On June 5, 1967, Menachem Begin rushed into the Knesset on the way to a cabinet meeting in which he had been declared minister-without-portfolio in the new national unity government.
Begin bumped into then-prime minister Levi Eshkol by the entrance.
“We should discuss liberating the Old City,” Begin suggested.
“Das a gdank,” Eshkol said sardonically in Yiddish, “That’s an idea.”
By 11 a.m. two days later, Paratroop commander Motti Gur announced: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
What happened in between is well-documented and the Jerusalem battlegrounds of the Six Day War are well-trod and retraced by thousands each year on Jerusalem Day.
But there’s one stop on the way that’s not on the regular Jerusalem Day tour – a bomb shelter-turned-broom closet in the Knesset, where the cabinet decided to reunify the capital city.
Shortly after Begin rushed into the building, the Jordanian Legion began shelling in the direction of the Knesset.
The shelling hit the President’s Residence and the Biblical Zoo, killing 15 civilians. The Chagall windows at Hadassah Medical Center were damaged; the artist later returned to Jerusalem to redo them.
The ministers and soon-to-be ministers were rushed from the then-cabinet room in the Knesset, which has windows overlooking much of Jerusalem, downstairs into a tiny bunker. They could hear the shelling while inside.
At the behest of Begin and then-labor minister Yigal Allon, the cabinet began to discuss the possibility of liberating the Old City. Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan was opposed, as was, surprisingly, Bayit Yehudi forebear the National Religious Party.
MK Michael Oren, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, a historian and author of Six Days of War, said: “We must always be cautious not to view the past through the prism of the present.
Looking back, we think, ‘Of course Israel would take the Old City,’ but there was deep anxiety and ambivalence. That’s what’s interesting... On the morning of June 7, it still was not at all taken for granted that Israeli forces would go into the Old City.
“The debate was whether the world would let us do this. It seems obvious today, but it wasn’t then that Jews could take over the holiest sites in Christendom and the third-holiest in Islam,” Oren said.
NRP ministers Zerach Verhaftig, Chaim Moshe Shapiro, Yosef Burg, were very vocal in their opposition, Oren said, because “they were concerned we’d reach the Kotel and have to give it up again, and that would be too painful.”
In addition, Oren pointed out, the Israelis had taken out the Jordanian artillery position in the Old City, so there was no military necessity in going in.
However, there was a “huge, immense emotional necessity,” he said. “Many of the commanders of the army in the Six Day War fought in Jerusalem in the War of Independence in 1948. Gur was one of them who thought, ‘we lost Jerusalem then; we don’t want to lose it again.’” At 7 on the morning of June 7, the cabinet met in the bomb shelter again. Eshkol sent a letter to King Hussein of Jordan, saying that if he agrees to a cease fire, Israel won’t take the Old City. The king never answered, and the rest is history.
The little-known corner of the legislature where the government decided to reunify Jerusalem is so tiny and narrow.
It’s hard to believe 20 cabinet members – the 21st, Dayan, was understandably absent – could fit.
Begin called for a plaque to be mounted on the door saying: “This is where the government decided to reunify Jerusalem.”
But Begin’s advice was not heeded, and for decades, as the Knesset expanded to a second wing and larger bomb shelter spaces were installed, the little corner of the building was forgotten and used to store cleaning supplies.
An enterprising Knesset employee uncovered the broom closet’s secrets nearly four years ago, after reading an interview with Yechiel Kadishai, Begin’s personal secretary, who attended the meetings. Kadishai mentioned that the decision was made in the Knesset, and the Knesset Spokesman’s Office invited him to show where exactly history was made.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein enthusiastically embraced the idea, and cleanup and renovations began. Unfortunately, Kadishai, who was the last living person who was in the cabinet meeting, died in November 2013, six months before the work was completed.
Today, the narrow room is called the “United Jerusalem Room.” The walls are painted a spotless white, and there are several plaques and photographs commemorating the historic moments that took place in the bomb shelter, along with old-fashioned-looking chairs labeled with the names of the ministers present.
And now there’s another destination, in the original wing of the Knesset, for anyone interested in retracing the history of the Six Day War.