Forty-five years after the Six Day War, declassified transcripts were released this June of the Israeli cabinet and government committee meetings in the days after war that ended on June 10, 1967. The documents provide a breathtaking insight into the efforts of Israeli leaders to reach a peace settlement with the countries and groups which had been at war with Israel. The evidence of the hard work and the varied opinions on the part of the Israeli ministers, all eager to reach a peace treaty and an understanding with the Palestinians and Arab states, presents a revealing contrast to the long-term refusal of the Arab parties to come to the negotiating table -- an attitude that was reiterated at the summit meeting of the Arab League on September 1, 1967 in Khartoum, Sudan. As has now been revalidated by the declassified transcripts, the Israelis were ready to negotiate land for peace; the Arab leaders instead issued their statement of the three "nos:" no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel -- an unconditionally negative position taken by Arab leaders that still persists.
The Arab and Palestinian intransigence, the refusal to accept a peace agreement, has a long history and is all too familiar. In 1922 the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine was officially established. Under it a Jewish Agency, set up in 1929, and composed of representatives of world Jewry, would assist the British administration in establishing the Jewish National Home in Palestine. The Jewish Agency then organized an infrastructure of political and social institutions that became the basis for the state of Israel. The Arabs refused the offer to create a similar Agency.
In 1922 the Arab leaders who refused to participate with the Jews in any plan or in a joint legislature, in which anyone other than the Arabs would have been the majority; rejected the proposal for a Palestinian Constitution with a Legislative Council in which the Arabs would have formed the majority, and boycotted the election for the Council.
In 1937 the Arab Higher Committee rejected the idea of two states, first officially proposed by the British Peel Commission Report. The Report had recommended a Jewish state in about 20 percent of Palestine, about 5,000 square kilometers, while most of the rest was to be under Arab sovereignty. The Report also suggested a transfer of land and an exchange of population between the two states. The Peel Commission Report was accepted, in principle, by the Jewish Agency, even though it meant that the Jewish state would be a small one, but it was totally rejected by the Arab Higher Committee, which called for a single state in all of Palestine.
In 1939, in the last attempt before World War II, to reach some agreement, the British Colonial Secretary organized a Round Table Conference in London that February. Failure was inevitable: the representatives of the five Arab states and the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine who were present refused any direct contact or discussion with the Jewish representatives -- even to sit in the same room with them.
The Arabs also refused to accept United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181(II) of November 29, 1947, which adopted the recommendation of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) that Western Palestine -- the area outside of Jordan -- be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, one Arab, with an internationalized Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, or separate body. The Jewish state would have about 55 percent of the area, but not the historic areas of Judea and Samaria. The Resolution was accepted by the Jewish leaders, but rejected by the Palestinian Arabs and by six of the seven member states -- Jordan being the exception -- of the Arab League, which at that time had replaced the League of Arab States.
Arab refusal to enter into peace negotiations persists to this day, inflexible as ever. The Palestinians decline to enter into negotiations with Israel unless Israel first accepts the "pre-1967 borders" (borders that have never existed; they are merely the armistice line of where the fighting stopped in 1949), agrees to Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and ends all construction in areas acquired by Israel as a result of the 1967 war.
In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel achieved a remarkably rapid victory over its Arab opponents; it left Israel in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, Gaza which had been ruled by Egypt, the Jordan River, the Suez Canal, and the West Bank, so named by Jordan which had "annexed" the area despite almost unanimous international disapproval.
The Israeli documents just released also show among Israeli leaders a startling readiness to compromise, which contrasts with the total disinclination of Arabs and Palestinians to compromise. The documents show clearly that, while there were acute differences among the Israelis about the fate of the territories captured in 1967, almost all Israelis were eager to trade land for peace.
The discussions and proposals were not initially intended to be policy proposals; they were directives to Israel's Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, who was participating in New York in the Special Session of the UN General Assembly, called to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict. The ministerial discussions have to be put in the context of Israeli concern about any UN action after the memory of at least two issues. The first occurred when Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez war of 1956 and had to rely there on United States guarantees and the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), which proved ineffective. The second was the speedy compliance in May 1967 of U Thant, Secretary–General of the UN, without the required approval of the UN General Assembly, to accede to Nasser's demand that the UNEF troops in the Sinai be withdrawn. The Israeli ministers feared that pressure would again be exerted on the state as in 1956 and May 1967, leaving Israel vulnerable.
It is also relevant that the Israeli government was a unity one under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and included members of Gahal (Menachem Begin and Yosef Safir) and the Rafi party (Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan). Not surprisingly, there were strong differences of opinion on the issues of security, borders, refugees, and water -- all of which prevented agreement.
Consensus was reached, however, on some issues. First, Israel should withdraw from captured territories only if the Arab states agreed to make peace and end the boycott of Israel. Most important, Israel would return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for either a peace treaty or strong security guarantees. The Israeli cabinet also agreed that east Jerusalem would not be returned to Jordan, which had ruled it; that Egypt had no greater claim to Gaza than Israel had, and that Jordan had no greater claim to the West Bank than Israel had, as all three countries had acquired the areas through war.
Some ministers thought that the demand for peace treaties was unrealistic. In the desperate effort to find positions that would both lead to negotiation and also also protect the state of Israel, they grappled with a variety of contradictory alternatives: control over the Gaza Strip, freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran; demilitarization of the Sinai and of the Golan Heights; control of the sources of the Jordan River; rule over the West Bank; end of any Israeli rule in the West Bank; military rule during a transition period; and self-rule for the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank while Israel still concerns itself with foreign affairs and national security.
Although there were differences on the issues of the destiny of the West Bank, and on whether peace treaties should be based on international frontiers, ministers all spoke of peace with security arrangements. The positive answer to the security issue was finally approved by a majority of one, 10 to 9: it was decided that a peace agreement should ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Suez Canal; the freedom of flight over them, and the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula.
The formula agreed to by unanimity on June 19, 1967 was that "Israel proposes the conclusion of peace treaties with Egypt and Syria on the basis of the international frontiers and Israel's security needs." This proposal was presented to both Egypt and Syria, but no positive response came from either. Instead, the Arab Summit leaders at Khartoum announced on September 1, 1967 the three "nos."
As a result of Khartoum, Prime Minister Eshkol wrote a month later, "I doubt whether the government would approve the decision of June 19 exactly as it stands." In view of the continuing Arab leaders' refusal to negotiate, the decision did indeed become invalid.
What these newly released Israeli documents show in dramatic fashion is the eagerness of all the Israeli leaders, no matter how they differed on specific issues, to reach peace agreements with their Arab neighbors. If there is any hope for peace at this time among the Palestinians, they might wish to reconsider.
Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community.