The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977by Gershom Gorenberg
The untold story, based on groundbreaking original research, of the actions and inactions that created the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories
After Israeli troops defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967, the Jewish state seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success. But far from being a happy ending, the Six-Day/b>
The untold story, based on groundbreaking original research, of the actions and inactions that created the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories
After Israeli troops defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967, the Jewish state seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success. But far from being a happy ending, the Six-Day War proved to be the opening act of a complex political drama, in which the central issue became: Should Jews build settlements in the territories taken in that war?
The Accidental Empire is Gershom Gorenberg's masterful and gripping account of the strange birth of the settler movement, which was the child of both Labor Party socialism and religious extremism. It is a dramatic story featuring the giants of Israeli history—Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yigal Allon—as well as more contemporary figures like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Gorenberg also shows how the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations turned a blind eye to what was happening in the territories, and reveals their strategic reasons for doing so.
Drawing on newly opened archives and extensive interviews, Gorenberg reconstructs what the top officials knew and when they knew it, while weaving in the dramatic first-person accounts of the settlers themselves. Fast-moving and penetrating, The Accidental Empire casts the entire enterprise in a new and controversial light, calling into question much of what we think we know about this issue that continues to haunt the Middle East.
“A thoroughly documented, pathbreaking analysis of Israel's disastrous settlement project in the occupied territories; it reads like a chapter in Barbara Tuchman's well-known book, The March of Folly.” Amos Elon, author of The Pity of It All and The Israelis: Founders and Sons
“The Accidental Empire is an extraordinary book. It offers insight and understanding into a period that has never been well understood. After the 1967 war, few in Israel recognized the inherent problems of building Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line, for they were torn between reason and spiritual attachment to the land. As Gershom Gorenberg shows in this wonderfully written history, the building of settlements took on a life of its own-too easy to do, too hard to stop, and too easy to simply let happen.” Dennis Ross, former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, and author of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
“A groundbreaking investigation into the origins of one of the most contentious issues in Arab-Israeli relations-and in the Middle East-and a valuable reference for journalists, students, and scholars interested in the region.” Michael B. Oren, author of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
“Gershom Gorenberg has given us a meticulously researched, dispassionate and highly readable history of how Israel slipped into the settlement of occupied lands. The Accidental Empire is an invaluable guide to one of the Middle East's most complex issues and will puncture illusions on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Jackson Diehl, columnist, The Washington Post
“The Accidental Empire casts a stark light on Israel's settlement of the lands it gained in the Six-Day War. Gershom Gorenberg contends that the Israeli left, as well as the Orthodox right, backed a policy that, though born of a felt need for security, encumbered the quest for peace-and that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger also failed to foresee the long-term costs. This tragic tale suggests how a fearful nation helped foster the very threats it sought to escape.” David Greenberg, Rutgers University, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image
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THE ACCIDENTAL EMPIRE (Chapter 1)The Avalanche
One day in early May 1967, General Uzi Narkiss stood in the shade of pine trees on the breeze-stroked hilltop of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, at the edge of Israeli West Jerusalem, and looked out past the armistice line at Bethlehem and the Judean Desert in the Jordanian-held West Bank. With him stood journalist Haim Gouri and a young intelligence officer. It was a clear day in the brief Israeli spring, after the rains have stopped, before the dry heat scorches the last pale green from the hillsides and leaves them yellow-brown. Still, when Gouri wrote of his day with the general for his newspaper, his tone would be overcast, melancholy with nostalgia. He and Narkiss were looking at the territory of memory--as unreachable as one's youth.1
Narkiss, forty-two years old and the head of the Israeli Defense Forces' Central Command, turned his binoculars to a flat-topped mountain to the southeast, site of a ruined fortress built by King Herod of Judea two millennia ago. Narkiss had hidden there for a day, he told the intelligence officer, back in 1946: His unit of the underground Haganah had attacked the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River, as part of an operation aimed at driving the British from Palestine. Afterward they escaped by boat across the Dead Sea and climbed the desert cliffs to the ancient fortress, took cover there through daylight, then hiked through the hills to Ramat Rachel.
The young officer looked at Narkiss and mapped the line between Israeli generations: "You've passed through those places," he said. "Our experiences are different." He added, in the vague wish of someone with many years ahead of him, "Still, we'd like to go one day--let's hope in a time of peace."
On maps, the armistice line between Israel and Jordan was drawn in green. The line wrapped around West Jerusalem as if it were a peninsula of Israel surrounded by a sea of Jordanian territory. Ramat Rachel was a tinier peninsula, a promontory pointed southward toward Bethlehem and, beyond that, Hebron. After curling around the kibbutz, the Green Line sliced through Jerusalem, cleaving neighborhoods. Splotches of land were designated as demilitarized zones by the armistice agreement signed in April 1949, at the end of Israel's war of independence. The agreement looked forward to a permanent peace settlement, but that never came, so the Green Line remained the border, temporary in perpetuity.2 Israel's parliament, the Knesset, stood just over a mile from the frontier; the prime minister's house, two-thirds of a mile. On the Jordanian side, the walled Old City nuzzled up against the border.
Gouri was accompanying Narkiss for a tour of the urban frontier. The two were friends, members of an aristocracy of old fighters. They had met in pre-state days as young recruits to the Palmah, the elite force of the Haganah. The Palmah had been closely tied to a pro-Soviet movement of farm communes, kibbutzim, known as Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, the United Kibbutz, whose original goal had been turning all of Jewish Palestine into a single collective. Some people had called the Palmah "the Red Army of the United Kibbutz."3 Now Gouri wrote for the daily newspaper of the party tied to that movement.
"It's so quiet here," Narkiss said, looking at the hills. "It seems like you're allowed to just get up and walk over there."
How long, Gouri asked, could the strange situation continue in Jerusalem? "We should be prepared to live like this for years and years," Narkiss answered. "It might last forever, and it could change any day. We know this is the border, and that's that."
READING NARKISS'S words from the standpoint of history, looking back through the smoke of burning Egyptian tanks in the Sinai sands, one might suspect he was being disingenuous, that behind blank words he hid plans of war and conquest. But history can mislead us: It tells how things turned out. That is precisely what people living not-yet-history, looking forward into uncertainty, cannot know. What appears inevitable, even intentional, in retrospect, is often a series of accidents in real life.
Narkiss was being forthright: The top brass of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did not expect war. Earlier in 1967, Colonel Shlomo Gazit, the head of Military Intelligence's research department, had presented Armored Corps commander General Yisrael Tal with a report on the atrocious level of training of Egyptian tank crews. "If you are right," Tal replied, "they have no possibility of contending with us militarily." Tal's response only reinforced Military Intelligence's repeated evaluations that, even though the Arab countries aspired to destroy Israel, war was unlikely.4 In March 1967, at a briefing for top commanders, General Aharon Yariv, the head of Military Intelligence, declared there was no chance of war in the Middle East in the next eight years. Egypt, the most powerful Arab country, was tied down in a civil war in Yemen; other Arab countries would not fight Israel on their own.5
That hardly meant that Israel was ready to convert tanks into tractors. Indeed, one reason for confidence was Israel's deterrent power. Through the mid-1960s, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and military Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin had worked to acquire new arms, especially for the air force and armored corps, to convince Arab leaders they should not attack.
Still, tensions had been growing since 1964 on the eastern border. To cripple the Jewish state, Syria had tried to divert the headwaters of its main water supply, the Jordan River; Israel foiled that plan by bombing the earthworks.6 Syria sponsored Palestinian groups, particularly the Fatah movement, that aimed at reclaiming Palestine from the "Zionist entity" via "armed struggle" and that launched terror attacks from both Syrian and Jordanian territory. The Israeli army responded with cross-border retaliation raids. A de facto peace between Israel and Jordan--including secret meetings between top Israeli officials and the young King Hussein--evaporated.7
Along the 1949 armistice line with Syria--on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and along the deep, humid valley of the Jordan River--were demilitarized zones that Israel regarded as its territory, a claim Syria rejected. On the ground, each side held part of these zones. Each time Israel sent tractors to farm disputed land, Syria answered with gunfire, sometimes shelling kibbutzim in the valley from the Syrian heights that rose steeply to the east. Recent Israeli histories argue that the Israeli generals deliberately initiated some such incidents: Syrian fire provided a pretext for a stronger Israeli response, really intended as retaliation for Palestinian attacks.8 The clashes grew worse. On April 7, 1967, Syria answered a foray by two Israeli tractors with mortar and cannon fire, to which Israeli warplanes retorted by strafing and bombing Syrian positions. Israeli jets downed Syrian planes in dogfights over Damascus; Syrian shells leveled Kibbutz Gadot, inside a demilitarized zone on the Jordan River bank, north of the Sea of Galilee.9
Yet as Gazit has admitted, "Israeli intelligence erred in not drawing conclusions from the escalation, and did not warn that it could lead to a major conflagration."10 Rather than being a deliberate prelude to war, the sparring testified to Israel's confidence that it could punish Syria without risking all-out conflict.
