What if Israel had turned back?

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 06-Jun-07 | Author: Tom Segev| Source: International Herald Tribune

The Six Day War: Israeli armor in the central sector in the Sinai, 7.6.1967.


Forty years ago, on the morning of June 5, 1967, Jordan launched an artillery attack on the Israeli part of Jerusalem. In reaction, Israel conquered the Arab sections of the city as well as the West Bank.

History is full of "what ifs," and historians should not indulge in such speculation. But journalists may. What if Israel hadn't taken East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War? Would the Palestinian situation have found some solution and would Israel be living at least in relative peace with its neighbors? Would Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have been avoided?

Perhaps. The alternate history is not as inconceivable as one might think. Leading Israeli policy planners had determined six months before the Six-Day War that capturing the West Bank would be bad for the country. Recently declassified Israeli government documents show that according to these policy planners, taking over the West Bank would weaken the relative strength of Israel's Jewish majority, encourage Palestinian nationalism and ultimately lead to violent resistance.

These comprehensive political and strategic discussions began in November 1966 and concluded in January 1967. The participants were representatives of the Mossad, Israeli army intelligence and the Foreign Ministry. The documents they prepared were approved by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the army's chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, and therefore reflect Israel's strategic thinking six months before the war.

There was general agreement that it would be to Israel's advantage for King Hussein of Jordan, whose country controlled the West Bank, to remain in power: He had, in effect, accepted Israel's existence, so Israel naturally had an interest in strengthening his regime.

Hussein was also endeavoring to unify the West Bank with the East Bank and was encouraging West Bank Palestinians to migrate to the east. Over the preceding 15 years, the number of Palestinians who had left the West Bank for the east had reached 200,000. Hussein's effort to integrate Palestinians was "a positive phenomenon from Israel's point of view," concluded the final position paper that emerged from that winter's discussions.

The king was acting to eradicate the Palestinian question, and this was an excellent reason not to take the West Bank away from him. But when Jordan attacked the Israeli part of Jerusalem on the first day of the conflict, all reason was forgotten. Jordan's attack obviously called for some kind of retaliation. But striking back at the Jordanian Army did not require the conquest of the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

Records of the Israeli cabinet meeting where the scope of the retaliation was determined are now available. Amazingly they show that not one of the cabinet ministers ever asked why it was in the interest of Israel to control the Arab parts of Jerusalem. Israel was about to take over some of the holiest places in the Christian and the Muslim world, but no analysts were called in to offer alternative ideas. No experts on international law were asked about the legal implications of their pending decision.

The ministers obviously felt there was no need to raise these questions: Acting under the influence of the age-old dream of return to Zion as well as Israel's spectacular victory over Egypt's forces a few hours previously, the ministers decided with their hearts, not their heads, to take East Jerusalem.

Their emotions propelled the Israelis to act against their national interest. It may have been a series of threatening moves taken by Egypt, or it may have been the intoxication of victory, but in view of the results of the war there was indeed no justification for the panic that had preceded it, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it, which is what makes the story of Israel in 1967 so difficult to comprehend.

Of course once taken, East Jerusalem could not be given back. To the present day it remains the major obstacle for a settlement.

I belong to a generation of Israelis who slowly but surely came to believe in peace. We needed to believe in it. The years since the 1967 conflict led us from war to war, and from one mistake to another. When new hopes emerged, they were overcome by disappointments, and then forgotten. Still, we regarded the conquests of 1967 as temporary and were encouraged by the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, under which Israel withdrew from Egyptian territory captured in 1967.

We believed that peace with the Palestinians would follow. But peace with the Palestinians has not come one inch closer. As a result more and more Israelis realize today that Israel gained absolutely nothing from the conquest of the Palestinian territories.

Speculating again in hindsight - Israel may have been better off giving up the West Bank and East Jerusalem without peace than signing the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan while keeping these territories. Forty years of oppression and Palestinian terrorism, both extremely cruel, have undermined Israel's Jewish and democratic foundations.

With about 400,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and with extreme Islamism as a driving force among the Palestinians, the conflict has become infinitely more difficult to solve.

Hence young Israelis have good reason to look at my generation and say, "You blew it." I suppose we did. In contrast to my generation, these young people no longer presume to know what should be done to solve the conflict; indeed they often no longer believe in peace. Many resort to cynical skepticism and fatalistic pessimism.

And yet - less idealistic and more pragmatic than people of my generation - young Israelis may also be more realistic than us. Their immediate challenge is conflict management, rather than futile efforts to formulate grand schemes of ultimate solutions to the conflict. With fewer hopes and lower expectations they just may be able to make life at least somewhat more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Given the present circumstances, that would be no small accomplishment.

Tom Segev, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is the author, most recently, of "1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East."