Indecision as Strategy
- The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War by Avi Raz
Yale, 288 pp, £25.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 17194 5
During the first 19 years of Israel’s statehood, its leaders gave little thought to the Palestinian question. Two-thirds of the Palestinians were driven out in 1948; those who remained were placed under a draconian military government and didn’t cause much trouble. Then came the Six Day War of 1967. In a pre-emptive strike launched on 5 June, Israel inflicted a devastating defeat on Nasser and his Arab allies, and vastly expanded the territory under its control, capturing the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. These were lands Israel’s leaders had long coveted: only the Sinai has since been fully restored to Arab sovereignty. But when the guns fell silent on 10 June, the Jewish state found itself responsible for 1.4 million Arabs it didn’t want. Most were Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of them refugees who had been displaced during the 1948 war. As Levi Eshkol, who was prime minister at the time, put it: ‘We won the war and received a nice dowry of territory, but along with a bride whom we don’t like.’ Israel had to decide what to do with the bride, and what to do with the dowry. The Middle East still lives in the shadow of the decisions Israel made – and those it didn’t – in the first few years of the now 45-year-old occupation.
The story of Israeli policy in the late 1960s has been told before, by Tom Segev and Gershom Gorenberg among others. But no one has provided as thorough – or as damning – an account as Avi Raz, a former reporter for Ma’ariv who has read every pertinent document in every available archive, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Bride and the Dowry is a work of meticulous scholarship, but it is also an angry book, burning with the sort of righteous (and sometimes repetitious) indignation to which native sons are particularly susceptible. It covers only the first 21 months after the 1967 war, but it tells us everything we need to know about Israeli policy during this ‘critical and formative phase’ of the occupation. It also sheds considerable light on Israeli diplomacy today: its resistance to a deal that would allow for genuine Palestinian sovereignty; its belief that the Americans will always come to Israel’s defence, however much they privately object to land grabs; and its use of protracted negotiations as a means of buying time. Raz’s book is about the conquest of time as much as it is about the conquest of territory: the fruitless peace processing of the last two decades is only the latest chapter of his story.
The road to war – and conquest – began in April 1967, with the escalation of tension on the Syrian border. A Soviet-backed regime in Damascus was sponsoring Palestinian commando attacks against Israel. Partly to teach the Syrians a lesson, partly in the hope of provoking a coup, Israel responded by carrying out reprisal raids, and by baiting Syrian troops in the demilitarised zones (DMZs) between the two countries. One tactic was to send armed tractors manned by soldiers dressed as farmers into the DMZs, in order to provoke the Syrians into firing; once they did, Israel would send in its air force to show them who ruled the skies. On 7 April this policy of ‘active defence’ sparked an air battle in which six Syrian MiGs were shot down; in a further humiliation, IDF jets flew over Damascus. On 12 May, Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff, threatened to invade Syria. An Israeli-Syrian war looked imminent.
The following day, Nasser received intelligence from the Soviets that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian border. This wasn’t true, but the Syrians played along. Though he privately resented the Syrians for dragging him into a conflict for which Egypt was utterly unprepared, Nasser felt he had to do something to prevent Israel from attacking: his leadership of the Arab world was at stake. He took three fateful steps. The first, on 14 May, was to send two divisions of the Egyptian army into the Sinai. The second, on 16 May, was to request the withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force from Sinai, a request to which the UN secretary general immediately acceded. The third and most dangerous step, on 22 May, was to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, overturning Israel’s one achievement in the Suez War of 1956. Nasser’s moves were intended to deter war, not to start one (as Israel’s military leadership and American intelligence understood), but they were reckless. His rhetoric was even more so. In a thunderous speech at an air-force base in Sinai, he declared: ‘The Jews threaten war – and we say ahlan wasahlan [welcome]. We are ready!’
