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The U.S.-Muslim Divide: Little Change in 40 Years Since Six-Day War

The Six-Day War had many antecedents, but it was sparked by an order from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelling the U.N. Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula, where it had been stationed since a British, French, and Israeli invasion 10 years earlier. After the U.N. peacekeepers withdrew, Egypt amassed its tanks and soldiers on the Israeli border and closed the Straits of Tiran to all ships flying Israeli flags.

Israeli responded with a similar mobilization and on June 5 launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt’s Air Force. The strike brought Jordan and Syria into the conflict on Egypt’s side, and they were joined by troops and arms from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. By the war’s end, Israel had won a decisive victory, gaining control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The conflict helped to create a geo-political reality that has existed ever since.

A Western Perspective

Misconceptions and foolhardy actions invited the conflict, according to British journalist Ian Williams. “The 1967 war cemented the idea of Israel as the David facing the Goliath of the Arab world,” said Williams, who now reports from the United Nations. His comments were heard on VOA’s International Press Club with host Judith Latham. “Israeli historians now admit there was no real threat from the Egyptians who were in no position to mount an attack,” Williams adds. “The bluster and bravado of Egyptian President Nasser gave the Israelis an opportunity for a preemptive strike.”

Williams remembers an Egyptian general he interviewed in Cairo. The general recounted his experience of being in charge of a post near the Suez Canal. “I was sitting in my office listening to radio reports about our great victory when I saw all these people running towards us,” the general told Williams. “When we went out to meet them, they were our victorious soldiers running like hell from the battle front.”

Williams questions President Nasser judgment that U.N. forces be removed from the ceasefire line between Sinai and Gaza and Israel. “Nasser had every right to do so, but it was a very stupid thing to do because it meant there was not the slightest impediment to the Israeli attack,” he says. “Once Israeli forces took out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground,” he said, “there was never any real opportunity for Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and their Arab allies to recover from Israel’s presumptive strike.”

An Israeli Perspective

To this day Arabs and many Muslim communities around the world view the consequences of the Six-Day War as catastrophic. But according to Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward, most Israelis view the event with less emotion. “They were born into a Greater Israel,” Guttman observes. For many, he says, the war seems to be a matter of “fact.” Guttman says the Israeli public is more concerned with how to solve the current dilemma than with what led up to it.

One policy that developed after the war – and one that increasingly divides all sides – is Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied territories. At least 250,000 Jews live in settlement blocs and smaller outposts built on land captured by Israel in the 1967 war. More than 50 outposts have been erected since March 2001 and more than 100 are currently in existence. Much of the international community – including the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice – view the settlements as illegal.

President Obama has made it clear he wants settlement activity to stop. He’s not the first American president to make that demand. George W. Bush won a pledge from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to dismantle the illegal outposts in 2003. But that promise has never materialized. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, will only hint at the possibility of a compromise on the issue – but only on the subject of new settlement activity. He insists those settlements established in the aftermath of the Six-Day War should have the right to exist and grow.

As Nathan Guttman points out, “When we talk about illegal outposts, we should remember that previous Israeli governments agreed to remove them because they are illegal under Israeli law.” That is, he explains, they were put up without any building permits.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actions need to be viewed in terms of the political climate. “When he assumed power about two months ago,” says Guttman, “Israeli leaders from both Labor and Kadima camps accepted the idea of a two-state solution.” “However, Mr. Netanyahu’s position is more complicated,” he says. “It needs to be seen against the backdrop of a very difficult right-wing coalition he is trying to manage."

A Palestinian Perspective

For the Palestinians, Israel’s occupation of the territories won in the Six-Day War is a complete disaster, according to Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy of the Middle East Broadcasting Center. “It wasn’t just the displacement of the Palestinian people from 1948 onward but also losing new territory – the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Sinai,” says Bilbassy. “People became refugees for a second time.”

The creation of a Palestinian state would go a long way to easing those memories. It’s something President Obama lobbied Prime Minister Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visited Washington in May. And statehood, as he re-emphasized on Thursday in Cairo, is not only in America’s national interest but also in Israel’s long-term national interest as well.

“Mr. Obama’s support for Palestinian statehood necessarily requires an end to settlement-building,” says Nadia Bilbassy. She calls progress on the settlements issue the “easy part of a final status solution.” Much more difficult, she says, will be the issues of Jerusalem, refugee return, water rights, security, and cooperation between Fatah and Hamas.

The Challenge Ahead

Some Middle East analysts suggest that eventually the solution proposed by Saudi King Abdullah will serve as a basis for resolving the current impasse. “That would mean the 1967 boundaries would become international boundaries with room for swapping land here and there,” says British journalist Ian Williams.

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu currently refuses to discuss such a solution, there is a precedent. Ian Williams and Nadia Bilbassy point out it was a Likud prime minister who agreed to give up Sinai in return for peace with Egypt 30 years ago.