1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East
By Tom Segev
Translated by Jessica Cohen
(Metropolitan Books, 673 pp., $35)
Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War
By Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez
(Yale University Press, 287 pp., $26)
Click Here to Purchase for $17.16 from SPMEMart
Benny Morris , a professor Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University, is the author, most recently, of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge University Press).Click here to purchase this book at a discount from SPMEMart
In all modesty, I know a thing or two about historical revisionism. The desire to innovate, to surprise, to overthrow conventional wisdom and to subvert the well-worn tale–I, too, have acted on these impulses. And I have no apologies for the disturbances that I caused. In the 1980s, the history of Zionism and Israel sorely required critical review and scholarly emendation. For decades, too much nationalist propaganda had passed without scrutiny and been imbibed by Israeli society.
The official history–from the outlandish, skimpy beginnings of Zionism in the 1880s, when a handful of poor Jewish settlers struck roots in a semi-arid patch of ground ruled by hostile Muslim governors, through the succession of victories over much larger and potentially far more powerful surrounding Arab states–was a tale of triumph and glory, veritably miraculous in concept and in experience. This history seemed, to myself and to some others, to call out for cool, objective study–and, in the process, to be pricked and deflated. In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, large themes and central episodes of the hallowed narrative were revised and retold with some persuasiveness and success, if not to universal approbation. Tom Segev had a small part in this revisionism with his 1949: The First Israelis, which appeared in English in 1986, but the book vanished without leaving much of a trace on Israeli scholarship or Israeli consciousness, because in tackling too many themes–the “Sephardi Problem,” the religious-secular divide, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–he contributed significantly to none.
But not all revisionism is good. Historical revisionism should aim at presenting a clearer and more accurate picture of the past than that served up by the previous generation of historians–a more truthful picture of what happened, and why, and how; of what motivated the protagonists and what were the reasons for, and consequences of, a given action or episode. Good revisionist historiography is no different from good historiography. It should not be written with a political purpose, or with the aim of shocking for shock’s sake. (That is not revisionist historiography, it is tabloid historiography.)
Now, following the opening of many of the relevant major collections of papers in Israeli and American archives, we are in the throes of a revisionist surge regarding the Six Day War, whose fortieth anniversary has just been marked with a mixture of celebration and anxiety. Both 1967, by Tom Segev, and Foxbats Over Dimona, by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, are explicitly revisionist. Ginor and Remez aim to correct our understanding of a crucial aspect of the origins of the crisis in May 1967, giving a radically new spin to the war that took place the following month, and specifically Soviet behavior during the war; while Segev subjects the war, including its origins and its aftermath, and specifically the question of Israeli behavior during the war, to the full flail of newly released documentation, turning the whole story on its head. Six Day War revisionism is not a purely local emendation of history: in Ginor and Remez’s case, it has important global ramifications, and in Segev’s case, it has deep moral implications regarding the conduct of the Jewish state.
I will begin with Ginor and Remez– who write that they “fell into this role of historical revisionists like Alice into her rabbit hole”–because they have written the more important book, if proximity to the truth is a measure of importance. One of the abiding mysteries of the Six Day War is why, during the second week of May 1967, the Soviets officially and persistently, and through a host of channels, misinformed the Egyptians that Israel was massing troops, ten to twenty brigades, to invade Syria and conquer Damascus and topple its (pro-Soviet) Baathist regime. The Soviets knew this to be a lie, as Ginor and Remez demonstrate. Indeed, in mid-May Israel’s prime minister, Levi Eshkol, repeatedly invited Dmitri Chuvakhin, the Soviet ambassador to Israel, to inspect the border area for troops concentrations. Chuvakhin declined, remarking that “it isn’t a diplomat’s assignment to tour frontiers and see whether forces are being massed there.” The Egyptians also knew that this was a lie. They sent their army chief of staff, Muhammad Fawzi, to Damascus to check, and he reported back to Cairo, on May 14 or 15, that “there was no sign of Israeli troop concentrations and the Russians must have been having hallucinations.” The Syrians also knew it was a lie; and so did UNTSO, the U.N. truce force that supervised the borders.
