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?

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