Nor was conquest on the Israeli military agenda. The army's five-year development plan, put together under Eshkol and Rabin, presumed that Israel could "realize fully its national goals" within the armistice lines.11
That reflected the position of Eshkol's ruling Mapai party. Mapai--the Workers Party of the Land of Israel--was established in 1930. Its founders were Jewish immigrants from places such as Minsk, Kiev, Warsaw, and Lvov, who had abandoned traditional Judaism as outmoded. Facing two shining secular ideas of utopia, they chose both: socialism along with Zionism, the belief that Jews must return to their homeland to build their own nation. In the Jewish community of British-ruled Palestine, where everything from unions to health clinics to sports teams belonged to parties, Mapai dominated.
In 1937, when a British government panel called the Peel Commission first proposed solving the ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs over Palestine by dividing the land into two states, Mapai leader David Ben-Gurion failed to win his party's unqualified support for the plan. The Arabs rejected the Peel plan completely, and the British abandoned it. But ten years later, when the United Nations voted to split Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Mapai endorsed partition, which promised immediate independence for a state with a Jewish majority.12
The U.N., though, did nothing to enforce its own decision. First Palestine's Arabs took up arms against the Jews and partition. When the British pulled out and Ben-Gurion led the Jews to declare Israel's independence on May 14, 1948, the neighboring Arab countries invaded--so that the moment of statehood marked a graduation from ethnic conflict to a war between sovereign nations.
By the war's end, Israel's forces had pushed back the Arab armies and won land beyond the U.N. partition lines, and as many as 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled from their villages and cities in the new Jewish state or had been expelled by Jewish forces, becoming refugees. Six thousand Jews were killed, out of the 650,000 Jews in Palestine when the war began. No Palestinian Arab state arose. The kingdom of Transjordan annexed the piece of Palestine its army had seized, on the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the kingdom's name became Jordan. The Gaza Strip, a sliver of Palestine packed with refugees on the Mediterranean coast, remained under Egyptian military rule. Parts of Israel's borders matched the old internationally recognized boundary of British Palestine, but elsewhere the country's territory was defined only by the armistice lines, which meandered crazily through the countryside, defying topography. North of Tel Aviv, Israel narrowed to a coastal strip just nine miles wide, beneath Jordanian-ruled hill country. Though Israel had a natural port on the Red Sea at its southern tip, Eilat, Egypt imposed a blockade farther south, at the Straits of Tiran.13
If there were diplomatic openings for peace, they were missed; the armistice led not to permanent peace but to permanent conflict. After Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1953, that country sponsored a campaign of attacks on Israel, from both Gaza and the West Bank, by Palestinian "self-sacrificers." Israel answered with retaliation raids, killing civilians as well as soldiers. In one particularly gruesome raid, led by a young officer named Ariel Sharon, commandos killed over sixty civilians in the West Bank village of Qibyah.
The border battles, Nasser's deal to buy a new army's worth of Eastern Bloc weaponry via Czechoslovakia, his support for Algerian revolutionaries, his nationalization of the Suez Canal--all combined to make allies of Israel, Britain, and France. At the end of October 1956, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion won his cabinet's approval for an invasion of Egypt's Sinai Desert, in collusion with the two European powers. Ben-Gurion hoped to shatter the Egyptian army and end the Palestinian attacks--and to acquire at least a piece of the Sinai, including Sharm al-Sheikh, the cape controlling the Straits of Tiran.14 Under Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, the Israel Defense Forces seized the entire Sinai Peninsula in just three days. Politically, though, it was a meager victory. Facing immense pressure from U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, Israel withdrew to the armistice lines, and Nasser assumed mythic stature among Arab nationalists as the man who stood up to imperialists. But the U.N. Emergency Force (UNEF) took up positions on the Egyptian border and at Sharm al-Sheikh; the straits did stay open; and for a few quiet years Palestinian raids ceased, until the Fatah campaign began.15
And in Israel, irredentism--claims to territory beyond the borders--receded from political debate. In 1963, Eshkol replaced Ben-Gurion as Mapai leader and prime minister. When President Lyndon Johnson invited Eshkol to America in 1964, the visit ended with a joint statement calling for maintaining the territorial integrity of all Mideast countries--implying that both the United States and Israel regarded the armistice lines as final borders.16 In the 1965 election campaign Mapai's platform--in an era when Israeli parties worried out their platforms with theological seriousness--called for pursuing every opportunity for peace "based on respect for the political independence and territorial integrity of all states in the region."17
Like middle-aged movements that had led revolutions in other countries, Mapai steadily shed its ideology. The Mapai method, as Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal puts it, was that "every big problem had a small solution."18 The campaign of 1965 revolved mainly around a feud within the ruling camp: Ben-Gurion split with Eshkol and led a group of young acolytes, including Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, to form a new party--the Worker's List of Israel, known by its Hebrew acronym Rafi. The rebels did poorly, winning only ten seats in the 120-member Knesset, and found themselves on the opposition benches.
Even the militant Herut party of Menachem Begin, with its roots in the radical nationalism of the European right between the world wars,19 softened its irredentist claims in return for respectability. In 1965 it ran for parliament on a joint ticket called Gahal with the mainstream Liberal Party ("liberal" in the European sense of capitalism and small government). Herut agreed that "integrity of the homeland"--meaning the claim to territory beyond the Green Line--would not be part of their joint platform.20
The shift went beyond political programs. A growing number of Israelis had grown up or arrived in the country after independence. In the Hebrew literature created by young writers of that time, notes Israeli historian Anita Shapira, there was "no hankering for some ancient historical agenda with Biblical sites and vistas.... Tel Aviv, the new Jerusalem, the kibbutzim--these were the foci of the new Hebrew literature."21 For the post-independence generation, Shapira argues, Arabs were not extras in a romantic vision of the biblical past but hostile strangers across the border or dangerous infiltrators crossing it. Even the term "Land of Israel," the Jewish homeland, shifted meaning: In pre-state days, it meant at least all of British Palestine, or could include the East Bank of the Jordan or stretch farther, depending on one's reading of the Bible and history, or on how much one compensated for present Jewish weakness with the grandeur of myth. After independence, in the Hebrew of at least some young Israelis, "Land of Israel" was virtually a synonym for "State of Israel."
So at Ramat Rachel, General Narkiss told Gouri that the border was established fact. "It's our fate to live like this, and so we live," he said, adding, "A generation has arisen that has never known the land beyond the border."
From the kibbutz, they headed into the city, following the border. Narkiss told of a nun at the Notre Dame convent, which faced the armistice line, who once coughed while standing at her window. Her false teeth fell into no-man's-land, and U.N. observers searched for hours among ruins and trash to find them. In Abu Tor, a neighborhood divided in two, Gouri's photographer snapped a small boy and girl, holding hands, in an alleyway ending in barbed wire. "They were born here," Gouri wrote. "Here people live; love and death, birth and burial, week-days and holidays roll on. For a moment you forget the wounds of this city, the cruelty of its tornness."22
YET GOURI did not really forget, and he was not alone.
He and Narkiss had been born in British Palestine and had reached adulthood in the years before partition. As poet and writer, Gouri often acted as witness, as Greek chorus, for a significant slice of the native-born--those who had grown up in socialist Zionist youth movements tied to the United Kibbutz, who had served in the Palmah and remained loyal to the party known as Ahdut Ha'avodah, the Unity of Labor.