Both the United States and France, Israel’s main arms supplier, urged Eshkol not to fire the first shot. Lyndon Johnson told Abba Eban, the foreign minister, that his military experts thought that if the Egyptians attacked, which was unlikely, the Israelis would ‘whip the hell out of them’. Israel, he said, ‘will not be alone unless it decides to go alone’. A number of influential politicians, including the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, believed that going to war was a mistake, particularly without American backing. But Eshkol was a weak leader, viewed with contempt by Israel’s aggressive young generals, and unable to stand his ground against the growing pressure for war. Another war with the Arabs, the generals argued, was inevitable; why not call Nasser’s bluff and fight the Arabs while they were still weak?
After giving an embarrassing, ‘stammering’ speech on radio on 28 May, Eshkol was forced to hand over the defence ministry to Moshe Dayan; on 1 June, a national unity cabinet was formed, including Dayan’s rival Yigal Allon, once commander in chief of the Palmach, and Menachem Begin of the far-right Herut party. The next day, Eshkol received word that the Americans were no longer opposed to war: the ‘yellow light’ he had been waiting for. On the morning of 5 June, Israel pulverised the Egyptian air force in a surprise attack. King Hussein entered the war later that day as part of his mutual defence pact with Nasser, and lost the Western half of his kingdom. The Golan Heights were the final conquest, seized just after Dayan read an intercepted cable from Nasser to the Syrians urging them to sign a ceasefire. ‘Do whatever can be done,’ Dayan told his troops. ‘Yesterday I did not think that Egypt and Syria (the political leadership) would collapse in this way … But since this is the situation, it must be exploited to the full. A great day.’ (Dayan later regretted the decision to take the Golan: ‘The Syrians, on the fourth day of the war, were not a threat to us.’)
Having captured territory three times its size before the war, Israel finally ‘had cards to play’, in Eban’s words. ‘The Arab position,’ he wrote some time later, ‘was that they wanted 100 per cent of the territories and would give zero per cent for peace.’ Eban’s formulation became a favourite of the Israelis, along with his remark in 1973 that ‘the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ There was, to be sure, no great eagerness in Cairo or Damascus for a peace agreement after the Naksah, but the famous ‘three no’s’ of the Arab summit’s declaration in Khartoum in September 1967 – no to peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel – were little more than face-saving rhetoric. (Syria, whose adventurism had done so much to trigger the war, and which prided itself on being the beating heart of pan-Arabism, declined to attend the summit.) Far more telling, Raz argues, was their call to use ‘political and diplomatic means’ to restore the prewar borders. Gone was the talk of the ‘final liquidation of Israel’. The Americans appreciated Khartoum’s implicit message; the Israelis did not. The Soviets were pressuring them to withdraw to the 4 June lines at the UN. Eban warned that ‘any readiness of the Arabs to accept things which they refused to accept in the past might lay waste to the front which we have formed.’
Nasser himself was not ready to open negotiations, but both the Palestinians in the West Bank and King Hussein wanted to reach a settlement with Israel. Israel’s leaders were well aware of these opportunities for peace – the Palestinian and Jordanian options, Raz calls them – but ended up squandering them. This, Raz says, was intentional: there was never going to be a deal. Israel’s leaders aimed to play the Palestinians and Jordanians off against each other, in the hope of extracting more concessions, keeping more of the land and resettling more of the refugees in a third country. The virtue of peace talks, according to Raz, was that talking was a form of what the Israelis called ‘tactics’ – takhsis is a synonym for tricks. By creating a diplomatic sideshow, a parallel universe in which Israel could claim to be searching for peace, takhsis distracted attention from the creation of ‘facts on the ground’: the destruction of villages, the bulldozing of homes, the building of settlements. Tactics were strategy, as Eban, Israel’s silver-tongued master of takhsis, pointed out. By continuing to hold talks with the Arabs, the Israelis could maintain the impression of peace-seeking while they pursued their real strategic objectives: persuading the Americans to protect them at the UN and to sell them Phantom jets and other military hardware. Thanks to American pressure, UN Resolution 242, adopted by the General Assembly on 22 November 1967, called for a withdrawal ‘from territories occupied in the recent conflict’, rather than ‘the territories’, an ambiguity that would allow the Israelis to present plans for a partial withdrawal as generous offers.
