I have just finished reading the recently released English translation of Tom Segev’s latest book, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. This was one of the many sources that was recommended to me by my interviewees as I was researching the security establishment in Yehuda and Shomron this summer.
It was suggested to me that I focus on the final portion of the book to garner a greater appreciation of the elation, confusion, and ambiguity which characterized Israel’s role in the territories “the day after.”
Here, Segev is largely successful in that his vast and often conflicting sources of information provide what I assume is an intentionally confusing multilinear narrative. It becomes quite clear that Israelis had no unified idea as to how they would treat the territories nor their Arab inhabitants. Where one abandoned village was being demolished, another was being rebuilt. Even as the government seemed to be encouraging Arab emigration, they were at the same time providing relatively large amounts of humanitarian assistance as well as attempting to restore day-to-day normality.
Indeed, one cannot help but be struck by Israel’s repeated efforts to, in effect, apologize for the war as efforts were made to negotiate a post-war settlement, particularly with neighboring Jordan. From the standard account, the very idea of seeking to make amends for a war which was forced upon the state seems absurd at best. Yet Segev’s argument, roughly summarized that the war was neither necessary nor imposed by hostile Arab states and was instead the result of Israeli diplomatic and military mistakes, makes this approach fit. Whether or not Segev is correct in his assessment is another matter entirely. In this, I would recommend reading Michael Oren’s mostly fair critique from the Washington Post.
What these conflicting assessments do reveal about the aftermath of the war is that unlike the “standard” mainstream and revisionist accounts, Israel’s position, strategy, and future in the newly acquired territories remained a highly ambiguous one. It neither concretely worked to trade these territories with its neighbors for a hypothetical peace agreement nor rushed to settle the land in order to establish a permanent hold on the territory.
Here too it becomes abundantly clear that international and regional pressures had as much a role as domestic forces in determining immediate outcomes. Even as Segev focuses on the latter, he demonstrates that the Israeli government’s struggles with the future of the newly conquered territories were (un)determined not only by considerations of domestic security, religio-historic territorial destiny, or Zionist ideology. Playing an equally strong role were the government and people’s concern with the humanitarian situation of the new Arab refugees and the political stability of bordering states (particularly Jordan) and their desire to act within the bounds of international norms and laws.
That the Israeli government felt it had to bend to international and domestic pressure not to consolidate its hold on these new territories while exercising its perogative to provide domestic security absent external guarantees has been highly consequential for domestic institutional outcomes.
In fact, the often convoluted administration of these territories can be seen as laying the groundwork for the political and bureaucratic mess which exists today. Instead of taking the initiative in consolidating its hold over these spaces, Israel relied on ad hoc “temporary” arrangments which failed to resolve the question of the state’s role in Yehuda, Shomron, and Gaza to any party’s satisfaction. These ambiguities have provided fertile ground for “political entrepreneurs” within both the Israeli and Palestinian camps. Indeed, I would argue, the lack of government initiative to decide the future of these territories has empowered both Palestinian nationalism (and by extension terrorist movements) and the “settlement lobby”. As these parties observe mainstream Israeli and governmental indecision they both see significant opportunity for the advancement of their respective agendas if not a reasonable chance of success.
My own arguments aside, like any relatively balanced account in this ongoing conflict, Segev’s version of events and outcomes cannot be fairy summarized in a few sentences or paragraphs. Indeed, this may explain the need for an almost 600 page book. While it is not uncommon for book lengths to be extended in the course of translation, the Hebrew version I picked up in Jerusalem was not much shorter. The length may also have much to do with the fact that the Six Day War is one of the most written about events in the modern Middle East. Any effort to contribute something “new” to the debate may in fact require such drawn out prose.
In all, I am not strongly convinced by his central thesis. This criticism aside, however, I do feel Segev’s account is useful in understanding the climate of fear which permeated that fateful year and the even greater climate of uncertainty which characterized the war’s end. For those already knowledgeable about the events of 1967, this book will undoubtably be a useful resource towards achieving greater understanding. For those coming at this subject for the first time, read more.