Sunday, June 2, 2013

After the Six Day War: Eshkol Talks to His Generals

When Gershom Gorenberg set out to find how Israeli policy about settlements evolved after the Six Day War, one of his clearest findings was that the prime minister didn't have any clear position. Levi Eshkol talked a lot with lots of people, he presented varying, indeed, sometimes contradictory positions, and ultimately he had no clear concept of how he wished to move forward on the issue of Israel's control of the newly acquired territories. Since some of the people around him, however, did have clear ideas, Eshkol's vacillation created space for them to exploit. Of course, since Eshkol died a year and a half after the war, his positions can go only so far in explaining what later transpired.

The vacillations make it hard for the historian to fasten onto any document and pin down essential positions. It would be nice to have a 5-page record which sets out what was happening, and use it to prove a thesis about causes effects motivations and results. Such documents are rare in the study of any period or phenomenon; when it comes to demonstrating the decision-making process which formed Israeli policy in the territories it suddenly controlled in Mid-June 1967 – nope. There are no such documents, because there was never any clarity they could record.

Which isn't to say there are no interesting documents to tell about. On the contrary, there are lots of them. For example: On December 5th 1967, exactly six months after the war, Eshkol hosted a meeting with the top IDF generals. Eshkol himself was 72 at the time, and Moshe Dayan, the minister of defense, was 52. All of the others were in their 40s: Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin; Zvi Zur, the previous chief of staff and now effective boss of the defense ministry under Dayan; Aharon Yariv, who as chief of military intelligence had the job of top advisor to the PM on the Arab world; Yeshayahu Gavish and Uzi Narkiss, commanders of the southern- and central commands; Dan Laner, deputy CO of the northern command; and Rehavam Zeevi, head of military operations. Also present was Dr. Yaacov Herzog, alongside Eshkol the only civilian and head of the prime minister's office. Eshkol wanted them as a sounding board for some ideas he'd been mulling over as he prepared a trip to America on which, he expected, President Johnson might ask some pointed questions. "And so I'd like to do as we used to in cheder, when there were special sessions for sharpening our minds. Maybe we'll reach some interesting conclusions".

Eshkol launched into a long and rambling monologue, about how Israel didn't want the million Arabs it had recently come to rule over; about how the Americans saw the Middle East through the prism of the Cold War and Soviet attempts to move in; about how it would be nice if lots of Jews moved to Israel and lots of Arabs moved out but that would be nothing short of a miracle. Only now do we see how awful the previous border [the Green Line of June 1967] was, long and hard to defend; the present borders are much easier to defend. We're pumping large sums of money into the Arab economy and we're raising their standard of living. And what if King Hussein [of Jordan] suddenly says he wants to negotiate: what will we negotiate about? We're not going to return to the previous border.  And if we wait ten years? Will that make any difference? Aliya (Jewish immigration)? Let's be honest there isn't going to be much of it. A bit from Morocco, perhaps, and some Romanians. But what American Jews will come to Israel and work as laborers and farmers? I wish we could identify a better line on the West Bank.

And so it went, on and on, for 8 full pages of the transcript. Did Eshkol know what his position was and was he trying to provoke the generals? Was he clueless to the extent that he didn't care to hide it from them? The solid parts of his meandering boiled down to: Israel retains control of Jerusalem; It probably might perhaps need to must stay along the Jordan River; it didn't want to control the Arabs on the West Bank, and, finally, we're in quite a pickle but it's better than where we were.

And then the generals began to respond. Each of them presented his thoughts in his own way, but there was a surprising degree of uniformity amongst them, either because they all saw the world the same way, or they'd all heard the PM and Rabin and they were falling in line as good soldiers do, or both. Of course we stay in Jerusalem. Or course we stay on the Jordan. Or course we don't want the Arabs of the West Bank.

Then they uniformly departed from some of Eshkol's points: no, we can't negotiate with Hussein, because he's the weakest Arab link and we have to start by making peace with the strongest (Egypt) so the others will follow. There's no chance that the Arab World will make peace with Israel in the foreseeable future. The Americans don't want us to negotiate with Hussein (or perhaps, they should want us to), because if Hussein makes peace with Israel the Egyptians and Syrians and his own people will kill him, and then the Soviets will move into Jordan.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the document is that a number of the generals, starting with Rabin, felt the only way out of the conundrum would be by setting up a Palestinian state. It would have to be created without an army, and with assurances of having good relations with Israel; the more this was mentioned at the meeting, the more Eshkol was against it because, as he explained, there was no way to prevent such a state from being truly independent which would inevitably mean hostile to Israel.

No one, at any point in the meeting, expressed the opinion that changing the borders would be illegal. Even the youngest of the generals, Rehav'am Zeevi, was 41 years old, and they'd all reached adulthood in a world in which borders were redrawn after wars.

There were two points in the meeting where Eshkol clearly indicated the limits of his confusion. The first was when he told of a recent meeting with an unidentified rabbi who wished to set up a large yeshiva in Hebron by evacuating the Arab residents of an entire block to clear the necessary space. "I understood whom I was dealing with and that was the end of our conversation." The second was a short exchange with Uzi Narkiss, who was trying to explain to Eshkol that he must convince the Americans that Jordan was a precarious ally; Eshkol was indicating that the Americans might have their own opinions.

Narkiss: "I think the Saudis and Yemen would be better American investments".

Eshkol: "OK. I'll sell them the Saudis and Yemen straightaway… But what if Johnson persists in trying to convince me?"

I recognize the entire conversation rings a bit odd in our 2013 ears. (The Soviet who?) The thing is, it took place in 1967.

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