A strange pamphlet called In Your Covenant bears testimony to the passions of their youth.23 The booklet was produced in 1937 by older members of the youth movement called Hamahanot Ha'olim, the "Ascending Camps," who spent the summer together working at Kibbutz Gvat in the Jezreel Valley. Like other Zionist youth movements, Hamahanot Ha'olim was the creation of young people, not of adults trying to provide wholesome education. Youth itself, the newness offered by the young, was part of these movements' ideology, along with intense politics and a return to nature. Hamahanot Ha'olim stood out because it was founded in the Land of Israel, rather than among Jews abroad, and its members sought to demonstrate their credentials as children of the homeland through outdoing others in the romance with the countryside, exploring its contours and trekking for days through its hills and gorges.24
The event that shaped the summer was the Peel Commission's partition proposal. In Your Covenant is an answer, an adolescently anguished rejection. The word Your in the title, in feminine singular, refers to the Land of Israel. Covenant alludes both to marriage and to the covenant with God in traditional Judaism. The name itself conjures up the Freudian view of Zionism: The Jews have declared God the Father dead, and have married the motherland.25 Hiking and working the land are the acts of physical love.
Maps in the booklet show the Land of Israel as including both sides of the Jordan River and stretching northward into Lebanon. A table explains that the total territory of the land including Transjordan and parts of southern Syria and Lebanon--identified by biblical names--is nearly 29,000 square miles, while the Jewish state proposed by the commission is less than 2,200 square miles.
There are texts praising physical labor, fitting the youth movement's proletarian ideology, but more of the booklet is devoted to the homeland. One section chronicles a hike through the northern tip of British Palestine and across the border into the Syrian heights, the area known as the Golan in Hebrew, overlooking the Jordan Valley. Another travelogue describes how movement members explored the Land of Israel by trekking into biblical Gilead, in Transjordan. A short essay on the Peel plan declares, "We have never accepted our unnatural border in the north.... We have always longed for the far bank of the Jordan...the one complete Land cannot be torn asunder." Another writer rejects the "fate of Nebo"--an allusion to Moses looking at the promised land but not being allowed to enter.
The next year a group of Hamahanot Ha'olim graduates founded Kibbutz Maoz Hayim, just west of the Jordan River, fifteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee. "May this house be the gate to Gilead. The lights of the labor of Hebrew settlements will yet glow in the Golan, Bashan and Horan...," the commune's charter declared, using biblical Hebrew names for regions east of the Jordan, and in the next breath: "The working man will yet arise and build his home in a world of brotherhood and freedom."26
The contrapuntal music of socialism and nationalism was perfectly in tune with the positions of the United Kibbutz, whose leader--father figure, teacher, ideologue, secular equivalent of a Hasidic master--was Yitzhak Tabenkin. Raised in a religious family in Warsaw, Tabenkin gave up faith to become a student, in his own description, of Karl Marx and Zionist poet Haim Nahman Bialik. Early in his career, he referred to kibbutzim as "communist settlements," later giving up the term because he did not accept the Soviet approach to communism. Tabenkin thought poorly of the political concept of the state. Much closer to anarchism, he aimed at creating Jewish socialism from the bottom up, one commune at a time, but he also insisted that his utopia be built in what he called the Whole Land of Israel. At times his arguments had the veneer of scientific socialism: The land was by nature a single economic unit. At times he used arguments drawn from history and the Bible, which secular Zionism had transformed from scripture to national epic.
The tangle of nationalism and Marxism looks strange only from the anachronistic perspective of a much later European or American leftism. A similar mix drove Ho Chi Minh and other Third World revolutionaries, not to mention Joseph Stalin. In Tabenkin's eyes, the Middle East's political borders--including the League of Nations' post-World War I grant of a mandate over Palestine to Britain--were the imposition of European imperialists. The Jews sought national liberation.27
Tabenkin belonged to Mapai in its early years, but he opposed the Peel plan and quit Mapai's central committee because the party did not take a strong enough position against the proposal. In 1944 his faction of the party, regarding Ben-Gurion as lukewarm on both proletarian and national issues, walked out and created Ahdut Ha'avodah.28
In the meantime, Tabenkin's United Kibbutz had become the sponsor of the Palmah. The underground army drew many of its recruits from Hamahanot Ha'olim and similar youth movements, and itself resembled a youth movement with guns--disdainful of rules, rife with backslapping camaraderie, in which privates called their commanders by their first names. When Palestine descended into war in 1948, the Palmah formed the core of the Jewish forces and then the Israeli army. Yigal Allon, a kibbutz member and the Palmah commander, became a general, in command of the southern front at age thirty, and pushed the Egyptian army out of the Negev desert, securing that area for the new state. His chief of operations, another Palmah man, was the twenty-six-year-old Yitzhak Rabin.
Allon, "the armed prophet of the Whole Land" (in the description of Haim Gouri, who served under him),29 argued for territorial maximalism, the military justifications of his generation supplanting Tabenkin's socialist reasoning. Late in March 1949, as Israel was on the verge of signing an armistice with Transjordan, Allon sent an urgent message to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. Transjordan's army, the Arab Legion, remained the greatest Arab threat to Israel, he said. It continued to hold the hill country north and south of Jerusalem; it could slice Israel in half to gain access to the Mediterranean. "We must aspire to reasonable depth," Allon wrote, and argued, "One cannot describe a stronger border than the line of the Jordan the entire length of the land." Allon was certain his forces could quickly seize the West Bank, and he wanted Ben-Gurion's permission to do so. As for the Arab residents, he assumed most would flee, and proposed planning the operation to leave them escape routes.30 Ben-Gurion refused, and earned yet another reason for Ahdut Ha'avodah's fury.
Later that year, Ben-Gurion invited a select group of writers and intellectuals to his Tel Aviv home for a discussion of the new state's direction. Haim Gouri, still in uniform, newly celebrated for his poetry, was the youngest. During a break in the discussion, he walked into the prime minister's study and asked why he hadn't allowed Allon to finish the job. "Tying ourselves up in hostile Arab territory would have imposed an unbearable choice," Ben-Gurion answered, "accepting hundreds of thousands of Arabs among us, or mass expulsion with the methods of Dir Yassin," a reference to the Arab village near Jerusalem where members of two right-wing Jewish organizations had committed a massacre in April 1948. Ben-Gurion wanted a state with a Jewish majority more than he wanted the entire homeland, and though he had no objections to Arabs fleeing, he believed they would no longer do so unless Israel used harsher methods than he could accept.31
Tabenkin and his followers, though, remained committed to the dream of possessing the Whole Land. Tabenkin regularly expressed his vision for the future as "the entire Jewish people, in its complete land, nearly all in communes, as part of a worldwide alliance of communist peoples."32 The United Kibbutz's "Ideological Foundation," adopted in 1955, insisted on the complete homeland as the basis for a socialist state of "the Jewish people...and the Arabs living in the land"--phrasing that treated the Jews as a nation, and the Arabs as individuals without national rights.33 After the 1956 Sinai war, the Ahdut Ha'avodah party opposed withdrawal. But by the 1960s, the hope of the Whole Land seemed distant, and the party ran for parliament as the junior partner in an alliance with Mapai.
Yet some continued to believe. In July 1966, Gouri wrote of imagining "all of Jerusalem before me, Jerusalem of then, before the border, of our youth, the days of In Your Covenant," and of imagining, too, "a distant 1948, somewhere in the future."34 As usual with revolutions, the reality had turned out smaller than the vision, and in this case the difference could be seen on a map. Ergo, the war of independence was not over. A 1948-to-come would complete the dream.
General Narkiss and Gouri finished their May 1967 tour of the border in Jerusalem by stopping at a café. There they found General Mordechai Hod, the commander of the Israel Air Force, who had come to Jerusalem to relax. A couple days before, Hod said, he had gone with Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, to a spot nearby from which one could see the Western Wall in the Old City. The Wall forms one side of the Temple Mount, the thirty-five-acre plaza where the ancient Temple once stood. For centuries, a narrow courtyard next to the Wall's immense stones was the most sacred spot for Jewish prayer. Zionism turned it into a secular, nationalist symbol as well, again embracing the mythological energy of religion, sans the obligations and God. But in the years since the Arab Legion had conquered the Old City in 1948, Jews could not reach the site.
"You saw the Wall?"
"Yes, we saw it. General Goren's eyes filled with tears and I--don't quote me--I was also very moved."
