Orchestrated Panic

Yitzhak Laor

  • 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East by Tom Segev, translated by Jessica Cohen
    Little, Brown, 673 pp, £25.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 316 72478 4

The 1967 war changed the lives of Israelis and made Palestinian lives hell. Shortly after it, Israel’s Labour prime minister, Levi Eshkol, a relative moderate, approved the colonisation of the West Bank. The Labour Party never really opposed the process, though for years it seemed to have its doubts. That way of carrying on – appearing indecisive, sounding hesitant, while acting decisively, even aggressively – is a key component of Israeli politics. Eshkol tended to be scornful about the process he’d set in motion. In his favourite language, Yiddish, he said that Israel was thought of as a ‘nebichdike Shimsen’ (‘pitiful Samson’). For years the Israeli soldier has been depicted this way, as a conscience-stricken man who doesn’t really want to become a hero but has no choice.

Since 1967 Labour men and women in various parts of the state apparatus, from the military to the Jewish Agency, have done everything in their power to tighten Israel’s hold over the Occupied Territories, even when it meant creating a golem in the new guise of the settler. The ‘project’ was a success and lies today like a knife at the throat of all Israelis. It would be easy to characterise the behaviour of Israeli politicians and generals as uniquely foolish, fuelled by a lust for land that was always greater than the country’s ability to swallow the chunks they grabbed. Yet Israelis – from the generals and politicians of all parties down to the ‘man in the street’ – seem driven by the conviction that the more land we have the better off we are. Any ‘concession’ we make, even if it’s a few acres, seems to be an act of great magnanimity, as if the acres had belonged to us in the first place. Such is the settler morality.

In his excellent book, which reads like a Bildungsroman of a generation that lost its soul, Tom Segev accurately depicts Israel’s 1967 politicians and generals as irrational, aggressive and hungry for power. His research took in an immense quantity of minutes from contemporary meetings and even he seems disappointed at what he discovered. There are numerous examples of the generals’ push for land appropriation. Moshe Dayan, minister of defence during the war, ruled out ‘occupation of the Golan Heights, including the Banias, for fear of a Soviet response. Political considerations also motivated him not to approach the Suez Canal.’ But as everyone knows, the IDF did reach the Suez Canal and it occupied the Golan Heights. Was it the army’s innate inability to follow orders that drove the generals to take decisions and change their plans while running down the enemy? The fame of the IDF is based on precisely such a macho glorification of tactics at the expense of strategy. It’s known in the jargon as a ‘rolling operation’. To defend our country by preventing wars has been seen as inconceivable; there has only ever been the thought of rumbling across borders, as in the recent fiasco in Lebanon.

The hunger for territory goes hand in hand with the attempt to empty that territory of its inhabitants. Ever since it captured Gaza, Israel has been trying to drive its residents to emigrate. Segev has found some stunning evidence of this. ‘I want them all to go, even if they go to the moon,’ Eshkol told Ada Sereni, whom he had appointed head of a committee briefed to rid Gaza of its Palestinians. The West’s shocked reponse to Hamas’s ascendancy is a result of its refusal to see Israel’s policy for what it is: an attempt to seize the maximum amount of land while inheriting the minimum number of Palestinians.

There were times when the politicians even outdid the generals. In November 1966, less than a year before the war, the IDF carried out a ‘retaliation operation’ in the West Bank village of Samua, a few kilometres south of Hebron. They ordered the inhabitants out, blew up dozens of houses and killed more civilians than they were at first willing to admit. Palestinians in Jordan demonstrated; inside Israel a sense of shame vied with pride in the army’s courage. Soon afterwards, intelligence officials met in secret to discuss Israeli interests in the West Bank. Taking part were high-level figures in Mossad, military intelligence and the Foreign Ministry (which runs its own intelligence). All agreed that occupying the West Bank would be a mistake. When the time came for Eshkol to make the decision, in 1967, the conclusion of this secret meeting was common knowledge among the military. The prime minister knew it too, and understood that taking control of the West Bank would mean placing a million Palestinians under Israeli rule. Surely it would have been better, as the intelligence men had concluded, to allow King Hussein to continue integrating Palestinians in Jordan, thus eroding Palestinian identity?

