Text size

"If we conquer the Old City, when do we give it back and to whom?" asked Zalman Aran, then minister of education and culture.

He posed the question during the cabinet meeting on Monday, June 5, 1967, at about 8 P.M., in the bomb shelter of the Knesset in Jerusalem. Interior minister Moshe Haim Shapira, shared Aran's questions and expressed, like his colleague, concerns about the diplomatic implications of the Israel Defense Forces' entry into the Old City. They thought it would be best for Israel not to hold onto East Jerusalem, but rather that it recommend that it have an international status for it. They were alone in this opinion.

Most members of the cabinet were filled with a sense of a historic moment. They held a short deliberation (the Winograd Committee would have strongly chastised them for their decision-making process) and rallied behind the concluding statements of prime minister Levi Eshkol: The government will inform the IDF that it wishes for the Old City to be liberated, in response to the shelling of West Jerusalem by the Jordanian Legion; the decision of what will be done with the liberated territory will be made in the future.

The future arrived six days later: On June 11, the government decided to annex east Jerusalem. Again it was minister Zalman Aran who spoiled the party: He expressed concern that the world would force Israel to undo the unification of the city. "I remember [David] Ben-Gurion very well during Operation Kadesh [during the 1956 Suez Campaign] when he declared that we would not withdraw," Aran told his colleagues. Police minister Eliyahu Sasson also warned that the Christian world would oppose the official declaration of annexation.

Two ministers from Mapam, Israel Barzilai and Mordechai Bentov, joined those expressing reservations. Their arguments differed: They were not concerned about the world's reaction, but rather about the negative impact that the annexation would have on Israel's chances of achieving peace with the Arab states.

The four ministers were in the minority. The government assigned a special ministerial committee to formulate a proposal that would lead to the city's unification. On Tuesday, June 27, at about 7 P.M., the Knesset decided to annex east Jerusalem. The vast majority of MKs supported the bill, including Uri Avnery. Only the MKs of the Communist parties, Rakah and Maki, voted against it.

Forty years later, it is appropriate to recall that decision and try to learn some lessons. There is no doubt that when the Israeli leadership decided to unify Jerusalem it had good cause to believe that it was doing the right thing. The diplomatic and security-related conditions (the defeat of the Arab states and the international recognition that the Six-Day War was justified), the overall atmosphere in Israel (the sense that we had been saved from an existential threat and of sweet revenge for the arbitrary aggression of the Arab states), and the political situation (complete accord) offered the appropriate setting. There is also no doubt that the country invested a great deal of its resources, physical and intellectual, to bring about the success of this endeavor: It redrew the city map to bolster its hold over it, it confiscated large tracks of land to strengthen Jewish presence there, it allocated human resources and much funding to develop it and to guarantee the security of its residents. It placed Jerusalem at the top of its priorities.

Nonetheless, the results speak for themselves: Jerusalem 2007 is a city whose residents are leaving it, where the number of Arabs living within its city limits has consistently risen and alters the demographic balance in the city to their favor, at a time in which most of the states of the world do not recognize Israel's sovereignty over it.

The process of annexation did not result in genuine unification of the city: Jews avoid entering the eastern part of the city and their access to it mostly revolves around visits to the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. From an urban and an architectural point of view as well (including the environs of the Western Wall), the annexation is not a success story.

The conclusion: However banal it may be, the facts of reality are more powerful than the excitement of the heart. The justification that the State of Israel had for annexing East Jerusalem in 1967 could overcome the determination of the Arabs of the city to hold on to it. The Jewish claim over all of Jerusalem is unable to destroy the claim of the Muslim world to the city. In the world of 2007 there is no alternative but to recognize this. In June 1967, only a handful of ministers recognized this, and they were considered defeatists.