Haaretz journalist Tom Segev's book, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, is, as, one reviewer noted, "a doorstopper." At over 600 pages, it is a monumental cultural and military history of a transformational moment both for Israel and the region. Recently published in English to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the June 1967 Six Day War, the book should become the definitive telling not only of the war itself from an Israeli point of view, but of the time leading up to it and the consequences that resulted.
Segev, one of Israel's most respected journalists, had access not only to newly de-classified documents, but to surviving family members of some of the key players at the time, including the widow of Levi Eshkol. (Eshkol was Prime Minister during the war.) Born in Jerusalem in 1945 (his father was killed in Israel's War of Independence in 1948), Segev has a feel for Israeli society unparalleled by any other Israeli writer translated into English today. This book is as much about a society in crisis as it is about the war itself. To that end, the chapters on 1966, comprising nearly half the book, are as important to understanding what happened in 1967 as are the chapters on the aftermath. It all leads us to both the stalemate that exists today between Israel and the Palestinians and the one dividing Israelis against themselves.
"This book is not about the war," Segev told me when I interviewed him recently. "Military history is actually very boring. This is about putting the war in context, before the war and after the war." And, indeed, that's what he does. The book delves into the psyche of the Israeli public, the tensions between the military and the political leadership that emerged, and the deep sense of despair that had gripped the Israeli public prior to the war .
After its founding from the ashes of the Holocaust nineteen years earlier and the subsequent larger-than-life reign of David Ben Gurion as Prime Minister, Israeli society was unsettled. Levi Eshkol, a decent man and head of the Labor Party government, was nonetheless widely considered indecisive and weak. Tension was growing between his government, represented by an Eastern European refugee class, and a military leadership that, with men like Yitzhak Rabin (chief of staff) and Ezer Weizman (his deputy), represented the newly-born Israeli Sabras, known for their brashness and impatience. Meanwhile, the country was, structurally, moving from scarcity and socialism to capitalism and consumption. While there was, remarkably, still no television (it finally arrived with a state-run channel established immediately after the 1967 war), there were big cars, cafes spread throughout Tel Aviv especially, and the widespread self-conception among citizens that Israel was a piece of Europe in the Middle East.
Yet Israelis also felt a constant fear for the country's survival, harbored still-raw memories of the Holocaust, and sensed that the war of 1948 had left a lot of unfinished business, especially regarding the city of Jerusalem (which was divided between Israel and Jordan). Meanwhile, the Ashkenazim, as the East European Jews were called, were about to be supplanted in the majority by the Mizrachim, Jews from North Africa and Arab countries, most of whom had arrived in Israel in the 1950s, and the majority of whom were less educated than their Ashkenazi counterparts and treated poorly in the integration process by Israeli leaders. The economy began to slide into a recession in the mid-1960s, and that added to the dynamic: Just prior to the war, the Israeli public had devolved into a communal deep funk.
Meanwhile, in 1965, the Palestinian movement, still a blip on the radar, had started to hit Israel with acts of terror, "small simple acts … a bomb here, there," as Segev describes it to me. Still, "a country can't live with that. So, the country turns to the army. The army doesn't have any answers -- just like today -- because an army doesn't have an answer to terrorism."
Historians disagree about the final moments leading up to the war -- could the superpowers have halted it? Was Egypt really going to strike? Did its closure of the Straits of Tiran foretell more to come? And what about Syria and Jordan? Segev's point -- a critical one, I think -- is that no matter what the situation actually was inside Egypt, Israelis felt certain that they were on the brink of extinction. "War with Egypt was inevitable," he claims. "There is no doubt that the Israelis expected a second Holocaust. I collected 500 letters, mothers to daughters and more, [saying as much.] Rabbis in Tel Aviv were sanctifying football fields because they thought they might have to bury hundreds of bodies. Egyptians don't have a national archives, so we don't know what they really wanted." There are the memoirs written by Egyptian generals, Segev notes, but then adds, "I don't trust Israeli generals, so why should I trust Egyptian generals?". At any rate, what Egyptions really intended is "not the point. It's what Israel thought. "
Segev, does, however, make a critical distinction between Israel's strike at Egypt, which destroyed the Egyptian air force in a matter of hours, and its attack on Jordan and Syria, and especially its capture of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Unlike Egypt, Jordan in particular posed no existential threat to Israel whatsoever. And, of course, the capture of the territories would lead to a historical development that came to pose a different kind of threat to Israel, one that lives on today: the Palestinian occupation. He describes in detail a meeting in Israel that took place six months before the war involving the head of Mossad, army intelligence, and the country's political leadership. The intelligence officials argued that it was not in Israel's interest to take the West Bank, given the Palestinian population there; rather, Israel should let King Hussein hold on to the territory and the Palestinians. "But on the morning of June 5, all reason is forgotten," he laments.
As Segev describes it, the repercussions of 1967 linger forty years later. "When we said Arabs before 1967, we meant Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, maybe Iraq, We had no idea there were Palestinians; we didn't consider them even enemies," he says, recalling the complexities of the Palestinian refugee situation. "Once a year you would hear about them as a subject taken up at the UN."
Israel still lives with the consequences of the war. Segev ranks Israel's subsequent dependence on U.S. patronage and support as one of the major consequences, and lists others: "The social implications of the war are that Israelis became much more Jewish. The days of the mythological Sabra is really over. The Palestinians came to work [as manual laborers]. which was good for the underdogs who, until then, were the Mizrachim and Arabs living inside Israel. The Mizrachim's man, Menachem Begin [the right-wing leader of the Likud], was taken into the government and within ten years, he is Prime Minister as a result of the increased power of the Mizrachim. The economic situation is improved. Euphoria [at victory] brought a tremendous, unbelievable sense of power, which of course led to the Yom Kippur War, when the sense of powerlessness begins again."
That sense of powerlessness did not mean, of course, that Israel came to a decision about ending the occupation. "The world didn't tell us to give back the territories, and we invented this notion that we would give it back for peace, that it was temporary," says Segev. "The year 1967 is not over. It is still with us today."