Yet the Soviet move set the cat among the pigeons, leading directly to the sequence of Egyptian moves that resulted in the war. Starting on May 14, Egypt sent into the Sinai Peninsula four army divisions, undoing the de facto demilitarization of the peninsula that had prevailed since 1957. On May 1618, the Egyptians expelled UNEF, the U.N. peacekeeping force deployed along the Egyptian side of the border between Sinai and the Negev. And on May 2223, they closed the Straits of Tiran, at the northern end of the Red Sea, to Israeli shipping and aircraft, thus substantively cutting Israel off from Africa and Asia.
In 1957, the United States had given Israel a guarantee that the straits would remain open. And so, at a stroke, Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had canceled Israel’s three major accomplishments from the Sinai-Suez War of 1956. Each of his steps was a clear casus belli–the remilitarization of a buffer area, which threatened the south of Israel and forced it to mobilize its reserves, the bulk of the Israel Defense Forces (thus partially paralyzing the economy); the removal of the U.N. tripwire that afforded Israel sufficient time and notice to mobilize should Egypt intend war; and the closure of a vital international waterway and lifeline.
Nasser capped these moves, on May 30, by signing a defense pact with Jordan’s King Hussein that subordinated Jordan’s army to the Egyptian high command and provided for the deployment of Egyptian troops on Jordanian soil. (Two battalions of Egyptian commandos were immediately positioned in the West Bank.) And then, after signing a defense pact with Egypt, the Iraqis sent their Eighth Brigade into Jordan–but, tardy as always, the Iraqis were interdicted and bombed by the Israeli Air Force on the afternoon of June 5, before they managed to cross the river and join the fray.
Nasser’s actions were preceded by rising tension along the Israeli- Syrian border, which, during the previous two years, had seen the start of Fatah guerrilla-terrorist raids against Israel originating in refugee camps in Syria (though usually carried out across the Jordanian-Israeli and Lebanese- Israeli frontiers); and Syrian efforts to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River (which, along with the Sea of Galilee, is Israel’s main water resource); and intermittent Syrian harassment, with small arms and artillery fire, of Israeli farm- ers and border kibbutzim. During the first months of 1967, Israel retaliated a number of times–six Syrian MiG-21 fighters were downed around Damascus in April 1967–and Israel’s military and political leaders threatened Syria with further reprisals if it persisted.
The conventional wisdom had been (and still is) that Moscow “warned” Egypt of the massing of Israeli troops along the Syrian border in order to push the Egyptians into making a show of strength in Sinai that would deter the Israelis from attacking their Syrian allies. The Russians had not intended war. But the muscle-flexing got out of hand. Nasser, the eternal gambler (in 1956 he had nationalized the Suez Canal, bringing the Anglo-French invasion down on his head, and in 1963 he had intervened with his army in Yemen’s civil war, suffering a bloody nose), pushed his army into Sinai; and, encountering no Israeli or international response, he ordered out the U.N. peacekeepers. Still there was no response–so he closed the straits. By then Nasser had gone too far to reverse course, at least without a loss of political and strategic prestige; and after a two-week delay, in which Israel allowed the diplomats and Washington time to resolve the problem but nothing happened, the IDF unleashed its assault on Egypt.
Ginor and Remez argue that the war was not a result of Egyptian (and Soviet) miscalculation, but the deliberate outcome of Soviet (or Soviet-Egyptian- Syrian) design and policy. As Israel’s nuclear weapons project at Dimona neared fruition, the Soviets (and Egyptians) grew increasingly alarmed. Nasser had already declared back in 1960 that if Israel were to achieve nuclear weapons capability, he would launch a pre-emptive attack. Now, in May 1967, the Soviets decided to destroy Dimona. But they would do so not out of the blue (as the Israelis later did with Saddam’s nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in 1981). They would instead provoke Israel into attacking Egypt (and Syria), thus setting the stage–and providing cover and political justification–for a pinpoint strike on Dimona.
