In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel achieved a remarkably rapid victory over its Arab opponents; it left Israel in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, Gaza which had been ruled by Egypt, the Jordan River, the Suez Canal, and the West Bank, so named by Jordan which had “annexed” the area despite almost unanimous international disapproval.
The Israeli documents just released also show among Israeli leaders a startling readiness to compromise, which contrasts with the total disinclination of Arabs and Palestinians to compromise. The documents show clearly that, while there were acute differences among the Israelis about the fate of the territories captured in 1967, almost all Israelis were eager to trade land for peace.
The discussions and proposals were not initially intended to be policy proposals; they were directives to Israel’s Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, who was participating in New York in the Special Session of the UN General Assembly, called to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict. The ministerial discussions have to be put in the context of Israeli concern about any UN action after the memory of at least two issues. The first occurred when Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez war of 1956 and had to rely there on United States guarantees and the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), which proved ineffective. The second was the speedy compliance in May 1967 of U Thant, Secretary–General of the UN, without the required approval of the UN General Assembly, to accede to Nasser’s demand that the UNEF troops in the Sinai be withdrawn. The Israeli ministers feared that pressure would again be exerted on the state as in 1956 and May 1967, leaving Israel vulnerable.
It is also relevant that the Israeli government was a unity one under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and included members of Gahal (Menachem Begin and Yosef Safir) and the Rafi party (Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan). Not surprisingly, there were strong differences of opinion on the issues of security, borders, refugees, and water — all of which prevented agreement.
Consensus was reached, however, on some issues. First, Israel should withdraw from captured territories only if the Arab states agreed to make peace and end the boycott of Israel. Most important, Israel would return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for either a peace treaty or strong security guarantees. The Israeli cabinet also agreed that east Jerusalem would not be returned to Jordan, which had ruled it; that Egypt had no greater claim to Gaza than Israel had, and that Jordan had no greater claim to the West Bank than Israel had, as all three countries had acquired the areas through war.
Some ministers thought that the demand for peace treaties was unrealistic. In the desperate effort to find positions that would both lead to negotiation and also also protect the state of Israel, they grappled with a variety of contradictory alternatives: control over the Gaza Strip, freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran; demilitarization of the Sinai and of the Golan Heights; control of the sources of the Jordan River; rule over the West Bank; end of any Israeli rule in the West Bank; military rule during a transition period; and self-rule for the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank while Israel still concerns itself with foreign affairs and national security.
Although there were differences on the issues of the destiny of the West Bank, and on whether peace treaties should be based on international frontiers, ministers all spoke of peace with security arrangements. The positive answer to the security issue was finally approved by a majority of one, 10 to 9: it was decided that a peace agreement should ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Suez Canal; the freedom of flight over them, and the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula.
The formula agreed to by unanimity on June 19, 1967 was that “Israel proposes the conclusion of peace treaties with Egypt and Syria on the basis of the international frontiers and Israel’s security needs.” This proposal was presented to both Egypt and Syria, but no positive response came from either. Instead, the Arab Summit leaders at Khartoum announced on September 1, 1967 the three “nos.”
About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.
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