Narkiss and Gouri left their tiny cups of Turkish coffee on the table. The lookout point was an abandoned position from 1948, shaded by a pine. The golden Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine at the center of the Mount, glowed in the last light of day. With his binoculars, Narkiss found the top three rows of stone, gazed silently, and said, "That must be the Wall." Gouri stood entranced by the Old City. "I think we'll get moving," Narkiss said at last, and Gouri felt he was waking up.35
SEVERAL DAYS LATER, Hanan Porat stood in a somber crowd of a hundred people at Mount Herzl, the military cemetery on the west of Jerusalem. The mass grave they faced held a crowd of similar size: over a hundred bodies. It was May 14, 1967. More important, it was the fourth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar--Israel's Memorial Day and the eve of its Independence Day, a sequence of holidays requiring that respect be paid to the fallen before celebration begins. Porat was twenty-three years old. Unlike many people his age in the crowd, he was not facing his father's grave.
In 1944, when Porat was six months old, his family moved to Kfar Etzion, a newly established kibbutz in the rocky hills between Bethlehem and Hebron.36 Kfar is Hebrew for village; Etzion means "tree of Zion," a tribute to a Jewish farmer named Holzman--"timber man" in German--who had tried settling in the area earlier. He gave up when Palestine's Arabs rebelled against the British, and the Zionist presence, in 1936. It was an inauspicious portent. Surrounded by Arab villages, the kibbutz was isolated from other Jews. Jerusalem lay ten miles to the north.
Kfar Etzion was an Orthodox kibbutz, adding religion to the mix of socialism and nationalism. In Europe, Zionism and Orthodoxy usually battled each other. Like other nationalist movements welling up in Eastern Europe, secular Zionism elevated homeland, language, and ethnic identity to serve as its supreme values.37 It regarded itself as the heir to Judaism, with the right to reinterpret the Bible, the Jewish past, and the Jews' destiny. The Orthodox did not see reason for inheritance procedures; Judaism was quite alive. Most rabbis rejected the replacement of religious values with national ones and regarded mass return to the homeland before the arrival of the messiah as a rebellion against God. Socialist Zionists were the most dedicated opponents of the "opium of the people."
But people are more complicated than ideological categories. Some of the Orthodox embraced Zionism as a practical solution to Jewish persecution; some found justification for socialism in the works of Moses rather than Marx. Still, religious Zionists were marginal everywhere, not doctrinaire enough for either the Orthodox or the Zionist mainstream.
Two more religious communes--Massu'ot Yitzhak and Ein Tzurim--were soon established near Kfar Etzion, in what became known as the Etzion Bloc. Moshe Moskovic, a founder of Massu'ot Yitzhak, explained that Orthodox Jews felt a special connection to the area, since "the real Land of Israel is between Hebron and Bethlehem," cities of the Bible, of Abraham and King David. He offered another explanation as well, reflecting the old resentments on which Israeli politics is built: Ben-Gurion's dominant Mapai party controlled land allocations and sent minority movements to the worst spots. The Etzion Bloc was not only dangerously placed, it lacked water and had poor soil.38 A fourth kibbutz in the area, Revadim, belonged to Hashomer Hatza'ir, the "Young Guard," radical secular socialists who in those days revered Stalin, advocated a binational Jewish-Arab state, and were also outsiders.
In early 1948, as Palestine slid into Arab-Jewish violence, the Etzion Bloc went from isolated to besieged. Children and most women were evacuated to Jerusalem, itself besieged and battle-torn. Thirty-five Haganah fighters sent to reinforce the kibbutzim were killed on the way. Porat's father ended up in Jerusalem, organizing convoys. Only one group of reinforcements got through. A landing strip sufficient for two-man Pipers was the last link to the outside. Moshe Moskovic, who had been abroad on movement business, returned to Tel Aviv in April 1948 and wrangled a place on a Piper flight. At the airfield, he was told that guns and ammunition--and matzah for Passover--would take his place in the airplane. As it was, the pilot had to remove the doors and tie himself to his seat with rope so he could carry the load.39
The matzah saved Moskovic. Soon after, the kibbutzim received orders to block the road from Hebron to keep Arab fighters from reaching Jerusalem. That sparked the last battle. On May 13, 1948, the fourth of Iyar, the Etzion Bloc fell to a combined onslaught of Arab Legion regulars and armed men of the surrounding villages shouting, "Dir Yassin." In the final battle, 155 defenders died, men and women. The bloodshed was worst at Kfar Etzion, where villagers massacred almost all those who surrendered. Seventy-nine members of the kibbutz were killed. Bodies lay in the fields for a year and a half, until Transjordan allowed army rabbi Shlomo Goren to retrieve the corpses and bury them at Mount Herzl.40
Death was nothing unusual that year, and many more Arabs than Jews were torn from their homes. But the Etzion Bloc's hopeless battle turned it into a symbol in Israel, especially for religious Zionists: It was proof that they had fought and bled as well as anyone.
The survivors of Kfar Etzion moved to houses on the edge of Jaffa abandoned by Arabs who were now refugees someplace else--some, perhaps, living on the ruins of Massu'ot Yitzhak, where Arab refugees from the Jaffa area built a village.41 Hanan Porat spent five years in a kibbutz with many women and few men, in which most of his friends shared the same anniversary for their fathers' deaths, the same day designated as the nation's Memorial Day. There was no line between personal and political; their tragedy belonged to the nation. The psychology of survival and guilt suggests that the sacrifice of the parents loomed as a demanding, unattainable standard, and that the boy who actually had a father would want all the more to show his mettle. Finally the commune unraveled, the families moved on, but the children still met regularly. They were raised on a constant diet of loss and longing for a place they knew mostly through photographs and secondhand memories of adult survivors. At gatherings for teens, parents told long stories of daily life in their lost Eden. The teens spun dreams of starting a new kibbutz together.42
Every year the survivors gathered on Mount Herzl. At a reception after the ceremony, those old enough to remember the lost kibbutzim traded memories, and someone would say wistfully, "Maybe we'll return someday." On May 14, 1967, such comments were regarded, as usual, as nostalgia and wishful thinking.43
INDEPENDENCE DAY would begin at sunset, like all Jewish festivals. Porat invited some friends from the Etzion clan to join him that night for the celebration at the yeshivah, or Talmudic academy, where he studied. Without meaning to, he was inviting them to be extras in an eerie historical drama.44
Yeshivah study is an ideal in Orthodox Judaism, but in 1967 nearly all of Israel's yeshivot kept their distance from Zionism. Merkaz Harav, Porat's school, was the exception.45 Its late founder, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, had not exactly made peace with Zionism. Rather, he had audaciously transformed it into theology, absorbing the secular rebellion back into religion.
Born in what is today Latvia, Kook received a traditional rabbinic education in Talmud and religious law, to which he added a brew of Jewish mysticism and European philosophy. One influence on Kook was the sixteenth-century kabbalist Yitzhak Luria, who portrayed the cosmos as spiraling upward, through a process of destruction and renewal, toward perfection. Another was Johann Gottfried von Herder, the German thinker who virtually invented ethnic nationalism--the idea that every person belongs to a Volk, a nation defined by culture and language, with a unique role in history. For Kook, the Jews' role was to be the vessel that brings the "divine idea" into the world. The world's redemption depended on the Jews living in the Land of Israel, and therefore the return of Jews to their homeland was an expression of God's will. Secular Zionism was thus a stage in God's plan, which in turn made the secular Zionist pioneers "good sinners," "principled evildoers," and "the lights of chaos." They would awaken religious Jews to act for the sake of the nation, while the believers would spur them to return to faith.46
Kook was honored by religious Zionists, often quoted, rarely studied in depth.47 After his death in 1935, the leadership of his yeshivah fell to his sole son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook. Though the son lacked the breadth and the brilliance of his father, by the 1960s he had a circle of young disciples. One of the followers was Hanan Porat, who found that his private dream of returning to Kfar Etzion fit into a greater vision of the nation "returning to the expanses of the Land of Israel"--the personal and national merging again.