There was not a single area, during the 1967 war, in which the military behaved in a way that was consistent with its earlier analysis. Some might call this evidence of pragmatism, but a long look at where we are now and a careful reading of Segev’s book will be enough to show the result of the impulsive Weltanschauung of our military. Junior commanders have always been encouraged to act without full or explicit orders and been praised for not ‘going by the book’. This may have allowed field commanders ‘to be creative’, but it also distorted the relationship between the army and the political leadership of the state. The example of the Golan Heights, occupied although Dayan and the government had decided not to do so, is typical. How did the army ‘convince’ the political leadership to endorse its faits accomplis?

Segev writes that when the air force bombed the Golan Heights on 8 June 1967, Yitzhak Rabin, who was then the army chief of staff, ‘claimed it was an “error”. The Syrians bombed several Israeli communities in response, and Eshkol authorised the evacuation of children from the region. Elazar’ – the general in charge of the northern command – ‘and his men pushed kibbutz members in the Galilee to exert pressure on the government to take the Golan.’ A study conducted by the IDF, and published as a book in 1999, provides a chronology of the occupation of the Golan, and details the subterfuge that the officers used. The book reveals that the army had an official expression for its behaviour: mitzuy ishur, which means ‘eliciting authorisation’. In an interview late in his life, Dayan described Israel’s tactics against Syria as constant ‘provocation’. Needless to say, Dayan himself had become a hero in the 1950s for acting in exactly this way.

A similar pattern of behaviour obtains in the relationship between Israel and the US. Israel has always acted ‘on behalf of American interests’, conveniently assuming that the Americans would endorse what it was doing, even when there was no green light from Washington. In other words, Israel used the same policy of ‘eliciting authorisation’ when it came to dealings with its superpower patron. In my view this is a crucial aspect of Israeli military history and the close connection between the two lethal war machines in the Middle East should be seen in the light of that model. The political drama of May 1967 inside Israel didn’t centre on the dangers of the coming war. ‘What do the Americans want?’ and ‘can we go to war despite the Americans?’: these were the questions that mattered – which also implied that the Americans would endorse almost anything after the event, provided it involved the defeat of Nasser.

In Segev’s view a series of misjudgments provoked the war. Rabin and his generals didn’t think Nasser would react to the Israeli strikes against Syria in April, when the air force inflicted a humiliating defeat on its Syrian counterpart. (Israel shot down six Syrian MiGs.) Although he did not shy away from brinkmanship (massing troops, expelling UN peacekeepers from the Sinai, closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping), Nasser didn’t think that Israel would go to war or, if it did, that the Arab armies would be so swiftly defeated. Segev writes about the importance Israel attached to what it called ‘public opinion’ and the major role this played in the war. It is quite clear that Israeli atrocities benefited from excellent PR and this was not only thanks to American Jews, though they have played their part in the daily oppression of the Palestinian people. One has to understand 1967 as the return of the ‘colonial’, though it took Western societies years to arrive at this proper description of the occupation. On the eve of the 1967 war public opinion in Israel, like public opinion in the West, was shaped by the belief that the country was facing annihilation. That theme of imminent danger to our very existence – a ‘second Holocaust’, the generals warned the cabinet (although many of them knew better and would later describe 1967 as a ‘war of choice’) – became the chosen means of ensuring public opinion supported Israel.

