How Victory turned into Disaster
Thirty-five years after the biggest military victory in the history of Israel, we are stuck in the deepest mud. For those who want to forget, or those who were not here at the time, some reminders of how it began.
One evening in the summer of 1967, I was invited to give a lecture on a kibbutz on the Syrian border. Afterwards I was invited, as usual, to have coffee and chatter in the room of one of the members in an intimate circle.
"Last week Dado was here," the host told me, "He said that every evening, before going to sleep, he prays to God that Nasser would concentrate his army in the Sinai desert. There we shall destroy it." David Elazar, nicknamed Dado, was at the time the Officer Commanding the northern sector. Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the Egyptian president, was the idol of the Arab world.
I remembered this a few weeks later, when Abd-al-Nasser surprised the world and indeed sent his forces into Sinai. When all of Israel was trembling with fear and worry, I published in my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, an article entitled "Nasser has Walked into a Trap". That was on May 24, a day after the Egyptian leader had closed the Tiran straits to Israeli shipping, committing an act of war. People thought that I had gone crazy.
History is a cruel old woman with a twisted sense of humor, who likes to fool humans and trick whole nations. She turns victory into disaster, and vice versa.
During the "weeks of anxiety", on the eve of that war, many thought that Israel was in existential danger that any minute we would be thrown into the sea. When the government decided, in the end, to order the attack, the astounding victory looked like a miracle. The swiftness and dimensions of the victory, as well as the extent of the territories occupied and the conquest of the Western Wall, caused a delirium of joy that lasted for six years, until the Yom Kippur war.
On the fifth day of the Six-Day War I wrote an Open Letter to the Prime Minister, Levy Eshkol. I pointed out that now, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip occupied by the IDF, there was a historic opportunity to make peace for generations. I proposed conducting an immediate plebiscite among the Palestinians, giving them the choice of establishing a Palestinian state, at peace with Israel and with its support.
For me this was not a spontaneous idea. During the preceding 15 years, when the West Bank was ruled by Jordan and the Gaza Strip by Egypt, I had propounded in Haolam Hazeh the idea of a Palestinian state, as the only way of achieving peace. I had proposed to supply the Palestinians with arms and money, in order to enable them to liberate themselves and set up their own state next to Israel.
The Open Letter to Eshkol was published on June 9 in Daf (a short-lived daily paper I published at the time). I repeated the idea in greater detail in Haolam Hazeh on June 14. At the same time I asked the Prime Minister for a meeting.
Eshkol invited me few days later to his room in the Knesset. (I was then a Knesset member for the "Haolam Hazeh - New Force" party. I explained the idea: the Arab world is in a state of shock, the Palestinians are freed from Jordanian and Egyptian rule and are for the first time able to take their fate into their own hands. In such a rare situation, a bold initiative can change the consciousness of whole nations. Arab culture glorifies generous gestures of victors at the time of their triumph. If Israel comes now, on the morrow of its incredible victory, and offers the Palestinian freedom and national independence in all the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a new era will start.
Eshkol, a pleasant and humorous person, listened patiently. When I was done, he smiled: "Uri, what kind of merchant are you? When negotiating a deal, one starts by offering the minimum and demanding the maximum. In the course of the negotiation one compromises and meets the other side somewhere in the middle."
I answered: "Mr. Prime Minister, that is true if you are selling a horse. It is not true when you want to put an end to a historical conflict between peoples."
Everyone knows what followed. But some months later there was another dialogue of sorts between Eshkol and me. I was making almost daily speeches in the Knesset about the need to set up a Palestinian state, literally speaking to the wall. One day I had a run-in with the Prime Minister. I told the Knesset that I had personally canvassed the views of all the prominent leaders on the West Bank, and all of them had told me that they prefer a Palestinian state to a return to Jordan. Eshkol dismissed my speech out of hand. But on the next day his advisor for Arab affairs, Moshe Sasson, called and told me that the Prime Minister has asked him to meet with me, in order to find out on what information I based my assertion.
The meeting took place in the Knesset on November 19, 1967. We compared notes. Afterwards Sasson submitted his report to the Prime Minister and sent me a copy. The salient passage says: "There was no basic difference of opinion between my assessment and that of Mr. Avnery...(but) the question is whether the Arabs want such a state if it does not include (East) Jerusalem. Since we are not willing to give back Arab Jerusalem, the whole debate about a Palestinian state becomes an abstract and useless one. Neither I nor Mr. Avnery could point to one of the West Bank leaders who would be willing to support the idea of a Palestinian state without Jerusalem."
If someone today asks how, 35 years ago, we lost a historic chance to make peace, here lies the answer.
The author is an Israeli Journalist, Peace-Activist, and a former member of the Knesset.