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This is what President Donald Trump finally realized, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem’s Old City, and this is how the shapers of Israel’s defense policy, David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, treated that takeover — as a burden and not an asset.
They lamented the Old City’s fall into Jordanian hands in 1948, but preferred not to act to change the reality as determined in the 1949 armistice agreement. Even when they moved toward war on other fronts, they did not seek an opportunity to conquer the Temple Mount, as opposed to other goals, like adjusting the line at Latrun and linking up with the Mount Scopus enclave.
There is no deception greater than the photo of Moshe Dayan at the Lion’s Gate, flanked by Rabin and Central Command chief Uzi Narkiss, as though Dayan is the first to quench the longing for the Western Wall. This photo contrasts with Dayan’s thousand words that preceded it, as did a photo of him festively welcoming the naval destroyers whose purchase he opposed.
As a chief of staff spoiling for war, Dayan chose pretexts for the Israel Defense Forces that seemed more practical. For example, the Israel Navy’s Zippor base, which he sought to establish in 1955 in Eilat, the base of the Red Sea “bottle,” to justify a battle at the neck of that bottle, the Straits of Tiran — in the vain hope of holding onto Sharm el Sheikh. He understood that East Jerusalem, even if it fell in battle into Israeli hands, would not remain in Israeli hands; the major powers, first and foremost Britain, would not allow it.
The Sinai Campaign included a plan for Jordan as well:“The Central Command will protect its area against enemy assaults and in the second phase will conquer the Hebron Hills and northern Jerusalem,” which meant Mount Scopus, not the Western Wall.
The Sinai Campaign had proven once again – after the forced withdrawal from northern Sinai in Operation Horev in late 1948 – that there was no point in shedding blood for the sake of a momentary and transitory military achievement. And therefore, in the spring of 1967, according to the IDF’s multi-year plan, Israel was reconciled to the balance that had been attained and was not seeking to change its borders. It would be nice, the planners dreamed, if Latrun and Mount Scopus were to be added to the area of the state, and if the border with Lebanon were to move north beyond the Litani River, and if the demilitarized zones with Syria, site of many incidents, could be brought to order. But none of these — certainly not the Western Wall — was included in the “goals of the conquest,” as Dayan told listeners in a radio broadcast on June 5, 1967.
The Central Command, which on that day was in defensive mode, had not been allocated troops specifically for the conquest of the Old City. The Paratroop Brigade reserves that eventually took part in the battle for Jerusalem were only able to do so due to Israel’s rapid advance in Sinai.
At the National Security College and the Command College exercises were held and papers written entertaining thoughts about East Jerusalem, and officers of the 16th District reserves examined ideas, but these were neither tactical nor strategic.
In 1963, in a local exercise, Brigade Commander Aviv Barzilai planned a breach of the Old City walls using two bulldozers to place hundreds of kilograms of explosives at the Zion Gate, which would ostensibly cause the wall to collapse inward. The commander of the reconnaissance force, Yossi Langotsky, who as a boy in Jerusalem had walked along the top of the wall, remembered that the street level inside the wall was higher than outside. Historian and geographer Dr. Ze’ev Vilnai, who was let in on the plan, confirmed that the wall could not be breached in this way.
Langotsky also proposed establishing a unit of Jerusalem old-timers from 1948, who knew the Old City streets well and could navigate them, but that was not to be. The IDF did the minimum: It prepared to stop a Jordanian attack on West Jerusalem, without relating seriously to the idea that it would have to conquer the eastern part of the city.
Israel can live well without East Jerusalem and could live well without sovereignty over it. All that’s necessary is an agreement that would allow free access to it. Alongside the other issues requiring compromise, the religious people on both sides must not be allowed to thwart peace. It is more important than Jerusalem, as it was more important than Sharm el Sheikh. We can do without it – this is a tolerable price to pay to stop the threat of eternal war.