Eleven days before the 1967 war, the Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, visited Washington, in an attempt to broker a deal with President Johnson and to ascertain what exactly the Americans wanted. In Washington he received a telegram from Tel Aviv, most likely written by Rabin, describing the military situation as nearing catastrophe. Years later, Eban wrote in his memoirs: ‘I found it difficult to comprehend how such a radical change could have occurred in our military situation since I heard the reports from our generals in Tel Aviv.’ (This sentence appeared only in the Hebrew edition of Eban’s book.) The point here is surely that Israeli generals were not panicked so much as determined to induce panic, and that Rabin caved in because he was gambling, and the stakes were too high. It was not true, even for a moment, that the Egyptian army in May 1967 posed a real threat to Israel. It was not even stationed on Israel’s borders: its massive forces encountered defeat deep in the Sinai.

Anyone who knew the details, including the CIA in Tel Aviv and the general staff of Israel, knew that Israel was not facing a ‘second Holocaust’, as the press, nourished by the military’s psychological operations, warned. Segev gives a careful description of this dynamic. The Israeli military undoubtedly faced real dangers; even so, a very small group of individuals floated an exaggerated, cataclysmic scenario for the benefit of ‘public opinion’ in the West and at home, a key part of Israel’s strategy to this day. When General Israel Tal led his forces into the Sinai desert, he published an order of the day:

Today we shall go forth to crush the hand that reached out to strangle us. This is a battle that the enemy wanted and the enemy began. We will strike the enemy twice as hard as he hit us . . . For the third time the Egyptian dagger has been brandished at us. For the third time the enemy has erred in its mad delusion of seeing Israel brought to its knees. With blood, fire and iron, this time we shall purge this intention from their hearts.

It sounds insane (the ‘second’ time the Egyptians are supposed to have threatened Israel was in 1956), but it is still part of the Israeli credo, which is why it is so important to know that it was Amos Oz who wrote that text for General Tal. Our truths lie beyond the facts; they are always rapidly subsumed in fiction and mythology.

It was not only Israelis who succumbed to the orchestrated panic. ‘The Israeli Embassy in Washington,’ Segev writes, ‘had already begun to implement instructions from Jerusalem: “Create a public atmosphere that will constitute pressure on the administration in the direction of obtaining our desired goals, without it being explicitly clear that we are behind this public campaign.”’ The manipulation of opinion in 1967 was so successful that it generated waves of sympathy for Israel, even among audiences that one would have expected to be far more critical – the left in France, the Italian Communist Party. Most important was the change within American Jewry, which became blindly, callously pro-Israel only after this war. Before 1967, Immanuel Wallerstein writes in the Hebrew journal Mita’am, ‘the Zionists presented the state of Israel not only as the historic resurrection of a Jewish state, but as an anti-colonial achievement and a model of democratic socialism, embodied in the kibbutzim.’ After 1967, however, ‘the kibbutzim disappeared from the discourse – both because they were no longer thriving and because they were too “socialist”. Two new themes emerged. One of them was the Holocaust, a subject little talked about before 1967. Making the Holocaust a central part of Jewish, and of non-Jewish, memory became a paramount effort of American Jews.’

Segev is writing about a war that was part of his own life and he presents it as the story of a particular generation, and of individuals within that generation. There is much attention to the anxieties of Israelis at the time:

The existential anxiety that gripped Israelis when the crisis erupted was real. Someone no doubt organised citizens to send care packages to soldiers, perhaps to unite the people around their army, but there is no reason to assume that anyone solicited the letter written by a woman who sent a package of goods to the soldier Arnon David Grabow. She told him she had been in Auschwitz, where her husband and four children were murdered.

In Segev’s world of facts and common sense, ‘soliciting’ is what happens when an officer or commissar-figure knocks on an old lady’s door and entreats her to write a painful letter to an unknown soldier because a second Holocaust is imminent unless people like her remind the nation of its past. But Segev should know better. After all, he was the one who first wrote about the construction and abuse of Holocaust memory in Israel. Incidents such as the note to Grabow were carefully set up, ‘solicited’, if you like.