On the night of May 14, several hundred students, alumni, rabbis, and other guests sat down for a festive meal in the Merkaz Harav dining hall. Tzvi Yehudah Kook began his holiday sermon. Utterly out of character, and to the shock of his students, he began to shout, rocked by grief. Nineteen years earlier, he recalled, when the news came that the United Nations had voted to partition the land and create a Jewish state, "the entire nation flowed into the streets to celebrate together. I could not go out and join in the joy." Instead, he said, quoting Lamentations, "'I sat alone and kept silence, because He had laid it upon me,' and in those first hours I could not accept what had been done, the terrible tidings, that the verse had been fulfilled, 'They have divided my land'!48
"Yes, where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it?! And where is our Shekhem?" he roared, using the biblical name for Nablus. "And our Jericho--will we forget them? And the far side of the Jordan--it is ours, every clod of soil...every region and bit of earth belonging to the Lord's land. Is it in our hands to give up even a millimeter?
"In that state, my entire body shaking, entirely wounded and cut to pieces, I could not celebrate."49
Kook's students would remember his speech as prophecy. Read carefully, however, his words contain no predictions, just pain: The land is torn, and the rabbi identifies so sharply with the land that he feels his own body torn. Much as the thought would offend his disciples, his experience echoes that of Christian stigmatics who experience Jesus' wounds--particularly since for Kook, possessing the land was the key to redemption.
And read carefully, that memory was only an introduction to his real point: After his shock, Kook said, he accepted that "this is the Lord's doing, it is beyond our understanding."50 Despite the division of the land, the State of Israel represented the "beginning of redemption" and was "the state that prophets foresaw" when they spoke of the End of Days. In the end, Kook's argument was not with the secular Zionists who had accepted partition, but with the ultra-Orthodox Jews who failed to recognize the state's sanctity and the need to thank God on Independence Day.
Even the annual military parade--to take place the next day in Jerusalem--was a religious event, he said. "All of the weapons...all are holy," he proclaimed, because the state had fulfilled a divine commandment to conquer the land, and the military was the means. Hanging in that argument, perhaps, is an implication that the army must yet complete the work. But Kook did not call on it to do so. Rather, he referred in past and present tense to what had already been done, proof that the state was fulfilling its mission.
The speech contains two parts: a reasoned defense of his political theology and a cry of longing for the land beyond the armistice lines. The cry was what inspired awe and made his listeners into a fellowship sharing illumination. Only in light of events that began that night, Porat and others would insist, could they grasp what the rabbi had vouchsafed them.
CHIEF OF STAFF Yitzhak Rabin passed the first report to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that evening. They and several other Israeli leaders had gathered with their wives at the Prime Minister's Office, which overlooked the stadium where the official Independence Day celebrations would begin with a dress review of troops. It was time to enjoy the ceremonial side of leadership, another chance for Eshkol to show off his wife, Miriam, thirty-four years his junior--except that Rabin had word of Egyptian troop movements through Cairo toward the Suez Canal.
By that time, in Washington, national security adviser Walt Rostow's morning staff meeting had already discussed Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser's decision to mobilize his army. While Rabin's source was the teletyped bulletins of news agencies, Rostow had more direct information: thousands of Egyptian soldiers were marching past the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Rostow knew that the day before the Syrian Foreign Ministry had told its ambassadors of "the probability of a large Israeli offensive" against Syria. Only later did he learn that the Soviet Union was the source of the false warning. After the morning meeting a National Security Council staffer, Harold Saunders, suggested to the State Department that it inform Nasser that Israeli forces were not massing on the border. State declined; the United States would have looked foolish if Israel did launch a quick raid.51
That evening and the next day, more reports followed. Egyptian troops were pouring into the Sinai Peninsula, the desert staging ground for any attack on Israel. Publicly, Eshkol and Rabin maintained form, attending the military parade. When it ended, Colonel Gazit of Military Intelligence drove straight from Jerusalem to army headquarters in Tel Aviv, where he convened his research staff in late afternoon. For hours they tried to decipher Nasser's motives, predict his next movements.
Close to midnight, Gazit got in his car to head home. On the radio was the finale of the last Independence Day event, the Israel Song Festival in Jerusalem. As a special treat, at the invitation of Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, popular songwriter Naomi Shemer had composed a new song in honor of the city, "Jerusalem of Gold." "The melody and the words captured my heart," Gazit later wrote. "From that moment, the IDF parade, the first research discussion and Naomi Shemer's prophetic song were for me the first act of the Six-Day War."52
Virtually the whole country would feel that way about Shemer's song, yet like Kook's speech, it intimates nothing of the future. Wildly mournful, suffused with romantic imagery borrowed from classical Jewish sources, "Jerusalem of Gold" is a ballad of two star-crossed lovers: the Jews and Jerusalem's Old City. The phrase "Jerusalem of gold" is an ancient Hebrew term for the tiara worn by a rich man's bride--hinting at the Talmud's romantic tale of a rabbi who married in poverty, lived for years apart from his wife to study Torah, and at last rewarded her faithfulness with the golden adornment.53 The chorus's words, "To all your songs / I am a harp," are taken from a lament for Jerusalem by the twelfth-century Hebrew poet Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, known both for his love poetry and hymns, who in turn was reweaving the biblical lament, "By the rivers of Babylon," in which the exiled Judeans "hanged up our harps" rather than sing songs of Zion in a strange land.54
Unlike Kook (or her own sources), Shemer makes no mention of God or faith. The song is a younger sister of In Your Covenant. It is an example of how, in an age when many people find that God has gone missing, secular nationalism can declare itself the heir of religion. Instead of finding one's place by submerging oneself in the great religious community stretching across generations, one becomes a link in the chain of an ethnic community also stretching across eternity. No less than a religion, the national group needs grand stories to define itself, and often builds them by refashioning religious myths and images--while insisting that meaning comes out of the romance between a nation and its land, rather than between believers and their God. In the Talmudic tale that Shemer borrowed, a "Jerusalem of gold" is a symbol of love delayed and fulfilled, and the story intimates that Jerusalem itself is a tangible symbol of the marriage--often described in religious literature--between God and the Jewish people. In the song, Jerusalem is herself the lover.
Also missing from Shemer's song are the Arabs. She describes the Old City market and the Temple Mount as empty, along with the land beyond them: "None descend to the Dead Sea / by way of Jericho." The lost land, the lost lover, simply waits for the Jews to return.
Gazit was right, though, to link his intelligence branch staff meeting and the song. Together, they mark Israel's contradictory state of mind at that moment, which would shape its response to the crisis of 1967. Militarily, Nasser's moves were a shock, defying Israeli assumptions. War was not planned. It came as an avalanche, the ground of certainty sliding away. Tactically, the IDF could face the challenge. But beyond simple defense there was no agreed political goal for war, no end to be achieved by means other than diplomacy. The ruling party had reconciled itself to partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs, and to the permanency of temporary borders.
Yet there were also people for whom, quite consciously, the borders were a violation of their emotions and their ideology, and others who could resonate with that feeling. They would be ready to give meaning to what was about to happen.
THE MOST OBVIOUS lesson of the avalanche is that brinkmanship really can lead to the abyss. Rabin and Eshkol intended their threats to frighten Syria into reining in the Palestinian groups, not to announce a war. By giving Syria and Egypt the false information that Israel was massing troops on the border, Moscow may have hoped to put them on such obvious alert that Israel would not attack. The result, though, was that Nasser marched his army into Sinai. Nasser, it seems, aimed at facing Israel down and renewing his dog-eared credentials as the defender of the Arabs, not at starting a war. When he demanded on May 16 that U.N. secretary-general U Thant remove the U.N. Emergency Force from Sinai, he may have expected a simple "no," allowing Egypt to look strong and avoid battle. Two days later, when the U.N. chief made the stunning decision that the peacekeeping force would move aside, Nasser's public bravado virtually required him to close the Straits of Tiran. He did so on May 22.
For Israel, that meant war had begun, and it had a paper trail to prove that the United States was committed to the same view. In 1957, Israel had agreed to withdraw from Sharm al-Sheikh only after Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, signed off on a deal: Using words approved by Dulles, Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir announced in the U.N. General Assembly that armed interference with Israeli shipping in the straits would be "an attack entitling [Israel] to exercise its inherent right of self-defense" under the U.N. Charter. Immediately afterward the American ambassador rose to the podium to confirm that the United States stood behind Meir's declaration.55
By May 25, Israel had called up its entire military reserves. Men up to the age of fifty-four disappeared from streets, homes, jobs. It was a nation interrupted, holding its breath, waiting for the explosion that with each day seemed certain to be more destructive. Nasser's gambit forced other Arab leaders to show they were as determined in their enmity to Israel. On May 30 King Hussein flew to Cairo and signed a defense pact with Nasser. On June 4, Iraq joined and began sending troops into Jordan. Arab radio stations broadcast calls for Israel's destruction.56 Reasoned miscalculation had led quickly to contagious hysteria.
