Israel: The Tragedy of Victory

David Ben-Gurion
David Ben-Gurion; drawing by David Levine

Less than a month after the Six Day War, at the beginning of July 1967, I heard David Ben-Gurion speak at Beit Berl, the “think tank” of the Israeli Labor party. Ben-Gurion was, by then, no longer a member of the party which he had founded and he had even given up his seat in the Knesset, where he ended his political career, a faction of one. In June 1963 he had finally retired to Sde Boker, a rather primitive kibbutz on the edge of the desert in the Negev.

The Ben-Gurion who walked into the meeting had about him the air of a prophet who had walked out of his tent to die, but had paused on this last journey to tell us truths which the less farsighted could not see and which only a man possessed by the spirit would dare tell. He warned his listeners against the euphoria that had swept the Jewish world in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.

A reporter from Israel’s news service, ITIM, was present. A few short lines of the speech appeared the next day in the Israeli papers. What Ben-Gurion had to say about returning the territories, and his solemn warnings against being emotionally overwhelmed by victory, were read in Israel as only another one of the angry outbursts of the founding father, who had now become a public scold.

Israel went on to rejoice in its new power and its new sense of space; no longer could one drive the length of the country in four hours. Levi Eshkol, the prime minister of Israel, shortly after the war was over offered the Arabs the return of nearly all the territories, if they would recognize Israel and negotiate peace. The response of the Arab League at a meeting in Khartoum in November 1967 was three resounding noes: no recognition of Israel, no negotiation, and no peace. And yet most Israelis, and almost all of their friends, did not believe the Arabs. It seemed beyond doubt that the vanquished would soon realize how badly off they were, and would sue for peace. In such a negotiation, almost all Israelis thought that they would undoubtedly have the power to make themselves more secure by returning less than all of the territories that had been captured in the war.

Now,…


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