2017: A Year of Anniversaries


There are at least six significant Israel-related anniversaries approaching in 2017: the first Zionist Congress (120th), the Balfour Declaration (100th), the UN General Assembly Partition Resolution (70th), the Six-Day War (50th), Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem (40th), and the first intifada (30th). Each one offers a valuable lesson relevant to us today.

First Zionist Congress:

The Jewish people maintained their deep and unbroken attachment to the land of Israel throughout the centuries.  Zionism, modern Jewish nationalism, emerged in the 19th century, and the First Zionist Congress was convened on August 29, 1897 in Basel. The previous year Theodor Herzl had published his visionary pamphlet “The Jewish State.”

Lesson 1: Our national homeland was not handed to the Jewish people on a silver platter. From a two-millennia yearning for Zion to the reality of statehood required great leadership — both thinkers and doers.  This same leadership is required of us in the 21st century, as we seek to build a secure and thriving Israel that reflects the best of Jewish values.

Balfour Declaration: On Nov. 2, 1917, in a letter to Walter Rothschild and Zionist leadership, then-United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour conveyed his country’s intention to help reconstitute a homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. We know that Israel’s detractors will seek to use this occasion to delegitimize Israel as a manifestation of the British Empire’s colonial enterprise. In fact, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he is planning to file a lawsuit against the British government. While Balfour’s declaration did not create Israel, it also is undeniable that Britain’s intervention was an important factor in expediting movement toward Jewish statehood.  

Lesson 2: Israel is justifiably proud of its political, economic and military independence and self-sufficiency. Yet, especially in today’s world, no nation can thrive in isolation. Israel must remain sensitive to the views of the international community, especially those of its principal strategic ally, the United States.

UN Partition Plan: On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, calling for the establishment of two separate states in what was left of British Mandatory Palestine, one Jewish and the other Arab. As a result of Israel’s War of Independence (for Palestinians, the Naqba or catastrophe), Jordan ended up in control of the West Bank and Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip, areas that had been targeted for the Arab state. For a very long time, the Arab world rejected Israel’s right to exist, and Israel rejected the idea of an independent Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. These attitudes have not disappeared altogether, but the logic of separating the two competing national movements embedded in Resolution 181 has largely been embraced on both sides.

Lesson 3: An agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security remains the only reasonable option for resolving their conflict.

Six-Day War: Next year will mark a half-century since the June 1967 Six-Day War that resulted in Israel’s capture of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the eastern section of Jerusalem. As such, this anniversary is likely to command the most attention of the four. Already Israel’s detractors are hard at work preparing to highlight the suffering of Palestinians living under an extended military occupation. For example, writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are editing a book of essays that is scheduled to be published next June by Harper Collins. But for many others who favor a more balanced narrative, the Six-Day War is a cause for positive reflection. Many of us vividly remember the tension-filled weeks leading up to Israel’s lightning victory, as a coalition of Arab states threatened to destroy Israel while the international community refused to intervene.  At the same time, today’s younger generation cannot begin to fathom an existentially vulnerable Israel. The reunification of Jerusalem — enabling the return to our holiest sites after being cut off between 1948 and 1967 — is deserving of celebration.  Jerusalem Day, of course, always has been a fixture on the Israeli and Jewish calendars.

Lesson 4: The ultimate guarantor of Israeli security is the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces. Israel must continue to possess the capability to defend itself by itself against any threat. 

Sadat Visit: The courageous Anwar Sadat landed in Israel on Nov. 19, 1977, and transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict. Previously, many believed the Arab world’s hostility to Israel was so implacable there would never be peace. The subsequent negotiations involving Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter at Camp David resulted in the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt on March 26, 1979, a pact that has withstood wars, intifadas, and assorted other crises ever since. But in order to achieve this treaty, Israel was required to go through the painful process of dismantling settlements in Sinai.

Lesson 5: Peace is possible. But it requires bold leadership, a readiness to make painful sacrifices — and probably a helping American hand. We have seen that prior enemies of the Jewish state can become true peace partners; witness Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein. Experience shows that Abbas probably does not fall into this category, and many already are looking down the road at a potential Palestinian leadership succession. Sooner or later, though, Israel will be called upon to make difficult concessions to achieve a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians. Many Jews now living in the West Bank, a place with deep historic and religious resonance for the Jewish people, will have to be relocated inside Israel’s borders. At the same time, there can be no compromise when it comes to protecting Israel’s fundamental security.  Meanwhile, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are accountable for preserving the viability of a two-state agreement.

First Intifada: A grassroots Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation erupted in the Gaza Strip in December 1987, and quickly spread to the West Bank. My friend Yossi Klein Halevi often observes that this event destroyed the illusion of Israel’s political right that indefinitely maintaining control over millions of Palestinians in the territories would be a painless exercise.  He also stresses that the second intifada — a more coordinated and violent campaign of Palestinian violence that took place after the Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit at Camp David — destroyed the illusion of Israel’s political left that a generous Israeli territorial offer would immediately lead to peace. Almost 24 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, which produced so much hope for the future, there is today an entrenched sense of pessimism and mistrust on both sides.

Lesson 6: Peace is made not only by political leaders. Israeli and Palestinian civil society representatives possess enormous potential to reduce tensions and to normalize relations. We can reinforce this positive agenda by supporting the kind of Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people programs championed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace (allmep.org).  

The year 2017 certainly will bring advocacy challenges in communities and on college campuses. But it also provides an opportunity to celebrate important achievements, preferably without projecting an atmosphere of triumphalism; to educate generations for whom the events of 1967 and 1977 are pure history; and to renew our commitment to a just and lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. 

Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. He began working as the agency’s lead professional on Israel and international affairs in September 1987.