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Israel’s 1967 victory cast in a different light

Special to The Times

THIS sprawling mess of a book defies easy description. More than anything, “1967" is an exercise in historical demolition. Tom Segev, a prominent Israeli journalist and historian, sets out to puncture the myths surrounding the Six-Day War. In that effort he largely succeeds. Yet when it comes to identifying the truths that ought to replace those myths, Segev is elusive, coy or simply uncertain. In that sense, although “1967" works as a provocation, it falls short as a serious contribution to history.

Segev begins his account with a highly impressionistic assessment of Israeli society in the mid-1960s. What he finds is a people teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Grappling with economic stagnation, internal divisions and growing doubts about the long-term viability of the Zionist enterprise, Israelis were beset by a sense of “existential anxiety.” Immigration was drying up, with Jews around the world in effect choosing diaspora over a homeland.Particularly disturbing was that Israelis moving to the United States outnumbered American Jews opting for Israel.

Meanwhile, the growth of the Israel’s Arab population was continuing to accelerate, with ominous demographic implications. A “sense that something fundamental was going wrong in Israel” pervaded the country. To many, it seemed that “the Israeli dream had run its course.”

By spring 1967, existential anxiety had given rise to the perception of existential threats. Apprehensive Israelis spooked themselves into believing that they faced a recurrence of the Holocaust, with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser standing in for Hitler. Although Nasser and other Arab leaders were noisily vowing to wipe Israel off the map, Segev bluntly dismisses the charge that they were plotting to destroy Israel: "[T]here was no existential danger to the state.” Drawing on Israeli and U.S. sources, he presents considerable evidence to support that judgment. Yet the popular perception of impending doom was real enough and was reinforced by widespread doubts about the leadership of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who was perceived to be weak and indecisive.

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This combination of fear-approaching-panic along with a lack of confidence in Eshkol had large political implications. In Israel at this time, the decisive political relationship was not between rival parties but between the army and the government. In effect, that relationship tilted in favor of the Israel Defense Forces.

In 1967, IDF senior officers, led by chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, were hankering for war. They exuded confidence. Given half a chance, they were certain that they could defeat any combination of Arab armies. Throughout the spring, the generals pressed a reluctant Cabinet to unleash the IDF. Eshkol, who was both minister of defense and prime minister, dragged his feet.

As depicted by Segev, the standoff between Eshkol and his generals was as much cultural as strategic. Nominally, Rabin and other IDF leaders based their argument for war on Israel’s need to project an image of toughness. Although victory might not resolve the issues at the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the generals believed that clearly demonstrating the IDF’s superiority would shore up the Israeli deterrent. Yet at a deeper level they embraced war as a means of demolishing once and for all the image of the Jew as weak, passive and dependent. Pressing for war, the generals saw themselves as “Sabra warriors facing weak-spirited politicians” with one foot still in the shtetl. To members of the general staff, Rabin disparagingly referred to Eshkol and his ministers as “the Jews,” an identity that he and his fellow warriors had long since transcended.

Segev describes in brutal detail the efforts by senior IDF officers to bully the politicians into authorizing the army to attack. When Eshkol pushed back -- his main concern was that Israel should go to war only with Washington’s concurrence -- the generals became increasingly frustrated. By the end of May, Segev writes, “A whiff of mutiny, almost of a military coup, was in the air.” Ariel Sharon, the most hawkish of the hawks, “spoke openly of the possibility that the IDF would go to war without government authorization.” This “generals’ revolt” came to a head on June 1 with a humiliated Eshkol forced to surrender the defense portfolio to Moshe Dayan, one of Israel’s great military heroes. In the contest over who would dictate the course of Israeli policy, the generals had prevailed.

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War was now inevitable. Yet a mere three days later, Eshkol got what he wanted as well: Washington -- in the person of Abe Fortas, Supreme Court justice and confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson -- wouldn’t block Israel’s move.

To an American reader, Segev’s account of relations between Washington and Jerusalem qualifies as a book within a book. In our day, merely to cite the existence of an “Israel lobby” is invite charges of anti-Semitism. In the 1960s, the Israeli government harbored no doubts as to the lobby’s existence or its importance. On sensitive issues the actual management of U.S.-Israeli relations occurred through informal channels with Americans who were sympathetic to Israel and enjoyed access to the centers of U.S. power. Besides Fortas, other key figures included movie mogul Arthur Krim, a frequent White House guest, and CIA counterespionage chief James Jesus Angleton, described by the head of the Mossad as “the biggest Zionist of the lot” and “an extraordinary asset for us.”

When it deemed quiet diplomacy inadequate, the Israeli government employed other methods. With the IDF gearing up to attack and officials in Jerusalem concerned that Johnson might go wobbly, the Israeli foreign ministry instructed its ambassador in Washington to “create a public atmosphere that will constitute pressure on the administration in the direction of obtaining our desired goals, without it being explicitly clear that we are behind this public campaign.” In short order, a PR blitz materialized.

On June 5, fighting commenced with Israel’s devastating preemptive strike against the Egyptian air force. Segev provides only a sketchy account of the ensuing conflict, his principal point being to emphasize the opportunistic character of Israeli actions. With Dayan calling the shots, the IDF conducted its war “in a sort of snatch-and-grab frenzy.” Neither the generals nor the politicians paid much attention to the long-term political implications of Israel’s occupation of land in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and East Jerusalem. The point of the exercise was simply to win and to win big.

According to Segev, victory resolved the Israeli crisis of confidence. A “spirit of messianic euphoria” swept the nation. Underlying it was an exaltation of military might. Rabin wasted no time in proclaiming the IDF’s ability to “defeat any enemy thanks to its moral, spiritual, and emotional superiority.” Subsequent events demonstrated that this was a delusion.

Through victory, Israel expanded its borders. It also greatly increased the number of Arabs within those borders. In that sense, victory exacerbated the central challenge to the Zionist project. In the war’s aftermath, according to Segev, “Eshkol left no doubt about what he wanted: a large country with no Arabs in it.” But the Arabs couldn’t be wished away, and efforts to force them into submission soon enough exposed the limits of the IDF’s moral and spiritual superiority.

In concluding that Israel’s “only achievement was actually winning the war,” Segev goes too far. Yet in demonstrating the problematic nature of the Six-Day War’s origins and aftermath, he raises a host of large questions that touch on national identity, personal ambition, civilian-military politics and the elusive utility of force. Americans no less than Israelis have an urgent need to address these questions.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

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