See also Rise and significance of the Israeli settler movement in the Territories, Golda Meir and The Peace Process.

The land described as “the Territories”, sometimes referred to as the “Palestinian Territories” or by Palestinians as the “Occupied Territories” is the land which came into Israel’s possession in the Six-day War. Originally that comprised the Sinai desert, the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Golan and East Jerusalem, including the holy places in the Old City.

Source: Website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

This article looks at the various policies of the Israeli political parties towards the possession of the Territories.

The atmosphere in Israel after the 1967 war was euphoric. The nation’s existence was no longer precarious and problematical. The country had survived a threat of attack by its three surrounding neighbours, and the Territories now in its possession created a “strategic depth” which provided a sense of security which had not been known since the state was established.

East Jerusalem had a special national and religious significance and the return of the Temple Mount to Jewish sovereignty after nineteen hundred years was considered a high point in Israel’s history. Between 1967 and 2000 the indivisibility of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty remained a central doctrine across the political spectrum, almost universally supported by Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora, and not withstanding repeated condemnation at the United Nations.

For Muslims, on the other hand, the Temple Mount is the Haram as-Sharif, the “Noble Sanctuary”, housing the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the second most holy site in Islam. The issue of sovereignty therefore remains a flashpoint of conflict, and every successive Israeli government has conceded effective control over the surface of the Temple Mount to the Islamic authorities, and prohibited Jewish prayer in that area.

As far as the remaining Territories were concerned, the 1967 national unity government in which both the Labour Party and the Likud were represented, under the leadership of a Labour Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, immediately offered to return “land for peace”. In effect the offer was to exchange territory for full recognition with diplomatic relations.

In September 1967 the Arab League held a Conference at Khartoum to consider the issue. The Conference issued a statement which incorporated the phrase which came to be known as the “Three No’s of Khartoum” – “No peace, no negotiations, no recognition.” (See Khartoum Resolutions 1967.)

At this time Eshkol’s Deputy Prime Minister, Yigal Allon, who had been Commander of the Palmach commando force in the war of 1947-9 and a leading figure in the left-wing coalition which eventually became the Labour Party, proposed a plan for territorial compromise in the event of peace. The aim of the “Allon Plan” was to ensure that Israel would always be protected by a defensive barrier along the valley adjacent to the river Jordan and in the area to the south of Jerusalem. In practice, although the Plan never became official policy, and no map was published, under Labour governments permission for settlements was generally limited to the areas which Allon sought to retain.

After Eshkol’s death in 1969, the government of Golda Meir led a Labour government. The Meir government therefore allowed ten small settlements in the Jordan Valley and the rebuilding of four settlements in the “Etzion Bloc” south of Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Jordanians in 1947. Settlements were also established in the Golan Heights after 1967 as a defensive barrier in the absence of peace with Syria.

In the absence of any prospect of a permanent peace treaty, the Meir government developed policies for a benevolent administration of the Territories in the hope that the inhabitants might find this preferable to the previous rule of Jordan and Egypt. The Israeli administrative presence was reduced to a minimum and funds were provided for infrastructure and economic development. (See article on Golda Meir for more detail).

The result was that between 1968 and 1972 agricultural production in the Territories more than doubled. Per capita income in the West Bank increased by 80% and unemployment in Gaza was reduced to about 2%.

All this occurred within the context of an official policy of opposition to the concept of a Palestinian state as part of any peace settlement, which Golda Meir announced and repeatedly explained. Israel and Jordan were the two state successors to the British Mandate, she noted, and

“there is no room for a third. The Palestinians must find the solution to their problem together with that Arab country, Jordan, because a Palestinian State between us and Jordan can only become a base from which it will become even more convenient to attack and destroy Israel.”

The various policies developed by the major parties after 1967 could be summarized as follows:

  • There was bi-partisan support for retaining control of the Territories until a secure peace could be negotiated;
  • There was bi-partisan opposition to the concept of a Palestinian State;
  • There was bi-partisan refusal to negotiate with the PLO;
  • There was bi-partisan support for the principle that any future negotiation would result in new “secure and recognized boundaries” which would differ from the 1949 Armistice lines.
  • Labour governments permitted Jewish settlement in essential security locations;
  • Likud governments actively encouraged settlement throughout the Territories

The policy of exchanging territory for peace was actually put into effect by a Likud government led by Menahem Begin with the Peace treaty of 1979, under which the whole of the Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1982.

Meanwhile the policy of retaining possession of the Territories until a peace could be negotiated, was giving rise to disquiet. The “Peace Now” movement emerged in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora during the late 1980’s, with campaigns opposing the Israeli presence. It was argued that it would be impossible to keep the Territories indefinitely without giving its inhabitants equal democratic rights, and that the result would be a demographic time bomb in which Israel would lose its identity. There was also a revulsion against the need for young conscripts to act as policemen in the area, particularly after the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987.

Such views were opposed by those who saw the West Bank (“Judea and Samaria”) as the ancient Biblical heartland of the Jewish people, and strongly felt that Jews should not be denied the right to live there.

In fact neither the attitude of the “peaceniks” nor those who supported the religious settlers represented a mainstream view. The official approach of both the major parties, supported by the mass of the Israeli public, continued to be based on the hope for a solution based on “territory for peace”, and to reject proposals to cede territory unilaterally. Indeed this was precisely the rationale of the Shamir-Rabin Peace Plan proposed by a national unity Likud-Labour government in 1989, which sought to promote the Palestinian election of a new leadership prepared to negotiate a peace settlement.

The critical moment arrived with the Oslo Accords of 1993. The Labour government of Yitzhak Rabin agreed that the Territories would come under the autonomous administration of the Palestinian Authority, on the faith of Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence. After the Accords came into effect, the difference in policy between the major parties was reflected in the contrast between Rabin’s refusal to let the peace be undermined by the enemies of peace, and Netanyahu’s insistence on “reciprocity”, making territorial progress dependent on the elimination of violence and security co-operation with the Palestinian Authority.

With Israel’s acceptance of the “roadmap” in 2003, the ultimate goal of a Palestinian state was formally recognized. And then, in 2005 and 2006, a new policy of unilateral withdrawal without any peace agreement was instituted by Ariel Sharon as Likud Prime minister, opposed within the Likud by Netanyahu, and continued with the creation by Sharon of his new Kadimah party.

The new approach was to ensure that firstly, the Territories were to be separated from Israel by a physical barrier. Then, if no agreement could be reached for a permanent peace with the Palestinians, Israel would withdraw unilaterally. In August 2005 a first stage of unilateral withdrawal was put into effect in Gaza. It is arguable whether this withdrawal was seen by the Palestinians as a reward for militancy and that this may have been one contributing factor in the Hamas election victory at the 2006 Palestinian election. Certainly the unilateralist policy had majority support in Israel, reflected in the 2006 election results, and resulting in the formation of a Kadimah government.

After the withdrawal from Gaza the firing of rockets into Israel continued, as did the smuggling of armaments. In July 2006 after the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, Israeli troops invaded in force. By December 2006 Gaza had become the centre of a de facto civil war between forces supporting the Hamas government and the forces of the Fatah, supporting President Mahmoud Abbas.

At the time of writing (July 2007) it seemed unlikely that any unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank area would take place.