A brief history of the missed opportunity

By Amnon Barzilai

Bron: Haaretz

A week after the end of the Six-Day War, which broke out 35 years ago, on June 5, 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol met with Maki (Israel Communist Party) MK Moshe Sneh in Eshkol's Knesset offices. Even though Sneh had disassociated himself from the Zionist political establishment by joining Maki, the two were old friends going back to the 1940s, when Sneh was head of the Hagannah's national headquarters.

Sneh pleaded with Eshkol to declare immediately Israel's recognition of self-determination for the Arab Palestinian nation and recognition of its right to a state of its own alongside Israel. He spoke of an opportunity that would not return, to build a bridge to the people whom the Arab states had betrayed over and over again.

"I think there's a lot of political wisdom in what you're saying," Eshkol said, but then explained his political constraints. "If it was a different government, such initiatives might be possible. But I think it's impossible. If I reach out a hand, and no hand is returned in peace, then Abu Jilda and the terrorist will give me a petzele (slap) that will knock me off my chair. And who'll replace me? You already know."

Sneh knew the codes. "Abu Jilda" was Eshkol's nickname for Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. "The terrorist" was what he called the former head of the Etzel, Menachem Begin, head of the Herut party and a minister without portfolio.

On the eve of the war, at the height of the three-week anxiety-ridden waiting period, the Herut-Liberal (Gahal) bloc, led by Begin, joined forces with Rafi, led by David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres, to strip Eshkol of the defense portfolio and give it to Dayan. The alliance between the age-old opponents, Begin and Ben-Gurion, was the result of Eshkol's hesitation. Despite the massed Egyptian forces in the Sinai and the closing of the Straits of Tiran, the government was unable to decide whether to go to war.

Four days before the war, a beaten Eshkol gave in to the public and political pressure on him and named Dayan defense minister. After the war, he could only sadly watch as Dayan won all the credit for the victory.

On the fifth day of the war, after the West Bank was already conquered, the paratroopers had already cried at the Western Wall, and the Israel Defense Forces were parked on the banks of the Suez Canal and Jordan River, the daily Daf, a newspaper published by Olam Hazeh and edited by then-MK Uri Avnery, came out in Tel Aviv with the first public call in Israel for the government to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Avnery proposed conducting a referendum among the residents of the territories, to answer "yes," or "no" to the question if they wanted a Palestinian state that would be aligned with Israel.

Eshkol, unlike most of the other members of the Mapai leadership, had never boycotted the editor of the controversial newspaper and magazine. Avnery, like Sneh, was a welcome guest in Eshkol's office. He, too, had gone to Eshkol to present the outlines of a plan. But Eshkol's response to Avnery was less candid than the one to Sneh. He smiled at Avnery and in a somewhat apologetic tone, said, "Uri, what kind of a businessman are you? When you negotiate you demand the maximum, propose the minimum and end up in the middle." Avnery didn't let that pass. "Mr. Prime Minister," he said, "that may be true when you're selling a horse, but not if you want to end an historic conflict between two peoples."

Golda says the Sheheyanu

But the calls for recognition of the Palestinians as a people and to grant them self-determination and a state of their own, and warnings against the dangers of occupation and annexation, were few and far between. Israel after the Six-Day War was caught up in a whirlwind of ecstasy, with a sense of unlimited, euphoric power. The main question was whether the territories were a bargaining card or if they were liberated, new, held or occupied. Giving them up unilaterally was not part of the debate.

On June 13, Dayan gave a patronizing radio interview to the BBC, saying , "We're waiting or a phone call from the Arabs ... if the Arabs want a change, they can get in touch."

"The most common term heard after the victory was `we were like dreamers' - from Psalms," writes Michael Keren in his book "The Pen and the Sword," about the response of Israel's intellectuals to the results of the war. "The use of biblical phrases seemed more appropriate than day-to-day language to describe the new reality." On June 7, Dayan said at the Western Wall, "We have returned to the most sacred of all our places, we have returned never to leave again."

The sense of sanctity and secular intertwining was evident in the political institutions of the ruling party. A Rafi secretariat session on June 8 was surprised to hear Ben-Gurion, who opposed the war, say "we now control Jerusalem and that is one of the greatest of events - one of the first things that must be done is build neighborhoods - to immediately settle the Jewish Quarter. If there are empty Arab houses, we'll put Jews in them. The same is true for Hebron - I am sure that with the current mood, the people will go." Mapai's secretariat, which met the same day, opened with the secretary-general of the party, Golda Meir, reciting the Sheheyanu: "Blessed are You O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has enabled us to see this joyous day."

