The Road Not Taken

There is no chance for peace without concessions in Jerusalem - and the likelihood that Israel will make such a concession now is nil.

A few days before the Six-Day War, Shimon Peres proposed an action that, had it been accepted, might have prevented the war. Peres opposed the war, just as David Ben-Gurion had done that same week; at the time the two of them headed Rafi, a small opposition faction. They believed that Israel should not go to war without the backing of a foreign power.

Peres revealed the existence of his proposal without going into detail; there were those in the United States who interpreted it as a proposal to conduct a demonstration test of a nuclear device, thereby rehabilitating Israel's deterrence: The Arabs would be struck with fear, the Israelis would calm down. For in the final analysis, it was a psychological crisis that brought about the war.

Peres' future as a statesman was still ahead of him; something can be learned from this episode about the existence of at least two versions of Shimon Peres. Peres the politician did everything he could to get the Defense Ministry transferred from prime minister Levy Eshkol's hands to those of Moshe Dayan. There was no real justification for this: Eshkol emerges from the documentation as a man with nerves of steel. Dayan was in favor of war and Peres knew it. Here there is a conflict between Peres the politician, who facilitated the war, and Peres the statesman, who opposed it.

Most Israelis have not internalized the dramatic significance of the action that Peres proposed. Thirty-eight years after the Six-Day War, there are more and more Israelis who see it as a perpetual source of sorrow: To this day, everything is happening in its shadow. But most Israelis also believe to this day that it was an unavoidable war for survival.

The war against the Egyptians reflected despair and a sense of impotence, in part under the influence of the Holocaust; therefore it seems that Peres' proposal could have prevented it. The battles against Jordan and Syria, however, reflected strength and Messianic fervor, a result of the lightning victory over Egypt.

When King Hussein of Jordan attacked Israel, on the first day of the war, it would have been possible to rout his army and even destroy his palace - but the occupation of the West Bank contradicted the national interest as Israel had defined it six months earlier.

In a series of strategy meetings conducted by the heads of the Foreign Ministry, Military Intelligence and the Mossad between November 1966 and January 1967, officials examined the question of under what circumstances Israel would occupy the West Bank. These were fascinating discussions.

Most of the participants agreed that the heavily populated West Bank should not be occupied, because Hussein was trying to blur the Palestinian's identity by integrating them into his country's population and encouraging them to emigrate. Occupation of the West Bank would only encourage Palestinian identity, the official thought.

Historical documents only discovered in recent months show that in June 1967, Hussein agreed to take back the West Bank and its inhabitants, on condition that this would also include East Jerusalem. Yaakov Herzog, who was director general of the Prime Minister's Office and one of the most brilliant diplomats Israel has ever had, spoke with the king and was convinced that it was possible to reach a peace agreement with him.

In retrospect, it seems that the occupation of the Old City was a grave error: There is no chance for peace without concessions in Jerusalem - and the likelihood that Israel will make such a concession now is nil.

Egypt also proposed signing a non-belligerence agreement in 1967, but conditioned this on a withdrawal from Gaza, among other things. Israel believed at the time that Gaza should remain in its hands forever; prime minister Eshkol fantasized about transferring the Palestinian refugees to Iraq. This hope was among the factors that prevented any real move to resettle the 1948 refugees then living in Gaza - either in the West Bank or elsewhere in the Gaza Strip.

When the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are counted among the achievements of the Six-Day War, it must be remembered that in signing those agreements, Israel missed an opportunity to get rid of the West Bank and Gaza; once again, it acted contrary to its national interest. As the British ambassador commented immediately after the Six Day War - sometimes the Israelis can think in a more Arab way than the Arabs.