The Seventh Day
Why the Six-Day War is still being fought
In June, 2003, President Bush tried to discredit any critics who dared dispute his artfully twisted intelligence assessments of Iraq by slinging the worst name he could think of: “Revisionist historians is what I like to call them.” This was intended as something more than a schoolyard taunt or an allusion to the sort of pseudo scholars who would deny, under a blizzard of footnotes, the existence of the Turkish massacre of Armenians. In the political context of the moment, it seemed a warning to all who would dispute the monarch’s version of reality.
Rigorous revisionism is, of course, at the heart of historical practice, and to practice it in the face of a state-endorsed orthodoxy can require a considerable measure of gall, as well as craft. No country easily accepts a figure like Charles Beard, who, as the avatar of the Progressive School of historians, informed Americans that the founders were wealthy landholders employing ideological trappings to garland their self-interest. But, without revision, what? Without Marcel Ophüls, who practices a filmmaker’s version of revisionist history in “The Sorrow and the Pity,” it would have been far easier for the French to go on ignoring their complicity in the deportation of Jews to the death camps. The assault on the American Indians; the ruthlessness of European colonialism in Africa; the decision-making process that led to Hiroshima; the reëvaluation of Presidential reputations—these are all, unendingly, fodder for “revisionists” who go on challenging accepted truths and complicating the story of the past.
Nowhere has revisionist history played a more crucial role in the political and moral consciousness of a nation than in Israel. The state came into being in 1948, and, almost immediately, its prehistory––the origins of Zionist ideology, the behavior of the British during the Mandate period, and, critically, the relationship with the Other, the Palestinian Arabs—became matter for schoolbooks, journalism, military indoctrination, scholarship, and public rhetoric. The founding generation that had come to Palestine and then fought what it called its war of independence against Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and other hostile neighbors was now in charge of its own story. To the victor goes the narrative. As in any fledgling state, that narrative tended to be set down in the most glorious terms—history as if written by a Hebrew-speaking Parson Weems. For a while, it was as if even the most basic facts could be wished out of existence. An entire group could be made invisible. “There was no such thing as Palestinians,” Golda Meir said in 1969.
It was not until the nineteen-eighties, after the opening of various state archives and the coming of age of a generation more disillusioned and less beholden to the old myths than the founders, that Israeli scholars began to confront some inconvenient facts. The most important of the Israeli New Historians was Benny Morris, a leftist (at the time) who had taken part in the disastrous Lebanon war both as a soldier and as a reporter, and who then went to jail rather than complete reserve duty in the West Bank during the first Palestinian intifada. In 1987, the year the intifada erupted, Morris published “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” in which he demolished a cherished Israeli notion: that the three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs who fled their villages during and after the war did so voluntarily and at the behest of their own leaders, who promised they could soon return. Instead, Morris made clear, a large number of the Palestinians were expelled by Israeli military leaders (including the young Yitzhak Rabin), and many others fled out of fear after hearing about the killings and the destruction of homes in nearby villages.
Most of the New Historians did their doctoral work abroad, which gave them a chance to question the narrative they had grown up with. And, though they were never a cohesive school, personally or ideologically, their work did come in a kind of wave that challenged traditional Israeli historiography. After Morris came Ilan Pappe’s “Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” Avi Shlaim’s “Collusion Across the Jordan,” and work by the sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, which described the ideology of Zionism in colonial terms. Critics accused the New Historians of politically tendentious readings of the archives, of slandering a people that had barely escaped extermination, and of trying to undermine the foundations of the state. In the liberal daily Ha’aretz, the novelist Aharon Megged asked, “What is it that moves Israeli scholars to distort and make ugly the Jewish national liberation movement, whose only desire was to realize the two-thousand-year-old hope to return to Zion?”
Over time, though, the best revisionist scholarship had an effect on Israeli political thinking, even among some public officials. Shlomo Ben-Ami, who served as Ehud Barak’s minister of public security and, later, his foreign minister, wrote in his memoiristic history of the state, “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace,” published last year, that the expulsions of Palestinians in 1947 and 1948 were due to “an ideological predisposition, a mental attitude, a supporting cultural environment” that allowed such cruelty in the first place. It is hard to believe that, without the New Historians, an Israeli official could have brought himself to such self-critical conclusions.
