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Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong?

David Ben-Gurion was the only leading figure in the political elite who broke the general euphoria by suggesting that Israel withdraw immediately, if need be unilaterally, from all occupied territories. As he had in 1948, Ben-Gurion flatly opposed any attempts to permanently occupy the West Bank. But Ben-Gurion was old and retired and politically isolated. He had bitterly quarreled with the ruling Labor Party. Yigal Allon, the same young general who in 1948 had urged him to complete, as he put it, the “liberation” of the rest of the country, was now a prominent cabinet minister competing for the premiership with Moshe Dayan, another former general. Allon, though he spoke vaguely of the need to allow the Palestinians a state of their own, drew up a plan of settlements and annexations on the West Bank that would have left the Palestinians little more than two enclaves in the Samarian and Judean mountains, surrounded by Israeli military bases and proposed settlements. They would have no political foothold in Jerusalem. The so-called Allon Plan grew incrementally over the years as the political deadlock continued; it embraced more and more territory to be settled and annexed by Israel.

Dayan’s plans were more ambiguous but, in effect, far more ambitious. He was the first top-level secular politician whose rhetoric was loaded with suggestive biblical imagery: “We’ve returned to Shilo [a house of worship in the Bronze Age]; we’ve returned to Anathot [the prophet Isaiah’s birthplace] never to part from them again,” etc., etc. Dayan was the adored victor in a glorious war and, for some years, perhaps the most famous Jew since Jesus Christ. It was, I think, at his urging that the war was retrospectively named after the Six Days of Creation. Right-wing and religious fundamentalists made the most of the victory and endowed the Six-Day War with a metaphysical, pseudo-messianic aura. They pushed for the formal annexation immediately of all “liberated areas.” At that time, they were still a relatively small minority.

The race between the two secular ex-generals for the premiership was more ominous, with fatal consequences to this day. Both Allon and Dayan were curiously self-centered, as politicians often are, and blind to the Palestinian presence in the region. They dismissed the aspirations of over a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as of limited political importance. They had no intention to offer them Israeli citizenship. Some 300,000 Palestinians already lived in Israel proper, increasingly embittered by their status as second-class citizens. The Jewish population in 1967 was 2.7 million; the combined Arab population west of the river Jordan was 1.3 million. It was as though France had decided in 1938 to absorb as many as 20 million restive, potentially subversive Germans within borders that were surrounded, as Israel was, by more than a hundred million of their hostile, heavily armed co-nationals. Today, thirty-five years later, 4.1 million Palestinians live between the river Jordan and the sea (3.1 million in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and 1 million Palestinians in Israel proper.) Despite heavy Jewish immigration since 1967 there are still only some 5 million Jews, a ratio of only 1.2 to 1. Higher Palestinian birthrates are certain to assure an absolute Palestinian majority within ten or fifteen years.

Cabinet sessions in Israel are always long and verbose affairs but never as long and frequent as they were in the summer of 1967. The ministers deliberated on what to do after the great victory. The crucial session, on the status of the occupied West Bank, began on a Sunday in mid-June`and lasted, with brief interruptions for food and sleep, until the following Wednesday. The decision finally made was—not to decide. In the absence of a decision, Dayan, by now a national demigod, Allon, and assorted right-wing and religious fundamentalist militants and squatters were able to successfully establish very dubious facts on the ground—settlements and so-called heachsujot (outpost positions) that multiplied over the years through formal and semi-informal arrangements. Squatters were gradually legalized, lavishly subsidized, and eventually hailed as national heroes. It was said of the British Empire that it was born in a fit of absentmindedness. The Israeli colonial intrusion into the West Bank came into being under similar shadowy circumstances. Few people took it seriously at first. Some deluded themselves that it was bound to be temporary. Those responsible for it pursued it consistently. They included a few ministers who believed that it might even induce the Arabs to sue for peace sooner rather than later, before too many “irrevocable” facts were established on the ground.

An ostensibly dovish Labor minister of housing—a declared opponent of the settlement project who nevertheless very generously subsidized it—cynically remarked that after the settlements were evacuated, as he was certain they would be, the United States would compensate Israel at a rate of one dollar for every lira spent on it in vain. The few who protested the settlements on political or demographic grounds were ignored. They were no match for the emerging coalition of religious and political fundamentalists. The Knesset never voted on the settlement project. The settlements were at first financed mostly through nongovernmental agencies, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency, and the National Jewish Fund. The US government went through the motions of mildly protesting the settlement project. It took none of the legal and other steps it might have taken to stop the flow of tax-exempt contributions to the UJA or JNF that financed the settlements on land confiscated for “security” reasons from its Palestinian owners. For all practical purposes, the United States served as a ready partner in the settlement project. The National Coalition cabinet, which was slapped together hastily on the eve of the 1967 war, remained in power long after. It was presided over at first by Levi Eshkol, a weak prime minister who died soon after the war and was succeeded by the hard-line Golda Meir, famous for her smug maternalism, and for saying, “Who are the Palestinians? I am a Palestinian.”

