It was the Thursday of the war -- everyone then in Israel links remembered events of the Six Day War to the days of the week--and by then the atmosphere was relaxed. The war had long since been won; to be exact, by 9 a.m. Monday, the first day, when the Egyptian air force was destroyed. By Wednesday, East Jerusalem was securely in Israeli hands and there remained only tending to the Syrian killers-for- the-fun-of-it on the Golan Heights.
The afternoon was hot and sunny; six or eight top-level civil servants in the Foreign Office, in the echelons just below that of the foreign minister, were lolling on the crab grass surrounding the drab rectangular boxes that constituted the department's Jerusalem headquarters. I had interviewed most of them in the preceding weeks and made free to join their coffee break.
"There won't be any trouble in getting the Sinai back to Nasser quickly," one of the men said. "We've already got all the sand we need in the Negev. The border needs extending only a few hundred yards at the west end of the Gaza Strip to use the terrain for better defenses. No problem for us or the Eyptians.
"But getting the West Bank back to Hussein may be harder. It'll take a bit of diplomatic footwork, but there's nothing in the problem that's intractable."
"You don't want any of the West Bank?" I asked.
"East Jerusalem, of course," someone replied. "The city must never be divided again. But beyond that, and decontaminating the Golan of our Syrian cousins, nothing is needed but some minor border changes, like eliminating the Latroun Salient (a murder trap for the Israelis in the 1948 war) because just as we have all the sand we want, so have we already enough Arabs too."
The renunciation of territorial aggrandizement was entirely credible; if any doubts remained about the government's attitude they were wiped out by Israel's enthusiastic acceptance of United Nations Resolution 242 a short while later. It forbade the acquisition of any land gained by military conquest but allowed, by implication, small border rectifications.
There were good reasons for the attitude expressed that afternoon by my Foreign Office friends. The most compelling was the nation's surplusage of Arabs. In those days, 15 years ago, the Israelis I knew seemed to have a conscience. What gnawed at it most grievously, what most embarrassed and pained decent citizens in their private self-appraisals, was the realization that they were denying full justice and full citizenship and civil rights to a people in their midst, a people who did not consent to their governance and who were being dominated by force. Less important, but a factor, was the rate of Arab proliferation, significantly higher than the Jewish.
Second, Jews were not about to set at naught their furious denials of the accusations, standard throughout the Arab world, that the Zionist objective was that of the Bible, a realm extending from the Nile to the Euphrates. My Israeli friends, bitter at a charge they could not allay, argued that they had been willing to accept an even smaller territory in 1948 than their present state, had not the Arabs gone to war over the U.N. partition of Palestine. Only the crazies, said my friends, the wildly orthodox waiting around for the Messiah, talked of Eretz Israel-- the "land of Israel" in Old Testament terms. Two or 3 percent of the population, maybe.
Finally, those men sprawled out on the grass wanted above all else peace, and they were realists. Peace on that narrow strip of the Levant was not to be had by occupation of 20 more miles of land to the east, but only by accord with their neighbors.
My friends, those in the Foreign Office nominally nonpartisan, and others throughout the country, were mainly adherents of the Labor Party. My mistake was to assume they were the totality; I was unaware of the Begins and Sharons.
But in those days, Israel seemed to me one of the few nations in the world with a conscience that was national, not merely individual, and a nation that cherished values beyond the mere material and consisting of achievements of the intellect and the spirit. It was "a community that honors a moral purpose," I wrote at the time. More than most Christians, I thought, the Israeli Jews cherished the Beatitude that blessed those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness.
Even in their agony over the horror of the Holocaust, their rage at injustices heaped on them by history and their continued rejection, their arguments were made with words of reason, not by mouth-foaming. Their standards-- which I took to be national standards--exalted decency, truth-telling, compassion, tolerance and honor and made me proud of an inheritance I shared with them.
On a return visit a few months after the war, I saw the first Nahal settlements on the West Bank. "Paramilitary, only temporary, for short- term defense until peace terms are agreed on," said my Israeli journalist companion, with whom I had covered the war in double-harness. He was embarrassed and spoke without conviction.
"Temporary, my eye!" I said. "Those young couples, with their shovels as well as their guns, are married, or should be, and are making new homes and breaking ground for new farms, which they aren't going to abandon. Those settlements seem to me to be permanent acquisitions and break your promises about not grabbing your neighbors' land. Each new settlement will make final agreement on peace that much harder, if not impossible."
My colleague kept his silence, gloomily.
Soon came the Dayan Plan, proposing garrison-settlements along the mountain ridges west of the Jordan River, then the Allon Plan, for the same things on the river itself. Finally came the Likud government and the truimph of the Eretz Israel boys: Begin raising the ante every week on the number of permanent West Bank settlements to be established; the ultimate promise that not one inch of that territory, the biblical Judea and Samaria, would ever be given up; full capitulation to the religious extremists; abandonment, in the end without even shame or embarrassment, of the pledges in Resolution 242.
Perhaps it was expecting more than was possible--that Israel should remain the country with a conscience, a home for honor, a treasury for the values of mind and soul. At any rate, it is so no longer but merely a nation like any other, its unique splendor lost. Begin, riding roughshod over the interests of the country that keeps Israel alive, complains when America expresses dismay that we are treating it as a "banana republic." But what is it when its credibility, its promises and its slaughters are on a par with those of a country--to pick one or two out of the air, the fetid air--of Trujillo's Dominican Republic or Papa Doc's Haiti? Still absent are the jackboots, the shoulder boards and the bemedalled chests, but one can see them, figuratively, on the minister of defense.
No doubt Israel is still an interesting country. But not for the reasons, the happy reasons, that made it such for me.