Israeli Leaders Discuss Future of Captured Territories
(June 18-19, 1967)
Following the Six-Day War, Israel controlled the Golan Heights, Sinai desert, Gaza Strip, what is now referred to as the West Bank and unified Jerusalem. Despite the fears leading up to the war, and the trauma of fighting the combined armies of its neighbors, Israel was almost immediately prepared to return some of these territories in exchange for peace.
The national unity government was composed entirely of men, most born before World War I, from four socialist parties, two liberal ones, one Orthodox party and a nationalist one. They had all lived through a series of wars in which the victors usually dictated terms to the losers, but they learned after the 1956 War that Israel did not have the power to resist pressure from the United States. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion reluctantly agreed to give up the territory the troops captured from Egypt. They also learned from the experience that capitulation to coercion carried risks as well. In this case, the withdrawal and agreement to allow a UN force to act as a buffer with Egypt sowed the seeds of the 1967 War.
Given this history, the cabinet met on June 18-19, 1967, a week after the war, and the ministers expressed a willingness to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria. They reached no decision on what to do with the West Bank, but agreed Jerusalem would not be redivided. None of these positions were made public to avoid compromising their negotiating position. They were confident; however, a peace agreement could be reached given their overwhelming victory.
Some members of the cabinet, notably Menachem Begin and Eliyahu Sasson, did not believe the Arabs would agree to a deal and thought Israel should be prepared to give up the Sinai and Golan for something less than full diplomatic peace. They were content to demilitarize both areas and obtain a promise that Israeli shipping would not be impeded in the Red Sea. The main concern was to find a formula to end the conflict with the Arab states; at the time, no consideration was given to the Palestinians.
While the Golan and Sinai had been the sovereign territory of Syria and Egypt, the ministers felt they would eventually have to return those lands, they did not feel the same about Gaza and the West Bank. The ministers’ view was that Israel had a more legitimate claim to those territories than either Egypt or Jordan. Both controlled them as a result of conquest and, as the latest conqueror, Israel had no obligation to give them up.
Ministers were also reluctant to make concessions regarding the West Bank given that the country had been nine miles wide at its narrowest point before the war and the 1949 armistice line had proved indefensible. They believed they needed forces deployed in the Jordan Valley but they were also reluctant to assume control over the large Palestinian population. Echoing today’s debate over whether Israel should annex the territories, Minister of Justice Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira said Israel had only two options: give citizenship to the Palestinians it controls or stop controlling them.
Another option discussed was to return the West Bank (but not Jerusalem) to Jordan, but other ministers preferred to hold onto the sparsely populated Jordan Valley and give the more populated areas to King Hussein. Some objected to both ideas and suggested giving the territory to the local Arabs, similar to what is now referred to as the two-state solution. Begin was the only minister who believed Israel should retain control of the entire area, but had no answer as to what to do about the Palestinians living there and suggested putting off that decision for “6 or 7 years.”
Yigal Allon proposed annexing the Jordan Valley and Hebron area and establishing settlements there. The more populous part of the West Bank, he argued should be given to either Jordan or the Palestinians living there. Later, he would further refine his ideas in what became known as the Allon Plan.
Just as there was a consensus on holding on to all of Jerusalem, the ministers also agreed to retain control over Gaza. The question of what to do with the Palestinians living there was again a matter of confusion. One idea was to give them Israeli citizenship, another was to resettle them in the West Bank, Sinai, or other Arab countries. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol rejected all of these ideas. In the end, no decision was reached during the meeting.
The entire discussion soon became moot. At a summit in Khartoum in September 1967, eight Arab heads of state ruled out any accommodation with Israel when they declared: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.
Source: Yaacov Lozowick, “June 19, 1967, Israel's Peace Plan,” Israel State Archives, (October 24, 2012).