The First Dissenting Israeli Voices of the Occupation

Amid the euphoria of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, a number of intellectuals expressed fears about what would happen next

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Jubilant Israeli soldiers in Sinai, Egypt, at the end of the Six-Day War, June 10, 1967.
Jubilant Israeli soldiers in Sinai, Egypt, at the end of the Six-Day War, June 10, 1967.Credit: Anonymous/AP
Michal Aharon
Michal Aharon

It would be a mistake to think that the sense of intoxication after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War completely silenced fears about the future. One of the country’s most important scholars of the time, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, was the most prominent to urge against holding onto the territories Israel had just captured. But he was not a lone voice.

A matter of days after the fighting ended in June 1967, intellectuals and journalists began expressing concerns about the implications of the lightning victory in which extensive territory was captured from Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

In opinion pieces published that year, they warned against oppressing the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They also expressed fears about the moral image of Israel and its army in the world, and suggested ways in which the new situation could be used to reach peace agreements with its Arab neighbors.

Fifty years on, many of the threats they warned about have become a reality. And many of their comments are as relevant today as they were in 1967.

Negotiations over autonomy
Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, June 19, 1967

David Ben-Gurion in March 1967.Credit: Charles Knoblock/AP

A report in Haaretz included a statement from David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, who was still a Knesset member in 1967. Ben-Gurion stated: “If Egypt agrees to a peace treaty with Israel, we will be prepared to evacuate the Sinai desert immediately after the peace treaty is signed. We will not negotiate with any party over the Old City of Jerusalem and its vicinity. We will offer the residents of the West Bank [the opportunity] to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations over the autonomy of the West Bank (other than Jerusalem and its vicinity), to be linked in an economic pact with the State of Israel. The Gaza Strip will remain in the State of Israel, and [Israel] will make efforts to settle the refugees in the West Bank or in other Arab areas with the refugees’ consent and with the assistance of the State of Israel.”

Coming to one’s senses
Haaretz journalist and writer Amos Elon, June 21, 1967

Amos ElonCredit: Tali Shani

“The Messianic Age is now slowly coming to an end, and in this more sober atmosphere, the biggest diplomatic and moral question marks that have hovered over the Zionist enterprise since the Balfour Declaration have resurfaced in the world,” wrote Elon, referring to the November 1917 British declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in British-controlled Palestine.

“In Israel, we are still under the influence of the sweet intoxication of victory. Army reserve duty is making way for mass tourism in the occupied territories. In the outside world, though people are starting to ask, ‘What do these Israelis want? Territory or peace? A Jewish empire or a tranquil life in their country? Occupation or quiet?’” Referring to then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Elon added, “As Mr. Dayan predicted on the eve of battle, we could have managed alone, but on the diplomatic front we need allies.”

In the bathtub or the living room
Amos Elon, June 30, 1967

“The political leadership continues to act in the West Bank as if it has received a live crocodile for its birthday. It doesn’t know whether to put it in the bathtub or the living room. The majority will surely agree that there is no point in detailing our territorial demands and declaring them now. But the time is coming in which we will have to at least tell ourselves what we want and don’t want: peace or new territories? Breaking through the wall of Arab enmity, or a continued total blockade of the expanded country? The time is also coming to make clear to ourselves what we expect from the defeated population, which will soon recover from the psychological shock. What do we want? The blind obedience of prisoners who are hostile and have no choice, or the avid cooperation of war-weary, free people?”

Another war has ended
Poet Natan Zach, June 30, 1967

Natan Zach.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The war has ended, meaning another war has ended. If the conditions allow, we will now gradually return to a life of truce at the mouth of the volcano, which has again been acquired at the price of too many lives. But we will abstain from the intoxication of victory. No one can guarantee that this our the last war in the hateful region in which we live. In addition, we will avoid self-satisfaction, unnecessary hardening of positions and feelings of aggressive zealotry that follow every victory. Let us not allow stimulated chauvinism – encouraged by a sense of our shocking isolation – to dictate the outlines of our intellectual and moral image to us.”

Not subjects
Law professor (and later Meretz lawmaker) Amnon Rubinstein, June 28, 1967

Amnon RubinsteinCredit: Eyal Toueg

“It is appropriate that a body be created as soon as possible to represent the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza,” Rubinstein wrote. “This body, which the government will appoint, will serve as an advisory council for the Israeli administration and as a temporary spokesman for Israel’s new population. If it becomes clear that we will be in these territories for more than a day or two, the appropriate people will be found. A body of this kind will yield a major benefit – and not only from a clear propaganda perspective. It will make it clear that we see the Arabs of the Land of Israel not as subjects on which the authority of a foreign guardian is being forced and that can be traded at will.

