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Jordan was escalating the confrontation precisely when Israel’s need for restraint was ending. Egypt’s crushing defeat could be read in the smoke rising from airbases from the Nile delta to Upper Egypt while Gamal Abdel Nasser was assuring Hussein by telephone that Egypt’s nonexistent air force was attacking Israel’s air bases and that Egypt’s reeling ground forces were advancing.
As Israel went on the offensive against Jordan, the Israeli ministers were guided by the memory of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, when then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion bowed to demands from Washington and Moscow to retreat. “We are going forward,” Eshkol told the Cabinet, “in the knowledge that we will be obliged to pull out from [Jordanian] Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
Dissenting voices began to be heard as Israeli successes accumulated. Menachem Begin was the first to call for taking the Old City. Ironically, it was the religious ministers who were most opposed. They expressed concern that the world, particularly the Vatican, would never accept Jewish rule over the Christian holy places. Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira, head of the National Religious Party, advocated internationalization of the walled city. “To Jordan we will not return it,” he said. “To the world, yes.”
Even Dayan, the most daring of the ministers, was initially ambivalent. His longtime aide, Haim Yisraeli, told Ben-Gurion that the defense minister was disinclined to capture the Old City because he feared that international pressure would force Israel to withdraw. “Moshe doesn’t want to have to give back the Western Wall,” he said.
Remarkably, though the Israel Defense Forces had contingency battle plans for locations all around the Middle East, it had none for the Old City, as if it were a subject too rarified or problematic to contemplate. There was not even a map in the drawers of the general staff indicating which of its seven gates was to be breached. The subject was to be dealt with if and when it became real. For Narkiss, it now had. He instructed Gur to dispatch part of his paratroop force to the Rockefeller Museum, a fortresslike structure opposite the Old City walls, and to be prepared to break in through a gate he chose.
With the Old City virtually surrounded and Arab resistance crumbling, the Cabinet surrendered to what seemed the insistent demand of history and approved the break-in even though some of the Cabinet members still had misgivings. Education Minister Zalman Aranne warned against annexing the Old City lest the world demand the entire city’s internationalization, including the Jewish half, as the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 had called for.
Israel’s low profile toward the Old City at the beginning of the war gave way subsequently to hyper-activism. Three weeks after the fighting, the Knesset annexed 28 square miles across the former border and incorporated them within the municipal boundaries of the Israeli city, tripling its size overnight. The annexed area — East Jerusalem — included not only what had been Jordanian Jerusalem, which measured only 2.5 square miles, but also land belonging to 28 villages. The Old City itself, which provided Jerusalem its aura of sanctity, measured only half a square mile.
In the ensuing decades, as in the war itself, appetite came with the eating. One-third of the annexed area would be expropriated for Jewish housing, and Jews would come to comprise more than 40% of the population in East Jerusalem.
Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert would in time renounce their embrace of “united Jerusalem” and advocate handing over to the Palestinian Authority the city’s Arab neighborhoods as part of a peace agreement. The reason was demographic.
Ironically, most Jerusalem Arabs today probably support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would retain the Arab neighborhoods. Their political misgivings about Israeli rule have been overshadowed to a large extent by the economic benefits. In a poll in 2011, Jerusalem Arabs were asked their preferred status after the creation of a Palestinian state. Thirty five percent said they preferred to be Israeli citizens, while only 30% favored Palestinian citizenship, with 35% declining to answer.
Abraham Rabinovich is the author of “The Battle for Jerusalem,” which was recently reissued as an e-book.