They argue also that the Soviets and Egyptians had conceived the “Grechko-Amer Plan” (named for Andrei Grechko, the Soviet defense minister, and Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, Egypt’s vice president and defense minister), which was to include the initial provocative Egyptian push into Sinai, in November 1966, shortly after the signing of the Egyptian-Syrian defense pact. The Egyptians and the Soviets believed that the Egyptian army, properly deployed, would manage to contain and to halt the initial Israeli attack in Sinai, and they would then follow it up, after the world branded Israel the aggressor, with the counterstroke that would include Dimona. The Arabs, they believed, would win, and Israel might well go under. “The goal of eradicating Israel, while never formally stated as official policy, was widespread in Soviet thought and parlance,” Ginor and Remez write. Chuvakhin reportedly told one Israeli communist interlocutor that “the war will last twenty-four hours only and no trace of the state of Israel will be left.” In addition to destroying Dimona from the air, the Soviets, according to Ginor and Remez, planned small amphibious landings on Israel’s Mediterranean coastline.
But the Soviet (or Soviet-Egyptian-Syrian) plan came a cropper because Israel’s opening air strike against the Egyptian Air Force on the morning of June 5, code-named Operation Moked, was so devastating that the hours and days that followed failed to provide the cover (and the bases) that were needed for a Soviet attack on Dimona. After 11 a.m. on June 5, there were no functioning Egyptian air bases, and by the end of day one–or, at the latest, day two–of the war, there was nothing much left of Egypt’s ground forces either. The Soviets dropped the plan.
The problem with Ginor and Remez’s thesis is that it rests on very flimsy evidence. More bluntly, they have no real documentation to back it up. They may well be right, but they do not prove their case. They argue, correctly, that the relevant Soviet documentation–from the KGB, the Communist Party presidium, the GRU, the Soviet Air Force and Navy–is closed; and they add, for good measure, that it is quite possible that the whole design may well never have been recorded on paper. (I doubt that: modern armies cannot march against foreign countries, nor can air and naval fleets deploy to attack them, without a great deal of political, logistical, intelligence, and operational paperwork.) Almost the only backup that Ginor and Remez have is a handful of Soviet memoirs or interviews with former soldiers that allege Soviet preparations for ramshackle, two-bit commando landings (by units including ships’ “cooks and medics,” without maps or specific targets) on Israel’s shores, and some circumstantial evidence that may or may not be relevant (such as the Soviets’ reinforcement of their Mediterranean fleet in the months before the war).
But the “almost” is important. Ginor and Remez do adduce one (almost) hard and troubling piece of evidence: aircraft flying out of Egypt did, on May 17 and May 26, fly over the Dimona reactor site on photography and intelligence-gathering missions, and Israel’s Hawk anti-aircraft batteries and Mirage III fighters failed to intercept, catch, or shoot down the intruders. The planes flew too high and too fast; and this fact, combined with several additional snippets of information, leads Ginor and Remez to conclude, persuasively, that at least some of the intruding aircraft were MiG-25 Foxbats, advanced aircraft that only Soviet pilots could have flown–and, let me add, that only Soviet ground crews could have serviced and only Soviet ground control officers could have directed to target. These overflights, along with Amer’s order to the Egyptian Air Force to attack Israel, including Dimona, on May 26 (an order immediately rescinded by Nasser), caused consternation, almost panic, in the Israeli General Staff and Cabinet.