But there were more implications to the avalanche days, which would bend Israel's course of action long afterward. U Thant's instant surrender to Nasser delegitimized the United Nations and foreign peacekeeping efforts. In particular, it suggested to Israelis that they had been conned when they withdrew from the Sinai a decade before.
Once the U.N. vanished, it was up to the United States to fulfill its commitments from 1957. The Johnson administration's response would undermine Israeli trust in American guarantees as well, and would complete the proof that the Sinai deal was worthless.
At the start of the crisis, as NSC staffer Saunders wrote in a secret summary afterward, the administration "decided" to keep Israel from acting on its own militarily. The quotation marks are Saunders's own; the policy, he says, was assumed rather than discussed. War, in principle, was something to be avoided, and would "put off the day of Arab-Israeli reconciliation just that much further." But by Saunders's inside account, Johnson and his aides also felt "deep concern for our own position if Israel got in over its head and asked for help in the middle of the Vietnam war."57 Johnson knew he could not convince Congress to let him send American soldiers to another strange part of the globe when he was already sinking in a quagmire elsewhere.58
Instead, the administration both reassured and cajoled Israel while seeking another solution. On May 23, Johnson went on TV and radio to voice "support of the political independence and territorial integrity of all the nations" of the Middle East, and to stress that the Straits of Tiran were international waters, open to all shipping.59 Soon after, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban arrived in Washington. The eloquent, Cambridge-educated diplomat knew the 1957 commitments well; he had helped negotiate them.
The climax of his visit was a Friday night meeting with Johnson. The president read from a text carefully prepared by his aides, his own emendations scrawled in, telling Eban: "The United States has its own constitutional processes which are basic to its actions on war and peace." In other words, he lacked Congress's backing for military action. "Israel would not be alone unless it decides to go alone," Johnson said, a warning that if the Israeli cabinet decided to go to war, the United States could not back it up. Instead, he urged waiting for America to "pursue vigorously" organizing an international naval force to open the straits.60
Eban himself wanted to avoid war. Returning quickly to Israel, he presented Johnson's comments to the cabinet as a promise of help, just barely convincing the ministers to postpone attacking Egypt.61 But Johnson found it hard to enlist other countries in a naval force. Worse, America's own participation depended on congressional approval, which Congress was not ready to grant. Johnson's secretary of state, Dean Rusk, described the reluctance on the Hill as "Tonkin Gulfitis."62 With Johnson straitjacketed by Vietnam, Israel would at last decide to go it alone.
BEFORE THAT, though, the crisis would warp Israeli politics, eroding Eshkol's power, forcing rivals into an unworkable partnership, and paralyzing policy for years to come.
By May 1967, Eshkol had ruled for four years, serving as defense minister as well as prime minister. He was seventy-one, born in a small town in the Ukraine, in the crumbling empire of the czars, raised in a Yiddish-speaking, religious family: an Everyman of Eastern European Jewry, except that instead of joining the much larger Jewish migration to America, he had left for Palestine at age nineteen. His father, who stayed behind, was murdered in a pogrom. In Palestine, Eshkol's path was again archetypical, this time for the "new Jew" that socialist Zionism sought to mold. He helped establish a kibbutz, Deganiah Bet on the Sea of Galilee, became a dedicated farmer and a dedicated Mapai man.63 Balding, round-faced, he was a master of the backroom meeting, and particularly of seeking and listening to opposing viewpoints. "I can talk for an hour in favor of anything, then for an hour against," he liked to say.64 His public speeches were often tangled, the monotonal soliloquies of a man meandering through all possibilities without quite making up his mind.65 His ascension to leadership in Ben-Gurion's place appeared as a victory of the party machine over dynamic personality and vision--a sign the party was growing up, or growing old.
Yet Eshkol did have his own appeal, crafted out of self-deprecatory jokes and constant use of Yiddish. That was a subversive combination, as hinted by his phrase for Israel, Shimshon der nebechdikker, "poor little Samson." Samson was the image of the new Jew to which secular Zionism aspired: a Hebrew-speaking Hercules, powerful and passionate, taken from the Bible but oblivious to piety. Not only is nebechdikker Yiddish, the language of exile, but the word encapsules the "old Jew"--powerless, ironic, deflecting insults with jokes. The contradiction defined Eshkol himself--a man of the earth, a womanizer, builder of a powerful army, whose use of Yiddish in policy discussions nonetheless contained a whispered jibe, as if to say to the "new Jews" around him, "Gentlemen, whom are we kidding?"
By the time the Straits were closed, though, the panicked Israeli public wanted a hero, without the irony. After the cabinet's vote to delay war, an exhausted Eshkol spoke to the nation by radio and stumbled over handwritten corrections in a text written for him at the last moment.
That was the breaking point. Newspaper ads, protesters outside his office, delegations of politicians demanded that Eshkol appoint an experienced defense minister. He could not ignore the pressure: An Israeli prime minister rules only at the pleasure of the coalition of parties that gives him a parliamentary majority, and is only the first among equals in his cabinet, which must approve his policies. Eshkol would not consider one popular candidate for the defense post, his predecessor and rival David Ben-Gurion, who accused him of having created the crisis. That left two candidates--the former generals Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan.
The two men shared such a common past, and were such opposites, that they seem like a pair of forever-wrestling twin brothers. Both were born in Palestine and grew up in farming villages; both rose to leadership through the military. An early photo shows them at the founding of Hanita, a kibbutz on the northern edge of British Palestine, in 1938. Between them is their mentor Yitzhak Sadeh, a radical socialist and military pioneer. The two young men hold rifles. Dayan's face is angular, with high cheekbones and a sharp chin. The operation in Vichy-ruled Syria in which he will lose an eye is yet ahead of him; he does not yet wear the patch that he will despise for the stares it attracts, the attention it draws. But at age twenty-three he already leans back, away from the camera, self-conscious, barely smiling, an inch or two of air between him and Sadeh. Writing later of that period, Dayan would say of himself, "Emotional partnership, sociability, and absolute egalitarianism were not in my nature." Allon, three years younger, shorter, square-faced, his shoulder pressed warmly against Sadeh's, grins widely, seizing the foreground.66 The stones marking the border with Lebanon originally cut across the hilltop chosen for the kibbutz, Allon recalled years later, and "it bothered me because it wasn't...symmetrical or aesthetic, so I rounded up my guys and we moved the border stones a few hundred meters northward."67 As much as the picture, the story portrays Allon: carefree, in command, unconcerned with rules, happy to redraw an international border to fit his imagination.
When Sadeh later organized the underground Palmah fighting force, he chose Allon and Dayan as his first two company commanders. Allon was the star. By 1945 he took over as the Palmah's commander and its avatar: He was, says historian Anita Shapira, "the person who in the eyes of an entire generation symbolized...the image of the human being...conceived and educated in the Land of Israel in the era of struggle for a Jewish state."68 A colleague would describe Allon as someone who could put his hand on your shoulder and convince you of anything; Dayan "didn't tend to put his hand on anyone's shoulder," Shapira says.69 He had a reputation, however, for more extensive physical contact with numerous women.
Following the war of independence, Allon, a member of Tabenkin's United Kibbutz movement, belonged to the pro-Soviet, far-left opposition. In October 1949, Ben-Gurion gave orders to replace him as southern front commander--with Dayan. This led to two conversations with Ben-Gurion in which, Allon recalled, "it was made clear to me that my movement and ideological comrades were suspected of disloyalty to the state's security and independence." At age thirty-one, Allon left the army. Perhaps Ben-Gurion's fears made sense. Just a year and a half had passed since the pro-Soviet coup in Prague. And charismatic revolutionary generals have done worse after victory than Allon, who ended up neither in exile nor with an icepick in his skull. He spent two years at university in Oxford and London, and later studied international relations with Henry Kissinger at Harvard, but returned home to become a leader of the leftist Ahdut Ha'avodah party as it finally broke with Moscow. By the 1960s, his party joined the governing coalition and he was minister of labor: a man of moderate power, adored by his former soldiers but unable to electrify others.70
As for Dayan, Ben-Gurion promoted him to military chief of staff, so that he became the hero of 1956's quick victory in Sinai against Egypt. From the army, he went directly into Mapai as Ben-Gurion's protégé. Impulsive, individualistic, Dayan seemed naked of political philosophy--qualities that may have boosted his appeal to Israelis tired of ideological bombast. When Ben-Gurion broke with Mapai in 1965, Dayan followed him and found himself out of power. The crisis of May 1967 opened a way back.
