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Golda’s Missed Opportunities for Peace

Ralph Seliger
June 1, 2017

by Ralph Seliger

AS WE commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s remarkable military victory in the Six Day War, June 5-10 of 1967, we note with a heavy heart that it also marks the beginning of Israel’s occupation over a non-Jewish population that neither welcomed nor accepts this situation.

Still, Israel’s triumph over numerically superior foes did not result in a stampede toward the negotiating table. The three noes that emerged from the Khartoum Arab League Summit of August 28-September 2, 1967 — no to negotiations, no to recognition, no to peace — despite the invitation of Levi Eshkol’s government to discuss a return of most territories captured during that war, has explained to most pro-Israel observers how this state of affairs began. But it’s not the entire story, not by a long shot.

The Israeli-British Oxford University historian Avi Shlaim argues in “The Iron Wall” (W.W. Norton, 2001, pp. 258-259) that Khartoum was not what it seemed to most Israelis:

On the face of it these declarations [the “three noes”] showed no sign of readiness for compromise, . . . [yet] the conference was a victory for the Arab moderates who argued for trying to obtain the withdrawal of Israel’s forces by political rather than military means. Arab spokesmen interpreted the Khartoum declarations to mean no formal peace treaty, but not a rejection of a state of peace; no direct negotiations, but not a refusal to talk through third parties; and no de jure recognition of Israel, but acceptance of its existence as a state. [The underlined words were italicized for emphasis in Shlaim’s original text.]

. . . At Khartoum, [Egyptian President] Nasser advised, and indeed urged, King Hussein to explore the possibility of a peaceful settlement with Israel. This was, of course, not known in Israel at the time. As far as Israel was concerned, the Khartoum declarations closed every door and every window that might lead to a peace settlement.

If we take Prof. Shlaim’s interpretation seriously, this Arab expression of “moderation” was a colossal miscommunication — to say the least.

In his biography of King Hussein, “Lion of Jordan” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), Shlaim reports on the Jordanian monarch’s first direct meeting with an Israeli official, the diplomat Yaacov Herzog (uncle of the current Labor Party leader), as occurring in London in 1963. This was the beginning of a long and mostly cordial relationship, interrupted dramatically by Hussein’s ill-fated decision in 1967 to officially join the Egyptian-Syrian-Iraqi alliance and to place his army under the command of an Egyptian general.

Despite his sympathies for the King and a tendency to be sharply critical of Israel, Shlaim regards the Six Day War as defensive on Israel’s part, including with respect to East Jerusalem and the West Bank: “He made the mistake of his life. . . . Had King Hussein heeded Eshkol’s warning [not to attack], he would have kept the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank.” (“The Iron Wall,” p. 244.)

After Nasser had assured Hussein that the war was going well on the Egyptian front in its early hours — a complete fabrication — Jordan shelled Israel’s capital of West Jerusalem. One may recall that the famous Chagall windows at the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem were damaged in that attack, which also included an infantry incursion that captured Government House, the United Nations headquarters, in today’s Armon HaNatziv neighborhood. Within days, Hussein’s army and kingdom were shattered by the Israeli counteroffensive, which seized the entire West Bank of the Jordan.

BEING A news junkie even back then as a young adult, I followed how things evolved in Egypt after Nasser’s death in 1970. I very clearly recall his successor Anwar Sadat offering Israel “a total peace” in exchange for “a total withdrawal” from the Sinai, while Prime Minister Golda Meir obstinately insisted that Sadat was not saying anything “new.” I also recall Gideon Raphael, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN and then director-general of the Foreign Ministry, forthrightly stating that Sadat was saying something unprecedented for an Arab leader, in offering an actual peace treaty. Both foreign minister Abba Eban and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s rising political star (who would succeed Meir as prime minister in 1974) also advised Meir to take Sadat more seriously.

Balanced against these dovish influences was Moshe Dayan. Dayan stated boldly: “Better [to have] Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than [to have] peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.” (Sharm el-Sheikh is the strategic tip of the Sinai Peninsula from where Egyptian guns had blockaded access to Israel’s port of Eilat in 1967, precipitating the war.)

With no Israeli response to his offer, Sadat began to express impatience, warning that this situation of “no war, no peace” was unacceptable. Sure enough, Sadat eventually coordinated with Hafez al-Assad’s Syria to launch the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.

