I was a volunteer during the Six-Day War. Although the kibbutz where I worked was in the north, the spell of reunified Jerusalem frequently drew me back. In those days, I smoked a pipe. While walking through the Old City, Palestinian merchants outside their stalls would call me over to try my pipe in exchange for their hookahs. Talking to them, I became convinced that Israel could do a deal with these people, who had little love for King Hussein. At the very least, Israel would buy itself time.
Instead, Israel insisted on peace talks with all the Arab states and the situation on the West Bank and in Gaza worsened inexorably.
Years later, I put my alternative scenario to Abba Eban. Uncharacteristically (“He is not a listener” was Saul Bellow’s terse judgment), he conceded that maybe there was some validity in my argument. Like all Israeli politicians when no longer in power, Eban suddenly discovered that the key to unlocking the Middle East impasse lay with the Palestinians, after all.
The extent of Eban’s culpability in helping to formulate Israel’s botched policy after the Six-Day War is one of the revelations in Avi Raz’s historically valuable new book (subtitled: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War). It was Eban who advocated the strategy of tachsisanut (“prevarication”) to head off UN Security Council censure, growing Washington impatience and international criticism by giving a pretence of frenetic diplomatic activity to hide the fact that Israel had no agreed negotiating position.
The Government of National Unity would have collapsed if asked to spell out its minimum peace goals. It was irretrievably split between territorial maximalists and moderates. The Cabinet could not even agree whether to pursue “the Palestinian option” or “the Jordanian option”. So it confusedly and half-heartedly tried both, to the increasing frustration of Hussein and West Bank notables.
Countless secret meetings were held with the king (mainly in the London home of his Jewish doctor) but whenever Israel was asked to put its demands on paper the reply was that they would be revealed once negotiations began. As Menachem Begin later described it: “The decision was not to decide.” Levi Eshkol told his colleagues: “I fear the day when we have to sit face-to-face and conduct negotiations.”
Apart from annexing East Jerusalem, the one thing the Cabinet could agree on was the permanent retention of Gaza — but without the majority of its inhabitants, who hopefully could be “persuaded” to relocate to the East Bank of the Jordan, there to rejoin the original 1948 refugees. Nor were more than a few thousand of the estimated 200,000 who had fled the West Bank during the 1967 fighting to be allowed back. In Eshkol’s folksy metaphor, Israel’s territorial conquests represented a nice, big dowry. “The trouble is that the dowry is followed by a bride whom we don’t want.”
Raz’s dense text is supplemented by 88 pages of notes. He has trawled primary sources in Israeli, American, British and UN archives as well as libraries and research centres. Most official Palestinian records have been expropriated by Israel or destroyed. Nevertheless, by relying on private papers and sifting the often self-justifying oral histories of surviving West Bank protagonists, Raz plausibly reconstructs their initial enthusiasm for, and speedy disillusion with, their Israeli occupiers.
Rabbi David J Goldberg’s most recent book is ‘This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel’ (Faber & Faber)