Ginor is a Ukrainian-born researcher who immigrated to Israel in 1967; Remez, her spouse, is an Israeli radio journalist. They stress that their book “has no present-day political agenda”–though, curiously, they compare Russia’s “dilemma” in 1967, when facing Israel’s imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons, with that faced by “the United States in 2006” when confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Still, this book goes a way toward further blackening the image of the Evil Empire in the heyday of the cold war, portraying a mendacious regime that would stop at nothing to instigate a proxy war so as to achieve its military and political purposes.
Ginor and Remez state, almost as an aside, that “our work does confirm that the Six-Day War was definitely not premeditated by Israel for expansionist purposes.” This has seemed obvious to most reasonable observers almost since the guns of June 1967 fell silent. But perhaps the point does require reiteration, because it is precisely one of Tom Segev’s contentions in 1967 that the war was a result, in large part, of Israeli expansionist drives and ideologies, religious and secular. (This argument was recently heard also in the punditry that was provoked by the fortieth anniversary of the war.) It was also, Segev further argues, a result of an Israeli economic crisis, a downturn in immigration, social turmoil, a weak political leadership unable to oppose muscular generals, and a pervasive paranoia–which is not the same thing as a legitimate fear–bred by the memory of the Holocaust.
Segev’s book appeared in Hebrew almost two years ago, and the English-language version contains several additions, though no substantive alterations that I could detect. In both versions, it is Segev’s contention that Israel–more precisely, Israeli “insanity”–was to blame for the Six Day War:
It was not Nasser’s threats but the quicksand of [Israeli] depression. It was the feeling that the Israeli dream had run its course. It was the loss of David Ben-Gurion’s leadership coupled with the lack of faith in Eshkol. It was the recession and the unemployment; the decline in immigration and the mass emigration. It was the deprivation of the Mizrahim [Jews from Arab countries], as well as the fear of them. It was the boredom. It was the terrorism; the sense that there could be no peace.
Here Segev seems to be projecting 20002007 onto 1967. “All these feelings welled up in the week[s] before the war, sweeping through the nation in a tide of insanity. So the ideas [for a diplomatic solution] being put forth by more stable minds in Israel, Washington, and New York never had much of a chance.”
This portrait of Israel in 1966 and early 1967 is skewed. The economic downturn was a minor recession, nothing like the American or German depressions. (Indeed, the early 1960s saw the establishment of the foundations of the modern industrial economy.) There was greater immigration to Israel than emigration. The Sephardi-Ashkenazi gap, while extant, was hardly in crisis mode (there were no riots to compare with 1959 or the early 1970s); and the same applies to the religious-secular divide–hardly a period of violence or fireworks. Palestinian terrorism was meager and trivial compared with the standards set in the 1970s and 1990s. The country’s political leadership, while not flamboyant or “great,” was certainly composed of capable and honest people. Israelis were no more “bored” then than in any other time. In other words, the picture that Segev paints of Israel’s internal condition in 1966 and early 1967, with which he tries to “explain” the war, is essentially false. Segev, a journalist, is overly impressed by newspaper headlines.
And there was also, he instructs, the expansionist mentality of Zionism. “Many Israelis refused to give up the original Zionist dream, hoping for the day when Israel would embrace both sides of the Jordan [not just all of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the river],” Segev tells us in the beginning of his book. “Some Israeli politicians, including Ben-Gurion, as well as some IDF generals did not rule out military action to expand the state over the Green [1949 armistice] Line[s].” A few pages later we learn that “while war with Egypt [in June 1967] was the outcome of Israel’s demoralization and a sense of helplessness, the fighting with Jordan and Syria expressed a surge of power and messianic passion.”
And finally there was the bellicosity born of the memory of the fate of Europe’s Jews. (Some years ago Segev wrote a book called The Seventh Million, about Zionist and Israeli attitudes toward the Holocaust.) It is true, as Segev argues, that Israelis–indeed, Jews everywhere–were traumatized by the Holocaust (how could they not have been?), and that in those waiting days between May 15 and June 4 many Jews thought there would be thousands of casualties in the war and feared a genocidal slaughter. (As it turned out, Israel suffered less than eight hundred dead, several dozen of them civilians.) With the benefit of hindsight, Segev feels able to argue that Israeli fears were irrational, indeed paranoid: the Arabs were weak and Israel was strong, and Nasser and the others did not really mean it when they spoke of throwing the Jews into the sea.