In the meantime, nobody outside of high governmental circles in Israel and Jordan knew that King Hussein was also reaching out to Israel. Decades later, Prof. Shlaim documented the cordial contacts between King Hussein and Meir’s government during and after the time that Israel helped save his throne from the Palestinian rebellion (“Black September”) in 1970. By pledging not to take advantage of Jordan removing its forces from along their mutual border, Israel facilitated the redeployment of Jordanian armored units from the Jordan River line to fend off Damascus’ invasion in support of the PLO, which had already captured the city of Irbid, spearheaded by 300 Syrian tanks. Syria turned tail in the face of a coordinated Jordanian air and ground counterattack; serious fighting left hundreds dead. Israeli jets also buzzed Syrian troops, as Israel made a standing offer of direct combat assistance from the air and on the ground, gratefully received but ultimately rejected by Hussein.

Yet the future of East Jerusalem, along with Israel’s desire to retain the sparsely-populated Jordan Valley as a security buffer, remained key sticking points that help explain why a treaty with Jordan was not concluded twenty years before it actually was, in 1994. But on a visit to Washington in February 1973, Hussein had raised with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger an intriguing possibility for compromise:

Jordan would negotiate directly with Israel over the West Bank. There would be some border changes provided the Gaza Strip was given in return. If Jordanian sovereignty was restored, there could be Israeli outposts along the Jordan River or even Israeli settlements, provided they are isolated enclaves on Jordanian territory; he could not agree to the annexation of the Jordan Valley by Israel. [“Lion of Jordan,” p. 362.]

Claiming that these ideas had already been rejected by Israel, Hussein suggested that they now be presented as an American proposal. But upon visiting with President Nixon less than a week later, Golda Meir persuaded her hosts that there was no urgency to go beyond the current stalemate, because the Arabs no longer had a military option. This complacency born of hubris in the early post-Six Day War years, known as “Ha-conceptsia” (“the conception”), held most leaders of Israel captive at that time.

IN BROACHING the possible transfer of the Gaza Strip to Jordan as part of a swap of territories, Hussein could have facilitated a three-way peace process in the early 1970s, thereby preventing the October 1973 war. Unlike Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, Egypt had never incorporated the Gaza Strip as sovereign Egyptian territory and made a point of refusing to accept its return once its peace agreement with Israel was signed in 1979.

Such a three-way arrangement would have brought the vast majority of people regarding themselves as Palestinian Arabs, including most of the refugees of 1948, into a single sovereign entity where they constituted a majority. Hussein had already suggested reconstituting Jordan as a federal union called the United Arab Kingdom, with the Palestinian territories to the west of the Jordan River governed from East Jerusalem as their capital, while a national government in Amman oversaw security and foreign affairs for both of the kingdom’s autonomous components.

This plan was regarded as traitorous by most Arab governments and Palestinian nationalists who pronounced themselves at the time, but it was not without merit, and might have been a basis for progress toward peace if seriously considered by Israel and the other interested parties.

Life in the Gaza Strip would likely have been enriched with a Mediterranean seaport, plus rail and road links through Israel to the West Bank and across the Jordan. Conditions of overcrowding and poverty could have been alleviated by the development of a tourist industry taking advantage of Gaza’s attractive Mediterranean beaches and hot, dry climate, while also sustaining successful greenhouse agriculture. And refugee camps could have emptied, with Palestinians freely settling to establish more fulfilling lives in the West Bank and the rest of Jordan.

Owing his throne in part to Israel’s willingness to intervene on his behalf, the King, a veteran pilot, flew into Israel shortly before the Yom Kippur War, to brief Israeli leaders on his meeting, days before in Cairo, with the leaders of Egypt and Syria. Shlaim claims that the Egyptians and Syrians kept their intentions to go to war — just two weeks away — from Hussein. Although conveying no urgent warning of the impending attack, Hussein felt the need to discuss Syrian troop movements along the Golan Heights with his hosts. Afterwards, Meir met with her top advisers but decided against any special military precautions.

Meir biographer Elinor Burkett (“Golda Meir: The Iron Lady of the Middle East,” Gibson Square Books, 2010) noted the downside of her bull-headed rigidity, what is often lauded about her as manifesting an iron will. Meir’s advisers were split regarding a response to Sadat, and she ultimately decided against engaging with his diplomatic overtures; her basic suspicion of Arab leaders, plus the general Israeli complacency (“Ha-conceptsia”), apparently prevailed. We must also acknowledge that Meir missed an opportunity with the late king of Jordan, whose ideas for peace could have fit neatly with those of the Egyptian leader.

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.