In a recent column in the New York Times, the journalist Max Fisher—recycling almost verbatim the opening paragraph of a column he had written for Vox in 2015—cited an apocryphal story about David Ben-Gurion emerging from retirement after the Six-Day War to warn about the dangers of Israeli rule over the West Bank. Martin Kramer, who had previously debunked the story in Mosaic, responded with further evidence, noting that Ben-Gurion’s verifiable statements on the subject expressed a very different opinion. But what exactly did the former prime minister think should be done?
Ben-Gurion realized the flaw in the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan: it had permitted an Arab army west of the Jordan River. That also imperiled Israel, and returning the territory [recently captured from Jordan] would only leave Israel vulnerable again. So Ben-Gurion developed the idea of the West Bank as an autonomous “province” or “protectorate” (he used both words), dependent economically on Israel, and surrounded on the east by Israeli forces along the Jordan river. In this autonomous entity, from which Jerusalem would be excluded, Palestinian Arabs would conduct their own affairs, but Israel would assume responsibility for defense and foreign relations.
In that same letter of July 17, Ben-Gurion explained his idea, [adding that if] “Jews want to settle on the West Bank, they should be able to do so.” . . . Ben-Gurion, far from warning against “occupation,” was already trying to devise a reasonable alternative that wouldn’t require Israel to return or cede anything. And 50 years later, Ben-Gurion’s vision is very much a reality. . . .
Which is not to say that Ben-Gurion’s proposal in 1967 is a guide for the future. Quoting statesmen of the past is no substitute for independently thinking through problems. The political discourse in Israel [today] is awash in arguments that if only Vladimir Jabotinsky or Ben-Gurion or Yitzḥak Rabin were alive, he would say this or do that. To clinch these arguments, polemicists twist history out of all recognition. But it’s a deception, because the dead don’t know what we know. The question is what we should do, based on the experience and wisdom we’ve acquired since all of these “greats” turned to dust. If the best that critics of Israel’s policies can do is copy and paste (mis)quotes from buried Israeli statesmen, then the road before them is long indeed.