Read Part 1 of the Secret Transcripts of the Six-Day War here.
When the guns fell silent on the evening of June 10, 1967, the Middle East and Israel were forever changed. The discussion Israel’s cabinet ministers began on June 14 forged the conundrum we live in now. Reading through transcripts of 20-some hours of discussions held the week after the Six-Day War demonstrates that, recent as they were, the past the ministers lived in was startlingly foreign. They held ideas that seem strange today to be self-evident, and never thought of things that we find obvious.
Listening to their deliberations has a strong whiff of foreignness, and not only because the Hebrew they spoke sounds surprisingly archaic. Israel’s key decision-makers lived halfway between our own time and World War I; they remembered the Great War and had experienced the systematic redrawing of maps in its aftermath that created the modern Middle East. The Shoah was as recent to them as the Clinton administration is to us, and Israel’s War of Independence was as recent in their eyes as the Monica Lewinsky scandal is in ours. The United States forced them out of Sinai in 1956, giving proof of the utter uselessness of the commitments Israel had garnered in return for that retreat. When Menachem Begin grounded his opposition to returning the West Bank to Jordan by citing the Polish annexation of eastern Germany after WWII, the West German acceptance of this alteration of German borders hadn’t happened yet. It would only happen three years later, in 1970.
It’s not surprising, then, that the familiar voices on the tapes keep on making arguments that sometimes sound plausible until veering off in the oddest directions. You listen to their discussions and wonder if they are really talking about the land outside your window.
The taped discussions took place between June 14 and 19 in five separate meetings, first in the Security Cabinet (SC), then in a subcommittee, again in the SC, then another subcommittee, and eventually in a long meeting of the full Cabinet on the 19th. The transcript of the June 19 meeting was declassified some years ago; the fact that it was part of a series of such meetings was unknown until now.
The topic of the first meeting, on June 14, was Israel’s international position; the future of the territories was to be discussed on the 15th. By and large, the ministers managed, just barely, to stick to the agenda. But Jerusalem kept coming up, as if the ministers couldn’t keep their hands off the prize that Jews had yearned for over two millennia.
Yet what should be done with the Arabs who had moved into Jerusalem Jewish Quarter since 1948? Everyone agreed they had to leave. The simplest plan was Israel should clean and restore the dozens of original synagogues that had been destroyed after the Independence War by Jordan, which had systematically cleansed the Old City’s Jewish population. Since some of the destroyed synagogues now housed Arabs, they should be removed somehow. Yigal Allon suggested “removing them intelligently”—triggering a typical Levi Eshkol barb “intelligently with bulldozers.” Moreover, Allon emphasized the need to fill empty areas around the Old City with new Jewish neighborhoods. Moshe Haim Shapira, normally one of his main sparring partners, mostly agreed:
Regarding Jews settling in the Old City. I have a hard time saying this; you know I’m against forcing anyone out of their homes. But this is different. These are Jewish homes and Jewish land belonging to the Jews who were expelled in 1948, and now the Arabs live there. I don’t think we should evict them, but over time we should make it clear to them that we’re going to rebuild, and there will be lots of construction around the synagogues and it would be better for them to move. We need to find other apartments for them, and move them from one place to another. Perhaps not all at once.
By meeting’s end, it was decided to reunite Jerusalem and to prepare a plan for the removal of the Arabs in the Jewish Quarter to alternative homes in Jerusalem or its vicinity. Even before beginning the discussion about the territories, the future of Jerusalem had been decided.
Later that week, Eshkol asked Menachem Begin to report from a subcommittee which was drafting the law annexing Jerusalem:
Begin: We had someone draw an initial map of the united city. It’s such a beautiful map! The Old City is right in the middle!
Pinchas Sapir: It’s the center of the world.
Eshkol: The navel of the earth.
At 10 a.m. on June 15, a subcommittee of five ministers convened to draft a policy paper. Eshkol, never much good at controlling meetings, made a forlorn effort to keep it short:
Eshkol: We want to be practical and reach results. I’d like to start with a discussion of the Golan.
Allon: I think each of us should present his philosophy in 10 minutes. Maybe Eban or Dayan should start.
Eshkol: That’s a waste of time, since each territory poses a different set of problems. Let’s start with the Golan, because we’re especially angry at the Syrians. We’re not going to settle the area, so let’s tell [President Lyndon] Johnson, “Look, we want permanent peace, no more threats to our water sources, and a 20-25-kilometer demilitarized zone.”