Tom Segev, who has just published, in English, an account of the most pivotal of all the Arab-Israeli wars, “1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East” (Metropolitan; $35), is the most journalistic of the New Historians. His style is drier and more distanced than that of some of his more overtly ideological colleagues; for years, his domestic-affairs column in Ha’aretz was called “Foreign Correspondent.” Segev’s parents fled Germany for Palestine in 1935, and his father was killed in the 1948 war. Segev, who received his doctorate from Boston University, has been a consistent voice on the Israeli left, but his views are generally more tempered than the anti-Zionist leftism of Pappe and the sui-generis politics of Benny Morris, who, after the failed summit at Camp David in 2000, despairingly came to believe that David Ben-Gurion should have expelled many more Palestinians “when he had the chance,” in order to insure a Jewish majority and Israeli security.
Segev, who is sixty-two, has written books on the nascent state (“1949: The First Israelis”), on the Jews and the Arabs under the British Mandate (“One Palestine, Complete”), and on the “post-Zionist” Americanization of Israeli society (“Elvis in Jerusalem”). In “1949,” he helped upend the notion of the early Israelis as an unambiguously homogeneous pioneer society, presenting evidence that, from the very beginning, there were troubling divisions between Arabs and Jews, religious and secular Jews, Europeans and North Africans. Segev’s most controversial book was “The Seventh Million,” in which he wrote about the Zionist movement’s inability to help the Jews of Europe as they were being slaughtered, and the afterlife of the Holocaust as an emotionally charged issue in Israeli society. The book, which was greeted with some of the same disdain that met Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” described the Zionist pioneers’ embarrassment at the lack of widespread rebellion against the Nazis among the European Jews, and showed how survivors were received in Israel not only with relief but also, at times, with suspicion and bureaucratic indifference. Segev won few friends among the Israeli establishment when he quoted Ben-Gurion as saying in 1938, “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second—because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.”
For the Israelis, the 1967 war was a triumph of such miraculous speed and fantastic territorial consequences that its leading military commander, Moshe Dayan, quickly helped brand it “the Six-Day War”––a deliberate echo of the six days of creation in Genesis. (In the Arab world, the defeat was such a humiliation that when it was spoken of at all it was commonly referred to as an-naksah, the “setback,” an echo of al-nakba, the “catastrophe,” of 1948.) The Israeli victory changed the country in nearly every aspect. The response, both within the country and among Jews abroad, ranged from the joyful to the distinctly messianic—a messianism that helped lead to the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, and the establishment of one settlement after another. It was a war that Israelis regarded as existential in importance––defeat could well have meant the end of the state after less than twenty years––and yet winning had Pyrrhic consequences. Out of it came forty years of occupation, widespread illegal settlements, the intensification of Palestinian nationalism, terrorism, counterattacks, checkpoints, failed negotiations, uprisings, and ever-deepening distrust. What greater paradox of history: a war that must be won, a victory that results in consuming misery and instability.
How did it all happen? Why was it fought at all? Segev is far from the first historian to argue that the 1967 war resembled less the David-and-Goliath narrative popularized by romantic propagandists than a multi-sided tragic march to folly. Even Michael Oren, a historian well to the political right of Segev, does not fail, in his own valuable book, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” to account for the mistakes, miscommunications, random events, and lethal vanities on both sides.
In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Israeli society was in the doldrums. The economy was suffering a recession. The Ashkenazim, the European-born Israelis, who were the nation’s pioneer aristocrats, were seeing themselves eclipsed demographically by generally less educated and more religious Mizrahim, immigrants from North Africa and other Muslim countries. The pioneers’ socialist ethos began to decline, along with the kibbutz population. Also, the country was no longer in the hands of Ben-Gurion, the country’s first and most charismatic leader. His successor, Levi Eshkol, was a dull and windy specialist in finance and resource management, who hadn’t had a strong military career.
Although Israel had fought successfully in the muddled Suez Crisis, in 1956, by the mid-sixties it was facing a series of pressing security problems: the anti-colonial ideology of pan-Arab nationalism was at its peak. The Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, won a mass following throughout the Arab world with rousing speeches aimed at the “liberation” of Palestinian lands and the elimination of the “alien” Israeli state. Fledgling Palestinian guerrilla groups, especially Fatah, were carrying out attacks on Israeli territory mainly from bases across the border in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Jordan. In the eighteen months before the 1967 war, there were a hundred and twenty attempts at sabotage by Palestinians––bombed water pumps, land mines, skirmishes along various highways. Only eleven Israelis were killed in those incidents, a small number by today’s standards, but, Segev writes, their “psychological effect, like that of the recession, was far more profound than the tangible damage.”
