HISTORY MIDDLE EAST
Who Started It?
Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East
By Tom Segev
Metropolitan. 673 pp. $35
The scenes flashed across the TV screens: tens of thousands of Arab troops massing on Israel's borders, frenzied demonstrations in every Arab capital demanding the demise of the Jewish state, the leaders of the Soviet bloc proclaiming unqualified support for Arab war aims while the French -- Israel's only ally -- abruptly changed sides. "Our objective is the freeing of Palestine and the liquidation of the Zionist existence," declared the Syrian chief of staff, while the Iraqi president proclaimed, "Our goal is clear -- to wipe Israel off the face of the map." Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ousted U.N. peacekeepers from the Egypt-Israel border and blockaded Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran, foresaw a "total war . . . aimed at Israel's destruction." Bracing themselves for the onslaught, Israelis called up their army reserve, hoarded gas masks, and dug trenches and thousands of graves. Yet even these preparations seemed insufficient. "We shall destroy Israel and prepare boats to deport the survivors," the Palestine Liberation Organization pledged, "if there are any."
Israel did not wait to see if Arab leaders would fulfill their promises. On June 5, 1967 -- 40 years ago last week -- the Israelis struck. In an attack lasting a little over an hour, the Israeli air force destroyed more than 250 Egyptian planes, and Israeli ground forces broke through Egyptian lines in Sinai. Israel had urged Jordan to stay out of the war, but Jordanian artillery began shelling West Jerusalem and suburban Tel Aviv, and Jordanian warplanes struck Israeli coastal cities. From atop the Golan Heights, Syrian gunners rained thousands of shells onto Israeli farms in Galilee. Though faced with a multi-front war, the Israelis fought vigorously, first driving the Egyptians out of Sinai and Gaza and the Jordanians out of the West Bank and Jerusalem. They then silenced the Syrian guns and captured the Golan Heights. In six extraordinary days, Israel's citizen soldiers had defeated three major Arab armies and captured territories four times the size of pre-1967 Israel.
Hundreds of books have been written about the Six-Day War, as it is known in the West -- the Arabs prefer "the June War" or simply "the Setback" -- and more are appearing still. The newest and lengthiest of these is Tom Segev's 1967. A columnist for Israel's leftwing Ha'aretz newspaper, and a self-styled New Historian who has labored to debunk what he regards as Israel's founding myths, Segev has previously set out to demonstrate Zionist culpability for the deterioration of Arab-Jewish-British relations in the period before Israel's creation and, thereafter, Israel's indifference to the survivors of the Holocaust. 1967, however, aims at overturning what Segev deems the most hallowed of Israeli myths -- namely, that the Six-Day War was a just and existential struggle that Israel, isolated and outgunned, had no choice but to wage.
Though it is never explicitly stated, Segev's thesis is clear. Israeli fears of an Arab attack "had no basis in reality," he argues; "there was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it." Rather than responding to an imminent Arab threat, Israelis were reacting out of a deep-seated trauma born of years of Jewish suffering. Referring to the digging of graves in anticipation of mass Israeli casualties, for example, he writes, "Only a society drenched in the memory of the Holocaust could have prepared so meticulously for the next one." Segev also faults the economic crisis of 1966 that sensitized Israelis to perceived perils, and castigates Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for failing to stand up to his warmongering generals. Indeed, the belligerence of military leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin was, for Segev, the primary cause of the war: "They clung to the Israeli culture of youth; they were like adolescent boys or bulls in rut. They believed in force and they wanted war. War was their destiny."
Substantiating these claims requires Segev to engage in rhetorical acrobatics. Fortifying his contention that Israeli malaise created an atmosphere for war, he writes, "Beginning in 1966, more and more Israelis had started to lose faith in themselves and sink into depression." A few pages later, however, to show how an excess of Israeli bravado heightened the war-fever, he asserts, "At the beginning of 1966 . . . Israelis expressed satisfaction and a fundamental faith in their future . . . generating hope and pride." To reconcile these inconsistencies, Segev is forced to divide the war into separate conflicts, each with its own Israel-based cause. "While war with Egypt 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."
Laboring to prove his point forces Segev not only to contradict himself but also to commit glaring oversights. The book repeatedly asserts that war might have been averted if Israel had accepted an American plan to break the Egyptian blockade by sending an international convoy through the Straits of Tiran. But the American plan, code-named Regatta, was rejected by Congress, as well as by 24 of the 26 nations invited to contribute to the convoy. Segev knows this fact but throughout the book pretends that a diplomatic option remained. Similarly, his need to demonstrate Israel's strength before the war compels him to overlook Soviet support for the Arab war effort and France's last-minute decision to back the Arabs. The French move is mentioned only at the end of the book and then -- bizarrely -- as one of the reasons that Israelis clung to their newly conquered territory.
But the most telling omission relates not to the Israelis or to any foreign power but rather to the Arabs. Segev's book is all but devoid of Arab calls for Israel's destruction and the slaughter of its citizens. There is no mention of pro-war demonstrations, of Egypt's willingness to use poison gas against its enemies, or of the detailed Arab plans for conquering Israel. Segev even ignores the Khartoum resolution after the war, in which the Arab states refused to negotiate with Israel and to grant it peace and recognition. These omissions inflict an injustice on the Arabs by treating them as two-dimensional props in a solipsistic Israeli drama.
1967 presents some engaging portraits of Israel in the mid-1960s, from the high cost of apartments to the subservience of young Israeli wives. Segev has scoured the Israeli and American archives and has shed light on the post-1967 period. But by disregarding the Arab dynamic and twisting his text to meet a revisionist agenda, he undermines his attempt to reach a deeper understanding of the war. Such an understanding is vital if Arabs and Israelis are to avoid similar clashes in the future and peacefully co-exist. ·
Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."