Tom Segev’s unflinching narrative of a war and a year that transformed the geographical and political landscape of the Middle East — 1967 — took five years to complete. As part of his research he spent many months poring over recently declassified archives and unseen letters and diaries. He also spoke to a vast number of people who lived through the Six-Day War, including Miriam Eshkol, wife of the then prime minister, and front-line soldier Yehoshua Bar-Dayan, whose diary so compellingly presents ‘the voice of man at war’. For today’s reader this almost herculean effort recreates the apocalyptic atmosphere that pervaded Israel nearly twenty years after its foundation. It also sheds light on the Israeli psyche during the build up to the conflict and the chain of events triggered by Egypt’s decision towards the end of May in 1967 to block Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran.
Within two weeks of President Nasser’s provocative move, Israel had made the decision to go to war. A new generation who considered the existing political elite to be dangerously inward-looking and ineffective, had taken control of the army. These new generals were determined to take a strong stand in the face of what they saw as increasingly threatening behaviour from surrounding Arab states.
On the first day of the war — 5 June 1967 — Israeli fighter planes destroyed more than four hundred Egyptian planes, the majority while still grounded at their bases. By 10 June, the hostilities were all but over. Israel had won a crushing victory against the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria and now controlled territories, including the West Bank and Gaza, three times its former size and populated by a million Palestinian Arabs. The Old City had been taken and the Golan Heights seized.
Yet Segev has not simply written the diplomatic or military story of these events. He has also written a social history of Israel, which he concedes required a ‘deep knowledge of the Israelis themselves. By 1966 they had been struck by an emotional and political earthquake’. This aspect seems to have struck many of those who read the book. The Economist felt that the author had achieved this ‘brilliantly’, mixing a ‘meticulous narrative with a shrewd analysis of the complex Israeli pysche’. Linda Grant wrote in the Independent that Segev had revealed ‘the thoughts and feelings of ordinary Israelis, far from the seats of power and decision-making’.
It is clear that the years between 1948 and the war were pivotal in shaping Israel’s self-image. The period was one when volatile internal politics and a gloomy economic situation undermined the state’s ‘success story’. By early 1967, public and military opinion considered Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to be a pale facsimile of his predecessor, the charismatic David ben Gurion. During the build-up to the war, ideas were formed that have persisted and divided Israeli society, notably Messianic concepts of settlement. There were also significant shifts in thinking to accomodate the idea of ‘occupation’. Many felt they were bringing success and prosperity to all the land’s inhabitants, Palestinians included.
The ongoing occupation of the West Bank has hurt Israel in many ways, yet Segev’s narrative of the Six-Day War and that crucial year provides a context and some explanation for the enduring crisis. Segev shows, as Yitzhak Laor put it in the London Review of Books, that ‘The second half of that year has never really come to an end.’