At the end of the Six Day War Israel controlled wide tracts of territory, and someone had to decide what to do with them. Israel’s Cabinet first discussed the question at length on June 18-19th, a week after the war. The minsters decided the Sinai and Golan would be returned to Egypt and Syria for peace. Jerusalem would not be re-divided. The deliberations about the West Bank were not concluded.
On the 45th anniversary of the discussion the Israel State Archives has put online the declassified transcript. Some 200 pages long and in Hebrew, the document shows that on many points there was unanimity among Israel’s political leaders, while on other matters the differences of opinion were so significant that agreement was not possible. (There is also a five-page English extract, here).
I have summarized the outlines of the discussion for the benefit of hebraically-challenged readers. Non-Hebraically challenged readers are urged to read the document itself, which is rich in drama and nuance.
The immediate context: There were intense post-war diplomatic maneuvers going on at the United Nations. Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister, needed orders. The deliberations in Jerusalem were not intended as a fundamental policy statement, but rather as a hurried set of directives to Eban. Many of the ministers feared that showing cards or appearing conciliatory would harm Israel’s ability to negotiate. Although their deliberations were classified as Top Secret, any number of times they stopped short and refused to say how far they might be willing to go, for fear their positions might leak. (They seem mostly not to have, which is what makes the document so interesting).
The broader context: The ministers had spent the previous five weeks under intense pressure, frantic preparations for war, even more frantic attempts to stave it off by diplomatic means, and – crucial for understanding the present document – the collapse of the internationally sanctioned framework for Israeli-Egyptian co-existence put in place in 1956 when Israel had been forced hurriedly out of the Sinai. Then there had been the week of war itself. Rather than suffering destruction Israel had won an astonishing victory. Yet the ministers seem to have expected the great powers to re-apply the pressure of 1956. The BBC, as they repeatedly mentioned, had already begun to report about harsh Israeli measures in Jerusalem’s Old City, and they expected growing international impatience. Most of them thought Israel’s forces would be back behind the previous lines within two months.
Ideologically they were a diverse bunch: this was a National Unity government, with representatives from four socialist parties, two liberal ones, one orthodox party and a nationalist one. They were all Zionists. They were all men. (Golda Meir, their next leader, was not in the government). None were young: Moshe Dayan, at 52, and Yigal Allon at 49 were the only ones not born before WW1. Some had been adults before that war, and all were adults before WW2. All had lived their lives in a world where wars changed borders and moved populations. None had ever met an NGO – the very concept lay decades in the future – and they had no trust in the United Nations even as they recognized it as an important international forum.
Yet while their perspective was different than ours, the positions they staked were mostly cool-headed – the parts they agreed on, and the parts they didn’t. They all hoped there would be no more wars. They intended the new conditions to be leveraged into a stable and just coexistence with the Arab world. They assumed the fate of the Arab refugees from 1948 was the irritant that was motivating the conflict and that it could now be resolved.
They implicitly accepted that land could not permanently be taken from sovereign nations by act of war. So they all accepted that the Egyptian Sinai and Syrian Golan would eventually be returned to their owners. Syrian-born Eliyahu Sasson, one of only two non-Ashkenazi ministers and the only one who explicitly grounded his position in a life-long acquaintance with Arab culture, insisted that since no Arab government would make peace with Israel, the Golan and Sinai should be returned for something less than full diplomatic peace. Stringent demilitarization and freedom of Israeli shipping should be enough. Most of his colleagues didn’t want to be so pessimistic, but interestingly, Menachem Begin agreed. When in 1978 he agreed to evacuate Israeli forces from the entire Sinai, pundits the world over hailed his flexibility and willingness to change course. Well: read the transcript and you’ll see that Begin actually got more in 1978 than he had expected in 1967. In 1967 he was willing to evacuate the Sinai for less than full diplomatic recognition and peace.
In the event, the resolution at the end of the meeting was that both areas would be held until peace was agreed. The West Bank and Gaza were another matter, however.
