Opportunity Knocked

"Dreams and Missed Opportunities, 1967-1973," by Dan Bavly, Carmel Publishing House, 368 pages, NIS 84.

"Dreams and Missed Opportunities, 1967-1973," by Dan Bavly, Carmel Publishing House, 368 pages, NIS 84

On June 19, 1967, about a week after the Six-Day War had ended, the Israeli government unanimously decided that, in return for a peace treaty with Egypt and Syria, Israel would be prepared to give back all the territory it had captured in the Sinai Peninsula and on the Golan Heights and to return to the international boundary lines. It should be recalled that the same government that was prepared to withdraw from these territories was a national unity government, some of whose members were cabinet ministers representing the Gahal party, including Menachem Begin.

The government's decision was so secret that it was not even revealed to the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, who learned about it from the Americans only after he had arrived in Washington to serve as Israel's ambassador to the United States the following year. The Israeli government had authorized Abba Eban, the foreign minister, to convey this far-reaching decision to the American administration so that it could pass it on to the Egyptian and Syrian governments.

The June 19 decision was never implemented, and it has been the assumption of scholars that Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser and Syrian president Hafez Assad told Washington that they were rejecting the Israeli proposal. Along comes Dan Bavly to inform us that "a belated investigation of the measures taken by the U.S. ... does not indicate any signs that the Americans in fact reported the above decision to the leaders of Egypt and Syria or that they established any form of contact in order to discover their response."

If this is true, then this incident is one of the greatest scandals in U.S.-Israel relations and a major blunder on the part of an American administration. Quite possibly, had the Americans conveyed such a generous Israeli offer to Nasser and Assad, the presidents of Egypt and Syria might have given a favorable response, negotiations on the basis of a "peace-for-land" formula might have been initiated, the face of the Middle East might have been very different from what it is today, and the Yom Kippur War might never have broken out.

The problem is that Bavly does not reveal to us who conducted this "belated investigation" nor does he identify the sources on which he bases his amazing statement. He does, however, analyze America's Middle East policy during that period and arrives at the conclusion that the interests of the U.S. were different from those of Israel and that, in particular, the Americans were not interested in the reopening of the Suez Canal. Bavly further concludes that America's Middle East policy was the reason why Washington did not transmit Israel's peace proposal to Egypt and Syria.

On the other hand, he does write that, "for some unknown reason," the Israeli government quickly shelved its decision of June 19. The truth is that the Israeli government assumed that its proposal had been conveyed to Egypt and Syria, which, in addition to rejecting it (as evidenced by a lack of a response), sent representatives to the conference in Khartoum and supported the famous "three no's" (no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations, with respect to Israel). The Israeli peace proposal of the first week after the Six-Day War ended up being canceled by the government of Israel in October 1967.

Mounting military might

The June 19 decision was not characteristic of Israeli governments. Furthermore, the resolution totally ignored the fate of the West Bank and the future of the Palestinians living there. The thesis that Bavly develops in this book is essentially correct. According to that thesis, "there is a total absence of any Israeli policy oriented toward the attainment of peace in the years immediately following the Six-Day War," although such a contention does an injustice to the government led by Levi Eshkol: Not only did it make this generous offer, some of its members invested a sincere effort in arriving at a peace agreement initially with the Palestinians and then with King Hussein of Jordan.

Golda Meir's entry into the Prime Minister's Office led to a change, signs of which were already evident in the Eshkol era. According to this altered policy, Israel did not have to offer any concessions and, from its standpoint, nothing could be better than a continuation of the existing situation.

Rabin's first government did not substantially alter Golda's policy; in fact, that government's defense minister, Shimon Peres, became the "patron" of the right-wing Gush Emunim movement and was actively involved in the establishment of many settlements on the West Bank, including those situated in its mountainous parts and in the very heart of a dense Palestinian population (that is, Ofra and Kadum).

In his attempt to explain the book's central statement - that "during all the years the Labor Party (Mapai), including both its dovish and hawkish factions, was in power and until the political upheaval of 1977 [when the Likud, for the first time in Israeli history, became the ruling party], neither peace nor efforts to obtain it constituted a prominent political goal on Israel's agenda" - Bavly enumerates an entire series of "political concepts and characteristics" whose outcome was the policy adopted by those governments.

One of the interesting assessments in the list of the nine "concepts" that Bavly presents is the one that focuses on what he defines as the "military option." This is the approach that was adopted by policy-makers, according to which every problem that Israel had in its relations with its neighbors and the Palestinians could be solved through the application of military force. As Israel's military might increased, this policy hardened. Thus, "as the years passed and the Arab-Israeli conflict remained unresolved, the possibility of peace receded into the basement of the political awareness of Israel's prime ministers. As Israel developed its military strength, its aggressiveness in the political sphere increased."