On May 31, Eshkol was about to give in to pressure from his own Mapai and Ahdut Ha'avodah ministers, who sought to make Allon defense minister. But the National Religious Party (NRP), a pillar of Eshkol's coalition, insisted on Dayan as defense minister, and on bringing his Rafi party and Menachem Begin's right-wing Gahal bloc into a "national unity government" to shore up morale.71 As Allon saw it, the NRP's preference for Dayan was simple: The religious Zionist party was dovish, and Allon himself was a known expansionist.72 On the other hand Dayan's mentor, Ben-Gurion, opposed war. The next day, Eshkol agreed to Dayan.
The change allowed Dayan to stride onstage as a savior. But it left the prime minister weak, physically sick at heart, half deposed, distrustful of party comrades who betrayed him, with a political enemy in charge of his military. The government reassuringly included everyone, and therefore lacked any common ground. It was capable of deciding to go to war, but not of defining the war's purpose or deciding what goals to pursue after victory--issues that would permanently shape the Jewish state.
Besides, Dayan's appointment did not prevent expansionism. When the crisis erupted, Chief of Staff Rabin's first battle plan was limited: Israel would conquer the Gaza Strip, and use it as a bargaining chip to convince Egypt to reopen the Straits of Tiran. That was the plan that the cabinet had postponed when it agreed to give the United States time for a diplomatic solution.73 Dayan, though, argued that Egypt would not want Gaza's refugees back. He sought a wider offense, aimed at destroying the Egyptian army and taking much of Sinai, though stopping short of the Suez Canal.74 History cannot tell us if Rabin's plan would have worked, but it was tailored to the strategic purpose at hand: defending the country and reopening the straits. Whatever Dayan's military arguments, his plan had another obvious goal: repeating his previous victory, retaking the land he had conquered and lost to diplomacy.
At the same time, Jordan and Iraq joined the Arab alliance, and the fever of "liberating Palestine" rose in the Arab world. Syria appeared ready for an offensive. Now there was a risk of war on three fronts.
For some generals, that represented an opportunity. Uzi Narkiss, who had fought in Jerusalem in 1948, had his own unfinished business and wanted to exploit any Jordanian attack to take the West Bank. Dayan wanted to keep the war to one front, but he could not count on the choice being his. Each day, the avalanche widened the potential conflict.
In Israeli cities, high school students dug trenches in public parks, volunteers filled sandbags, citizens cleaned bomb shelters and taped windows as protection against bomb blasts: all statements of vast vulnerability.75
Memory magnified fear. Just five years had passed since the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, architect of Nazi Germany's genocide of six million Jews. The trial, in which over one hundred witnesses described the Holocaust, brought to the surface the horrors that survivors had held silently within, and from which native-born Israelis had been protected. The identity of nations, like that of individuals, is built out of stories--told in past tense but perceived as timeless, as "who we are," as scripts that will be reenacted in the future unless by an immense effort of will they can be rewritten with new endings. The Eichmann trial confirmed the old story of Jewish persecution, amplified its terror, scarred a new generation. Abba Eban would later recall that as Arab tanks gathered on the borders, "In many places...there was talk of Auschwitz and Maidenak."76
In the Negev, facing Egypt, reservists yanked from normal lives alternated between boredom and unnatural seriousness. "It's no longer a game that you do everything to avoid," a reservist tank commander named Kobi Rabinovich wrote to his girlfriend about his men's attitude toward their Centurion. "They've finally realized that without this machine, nothing will help them." Rabinovich, a broad-shouldered, gentle-faced twenty-two-year-old with thick wavy hair, wrote about his tank--"I gave this machine all my heart"--with the affection another young man might feel for a Harley-Davidson, or for a horse. A child of Kibbutz Na'an, southeast of Tel Aviv, he was the exemplar of a social experiment's second generation: disciplined, speaking in the slogans of his movement, devoid of the rebelliousness that had given birth to the kibbutz movement in the first place. After finishing his regular army service the year before, he had begun his prescribed year of "volunteer" service to the United Kibbutz, leading youth movement activities in Tel Aviv, but in front of children he felt like a bolt screwed into the wrong nut. The call-up notice had brought him back to work "that fits my inclinations and abilities," he admitted in his letters. "Expectations are high," he wrote on May 30, the day Hussein flew to Cairo, and in the next line, "The strong desire is that nothing will happen."77
Hanan Porat, back in his paratroop unit with some of his yeshivah friends, had no mixed feelings. Those who had been at the Independence Day dinner believed they had special information about what was coming. Kook's speech "echoed in us, as if...the spirit of prophecy had descended upon him," he recalled. On the Sabbath, they began to sing the traditional song, "Next Year in Jerusalem." Their commander, joking, answered in tune, "Next week in the Sinai." The student-soldiers responded, "Next week in Jerusalem."78
Haim Gouri's brigade of middle-aged reservists consisted entirely of Jerusalemites, men with children, with two wars or three behind them. The unit he personally commanded was known as "the professors' company" for the four Hebrew University scholars who convinced the brigade commander to let them join though they had not received call-up notices. "Men feared they would be left out of the war that was approaching by the minute," Gouri wrote for his paper. His soldiers waited on the northeast edge of the city. Behind them was an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, apartments crowded with children. In front, beyond "the barbed wire fences [that] we thought would rust till the end of all generations," stood a Jordanian police academy. A few dozen meters separated the houses and the heavily fortified academy. "Everything testifies that this time the fire will take hold of Jerusalem," Gouri wrote, without need for a prophet. "For now, no one knows D-Day or H-Hour."79
D-DAY WAS JUNE 5, set by the cabinet the morning before. Military Intelligence chief Aharon Yariv reported that the Arab buildup was continuing on all fronts, so each hour increased the danger. The United States was still focusing on reopening the straits, not on the potential for an Arab invasion--and the American effort to organize an international convoy was going nowhere. Johnson had sent another cable warning Israel not to "go it alone." In the cabinet, the National Religious Party's ministers were among the last holdouts wanting to wait. But at last they came around. Israel would announce that Egypt had attacked, and strike first.80
Nasser had succeeded in one thing--frightening Israel. The decision to attack rested on the principle that offense would be the best defense, and the hope that it would be necessary only to fight Egypt. What followed shows that even the most successful offensive is a return to primeval chaos. It is shaped by what military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz called "friction"--all the unpredictable events that shatter plans and yield unimagined results.81
The day of the decision, Eshkol sought to control one kind of friction, the will of individuals. In a letter to Dayan, he laid down rules for their relationship. "The defense minister will not act without the prime minister's approval in anything involving: beginning...warfare against a particular country; military action within war beyond the general guidelines set down...."82 Eshkol's concerns proved justified, his note ineffective.
H-hour was 7:10 A.M., set by the military high command. Waves of Israeli warplanes took off, swept beneath enemy radar, and struck Egypt's air bases. Before 8:00 the ground assault began in Sinai. Only then did the air-raid sirens begin wailing inside Israel, sending frightened civilians to bomb shelters.