“This body will not damage our capacity for diplomatic maneuver, whatever the final diplomatic solution may be,” he continued. “If this solution goes in the direction of creating an autonomous Arab entity in Israel, this body will provide it with a nucleus of political representation but since such solutions are a long-term matter, we need to prepare ourselves for an extended period in which the new territories will be under our full control. We have a great interest in the new territories not being granted the status of temporarily occupied territory by Israel.”

Ask for forgiveness
Historian and author Shabtai Teveth, June 20, 1967

Shabtai TevethCredit: Tali Shani

“Just a short while ago, left-wing intellectuals – most of whom were scholars at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – were attacking the saying that the best go to the air force, which they held up as the supreme example of those in control placing military considerations above all else. The term “security” has generally contained hints, whether subtle or explicit, of personal or party self-interest. A man like Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizman, who was the commander of the air force for nine years, was attacked and defamed among intellectuals and the left, and was considered an archetype of a man who places military considerations above everything else – a warmonger and simply a braggart. Today, there is no doubt, without minimizing [the role of] Maj. Gen. Mordechai Hod [the commander of the air force during the war], that the public owed a deep debt to Maj. Gen. Weizman, too. Those same intellectuals from that same left should have seen it as fitting to get down on their knees and ask for his forgiveness – not necessarily because the air force was a decisive force in the victory, but mostly because, thanks to him, the Arab armies could not destroy us or sow destruction and death in our cities.”

Moderation and concessions
Sociologist Yohanan Peres, June 20, 1967

“Hostile propaganda attributes a desire on Israel’s part to territorial conquest and the expulsion or oppression of the local population. A clear declaration regarding a diplomatic plan that does not annex the captured territories but rather gives them to their residents would dispel such suspicions. ... In the ongoing dispute for the past 30 years over our policy toward the Arab world, those advocating a heavy hand tend to argue that any concession would be interpreted as weakness and provide an opening for an extortionist cycle of more and more excessive demands. Advocates of rapprochement and compromise, on the other hand, stress the central position of the motif of national honor. ... In this view, humiliation of the Arabs with excessive aggressiveness leads to more fervent enmity, expressed in more extremist positions. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to demonstrate generosity, moderation and leniency at a time when no one is doubting our power. Such a time is now in our hands. Are we to waste it?”

We have the right of sovereigns
Poet Natan Alterman at a press conference, September 25, 1967

In a Haaretz article about the Greater Land of Israel Movement, one of its representatives, poet Natan Alterman, declared: “The territories that are being held should not be treated as [bargaining] cards. That would suggest a failure to admit the fundamental right to our existence, and in this regard it should be asked why the right to Tel Aviv is greater than Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. We have the right of sovereigns over territories with a Jewish imprint. The principle of the wholeness of the land should not be given up, and it should not be stated up front that we will return the territories. From the perspective of political wisdom, we should not be planting [the idea] in the world’s consciousness that ‘this [land] is not ours.’”

The Middle Ages
Poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, September 29, 1967

Dahlia RavikovitchCredit: Moti Kimche

“What’s depressing about all the various annexation movements is not the fact that the residents of Israel are bound by strong bonds of love and longing for the land of their childhood, whether in reality or their imaginations, but the small number of people who believe that populated areas cannot be annexed without finding a fair solution for the people living there. If victory has provided us with a sense of power, with power comes obligation – as with nobility comes obligation. Despite the victory, and despite the open spaces and natural relief that the danger has passed, there is growing discomfort in the country. More than resembling the Messianic Age, these days are beginning to reveal signs of the Middle Ages.”

Fairness as a diplomatic rule
Haaretz editorial, June 23, 1967

“It should be hoped that we manage to find a permanent diplomatic solution to the question of the ‘eastern Land of Israel’ as soon as possible. The rules that have been proposed will therefore apply in the short term. The short-term problems should not be resolved as a matter of routine and based on what is convenient. And if Israel’s diplomatic needs require the carrying out of agreements that are difficult for us and cost us financially, we must take on the burden, because it is only in this way that we will achieve peaceful coexistence with our neighbors.”

No more Jewish laborers
Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Yedioth Ahronoth, April 1968

Prof. Yeshayahu LeibowitzCredit: Alex Levac

“Within a short time, there will be no Jewish laborers or Jewish farmers in the country. Arabs will be the people that work, and the Jews will be the managers, supervisors, clerks and policemen. We therefore have no choice – out of concern for the Jewish people and its state – but to get out of the territories. When it comes to the ‘religious’ arguments for annexing the territories, they are nothing but an expression of unconscious (or conscious) hypocrisy, an expression of the conversion of the religion of Israel into a cover for Israeli nationalism. Fraudulent religiosity identifies satisfying national interests with the worship of the Almighty and presents the state – which is never anything other than an instrument and necessary means for satisfying human needs – as a supreme value from a religious standpoint.”

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