Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East

Israeli Tom Segev is one of the "New Historians" seeking to re-examine and re-evaluate the history of Zionism and the state of Israel. Joseph Croitoru read his most recent book, about the Six Day War

​​In Israel the self-defence myth is still maintained when speaking of the Six Day War, although it was the Israelis who attacked first. Military historians talk of a "preventative war" in this context, but in Israel even this euphemistic expression never been used.

Instead the 1967 war was celebrated as a just and glorious Blitzkrieg, allegedly rescuing the young Jewish state from its imminent downfall and demonstrating Israel's superiority over its Arab enemies.

For decades the general glorification, and the biased representations and memoirs of the most important Israeli military and political decision-makers, prevented a critical appraisal. Astonishingly this began only in the 1990s and reached its climax in the new millennium.

Too much detail

The book focuses less on the events of the war itself and more on the mood in the country and the behaviour of Israel, as well as its military and political leaders, before and after victory. It brings together a conspicuous quantity of quotations, some far too detailed – diaries and minutes from government meetings – presented here for the first time.

This detail, at times almost exhausting, is intended to compensate for the fact that genuinely explosive archive material is still subject to a strict code of secrecy – material relating for instance to the Israeli occupation, the atomic question, and to the conduct of the Israeli internal and external security.

Impressive panorama of Israeli attitudes

Nevertheless Segev manages to include an impressive panorama of Israeli attitudes, and their mutation in this particular, decisive year, which, as he continually emphasizes, was astonishing. Before the war the mood in Israel had sunk to a historic low, afterwards it was dominated by the euphoria of victory; the country was re-born.

This is demonstrated using partly thematic, partly sociological analyses, illustrating the respective perceived mood of the various groups within society, from the Ashkenazi elite to the badly integrated, economically disadvantaged oriental Jews, right to the Israeli Arabs, who till 1966 still lived under military administration.

Since the foundation of the state, Jewish immigration had been decreasing considerably and more Israelis than ever before were leaving the country. Added to this was the economic recession as well as the growing gulf – not only between the European and the oriental Jews, who had grown considerably in numbers within a decade – but also between the now noticeably older leadership, largely of Eastern European origin, and the generation born in Palestine or Israel.

Marginalization of Arab extermination propaganda

The Zionist dream seemed to have burned out; there was an increasing lack of trust in the old leadership, as well as in the younger generation, perceived as too individualist. The author shows little sympathy for the feelings of his countrymen and -women at the time.

For him the crisis seems largely invented, even though it must have arisen from the understandable existential fear of a combined Arab military attack, and this particular issue is certainly not dealt with in enough detail; the book marginalizes both large-scale and small-scale Arab attacks on Israel, and the Arab extermination propaganda which preceded the 1967 war for several years.

Without this previous history, the relatively young Israeli military leadership appear in Segev's presentation of the facts as a group of militant warmongers – which, although to varying degrees at various points, they undoubtedly were – who eventually imposed their will on the older and more prudent political leadership.

From the military's point of view, the alleged final proof that the preventative attack was vital to Israel's survival was provided by the presence of Egyptian troops marching in Sinai and not least the Egyptian fighter jets circling the Israeli atomic base in southern Dimona.

Creeping annexation

Segev's greatest achievement, even though he might have formulated the thesis more succinctly, is that he reveals the Six Day War to be a compensation for the military failure – from Israel's point of view – of the Israeli-Arab War of 1948; to many Israelis who still remembered it, the old territorial "normality" of the British mandate era seemed to have been restored, including free access to east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This fact, alongside the pseudo-religious or wholly messianic enthusiasm for the return to areas of biblical Erez Israel, provides an additional, new explanation for the ease and enthusiasm with which the Israelis rushed into the role of occupier. The occupation of the Palestine areas turned within a few months from a purely military affair to a political one, such that it was increasingly co-ordinated by numerous ministerial committees.

The creeping annexation, particularly of east Jerusalem and the surrounding district was carefully veiled through media deception. Although the Israeli leadership sought dialogue with Palestinian representatives as well as with Jordan's king Hussein and Egyptian president Nasser, they still adopted the arrogant pose of winner, and with their excessive demands in practice put an end to efforts to seek peace.

Tom Segev's book documents this development vividly; take the time to read it.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2007

Tom Segev, 1967, Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Metropolitan Books, New York, 2007)

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