Close scrutiny of the policy of the government headed by Ariel Sharon indicates that Bavly's diagnosis holds true today as well.

`Fringe' initiatives

In the first section of "Dreams and Missed Opportunities, 1967-1973," Bavly surveys the period between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and analyzes Israel's policy as proof of policy-makers' unwillingness to offer concessions to attain peace. This is not an in-depth historical research study and Bavly does not make use here of primary resources; instead, he adds to the existing literature a number of interviews he conducted with persons involved in policy formulation and with others who were close to those determining policies.

In the second section of the book, Bavly presents what he describes as "unofficial initiatives reflecting innovative political thinking." Although readers may find great interest in the details of those initiatives, to some of which Bavly was a party, they are less important for understanding Israeli policy because they were never presented to the country's successive governments and were never the subject of any serious debate. Bavly himself admits that the initiatives were short-term "in view of the absence of any governmental backing or encouragement for their continued development." He also points out that he presents his readers with these initiatives because they "testify to and illustrate the existence of a sort of historical fringe in which various people tried to lead the narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict to chapters other than those being charted by reality."

In my view, the emphasis in this statement is on the word "fringe." In fact, only policy guidelines approved by the country's prime ministers are relevant in the process of the formulation of national security policies. The initiatives of individuals who are not members of the small inner circles of decision-making kitchen cabinets might be correct, might be very worthwhile and might even be the only initiatives capable of resolving the conflict. However, they will be assigned substantial significance only after the prime minister and the cabinet have adopted them. Even in those rare and exceptional instances where the source of a political initiative was the unofficial activity of individuals who were not policy-makers (such as in the Oslo initiative), the initiative became relevant only when it was adopted by the members of the prime minister's kitchen cabinet (Yossi Beilin and Peres) and subsequently by the prime minister (Rabin).

The analysis in the book's first section (which, as noted above, deals with the policy that was formulated during the years between the Six-Day and the Yom Kippur wars) reveals the chain of events and the decisions that essentially marked the resistance on the part of Israel's governments to working toward peace; however, as also noted above, this section does not attach sufficient importance to the June 19, 1967 decision and ignores two other significant initiatives of the Eshkol government.

Apparently, faced with a choice between the two options relating to the decision of the cabinet ministers regarding a willingness to concede the Golan Heights and Sinai in return for peace (as indicated by the very name of the chapter dealing with them: "The Decisions of June 1967: A Moment of Sober-Minded Thinking or Mere Lip Service?"), Bavly chooses to give credence to the second option. The two other initiatives that he ignores pertain to a peace agreement with the Palestinians and to a treaty with Hussein.

Eshkol's sincerity

Between February and September 1968, prime minister Eshkol participated in a series of top-secret talks with the leaders of the Palestinian public in the territories. In these talks, he proposed a plan for Palestinian autonomy over most of the territories on the West Bank. Granted, the autonomy was to be largely dependent on Israel and was to exclude the Gaza Strip. However, it is difficult to argue that Eshkol's readiness to give up direct control of most of the West Bank so soon after the war's end cannot be regarded as an initiative that attests to a genuine desire to work toward a political settlement of the dispute. (The Gaza Strip was the only region, besides Jerusalem, over which there were no differences of opinion whatsoever among the policy-makers in the Eshkol government; everyone took it for granted that Israel would annex Gaza after a solution was found for the Palestinian refugees living there.)

Quite possibly, even in this instance, Bavly does not believe the prime minister was sincere, yet a study of the minutes of the talks between Eshkol and the Palestinians demonstrate that the prime minister apparently did intend to implement the autonomy plan and to withdraw the IDF from the territories included in that autonomy, if the Palestinians accepted his proposal. This initiative eventually evaporated because the Palestinian leadership in the territories had not yet fully crystallized: It was unwilling to assume responsibility for such far-reaching decisions, and still clung to the perception that the Palestinian problem could be resolved only by the heads of the Arab states.

Bavly ignores both the entire subject of Palestinian-Israeli contacts and Eshkol's decision regarding the autonomy plan. In fact, Bavly he states that "none of those mentioned above [that is, Eshkol, Golda, Eban and others - R.P.] ever, at any stage, demanded that a substantive effort be made to discover ways that could bring about the development of pragmatic, effective communication channels - whether overt or covert - that could, in future, contribute to the establishment of peace with our neighbors."

The failure of the autonomy initiative gave rise to the Eshkol government's second initiative. Yigal Allon, who, on July 27, 1967, presented the cabinet with a plan that bore his name, based that plan on the Palestinian option. The idea that was the core of the first Allon Plan involved granting autonomy to the Palestinians in approximately two-thirds of the West Bank. Thus, Eshkol's talks with the Palestinians were actually based on an adoption of the Allon Plan, although the government had not adopted the plan as a binding policy.

