Minister of Trade Zeev Sherf (Labor) said in a cabinet meeting on June 19, 1967, that the distinction between what was desirable and what was needed was clear: “What we want is the situation of 1948, when the Arabs fled and Jewish immigrants came and filled their places, and we settled cities and villages,” he told his fellow ministers. “But today the situation is different – the Arabs did not flee [after the Six Day War] and the olim aren’t coming.”
This quote appears in the protocols of political and security discussions held by Israeli government ministers in 1967 – before, during and after the Six-Day War – which were made available on Thursday by the State Archives, marking the 50th anniversary of the war that altered Israel in every possible way. They provide a glimpse into the existential anxiety on the eve of the war; The euphoria that followed, when Israel tripled its territory with the conquest of Gaza, Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and Sinai; And the fateful political decision-making process the implications of which are felt to this day.
The discussion, then as now, revolved around annexation versus a two-state solution, although at the time the most these Israeli ministers could imagine was a Palestinian autonomy under Israeli rule (a solution that’s to the right of today’s Likud).
Then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (Labor) warned that at the end of the day Israel would find itself in charge of a larger-than-expected Arab population. “Do not forget that all this adds thousands of Arabs, and when we get to count real figures … it will turn out that we have a lot more than anything anyone is telling you now,” he said. Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir (Labor) also warned of a demographic problem. “They will reach about a million people through natural growth within four years,” he warned. “It will be a constant explosive charge, and in an advanced world we will not be able to live with two standards of living: one for the Jews in Israel and another one.”
Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira (Labor) warned against a bi-national state in which the Jews would be a minority. He called for the “West Bank” to be handed over to Jordan, “because otherwise we’re finished with the entire Zionist enterprise and will be living in a ghetto.”
Minister Menachem Begin, whose party, Herut-Liberals Bloc, the predecessor of today’s Likud, had entered a wall-to-wall coalition ahead of the war, proposed granting the Arabs of the “West Bank” residency status for seven years, during which time they would not be able to vote for the Knesset. “What do we have to do in these seven years?” He asked, and answered: “Increase the Aliyah and the birthrate.”
Would have made for a really busy seven years…
Surprisingly, the protocols show almost no discussion regarding Gaza. Eshkol stated that it was “owned by Israel.” When Minister Zerach Warhaftig (NRP) asked to know whether “Gaza is like Tiberias,” PM Eshkol replied: “I have no choice in this matter.”
Several ministers supported a “kind” transfer for the newly conquered Arabs. Minister Sherf suggested approaching the neighboring Arab states to request that they absorb this population. Brazil, which at the time was starved for new immigrants, was discussed several times as a possible destination. “Even though Brazil is a Catholic country, they absorb tens of thousands of Japanese of the Shinto faith,” Sherf mused. And PM Eshkol said: “If it were up to us, we would send all the Arabs out to Brazil.”
Labor Minister Yigal Alon (Labor) said on the same issue: “A few will go to Canada, to Australia, and some we will settle in Sinai.” Eshkol presented an idea for “population exchange,” explaining that just as Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries, so too should they absorb Arabs from the territories occupied by Israel. Minister Shapira disagreed: “They are residents of this country which you control today – there is no reason why Arabs who were born here should be taken out and transferred to Iraq,” he said.
To which Eshkol replied: “It is not such a great disaster … We did not enter here in clandestine fashion, we said that the Land of Israel is coming to us.”
Fifty years later, the majority of the voices in those conversations would belong squarely in the ranks of Habayit Hayehudi, or Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. The first time a “Palestinian autonomy” is mentioned in an official document involving Israel is as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. Clearly, despite the appearance of a consensus regarding the need to take care of the Arab demographic threat in the newly liberated territories, no one back then had the will or the courage to form a coalition around it.