Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Missed Peace I : June 19th Cabinet Decision

On June 19th, just nine days after the Six Day War had ended, the Israeli cabinet met and finalised an offer to exchange the whole of the Sinai and the Golan in for peace with Egypt and Syria.[1] It would make sense that every historian or commentator write about this proposal, and that has been the case, but there seems to be conflicting accounts of what happened with the proposal and how far it actually went.

The accounts I will be using are all from the ‘New Historians,’ Shlomo Ben-Ami (previous Foreign Minister of Israel) and Norman Finkelstein (by no means a friend of Israel). The terms of the agreements are laid out by Shlaim:

Full exchange of Sinai where the previous international border had been (meaning that Egypt would not retain Gaza). It also set out the ‘security needs of Israel’: (1) guarantee of freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba; (2) guarantee of freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal; (3) guarantee of over-flight rights over the Straits and the Gulf of Aqaba and (4) complete demilitarisation of the Sinai.[2] The first two are non-negotiable because peace should bring some sense of normalisation and this can only be secured by allowing free navigation through international waters. The third and fourth are somewhat negotiable (and I mean that reasonably, as in peace can be achieved with minor changes to that formula). However, it should be noted that when Egypt and Israel finally did agree to peace, it did accept (4) and large chunks of the Sinai remain demilitarised to this day.[3] That said, had the Egyptians attempted to negotiate, these minor changes might have been made and peace achieved. However, the question remains as to whether it was actually transmitted the Arab states – but what is agreeable is that this was a good proposition (so much so that Dean Rusk was surprised[4]

Syria was offered the Golan on the 1923 international border[5] - meaning that Israel would be offering almost 99% of what Syria wanted. Ehud Barak offered this in 1999, but he was rebuffed because of Syria’s intransigence on the Lake.[6] Israel also placed some ‘security needs’ onto Syria in the cabinet decision of June 19th: (1) demilitarisation of the Golan; (2) no interference whatsoever with water sources from the River Jordan.[7] Depending on a person’s political inclinations, they will consider these to be fair or unfair. It should be noted, however, that the 1923 border which was endorsed by the UN accepts in principle (2)[8]. However, as with the Egypt-proposal, these are no doubt good places to start and (1) could be negotiable.

Thus the conclusion can be drawn: the complete rejection of the deals is arguably unreasonable but the complete rejection and no offer for negotiations is even more unreasonable and cannot be justified especially in the case of Egypt – who agreed to all of the principles in 1979. This being the case, the Arabs run the risk of having indirectly been responsible for the bloodshed that followed – but that all depends on whether it actually was transmitted.

The Accounts

Shlomo Ben-Ami states the following;

But was there on 19 June 1967 an Israel peace overture towards Syria and Egypt? Did the Israeli cabinet end its deliberations on that day with a decision to convey concrete peace proposals to its Arab neighbours… or perhaps to ask the American administration to do so on its behalf? Notwithstanding Abba Eban… there seems to be no solid evidence to corroborate this claim. No formal peace proposal was made directly or indirectly by Israel. The Americans… were not asked to convey it Cairo or Damascus nor were they given any inclinations that Israel expected a reply. At its meeting on June 19 the Israeli government developed policy guidelines; it did not discuss a peace initiative nor did ever formalise as much.[9]

As Ben-Ami doesn’t give sources for most of his assertions in his book (I’m pretty sure there are no more than 20 footnotes in his whole book), it makes it hard to know where he derives his information. However, it is safe to assume that his main source for this claim is Shlaim and what he fails to mention is that it is not so much that the case that the Americans were not asked, but that the request is not mentioned in the record of the meeting (“Middle East Crisis”, Cables, Box 109).[10] He also states that this was not a ‘peace proposal’ but ‘policy guidelines’ – while I agree that these were not ‘concrete,’ ‘formal’ and comprehensive peace proposal – it was a peace proposal nonetheless. Indeed, the cabinet decision itself says ‘Israel proposes the conclusion of a peace agreement…’[11] this issue of whether the Americans did transmit it, will be handled in Shlaim’s account;

The American record of the meeting confirms that Rusk considered the Israeli terms not as ungenerous, but it makes no mention of a request by Eban to transmit these to Egypt or Syria. Nor is there confirmation from Syrian or Egyptian sources… [12]

My objection to this is if Shlaim doesn’t want to believe Eban account of the request and rejection, then why does he accept the Syrian and Egyptian accounts given by Ismail Fahmy and Tahseen Bashir? Indeed, why would they have asked Ismail Fahmy? It is true that he was the UN representative for the UAR[13] but he was by no means noteable enough, he only became notable in the lead up to his appointment of Foreign Secretary.[14] Why would the US transmit it through him when they had access to and meetings with Dr. Mahmoud Fawzi, Mr. Hassan Sabri al–Khouli and Mr. Mohammed Riad– all of whom are more notable and more apt for doing so?[15] Nasser always kept his friends close and everyone else distant, he was a man of secrecy and a mere UN representative may not have been informed.[16] Quite frankly, these “Egyptian sources” which confirm that there were no offers are insufficient and even if they were, it simply does come down to Eban’s word vs. their word. This along with Morris’ account of what happened leads me to believe that Eban was telling the truth;