Given that there was no Egyptian plan to attack Israel, what was the real danger the Israeli general staff saw in the Sinai peninsula in May 1967? Quartermaster General Matityahu Peled, later one of the leaders of the pro-Palestinian left, thought Israel had to go on the attack because, in Segev’s words, ‘there was no possibility of extending the reserve call-up much longer, which meant that Israel would soon face the Egyptians with a smaller army lacking response capabilities.’ Twenty-five years later, when I was working on a novel about the war, I asked Peled how many soldiers and tanks there were on either side of the border. He gave me the figures and repeated what he had said in a dramatic meeting between the prime minister and the general staff a week before the war: that Israel couldn’t call up tens of thousands of soldiers and keep them in a state of readiness without courting economic ruin. The real top secret of Israel’s security is the limited number of days it can remain on general alert.

But then one has to ask why Israel had to call up its reserve forces when Egypt mobilised its army in the Sinai peninsula, miles from the border? Segev notes that Israel had seen no need to respond to similar manoeuvres a few months earlier. Was Nasser’s rhetoric the new element that precipitated war? Perhaps. Were Israel’s warnings to Syria, especially Rabin’s warning, some nine months before the war, that Israel would bring down Syria’s new regime, part of a self-fulfilling logic? Were words, on both sides, the real protagonists?

The attitude of the Israeli security elite to Egyptian military movements always went hand in hand with the question ‘do they recognise our superiority?’ – which is, of course, a question about deterrence, from the beginning a component of Israeli strategy. Rabin and his generals believed that in May 1967 Israel had lost its deterrence capability. When the general staff predicted at the beginning of the year that there was no chance of war in the region until 1970, it had based its assumption both on the incapacity of Arab states to wage a war, and on the extent of Arab fear. Once deterrence seemed to have failed – once Nasser had done what Israel didn’t want him to do – the whole concept fell apart and a war erupted. Military analysis should always be informed by a proper understanding of the other side, but the quotations from closed meetings that Segev has unearthed prove not only that the generals were more obtuse than we had thought them, but that they had a profound contempt for the Arabs. This is the context in which one must understand Israel’s ‘deterrence theory’.

Thus, for example, after the massive operation in Samua in November 1966, General Uzi Narkis told the prime minister that it was necessary to strike yet again because ‘we are dealing with the Arabs, and the Arabs, mentally, for the most part, what characterises them is that when they get hit, they retreat.’ When the secular general had to corroborate his ‘thesis’ with facts, he had a stab at quoting from the Old Testament: ‘Let’s say, during the Prophets’ – he must have meant Judges – ‘that the People of Israel had trouble. They struck a blow against their enemy, and everything was quiet for forty years . . . In modern times, two weeks is like forty years. The Arabs, when they get hit – they calm down for a while.’ Less than six months later, Narkis was charged with the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel’s military elite has always been racist. Part of the reason for the colossal failures of our huge army since 1967 is its colonialist inability to see the burning motivation of the other side. (It’s interesting that the only former general to become active on the pro-Palestinian left, General Peled, became a professor of Arabic literature.)

A few weeks before the war began, Israel suddenly found itself unable to decipher a Middle East in which it had been playing with fire – and inflammatory rhetoric – for several months. No wonder Rabin broke down in the middle of the crisis. For years this was just a rumour. The semi-official version was nicotine poisoning: he was a heavy smoker, and it later transpired that he was fond of Scotch, which was unusual among his generation in Israel. ‘Rabin,’ Segev writes, ‘shared the opinion that the IDF’s job was to deter the Arabs so that there would not be a war. He knew that he bore a significant part of the responsibility for the deterrence failures that, in his view, necessitated immediate war.’