A few days after the war, two of the brightest young stars in the Mapam establishment, author Moshe Shamir and Ephraim Reiner, met. They spent their formative years together in the Hashomer Hatzair's Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek. Shamir was the chief counselor, teaching Marx. Mapam's ideological platform called for a bi-national state. Now, Shamir told Reiner, "The world has revolved, we've liberated the Land of Israel, it's ours now." Reiner listened in astonishment. When he went home, he reported, "Moshe Shamir has lost his mind."

Shamir wasn't alone. Poet Natan Alterman and writer Haim Guri were among those Labor stalwarts who joined the Movement for the Greater Land of Israel.

A few days after the end of the war, an evening devoted to the victory in Jerusalem was held at Tel Aviv's Tzavta. Shamir spoke excitedly about the conquest of the city. Actor Yossi Yadin read poems by Haim Hefer. "And then Dahn Ben-Amotz got up," writes Amnon Dankner in his biography of Ben-Amotz, "and said `I detest the orgy of tears and weeping at the Western Wall.' All hell broke out in the audience, people booed him off the stage."

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Judaica, joined in the debate. In an interview with Ha'aretz at the end of June, Leibowitz responded to a question from Silvi Keshet about the events at the Wall, referring to how Rabbi Shlomo Goren had been carried on the shoulders of a crowd and had blown a shofar. "It seems that even at the most dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish people, that clown had to blow a shofar and conduct the most foul and tasteless performance." Leibowitz was the first to warn about the dangers of the occupation. "If we swallow even a small amount of what we have conquered, we will become far weaker. Another million Arabs will undermine all the foundations of our existence."

On August 22, an article appeared in the ruling party's newspaper, Davar, under the headline "Land of the forefathers." "Even those conquerors who went furthest in their means of oppression, far beyond what Moshe Dayan is willing or capable of doing, sat on thorns and scorpions until they were uprooted, not to mention the total moral destruction that extended occupation does to the occupier. Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation." Thus the phrase "the occupation corrupts" entered the political lexicon. The article was written by a 27-year-old from Kibbutz Hulda named Amos Oz.

Rabin didn't respond

The idea of a Palestinian state, surprisingly, did win a certain measure of popularity right after the war, even in the top echelon of the army. According to Avnery, one of the idea's proponents was armored corps general Yisrael Tal, with whom Avnery says he held a series of conversations about the concept. Another general who was intrigued by the idea was supplies chief Mati Peled.

The assumption was that like after 1956, the superpowers would force Israel to return the territories. That raised the question to whom? There were those who argued it would be better not to return the land to Jordan, but instead establish a Palestinian state as a non-militarized buffer between Israel and Jordan, that would block the way of an Arab invasion from the east.

On June 10, after the IDF took the Golan Heights, Military Intelligence's research department, headed by Shlomo Gazit - who would later become commander of Military Intelligence - prepared a six-point plan for political action. The plan said Israel has no interest in occupying the territories at the expense of the Arabs, but some border corrections have to be made. Israel supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian state will not be allowed to form an army. The Old City of Jerusalem will become an open city, with a status quo like the Vatican's. The proposal was sent to Dayan, to chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, his deputy, Haim Bar-Lev, and to Military Intelligence commander Aharon Yariv. "Unfortunately," Gazit later wrote in his book "Trap of Fools," "not one of them responded to the document. There was no discussion and no practical steps were taken toward the path we laid out."

The day after Jerusalem was taken, two officers from the military government met with attorney Aziz Shehade. The meeting took place in Ramallah. Shehade had represented the Palestinian refugees at the Lausanne conference in 1949. The two Israelis were David Kimche, then a Shin Bet officer and later deputy head of the Mossad, and accountant Dan Bavli, who also had ties inside the Israeli defense establishment. Over fine coffee they listened in amazement as Shehade explained his plan for a Palestinian state in the territories.

On Sunday, June 12, the two officers presented Shehade's plan to former chief of staff Zvi Zur. A few days later, Zur accepted an appointment by Dayan to be his assistant. From him, Zur went to Rehavam Ze'evi, then assistant head of Military Operations. Ze'evi, Bavli writes in his book "Missed Dreams and Opportunities," which came out a few months ago, supported the idea of an autonomous Palestinian entity, and proposed that a state be established in the Samaria area. Ze'evi suggested the name Ishmael for the state.

