Six comments on new documents from the Six-Day War
Israel’s State Archive has released new documents from the Six Days War. These are documents that were sealed for 50 years, since the war, and are now available to the public. There are transcripts of full cabinet meetings and of the security cabinet meetings. There is a lot of material. And a lot of it makes for an interesting read. Here are a couple of pointers for the careful reader of the transcripts, or the reports about them.
In cabinet meetings people say many things. It tense cabinet meetings they say even more things. Thus, when transcripts are released it is easy to isolate quotes and make big headlines out of them to serve a position or an ideology. If it were up to us, a politician muses, we would “deport the Arabs to Brazil.” Is this a statement that proves Israel’s malicious intentions? Some might say yes. They had the same reaction when Yitzhak Rabin mused about his desire to see Gaza drowned in the Mediterranean.
But you can also see it as a statement proving the soberness and realism of Israel’s ministers at the time – a statement proving that they realized, on day one, that occupying a territory in which many Arabs reside is going to be a headache. They did not deport anyone to Brazil. They were stuck with the headache. We are still stuck with it.
Not everything that the ministers say during cabinet meetings seems impressive in retrospect. But what is quite impressive is the ministers’ refusal to engage in desperation in the weeks leading to the war and their reluctance to completely surrender to the euphoria after the war. The ministers behave in these meetings like all Israelis did: the period leading to the war was highly warrying and the country was in a dark mood during the three weeks of “waiting.” The period after the war was one of celebration and sense of invincibility.
The ministers are apprehensive, and they are uplifted – but in a more subdued way. They do not panic before, they do not lose proportion after. Yes, many of their assessments seem naïve, misconstrued, even foolish in retrospect. But this is not due to a lack of seriousness.
Reading the debate about the future of the West Bank feels like deja vu. There are annexationists who wanted to absorb the territory, and believed that the demographic problem – that is, having to absorb so many Arabs along with the territory – will sort itself out. Menachem Begin, a member of the emergency cabinet that was assembled prior to the war, argued that within seven years there will be a Jewish majority in the West Bank (this still hasn’t happen). There are those for whom demography is the key: Pinchas Sapir, the Finance Minister, warns of Israel’s future as a Jewish State if so many Arabs will become residents or citizens of Israel.
It is almost boringly familiar, and yet so distant.
I’m reading a transcript of a security cabinet meeting from the 26th of May, 1967. Yitzhak Rabin, then the IDF’s Chief of Staff, is asked to assess whether Israel can withstand an attack. Look how careful he is: “I think if we have the tactical surprise, there is a possibility… that we will have achievements.”
Here is a question: Was this a professional failure on part of the IDF and Rabin? Consider a different scenario, an imaginary mirror-image scenario: it is the same meeting but Rabin promises a great victory and then Israel faces a military defeat. What would we say in such a case? – probably that the Chief of Staff didn’t not correctly assess the situation, and hence provided Israel’s political leaders with inaccurate information because of which they made the wrong decisions.
But no one has the time, nor the reason to ask the exact same question when the assessment of the military commander is inaccurate in a positive sense – that is, a prediction of great difficulty that later proves to be an overstatement.
Everything is there. A minister warning Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that the IDF ought to be reminded to treat the civilian population humanely. Ministers for and against taking East Jerusalem. Concern because of possible over-eagerness to prolong the war and occupy more territory because of the victories.
And there are also lies that Israel decides to tell. The protocol shows how Israel attacked Syria in the Golan Heights. Minister Yigal Alon calls for the attack, disregarding the possibility of diplomatic tension with Russia because of it. He prefers, so he says, controlling the Heights over diplomatic relations with the Russians. The director of the Foreign Ministry warns against action: attacking Syria will complicate things for us with the Russians, he says. But Rabin wants action. “Ending such a war without hitting the Syrians would be a shame,” he says.
Israel tells the world that the Syrians are fighting. “This is not the truth,” argues Minister Moshe Haim Shapira. True, says Minister Alon. “I admit that this isn’t the truth, but these are the kind of lies that we can tell to have peace” – namely, to have the Syrians’ cannons removed from the Heights that overlook Israel.
Some things still feel different, and the most notable of them is the approach of the representatives of Israel’s religious-Zionist sector. Today, they are the most hawkish. In 1967, they were famously the least hawkish. They were the ones preaching for caution and moderation.
Haim-Moshe Shapira did not want the attack on the Syrians. His friend Zerach Warhaftig cools down Dayan when the defense minister suggests that Israel send its forces to Beirut, Lebanon. “I would argue that we should have some limits,” Warhaftig says.
Discussing the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on June 18, a few days after the war, Dayan asks his colleagues: “Who gave the order to put a Mezuzah over there?” The Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, responds: “the marble was broken.”
Dayan: “We come to a place that is holy to Muslims, and also to Christians, and also to us.”
Shapira – the Zionist-religious minister – the predecessor of today’s Habayit Hayehudi party – responds: “especially for them.”
So yes, some things do change.