And yet Segev himself provides the counter to this when he quotes Ben-Gurion: “None of us can forget the Nazi Holocaust, and if some of the Arab leaders, with the leader of Egypt at their head, declare day and night that Israel must be destroyed we should not take these declarations lightly.” (Later Segev offers a counter to this counter by quoting King Hussein: “With the Arabs, words don’t have the same value as they do for other people. Threats mean nothing.” So, in the end, Israel should not have taken Nasser’s threats, or moves, seriously?)
In Segev’s view, to understand the Six Day War one needs to understand more than the “diplomatic and military background. What is needed is deep knowledge of the Israelis themselves.” Not of the Arabs–of Nasser and his generals, who sent in their tank divisions and closed the straits in defiance of the agreements of 19561957; or of the Jordanians, who ignored Israeli appeals on the morning of June 5 not to open fire or, later, to stop firing artillery into downtown West Jerusalem, the suburbs of Tel Aviv, and the Ramat David air base in lower Galilee (the IDF began responding only at around noon, after Jordanian troops stormed the U.N. headquarters compound in southern Jerusalem); or of the Syrians, who rained down shells on Israel’s Jordan Valley settlements starting on the evening of June 5 (the IDF assaulted the Golan on June 910). No, there is no need to look at or understand Nasser, Hussein, or the Syrian leadership–or the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who took to the streets of Cairo, East Jerusalem, Damascus, and Baghdad shouting “Idhbah al Yahud!”, “Slaughter the Jews!”
For Segev, Arab politics and Arab society have no bearing upon the proper understanding of the origins of the war. In 1967, the Arabs are mere props–mindless, thoughtless, motiveless extras, and in no meaningful sense historical agents. Segev expends hardly a line on them. There is no trace of any effort to get into their heads or under their skin. The book has massive footnotes, with thousands of references (almost every footnote refers to half a dozen or a dozen or more sources, which is itself annoying to anyone wishing to trace the origin of a quote), but none, as far as I could tell, refers to an Arab source. Granted, the Arab states’ archives are all closed, since they are located within the sway of dictatorships–but this does not entirely excuse Segev’s delinquent lack of interest in the Arab side of the story. There are Arab memoirs and newspapers; and there are living Arab politicians, officials, and officers from 1967 who might have been willing to talk. And yet all the references are to Israeli and, to a lesser extent, American sources. It is almost as if Israel fought the war with itself.
Even when Segev briefly mentions Nasser and his actions between May 14 and May 23, it is, curiously, not what Nasser thought and did that is presented, but what Israelis reported and thought about what Nasser did. The reader first encounters the Egyptian thrust into Sinai thus: “[IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak] Rabin had come by to tell the prime minister [Levi Eshkol] that information from Cairo indicated the Egyptians were moving forces into the Sinai Desert. Eshkol was surprised.” The only Arabs who actually make an appearance (again, via Israeli sources) are the Palestinians, after the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been conquered. But here, too, the focus is on Israel and Israelis: Segev cares only about what Israelis saw and thought and proposed and did about or to these Arabs.
Some Israelis–David Kimche, Arie Lova Eliav, Dan Bavli, and others–did try to formulate some type of two-state accord with Palestinian notables or to initiate a rehabilitation of refugee camp dwellers, but without success. Others–this is one of the book’s more illuminating passages–worked on plans for transferring Arabs out of the West Bank and Gaza to South America or elsewhere. Segev devotes long pages to describing the attempted destruction of the town of Qalqilya and the expulsion of villagers from the Latrun Salient and the western edge of the southern West Bank. Some of this material, including many of the references, is new.
