A Man of Peace

By Moshe Sasson

Representative of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for political negotiations in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza. Was also Ambassador of Israel to Turkey (60-66), Ambassador of Israel to Italy (73-77) and Ambassador of Israel to Egypt (81-88). Translated from "Maariv", August 1997.

Levi Eshkol appointed the "Committee of Four", less than one month after the 6 Day War (on July 4, 1967), to establish contacts within the conquered regions, to report and make its recommendations. The unanimously recommendations were:
  • Intensive political activities, to reach a peace agreement with Jordan.
  • In the absence of an immediate peace agreement with Jordan, Israel will continue to administer the West Bank "as a separate administrative and economic unit", "a civilian regime with emergency powers". IDF will control the new borders while the domestic security will be the responsibility of the Police. "A special minister will rule the West Bank in the form of a Canton. A small Israeli group of personnel will deal with state policy level while local domestic topics (municipal, etc.) will be handled by local Arab officials.
  • An immediate search for a comprehensive solution of the Refugee Problem (that time there were 23 refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank), either in the framework of the Peace Agreement or by Israel, recruiting the help of the International Community.
  • The two tracks - the Jordanian on one hand and the Israeli-Palestinian - will be taken simultaneously "since they are not necessarily interdependent."

On June 19, 1967 - one month before the submission of these recommendations - the Government announced that Israel would be ready to give back the sovereignty over Sinai to Egypt and over the Golan to Syria, in return for signed peace treaties. The West Bank and Gaza were not mentioned. Menachem Begin, who was a member of the Government, agreed with that announcement. There was a consensus about the annexation of East Jerusalem.
The following are some quotations which were made in the close session discussions of that meeting of the Cabinet:
  • Eshkol: "I started with an autonomous region, but if that would be impossible, they will have their independence".
    In another close door discussion:
  • Eshkol: "Today I am guided by two guideline - security and demography".
  • Yigal Alon: "I take into account an agreed, independent Arab State, surrounded by Israeli territory". This is when Alon started contemplating the "Alon Plan".
More quotes:
  • Menachem Begin: "In my opinion, the concept of autonomy lead to a Palestinian State. If we say autonomy, this is an invitation to an independent Palestinian State."
  • Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, in another forum: "If the Arab representatives of the West Bank and Gaza were to come to me today and declare their wish to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian State, I would not advise the State of Israel to refuse their proposal".
Eshkol and his senior ministers concluded, in November 1967, that they leaned toward the Palestinian orientation, while leaving the door open to a peace agreement with Jordan. I was appointed by Eshkol, on November 21, "Representative of the Prime Minister for political negotiations in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem". My responsibility was to report about discussions held with Palestinian leaders and my recommendations for farther actions. Upon receiving the appointment I have "put a condition" -that in due time he, Eshkol, will accept my suggestions to meet discretely with Palestinian personalities. He agreed and in these secret meetings he was accompanied by his political secretary Adi Yaffeh (who took notes) and myself (translating verbally).
It is important to emphasize that only after those discussions did Eshkol reach the conclusion that there was no Palestinian option. Consequently he studied the possibility of a Jordanian option, which was soon found to be also unexistent. Yigal Alon then fitted his "Alon Plan" to parameter for negotiations with King Hussein.But the King discarded the plan, following secret meetings with Yigal Alon, Abba Even and Yaacov Herzog in London (September 1967).
Thus it is clear that until Sa'adat's flight to Jerusalem and the Oslo agreement, there was neither a "Palestinian Option" nor a "Jordanian Option". Nevertheless, Eshkol tried to grasp every tiny bit of hope to reach an agreement with the Palestinians or a peace treaty with King Hussein.