The cabinet on June 19 resolved that the former international boundaries… would be the basis for permanent borders… in exchange for peace. The decision was never made public. It was transmitted to the United States government to pass on the Egypt and Syria. Within days both countries had rejected the overture. [17]

The source given for the rejection is not Eban, its David Korn – a former US diplomat – in his book ‘Stalemate: The War of Attrition and Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1967-1970.’ He served in Israel during this period.[18] Looking through the American archives, I found something which no other book I have read mentions; Dean Rusk says to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko: I also told him I did not think that Israelhad any particular interest in trying to retain Egyptian or Syrian territory. (This was based on an earlier conversation I had had with Eban.)[22]

So now not only do we have Morris, Eban and Korn’s account confirming the rejection and transmissions. We have an insufficient confirmation on the part of the Egyptians and also American communication to an Egyptian ally of Israel’s position. Even those who entertain the idea that it was not transmitted – would they have accepted? Syria is a definite no, they were offered almost the exact thing in 1999 and they turned it down.[19] Egypt? In the discussions between the Americans and the Soviets the answer is no. The Soviets seem to insist on withdrawal before any full peace agreement.[20]

It must be noted, that Israel is not totally blameless here. They quickly had second thoughts – that’s not to say Egypt and Syria couldn’t have accepted their offer – and started to reverse the cabinet decision. Finklestein points this out and also a somewhat sinister position of Israel: that Israel had its security needs fresh in its head yet it offered the Sinai – this is not what leaders parroted over the next few years.[21] Israel is also not blameless with regards to avoiding the 1973 war, Sadat offered peace in 1971 and Israel rejected (I will handle that in a future post) but it must be clear that the June 19th cabinet decision was a missed peace.

Update [14/03/2010]

I had established that Avi Shlaim’s account seemed wrong for several reasons: (1) it takes the account of Egyptian and Syrian ministers who would not have likely be informed of the proposal, (2) he would have to give supremacy to the aforementioned accounts instead of Eban's, (3) there is evidence of an ally of the Egyptians being informed about the proposal, and (4) the accounts given by Morris and Korn. I managed to get a copy of Korn’s book. After stating the proposal, and the Americans being told of it, he goes on to say:

A few days later, the Americans informed Eban that Egypt andSyria had rejected the Israeli proposals outright.[24]

The account he provides of the proposal is interviews from both Israeli and American diplomats (coincidentally, he himself being an American diplomat during the period). Thus, Shlaim's claim cannot be extrapolated to all American accounts.

Update 2 [30/07/2010]

The evidence against Shlaim's account (lack of Egyptian sources, Eban, Korn's account, Morris' account and American documentation) should lead the reader to conclude that this really was a missed peace - one which the Arabs threw away. However, there is now even more evidence against the Arabs. In a recent interview, Peres points out something which makes Shlaim's account that the Arabs didn't know a ridiculous assertion:

[The decision was to withdraw back to] the international frontier [in exchange for peace], yes. [A similar proposal was not made vis-à-vis the West Bank] as Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank [in 1948-1950] wasn’t [internationally] recognized, except by Pakistan [and Britain]. The offer to Egypt and Syria was also made publicly. In a Knesset speech. They knew about it.[25]

[1] Image and Reality, Finklestein, p.151 (Verso, 2003), The Iron Wall, Shlaim, p.253 (Penguin, 2000), Scars of War, Ben-Ami, p.123 (Phoenix, 2006), Righteous Victims, Morris, p.330 (Vintage, 2001).

[2] Shlaim, p.253

[3] Morrs, p.484-6

[4] Shlaim, p.254

[5] Ibid, p.254 – It would not have been the June 4th lines because all sources says International border and Israel’s second ‘security need’ was the non-interference in the water from the River Jordan which could either mean 1) just the river; 2) ipso facto Lake Tiberius or 3) show Israel unwillingeness to budge even from the rivers and thus show the full unwillingness on the lake.

[6] Morris, p.654-5, and also for a concise explanation see Morris’ account here: – Syria seems to claim that Israel has ‘stolen’ its land but insists on taking land it took in the ’48 war, but that logic: why can’t Israel take land it gained in ’67? Obviously no one is going to follow that logic – myself included – but it does show a somewhat hypocritical stance.

[7] Shlaim, p.253

[8] Morris’ account, see footnote 6.

[9] Ben-Ami, p.123

[10] Shlaim, p.254 and p.623: footnote 55 – Ben-Ami’s bibliography does include Shlaim’s ‘The Iron Wall’ – the document can be found here:

[11] Ibid, p.253

[12] Ibid, p.254


[14] Ibid - he became FM in 1970s.


[16] Economic aid and American policy toward Egypt, 1955-1981 By William Joseph Burns

[17] Morris, p.330

[18] A History of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Tessler, p.813, footnote 96

[19] See footnote six.


[21] Finklestein, p.152 - that's not to say that I trust Finklestein. I am simply sourcing him to avoid accusations of plagiarism: he made me aware of the fact that Israel security needs seem to be vanquished in this deal but then use in the subsequent years and thus am giving him credit. I do not doubt the veracity of these indisputable claims


[23] Stalemate, The War of Attrittion and the Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East 1967-1970, David A Korn, p.15 (Westview Press, 1992).

[24] A History of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Tessler, p.813, footnote 96



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