Daniel Bavly takes a look back at the Six Day War, the conflict in which Israel faced a coalition made up by Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria exactly 40 years ago. The author, who lived through and took part in the event, believes a key opportunity to reach a concrete peace agreement was lost.

EVEN TODAY, LOOKING BACK, MOST WILL AGREE that one of the most spectacular events of the 20th Century was the June 1967 Six Day War. Yet, as the years pass, there has been increasing disappointment at the failure of leadership to take advantage of the opportunity offered and to move forward with equal determination in an effort to bring about a lasting settlement and peace.

On the anniversary of such an important moment in history, I will take this time to describe how I was personally involved in the dream of making peace and the missed opportunity which has since contributed to an increasingly deteriorating state of affairs, with little hope for peace in sight.

A colleague and close friend, David Kimche, and I, both reserve officers in the Israeli Defense Forces, began meeting leaders and notables among the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, even before the hostilities came to an end. All of them, disgusted by the events and in a state of shock, but with enthusiasm, called for the establishment of state, independent from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, that would forthwith sign a peace treaty with Israel.

The day after the war ended we met with the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan’s deputy and retired Chief of Staff, General Zvi Tsur, and reported to him our impressions of the meetings we had had in the past two days with the Arab contracts.

Two days later, in cooperation with two other Israeli officers, we drafted and forwarded a four-page memorandum detailing how Israel could establish a secure peace with the Palestinians to then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and a number of his colleagues.

We were not alone. There were other members of the Israeli establishment who called on the government to seize the opportunity in an effort to make peace.

Although the possibility of making peace was never discussed in an Israeli Cabinet meeting, in personal conversations, the Israeli leaders did not rule out, in the immediate aftermath of the war, the possibility of negotiating peace with the Palestinians. It soon became clear, however, that if such a process were to be initiated, it would require patience and time beyond the timeframe originally expressed by the Palestinian leadership or the Israeli officers. While the PLO became a troublesome terrorist organization outside the territories controlled by the IDF, the extent of active hostility towards Israel’s interior was insignificant.

What the moderates failed to realize was that time was working against them. The supporters for a peace treaty did not recognize that, while they were theorizing and agonizing over how to make progress and guarantee the nation’s security, another part of Israel, at the time a group not much larger than a lobby, was rapidly organizing itself and gathering support to ensure that all the territory occupied on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would in time be incorporated into Israel. To do so, an extensive settlement program that would call on and enable Israeli Jews to settle there was introduced and rapidly gathered momentum.

For most of the past 40 years, the occupation of the West Bank was perceived to be of a temporary nature. Earlier on, few understood that under this guise, the settlers, (today well over 250,000 of them) were intent on turning the occupation into a full proprietorship of the territory. To the radical Jews, the settlement program proved a success and by the early 1980’s, the expropriation of lands heretofore held by the Palestinians, the number of new settlements and the amount of incoming settlers was becoming a threat to the indigenous Palestinian population. As time passed, there was no evidence that the Israeli Government recognized the local Arab villagers as worthy of consideration, let alone civil rights, not less disturbing, to provide for the land on which the 130 settlements established over the years, that the authorities confiscated, indeed stole.

In these and other actions, the Israeli authorities created in the Occupied Territories a rule of separation that applies two codes of law based on the nationality of individuals, to justify numerous violations of the Palestinians’ human rights, preventing housing, earning a livelihood and their freedom of movement. It is a form of discrimination that humiliates the oppressed but there are signs that it is also impairing the morale of the Israeli rulers. The Economist described it as self-defeating madness.

It was only in the late 1980’s that the Palestinians began resisting the Israeli regime, and then moved on to suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, and not surprisingly the enmity between the two peoples today is greater than ever. Increasingly as time passed, the mainstream Israelis have become more pessimistic that peace is attainable.

Like the Israelis, the Palestinians have not produced a leadership committed to the cause of peace. Although among them, there were those who admired Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, they lacked leaders who would guide them through the power derived from passive resistance.

Except for the Oslo Accord in 1993, there is no evidence that the Israeli leadership even thought of how to exploit that extraordinary event in 1967 to reach a secure and lasting peace. And in hindsight, there are many, citing the continuing settlement policy and stealing of lands, skeptics on how committed both parties were to Oslo and what the odds were that it succeed. In time, as hostilities increased, so did the politics. Now Hamas is more radical than the PLO, and the threat of further radicalization is a probability. The Israeli public mood has matched this enmity.

Probably most carelessly after the 1967 war, but continually over the years, Israel has missed opportunities to make peace with its Palestinian neighbors. In doing so, it has contributed to the deaths of thousands and the maiming of many more.

In the spring 2006 elections, none of the platforms of the major parties even suggested that if elected it would pursue the track of peace. In preferring the use of force rather than seeking an amenable solution, most Israelis do not seem to realize that time is not in our favor, that we have not grown stronger.

On the contrary, the continued attrition in the confrontation with its neighbors has lowered the military determination of its young and impaired the military capabilities of its senior officers.

The majority of those who seek a settlement still believe that this might be attainable if Israel will uproot the settlements and return to the 1967 cease fire lines. Others suspect that this is untenable. That the days when the plan for two countries for two peoples was a potential solution, are no longer viable. In today’s tense atmosphere, it seems a distant dream, but probably the solution will be that the Israelis and Palestinians alike will wake up to accept that they have to learn how to live together, in a multi-national one-state democracy that will incorporate all the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Possibly this is the only alternative, but one should expect that it will require a learning curve and time before both people accept it.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War, there were many among us who hoped that Israel would achieve peace and show that it will be and is an exemplary and fair State. Unhappily, forty years later we are more distant from achieving this goal than ever. It is sad to think that while more than ever, Israel dearly needs peace, attaining it seems more remote than one would hope.