The 1967 Six Day War is a 50-year-old story that is known throughout the world. Well, the broad brush strokes, at least.
In May 1967, Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran — a casus belli — sparking the so-called “waiting period” during which Israel decided to carry out preemptive strikes against Egypt and Syria.
The ensuing war lasted technically seven days, but practically six days. Israel’s leaders feared the country would be overrun by five Arab armies — Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi and Lebanese — but in the end, the Israel Defense Forces routed them all.
The Jewish state conquered the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and West Bank, and with them about one million Arab residents fell under Israeli control. The entire city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, was brought into Israeli hands.
Twelve years later, the Sinai was returned to Egypt as part of a lasting peace agreement. The Golan Heights was annexed by Israel, though this has not been recognized internationally.
The West Bank and Gaza, meanwhile, have remained in a state of limbo, under Israeli military rule while also enjoying (if that’s the right word) a degree of autonomy, ever since.
So much for the broad brush strokes.
On Thursday, Israel’s state archives offered a glimpse into the minutiae of the government’s decision-making process in the lead-up to and aftermath of the war, which is widely regarded as the primary turning point in modern Israeli history.
The archives made hours of video, dozens of photographs and some 15,000 pages of documents available for download and study, including most notably the transcripts of the cabinet meetings.
Most, if not all, of these documents were available in the past. Over the past 50 years, researchers have perused them, and the archives made many of the cabinet transcripts available to the larger public in 2012, as well. However, the security cabinet transcripts that were published on Thursday have never before been released, according to Israel’s national archivist Yaacov Lozowick.
Now the minor spats, jokes and serious debates between cabinet members and military officials are on display for anyone with internet access, a command of the Hebrew language and time to spare.
Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol laid out his vision for what Israel should do following the war, namely offering the Golan Heights back to Syria and the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement.
“We want a peace and peace treaties, not ceasefire agreements, and we are not interested in temporary resolutions. We’ve had them for 19 years already and that’s enough for us,” Eshkol said.
“Make it clear to foreign figures, especially the United States, that we will not move from this position, no matter the pressures,” he said.
“We’ve turned to peace. We went to war three times in order to reach peace treaties,” Eshkol said.
‘We want a peace and peace treaties, not ceasefire agreements, and we are not interested in temporary resolutions’
Haim-Moshe Shapira, a religious, dovish minister, then interjected: “We didn’t go to war. The war happened.”
Eshkol voiced his support for Israel to annex the Gaza Strip and offer its residents full citizenship.
The issue of the West Bank, meanwhile, was hotly contested, long before the government began referring to it by its biblical name “Judea and Samaria” and the residents of it started calling themselves Palestinians.
Some minister supported annexation, others were for offering the residents an “autonomous region” and some considered a canton system, like in Switzerland.
Eshkol advised caution regarding settling the area, noting that “even a man like Yosef Weiss” — a prominent member of the Jewish National Fund — “said we shouldn’t run back to the Etzion Bloc.”
Then-defense minister Moshe Dayan spoke in favor of setting up a group of Palestinian leaders who would “lean in our favor,” sending Eshkol into a fit.
“Suddenly we’ve become an imperial nation!” he shouted, comparing Dayan’s proposal to how the US operated in the Vietnam War.
The newly available transcripts also feature Menachem Begin making his recommendations for what to do with the one million people living in the West Bank,
Begin called for Israel to annex the entire area, but hold off on offering citizenship to the Arab residents for a period of seven years, citing other cases of countries taking over territory.
“When a country annexes an area that was not until then under its sovereignty, it has to give the residents a certain transfer period to decide on the option of staying and taking the citizenship of the annexing country or preferring to leave and keep their previous citizenship,” Begin told his fellow ministers.
The famed diplomat and then-foreign minister Abba Eban warned that they were sitting on a “powder keg” vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
“We’ve got two populations, one with full civil rights and the other denied all rights. This is an image that is hard to defend, even on the special backdrop that is Jewish history,” Eban said, comparing the situation to that in Algeria when the French ruled the country.
“The world will sympathize with the liberation movement of the one and a half million that are surrounded by the several tens of millions,” he added.
Then-prime minister Eshkol’s wit is also clearly evident in the transcripts.
When then Labor minister Yigal Allon, who took a hard-line approach to the West Bank, told the ministers: “I want to defend my position against those who weren’t here this morning,” Eshkol cut him off and quipped: “You haven’t yet heard them oppose it.”
There are other funny moments as well.
For instance, four days after the war ends, then-IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin discusses with the cabinet about how exactly he should address the threats facing the people working the land close to the Syrian border, who were coming under attack.
One of the areas they were working was referred to as “De Gaulle’s nose,” a reference to the French general Charles De Gaulle’s prodigious proboscis.
As an aside, Rabin adds: “I hope there won’t be any unpleasantness over the name, but maybe we’ll try to change it.”