What if Israel Had Withdrawn From the Occupied Territories in 1967?

Israel’s most serious problems are often attributed to its protracted rule in the occupied territories. But would it really be better off without them?

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Defense Ministry Moshe Dayan and OC Central Command Uzi Narkis at the entrance to Bethlehem, June 8, 1967.
Defense Ministry Moshe Dayan and OC Central Command Uzi Narkis at the entrance to Bethlehem, June 8, 1967.Credit: Moshe Milner, GPO
Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy

Many Israelis view the Six-Day War as a breaking point that ruptured the country’s development as a liberal society, aggrandizing the military establishment and dragging Israel into a protracted, corrupting occupation. However, this approach overlooks an examination of Israel’s motives for entrenching the war’s results in long-term rule over the territories and their Palestinian residents.

Viewing the war as a continuation of prior processes, rather than as a turning point, actually shows how it helped Israelis cope with tensions and contradictions that were already present before the war; encouraged the deferment of internal conflicts; and therefore led to the emergence of a coalition of vested interests that strove to preserve the occupation. If the war had not erupted – or if it had ended without Israel being in control of new territories – the country would eventually have encountered crises whose results would probably have been little different from the situation that now exists, after 50 years of occupation.

In imagining such a scenario, the point of departure is that – as happened at the conclusion of the 1956 Sinai Campaign – the United States decides to force Israel to withdraw from the territory that’s been conquered. This time the goal is to prevent an escalation of the Cold War, and to leave the Arab states an opening to join the Western bloc. In this scenario, Israel, having attained its primary goal in the war – destroying the armies it perceived as threatening it – withdraws from all the territories it conquered.

The quid pro quo for the withdrawal and the return of the occupied territories to their original rulers, would likely have been restoration of the prewar status quo: demilitarization of Sinai, where the Egyptian army’s entry generated the crisis that led to the war; redeployment of United Nations observers, whom Egypt had expelled, on the Israeli-Egyptian border; and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed to Israeli shipping. According to this alternative scenario, in the context of the Cold War, the American administration believed that compelling Israel to withdraw from the territories was preferable to strengthening its own alliance with Israel, and accepting its aggressive behavior, an approach that would have pushed Egypt and Syria definitively into the Soviet Bloc.

In the wake of a withdrawal, would Israel have resumed its development as a liberal society, in the sense of being freer and more open? That tendency had intensified in the period of Levi Eshkol’s tenure as prime minister (1963-69). During the Eshkol years, the military government that had been imposed on the country’s Palestinian citizens was abolished, freedom of the press grew, a conciliatory approach toward the political right was adopted and higher education and cultural life began to flourish. Furthermore, the civil service and the army were depoliticized, the private sector developed (with the encouragement of the state), legislation enhancing gender equality was encouraged, and politicians and intellectuals began challenging the symbols of the army and its supremacy in Israel’s political culture. Nevertheless, a rapid withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 is likely to have aggravated the tensions and contradictions that had emerged in the society even before the war, in tandem with the liberalization, and that could have diverted Israel from the course of liberalization.

First and foremost, a quick withdrawal would have intensified the conflict between the Israel Defense Forces and the politicians, that is, the leaders of the labor parties. The army was riding the crest of a wave of admiration following its swift victory, which had eliminated the fear of the “danger of annihilation” that was cultivated in the public mood during the “waiting period” – the three weeks that preceded the government’s decision to attack the Egyptian army for violating the demilitarized status of Sinai by massing troops there.

During those three weeks, the government was accused of hesitancy when it attempted to restore the previous situation by means of diplomacy. The army, pressing for an attack, clashed with the politicians. Israel ended the waiting period by attacking its neighbors and conquering the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. In the withdrawal scenario, the army chiefs would likely have lambasted the politicians and accused them of “shamefully” capitulating to the superpowers and missing the opportunity to provide Israel with security borders.

An Egyptian soldier giving himself up to Israeli soldiers near Rafah during the Six-Day War.Credit: Micha Han, GPO

Concurrently, the politicians would have come under pressure from the more moderate wings of their parties to tighten supervision of the army. It was the IDF that, on the eve of the war, had ratcheted up escalation of border disputes, particularly between Israel and Syria, under the extensive freedom of action it enjoyed in the Eshkol era. Its role in both the escalation and in the decision to mobilize reserves immediately upon the Egyptian army’s entry into Sinai, helped foment the war the government was dragged into. Not for nothing did the IDF draw criticism from various statesmen, from former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to retired general and Knesset Member Moshe Dayan. In the rapid-withdrawal scenario, it is likely that the army would have leveraged its public prestige to oppose the enfeebled politicians and prevent its autonomy from being undermined, after the politicians had already “stabbed it in the back” by agreeing to withdraw.