In November, 1966, after three Israeli paratroopers were killed by a land mine planted near the Negev town of Arad, Eshkol ordered Operation Shredder, a retaliatory strike on a rural area in western Jordan. In the village of Samua, the Israel Defense Forces blew up a medical clinic, a school, a post office, a library, a coffee shop, and more than a hundred houses. The operation so exceeded the Cabinet’s directives that it led to an aerial battle between the two air forces and left fourteen Jordanians dead. The misjudgment was not just the excessive force; it was the decision to attack Jordan, whose king, Hussein, had been the most conciliatory of all the Arab leaders. Syria, which gave safe haven to Palestinian guerrillas and had plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River from Israel, was the clearer problem. The Israelis had played a risky cat-and-mouse game with the Syrians in the Golan Heights but had never attacked, as they had at Samua. “We meant to give the mother-in-law a pinch,” Eshkol said later, “but instead we beat up the bride.”
By the spring of 1967, tensions had begun to escalate. Soviet diplomats informed Syria and Egypt, wrongly, that Israel was about to launch a full-scale invasion of Syria, further inflaming Nasser. According to “Foxbats Over Dimona” (Yale; $26), a new book by the Israeli writers Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, the Soviet Union was so anxious about Israel’s nuclear capabilities that it did everything it could to provoke a war. At the same time, the Americans, obsessed with the catastrophic war in Vietnam, were offering little assurance of help––“Israel will not be alone unless it decides to do it alone,” Lyndon Johnson, delphically, told Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister––and Charles de Gaulle, who had supplied Israel with Mirage and Mystère fighters, the core of the Israeli Air Force, now refused support, darkly warning Eshkol against a preëmptive attack. Israel felt isolated, Egypt emboldened. Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer, Egypt’s top military official, assured Nasser that the Army was ready, if necessary, to attack Israel and win.
In the second half of May, Nasser made one provocative move after another. Although his own intelligence officers told him that Israeli troops were not massing on the Syrian border, he pressed forward. On May 16th, he told the United Nations to remove from Sinai its international forces, which had maintained the peace since the Suez Crisis. U Thant, the Secretary-General, was ineffectual in his efforts to persuade Nasser to let the troops remain and, without consulting the Security Council, acquiesced. Once the international forces left, Nasser sent his own armored divisions right up to the Israeli border. On May 22nd, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, cutting off Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Since 1957, the Israelis had said that such a blockade would be considered a casus belli, but when Israeli diplomats appealed to the United States and Great Britain for help both maintained their neutrality. On the thirtieth, Nasser signed a defense pact with King Hussein, after having declared, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.” He said that Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are “poised on the borders of Israel” and would be backed by Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, “and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. . . . The critical hour has arrived.” It was this kind of language, coming little more than two decades after the Holocaust, that allowed Menachem Begin to call Nasser “the Arab Hitler.” The Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian leaderships all made similar declarations about erasing Israel from the map.
Nevertheless, even in late May and the first few days of June the Israeli leadership continued to debate Nasser’s ultimate intentions; the military almost unanimously favored a preëmptive strike against the Arabs, but others—including Eshkol, Abba Eban, and Ben-Gurion in his retirement––cautioned against overreaction. When Nasser spoke to the Soviets, he was counselled against striking first. “Nasser did not want war,” Eban later wrote. “He wanted victory without war.” After the war, even some right-wing politicians, including Menachem Begin, admitted that the Israelis had never been sure that Nasser wanted war. “The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us,” Begin said in a speech to the Israel National Defense College. “We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
Both Segev and Oren describe in alarming detail the state of anxiety and disarray in the Israeli leadership. During the crisis, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, suffered a nervous breakdown, for which he later blamed “nicotine poisoning.” There was fear that Egypt would bomb the Dimona nuclear plant. There was fear of a two- or three-front surprise attack, of chemical gas, of radioactive weapons. The military leadership and even liberal media like Ha’aretz saw Eshkol as weak, incapable of leading the country in crisis––an impression that hardened when, on May 28th, he gave a radio address that was a stammering, confused disaster. Eshkol, who had barely slept and was trying to read his text after cataract surgery, panicked the nation even as he tried to reassure it.
Meanwhile, rabbis were consecrating parks as cemeteries, and thousands of graves were dug. In the press and within the Cabinet, there were calls for Eshkol’s resignation as Prime Minister and defense minister; Ben-Gurion was so worried about the possibility of a military coup that he issued a public warning from Sde Boker, his kibbutz in the Negev. Just four days before the war, Eshkol was forced to give up the defense portfolio to the most unpredictable figure in the country, Moshe Dayan.
Eshkol remained unsure of what to do. “Must we live by the sword forever?” he asked his generals. The government had always given the Army all it asked for, Eshkol said, but “you didn’t get all that matériel so that one day we would get up and say, Now we can destroy the Egyptian Army––so let’s do it.”
