Israel went to war 40 years ago this week more because of "psychological weakness" than because of a genuine strategic threat–that’s the conclusion of Tom Segev, one of Israel’s leading historians, and author of the new book 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. June 5 is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Israel’s Six-Day war, when the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. I spoke with Tom Segev on the phone in Jerusalem on Monday.
The prevailing view of the war, in both the US and Israel, was expressed by historian Michael Orren, who wrote in the LA Times on Sunday that the war "saved Israel from destruction." Segev commented, "We don’t really know that. We don’t really know what the Arabs intended to do." But we do know what Israelis thought: "They thought Egypt was out to destroy them. It’s really a psychological matter more than a clear-cut strategic one. Psychologically Israelis were very weak on the eve of the Six-Day War; they believed they were facing a second Holocaust."
How much of that psychology was an accurate response to the strategic situation, and how much was caused by other factors? "The crisis of May 1967 caught Israel at a weak point in its history," Segev said, "with economic recession and unemployment, more Israelis leaving Israel than Jews coming to live there, a generation gap with people fearing they were losing their children as Zionists, and a widespread feeling that the Zionist dream was over. And beyond that Israel was feeling the first acts of Palestinian terrorism, and the army had no answer to that, just as it doesn’t have an answer to today’s terrorism. All this led to a deep pessimism. Then the crisis broke out."
I asked Segev whether he thought Israel over-reacted to Egyptian and Syrian threats by going to war. "I think this crisis might have been solved without war," he replied. "There were suggestions coming from Washington and several ideas in Israel about how to do that. But that required a stronger society, stronger nerves, stronger leadership, more patience, and we didn’t have all that. So we gave in to an understandable Holocaust panic. That made war with Egypt inevitable. But to say today that the Six-Day War saved Israel’s existence–that is not accurate."
Today we think of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the main legacy of the 1967 war. Orthodox Jews regard the West Bank as the biblical land of Israel: Judea and Samaria. They believe God wants Jews to live there. I asked Segev how popular that idea was in Israel before the war. "It was not very popular," he said. "Most Israelis did not expect the Green Line to change. Some had hopes–there was a strong political party headed by Menachem Begin that advocated taking the West Bank, but most Israelis regarded that as unrealistic.