Open Zion

07.05.12

No, Israel Didn't Offer to Trade the West Bank for Peace in 1967

It's a reassuring story, regularly repeated by defenders of Israeli policy: After the Six-Day War, Israel offered to give up the land it had just occupied in return for peace. But the Arabs said no, first quietly, then publicly at the Khartoum Summit. Alas, Israel was stuck with the occupied territories. In some versions of the story, Israel had virtually no choice but to start building settlements once the Arabs rejected diplomacy.

Yet as new evidence surfaces, it's become increasingly clear that this account simplifies and warps history. Now a new book and the e-publication of crucial document further undercut the narrative. This matters, because the stories people tell about 1967 affect political positions today.

What's true is this: On June 18-19, 1967, a week after the war, Israel's cabinet met to formulate a stance on the occupied territories. The U.N. General Assembly was about to convene. Israeli leaders feared U.S. pressure to withdraw immediately, and needed to offer an alternative. After intense debate, the cabinet approved a secret message to Washington: Israel was prepared to reach peace treaties with Egypt and Syria "on the basis of the international border and Israel's security needs." Until such treaties, it would stay put. Glaringly, the decision said nothing about the West Bank.

Leaders of Arab countries met in Khartoum to reach an agreed position only at the end of August that year. Even before that, though, Israeli settlers established a kibbutz in the Golan Heights and received cabinet approval to stay.

In the famous resolution that ended the Khartoum Summit, Arab leaders rejected formal recognition of Israel and peace treaties with it. But as Israeli scholar Yoram Meital showed in a study published a dozen years ago, the Summit restricted Arab post-war aims to regaining the territory lost in June 1967, rather than eliminating Israel, and accepted indirect diplomacy as a means to achieve this.

Khartoum didn't meet the basic Israeli demand for recognition and formal peace. But it did mark the start of a shift, especially in Egypt's position, from rejectionism toward realism. Publicly, at least, Israeli leaders insisted there was no change from the Arab goal of destroying Israel. Yet even if they  believed that had no short-term option of peace talks, that situation in no way required establishing more settlements. Nonetheless, Israel began to do just that.

One key source for what I've described here is the minutes of the June 18-19 cabinet meetings. Historians have been able to examine those transcripts for several years. Now the Israel State Archives has posted the full texts online, accessible to anyone who reads Hebrew.  You can read Defense Minister Moshe Dayan propose that Israel keep the West Bank without giving the Arab residents citizenship. Rather, he says, they should eventually have "autonomy, with Israel responsible for security and foreign affairs." Labor Minister Yigal Allon lays out the first version of his plan for Israel to keep and settle pieces of the West Bank. And Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira warns that if Israel adopts Dayan's plan, "every progressive person" would say that "they want to turn the West Bank into a colony." Divided, the cabinet avoided any decision on the West Bank.

Afterward, according to then-foreign minister Abba Eban, Washington forwarded Israel's decision to Egypt and Syria, who "completely rejected the Israeli proposal." In his new book, The Bride and the Dowry, Israeli historian Avi Raz examines the evidence and concludes that Eban's story is "a fiction." The cabinet resolution was intended for Washington, and was never passed on to Cairo and Damascus.

That's only one of the myths that Raz shatters in his essential, meticulously researched study of post-war diplomacy. Despite Eban's fib, Raz concludes that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser wasn't ready to negotiate with Israel. On the other hand, Israeli leaders knew that Hussein "desired an honorable peace settlement" and "was willing to negotiate with Israel directly." Talks were held, but Israel's goal was to avoid an agreement. Meanwhile, Israel kept West Bank leaders from organizing and offering a Palestinian alternative for negotiating peace–though, as Raz notes, Palestinian rivalries and lack of daring also played a major role.

This is a picture in tones of gray rather than black and white. Nasser hadn't turned into a dove. Syria boycotted the Khartoum summit. The picture is also unavoidably incomplete: Once-classified Israeli papers are available, showing the gap between public statements and actual positions. A lack of declassified Arab source material makes it harder to chart that gap on the Arab side.

But Israel certainly wasn't ready to trade the West Bank for peace. Instead, it built settlements–first according to Allon's plan, later according to Ariel Sharon's greedier map–to preempt negotiations on borders. Dayan's autonomy plan resurfaced in peace talks with Egypt, then in the Oslo Accords. And Shapira's warning against creating a West Bank colony was ignored.

When it comes to negotiating peace, the positions of current Israeli and Arabs leaders matter more than their predecessors' mistakes 45 years ago. But it would help to stop using a simplified, inaccurate picture of 1967 as an excuse for intransigence today.