Thursday, July 19, 2007

Provocations: Benny Morris on Segev

TNR: By Benny Morris [reviewing Tom Segev's 1967]:

As for Israeli expansionism, it is true that after the war of 1948-1949, many Israelis, including Ben-Gurion and most of his generals, felt that a great opportunity had been missed and that it would have been better to have ended the war with the country's border on the Jordan River. (Their reasons were more military and strategic, and less ideological and historical.) But over the following years, an overwhelming majority of Israelis came to accept that war's results, including its strategically problematic borders, and restrained any expansionist inclinations. By 1967, only the messianic-religious and the secular far right dreamed and talked about expansion to the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, the historical heartland of the Jewish people and faith. For the vast majority of the citizenry, led by the successive Mapai-dominated governments, such thinking was alien. Many examples can be offered in proof of this claim. Consider only this exchange, published in early May 1967 in an Israeli newspaper, between the expansionist right-winger Geula Cohen and the Grand Old Man, David Ben-Gurion.

Cohen: 'What are the borders of my homeland?'
Ben-Gurion: 'The borders of your homeland are the borders of the State of Israel, as they are today.'

(After the war, incidentally, Ben-Gurion advocated complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories, except from East Jerusalem, though occasionally he also spoke covetously of the Golan Heights.)

Yes, the IDF general staff--certainly after May 22-23, when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran--pressed for war. By the end of the month they were even chafing at the bit, arguing that every day's delay would multiply the number of Israeli dead. But their political bosses, the Cabinet and the prime minister, refused to knuckle under. For almost three weeks, from May 15 to June 4, the politicians--led by Eshkol--held out, hoping against hope that war would be averted; that the Americans or the United Nations would manage a diplomatic solution or that an international flotilla would somehow force open the straits and force Nasser to back off. The full story of the Israeli side in those unbelievably tense weeks is of a democratic polity under external military siege, feeling gradual asphyxiation but firmly under the control of the political echelon, which was doing its damnedest, in the face of mounting Arab provocation, to stave off war....

It is true that, following the war, an expansionist messianic spirit gripped much of the Israeli population. The deep fear of catastrophe and slaughter was replaced by an overwhelming elation, which translated for many into a sense that Israel had been given a divine warrant to expand its borders. The consequences of these dangerous enthusiasms are now well known. But as a historical matter, it is worth noting that on June 19 the Israeli government secretly offered the Syrians the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace (and a demilitarized Golan), and offered the Egyptians the whole Sinai Peninsula (demilitarized) in exchange for peace. ...It is also worth recalling that the Israeli offer and its rejection by Cairo and Damascus were in short order followed by a terse, comprehensive pan-Arab response at the summit in Khartoum--the famous "Three No's": no recognition, no negotiation with Israel, no peace....

But apart from the descriptions of various aspects of the war's aftermath, 1967 is one vast, tendentious historical misjudgment. Unfortunately, this has become one of Segev's calling cards (alongside great readability). ...As for Tom Segev, his book points readers and scholars in no worthwhile direction. Its argument is not merely wrong; it also makes a small contribution of its own to the contemporary delegitimation of Israel.

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