If only history would offer a do-over, one of the world's most troublesome dilemmas might have been long-ago resolved. Unfortunately, history offers no mulligans.
President Obama's Thursday speech, aiming to respond to Arab demands for more democratic governments and to reset the Arab-Israeli conflict brought to mind a missed opportunity, perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the 44th anniversary of which we will celebrate next month, Israel looked invincible. Facing invasion from all sides by a coalition of Arab armies, Israeli Defense Forces struck first, pushing Syria off the Golan Heights overlooking northern Israel, shoving Jordanian soldiers back to the Jordan River, and halting their rout of Egyptian forces only at the Suez Canal. It was perhaps the most convincing military victory of the century. There was unrealistic talk that the Israeli Army was so good it might defeat the United States or the Soviet Union. The Arab nations that had planned to annihilate Israel from the map of the world were humiliated, and Israel celebrated what looked like a final victory over their adversaries.
Israel, as conquering armies usually do, held onto its newly captured lands. Israel reunited a divided Jerusalem and declared it, not Tel-Aviv, its new capital. Israel claimed former Jordanian territory all the way to the west bank of the Jordan River and openly discussed annexing the area as its rightful claim. Israel held power in the Gaza Strip, a narrow tract of land populated by entrenched refugees from an Arab-Israeli war two decades earlier. And Israel controlled the vast Sinai peninsula all the way to the western bank of the strategically and economically important Suez Canal. Israel, a tiny country, had multiplied its territory several-fold in just six days. Who could blame the Israelis for gloating a little?
But Israel's holding onto the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the Sinai gave rise to the next episode in the Arab-Israeli conflict — the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an era of Arab terrorism and the demands for a separate Palestinian nation, the so-called two-state solution. Although Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt (returning the Sinai) and Jordan, its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has engendered the terrorism-backed demands for a separate Palestinian state.
What if Israel had pursued a different course? What if Israel, instead of occupying the territories it had won fair-and-square, had chosen instead to pull back its armies and give back the lands it had conquered? Had Israel returned the West Bank (or at least substantial portions of it, keeping only East Jerusalem) to Jordan and turned over Gaza (along with Sinai) to Egypt, the Palestinian problem of the last 44 years would have been Jordan's and Egypt's, not Israel's. The West Bank had been captured from Jordan. Why not give it back, in return for a peace treaty? Likewise, Gaza could be given to Egypt to govern, along with all of Sinai. Palestinians such as Yasser Arafat could clamor for Palestinian independence, but their fight would be with the Arab rulers of Jordan and Egypt, not with Israel.
In hindsight, Israel would have been better off giving back its captured territory than keeping it with all of the turmoil and terror it brought. But hindsight, as they say, is always 20-20.