On 24.6.48 Eshkol summarized the political negotiations with the Palestinians and King Hussein: "Until now, during the last 7 months, we held 150 discussions with about 80 leaders in Yehudah, Shomron and Jerusalem. Most of those discussions were held by my representative, Moshe Sasson. On a Government level we had 12 discussions with the Palestinians. Of those I (Eshkol) had 8, the Foreign Minister had 3 and the Minister of Defense had one… The first task was to encourage those who leaned toward an Israel-Arab settlement...… We have also wanted to examine the political weight of the West Bank leaders and learn whether they might be able to prod the neighboring countries towards peace.… We needed to prevent a situation whereby King Hussein would be the only contender for the West Bank…
Secondly we initiated discussions with Jordanian authorities and other political entities beyond the cease fire lines. There was one trial mission to President Nasser of Egypt. Hussein tries to discover what would be our proposed plans, so that he would be able to determine whether that may satisfy him and justify his departure from the official Arab stand. We continue our efforts to reach his agreement for a direct peace negotiations…
The main point of friction is, in our opinion, the question of Jerusalem. Despite the pessimism we pursue the dialogue, to calm the border (at that time there were PLO actions along the Jordanian border) to strengthen our political struggle in the UN and our relations with the USA… The attempt to convince Nasser did not bring about a dialogue. His explanation - he would be ready for an agreement on the basis of a total return of all the territories that we conquered. He (Nasser) knows that we are not ready to get out of Gaza, Jerusalem and the Golan. Therefore there is no basis for negotiation with him.
We have learned that the Palestinians are not a one block. We may say that the Yehudah region is more moderate. The Jerusalem leaders are more to the extreme. Nablus is in between, and Ramallah is closer to Jerusalem. They also have political-parties activities, and Hussein is actively trying to exploit them for his own aims. They (the Palestinians) hold back initiatives, as long as the actions of the Arab Governments have not yet proved to be a failure. and finally, there are fears of secret talks.
And yet, and despite all the above - some Palestinian elements are prepared to go far and to talk to us, appraising the situation realistically. Jerusalem is the center of our dispute with the Arabs in general and especially with King Hussein. It is probably the hardest controversy between us and the Palestinians, when the issue is a Palestinian State."
On May 20th, 1968, after having more than 70 talks with Arab leaders in the West Bank and Jerusalem, I told Eshkol, that, it seemed to be the right time to set up an Arab civil administration. The PM agreed instantly, and advised me to get in touch with the members of the "Arab Ministerial steering committee" and report back to him about our talks and their reactions. All three Ministers agreed. On June 20th I went back to Eshkol to report about the brief round of talks I've held, especially about Anouar Nousseba's point of view in which he "stands behind the notion of setting up an "Arab civil administration" as long as it will include Jerusalem, the Gaza strip, and the West Bank, and would be administered by officials and not politicians." At which point the PM asked: "could this be the end of this road?" I replied that to my mind we could start the process gradually, and not mention the problem of Jerusalem, by starting with districts like Hebron, which seems to be the less aggressive, and go on step by step, leaving Jerusalem aside.
Eshkol agreed and instructed me to find out what was the position of the ministers of the steering committee. On this occasion I advised him not to send me negotiate with the leaders of the West Bank, not even with Muhamed Ali J'aabri the Mayor of Hebron, who was our candidate for the head of the administration there. "Instead, I prefer that the decision will be yours," I said to Eshkol. And I added:" When you are inviting people and ask them what they wish to drink, one would ask for tea with sugar, the other would prefer without, a third will ask for lemonade and so on. Don't ask. Serve all of them coffee -–they will all enjoy it and even thank you". Eshkol rejected this approach point blank: he wanted an agreement and not a one-sided imposed step. Later, in August, Sheik J'aabri will tell Eshkol: "It's typical of the Arabs, even if they discuss among themselves about what dish they like, they will never agree on the same dish. But if you serve them anything regardless of what they wish, they will devour the food without saying a word and even be grateful to their host."