At which point Abba Eban launched into a description of the American and Soviet positions. Eshkol tried again:
We need to be short, if we’re to have a draft document for the security cabinet this evening, and perhaps then go to the full cabinet. But I understand you each want to present his position. So be it.
Begin went first, and his position on Sinai and the Golan is surprising: He was in favor of trading them in their entirety for peace. Begin was the only minister in 1967 who was destined to be prime minister. When elected, in 1977, Israelis and the world thought he was a hardliner, and in many ways he was. When in 1978 he traded the entire Sinai for peace with Egypt, many of us were astonished. Had we been able to read these top-secret transcripts we’d have known that was his position from day one.
Most of the ministers agreed with Begin about Sinai and the Golan. The majority of the discussions would focus on the points of disagreement: what to do with Gaza, the West Bank, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had been uprooted in 1948 and kept in camps by the Jordanian and Egyptian governments ever since, mostly in Gaza. Begin spent about 10 minutes talking about the future of “western land of Israel” (the eastern half of Palestine being the Kingdom of Jordan, which was sliced off of Mandatory Palestine by the British in 1923 as a reward for their throne-less Hashemite allies):
I’ll use the Latin term patria res sacra extra commercium [“the fatherland is beyond commerce,” i.e., it is not a thing to be traded]. I see a danger if we talk only about Jerusalem; the yes will indicate the no. I think we have a strong moral case. Jordan attacked us, first by putting its military under Egyptian command and then by shelling us even as we asked them twice to desist.
The actions of the aggressor are important for defining self-defense. Who is King Hussein to claim the area? Jordan annexed it illegally in 1949 after a war of aggression. And what would we give up? Not Jerusalem, and not Hebron or Bethlehem. So what remains is the Triangle [a forgotten term for the northern half of the West bank], and that’s where the Jordanian artillery used to shell Tel Aviv from. The same goes for Gaza: Egypt has no legal claim to it.
If we show any willingness to partition what was Mandatory Palestine, we’ll be faced with demands to agree to a Palestinian state, and then they’ll demand Lydda, Ramle and Jaffa. We need to explain that our position is based on right is might, while that of the Arabs on might is right [English in the original], and the world will understand us.
What should we do? The population can’t all have Israeli citizenship. Even in America it takes five years to acquire citizenship, and the Arabs on the West Bank have spent 19 years being taught to hate us. We’ll give them the rights of residents for seven years, so they won’t vote in the next three elections, and in the meantime we’ll bring more Jewish immigrants and raise our birthrate. After seven years, we’ll ask them who wants Israeli citizenship and who wishes perhaps to move elsewhere. Even if most of them wish to be citizens, we can live with an Arab minority as we have so far. We also need to figure out some sort of economic union with Jordan. We have much to offer, and perhaps we’ll manage to create a booming economy for the benefit of both sides. As for the refugees of Gaza, we need to move them; perhaps we can settle them around El Arish [in northern Sinai], as was suggested to the Zionist movement [at the turn of the 20th century].
Allon, likewise a hawk, saw things through the perspective of 1948, when as a young general he had seen the results of war gain international acceptance:
The territories which are part of the Land of Israel are inhabited by many Arabs, while the areas we conquered from Egypt and Syria are mostly empty. It would have been a lot easier had it been the other way round.
The Hashemites are not a stable regime, and we shouldn’t be considering handing over control of any part of the Land of Israel except to the local Arabs.
The first thing we should do is to launch a gigantic humanitarian project to settle the refugees of Gaza, of whom there are probably about 350,000, none of them with civil rights. Let’s put all our efforts into building homes for the first 50,000 of them, in northern Sinai, perhaps. This will change the dynamics of the situation.
We should annex the region south of Jerusalem right away, for security reasons and political ones. This area must be part of Israel. As for the Arabs of the triangle: I think there are about 800,000 of them. I’m not suggesting we create a sovereign Palestinian state there, but I think that once we’ve made some minor modifications to the border we should set up an Arab autonomy there, connected to Israel for 50-99 years. I would detach them from Jordan by annexing the Jordan Valley; there are hardly any Arabs, and we can put settlements there. We’ll give them free access to the port of Haifa. Who knows? Perhaps some of them will emigrate to the Gulf, or to Europe.
Moshe Dayan agreed with Allon and Begin that the Jordan needed to be Israel’s eastern border, but had a different suggestion for the Arab population:
We should try immediately to find local Arabs on the West Bank we can work with. Let’s set up a council of their representatives who will work with us. There will be the mayors, there will be an administration, there will be the council, and they’ll work with the military governor, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll supply services, and we can hope they’ll agree to cooperate for a while. As for resettling 50,000 Arabs from Gaza—that will take years. I don’t think we should plan that far yet. Who knows? Perhaps the leadership of the Arab countries will change soon; after all, they just lost a war so badly.
