One of Israel’s leading experts on the history and politics of the Middle East, Professor Asher Susser, believes there are two main lessons of the Six Day War of 1967: one, the exposure of the “weakness of Arab nationalism”, and second, the underlining of “Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that it will remain so”.
Professor Susser, senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, was in conversation with Bicom director James Sorene in one of the first events of 2017 to mark this year's 50th anniversary of the war.
The conflict enabled Israel to occupy the West Bank and triggered a series of events with which the Middle East is still grappling today.
But Professor Susser disagreed with members of the packed audience at London’s JW3, who variously suggested that Israel should give back the West Bank to Jordan or that Israel needed to retain the area because of its biblical significance, or that the Palestinians were not really Palestinians.
“These are debating points”, said the professor, who himself fought in the 1967 war as a 19-year-old conscript. They were not grounded in reality, he maintained, adding that Israel should change its policy “because it is not good for Israel, not because the rest of the world doesn’t like it”.
To this end, he said, “Israel cannot remain the state of the Jewish people if it remains in occupation of the Palestinians”. But he did not advocate unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the same way in which it had withdrawn from Gaza.
Instead, Professor Susser, withdrawal should be “slow and over the next five to 10 years, to create a new reality”.
He was not confident that a two-state solution would emerge from direct negotiations with the Palestinians, but urged that Israel should, nevertheless, pursue this path because it was in Israel’s own interests.
Professor Susser was realistic about Israel’s options. “If we had 15 million citizens in Israel, we could do something different. As it is, we have eight million and there are limits to what we can do. There are not enough of us — and one million Israelis have left the country. All the wars we have had have not caused Israel the damage that the one million who have left have caused.”
But in a typically humorous touch, Professor Susser concluded: “Whining is not a strategy”. Israel had to deal with what was, and not what it wished, he said.