In spite of their support, the Americans did want Israel to withdraw to the 4 June lines, preferably via a deal with King Hussein, and were often furious with Israeli foot-dragging. ‘You want a country that lives in peace,’ Lyndon Johnson joked to Eshkol when they met at Johnson’s ranch. ‘You want a piece of this and a piece of that.’ But Johnson admired Israel’s generals, who (according to an aide) struck him as a ‘modern-day version of the Texans fighting the Mexicans’, and its dazzling military victory had made it a prized Cold War asset – an object of envy for an administration mired in counter-insurgency in Vietnam. So long as the Americans could claim that their closest ally in the Middle East was doing something to pursue peace, Israel had time to consolidate its hold on the dowry, and to divorce the bride. Raz, who does not mince words, describes Israel’s diplomacy as a ‘foreign policy of deception’.
The deception had begun with the war itself. Only half an hour after Israel attacked Egypt, an army spokesman announced on state radio that Egypt had attacked Israel. (Eban was still making this claim with a straight face at the UN General Assembly two weeks later.) This announcement was followed by Dayan’s statement that Israel had ‘no aims of conquest’. Dayan, who had never resigned himself to the failure to capture the West Bank in the 1948 war, forgot his pledge in a matter of days. His desire for more ‘living space’, as he put it, was widely shared: Ben-Gurion described the failure to seize East Jerusalem in 1948 as a cause of ‘lamentation for generations’; Israel appointed a military general of the West Bank in 1963, four years before it even captured the territory; and Allon, just before the 1967 war, declared that in the next round of hostilities Israel had to ‘achieve total victory, the territorial fulfilment of the Land of Israel’. There was no master plan for the conquests of 1967 – as Avi Shlaim argues in a new anthology of essays – but the war aroused an expansionist streak that had been dormant since the Suez war, when Ben-Gurion agreed to withdraw from the Sinai and Gaza only under intense American pressure.[*]
Less than 24 hours after the final ceasefire, the cabinet annexed East Jerusalem. In an act of linguistic subterfuge that would become a familiar pattern of its rule in the Occupied Territories, annexation was cast as a ‘municipal fusion’ intended to provide services to Palestinian residents of the Old City. The cabinet also secretly decided that Gaza would remain part of Israel, and that Israel would not withdraw from the West Bank – soon to be renamed ‘Judea and Samaria’, and populated with civilian settlements disguised as military outposts – until peace treaties were signed with the Arab states. Israel had never set much store by peace treaties – ‘the weakest guarantee of the future of peace’, in Allon’s words – but the insistence on them now served a purpose. In Cabinet Resolution 563, adopted on 19 June 1967, Israel proposed peace agreements based on ‘international borders’ and the vaguely defined ‘security needs of Israel’, and a withdrawal from Sinai and the Golan. Eban later claimed that the resolution astonished the Americans with its generosity, but that the Arabs had rebuffed it. However, as Raz points out, there is no indication that the resolution was passed on to the Arabs, or that the Israelis wanted it to be (the American records state that Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, considered it ‘helpful to have these preliminary thoughts’). Eban himself told Eshkol that the aim of the resolution was to ‘give the Americans something which would motivate them to thwart the Soviet drive for a UN resolution demanding an unconditional Israeli withdrawal’. Even the promise to withdraw from the Sinai and the Golan, Raz observes, was carefully hedged so that Israel could retain parts of both.