Eban agreed on peace with Egypt and Syria in return for Sinai and the Golan. He admitted he didn’t see any clear goal regarding the West Bank and Gaza, musing:
We see the example of Rhodesia, where some citizens vote and others don’t. It seems to me perhaps the best idea is to set up a unit, to allow the populace to vote there and arrange their own autonomy. The thing is, they’ll probably want to join some Arab country, Jordan or perhaps Iraq…
Yaacov Herzog: Or perhaps Israel?
Eban: That would be great! In the meantime I suggest we set up an interim arrangement where they have autonomy and we control security. Maybe they’ll have a vote at the UN—we’ll have to see how things develop. Who knows? Perhaps Hussein will be willing to negotiate with us even if he knows we’re not going to give him Jerusalem. We’ll see how things develop.
When the Security Cabinet reconvened a few hours later, for what was to be a five-hour meeting, Eshkol began reading the summary of the morning’s meeting. He quipped, as he began, that “this is mostly fiction [because it’s just us talking to ourselves]. But the important thing is that we seek peace; we went to war so as to reach real peace treaties”. He seems to have regarded the entire series of meetings mostly as a necessary exercise in self-delusion that would enable Abba Eban to tell the Americans, that should they deliver the Arabs to the negotiating table, Israel would negotiate.
So for the next three meetings, the ministers talked.
Pinchas Sapir, minister of finance:
If we add a million Arab citizens that will be explosive, it will change the political map. Nor can we live with two different populations, Jews with a high standard of living and Arabs with a low one. … It’s possible to win a war and then to remain in a state of permanent conflict that will be worse than war.
I’m not against settling the refugees in Iraq and Syria. I think it’s natural that some of them should settle there, so long as they aren’t right across our border. We can’t expect them to move to Egypt, where the population is already exploding. Someone mentioned Australia or Canada. … Just before the war, there was lots of international apprehension. Some were afraid the Jews were going to be slaughtered again, but many were afraid of a world war. They look at this region as a place that might ignite a world war. … Maybe the world should solve the issue.
Eshkol: The world doesn’t solve issues.
Sapir: But the world is afraid of a third world war. … I guess it’s complicated.
Josef Burg was a junior minister and was to remain a feature of Israeli politics for the next 30 years, many of them as the leader of the National Religious Party, which would become the main home of the settler movement. But in 1967, he didn’t sound like a settler:
I think the idea of dividing the West Bank doesn’t solve anything. I think we need to see if there’s some kind of local leadership with which we can work on some sort of self-rule. I don’t know if this will work but see no better alternative. I don’t see any serious partner for peace talks. Maybe we can ask the Iranians if they can find someone we can talk to—if not, all this is just us talking to ourselves.
The leader of what would become Burg’s party, Moshe Haim Shapira, also distanced himself from Begin’s wish to control the West Bank and from Allon’s plan to dissect it:
We must tell our friends and our enemies that we seek permanent peace, and we’re not going to allow attacks and infiltrations. We seek peace but wish to be certain we won’t be bombed daily, and that means Sinai and the Golan must be demilitarized. This may require some changes to the borders—we’ll negotiate that when the time comes.
We should try to split the Arab front, and the best place to do that is by reaching an agreement with Hussein.
The UN is discussing refugees. We need to say that we wish to resolve the issue, and the way to do so is for the Arab states, and we, and the rest of the world, all to participate in the solution. I know I’m being contrarian, but I think we can integrate 300,000 Arabs—100,000 in Jerusalem, the 100,000 original populace of Gaza, and 100,000 of the refugees of Gaza. We already have 250,000 Arab citizens, so we’ll have 550,000. We’ll decide about our eastern border according to the negotiations with Hussein; better that than to decide among ourselves that the Jordan must be the border.
Zeev Shaerf agreed there was no sense insisting on the Jordan as a border. He also had two new arguments:
In the entire history of the Land of Israel, the Jordan was the border for 25 years, between 1923-1948. Throughout the biblical era there were Jews on both sides of the river. As for the security considerations, they’re not clear. The army doesn’t need the river as the border, and since there will be terrorist activities, it won’t help. As long as we control the hostile populace of the West Bank, the terrorists will find bases among them and the external border won’t make any difference.