Michael Oren, who spent more time studying the Arab memoirs and available literature than Segev, places greater emphasis in his book on Nasser’s malevolent intentions, arguing that a full-scale invasion plan, Operation Dawn, was cancelled only at the last moment. He quotes this from Salah al-Hadidi, the chief justice in the trials that Egypt convened for officers held accountable for the defeat: “I can state that Egypt’s political leadership called Israel to war. It clearly provoked Israel and forced it into a confrontation.” Segev is less sympathetic toward Israel’s decision to attack first. While Eshkol was withstanding the pressure from his generals, Segev writes, he emerged as a “statesman with nerves of steel.” But, unlike Ben-Gurion, he did not have the stature to resist. “His weakness ate away at him,” Segev concludes. “He wanted to be remembered as a patriot, and at this point the public equated patriotism with war.”
The Israeli leadership ultimately justified a preëmptive attack as the only way to end an unbearable threat and, if war must come, to prevent huge casualties. Eshkol, who had for weeks resisted the pleas and imprecations of his generals and ministers, now asked, “Must we allow ourselves to be worn down and killed bit by bit, if not destroyed in a future all-out war, as promised by Nasser? Must we wait for Hannah Arendt to write articles about our failure to resist?”
On June 5th, at 7:10 A.M., Israeli fighter jets launched an early-morning air assault on Egypt’s airfields, effectively destroying Nasser’s Air Force on the ground and, in just a few hours, deciding the course of the war. On the sixth and the seventh, Israel, exploiting its dominance of the skies, shattered Egypt’s ground forces.
The six days of fighting between Israel and the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria is the most straightforward aspect of the drama. In just a hundred and thirty-two hours, Israel captured the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the holy sites and the Old City, from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria––twenty-six thousand square miles of additional territory. At first, Radio Cairo assured listeners that the Egyptians were winning great battles against the Israelis. Nasser’s deputy and eventual successor, Anwar Sadat, who knew the truth, took a nighttime walk in his Cairo neighborhood, “dazed and brokenhearted,” as he wrote in his memoirs, and saw people dancing in the streets to celebrate their “victory.” Nasser’s dream of a pan-Arab nation, of eliminating Israel, was finished. “If I had known the Army wasn’t ready,” Nasser said, “I wouldn’t have gone to war. I’m a chess player.” (Nasser and Eshkol both died within the next few years.) Egypt lost more than fifteen thousand men in the war, Israel about eight hundred. Rabin wrote in his memoirs that the Israelis easily could have taken Cairo, Amman, and Damascus.
So profound was the Israeli national delirium in the days and weeks after the war that it was impossible for most Israelis to think straight about the long-term consequences of retaining conquered territory. After being told that the state was in mortal danger, Israel was now in possession of Biblical Israel—the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, all of Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, and many other such sites scattered throughout the West Bank. Once the Old City was secured, on the third day of the war, Dayan, the most theatrical of all Israeli commanders, flew by helicopter to Jerusalem and staged his arrival in the manner of General Allenby, the British general who took Jerusalem from the Turks in 1917. “We have returned to the most holy of our places,” Dayan declared. “We have returned, never to part from them again.”
General Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the I.D.F., blew a shofar at the Western Wall and advised his commanding officer, Uzi Narkis, that now was the moment to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the mosque that sits on the Temple Mount. “Do this and you will go down in history,” Goren said. “Tomorrow might be too late.”
Narkis refused the lunatic suggestion and even threatened the rabbi with arrest. Nevertheless, the national poet, Natan Alterman, was accurate in declaring, “The people are drunk with joy.” A photograph of a weeping I.D.F. soldier at the Western Wall was published all over the world and seemed to embody the new conflation, for many Israelis, of the state and the sacred, the military and the messianic. The song “Jerusalem of Gold” displaced, for a time, the traditional anthem “Hatikvah.” In the daily Ma’ariv, the journalist Gabriel Tzifroni described the “liberation” of the capital in terms rarely used in traditional news reporting: “The Messiah came to Jerusalem yesterday—he was tired and gray, and he rode in on a tank.” When the fighting broke out, Ben-Gurion had written in his diary, “There was no need for this. I believe it is a grievous mistake.” But now Ben-Gurion was suggesting that the walls of the Old City be destroyed. Eshkol himself, posing the question of how Israel was going to rule a million Arabs, briefly considered a plan of transferring hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to Iraq and elsewhere.