The picture of 1967 left with Segev’s reader is of trigger-happy, mindless Israeli politicians, bureaucrats, and generals cynically and hysterically seeking a casus belli to enlarge the state. Page after page, quote after quote, this is the picture. No, that is not quite fair: in throwaway sentences, Segev also provides his readers with an inkling of the truth. These sentences contain the essence of the story of the period between May 14 and June 4. Describing the Israeli Cabinet meeting on May 23, Segev writes: “But most of the ministers were loath to take action. Minister of Health Israel Barzilai suggested waiting two or three weeks. Avraham Shapira maintained that Egypt did not want war. They all agreed that closing the Straits was an act of aggression’ and decided to send Foreign Minister Eban to the United States.” So Israel did wait “two weeks.” Those are not the animadversion of trigger-happy people.
As for Israeli expansionism, it is true that after the war of 1948-1949, many Israelis, including Ben-Gurion and most of his generals, felt that a great opportunity had been missed and that it would have been better to have ended the war with the country’s border on the Jordan River. (Their reasons were more military and strategic, and less ideological and historical.) But over the following years, an overwhelming majority of Israelis came to accept that war’s results, including its strategically problematic borders, and restrained any expansionist inclinations. By 1967, only the messianic-religious and the secular far right dreamed and talked about expansion to the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, the historical heartland of the Jewish people and faith. For the vast majority of the citizenry, led by the successive Mapai-dominated governments, such thinking was alien. Many examples can be offered in proof of this claim. Consider only this exchange, published in early May 1967 in an Israeli newspaper, between the expansionist right-winger Geula Cohen and the Grand Old Man, David Ben-Gurion.
Cohen: “What are the borders of my homeland?”
Ben-Gurion: “The borders of your homeland are the borders of the State of Israel, as they are today.”
(After the war, incidentally, Ben-Gurion advocated complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories, except from East Jerusalem, though occasionally he also spoke covetously of the Golan Heights.)
Yes, the IDF general staff–certainly after May 2223, when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran–pressed for war. By the end of the month they were even chafing at the bit, arguing that every day’s delay would multiply the number of Israeli dead. But their political bosses, the Cabinet and the prime minister, refused to knuckle under. For almost three weeks, from May 15 to June 4, the politicians–led by Eshkol–held out, hoping against hope that war would be averted; that the Americans or the United Nations would manage a diplomatic solution or that an international flotilla would somehow force open the straits and force Nasser to back off. The full story of the Israeli side in those unbelievably tense weeks is of a democratic polity under external military siege, feeling gradual asphyxiation but firmly under the control of the political echelon, which was doing its damnedest, in the face of mounting Arab provocation, to stave off war.
And the picture is similar in microcosm–this is apparent even from Segev’s book–regarding the conquest of the West Bank and Jerusalem. For long hours, while the Jordanians, unprovoked, were shelling Jerusalem, the Israeli Cabinet held off on unleashing the IDF against the Hashemite kingdom. And for two days it deferred and delayed, contrary to military logic, the decision to conquer East Jerusalem, with the Old City and the Temple Mount at its heart. Israel went to war reluctantly and it conquered the Palestinian territories reluctantly. It won decisively, to be sure; but that decisiveness was owed to Arab weaknesses on the ground. And in the end, even the Golan Heights was almost not taken. The IDF Northern Command and the Jordan Valley kibbutzim lobbied and lobbied for Israeli military action in the north on June 5 through 8–not because they coveted the tracts of land on the Golan, as Segev would have it, but because they were sick of the intermittent shelling they had suffered at Syrian hands during the previous decade–and still the Cabinet, including Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, held off. It was not until June 9 that Dayan gave the green light. (It appears that he was deterred during the war’s first four days by the fear of Soviet intervention, and also by the shortage of available units to take the Golan. But the fact is that he held off.)
