February 17, 2020

Excerpt from ‘Be Strong and of Good Courage’: Minister Without Portfolio

The following is an excerpt from “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny” by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs, a division of the Hachette Book Group.

Over the first two decades of Israeli statehood, [Menachem] Begin remained a political outsider while seeing few challenges from within his party. Herut [Party] lost election after election, yet the former Irgun leader commanded loyalty from his fellow party members even while shut out of power. In May 1967, however, the threat of war against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria changed the calculus for Begin. During this tense period, national leaders were questioning whether Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who served simultaneously as defense minister, was up to leading Israel in battle. Underlying such anxieties was Eshkol’s lack of a military background or involvement in the pre-state underground. The reality is that Eshkol had dispatched an envoy, Foreign Minister Abba Eban, to win political backing in Washington, London, and Paris for Israel’s position after Egypt sent six divisions into the Sinai and to Israel’s border. However, this diplomacy, along with the subsequent trip of Mossad chief Meir Amit, was not discernible to the public. The public mistook Eshkol’s low-profile, active efforts to avert war as indecisiveness in the face of [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s amassing of troops. In a dramatic departure, Begin even made a visit to his nemesis, [David] Ben-Gurion, urging him to come out of retirement and replace Eshkol. Yet here Begin observed that Ben-Gurion lacked his former command of policy detail. On June 1, to deal with growing unease within the country, Moshe Dayan became the new defense minister in Eshkol’s government. But Begin’s party was also invited to join a national emergency government, with the opposition leader serving as “minister without portfolio.” In this moment of national crisis, Begin was, at long last, empowered.

On June 6, the second day of the war, Begin called for the IDF to take the Old City of Jerusalem amid rapid progress in the larger fight. For Begin, the lover of symbolism and ceremony, opportunities abounded. The Irgun’s last campaign during the 1948 war, for instance, had been an unsuccessful attempt to take the Jewish Quarter. Now that effort could be redeemed. Moreover, Begin advocated that once the area was seized, the entire cabinet — along with Israel’s two chief rabbis — go to the Western Wall and read the Psalms passage invoking the return to Zion, as well as the shehecheyanu. Begin, ever the stickler with language, insisted that Israel use the term “liberated,” not “captured,” but ultimately agreed on the formulation that the Old City “is in our hands.” This is precisely how paratrooper leader Mordechai “Motta” Gur put it on seizing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. With the ultimate victory over the Arab states, though, came steep challenges for the Israeli leadership, and for Begin in particular. Israel now controlled triple its prewar land, having won the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and adjoining Gaza Strip from Egypt, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The government needed to articulate a coherent plan.

Later in June 1967, while in New York for a session of the U.N. Security Council, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban planned to meet separately with U.S. national security advisor McGeorge Bundy to discuss Israel’s newly acquired territories. Having a strategy about how to deal with the recently won lands and conveying this to the United States, in Eshkol’s view, was crucial. So in preparation for this Bundy-Eban discussion, the Israeli cabinet conducted a series of highly secretive meetings between June 14 and June 19, 1967. An Israeli debate of such scope and detail on territory, as indicated in hundreds of pages of declassified minutes, has not occurred since those days. The minutes reveal that a ministerial subcommittee on the matter was established and Begin was a member. Notwithstanding clear ideological differences among the participants, they developed a consensus on the future of the Sinai and Golan Heights: in exchange for peace, these lands in their entirety could be returned to Egypt and Syria. In other words, in return for peace, Israel’s future borders with Egypt and Syria should be the international border.

Begin saw neither the Golan Heights nor the Sinai to be part of ancient Israel. This is illustrated by their absence from the seals of both the Irgun and later the Herut party. Still, Begin voiced skepticism about whether Nasser would agree to restrictions on the Sinai, such as demilitarization, or to transit for Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, let alone sign a peace treaty with Israel. But in a larger sense, Begin was ready to negotiate. 

The cabinet also agreed that East Jerusalem should be annexed. The fact that Israel had had no access to this holiest area for Jews between 1948 and 1967 was certainly one factor. The deeper historic resonance, for Begin and the others, also weighed heavily. The cabinet would decide not just to annex but to expand the municipal boundaries of the city.

The major area of dispute was the West Bank. But even in this debate, Begin was far from a lone maximalist. An overall consensus did emerge on the importance of the Jordan River serving as Israel’s eastern border, although whether as a “security border” or a “political border” was a dramatic and historic point of debate. Here, a well-known distinction crystallized between the views of Yigael Allon, a Labor minister and former general, and Moshe Dayan. Eshkol, initially cool to the idea of a Jordan River border, eventually expressed sympathy when the security role was highlighted. Begin — in listening to Allon, who had established his reputation as the daring commander of the pre-state Palmach fighting force — began to see the advantages of settling the West Bank, with a special emphasis on the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley. This area, on the territory’s eastern perimeter and adjacent to Jordan, had come under attack from the east in both the 1948 and 1967 wars. In later years, Begin would tout the value of settlements, less for strategic reasons than as an embodiment of historic Jewish rights. 

In these early postwar meetings, the idea of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank also first surfaced. While not opposing this idea in principle, Begin thought it tactically unwise to raise it now, given the torrent of international pressure that he believed was certain to follow. A decade later, though, Palestinian autonomy would become an organizing principle for him. 

“Begin, ever the stickler with language, insisted that Israel use the term ‘liberated,’ not ‘captured,’ but ultimately agreed on the formulation that the Old City ‘is in our hands.’”

