to the peace process.
As for the Palestinians, as the weaker party, they also need a leader who has the courage to strike a deal that involves concessions but will ultimately lead to an independent state.
One legacy of the 1967 war is that the occupation of the West Bank has made the achievement of an Israeli-Palestinian peace that much harder to achieve and the United States is seen as the indispensable party to break the logjam whether or not it can actually do so.