The Middle East theatre was not entirely under the control of the regional players who gathered information about their enemies and informed their superiors on the risks and chances of war. The role of the superpowers in misinforming the protagonists has been the focus of several studies on the background of the war. Segev tends to agree with those Israeli analysts who believe that the Soviets misinformed the Egyptians about the Israeli intention to strike Syria. However, he also meticulously describes the events that preceded that Soviet assessment, and the growing tension between Syria’s new Baath regime and other players. It is more than surprising to read what an Israeli diplomat based in London wrote in December 1966:

I was struck by the way the British ambassador to Israel [Michael Hadow] practically encouraged us openly to strike against the Syrians . . . To my knowledge, Hadow moved among various circles in Israel offering encouragement in this direction. Today we are witnessing a confrontation between IPC [the Iraq Petroleum Company] and Syria. Is it conceivable, then, that Hadow’s campaign was connected with British oil interests, whereby a destructive Israeli blow against Syria would have brought down the radical regime and prevented the current crisis? It may sound absurd, but is it, perhaps, not that absurd?

Before 1967, and long afterwards, the aim of the Israeli military was to deter the Arabs, to ‘improve positions’ (military jargon for minor territorial changes) within the balance of the Cold War and to try to win the support of the Americans. In one of his many books, the former head of both the Mossad and the Shin Bet during the 1950s, Isser Harel (‘Little Isser’), describes in detail the way Israeli intelligence supplied the CIA with information about the Soviet Union. Immigrants from the Communist bloc were interrogated, and any detail about life in the USSR was handed to the Americans. The goal was always the same: to prove to the Americans that we were a very valuable client state, much more useful than any of the Arab countries. For years, it was the intelligence community that had the deepest connection with the American defence establishment. When it all boiled down, by the end of May 1967, to the question of what the Americans really wanted Israel to do, or how they were going to react if Israel attacked, Israel sent the head of Mossad, Meir Amit, to Washington; this was after the visit of Abba Eban, who opposed the war and had failed to bring the ‘right’ answers home. Segev says that Eban lied to the cabinet and to the general staff – it seems that during those three weeks everyone lied to everyone else.

Amit’s trip to Washington signalled that the military establishment had decided to take charge of Israeli diplomacy. The head of military intelligence, Aharon Yariv, sent Amit in order to find out, through intelligence channels, what the Americans would actually do if Israel attacked Egypt. Amit’s achievement is indisputable: it was thanks to his connections that Israel got the green light to go to war. ‘The first person Amit met there was James Jesus Angelton, the head of counterespionage in the CIA. He was a controversial figure, obsessed by the belief that the USSR was the source of all evil in the world.’ ‘In his imagination,’ Amit later wrote, ‘everything that happened, every event, every incident was tinted by his suspicion and was somehow connected to his theory.’ Though his colleagues mocked Angelton, Amit liked him, and it is to this moment that one may trace the affection between today’s lunatics in the Pentagon and those in the Israeli establishment: ‘Angelton was an extraordinary asset for us. We could not have found ourselves a better advocate.’

Amit’s visit to Washington appears as a sort of deus ex machina in the story as Segev recounts it, probably as a consequence of the lack of material about the earlier relationship between Israel and the US. In fact the visit came after years of careful co-operation, during which official US policy was quite restrained, although beneath the surface Israel was already seen as a ‘military asset’. Amit went on to see Richard Helms, head of the CIA. Not only did Helms introduce him to senior figures in the CIA, but he set up a meeting between Amit and Robert McNamara, then the defense secretary:

McNamara found Amit’s arguments persuasive, and he conveyed them to Johnson the same evening. The president understood that Israel was going to act; he set up a special task force to handle the situation, headed by McGeorge Bundy. Jim Angelton was enthusiastic: for the first time in the history of the Middle East, there was the possibility of solving the region’s problems, making it less vulnerable to intrigue and extortion, safer for capital investment and development . . . Helms had made sure Israel’s positions were reflected in the CIA’s recommendations to the president.

How convincing is this sort of Hollywood narrative, turning on personal meetings that determine historical events? It isn’t entirely clear.

The book mourns the loss of good old Israel, though Segev knows it was not that good; he knows too that it was young and full of flaws. He continues at length, and in detail, into the second half of 1967, with the war won and the colonial enterprise expanding. The second half of that year has never really come to an end.