The postwar exuberance, and desire to expand territory, drew warnings from other quarters within the Israeli leadership. Whereas in 1967, Israel included 2.4 million Jews and around four hundred thousand Arabs, now the country stood to welcome an additional estimated 1.3 million Arab inhabitants from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Given the higher Arab birth rate, these numbers contained plenty to worry about.

The declassified Hebrew minutes point to a very tense and extensive set of discussions over a few days, which are fascinating in foretelling much of the Israeli debate over the West Bank until this very day, when the same decision still hangs in front of Israel. Health Minister Yisrael Barzilai thus declared, “We are trying to do something that cannot go. We want a lot or not a lot of territory but the new territory [should be] without the people who live there.” When some ministers suggested Gaza could be annexed to Israel, Eshkol asked what would happen to its four hundred thousand Palestinian Arab inhabitants, later asking the same about the eight hundred thousand West Bank Palestinians as well as the one hundred thousand living in villages around Jerusalem. A West Bank withdrawal linked to peace with Jordan, according to leaders who offered these demographic concerns, would shift responsibility for these Arab civilians away from Israel. Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapiro argued that a failure to discuss Israel’s intentions regarding the newly occupied lands would open up the country to international criticism and undermine a constructive postwar partnership with the United States, which was eager to know Israel’s intentions.

Begin did not equivocate in response to these concerns: “I say, simply, Western Eretz Yisrael is all ours. What is the fear to say this?” Shapiro had a blunt reply: “In the not-too-distant future, we will become a binational state. And in a bit longer … we will be a minority.” In calling for the West Bank to be returned to Jordan, he contended that “otherwise, we are done with the entire Zionist enterprise and we will be a ghetto.” Eshkol shared these concerns, saying, “I don’t want more land and I don’t want more Arabs. When will we be a minority in this country?” Concurring were Tourism Minister Moshe Kol and Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir, who added that the further acquisition of land would raise international expectations for Israel to solve the Palestinian refugee problem on its own.

In response, Begin made a familiar-sounding case when he said, “We have to penetrate public opinion [to make the point] that we are here in western Eretz Yisrael not because might makes right but because right makes might.” This was his signature worldview: rights and not force are the source of policy decisions. But even he recognized that this rhetoric was insufficient to address the reality of an additional 1.2 million Arab inhabitants on Israel-controlled land.* Thus, in those days of June 1967, Begin would concede that the population issue constituted “one of the most serious problems of our future.” A future Arab majority, he knew, was unacceptable. Begin would even advocate that expulsion of Palestinians should be forbidden and that ultimately Palestinians should be able to vote in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. This idea that West Bank Arabs should vote in Israeli elections was nothing short of astonishing. Nobody on the mainstream Israeli left, let alone the right, favored giving West Bankers a vote. They saw this as potentially suicidal, diluting the voting Jewish majority. In promoting this position, Begin cited the 1871 German-French dispute over Alsace-Lorraine, where the newly formed German Empire settled its own citizens but also offered citizenship to the region’s French inhabitants. He believed this formulation would allow Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic while granting civil liberties to all its residents.

“Nobody on the mainstream Israeli left, let alone the right, favored giving West Bankers a vote. They saw this as potentially suicidal, diluting the voting Jewish majority.”

How could Begin’s position be reconciled with the actual numbers of Palestinians? Begin suggested that the Palestinians should be residents first and only gain citizenship after a seven-year period, citing the five-year span for immigrants in the United States. Those seven years, Begin believed, could allow Israel to reach a sustainable demographic advantage. To achieve this, he proposed that the Jewish Agency, nominally independent of the state, offer financial incentives for Jewish mothers to have additional children. In addition, he argued that a united Jerusalem would attract Jewish tourism, in turn boosting Jewish immigration. And in a show of prescience, he held out hope that the Soviet Union would open its doors — allowing Jews to emigrate — although this would not happen during the time frame he envisioned. He likewise hoped Israel and Jordan could cultivate closer economic ties, making the latter more attractive to the West Bank Palestinians and facilitating a kind of voluntary emigration in pursuit of Jordan’s economic potential. Yet his ultimate view was that Palestinians should have the right to Israeli citizenship. Thus, the right-wing Begin espoused an idea in the early postwar cabinets that was shared only on Israel’s leftward fringes by those supporting a binational state.

Begin did not force a vote on this issue, as none of his colleagues endorsed the idea of granting gradual citizenship. But he could claim foresight in having argued that the “Jordan solution” to the Palestinian dilemma was inadequate — though he himself had proposed a modified version of this option. The anxieties expressed by leaders such as Eshkol, Shapiro, Barzilai, Sapir, and Kol never coalesced into an action plan or policy. Thus, the lack of a decision became the decision. The template for the decades that followed flowed from that historic decision to postpone making fateful choices. Israel would control the territory, even without annexing it. Early on, the only issue on which the government could reach agreement was the need for a military government in the territory to ensure order. The Palestinian question has remained Israel’s most vexing challenge and is still unresolved. At the time, Begin’s instincts told him that Israel should keep all the West Bank, while his values indicated that the Arabs must also have rights.

*In the 1960s, it was common for Israeli politicians to refer to Palestinians as “Arabs living in the West Bank” instead of as “Palestinians.” Begin always insisted on referring to them as “Arabs of the Land of Israel,” thereby refusing a distinction between Arabs living inside Israel and those living in the West Bank. Even as Israeli politicians increasingly referred to these West Bankers as Palestinians, Begin stuck to his description for many years.

Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny” can be purchased on Amazon.