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.
The government came to the same conclusion: "Six months prior to the war," Segev reports, "the head of the Mossad, the head of the Army intelligence branch, and the Foreign Office sat down together and did something Israelis don’t often do – they thought ahead. They concluded it would not be in the interests of Israel to take the West Bank. Because of the Palestinian population, of course. Six months before this war. Then on June 5, Jordan attacks Israeli forces in Jerusalem, and all reason is forgotten: Israel takes East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, in spite of all the reasons not to do so, in opposition to our national interest."
Segev’s book has a stunning cover: a photo of Israeli soldiers posing triumphantly in front of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of the three holiest shrines in Islam. When Israeli forces conquered the old city, he reports, the chief rabbi of the Israeli army advised his commanding officer to blow up the Dome of the Rock. "Everybody lost their minds," Segev explained. "Everybody was euphoric. There were lots of crazy ideas floating around. It speaks to the credit of the military commander that he told the chief rabbi of the army, ‘if you repeat that suggestion, I will put you in jail.’ But that was the atmosphere in those days–a feeling that the sky’s the limit, we’re an all powerful empire. The euphoria that followed the war was as wrong as the panic that preceded it."
As Israeli forces advanced through the West Bank, Segev shows, they pressured Palestinians to leave, to flee to Jordan. "200,000 Palestinians left the West Bank," he told me, "and at least half of them were actually forced to leave. Many are still in Jordan. When speak about the refugee problem we think about 1948, but there is a refugee problem from 1967 as well."
Back in 1948, the UN had called for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza. I asked Segev what kind of national movement existed among Palestinians on the eve of the Six-Day War. "It was very weak," he said, "not much more than a feeling of shared identity and solidarity. Actually as a result of the Six-Day War the Palestinian national identity became much stronger, just as Israeli analysts had predicted prior to the war."
Future prime minster Yitzhak Rabin supported Palestinian independence after the war, according to Segev, who reports that the Israeli government held secret talks at the time with Palestinian leaders. "Isn’t that amazing?" he said. "Rabin was chief of staff. He felt it was the right moment to punish Jordan, to take the West Bank away from Jordan, but not God forbid, to control it–instead to give the Palestinians independence. He thought that was the right way to do it. By the way, that’s what the government of Israel thinks today, 40 years later – and it’s what most Israelis think."