Indecision as Strategy

Adam Shatz

  • The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War by Avi Raz
    Yale, 288 pp, £25.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 17194 5

During the first 19 years of Israel’s statehood, its leaders gave little thought to the Palestinian question. Two-thirds of the Palestinians were driven out in 1948; those who remained were placed under a draconian military government and didn’t cause much trouble. Then came the Six Day War of 1967. In a pre-emptive strike launched on 5 June, Israel inflicted a devastating defeat on Nasser and his Arab allies, and vastly expanded the territory under its control, capturing the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. These were lands Israel’s leaders had long coveted: only the Sinai has since been fully restored to Arab sovereignty. But when the guns fell silent on 10 June, the Jewish state found itself responsible for 1.4 million Arabs it didn’t want. Most were Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of them refugees who had been displaced during the 1948 war. As Levi Eshkol, who was prime minister at the time, put it: ‘We won the war and received a nice dowry of territory, but along with a bride whom we don’t like.’ Israel had to decide what to do with the bride, and what to do with the dowry. The Middle East still lives in the shadow of the decisions Israel made – and those it didn’t – in the first few years of the now 45-year-old occupation.

The story of Israeli policy in the late 1960s has been told before, by Tom Segev and Gershom Gorenberg among others. But no one has provided as thorough – or as damning – an account as Avi Raz, a former reporter for Ma’ariv who has read every pertinent document in every available archive, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Bride and the Dowry is a work of meticulous scholarship, but it is also an angry book, burning with the sort of righteous (and sometimes repetitious) indignation to which native sons are particularly susceptible. It covers only the first 21 months after the 1967 war, but it tells us everything we need to know about Israeli policy during this ‘critical and formative phase’ of the occupation. It also sheds considerable light on Israeli diplomacy today: its resistance to a deal that would allow for genuine Palestinian sovereignty; its belief that the Americans will always come to Israel’s defence, however much they privately object to land grabs; and its use of protracted negotiations as a means of buying time. Raz’s book is about the conquest of time as much as it is about the conquest of territory: the fruitless peace processing of the last two decades is only the latest chapter of his story.

The road to war – and conquest – began in April 1967, with the escalation of tension on the Syrian border. A Soviet-backed regime in Damascus was sponsoring Palestinian commando attacks against Israel. Partly to teach the Syrians a lesson, partly in the hope of provoking a coup, Israel responded by carrying out reprisal raids, and by baiting Syrian troops in the demilitarised zones (DMZs) between the two countries. One tactic was to send armed tractors manned by soldiers dressed as farmers into the DMZs, in order to provoke the Syrians into firing; once they did, Israel would send in its air force to show them who ruled the skies. On 7 April this policy of ‘active defence’ sparked an air battle in which six Syrian MiGs were shot down; in a further humiliation, IDF jets flew over Damascus. On 12 May, Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff, threatened to invade Syria. An Israeli-Syrian war looked imminent.

The following day, Nasser received intelligence from the Soviets that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian border. This wasn’t true, but the Syrians played along. Though he privately resented the Syrians for dragging him into a conflict for which Egypt was utterly unprepared, Nasser felt he had to do something to prevent Israel from attacking: his leadership of the Arab world was at stake. He took three fateful steps. The first, on 14 May, was to send two divisions of the Egyptian army into the Sinai. The second, on 16 May, was to request the withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force from Sinai, a request to which the UN secretary general immediately acceded. The third and most dangerous step, on 22 May, was to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, overturning Israel’s one achievement in the Suez War of 1956. Nasser’s moves were intended to deter war, not to start one (as Israel’s military leadership and American intelligence understood), but they were reckless. His rhetoric was even more so. In a thunderous speech at an air-force base in Sinai, he declared: ‘The Jews threaten war – and we say ahlan wasahlan [welcome]. We are ready!’

Both the United States and France, Israel’s main arms supplier, urged Eshkol not to fire the first shot. Lyndon Johnson told Abba Eban, the foreign minister, that his military experts thought that if the Egyptians attacked, which was unlikely, the Israelis would ‘whip the hell out of them’. Israel, he said, ‘will not be alone unless it decides to go alone’. A number of influential politicians, including the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, believed that going to war was a mistake, particularly without American backing. But Eshkol was a weak leader, viewed with contempt by Israel’s aggressive young generals, and unable to stand his ground against the growing pressure for war. Another war with the Arabs, the generals argued, was inevitable; why not call Nasser’s bluff and fight the Arabs while they were still weak?

After giving an embarrassing, ‘stammering’ speech on radio on 28 May, Eshkol was forced to hand over the defence ministry to Moshe Dayan; on 1 June, a national unity cabinet was formed, including Dayan’s rival Yigal Allon, once commander in chief of the Palmach, and Menachem Begin of the far-right Herut party. The next day, Eshkol received word that the Americans were no longer opposed to war: the ‘yellow light’ he had been waiting for. On the morning of 5 June, Israel pulverised the Egyptian air force in a surprise attack. King Hussein entered the war later that day as part of his mutual defence pact with Nasser, and lost the Western half of his kingdom. The Golan Heights were the final conquest, seized just after Dayan read an intercepted cable from Nasser to the Syrians urging them to sign a ceasefire. ‘Do whatever can be done,’ Dayan told his troops. ‘Yesterday I did not think that Egypt and Syria (the political leadership) would collapse in this way … But since this is the situation, it must be exploited to the full. A great day.’ (Dayan later regretted the decision to take the Golan: ‘The Syrians, on the fourth day of the war, were not a threat to us.’)

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[*] The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences, edited by William Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim (Cambridge, 325 pp., £18.99, February, 978 0 521 17479 4).