Tom Segev Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Israel and the 1967 War: Conversation with Tom Segev, Columnist, Haaretz; March 22, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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The War Begins

Let's talk now about the steps leading to war. You mentioned the emerging problem of terrorism, and those problems were coming -- the terrorists were slipping over the Syrian border, as I understand it. When the war happens, as you say in the book, it's really three wars, a war with Syria, a war with Egypt, and a war with Jordan. But the focus was on the threat from Syria.

Yes, it starts with tension along the border with Syria; there are three elements to it. One is water, which was more or less resolved. One is land; the question is who actually owns the land, where is the demarcation line. There's a very, very legally complicated problem of demilitarized territory, who owns it, who can work it, and so on. And the major problem is terrorism. The Palestinians have grown up; a new generation of Palestinians is on the stage, and they want revenge for their nakba, for their catastrophe of 1948. So, they infiltrate Israel through Syria because Syria supports them. Now it's very interesting when you see the discussions at the headquarters of the army, general command of the army, how the army really doesn't have an answer to terrorism. The only answer the army has is to strike at Syria, and so they prepare striking at Syria, they make warning statements, some threatening statements against Syria, so tension rises along the Syrian border. And on April 7 of 1967, Israelis downed six Syrian planes, and one of them very close to Damascus, and at that point the rest of the Arab world could not stand idly by without doing something. This is when Egypt moves military forces into the Sinai in order to deter Israel, restrain Israel, prevent Israel from striking at Syria.

And Egypt then also asks for the UN to move ...

In the next stage, the Egyptians ask the UN to leave. Secretary-General of the UN U Thant immediately agrees to that, which was, of course, a major mistake, he may have prevented the war from happening. The third stage is when President Nasser of Egypt announces that the waterway to Elat, Israel's southern town, will be closed. He then forms a military alliance with Jordan, and that's when Israelis really, really get panicked. It's about panic. But you really need to distinguish between these three wars. This is the international background. It has been written before, and it has been documented before.

The war with Egypt at that point is inevitable, but not for the diplomatic background, because there were lots of ideas, you can do this, you can do that, you can wait, you can negotiate, you can do that -- the war with Egypt was inevitable because the Israeli society was so weak, the psychology was so worn out. In other words, Israel was simply too weak not to start the war with Egypt. The idea was not necessarily correct but the general understanding was that he who strikes first will win. If we strike the Egyptians, we destroy their effort while it's on the ground, we win. If they strike first, we will have very, very heavy losses. To this day, I think nobody really knows what the Egyptians wanted, what the real intentions were in Egypt; if they all wanted war, if nobody wanted war, if Nasser didn't or did, if some of his generals wanted -- I mean, we don't really know much about Egypt. We -- I mean, academic knowledge. We don't really know much about the Egyptian intentions. And Israeli intelligence didn't really know. They keep telling the government, "We don't know but we suspect, we fear -- we have to be careful, we have to strike now."

This is very, very heavy pressure which the army puts on the government, but this is not what eventually leads to war. What leads to war is the atmosphere in the public, the fear, the Holocaust, genuine holocaust fear. Municipal rabbis in Tel Aviv would go out and sanctify public parks and football fields because they expected 100,000 casualties, 100,000 Israelis would have to be buried after the war. So, this is the kind of fear. When I think about this particular episode, I always think that only a country that has experienced a holocaust, a people that has experienced a holocaust can prepare so meticulously for the next one, and this is what they feared, and this is why they struck Egypt. In that sense, the war with Egypt is inevitable, but only the war with Egypt.

Let me show your book again. I want to ask you, is because you go through the documentation of these various meetings at the highest levels, and one of the themes that emerges is the division between the military and the political leaders. Talk a little about that, because a lot is going on here: the military prepared and focused on defending Israel had a strategy of offense; the political leaders like Eshkol who reflected the society -- you even say of him what you just said about the nation, namely he was too weak not to decide to go to war, and so on. Talk a little about that because it's a very complex picture.

It's very complex. It takes about 300 pages in the book.

[laughs] That's right. But you're going to do it in a few minutes, I guess.

In three seconds. Obviously the army wants to do what the army is trained for and what the army can do, and that is to do war. This is natural -- they don't think in broader terms. The government thinks in broader terms, primarily Eshkol who says to the army, "We cannot start a war unless we get a green light from America. We are not alone in the world and we cannot exist without the assistance of America." He talks to them like a father to his children. He says, "You will come to me tomorrow and want more planes," like somebody who wants a toy, right? "Planes will get destroyed, tanks will get [destroyed] -- you will come to me and want more. Where will I get them? We need them from America." So, he has a very, very strong sense -- in fact, he was, I think, the first Israeli prime minister who felt so strongly about dependency upon America. This is interesting because sometimes we hear that Israel was controlling the U.S. foreign policy in 1967. We were completely dependent on whether or not America gave us the green light to go to war.

In addition, there is a sociological and psychological difference. The army are men born in Israel, forty years old about, they already have families. Their really glorious war was twenty years ago, the year of '48, the war of independence. In '56 they had a second round. This is the last chance of this whole generation of generals to defend the country the way they know. They are also mostly born in Israel, and so they belong to a generation of Israelis that look down at the Jews in the Diaspora and they look down at people who symbolize, in their eyes, the Diaspora, namely the political establishment in Israel. Most Israeli cabinet ministers were born in Eastern Europe. Eshkol was born in the Ukraine. Some were not, but most of the Israeli establishment come from Eastern Europe. And so they very often despised them, because they symbolized something which they want to get rid of, that is to say, life in the Diaspora. "We are the proud, strong, patriotic Israelis and we defend our honor, and we were born here, and you really are old Jews."

Interestingly enough, when Rabin, who was the Chief of Staff at that time, talks to his colleagues on the general command and tells them, "I'm going to talk to the government," he says: "I'm going to talk to the Jews."

[laughs]

And that's not a compliment. "I'm going to talk to the Jews," meaning to the weak ones. And Eshkol calls Moshe Dayan, who is very soon to become the Minister of Defense, "the Arab," which is also not a compliment. And he calls the generals in Yiddish, the Pruessens, which means the Prussians. They are Prussians to him, he is Jews to them, so there is a very deep conflict of values and of identities here between a new Israeli generation of people who look down at everything that is Jewish, meaning Diaspora Jewish, and a generation of political leaders, headed by Eshkol.

He knows that his major duty as prime minister is to prevent war. In history he goes down as somebody who hesitated too long. What he actually did was to try and prevent a war. "If we can resolve this conflict without war, let's try to do it without war, [without] the generals." There were many confrontations between him and the generals, and at one point it came very close to what in another country would be a coup d'état, with General Ari Sharon, who was then a general, suggesting to his colleagues, "Let's take the government, lock them in a room, and you, Rabin, go on the radio and announce that the war has started." This really comes close to a coup d'état. The interesting thing about the Israeli society is that it didn't work. The civil government was stronger, so this is a very commendable point in the history of Israeli democracy. The system works. It's the government who decides, under very, very [great] pressure; but the government decides, not the generals.

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