This process would almost certainly have strengthened Dayan, the former chief of staff, who, in response to public pressure, was appointed to the post of defense minister on the eve of the war and was perceived as the architect of the victory. Consequently, the “civil” politicians would have become more dependent on him, for his ability to discipline the generals. Of course, it’s possible that Dayan, one of the leaders of Rafi, the party that split from Mapai (forerunner of Labor) in 1965, would have opposed the withdrawal (as he opposed the withdrawal from Sinai in 1956, when he was chief of staff). He might even have resigned from the government, making stabilization of the political system after the withdrawal still more difficult. The processes that occurred in reality after the war greatly empowered the army and its generals – though also the politicians – and in the withdrawal scenario being considered here, the army would have been strengthened even more, while the politicians would have lost power.

Engine of growth

The most significant development would presumably have been in the social realm. In the event of a rapid withdrawal, the recession that afflicted Israel in 1966-67, causing an economic slowdown and substantial unemployment, would likely have continued. It would not have ended as it actually did after the war, when the economy rebounded. The primary lever of growth was the entry of tens of thousands of low-cost Palestinian workers into the Israeli labor market. The economic thrust created jobs, raised the standard of living and generated greater public expenditure. If Israel had withdrawn, that growth would not have occurred.

Furthermore, the recession might actually have deepened under the pressures of an increased security burden. As a lesson of the waiting period, the regular army would have grown, to reduce future dependence on the reservists: Their full mobilization during the waiting period crippled the economy and generated pressure to initiate the war. The security burden would also have weighed more heavily because of the acceleration of an arms race fueled by the growth of the Arab armies under Soviet aegis and in preparation for another round – without the secure borders that would have been eliminated by the withdrawal decision.

In contrast to what actually happened after 1967, in the rapid-withdrawal scenario, Israel’s citizens would have borne the brunt of the added economic-security burden. This is because two of the actual post-1967 economic levers would have been absent: generous American economic and military assistance, and the economic growth spurred by Israeli rule of the territories.

This conclusion is open to qualification, because it is possible that, even in the withdrawal scenario, the United States would have granted Israel generous aid, as it did in practice after the 1967 war. By doing so, Washington would have offset the freedom of military action that Israel lost by being compelled to pull out – precisely in order to ensure Israeli restraint. Such aid would have reduced the risk that Israel, now feeling insecure (especially after France stopped supplying arms), would lower the bar for launching a future, preemptive war. This was also the logic that underlay Washington’s green light, in practice, for Israel’s nuclear project. Additionally, that aid would have underwritten American weapons manufacturers, which would have become Israel’s suppliers. So it’s possible that in the withdrawal scenario, too, another lever of growth would have developed, by way of local weapons manufacturers.

'Millions of Arabs outside Israel imagine we must have been tamed, Judaized, Israelized': Police stationed in Jerusalem's Old City on the 20th anniversary of the Six-Day War.Credit: Maggi Ayalon, GPO

Ethno-class tensions

A rapid withdrawal might have had a substantial social impact. The continued recession would have heightened ethno-class tensions by deepening unemployment that is likely to have affected primarily blue-collar laborers of Mizrahi background (Israeli Jews originating in Middle Eastern countries). Taken together, the combination of a feeling of discrimination, economic distress, contribution to a victory that was not acknowledged (Mizrahi presence in units that fought in the war increased in the 1960s) and a weakened leadership among the ruling parties would have all laid the foundation for a fierce protest.

In reality, Israel’s control of the territories contributed in at least two ways to assuaging ethno-class tension. The first lies in the resulting economic growth, which generated full employment and enabled the emergence of a Mizrahi middle class. This development split the Mizrahim between those who enjoyed upward mobility into the middle class and those who were relegated to the margins of the labor market, where they competed for jobs with the cheap Palestinian workforce, although the former were at least employed. This cleavage weakened the ability of Mizrahim to wage a social struggle.

The second contribution lay in the reinforcement of Judaic symbols in Jewish-Israeli society, under the aegis of a renewed encounter with “Greater Land of Israel.”

The new symbols were particularly attractive to the poorer Mizrahi community, helping it formulate its distinctive national identity without being totally assimilated into the alien Israeli-Ashkenazi ethos, and to ally politically with Likud and later with the Shas party. Mizrahim from the lower social class then adopted an ethno-religious rather than ethno-class discourse, which yet again reduced the potential for effective social protest. A withdrawal in 1967 would have precluded the development of these tension-reducing mechanisms and heightened the potential for ethno-class conflict. Possibly the Israeli Black Panthers’ protest movement would have erupted on a broader scale, and earlier. Or an uprising similar to the riots that developed in the Wadi Salib neighborhood in Haifa in 1959 might have spread to other areas, but with far greater intensity.