Since 1949, there had been talk of “recapturing” the holy sites of the West Bank and Jerusalem––most Israeli generals still considered 1948 to be unfinished business, just as their Arab opponents did––but permanent conquest had never been, as policy, the goal of the war. Occupation was to be temporary. And then it wasn’t. Under the bizarre and often harsh leadership of Moshe Dayan––“the mysterious Cyclops of Israeli politics,” in the words of the distinguished historian and journalist Amos Elon—the Israelis thought of themselves as “enlightened occupiers,” and yet in time they resorted to many of the methods employed by the British colonials during the Mandate period: collective punishment, torture during interrogation, the demolition of Arab homes. Israel also expelled entire Arab communities and destroyed villages; around two hundred thousand Arabs fled the West Bank for Jordan. Israeli forces destroyed the villages of Beit Mirsim and Beit Awa, in the southern West Bank; nearly a third of the city of Qalqilya was razed before the U.N. and the United States demanded that Dayan stop and rebuild. In the meantime, religious Zionist leaders such as Zvi Yehudah Kook, of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, in Jerusalem, and Moshe Levinger, a founder of the Gush Emunim settler movement and the settlement in Hebron, went from being marginal dreamers to armed prophets and politicians.
The Israeli leadership could not conceive of itself as anything less than benign, and even persuaded itself that a subjugated Arab population would come to appreciate its overlords. “The situation between us,” Dayan creepily informed the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, “is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the young girl he has taken against her wishes. But when their children are born, they will see the man as their father and the woman as their mother. The initial act will mean nothing to them. You, the Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by imposing our presence upon you.”
Segev’s and Oren’s books have their limitations. Segev, by design, ignores the Arab political situation and seems reluctant to credit the Israelis with a legitimate sense of threat; Oren, a more versatile scholar, has taken great pains to read whatever Arab sources are available (most archives are closed) and is more at home with big power politics, but he tends to scant the negative aspects of victory and conquest.
The most complete book on the war’s aftermath––the “seventh day”––is the journalist Gershom Gorenberg’s riveting and deeply depressing “The Accidental Empire,” which describes how, in the decade following the war, the mainstream Labor governments of Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin either feigned ignorance of the growing settlements or blatantly encouraged them. As a result, they helped to legitimatize the settlement ideology of their right-wing successors Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon. Gorenberg makes clear that, though the Israelis at first designated the early settlements “temporary” military outposts, in order to avoid violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “the purpose of settlement, since the day in July 1967 when the first Israeli settler climbed out of a jeep in the Syrian heights, had been to create facts that would determine the final status of the land, to sculpt the political reality before negotiations ever got under way.” Here the project of revisionism was neither scholarly nor benign; the creation of “facts on the ground” was a political attempt to rewrite, with bricks and mortar, the contours of one nation at the expense of another.
In those early days of postwar euphoria, there were a few prominent Israelis who dared to warn of the moral and political degradation that would come with the occupation. The novelist Amos Oz wrote prophetically in the newspaper Davar:
But who was listening? Oz was just twenty-eight at the time. An isolated minister or intellectual might speak of “land for peace,” but the emotional tide of the country was against it. The ennui had lifted. A new kind of Zionist, one that fused faith and nationalism, replaced the old pioneers, the kibbutzniks. And, with time, the settlements became a matter of literal concrete facts; flimsy outposts were transformed into suburban bedroom communities with government subsidies and short commutes to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Forty years later, a quarter of a million Israelis live in a hundred and twenty officially recognized settlements; an additional hundred and eighty thousand live in annexed areas of East Jerusalem, and sixteen thousand in the Golan. In the years before Israel was established, settlers argued that the more land they bought or seized, the greater their security. The settlers of “Greater Israel” and their supporters, who regarded the old borders as “Auschwitz frontiers,” refused to see the peril in their policy. The worst consequence of occupation, of course, has been the terrible privations, physical isolation, and psychological disfigurement that it has imposed upon the Palestinians. For the Israelis, occupation has been, as Gorenberg describes, a grave security hazard and source of moral corrosion.
A nation’s ongoing process of assessing its past to chart its future is hardly an academic exercise. Revisionist history has played a role, but political folly on both sides has overwhelmed it in importance. The insistence on further settlement, the failures of the Palestinian leadership to respond to Israeli offers during the negotiating process at Camp David and Taba; the rise of suicide bombing, martyr worship, Islamist ideology, and internecine violence; the myriad misjudgments of the Olmert government—all have deepened the sense of hopelessness. At the moment, Palestinian support for a two-state solution has plummeted, and the settler movement is, once more, the strongest lobby in the country. The war of 1967 casts a shadow still. As the Duke of Wellington said, the only thing worse than a great victory is a great defeat