Sometime in the 1980s the general perception of the conflict changed. No longer seen as Arab rejection of a Jewish State, the conflict was understood as a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which the Arab world would maintain only until the two central protagonists reached an accommodation. Since the Israelis and Palestinians have not yet reached accommodation this proposition has never been tested, a fact which contributes to its explanatory power. 1967, however, was before the 1980s, and participants and observers the world over saw the conflict as an Arab-Jewish conflict, with the local Arabs playing a subordinate role; they were not generally referred to as Palestinians.
I know this is hard to believe, but it’s true.
This dissonance of historical perspectives is essential to understanding the discussion about the future of the territories. Israel’s entire Cabinet in 1967 agreed that Egypt and Jordan had no more claim to Gaza and the West Bank than Israel did, as all three had conquered them through war; since Israel was now in possession it had superior claim. There were serious disagreements, however, as to what that meant. Many ministers were wary of returning the area to King Hussein, assuming that his long-term chances of survival were not good and whoever overthrew him wouldn’t respect his commitments. (Hussein died on the throne in 1999 and his son is still there. Forecasting the future is tricky).
Many of the speakers felt the previous 20 years had shown there had to be Israeli forces on the River Jordan, but refused to countenance Israeli control over the large number of Arabs on the West Bank. Minister of Justice Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira was implacable on the matter of citizenship. Israel can give citizenship to the Arabs it controls or it can stop controlling them, but there’s no third way. Most of his colleagues accepted this. Some thought the entire area should be handed back to Hussein, while a few thought it could be split along demographic lines, with the sparsely populated Jordan valley under Israeli control but the crowded mountain area to Hussein. A number of speakers so disliked the thought of handing territories to Hussein, that they suggested finding some local Arabs to hand it over to – what would later be called the two-state solution. Menachem Begin was the only speaker who demanded the entire area remain part of Israel, but even he didn’t know what to do with the local Arabs, suggesting merely that the question be revisited in “6 or 7 years”. Yigal Allon presented the first outline of the plan that would later bear his name: the Jordan Valley and the Hebron area should be annexed to Israel while the populous northern part of the West Bank should be either returned to Hussein or somehow handed to the locals. He was the only speaker who explicitly recommended creating Israeli settlements; even Begin didn’t go that far. Levi Eshkol sardonically summed up the diversity of opinions: You do realize you’re playing chess with yourselves, don’t you?
Jerusalem: everyone in the room agreed Jerusalem must remain united in Israeli hands, even if this meant Hussein would refuse to reach an agreement which would take the Arab population off Israel’s hands in return for some sort of peace. The lines of the city had not yet been drawn, and the official decision would be taken later that month, but those were (important) technicalities. Left to right, atheists to believers, no-one had any doubts. If there was any apprehension regarding Jerusalem, it was that the Christian world would refuse to countenance Jewish control of the city and would relaunch the demand for internationalizing the city.
Gaza: Seen from our perspective, the deliberations about Gaza were the strangest. As with the West Bank, no-one regarded Gaza as Egyptian. Yet nor did anyone see it as part of a future Palestinian State, since no-one, anywhere, including at the UN, had such a State in mind. So everyone agreed that Gaza must be annexed to Israel. Many of the speakers accepted this to mean the Gazan populace would be given Israeli citizenship, but others thought those among them living in refugee camps could perhaps be resettled: to the West Bank (and thus handed to Hussein or whoever); to the El Arish area of the northern Sinai, or perhaps even to other Arab countries. Eshkol shot down all these proposals. Why do we need Gaza and its population, he asked. There’s no water in El Arish, you can’t settle them in the mostly empty Jordan Valley and dream of holding on to it simultaneously, no far-flung Arab country will even give you the time of day. He speculated, rather wistfully, that if a general agreement with the Arab world could be achieved perhaps the Lebanese might be willing to pipe water down to the West Bank to help settle the refugees, but by the time the meeting moved to concrete proposals he had dropped that idea. No better one appeared, and the Gaza part of the discussion sort of petered out.
The Americans were informed of Israel’s positions. It is not known if they relayed them to any Arab leaders. In September the Arab leaders convened in Khartoum and rejected any possibility of peace with Israel. The paradigm Israel’s leaders thought they were operating in was irrelevant, and the reality developed in directions they hadn’t foreseen. But that’s a story for another day.