Great wars in history eventually become great wars about history. Only a few years after the last soldier leaves the battlefield, accepted truths about the nature of a military conflict and the motivations for it invariably come under assault by revisionists and counter-revisionists, whose vehemence can rival that of the original combatants. Few of these historiographical struggles are as bitter as the one now being waged over the Arab-Israeli wars, in which a force of self-proclaimed “new historians” has laid siege to previously unassailable descriptions of the creation and survival of the Jewish state. The unusual ferocity of the debate over Arab-Israeli history is directly related to the singularly high stakes involved. The adversaries are not merely vying for space on university bookshelves, but grappling with issues that have a profound impact on the lives of millions of people: Israel’s security, the rights of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem.
The new historians make no attempt to disguise their agenda. Ilan Pappe, a Haifa University historian active in the Hadash (Communist) party, has recently published a three-part series—what amounts to a manifesto—in The Journal of Palestine Studies. Pappe portrays the “new history” as a pervasive revolutionary movement that has taken root in all fields of Israeli intellectual life, arts and media. Its goal, he declares, is to “reconsider the validity of the quest for a Jewish nation-state in what used to be geographic Palestine.”1 Beginning with Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel (1987), and continuing through Avi Shlaim’s Collusion Across the Jordan (1988) and 1948 and After (1994) by Benny Morris, the new historians have set out to explode what they call the “myths” surrounding Israel’s establishment and first decade of existence. In its 1948 War of Independence, for example, Israel is accused of uprooting thousands of Palestinians—one expression of a deeply ingrained Zionist proclivity for “transfer”—and then of plotting with Arab reactionaries to deny them a state. The Arab leaders of the day “stood in line” to make peace with Israel, the claim goes, but the Jewish state refused.2 Instead it embarked on a campaign of unjustified and gratuitously violent retaliatory raids, culminating in the 1956 war, when Israel conspired with the imperialist powers, Britain and France, in an unprovoked attack against Egypt.
Published by leading academic presses and widely acclaimed by reviewers, the new historians’ radical interpretations have largely supplanted traditional Zionist histories.3 This success would not have been possible without the diplomatic documents made available at various government archives under the thirty-year declassification rule allowing access to previously classified material, a rule observed by most Western democracies. Papers released by Britain’s Public Record Office and the United States National Archives, for example, provide fresh insights into the diplomacy of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in relation to the Arab countries, whose archives remain closed indefinitely. But when it comes to Arab-Israeli history, no collection can rival the Israel State Archives which, in addition to the wealth of firsthand accounts it contains, is particularly liberal in its declassification policy. These documents, tendentiously read and selectively cited, have been marshaled to substantiate the most radical of revisionist theories about the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Sinai Campaign. With the thirtieth anniversary of the Six Day War now behind us, the same methodology is about to be applied to smashing the “myths” of 1967.
The historical controversy over 1967 will be especially brutal. The belief that the Six Day War was imposed on Israel by an alliance of Arab states bent on its destruction, and that Israel’s conquest of territories was the result of its legitimate exercise of the right to defend itself in a war which it did everything in its power to avoid, has been sacrosanct for Zionists across the political spectrum. That the final disposition of those territories continues to be the focus of Israel’s internal political debate and of ongoing international negotiations makes the 1967 war a hugely inviting target for radical reinterpretation.
With the revisionists’ approach lauded regularly in the Israeli press, the first shots in this battle are already being fired. A prime example is the assertion of Haim Hanegbi, political columnist for the daily Ma’ariv newspaper:
The war of June 1967 has not been fully researched, and much about it remains classified. Perhaps the proper time has not yet come. Israeli hearts may still be unprepared for the difficulty involved in criticizing the war that was viewed not only as the greatest military victory in Israel’s history, an example to the world, but principally as a sign from heaven, the footsteps of the Messiah, and a harbinger of redemption…. It must be remembered that in 1967 the army was still commanded by former members of the Palmah [the elite fighting unit of the Israeli War of Independence] who were burning to exploit the Six Day War to complete what was denied them in 1948: To take over the Palestinians’ remaining territories and, through the power of conquest, realize the true Greater Israel.4
In the academic world, the initiative has come from the social sciences rather than history departments. According to this school, the Six Day War erupted not as a result of Arab belligerency but in reaction to socioeconomic factors within Israel, as a tactic by the nation’s leaders to distract attention from their failed domestic policies. “It is conspicuously anomalous to encounter in the mid-1960s a period of recession and unemployment in the midst of nearly two decades of rapid economic growth...,” writes political economist Michael Shalev. “Beginning in the autumn of 1966, unemployment reached double-digit levels. Recovery began only in the wake of belated expansionary policies initiated in response to growing citizen unrest....”5 Political scientist Yo’av Peled and sociologist Yig’al Levy agree, asserting that “the process of escalation that started in 1964 was ‘not necessary’ in the sense that it did not stem from the exigencies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The force of Israel’s reactions in those years expressed… a certain strategy... compensating for the state’s retreat from its social principles....”6
These authors seem to share the belief—which is strongly implied, if not yet openly asserted—that Arab actions had little to do with the outbreak of hostilities in 1967, and that Israel not only failed to prevent war but actively courted it. The massing of Egyptian troops in the Sinai, the expulsion of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) and the closing of the Straits of Tiran, the Arab defense pacts and public commitments to eradicate Zionism—all were either provoked or blown out of proportion by Israel for its own purposes of internal cohesion, territorial expansion or other ulterior motives. It is to such motives that Oxford-based Israeli historian Avi Shlaim refers when he asserts that “[Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser… was perceived by Israeli hard-liners as Israel’s most dangerous enemy. Accordingly, military pressure was used in 1956 and 1967 in vain attempts to engineer his downfall.”7
But can these conclusions stand up to straightforward historical scrutiny? Can the assertion that Israel wanted the war, did little or nothing to avert it, or even instigated it, be substantiated by Israeli declassified documents from the period, the favored weapons of the new historians? Newly released files from the Israel State Archives—reviewed here as part of a study-in-progress on the war that will eventually incorporate American and British papers as well—reveal a great deal about Israeli policymaking and diplomacy of the time, and about what Israel’s leaders thought, feared and strove for during their three weeks of intense diplomatic efforts leading up to June 5, 1967. But far from even hinting that Israel deliberately brought about the conflict, the record shows that Israel was desperate to avoid war and, up to the eve of battle, pursued every avenue in an effort to avert it—even at great strategic and economic cost to the nation.
Michael B. Oren is Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. He was formerly a Distinguished Fellow at the in Jerusalem, an academic and research institute, and a contributing editor of AZURE.