It is true that, following the war, an expansionist messianic spirit gripped much of the Israeli population. The deep fear of catastrophe and slaughter was replaced by an overwhelming elation, which translated for many into a sense that Israel had been given a divine warrant to expand its borders. The consequences of these dangerous enthusiasms are now well known. But as a historical matter, it is worth noting that on June 19 the Israeli government secretly offered the Syrians the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace (and a demilitarized Golan), and offered the Egyptians the whole Sinai Peninsula (demilitarized) in exchange for peace. Of this, Segev writes: “Israel thus created the impression that it had offered to return the territories in exchange for peace.” He is, of course, right that Israel failed to offer to return the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Arab sovereignty. The Israeli Cabinet was deadlocked about the fate of these territories. But to dismiss the Israeli offer–to two states that had just in effect tried to destroy it–as mendacious or meaningless is absurd. It is also worth recalling that the Israeli offer and its rejection by Cairo and Damascus were in short order followed by a terse, comprehensive pan-Arab response at the summit in Khartoum–the famous “Three No’s”: no recognition, no negotiation with Israel, no peace.
Again, a wild, somewhat mindless expansionist spirit did overcome the Israelis after the victory, with religious extremists calling for the destruction of the two mosques on the Temple Mount and their replacement with the Third Temple. Ben-Gurion proposed pulling down the Old City’s walls. And the government immediately destroyed Jerusalem’s small Maghrebi Quarter to make way for a large plaza in front of the Wailing Wall. Within weeks, the government began settling parts of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, setting in motion the first wave of the vast settlement venture that implanted, within four decades, more than 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank and the Jerusalem area. The war certainly triggered an expansionist, and even millenarian, upsurge; but the war was not prompted or preceded by one.
One could argue that after defeating the Jordanian army and after Khartoum, Israel should immediately and unilaterally have withdrawn from the West Bank and restored it to Hussein’s rule, and perhaps done something similar with the Gaza Strip and Sinai and the Golan Heights (as perhaps the Americans should have done after toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003), though the immediate return of the Sinai Peninsula would have given away the card that proved necessary for trading land for peace with Egypt in 1979. But to argue, as Segev does, that Israel, locked in battle with the Egyptians in the south, should have refrained from going into the West Bank from which the Jordanians were shelling Israel’s cities (and from which further attack by Iraqi and Egyptian troops was imminent) makes no sense. It is pure ahistorical thinking. Segev declares that “Israel could have responded by defeating the Jordanian army without taking the West Bank and Jerusalem.” Really? Perhaps by carpet-bombing and massively shelling the West Bank and Jerusalem? Would Segev have later approved of such actions, which would have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties? (As it happened, the Israeli conquest of the territory caused very few civilian casualties.)
Segev’s 1967 is studded with such politically correct posturing, and riddled with perverse and high-minded asides and aphorisms. Consider this one: the struggle to throw off the “various restrictions” under which Israel’s Arab minority lived after 1948 “was a civil rights cause, not unlike the campaign against racial discrimination in the United States.” “Not unlike”? Surely there is a difference. Israel’s Arabs were part of a people that had launched a war to destroy Israel in 1948 and continued guerrilla and terrorist warfare against Israel during the following decades. Is this really comparable to the plight of the African Americans? Is Africa besieging the United States and engaged in a war against it, with a putative African American fifth column within? The analogy is ridiculous. And one shouldn’t forget that while suffering certain types of discrimination and enjoying certain “affirmative” benefits–they do not need to “waste” three years of young adulthood in military service–Israel’s Arabs do enjoy full rights of citizenship (voting rights, election to the Knesset, an Israeli Arab sits in the Cabinet, and so on).