The 19 June resolution was also conspicuously silent as to the future status of the West Bank. The conventional explanation is that the Eshkol government – a national unity cabinet, wracked by political differences and personal animosities – was too divided to reach an agreement. As Begin put it, the government ‘decided not to decide’ because it was easier not to. But, Raz argues, at bottom there was a consensus. The various plans for the West Bank that were debated over the next few years, and which he anatomises in dizzying detail, differed over which parts of the West Bank Israel should keep: whether the leftovers should go back to Jordan or be turned into a semi-autonomous Palestinian entity; whether King Hussein should be overthrown and his kingdom declared a Palestinian state; and where the refugees should be resettled (Eshkol favoured Iraq). But none of these plans envisaged Arab sovereignty, a withdrawal to the 4 June lines, or – least of all – the return of East Jerusalem. Land was security, Israelis believed, and they weren’t about to give up land that offered them more of it – especially land this sacred. Eshkol and his fellow Labour Party members were swept up in the same wave of messianism as other Israeli Jews. ‘We have returned to our most holy places,’ Dayan said, ‘and we shall never leave them.’ Going back to the 4 June lines was unthinkable, as much for reasons of faith as for security: Eretz Israel had, at last, been ‘liberated’.
Palestinians had a rather different view of their ‘liberation’. They were living under military rule, and forbidden to organise politically: even Rotary Club meetings were banned. Dayan, the new master of the Occupied Territories, claimed he didn’t mind a bit of protest, but, Raz shows, he punished the slightest gesture of defiance. In a campaign against ‘incitement’, Israel attempted to excise any mention of Palestine in school textbooks; as Amos Elon remarked at the time, Dayan seemed bent on ‘converting West Bank children to Zionism’. For Dayan, Eshkol and Allon, it was hard enough to accept that so many Arab children – the ‘demographic danger’ – had remained in the Occupied Territories. ‘I hope they all go,’ Dayan said during the war. ‘If we could achieve the departure of 300,000 without pressure, that would be a great blessing.’
More than 200,000 Palestinians fled to the East Bank during the war, some of them escorted by soldiers to the Allenby Bridge at gunpoint; only about 14,000 were permitted to return. After the war, Palestinians fell under growing pressure to emigrate. West Bankers who wanted to visit their families in the East Bank were offered free one-way bus trips to Amman; Israeli policy-makers discussed the respective merits of Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia as a home for the refugees. In one of its more outlandish operations, Mossad tried to supply Gazans with work visas to Australia and Brazil. Return – even to the occupied West Bank, rather than Israel – was out of the question. When refugees from the 1967 war, trapped in miserable conditions in camps in Jordan, tried to cross the border at night, they were shot on sight. As Raz remarks, the Israelis allowed them only ‘the right of departure’. Yet these efforts to ‘thin out’ the population came to little. Palestinians stuck to their land, in the hope that the longer they stayed, the more likely they were to regain control of it.
In theory, the Arab defeat in 1967 represented an opportunity for the Palestinians. After nearly two decades as Jordanian citizens, West Bankers could now take their fate into their own hands, instead of entrusting it to the Arab states that had failed them. Almost as soon as the West Bank fell to Israel, Palestinian notables – men from landed, influential families whose ancestors had served as intermediaries with the Ottoman authorities – began to discuss the idea of a separate Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, at peace with Israel, in a federation with either Jordan or Israel. One of its most prominent supporters was Anwar Nusseibeh, the Cambridge-educated son of a leading family in Jerusalem. An even bolder advocate of Palestinian independence was the Ramallah-based lawyer Aziz Shehadeh, who put forward a two-state peace proposal at a meeting with David Kimche of Mossad a day before the ceasefire. In a survey of West Bank political attitudes conducted just after the war, Kimche confirmed that there was broad support for an agreement with Israel, rather than a return to Jordan; he urged the government to declare a Palestinian state on the West Bank in 48 hours.
The trouble was not that Israel had no Palestinian partners for a peace deal, but that it was unwilling to relinquish any land for the sake of peace. With their insistence on restoring East Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty, moderate nationalists like Shehadeh and Nusseibeh never made much headway with the Israelis, who preferred to groom more pliable leaders such as Sheikh Mohammed Jabari, the corrupt mayor of Hebron. The Israelis knew he was ‘venal, avaricious and tyrannical’, but hoped he might provide an Arab façade for Dayan’s ‘civil administration’ in the southern region of the West Bank. That project collapsed in July 1968 after it was exposed in the Israeli Communist Party’s Arabic newspaper and denounced in Nablus, the West Bank’s most radical city. Even Jabari got cold feet, insisting that he would support a civil administration only if it applied to the entire West Bank. In early August, the civil administration scheme was buried at a meeting of notables in Nablus.