After that I went to Sheik J'aabri, who accepted my advise to "start with Hebron" and agreed to be the first civil governor. His terms were that the administration will be subordinated to the military authorities and not to the Government and that the proposal will not look like it came from the Israeli side, but at his and the leaders of the district's, demand. Later on J'aabri will claim the appointment to be Governor of the whole of the West Bank and not only of Hebron. On July 3rd, the steering committee insisted, that J'aabri would be Governor, only of Hebron. Eshkol then advises me to bring into the picture Ygal Alon, Israel Galili and Menachem Begin. During a later meeting, J'aabri was persuaded to be the Governor of Hebron only, while his power as a Governor will be discussed at a later date, after his appointment. Three days later J'abbri handed over to me a draft of his address to Eshkol, confirmed by the honorable members of Hebron, in which they are asking the setting up of the Civil Administration, with him at its head. On July 12th, I urge the Ministerial committee to act quickly so as to prevent any pressure from diverse opposition factors from Jordan or Shchem (Nablus) to reject the agreement. The Minister of Defence agrees but suggests that we first come to an agreement with J'aabri including his powers as Governor. Abba Even and Eliahou Sasson support Moshe Dayan's stand and Eshkol appoints Gazit and me to formulate a detailed plan, including the powers of J'aabri.The next day the Mayor of Nablus, Hamdi Knaan, assembles the leaders of Nablus, and in line with Anouar Nousseiba's point of view, they agree to the setting up of the Arab Civil Administration in Hebron, on condition that Jerusalem will be later included in it. They start using pressure, that same day, on Beit Lechem with the end in view of isolating Sheik J'aabri and his men. On July 22nd I detected a change in Sheik J'aabri's attitude. He was less sure of himself and showed dissatisfaction with the fact that we do no appoint him Governor of the whole of the West Bank.He was sure that if the Administration will be only in Hebron, King Houssein will close the bridges to Jordan to the inhabitants of Hebron. This he will not dare do to all the people of the West Bank. J'aabri was also worried about being separated from his son who was in Amman. And now, for the first time he prefers that the decree for the whole plan, would come from us and not from the leaders of Hebron. On July 26th, there is an announcement on Amman's Radio station by the Prime Minister Talhouni saying:
    "Jordan is convinced that the steps taken by the enemy are not according to International Law, and hopes that no one from the West Bank will support them."
Talhouni was confident of the loyalty and the unity of the people across the two Banks. That same night a special messenger arrived from Amman, generously giving out money to the people of Beit Lehem, Beit Jalla, and other places. Later, in a phone call to me, the Minister of Defense suggested:" to regard the whole scheme as a failure". Contrary to him, Eshkol considered that it would be better o wait with conclusions until after his meeting with Sheik J'aabri
. In their meeting on August 12th J'aabri requested Eshkol to go on with the idea of the Civic Administration, and that he (Eshkol) should appoint the right people to be Governors of the different districts of the West Bank, (he did not mention Jerusalem). He said: "they will surely accept the nominations and even thank us." I sent a certain personality to Amman to figure out what were the motives behind Talhouni's message. What he found out was that it was King Houssein himself behind it.
The King was convinced that the setting up of a Palestinian Administration would be the first step towards an Independent Palestinian State. It appears that his dream was, one day, to unite the West Bank again with his Kingdom, Jordan.
Walid Shaq'a of Nablus, one of the West Bank leaders, a famous anti-Jordanian, and one of the PLO head Ahmad Shweiki's deputies, initiated a meeting with me one month after King Hussein and the people of Nablus thwarted the attempt to establish the Administration. I new him well, his integrity and earnestness. Everyone respected him. He said: "It is impossible to start dealing with the problem from Jordan or Egypt. Jordan should not be involved and Egypt is not capable to do it now". Egypt, in his opinion, would be happy if the Palestinians and Israel will reach an agreement. He was ready to form a West Bank delegation for the negotiations with Israel, having been convinced that the Palestinian leaders will give their blessing to that course. "We talk about a Palestinian State and peace with Israel," he added, "tell the Prime Minister that for the first time the Palestinians present a serious proposal. Please try to convince him to answer positively."
Eshkol did not need convincing. His positive reaction was instantaneous, and he asked to see the list of the delegation members before giving the final consent. Shaq'a promised to bring the list within a day or two, but came back empty handed, asking the Prime Minister to enable him to go abroad "for consultations with his friends in Beirut and maybe Kuwait".
When telling Eshkol Shaq'a's request he asked for my opinion. In my assessment the man would come back with a veto, and therefore it is preferable leaving him with his original proposal . "Mussa" - this is how Eshkol called me - "I know that you understand the Arabs and I saw it more than once. But I think that Shaq'a's understanding of the Arabs is even greater than yours. His wish to consult with his mother in law or his cousin, or with whoever he choose, it is his business. Let him go, consult and come back. Then we will see".
Shaq'a returned after two months: " The Palestinians abroad are not ready to allow us, the West Bank leaders, to negotiate with you. They tied our hands", he said.
Nevertheless Eshkol instructed me to continue the meetings and discussions, to pursue even the slightest chance for a breakthrough, despite that negative answer. He, himself, wanted to accept an invitation from Sheik J'aabri, for a visit to Hebron. He wished also to renew his personal contacts and discussions with the West Bank leaders, and asked me to make those arrangements.
But Eshkol did not have a chance to visit Hebron, neither did he meet again with the West Bank leaders. He died suddenly, on February 26, 1969.