The book’s final two hundred pages, covering the war’s aftermath, contain some wonderful passages. Segev devotes five pages to the story of the influential book Siah Lohamim, or The Talk of Soldiers (which appeared in abridged form in English in 1971 as The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six-Day War), in which some 140 kibbutznik veterans of the fighting discussed, in group interviews or conversations, their experiences and their moral repercussions. It was most certainly not a victory album, with which Israel was awash within weeks of the war. The young Amos Oz co-edited the book. The soldiers spoke of fear, of death and mutila- tion, of the horror and pain of war. The book, a major best-seller, sold 100,000 copies in Hebrew and was received, as Segev rightly notes, as an “authentic document.”
But that is not the whole of the tale. Using research by a young scholar at Tel Aviv University, Segev describes how the original transcripts were altered and censored by the editors; how graphic descriptions of atrocities against Arabs were deleted; how expansionist meditations by sons of Palmach commanders from the 1948 war were omitted; how messianic reveries by religious kibbutzniks were left out. Also deleted were veterans’ references to orders to shoot wounded soldiers or civilians and comparisons between Israeli and Nazi behavior. In short, the editors managed to create a “candid,” moving, liberal anti-war text that bore only a partial resemblance to what was actually said in the original conversations.
But apart from the descriptions of various aspects of the war’s aftermath, 1967 is one vast, tendentious historical misjudgment. Unfortunately, this has become one of Segev’s calling cards (alongside great readability). Examples could be multiplied. In his previous book One Palestine, Complete, a history of the British Mandate, Segev wrote of the origins of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Britain expressed support for the creation in Palestine of a Jewish “national home”: “The declaration was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests but of prejudice, faith, and sleight of hand. The men who sired it were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic. They believed the Jews controlled the world.” In short, first and foremost, according to Segev, the declaration was a product of British anti-Semitism. Most historians would say–along with what Lloyd George and Balfour themselves said, repeatedly–that the declaration was a product of the philo-Semitism of most of the Imperial War Cabinet members (including Jan Smuts, Lord Milner, Balfour, and Lloyd George), and also, more coldly, of British imperial interests.
Or consider The Seventh Million, in many ways an important book, full of valuable insights into Israeli and Zionist history. At the end of its second chapter, for example, Segev explains why and how three million of Europe’s preWorld War II nine-million-strong Jewish community survived the war. “Most”–I am translating from the Hebrew edition– “were saved as a result of Germany’s defeat in the war, some thanks to help from various governments and institutions and several thousand in each country by good people, righteous gentiles. Only a relatively small number from among the survivors owed their lives to the redemptive efforts of the Zionist movement.” A heavy accusatory cloud hangs over this sentence (and others like it), the implication being that the Zionist movement did not do all it could have done to save Europe’s Jews and that, had it done so, more, perhaps many more, would have been saved.
This is nonsense. Various Zionist organizations did try to lobby the combatant Western powers to do more–to bomb Auschwitz, to deal with Hitler– but to no avail. America and Britain were focused on winning the war and destroying the Nazi regime, not on saving Jews. The only branch of the movement with any real power was the Yishuv, but it, too, lacked any capability to project power into Nazi-occupied Europe and, in any case, under British mandatory rule it lacked any possibility of independent military action, in the circumstances of 19411945, outside Palestine. So in fact it had no capacity to save European Jews–though it symbolically sacrificed a dozen parachutists, who were dropped into Europe, to demonstrate that it at least cared. To imply, or even to hint, that the Yishuv could have saved Jews but chose not to save them is cheap sensationalism, and testifies to an astonishing lack of judgment and a deep desire to blacken the reputation of the Yishuv’s leadership.
So there is revisionism and there is revisionism. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez’s book opens a door for further research. Its thesis deserves to be beaten like bushes by hunters outing their prey–and the prey will indeed be trapped, one way or another, at the moment the Russian archives open the relevant files. And if what the authors suggest is true, the Six Day War will end up illumined in a completely fresh light. As for Tom Segev, his book points readers and scholars in no worthwhile direction. Its argument is not merely wrong; it also makes a small contribution of its own to the contemporary delegitimation of Israel.