Raz speculates that the creation of an Arab civil administration ‘could have been a significant first step towards an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, had the occupying power intended to allow the occupied genuine self-rule with able, honest people’. This is wishful thinking. Those ‘able, honest people’ who talked to the Israelis didn’t hold much sway with the majority of Palestinians and it seems likely that they would have been stripped of authority in any real civil administration. As Raz himself admits, the days of the notables were coming to an end with the rise of the PLO in the mid-1960s. The notables’ ways were dignified but decorous; Israel was happy to talk to them, but gave them little to show for their all petitions and manifestos. In the heroic age of the fedayeen – the ‘self-sacrificers’ staging attacks on Jewish settlements from the border, and later carrying out spectacular ‘operations’ abroad, from bombings to hijackings – they would be forced to step aside. The idea that Israel would fall to a guerrilla insurgency was an ‘epic mirage’, as Yezid Sayigh writes in his study of the PLO, Armed Struggle and the Search for State, but by taking up arms Palestinians reimagined themselves as a unified, revolutionary people rather than as a scattered band of refugees waiting for UN handouts – or, for that matter, as notables pleading for concessions over coffee with their military rulers. The triumph of the fedayeen was sealed in March 1968, when they fought against Israeli soldiers who attacked a guerrilla base in the Jordanian town of Karameh. After the Battle of Karameh – Arabic for ‘dignity’ – thousands of young men flocked to the resistance groups.
Not until Arafat’s famous speech at the UN General Assembly in 1974 would the PLO implicitly accept the 4 June lines and the idea of land for peace. The PLO’s minimum requirements for statehood – formalised in 1988 in Algiers – turned out to be much the same as those outlined by the notables. But partition became acceptable only after the blood of martyrs – and of the enemy – had been shed. Talk of a separate Palestinian state, by early 1968, was a capital offence in the eyes of the resistance movements: in February 1968, Arafat dispatched an assassin from Karameh to kill Aziz Shehadeh (he was arrested by the Israelis soon after entering the West Bank). Shehadeh was finally murdered 17 years later by a Palestinian extremist who seems to have doubled as a collaborator.
One wonders, then, whether Israel could have forged a lasting deal with the notables just as the fedayeen were gaining the upper hand. Raz admits that ‘no unambiguous answer can be offered.’ But the more important question, he believes, is whether Israel wanted the notables to succeed. The evidence suggests that it did not, since it made every effort to emasculate them in the first year of the occupation. Some Palestinians, notably the fearless Shehadeh, continued to campaign for an independent West Bank state, but to many Palestinians this soon seemed a fool’s errand. They were also acutely aware that they weren’t the only Arabs Israel was talking to – or the most powerful. The Israelis always had the ‘Jordanian option’, as they were keen to remind their Palestinian interlocutors.
A rumour had spread in the West Bank that an Israeli-Jordanian deal was in the works even before the first meeting after the 1967 war between Israel and King Hussein took place, in secret, on 2 July at the home of the king’s Jewish physician in London. Advocates of Palestinian independence implored Israel to promise that the West Bank wouldn’t be returned to Jordan. Israel preferred to keep its options open. The notables assumed their customary stance of caution, and of dependence on the king. The economic, political and cultural ties between the East and West Banks were extensive and many Palestinians in the West Bank believed they had a better chance of recovering Jerusalem if they formed a united front with the king. The king wanted the Western half of his kingdom back, and he wasn’t pleased that his former subjects were talking to Israel about a separate peace. The creation of a Palestinian state was not an Israeli plot, but Israel didn’t mind if the king assumed it was: the ‘Palestinian option’ would often be invoked to twist his arm and get him to ‘hurry up, or else’, as Eban explained to the White House. Jordan and Israel had long been the ‘best of enemies’, united by their hostility to Palestinian national ambitions. King Hussein’s grandfather, King Abdullah, had prevented the emergence of a Palestinian state on the West Bank by striking a tacit alliance with the Zionist leadership in the 1948 war; three years later he was murdered outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque by a Palestinian assassin. Hussein – a 15-year-old boy when he witnessed his grandfather’s killing – had worked hard to integrate his Palestinian citizens, giving them the vote and appointing men like Nusseibeh to cabinet positions. Still, he insisted on his claim to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and would not renounce it until 1988, at the beginning of the first intifada.