The 68th battalion of the Jerusalem Brigade was in the Dahariya area near Hebron during the war and for a month after. A company sergeant in one of the regiments, Gadi Yatziv, then a Ph.D candidate in sociology at the Hebrew University, asked to make some use of his time. With his commander's permission he got a jeep and a translator and started making regular visits to the refugee camp at Deheishe near Bethlehem and Aruv, near Hebron. He summed up his impressions after he finished his reserves in a document he called Conversations with Refugees. The conclusion: a window of opportunity had opened in which it would be possible to satisfy the national ambitions of the Palestinians. There's no alternative, he wrote, but to give them sovereignty over half the country.

A few months later, Yatziv was one of the founders of the Peace and Security Group, which named Prof. Yehoshua Arielli as its leader. The group proposed withdrawing to the international borders in exchange for peace. On June 20, Ha'aretz published a plan by Prof. Yohanan Peres for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the center of the country and Gaza. "We the Jews," he wrote, "understand perhaps better than others the attraction of political independence, even on a small bit of land."

On June 28, Ha'aretz ran a petition signed by a long list of intellectuals who called for solving the refugee problem. The petition said, "This is the first time since the War of Independence that we can approach a solution to the problem. To bring the refugees into the normal course of life and take their affairs out of the hands of those who used them for political purposes."

Those calling for a Palestinian state and a solution to the refugee problem were not only few, but highly individualist. Though most came from the elite, they had no real influence on policy-makers. They stood out in their eccentricity in the landscape of the time, and many were in disputes with each other. There was no way for a common platform to be formed by the likes of Avnery, Leibowitz and Arielli.

`Enlightened occupation'

In the first two weeks after the war, a moderate spirit still emanated from the Prime Minister's Office. On June 14, Eshkol visited troops in Sinai. During the conversations with the soldiers he said, "Our hold on Sinai will last until the necessary permanent arrangements are made - until the practical arrangements that will prevent threats on Israel's security in the future." On June 19, the government of Israel, including the Gahal ministers, agreed in principle to peace with Syria and Egypt on the basis of a withdrawal to the international boundaries. But the decision remained on paper. Reality was stronger.

Beneath the surface, a dispute broke out between Eshkol and Dayan over who would take charge of the Arabs of the territories. On the same day the government decided in secret on readiness for a withdrawal, Eshkol told Dayan that the Prime Minister's Office would take responsibility for managing policy in the areas under military administration. But Eshkol didn't have the strength to do so. Dayan later wrote in his autobiography, "Neither the prime minister nor the finance minister dealt with, nor were able to deal with, these matters - reality took its course. I was personally interested and dedicated and the fact that the administration of the administered territories was in the hands of the military government concentrated the handling of the Arabs of the territories in my hands."

Dayan's victory became a personal victory in the public and political world after the war. Within two months he formulated the open bridges policy between the West Bank and Jordan, and eliminated the need for the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza to need passes to go to Israel. The "enlightened occupation" had begun.

On July 27, Yigal Allon brought his plan to the government. Later he would say that the plan was meant "to determine the borders of the state of Israel so they guarantee a strategically complete state - and a demographically Jewish state, without dispossessing the Arabs, and while settling Jews." Allon proposed annexing the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, settling the Jordan Valley and establishing a small Palestinian state in the heart of the West Bank, as "sovereign territory linked to Israel in a mutual defense treaty, a common market, and cultural agreements."

On July 15, Kibbutz Merom Golan went up on the Golan Heights. Within a year, 14 settlements would be placed in the territories, nine of them on the Golan. Others dotted the northern Sinai, northern Dead Sea, Jordan Valley and Gush Etzion.

Dayan and Allon were meanwhile at war over who would take over the Labor Party and the Prime Minister's Office. A major factor contributing to the hardening of the Israeli position was the September 2, 1967 Khartoum Conference of the Arab League, which declared no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no peace with Israel.

And on Pesach, 1968, at the Park Hotel in Hebron, a group of people backed by Allon, and led by Moshe Levinger, calling themselves Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), announced they would not be leaving the hotel after the seder. The settlement movement as we know it today was born.