The government informed the United States that Israel was ready to withdraw from occupied Egyptian and Syrian territory in return for peace; but it explicitly excluded withdrawal from the West Bank or Gaza Strip. No evidence has turned up so far that American diplomats actually sounded out Cairo and Damascus about a deal based on Israeli withdrawal. An attempt, a few years ago, by The New York Review of Books to induce the US National Archives to release diplomatic documents pertinent to these exchanges under the Freedom of Information Act produced no results. Not a single US cable, report, or verbal communication turned up to indicate that in the summer of 1967 an attempt was made by the US to begin a peace process. We can only speculate on the reasons for US failure to do so. Apart from being happy, apparently, that Israel had humiliated the Soviet Union’s main clients in the region, the US was in no hurry to end the Arab–Israeli conflict. The Arab–Israeli War was becoming a proxy conflict between the superpowers, a testing ground for their hardware. The Suez Canal remained conveniently blocked. At the height of the Vietnam War, the US, under Lyndon Johnson, might have had good reasons to keep it closed as long as possible and force Soviet supply ships to North Vietnam to take the long route around Africa.

Soon afterward, at a summit meeting in Khartoum, the Arab countries announced the “Three no’s”—no to recognizing, negotiating with, or making peace with Israel. The ensuing stalemate lasted several years. An Arab-Israeli writer, with something like Schadenfreude, borrowed an Oriental image to describe the Israeli dilemma: “Instead of stepping on the snake that threatened them, they merely swallowed it,” he wrote. “Now they have to live with it, or die with it.” A dilemma, by definition, is a conflict between equally undesirable alternatives. But was this really the conflict facing Israel? We now know that it wasn’t. Peace was a distinct possibility—with the Palestinians as early as the summer of 1967, with Jordan and Egypt in 1971 and 1972. Soon after the 1967 war, two senior Israeli intelligence officers—one was David Kimche, who later served as deputy director of Mossad and director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry—interviewed prominent Palestinian civic and political leaders throughout the West Bank, including intellectuals, notables, mayors, and religious leaders. He reported that most of them said they were ready to establish a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank that would sign a separate peace with Israel. The PLO at the time was still a fairly marginal group.

Kimche’s report, as far as we know, was shelved by Dayan. It was never submitted to the cabinet. In the hubris of the first few months following the war, even a tentative effort to explore this possibility would likely have been rejected by the cabinet. Dayan believed that as long as the natives were treated kindly and decently—at first they were—it would be possible to maintain the status quo on the West Bank and in Gaza for generations. The Palestinians were still remarkably docile; they had allowed the West Bank to be conquered in a few hours without firing a single shot. Dayan—and nearly the entire political and military establishment—were convinced that not only the Palestinians but also Egypt and Syria would be unable to present a military threat for decades. Dayan’s opinion of the Arab armies was reflected during a visit to Vietnam. Asked by General Westmoreland how to win in war, Dayan is said to have responded: “First of all, you pick the Arabs as your enemy.” He told me a few weeks after the war: “What is it really, this entire West Bank? It’s only a couple of small townships.”

We may forget that top political leaders live very different lives from the rest of us. Their escorts whisk them through red lights and they often travel about by helicopter. From the cockpit of a helicopter, the West Bank might indeed look like little more than a handful of wretchedly small townships. Dayan’s mood was reflected in an interview he gave at the time to the editor of Der Spiegel. Asked how Israel hoped to achieve peace his answer was: by standing firm as iron, wherever we are now standing, until the Arabs are ready to give in.

Q: Then it’s only King Hussein who is likely to qualify as a partner in negotiations. But he isn’t strong enough to agree to [your] conditions.

Dayan: In this case let them find themselves another king.

Q: But Jordan as a country may not be strong enough to agree to peace on Dayan’s conditions.

Dayan: In this case let them find themselves another country.

Q: Under these circumstances, it is hard to hope for peace soon.

Dayan: That’s probably right.

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