Hussein had lost the Western half of his kingdom because of a fatal misreading of an Israeli reprisal raid on his soil in November 1966, which convinced him that Israel was preparing to seize the West Bank. A week before the June war, the king signed a defence pact with his Cold War adversary Nasser, agreeing to place his soldiers under Egyptian command. His participation in the war enhanced his standing among Arabs, but it came at a high cost, not only in land, but in his dealings with the Jewish state. The Israelis knew that he had been in a precarious position, ruling a Palestinian majority that might have rebelled if he had remained on the sidelines. But they were furious with him for ignoring their warnings not to enter the war, even if they were secretly pleased that he had. The king either didn’t know his place, or he was a sinister character who, in Allon’s words, had ‘acted like Mussolini when he stabbed France in the back’.
In fact, Hussein was committed to the cause of Arab-Israeli peace – more committed, Raz suggests, than anyone else. ‘Charles’, as he was known by the Israeli secret service, had first opened a secret channel with Eshkol’s adviser Yaacov Herzog in 1963. Three weeks after the war, he met again with Herzog; their discussions would continue for the next two years. At the 2 July meeting in London, Hussein expressed his desire for peace, but ‘peace with dignity and honour’. He wanted his land back, but wasn’t opposed to the demilitarisation of the West Bank, or some reciprocal border modification. On 12 July 1967, with Nasser’s approval, Hussein told the Americans he was ready for a bilateral settlement. Dean Rusk all but begged Eban to assure Hussein that the annexation of Jerusalem was an ‘interim’ measure. Eban replied that if he did so ‘the government in Tel Aviv would become interim.’ On 18 July, Israel promised to reply to Hussein’s offer, but no reply materialised. Officially, Eban continued to claim that no offer to negotiate had come from an Arab country.
Israel knew better. ‘In his heart he wants peace with Israel,’ Herzog told Eshkol in November 1967. ‘Had we withdrawn, he certainly would have signed.’ But because Israel had no intention of withdrawing to anything like the 4 June lines, Hussein’s moderation presented a serious diplomatic challenge. Israel went to great efforts to paint him as a sponsor of terrorism, blaming him for attacks against Israel committed by fedayeen based in Jordan. (Guerrilla activity in the Jordan Valley was not entirely unwelcome; as Allon noted, it provided ‘an excellent pretext’ for defining settlements in the valley as ‘security deployment’.) The effect of these raids was to raise tensions inside Jordan, to threaten the stability of the kingdom and to increase Fatah’s prestige. The message was clear: if Hussein wanted to avert a separate Israeli-Palestinian deal – and stay on his throne – he would have to lower his demands. At a meeting in London on 19 November 1967, Herzog gave the king a pious lecture on the Arabs’ refusal to acknowledge ‘our right to our country’. But when Hussein asked him to define ‘the limits of the land’, Herzog refused to do so.
