By Donald Macintyre
Immediately after the Six Day War, 40 years ago, Shlomo Gazit was put in charge of Gaza and the West Bank. Today, the retired general is in favour of talks with Hamas, describes the road map as a "pretext" for Israel not to negotiate with the Palestinians, and thinks the idea that the US can or should veto a peace process between Jerusalem and Damascus is “nonsense".
At first sight Mr Gazit could be a classic military hawk. A tough, unsentimental man with 37 years in the Israeli Defence Forces behind him, he has never been slow in condemning Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. Yet he enjoys the unique distinction of having, from the heart of the Israeli military, proposed in writing a Palestinian state exactly 40 years ago yesterday – 24 hours before the war had even ended.
And he has never been more convinced than now that such a state, its negotiated borders based on those that preceded the war, and involving withdrawal from most of the West Bank Jewish settlements, remains the only answer to the conflict.
Mr Gazit, who in June 1967 was head of the assessment department in military intelligence, says he remembers little of the day-to-day progress of the war. The reason is that on 5 June 1967 he strolled over to a jubilant air force command to be given reports of the spectacularly successful assault on Egyptian airfields – which arguably won the war on its first day.
He also learned, however, that his 23-year-old nephew, Dan Engel, was one of the few Israeli pilots reported missing. "I spent the rest of the week in a kind of trance," he says.
His grief did not stop him producing a remarkably clear-sighted – and, for the times, heretical – memorandum on 9 June that proposed "the establishment of an independent Palestinian state [without military forces] in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip". The Old City, holy to three great religions, and taken over by triumphant Israeli forces only 48 hours earlier, should "become an ‘open city’ with an independent status resembling the Vatican".
The memo went to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, to Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and to Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. "Unfortunately, not one of them responded to the document," Mr Gazit would later write. "No discussion was held, nor was any action taken."
For a man who spent much of his army service in intelligence, Mr Gazit has an unflinching awareness of its limitations. But it’s not so much for the war itself as for the aftermath that Mr Gazit’s experience and insights have been of such lasting value.
He set out as far as possible to implement the charismatic Dayan’s notion of an "invisible occupation" – one that was progressively undermined by the relentless growth of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, and of the military apparatus protecting them.
While acknowledging that the post-war Israeli Labour government allowed that process to start, Mr Gazit blames Menachem Begin’s Likud, which swept to power in 1977, for the policy of "creeping annexation". That paved the way for the 250,000 settlers in the West Bank today, and helped to "destroy any hope" of the 1978 Camp David accords leading to full Palestinian autonomy. "When Labour left office, there were maybe 5,000 settlers," he says. "Begin said, ‘We’re going to have 100,000.’ I wish we [only] had 100,000 today."
On the Oslo accords, the ex-general, who represented Israel in back-channel discussions with the Palestinians in the 1990s, says he is "not one of those who thought that Oslo was doomed from the very beginning". But he thinks that postponement of discussion of a final settlement until the end of a series of "confidence-building measures" was a "totally wrong concept". He adds: "If I wanted to reach an agreement I would say first, ‘these are the principles of a final settlement’."
The assassination of the Labour Prime Minister of the time, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish extremist probably dealt the fatal blow to the Oslo process, he admits. But he also believes that "one of the biggest mistakes made by us" after Rabin’s death was the assassination of the senior Hamas militant and bomb-maker, Yahiya Ayyash, in January 1996. It was followed by 60 Israeli deaths in four horrific suicide bombings over the next two months, hastening the collapse of Oslo and Shimon Peres’s premiership. "Arafat told me he could not tell the extremists they had no right to avenge the killing of Ayyash," he says.
Had Ariel Sharon not had his massive stroke in January 2006, Mr Gazit believes he would have realised that withdrawal from Gaza was not going to be enough to fulfil the demographic objective that had come to preoccupy him – ensuring a Jewish majority in the territory controlled by Israel. As a result, he thinks, Mr Sharon would have embarked on withdrawals from the West Bank.
Where does Israel stand now? Four decades ago, the Khartoum Arab summit of August 1967 famously said "no" to negotiations, to recognition of Israel and to peace. Mr Gazit – now at Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Strategic Studies – is among those who have questioned whether the summit did torpedo peace hopes as absolutely as Israel has always claimed. However, he points out that in any case this year’s Arab summit in Riyadh – which promised recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal to 1967 borders – turned the three Khartoum "nos" into three "yeses".
On top of that, he says, opinion polls show that a clear majority of the Israeli public want an agreement on a two-state solution. They realise that "small is beautiful, and that if Israel wants to survive as a Jewish state, we have to get rid of the territories".
Nor does he see any problem in Israel talking directly to Hamas, elected to run the Palestinian Authority in January 2006, "not because I’m a lover of Hamas, but because you can’t ignore it" – and because he believes that it is impossible to reach agreement without at least its tacit consent.
In the veteran’s view, "conditions are very ripe to reach an agreement" with the Palestinians, but as he wrote last week on the joint Israeli-Palestinian Bitterlemons website, the problem is weak leadership on both sides of the conflict. "It will be sad and painful if… yet more confrontations and more sacrifices… are required before we can fully reap the fruits of [the 1967] war."
That said, Mr Gazit still believes that the Palestinian state he envisaged as the Six Day War continued to rage 40 years ago will happen. A man who has never bowed to the conventional wisdom of the moment, Mr Gazit declares that "ultimately, I’m very optimistic".
-The Independent, UK (www.independent.co.uk)