Middle Israel: Happy birthday, land for peace

As it turns 50, the formula’s future may be bleak, but its reward remains priceless

Demonstrators including Israeli and Palestinian activists take part in a demonstration in support of peace near Jericho last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrators including Israeli and Palestinian activists take part in a demonstration in support of peace near Jericho last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The fabled Summer of Love, when some 60,000 hippies descended on San Francisco to condemn war, hail love, and dance with rock legends like Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendricks, and the Grateful Dead, was 48 hours old when the government of Israel met secretly to debate the newly occupied territories’ fate.
Half-a-century on, the Middle East’s own Summer of Love has yet to arrive, and if anything seems even more distant now than it was then. Still, Israel’s secret decision 50 years ago Monday did no less, and arguably much more, than the entire Flower Power generation would ever do for peace.
Overwhelmed by the size and demographics of the Six Day War’s conquests, an ever-wise Prime Minister Levi Eshkol resolved to preempt the diplomatic commotion that was sure to follow the war, and patiently heard out his ministers. Views varied broadly.
Minister-without-portfolio Menachem Begin suggested that the government announce that the “western Land of Israel is currently under Israeli sovereignty.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, minister of police Eliyahu Sasson warned that occupying the Palestinians “might debilitate us.”
Having been born in Damascus, educated in Beirut, and deployed as a spy and a diplomat, Sasson was far more knowledgeable about the Middle East than the rest of the ministers. That is why his analysis tempered many other ministers’ enthusiasm for a decision that would potentially foster Israel’s entrenchment in the West Bank. That is also why the West Bank was ultimately left out of that day’s resolution.
Things were different when it came to the Golan and Sinai, though here, too, Sasson played the contrarian.
A veteran of many cloak-and-dagger encounters with Arab envoys and leaders – most notably with Jordan’s king Abdaullah in 1948, and later also with his successor Hussein – Sasson rightly predicted the Arab states would refuse Israel’s peace offer. He therefore sought what he assessed as obtainable, and proposed that Israel condition retreats in the North and South on de-militarization of the Golan and Sinai, free navigation in the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and the Arab boycott’s abolition. Eshkol disagreed.
The prime minister had hinted his attitude already in his victory address to the Knesset the previous week. “A new situation has evolved,” he said, “which can serve as a basis for direct negotiations for a peace agreement with the Arab states.”
Now he tried to turn this vision into a formal government resolution that read: “Israel is offering peace agreements with Egypt and Syria that would include security arrangements based on the international borders.”
The vote on that wording passed, but only by a minimal 10-9 majority, with its opponents preferring a more hawkish alternative that merely offered “peace agreements which would include security arrangements,” and thus left open the possibility of future annexations.
Eshkol, however, understood what subsequent governments from both Right and Left did not understand, namely that on matters of war and peace Israel must act on the basis of a broad consensus.
That is why, despite the original resolution’s technical passage, he now picked 10 ministers, including Sasson and Begin, and instructed them to jointly hammer out a new draft. The retired David Ben-Gurion’s statement in that morning’s papers – that, for peace agreements with Egypt and Syria, Israel should cede Sinai and the Golan – offered Eshkol’s stance some priceless reinforcement, even though the two men had by then been sworn enemies for several years.
The 10 ministers soon returned with a new version, which said Israel was offering Egypt and Syria peace “based on the international borders and Israel’s security needs.” This time the resolution was backed by the entire cabinet, including Begin and Sasson.
The delivery was caesarean, the baby premature, and the incubation that awaited it would prove protracted and perilous, but land for peace – an unpredicted war’s improbable fruit – was thus born.
CYNICS would say that Eshkol and his colleagues delivered the land-for-peace concept only to stall. The politicians indeed recalled vividly how 11 years earlier Eisenhower and Khrushchev jointly imposed on Israel a swift retreat from the Sinai Peninsula following the Sinai Campaign. Eshkol’s land-for-peace offer now made it harder to demand a retreat without peace.
Moreover, Arab leaders – who were briefed about the secret resolution by American diplomats – responded to it 10 weeks later with the famous Khartoum Declaration that said no to peace, no to recognition, and no to negotiations with Israel. They clearly meant what they said.
Land for peace seemed even more impractical two months later, when the superpowers passed UN Security Council Resolution 242. Yes, 242 picked up from where Eshkol left off, saying that Israel should retreat from “territories” taken in June 1967 while “a just and lasting peace” must include all states’ agreement to let each other “live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”
However, the War of Attrition had by then erupted, with the previous month’s sinking of the INS Eilat in the Mediterranean and the IDF’s retaliatory destruction of Egypt’s oil refineries at the city of Suez. Egyptian-Israeli peace seemed as imminent as a blizzard in the Sahara.
Even so, it took but another 12 years for the idea Israel introduced in June 1967 to generate the peace deal that Eshkol craved, and which by now has been a fixture of Israel’s situation for more than half its life.
True, the land-for-peace concept may have spent itself. The Palestinians have effectively ruined it, first in demanding to swamp Israel with hostile immigrants, then by abandoning their future to the devices of Gaza’s Islamists.
Syria, meanwhile, has disintegrated and self-destructed, and no Israeli leader will offer the Golan to whatever polity emerges from the shadows of Assad’s gas clouds and crematorium.
Still, Eshkol’s move 50 years ago next Monday did produce peace between Israel and the largest Arab state, thus convincing many who in May 1967 predicted Israel’s destruction, and also many who wished it, that Israel is here to stay.
The cabinet debates and resolution of June 19, 1967 can be found (in Hebrew) in the State Archives website archives.gov.il/ publication.