In May 1967, six months after I had graduated from the Israeli air force academy, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, shutting down Israel’s southern maritime lifelines. In fiery speeches, Nasser echoed threats made by Arab leaders in 1948 to throw Israelis into the Mediterranean Sea. When he moved his army into Sinai and removed U.N. peacekeeping forces from our border with Gaza, we knew war was only a matter of time.
In the officers’ club at the Tel Nof Airbase south of Tel Aviv, morale was high. With telephone lines closed for security reasons, we were happily secluded from the grim aura that had settled over the civilian public. We were part of a magnificent air force with a well-prepared operational plan. We were confident. And, yes, we were very young.
The Six-Day War began on June 5, with formations of combat aircraft taking off from our base. When news began to roll in later, an outburst of joy erupted in the squadron: In only a few hours, most of the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed. Israeli troops then broke into the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. There was another moment of exaltation when we heard that the Old City of Jerusalem had been liberated from Jordan. These six days concluded with Israel seizing the Golan Heights from Syria.
After it was all over, we traveled to comfort the families of our fallen comrades, and then to take in the war’s effects. First we went to the West Bank. In the Old City, we saw signs of the savage battle in smashed cars and in the eyes of shocked locals. On the way to the Dead Sea, smoke was still rising from charred Jordanian tanks that had been hit by our fighter pilots. In Jericho, we drank orange juice at a cafe that had probably witnessed the coming of the Turks, then the British, then the Jordanians, and now us. There was hope that we had reached a turning point — that after suffering such a decisive defeat, the Arabs would come to their senses, make peace with Israel and perhaps get their territories in return.
According to the former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, the Israeli government decided on June 19 that it was willing to give the territories gained in the war back to the Arabs if they signed a peace treaty with Israel. When Eban delivered this message to the Americans, he later wrote in his memoirs that they “could hardly believe what I was saying.” But Hebrew University professor Eli Podeh has since argued that the offer was probably communicated only to the Americans, and not really made to the Arabs.
In any case, at the following summit of the Arab League in September 1967, the Arabs gave not one, but three resounding responses: No recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel.
It took two more wars for the Egyptians to accept the formula of “territories for peace.” The Jordanians signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, following the Oslo Accords. Were we also close to a peace deal with the Syrians in the late 1990s? Depends on whom you ask: Israelis, Syrians and Americans walked away with conflicting memories.
Israel tried trading territories for peace with the Palestinians too, of course. In 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza, which fell into the hands of Hamas, and the West Bank became the only bargaining chip. But the West Bank is now a far cry from the all-Arab area we toured in June 1967: It’s dotted with settlements that house more than 400,000 Jews. Giving it back, even for peace, has become very difficult, perhaps impossible.
The blame game is pointless. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are 10.5 million people: 6.5 million Jews and 4 million Arabs. If we add Gaza, the populations are equal. The bleak consequence for Israel is that, if all this land is not partitioned, it will become one state, and Israel will either lose its Jewish character or — if it refuses to enfranchise the Arab population — its democracy.
There are moments in history when nations need to make grave decisions and sacrifices. Israel is facing precisely this kind of challenge today. Whether the Palestinians are partners or not, Israel should pull out of most of the West Bank; we shouldn’t rule the Palestinians living there. When a credible Palestinian leadership comes forward, Israel should negotiate land swaps, acquiring the big settlements, which should remain always under Israeli sovereignty. This should be the last act of “territories for peace.”
On June 5, 1967, Israel took a great chance. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, Israel must take bold risks again.
Uri Dromi is a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force and the director general of the Jerusalem Press Club. He served as a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992 to 1996. This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.