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"1967: Vehaaretz sheenta et paneha" ("1967: And the Country Changed its Face") by Tom Segev, Keter Books, 710 pages, NIS 98

A few weeks before his death in 1904, Theodor Herzl wrote to his successor as the leader of the Zionist movement, David Wolfson, urging him not to do anything foolish when he was gone. Herzl was being ironic, of course, but the reason I mention this comment is that of all the nationalist movements of the 19th century, Zionism seems to have been the strangest and most complex. The goal was to establish a colony on the other side of the ocean, without a mother country, without the support of any superpower, and without a great deal of money ("My most guarded secret is that I lead an army of schnorrers possessing a dream," wrote Herzl).

Despite all the serious obstacles in their path, Herzl's heirs - Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion (at least until his resignation) - did incredibly few things that could be described as foolish. They were sober men, experienced in the ways of the world and extremely cautious. They did not take needless risks. They understood they were at the helm of a unique enterprise that in a certain respect ran contrary to global trends, and they wracked their brains to come up with ideas for compromises, complicated binational projects and painful partition plans.

In 1948, true to his principles, Ben-Gurion stood firm in the face of the heavy pressure exerted on him by his young generals to conquer the whole of the West Bank, although militarily it was possible. Ben-Gurion said no because he and King Abdullah had an agreement, and there was even a draft peace treaty with their initials on it. He preferred legitimacy to territory, even if that territory included the Western Wall and other historical and holy sites.

In the end, nothing came of this because King Abdullah was assassinated. Nevertheless, it was an important decision, in the spirit of some of the wiser statesmen of the 19th century - calling to mind Mazzini's decision to cede Savoy and Nice, which was then a largely Italian city and the birthplace of Garibaldi, in order to secure French support for Italian independence.

The 1967 war, soon given the inauspicious name "Six-Day War," conjuring up the six days of creation - was the great turning point. Today we know that Israel's triumph was a Pyrrhic victory. Tom Segev's new book makes that more clear than anything written on the subject until today. For the first time, Israel had enough territory to trade for peace, but it passed up an opportunity to sign a treaty with Jordan just a few months after the war.

The reasons for this tragic error were structural, political and ideological. On top of that, there was no leadership. It was not so much a dearth of "great leaders" (great leaders have a way of leading countries into great wars), but of enlightened leadership with a sense of history and an appreciation of what is liable to happen to a country that expands beyond its natural proportions, especially demographically.

Ben-Gurion - a political dinosaur left over from an earlier era - was the one senior statesman who understood right away that Israel had conquered a hornets' nest. He urged the government to withdraw, even unilaterally if need be, from all the occupied territories apart from Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. But Ben-Gurion was an old man. He was not always consistent in his thinking and he was prey to violent mood swings. The "Young Turks" he cultivated - Moshe Dayan, Yithak Rabin, Shimon Peres and others - did not heed his advice. The prime minister in those days, Levi Eshkol, was a broken-spirited, tired, humiliated man who basically had his wings clipped. In consequence, the Six-Day War only led to another war, even more terrible, with an ever greater toll in human life.

Incredible intimacy

Tom Segev documents this historic tragedy - brilliantly and authoritatively - as no one has before. Combining keen political awareness and understanding of human foibles, and weaving together political, social and cultural history, he paints a vibrant picture of Israel in 1967. The book reads like a chapter from Barbara Tuchman's "March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam." Tuchman defines folly as "the pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest."

This is a long book, but it is hard to put down. It is not a raging broadside, but the work of a serious historian who says what he has to say without raising his voice, basing himself on sources in Israel and the United States never published before. His chief sources are records recently opened to the public in the Israel State Archives, including official protocols of government meetings before, during and after the war; the personal papers of Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Lyndon Johnson; and the files of Yaakov Herzog, then director general of the Prime Minister's Office. Herzog's files are particularly important because he was a politically independent civil servant and a shrewd observer, who filed away every scrap of paper that landed on the government's desk.

Segev's probe has turned up material that attests to an incredible intimacy between Israel and the White House during and after the war. Such a relationship was obviously a great help to Israel, although President Lyndon Johnson strenuously objected to it. "It was almost idyllic," writes Segev, thanks, in large measure, to such powerful and influential Jews as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg; two key figures in the Democratic party - industrialist Abe Feinberg and Washington attorney David Ginsberg; and Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, who enjoyed free access to Johnson and often used it to promote Israel's interests. The president himself was anxious to gain the support of American Jewry for the war he was waging in Vietnam.

Segev adds a little glamour and romance to the relationship with his disclosure that President Johnson had a beautiful Israeli girlfriend - a Weizmann Institute scientist who married the Hollywood producer Arthur Krim. Mathilda Krim was a frequent guest at the residential wing on the third floor of the White House, with or without her husband. There is no question that she goaded Johnson into supporting Israel, and she seems to have done so, writes Segev, in coordination with the Israeli embassy.

