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.
This again becomes the case with the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Confronted with a harsh economic blockade, military pacts between heavily armed neighbors for the express purpose of aggression against Israel and hundreds of thousands of enemy troops actually massed on its borders, it would have been the height of irresponsibility for Israel's government not to plan for pre-emptive action. The picture that emerges is one of a country and leadership deeply fearful of military confrontation, and desperate to avoid one at almost any price.
Few of the 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.
Historians New Agenda
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.
Published by leading academic presses and widely acclaimed by reviewers, the radical interpretations by the new historians have largely supplanted traditional Zionist histories. This success would not have been possible without the diplomatic documents made available at various government archives under the 30-year declassification rule allowing access to previously classified material that is 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 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War now upon us, the same methodology is again about to be applied to smashing the "myths" of 1967.
The historical controversy over 1967 is 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 already are being fired. 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.
These authors seem to share the belief — one that 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 U.N. Emergency Force and the closing of the Straits of Tiran, the Arab defense pacts and public commitments to eradicate the Jewish state — all were either provoked or blown out of proportion by Israel in the interest of internal cohesion, territorial expansion or other ulterior motives.
Israeli "fear had no basis in reality," Ha'aretz journalist Tom Segev writes in his newly translated book 1967. "There was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it."
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?
Files from the Israel State Archives reveal a great deal about Israeli policymaking and diplomacy of the time, and about what Israel's leaders thought, feared and strove for during three weeks of intense diplomatic efforts leading up to June 5, 1967. 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.
The newly released Israeli diplomatic documents from the period leading up to June 5, 1967, offer overwhelming evidence against any suggestion that Israel sought war with the Arabs. Nor do the tens of thousands of declassified papers contain a single reference to any desire to divert public opinion from the economic situation, to overthrow Arab rulers, or to conquer and occupy the West Bank, the Sinai or the Golan Heights.
Fearful of Confrontation
On the contrary, the picture that emerges is one of a country and leadership deeply fearful of military confrontation, and desperate to avoid one at almost any price. The sole hope of doing so, the Israelis believed, rested with the United States. But the Johnson administration, though favorably disposed to Israel, was limited severely by domestic political constraints and its all-consuming involvement in Vietnam. These limitations prevented the Americans from taking the measures that might have restored the status-quo ante in the Sinai and the Straits of Tiran, and stemmed the momentum toward war that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had generated.
Moreover, it cannot be claimed that Israel was wrong in considering the use of force, confronted as it was by the blockade, military pacts and enemy troops. Nor can Israel be faulted for employing the threat of force to spur the United States to intervene diplomatically. The few measures Johnson did adopt — reiterating America's 1957 pledges on Tiran, the Red Sea Regatta proposal, the representations to Arab leaders — were directly attributable to those intimations by Israel.
In the final analysis, the Israelis held back from acting militarily until the very last opportunity for a diplomatic settlement had passed, even though they knew that every day they waited was costing them dearly in resources, readiness and morale, and was likely to constrict their own maneuverability if war became unavoidable.
Given the archival records, it seems the new historians face a formidable task in trying to prove that Israel had hostile intentions in 1967. But the historiographical battle over the Six-Day War has scarcely begun.
In addition to the Israeli archives, numerous other primary and secondary sources must be culled, and further controversies tackled. Researchers confront a battery of potentially explosive issues, among them the conquest of the Golan, the flight of West Bank refugees, the annexation of Jerusalem and the origins of the peace process. The conclusions reached here can only be considered preliminary — if not quite the first round in this battle, then certainly an opening shot.
Michael Oren is an author and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.