In the withdrawal scenario, social tensions would probably have set several processes in motion. First might have been further empowerment of the army, inasmuch as it further assumed the role of relieving the tension – in its role, according to its image, as a channel of social mobility for Mizrahim. Social conflicts could also have created temptation among the ruling politicians to use military force to divert Mizrahim from a social struggle to fighting the Arabs instead. Second, the strengthening of the political right, given the fact that the Herut movement (which in 1965 founded Gahal – the Herut-Liberal Bloc, which in 1973 allied with other parties to establish Likud), had already gradually begun to become the home of the Mizrahim, with whom the movement forged an “alliance of the oppressed.” Naturally, the right-wing surge would also have been intensified amid criticism of the labor parties for missing the opportunity to expand Israel’s borders.

A third process would likely have involved reinforcement of the welfare state to cool Mizrahi unrest. The fusion of economic recession, a heavy security burden and diversion of resources to the poorer classes would have adversely affected the power group, namely the Ashkenazi middle class.

A withdrawal scenario also assumes heightened tension in minority-majority relations. The Palestinians in Israel, no longer under military administration, had proved their “loyalty” to the state during the waiting period. However, taking into account the emergence of unrest among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and particularly in the West Bank, following the defeat of the Arab regimes, to whose control they had been returned, the combination of these processes would have accelerated political radicalization among the Palestinian minority in Israel – leading it to break away from the labor parties. The war and the occupation actually helped to assuage this potential tension and defer its intensification through economic growth, which in turn accelerated the growth of a Palestinian-Israeli middle class.

Among the country’s national-religious population, a process of “hardalization” – a thrust toward Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) culture mixed with Zionist ideology – is a likely scenario. In reality, the failure of the religious Zionism to leave its imprint on secular society during the state’s earliest years frustrated its younger generation, who turned to establishing a network of high school yeshivas. Later, these yeshivas laid the infrastructure for the rise of the settlement movement led by Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful). This process accorded singular significance to the religious-Zionist movement within secular society. In the withdrawal scenario, the younger generation would have probably cultivated a religious, Torah-oriented elite within the yeshivas, offering a symbolic alternative to the dominance of military service identified with the secular elites, and culturally challenging the secular hegemony in an attempt to influence the shaping of society.

If so, the cumulative result in a rapid-withdrawal scenario is the destabilization of the old, stable political order – a centralist state ruled by the labor parties – which the Six-Day War helped preserve in practice, at least until the upheaval of 1977. The consolidation of the war’s results helped defer distributive conflicts that were simmering on the eve of the war. A speedy withdrawal would have accelerated the burgeoning struggles, with which the state would then have reduced capability to cope. The state would have been forced to operate under conditions of political instability and to depend on a strong army. Israel would then have been swept by a new wave of militarization under the auspices of a revered army reinforced by the discourse amplifying the threat to the country’s existence in the absence of security borders. The political turnabout of 1977 would probably have been hastened, but without the stable conditions in which it actually occurred.

Israeli troops preparing for action on the outskirts of Rafa during the Six-Day War.Credit: Micha Han, GPO

Probably things wouldn’t have stopped there. In light of the fact that the June 1967 withdrawal would have been perceived as “unfinished business,” it’s a reasonable assumption that an IDF-Dayan coalition would have strived to escalate border disputes in order to expand the country’s borders again, even if in a modest manner, so as not to provoke the superpowers. An agenda along those lines could be discerned in the army even before the war. A probable undermining of the Arab regimes, especially Jordan, following the military defeat, with the potential of opposition among the West Bank Palestinian population, might have destabilized the borders and provided Israel with military opportunities.

Even if no new war had broken out, progress toward a political settlement would not have been on the cards. After all, Israel, having consolidated the borders of 1949 and erased the partition borders of 1947, had no assets to barter with. A lengthy armistice punctuated by border disputes is definitely a likely scenario.

It’s difficult to assess where we would be today if Israel had withdrawn in June 1967. Would the occupation have been precluded altogether, or only postponed? Would only long-term calm on the borders have made possible renewal of the processes that buttressed civil society and given rise to liberalization amid an incipient erosion of the army’s centrality? We need to remember that erosion of that kind occurred only after the army’s failure in the Yom Kippur War – a war that would not have occurred in the withdrawal scenario. Would social-political instability have given rise to renewed liberalization, promoted by those who challenged the Israeli establishment or were harmed by it? Or would the country have instead regressed back into the situation of the 1950s, in the form of a centralist-militarist regime that enforced order and stability?

It is not unrealistic to reckon that we would have arrived at the same place we’ve reached after 50 years of occupation – only sooner, and under harsher circumstances.

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