When Allon realized that the prospects for arriving at a political settlement with the Palestinians based on the autonomy proposal were nil, he altered the conceptual base of his plan and changed course toward the Jordanian option. In other words, if the Palestinians were unwilling to move in the direction of a political settlement based on autonomy, the territories on the West Bank that were earmarked for autonomy would be transferred to the King of Jordan. Thus, Israel would be relieved of the responsibility for control over the majority of Palestinians on the West Bank and would toss the Palestinian problem back into King Hussein's lap.

The corridor issue

The government rejected the second Allon Plan as well, although the members of the cabinet decided to adopt its principles and even authorized Allon and Eban to present the new plan to King Hussein (it should again be recalled that one of the members of that cabinet was Begin, who endorsed the decision to offer the Jordanian monarch most of the territories of the West Bank). Allon and Eban submitted the "Jordanian Allon Plan" in late September 1968 in a secret meeting that was held in London. King Hussein rejected the Israeli proposal and came out with the famous - and cutting - statement that the Allon Plan was completely unacceptable. That declaration signaled the end of the third Israel initiative following the Six-Day War (and the last before the Oslo initiative).

Bavly makes no reference to the proposal that was submitted to King Hussein, and he mistakenly states that the Allon Plan based on autonomy for the Palestinians included a corridor in the Jericho region that was to link the West Bank with the East Bank (Jordan). Allon added the corridor to the map of his plan only after he had decided to move in the direction of the Jordanian option. The original map did not include the corridor because, in Allon's view, there was no need for a territorial link between the designated Palestinian autonomous region and the Kingdom of Jordan.

Bavly devotes a separate chapter to Moshe Dayan and categorically states that Dayan was "the most prominent figure among the leaders of the country who were also members of the generation that continued the tradition of Israel's founders, and he had a decisive impact on Israel's diplomatic activity in the years that immediately followed the Six-Day War."

Nevertheless, although one cannot possibly deny Dayan's central role in the formation of Israeli policies during that era, it was, in fact, Allon who charted the course of the government's policies, through the plan that bore his name and through the initiatives for the establishment of settlements on the Golan Heights and the West Bank, which he spearheaded.

In the chapter on Dayan, Bavly refers to "the unknown Dayan plan," but errs in the presentation of its principal points. Immediately after the Six-Day War, Dayan formulated his "Five Fists Plan" (rather than a plan for the creation of four Israeli cities, as Bavly writes). The core of the plan was the establishment of five "concentrations," or nuclei, on the mountainous area between the Jenin region in the north and the Hebron region in the south. The main elements in the nuclei were to be military bases that would be situated in their centers and which would be surrounded by civilian communities. Dayan estimated that each "fist" would require a land allocation of some 20 square kilometers.

Aggressive approach

In August 1967, Dayan's plan was debated at a Labor Alignment political conference, but even at that early stage, it was obvious that such a plan had no prospects whatsoever of ever being accepted. Bavly correctly states that as defense minister, Dayan characteristically refrained from championing his own positions and from battling the initiative to remove his plan from the agenda, just as he failed to fight for the adoption of his plan for an Israeli withdrawal from the banks of the Suez Canal in 1971.

As noted above, Bavly's conclusions from his analysis of the premiership of Golda Meir are much more solidly based. Golda's approach was aggressive and she had no intention whatever of proposing compromises and concessions in return for peace treaties with the Arab states. Her attitude toward the Palestinians is widely known and was expressed in a nutshell in her uncompromising declaration that "there is no such thing as a Palestinian people."

Although it ignores the initiatives of the Eshkol government, Bavly's book is important because it dramatically presents, as a subject for debate, the issue of the attitudes of Israeli leaders toward peace and toward peace treaties with our neighbors. The book includes several important assessments that should serve as the basis for continued historical research on this era.

It is, however, regrettable that "Dreams and Missed Opportunities" contains a number of errors, some of which are substantial. For example, in July 1970, in the aerial battle in Egypt's skies, five of the Israel Air Force's Phantom fighter jets were not downed by Soviet pilots. Quite the opposite: The IAF shot down five MiGs flown by Soviet pilots. Eshkol served as prime minister until 1969, not 1968. Aharon Yariv headed Military Intelligence in the IDF until 1972, not 1973. The first name of former U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara is Robert, not Patrick. Incidentally, his middle name is Strange.

In the final analysis, Bavly manages to support the title of his book. He persuades his readers that, for the most part, with respect to the era he surveys, Israeli leaders in fact "succeeded" in missing a number of opportunities for arriving at peace accords with our enemies.