According to historian William Quant, only two people could say they spent more time on the phone with President Johnson than Mathilda: secretary of state Dean Rusk and secretary of defense Robert McNamara. On the day the Six-Day War broke out, there Krim was again, sleeping over at the White House, in Room 303. At 6 A.M. in the morning, there was a loud knock on her door. She opened it in her nightgown and there was Johnson, visibly agitated, with the news that the war had started. What they said to each other next is anyone's guess. Segev, interviewing Krim for the book, asked her if she and Johnson had been romantically involved. She denied it, but added that it wasn't the first time she had heard that question.

`Bubble of insanity'

The grim atmosphere during the months leading up to the war, as the economic situation worsened, unemployment soared, large numbers of people left the country and the public became wildly mistrustful of Eshkol, locked Israel in a kind of "bubble of insanity," Segev writes. The sudden victory in June created a new kind of insanity: a blend of bravado and arrogance. Segev illustrates the sharp contrast - something akin to a collective attack of manic-depressive disorder - with two jokes that were very popular at the time. Before the war, there was talk of a sign posted at the airport requesting the last person to leave the country to turn out the lights. After the war, the joke making the rounds was about two Israel Defense Forces officers planning their day. One of them says: "Let's take over Cairo." To which the friend replies: "So what should we do in the afternoon?"

After the war, Dayan made his famous remark about waiting for a phone call from the Arabs. The editor of the German weekly Der Spiegel asked him what would happen if King Hussein lacked the political strength to sign a treaty with Israel. In that case, quipped Dayan, the Jordanians should look for a new king. The truth, as documented in this book, is that three weeks after the war, King Hussein of Jordan did call, and more than once. A year after the war, Israel claimed no Arab country had come forward with any offer. In fact, Hussein offered peace, and Nasser was willing to settle for non-belligerence.

Abba Eban, who infuriated Dayan with his demand that Israel behave like a "magnanimous victor," was anxious to meet Hussein, but the government sent Yaakov Herzog instead. A meeting was held in London, as Hussein had requested, but jokes and historiosophical speculations were all that came of it. Hussein did not feel committed to the famous "three noes" of Khartoum - no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel - and was not averse to signing a separate peace treaty. But Israel's emergency government was paralyzed for months by internal disputes, and could not tell Hussein what its plans were for the West Bank. Israel poked fun at Hussein, calling him "Husi," and "the little king."

Eshkol, possibly trying to shed the image he had acquired before the war of being timid and indecisive, a man who couldn't even decide if he wanted coffee or tea, now adopted a tough, uncompromising stance - no less so than Menachem Begin, leader of the Herut party - on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. True to type, he would say "I've got a hankering to hang on to Gaza, maybe because of Samson and Delilah," or "Let's send all the Arabs in Gaza to Iraq." He comes out pretty badly in the book. "He had no idea what to do, and there was hardly anyone he could consult with," writes Segev. At a certain point, Eshkol admitted it himself: "Maybe I'll start showing my fangs. I don't know what I want."

When Hussein met later on with Abba Eban, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, exchanging gifts like rare books and the latest automatic rifles, the talks always blew up over the issue of East Jerusalem, even though Hussein offered Israel the whole area around the Western Wall.

Rightward push

Segev quotes Palestinian mayors and local dignitaries who met with IDF officers and the Shin Bet security service and proposed establishing a Palestinian state dispersed over the West Bank, which would make peace separately with Israel. This possibility was never discussed in government meetings. In any case, it would have been vetoed immediately - not only by Begin, but also by the omnipotent Dayan. The unending power struggles between Allon and Dayan pushed the entire government further and further rightward, making political progress impossible.

Allon spoke vaguely about some kind of Palestinian autonomy, but the government was soon implementing the so-called Allon Plan, for steady expansion that would have left the Palestinians only a few enclaves on the hilltops. Dayan's plans were less defined, but in practice, they were much more radical. His diaries, Segev writes, projected a "romantic, patronizing, almost colonial, approach." Dayan was convinced that Israel could maintain control of the West Bank and Gaza forever, as long as the Palestinians were treated humanely. The question that remains is how a person, who saw with his own eyes how a million American soldiers in Vietnam could not suppress a popular uprising, thought Israel could do better in the Gaza Strip.

Israel settled comfortably into its role as an occupier in 1967, and amazingly, there was very little talk about what we today call "demography." The minister of education, Zalman Aran, was one of the few people who said: "I'm telling you, we don't need the West Bank. It will bring more trouble than good ... It's going to choke us." Finance minister Pinhas Sapir sounded a warning: "Getting ourselves a state was hard, but losing it is easy." Mordechai Bentov, the minister of development, said: "Rather than building new settlements for the Jews in the West Bank, we should be helping the Gaza refugees rebuild their lives."

But these men did not stand up for their views. They did not resign in protest or fight against what they believed would end in tragedy. Dayan opposed any effort to solve the problems of the Palestinian refugees. "Their place is with Hussein," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, they can all move to Transjordan."

The character of the future occupation government, which exists to this day, leaps out at us from the government documents quoted in this important book. The foundations for everything that is happening in Israel today were laid back then, in 1967.

Amos Elon is the author of "The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933" published by Picador.