My last comment relates to the Holy Sites. We need to be very careful what we say. We beat the Arab Muslims, but we didn’t beat the Christians. We’re going to have tough discussions with the Christian world. Bringing the Christian world to accept Jewish control over their holy places—we’re not that strong. We’re going to need to reconcile ourselves that we’ll have to relinquish some form of control over the Christian sites. If we make irresponsible proclamations we’ll find ourselves faced with the demand to internationalize Jerusalem, like in 1947.
Imagine the concept of a political Christian world! True, it had existed for more than a thousand years, but sometime between 1967 and 2017, it migrated from our world to the world of the past.
Zalman Aran was one of the last speakers:
I hesitate to speak since my positions are so different. People seem to assume we have time to wait and see. I disagree. We don’t. There’s an assumption we control the situation and how it unfolds. I’d love that to be true, but it isn’t. The third assumption I don’t accept is that we need territories that don’t have Jews and do have Arabs. What we need is peace that ensures our security–and that won’t be granted us by a piece of paper, which we know will be worthless.
So how do we ensure security? Peace with Egypt and Syria are important. Gaza stays in Israel. On the West Bank we need to hold onto territories the experts tell us are crucial for security, but nothing else. I think solving the refugee problem is crucial for our security. Maybe we can solve some of it by settling them on the West Bank.
Finally, there was Justice Minister Yaacov Shimshon Shapira (not to be confused with Moshe Haim Shapira):
What does it mean that the West Bank will have self-rule with security and foreign affairs are controlled by Israel, yet the population won’t be Israeli citizens? The world is going through decolonization, and we’re accused unfairly of being colonial, and we’re considering ruling territories inhabited mainly by Arabs while keeping security and foreign affairs in our hands, like the sheikhs of the Persian Gulf. Who’ll accept that? Whom will we convince? Everyone will say we’re constructing a colony on the West Bank.
It’s either one way or another. Either we take the risk that they’ll be citizens of Israel, which will be the outcome if we control the West Bank or accept Begin’s ideas: Soon we’ll have a bi-national state, and after a while we’ll be a minority. Or you accept that most of the West Bank, with the exception of Jerusalem and some small border corrections, will become part of an Arab country. There’s no other way.
Later in the meeting, Eshkol came back to Yaacov Shimshon Shapira’s position:
Regarding the refugees, it can’t be that we can’t have a position. We must say that Israel will not solve the matter alone. There was a war, and now we wish to sit, face-to-face or around a large table, and solve the problem. So we can’t say anything about the refugees?
Y.S. Shapira: They’re in your country now. You’re responsible for them.
Eshkol: I fail to understand the anger when I said something earlier about exchanging populations. … When coexistence is impossible and communities cannot live together, there will be population exchanges. We took in 100,000 Jews from Iraq, they should take 100,000 Arabs. It’s the same language, there’s water and there’s ample land. Maybe they won’t agree, but it certainly seems obviously legitimate.
Eshkol: Why not?
Y.S.Shapira: Because they are the indigenous population here, and you control them. There’s no reason that Arabs who were born here should move to Iraq.
Just as Israel’s Cabinet ministers never foresaw their crushing military victory, so they never foresaw the decades we’ve been living in since. As they convened for their first postwar discussion, it never crossed their minds they were forging a conundrum that would remain unsolved for generations.
The discussion they thought they were having was urgent and immediate: The UN was about to discuss the outcome of the Six-Day War, and Israel’s foreign minister needed instructions. Yet then, astonishingly, it turned out that not only Israel understood that the dictated terms of 1956 had failed. Those countries that hadn’t been willing to honor their commitments in May didn’t want to make new ones in July, so they didn’t force Israel out of the territories, as the Israelis half-expected them to. Then came the swift Arab rejection of peace overtures. Unexpectedly, the temporary arrangements that Israel stumbled into in the summer of 1967 evolved into longer-term realities.
The political Christian world disappeared. The Arabs of the West Bank became the Palestinians. Israel and Egypt forged a stunted but solid peace. Syria ceased to exist, while the Hashemites are still on their throne. The Palestinians achieved more than autonomy, but not sovereignty. They transformed from a cynical military tool of Arab states into Israel’s most active adversary. A vocabulary of human rights appeared. Allon’s musings about limited settlements became a project of 400,000 Jews. The shaping ideas of the past became obsolete—but the conditions they had inadvertently enabled are still with us. The past is a foreign land, and it isn’t even past.
This article is part of a Tablet series on the consequences of The Six-Day War, which began on June 5, 1967.
Yaacov Lozowick teaches at Bar Ilan University. He is the former Israel State Archivist, and was previously the archives director at Yad Vashem. His Twitter feed is @yaacovlozowick.