In June 1967, with ex-Vice President Richard Nixon, this writer toured an Israeli military hospital full of wounded Egyptian soldiers.
An Israeli officer told us that in the hospital was an Egyptian officer he had captured in the 1956 Sinai campaign, and that he had asked the Egyptian: “We have fought three times now, and three times you have been defeated. Why do you keep fighting us?”
The Egyptian replied, “You may have defeated us three times, and you may defeat us 11 times. But the 12th time we win.”
From that Six-Day War, wise Israelis took away two lessons.
First, they had to remain alert and strong enough to defeat all their neighbors at once. Second, the more important struggle was that they must win the acceptance of the Arab peoples to survive in an Arab sea.
The Israelis were not alert in 1973 when Egypt launched the attack of Yom Kippur that sent their army reeling along the Suez Canal.
President Nixon intervened with a massive airlift to save Israel.
Half a decade later, President Sadat and Menachem Begin agreed at Camp David to a trade of land for peace. Israel would give up all of Sinai captured in 1967 in return for a peace treaty with Cairo.
A treaty with King Hussein of Jordan followed.
Israel was on its way to winning acceptance in the Arab world.
In 1982, after an Israeli diplomat was mortally wounded by an assassin in London, Begin ordered an invasion of Lebanon. Gen. Ariel Sharon swiftly reached the suburbs of Beirut, and Yasser Arafat’s PLO was expelled to Tunis.
But as Yitzhak Rabin ruefully conceded, “We let the Shia genie out of the bottle.”
In the south of Lebanon, quiescent Shiites had begun to fight the Israeli occupation in militias that came to be known as Hezbollah.
Bled for 18 years, the Israelis withdrew in 2000, leaving Hezbollah dominant in Lebanon.
Perhaps more critically, after the Six-Day War, the Israelis had annexed all of Jerusalem and begun to move settlers into East Jerusalem and onto the West Bank. In 1987 came the First Intifada, an uprising of the Palestinians using sticks and stones. Yet the movement of Israeli settlers continued. From a few thousand in the 1970s, the number has grown to half a million.
Having won peace with Egypt and Jordan, the Israelis began secret negotiations with the Palestinians. In 1994 came the Oslo Accords, an agreement to trade land for peace. As Sadat got back the Sinai by making peace with Israel, Palestinians would get a nation of their own in return for recognizing Israel.
Israel had broken out of her isolation and won acceptance from Egypt, Jordan and even Arafat’s PLO.
But in 1995, Prime Minister Rabin, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for Oslo and had come to believe in the necessity of trading land for peace, was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic determined to prevent any surrender of West Bank land.
When Sharon came to power, he gave up Gaza, but refused to yield on Jerusalem or the West Bank. His successor, Ehud Olmert, like Rabin and Ehud Barak before him, came to believe that Israel had to give up the West Bank for peace, or she would never know peace.
But Olmert failed to negotiate that peace.
Looking back, Israel has prevailed in all her wars, from the War of Independence, to the Sinai campaign, to the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, to the first and second intifadas, the Lebanon War of 2006 and the Gaza War of 2008.
But today Israel is more isolated than she has ever been, and the prospects are bleak that she can break out of this isolation.
Hamas rules Gaza. Hezbollah rules Lebanon. The Turks have turned hostile. The Palestinian Authority has given up on Barack Obama and is demanding a state from the Security Council and U.N. General Assembly. Israel’s partner in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is gone. The Israeli embassy in Cairo has been sacked. Mobs in Amman have sought to do the same.
George W. Bush was persuaded by neocons that an invasion of Iraq would start the dominoes of Arab tyranny falling and usher in an era of pro-Western democracies in the region.
Not quite. The Arab Spring that followed the U.S. invasion by a decade is bringing down the despots but also unleashing the demons of ethnonationalism and Islamic fundamentalism that are anti-American and anti-Zionist.
Israel’s great patron, America, is in retreat from the region, with her army in Iraq home by year’s end and her autocratic allies down in Egypt and Tunisia and tottering in Bahrain and Yemen.
By 2050, Palestinians west of the Jordan will outnumber Israelis two to one. Syria, Jordan and Egypt, which had 40 million people at the time of the Six-Day War, will have 170 million. Militarily, Israel remains dominant, but neither time nor demography seems to be on her side.
And Arab acceptance seems more distant than ever.