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The Pyrrhic Victory of 1967

There are now two competing revisionist narratives of how the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt unfurled. The first is Michael Oren's Six-Day War, which relied heavily on Arab memoirs and state documents — scant though these may be — … Read More

By / May 21, 2007

There are now two competing revisionist narratives of how the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt unfurled. The first is Michael Oren's Six-Day War, which relied heavily on Arab memoirs and state documents — scant though these may be — and which, on the whole, came down on the side of Israeli self-defense as the casus belli. The second is Tom Segev's just-published 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. Segev is a columnist for Ha'aretz and a ranking member of the so-called "New Historians" school of Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state. His book, less reliant on the ideology of pan-Arab nationalism or post-war Arab inquests, uncovers the dark side of Moshe Dayan's sweeping victory. Here is David Remnick in an exceptional essay in the New Yorker:

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.”

The aura of messianism that engulfed Israeli patriotism after the taking of Sinai, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank gave way to what I'll call the demographic coercion of the settler movement, which was ignored or tacitly approved by every Labour cabinet as it was later vigorously encouraged by ever Likud cabinet. 

Shall we add an appendix to the Segev and Oren texts and title it "Ironies of History"?  Yitzak Rabin, who led the Israeli Air Force's swift and categoric elimination of its Egyptian counterpart in '67, thus facilitating the project of Israeli expansion, was shot by a "Greater Israel" nutbag as he (Rabin) brokered for peace with Arafat. Meanwhile, the "Bulldozer" to Gush Emunim's brick-layers entered a coma shortly after engineering the first withdrawal of the settlements he'd once unequivocally supported.

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