The Israelis delayed spelling out their terms to the king for almost another year. ‘All kinds of calamities’ – harsher UN resolutions, American pressure – could occur if talks broke down, Eban warned at a Labour Party committee meeting on 3 June 1968. It was essential, he said, to pursue a ‘futile discussion’ that ‘should last weeks and months’. At a meeting with Hussein in London on 27 September 1968, Allon, Eban and Herzog finally unveiled their peace proposal, which they knew was a non-starter. A third of the West Bank – a strip of land six to ten miles wide along the Jordan River, as well as much of the area’s southern region – would be incorporated into Israel; the rest would be an Arab enclave under Jordanian rule, with a connecting corridor to the East Bank. Hussein could become the ‘guardian’ of al-Haram al-Sharif, but Jerusalem would remain ‘united’ under Israeli sovereignty. As Allon, the author of the plan, admitted, ‘no Arab would ever accept the plan and nothing will come of it, but we must appear before the world with a positive plan.’ The day after the meeting in London, the king vetoed the plan. He did not object to Jews worshipping at their holy places in the Old City, but Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem was unacceptable. Two days after the summit, on his way to the UN General Assembly, Eban urged Eshkol to ‘focus on the tactical aim of securing the continuation of contact’ with Hussein, and to tell ‘Issachar’ – Israeli code for Johnson – that there was ‘substantive’ contact with ‘Charles’s government’.
The Americans were not impressed: ‘bazaar haggling’ was how Walt Rostow, the national security adviser, described Israel’s offer to Hussein. Peace, Johnson said, could not be built ‘on the walls of a fortress, or under the umbrella of air power, or behind a nuclear shield’. But on 9 October 1968, the Americans agreed to sell Israel the Phantom jets it wanted. The Eshkol cabinet thanked Johnson a few weeks later by adopting a top-secret resolution that effectively repudiated the withdrawals outlined in the 19 June 1967 resolution. Gaza would remain in Israeli hands; so would those parts of Sharm el-Sheikh with ‘territorial continuity to the State of Israel’ – a two hundred-mile stretch of territory. The Americans were beside themselves. ‘We’ve told you the US position ad nauseam – you have to give the West Bank back, you have to give Hussein a role in Jerusalem, a “Polish corridor” to Sharm el-Sheikh doesn’t make sense,’ Rostow told Rabin, Israel’s ambassador in Washington. ‘If the Israelis aren’t tired of hearing this, we’d be glad to say it again.’
It was easy to defy the Americans; it still is. After Eshkol died in February 1969, he was succeeded by Golda Meir, who blithely denied the existence of the Palestinian people. Israel never reached a formal decision as to the ultimate status of the Occupied Territories, but the settlement empire that arose was anything but accidental. Indecision, Raz shows, was a strategy, a means of playing for time and for territory. With American diplomatic cover, Israel has colonised large parts of the West Bank, now home to more than half a million settlers. It has worked to make life for Palestinians in the Old City as inhospitable as possible; only a short while ago, two members of the Knesset posed for photographs on the sofa of an Arab family evicted from their home in East Jerusalem. The occasional spats between the settlers and the state over ‘illegal settlements’ – as if any settlements were legal – are lovers’ quarrels. They are part of a shared enterprise, and the army, once a secular redoubt, is penetrated by religious zealots. The Israel of today is a product of the strategic indecision adopted in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 War. Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, insists on its desire for talks with Mahmoud Abbas but won’t even agree to a settlement freeze, much less withdrawal. The offer of further negotiations is more takhsis. Israel would prefer to threaten war with Iran than make peace with the Palestinians.
To read The Bride and the Dowry is to experience a mounting frustration at the sheer waste that has come from Israel’s intransigence. ‘Israel can have either peace or territory, but not both,’ King Hussein said, and its choice is painfully evident. It chose land, and perpetual war. Time, though, may not be on its side. What Eshkol, Dayan and Allon viewed as the realisation of the Zionist dream – the settling of the West Bank and East Jerusalem – may turn out to be its undoing. As long as the occupation persists, the lands of Israel-Palestine will continue their inexorable slide into a single state with a disenfranchised, oppressed Arab majority. As some of Israel’s own former leaders have warned, Israel has to decide what sort of state it wishes to be – and what its borders are. Its only chance of acceptance in the region remains an agreement with the Palestinian people.
[*] The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences, edited by William Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim (Cambridge, 325 pp., £18.99, February, 978 0 521 17479 4).