50 years after Israel's Six Day War, 2 states for 2 peoples still a difficult equation

Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six Day War marked the beginning of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. On the 50th anniversary, both sides are assessing the likelihood of a two-state solution to end the conflict.

Is peace possible 50 years after the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories?

Yitzhak Yifat is shown at the Western Wall in June 1967 (in left photo, centre), and Yifat at the Wall in 2017, 50 years after the Six Day War. (David Rubinger/GPO, Derek Stoffel/CBC)

When Yitzhak Yifat, as a young man 50 years ago, fought through the narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City, he felt "an overwhelming sense of excitement" when he reached the Western Wall.

The moment was captured in a now-famous photograph showing Yifat and two other soldiers as they glanced up at the limestone wall that is one of the holiest sites in Judaism and had been off limits to Jews for nearly 20 years.

Yifat remembers June of 1967, which for Israeli Jews saw the unification of Jerusalem, as a time of jubilation and celebration, as Israel savoured its lightning-fast victory over Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces. 

Yifat celebrated Israel's victory at the Western Wall in Jerusalem 50 years ago. Today, he worries about the prospect of peace with the Palestinians. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

But now, half a century after the Six Day War in which Israel defeated its Arab neighbours, the former paratrooper is overcome with uncertainty about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.

"It's a very serious and painful problem, for me personally," said Yifat, 74, on a recent visit to the Western Wall. "I hope that we will find the path to a solution for two states for two peoples."

But as Israelis and Palestinians mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — and the beginning of the occupation of the Palestinian population in captured areas — the prospect of a two-state solution to end the conflict seems less likely than ever.

One state or two?

While Canada and many European nations support the idea that Palestinians and Israelis living in their own nations is the only way to bring lasting peace, recent comments by U.S. president Donald Trump have called longstanding American policy calling for a two-state solution into question.

When asked if he stood by the two-state solution, Trump said in February, "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one."

Walid Sayed takes a break from tending to his flock of sheep near the West Bank town of Burin. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

High in the hills of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Walid Sayed tends to his flock of sheep, the 65-year-old Palestinian shepherd says he learned years ago to ignore the words of foreign leaders.

A fear for their future

Instead Sayed says, what has convinced him that he will not see the creation of a Palestinian state during his lifetime is the policies of the Israeli government over the last half century — particularly those concerning settlements for Israeli Jews.

"There is no future for us as long as Israel is in this area," Sayed said, glancing across the green hills just outside the Palestinian village of Burin, which is hemmed in by two Israeli settlements.

"Israel is stubborn and just wants to take the land and the West Bank and kick all the Palestinians out."

About 600,000 Jews live in approximately 140 settlements constructed since the occupation in 1967 of the West Bank and East Jerusalem — in land the Palestinians want for their future state. Under international law, the settlements are considered illegal, although Israel disputes this.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former adviser to the negotiating committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, says Israeli settlers are intent on preventing a Palestinian state. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

"The point of the settlers is: they made it clear… that their intent is to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Their intent is to make life so miserable for Palestinians so that they either succumb and submit to Israeli rule or that they leave."

A demographic warning

Some members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government are opposed to the two-state solution and want to annex parts of the West Bank.

That worries many Israelis, including a coalition of former Israeli security officials, who have come together in a group known as Commanders for Israel's Security. 

Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad, Israel's spy service, says that in a single state, Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The organization of more than 200 former top military and security leaders recently launched an advertising campaign centred on a warning that in a single state, Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews.

"One state for the two peoples means that we are going to lose our majority," said Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel's spy agency, Mossad. "Which means that Israel will cease to be a Jewish and democratic state… unless we — the Israelis — will impose an apartheid over the Palestinians."

The anniversary of the Six Day War has highlighted the divisions within Israeli society, where many on the right will celebrate the existing political reality that a peace agreement with the Palestinians seems currently unrealistic, while others are calling for a renewed push to find a negotiated settlement.

Some politicians urge patience

Direct negotiations between the two sides broke down in April 2014. 

Michael Oren, an Israeli historian and current deputy minister in Israel's coalition government, urges patience. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

But Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who now sits in the Israeli cabinet as a deputy minister, is urging patience.

In Oren's view, the Palestinians are "one of the big winners" of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which he argues brought international recognition to their plight.

"No one talked about a Palestinian state in 1967. No one was talking about two-state solution," Oren told CBC News. Today, "everyone knows the word Palestinian. Everyone talks about a two-state solution."

"Fifty years is a young man's idea of a long time."