Fifty-one years ago this week, the youthful Jewish state proposed a peace plan that could have altered the course of Middle East history and settled the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all, had it not been soundly ignored by the Arab states and the Palestinians.
And while it might seem pointless to look that far back, it is precisely now, when Israel is coming under increasing international pressure and criticism, that we need to remind the world – and ourselves – about the real underlying cause of the dispute with our neighbors.
It was May 17, 1965, when Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, ascended the podium in the Knesset to lay out a remarkably detailed plan for regional harmony.
This was before the 1967 Six Day War was even on the horizon, at a time when there was no “occupation,” no “settlements” and no “Judaization” of Jerusalem.
There was just Israel, a tiny sovereign Jewish entity struggling to survive in a hostile neighborhood and surrounded by those intent on its destruction.
Eshkol, who was 70 years old at the time and had served in the Jewish legion during World War I and the Hagana’s high command in Israel’s struggle for independence, was considered neither charismatic nor polished, and spoke Hebrew with a Yiddish accent. But on that fateful summer day, he boldly put forward a comprehensive vision of what peace with the Arab states could look like, if only they were willing to countenance the idea.
He didn’t communicate in slogans or catchphrases, as many politicians do today. Eshkol spoke in clear sentences and in no uncertain terms, offering to launch direct talks with Arab leaders with the goal of transforming the 1949 armistice agreements into lasting treaties of peace.
“We propose,” he said, “that direct negotiations be conducted between Israel and the [Arab] states that signed the agreements with us, to replace them by pacts of peace. The peace settlement will be made on the basis of Israel as it is.”
In other words, despite previous Arab attempts to destroy the Jewish state, Eshkol was willing to accept Israel’s 1949 boundary lines if only our neighbors were ready to do the same.
“The four Arab States which have borders with us alone extend over an area of 1.2 million square kilometers,” he pointed out, “and Israel has only a sixtieth part of the area in its possession, in other words slightly more than 1.5 percent – 21,000 square kilometers.”
The premier then went into great detail about the benefits peace would bring, ranging from economic cooperation to a reduction in the arms race, as well as open borders and freedom of access to holy sites.
He even promised that Israel would provide financial aid toward the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in neighboring Arab countries.
In return, Eshkol made a simple request, asking the Arab states for “full respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the states in the region.”
Yet even that proved to be too much, and the Arab response came two years later, when Egypt and Syria mobilized their armies in 1967 and attempted to throw the Jews into the sea.
The rest, of course, is history, as Israel miraculously prevailed in the Six Day War, liberating eastern Jerusalem and other parts of our ancient homeland.
Most people have never heard of the Eshkol plan, and you might be wondering why.
The answer is really very simple: it pokes a gaping hole in the narrative put forward by the Palestinians and their supporters, who assert that the root of all Israeli-Palestinian discord lies in the events of 1967, rather than in the long-standing and deep-seated Arab desire to wipe Israel off the map.
The fact is that had the Arabs and the Palestinians sincerely accepted Eshkol’s proposal, regional peace in the Middle East would be entering its sixth decade already and the so-called Palestinian question would have been resolved long ago.
Going back still further, if they had come to terms with Israel’s establishment in 1948 rather than choosing war, the entire region might have flourished.
At this point, there is no turning back the clock, and in light of subsequent developments, Eshkol’s plan is as unworkable now as it might have been sensible back then.
But even after so many decades, it is worth recalling his audacious proposal, if only to highlight where the underlying fault truly lies for the ongoing conflict: with the Palestinians and their defenders.
So next time you hear someone blathering about how the “occupation” is the cause of all our troubles, just think back to the grandfatherly figure of Levi Eshkol, the peace he offered to make in 1965, the Arab hatred and enmity with which it was greeted and just how different things could have been.