Israeli PM in '67: 'Suddenly we have become some kind of imperial state'

1967 cabinet records show Israel was undecided about borders

50 years ago today - Six Day War project (credit: Courtesy)
According to security cabinet protocols disclosed on Wednesday, Israel’s cabinet was divided on what to do with the West Bank following the June 1967 war – an unresolved border issue that US President Donald Trump will take a crack at next week.
Some security cabinet members pressed on June 15, 1967, for various plans to absorb or begin absorbing Judea and Samaria into Israel, including propping up Israel-friendly West Bankers to run things.
But then-prime minister Levi Eshkol and others pushed back, even warning, “Suddenly we have become some kind of imperial state... The Americans did a lot [of propping up friendly Vietnamese] in Vietnam and look at what that got them!”
Though the war’s story as well as pre and post-war issues have been written about in voluminous detail, Wednesday’s release was the first chance to view the full transcripts of the key security cabinet meetings.
MK Michael Oren even notes this missing piece in his landmark 2002 book Six Days of War, which he says is based more on diplomatic papers.
The new revelations add an entirely new layer of color to the internal dynamics of Eshkol, defense minister Moshe Dayan, ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Moshe Shapira, and others.
If there is continued debate about whether Eshkol was a weak and disappearing prime minister in the glow of the rising star of Dayan, or whether he was a crafty statesman who led the way on the major decisions that would frame Israel’s history for the next 50 years, the protocols give support to both viewpoints.
The collection includes all key security cabinet meetings, from the nervous and hotly debated June 4 decision to go to war, to the euphoric June 6 review of the unexpectedly one-sided victories Israel was achieving to the June 9 fiery questioning of Dayan over his Golan campaign to the June 15 heated debate over the future of the West Bank.
In the key meetings, though he is not always the longest orator, Eshkol is clearly in control. This is most clear in the June 4, 6 and 15 meetings.
On June 4, the story is Eshkol brushing off opposition to going to war even as he had held back from the decision himself for an extended period and even as Dayan gives longer cheer-leading speeches in favor of war.
On June 6, Eshkol presciently notes the cabinet is presented with historic victories, accompanied by the complicated diplomatic consequences it will need to address as a result.
“Before us are the dilemmas of future relations with Egypt, the status of Sinai and the Gaza Strip, the question of freedom of the seas in the Gulf of Eilat and the Suez Canal, the status of the West Bank, the status of the Old City of Jerusalem, the question of demilitarized zones in the North,” among other issues, says Eshkol.
But if these meetings show Eshkol the clear leader, the June 9 session shows off his unusually understated style and how Dayan overshadowed him regarding various major war decisions.
Much of the June 9 meeting focuses on interior minister Haim Moshe Shapira’s excoriating Eshkol and Dayan for violating the cabinet’s June 8 explicit decision not to try to take the Golan from Syria.
This is based on the premise, which Dayan opens the meeting with, that Eshkol had approved his decision to attack the Golan.
Yet for eight pages only Dayan engages, while Eshkol is silent.
Finally, on page eight of the transcript, Eshkol reveals the reason for his silence: “I said earlier that I had nothing to say... I cannot say that I was asked [by Dayan to approve the attack], because of this I did not want to speak, but if you are pressuring, I will speak.”
Eshkol eventually supports Dayan’s decision. But his passivity leading to Dayan’s unilateral action and his extended silence in the debate suggest he was perhaps willing to take a back seat on the fateful issue, giving the impression that he had approved the attack, which he did after the fact.