At the Knesset, legislators met that day in the parliamentary bomb shelter to discuss a bill financing the war effort, as Jordanian artillery shells fell on West Jerusalem. "Our people faces a fateful war...as the Hitlerite-Nasserist barbarianism sets for itself the goal of exterminating us," said the Finance Committee chairman as he presented the legislation, still caught in the fear of a new Holocaust, unaware of the progress of the fighting.83
That morning the BBC correspondent in Israel, Michael Elkins, a personal friend of several Israeli leaders, got a scoop unknown even to the country's legislators: Israel had destroyed the Egyptian air force, virtually ensuring victory. The news coming over the BBC would have shocked King Hussein, who heard that morning from Nasser that Egypt was smashing Israel's military. But Elkins's item was held up for several hours by the Israeli military censor, then by disbelieving BBC editors, who broadcast it only that evening.84 Israel broke its own news blackout on the battles only at 1:00 A.M. the next day, with a radio announcement by Rabin.85
No one can know if an early report on Egypt's debacle from the respected British network would have convinced the young Jordanian king to stay out of the war, saving half his kingdom. Through the war's first morning, Israel was sending Hussein warnings via third parties to keep his army out. Yet while Hussein feared Israel, he also feared the pro-Nasser frenzy in his own population. Jordanian artillery shells fell on Israel's narrow waist, on an air base near the northern edge of the West Bank, on West Jerusalem. In early afternoon, the ground assault began, as Jordanian troops took the U.N. headquarters on a hilltop in the no-man's-land between East and West Jerusalem. The battle for the West Bank had begun.
Initially, the Israeli counterattack was defensive. One goal was to seize a slice of the northern West Bank, around the town of Jenin, to end the fire at the northern air base. In Jerusalem, the army sought to take U.N. headquarters, and also to link up with Mount Scopus, a threatened Israeli enclave in northeast Jerusalem that had been surrounded by Jordanian land since 1948. The latter task was assigned in part to Colonel Mordechai Gur's paratroop brigade, quickly bused to the city from the southern front. Among the soldiers were Hanan Porat and his yeshivah friends. After midnight the paratroops moved past Haim Gouri's overage soldiers and began their assault on the police academy fortress.86
Yet once the troops crossed the Green Line, the logic of the avalanche took over. On the ground, commanders seized opportunities. In the cabinet, politicians renewed dreams unconnected to defense. By the war's first afternoon, Menachem Begin and Yigal Allon--rightist and leftist made partners by territorial desire--arrived at Eshkol's office and pressed the prime minister to take Jerusalem's Old City.87 A cabinet meeting that night postponed a decision; Eshkol was nervous about diplomatic fallout and the walled city's symbolism to other faiths. The next morning, arriving on Mount Scopus via ground conquered by the paratroopers in bitter fighting, Defense Minister Dayan refused to give Uzi Narkiss permission to enter the Old City. Surround it, Dayan said, but keep out of "all that Vatican."88 But by the predawn hours of June 7, with a U.N. cease-fire call expected, Eshkol gave the go-ahead to exploit opportunity, and Dayan ordered Colonel Gur's paratroopers to conquer Old Jerusalem.
Gur rode the lead half-track himself that morning, through the gunfire and smoke at St. Stephen's Gate on the east side of the Old City, through narrow alleyways and another gate onto the wide plaza in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock. At precisely 10:00 A.M. he radioed Narkiss, "The Temple Mount is in our hands." Narkiss's jeep pulled up moments later, followed by Rabbi Goren, who arrived on foot carrying a Torah scroll in one hand and a ram's horn in the other, recited biblical verses, and let loose with the horn's wild wail while the troops began singing "Jerusalem of Gold."89 Hurrying on, some of the soldiers descended from the Mount into the alleyways and found the courtyard of the Western Wall.
On the army's advice, Eshkol delayed visiting the Wall that afternoon, leaving the stage to Dayan to appear at the holy spot as conqueror, with a brief speech hinting neither at his hesitations about conquering the Old City nor at military goals: "We have reunited the dismembered city.... We have returned to our most holy places, returned in order never to be separated from them again." Goren's speech at the spot, which appeared the next morning on the front page of the National Religious Party's daily paper, expressed more cosmic expectations, rooted in prophecies he believed were being fulfilled before his eyes. "This is the most exalted moment in the history of the [Jewish] people," he proclaimed, describing the conquest as "heralding redemption."90
For yeshivah student and paratrooper Hanan Porat, a very specific prophecy was coming true. When men from his unit sacked a kiosk in East Jerusalem, Porat stole postcards of West Bank towns and mailed them to his yeshivah, Merkaz Harav. "You remember, gentlemen, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah's words--Shekhem, Hebron..." he wrote. "Here they are before you." At the yeshivah, the cards were posted prominently.91
Military advances were outpacing plans elsewhere as well. At the beginning of the West Bank offensive, Allon later recalled, Dayan sought only to "correct the line near Jenin to move the Jordanians out of artillery range." Allon, who by his own description "still held to the idea of the Whole Land of Israel," argued that with the same effort, the IDF could seize the entire West Bank.92 Dayan, it seems, was easy to convince; he described the West Bank as "part of the flesh and bones--indeed the very spirit--of the Land of Israel," and instantly related each landmark to a biblical story.93 Initially, the cabinet approved conquering only the high ground that forms the West Bank's spine, running south from Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah through Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem and Hebron, but as the Jordanian army cracked, the IDF rolled forward all the way to the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, taking the entire West Bank.94
In Jerusalem, Haim Gouri's radio squawked orders from the battalion chief to head north, to newly conquered Ramallah. Gouri found himself in a long convoy of jeeps and trucks. In the northern Jerusalem suburb of Shuafat, home of the city's wealthy Arabs, white flags fluttered from the roofs of mansions. Stores along the high road gaped open, already looted. A new model Buick, bullet-perforated, stood before a stately two-story house, from whose grated window a face peeked, isolated testimony that the residents actually existed. And then on the road: a lone Arab woman, in her thirties, wearing a white head scarf and a black village dress embroidered with blue and crimson, "straight-backed and lovely and petrified," Gouri wrote, "lips tight, watching," as if posted there to remind the eternally conflicted poet that there were people in his beloved countryside.95
On the southern front, too, chaos shared command. Dayan had planned to stay out of the Gaza Strip, with its teeming refugee camps, but when Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian units opened fire on Israeli communities on the Gaza border, Chief of Staff Rabin ordered troops in. In the Sinai, field commanders ignored Dayan's orders to stop twelve miles short of the Suez Canal, reaching the waterway as they chased the shattered Egyptian army--and a share of glory equal to those who had taken Jerusalem.96
But tank commander Kobi Rabinovich wrote from the canal's bank that he had found horror there, rather than glory. "We turned this peninsula into a valley of slaughter, one big graveyard," the kibbutz reservist told his girlfriend. "Unarmed men, captives with raised hands, were killed in violation of orders. In war you destroy weapons and those who hold them, but I've seen too many murders even to cry," he said, begging her to believe that he had "remained a human being, unstained."97
That letter was written on Saturday morning, June 10. By then, the war's final unplanned campaign was under way on the northern front. Syria's artillery had begun pounding Israeli border communities the first afternoon of the war, but Dayan did not want the burden of opening a third front and feared attacking the Soviet Union's closest ally in the region. In the bomb shelters of kibbutzim along the border, though, members desperately wanted the IDF to push the Syrians back. They had an ally in General David (Dado) Elazar, an ex-Palmah man who headed the army's Northern Command--and another in his friend and former commander, Yigal Allon. Allon's own home, Kibbutz Ginnosar, looked across the Sea of Galilee at the Syrian heights. But beyond that, as he later explained, Allon harbored a dream of Israel redrawing the Mideast map by thrusting over fifty miles to the Syrian city of Suweida. Once there, it would help the Druse religious minority that dominated the area to secede from Syria and establish an Israeli-allied Druse republic, "constituting a buffer state between Syria, Jordan and Israel.... That was my obsession."98
When representatives of the border kibbutzim contacted Allon, he arranged for them to meet Eshkol on June 9, drilled them on what to say, and joined the session himself. Convinced of the need to seize the border area (even if he was not swept up in Allon's dream), Eshkol took the extraordinary step of bringing the kibbutz leaders to a meeting that night of his war cabinet. But Dayan spoke adamantly against attacking Syria, and the ministers postponed a decision.99
Yet early the next morning, ignoring the limits on his authority, the utterly erratic Dayan ordered General Elazar to invade Syria. Only after the troops were moving did Dayan inform Eshkol. For his part, Allon spoke directly to Elazar, urging him to rush forward. "I shouted at Dado, 'Why don't you grab the chain of hills?'" Allon would recount, referring to the approaches to the Syrian town of Quneitrah. "He said, 'Listen, I've already grabbed more than they allowed me to.'"100 In the chain of command, all links were undone. Meanwhile, as the IDF broke Syrian defenses and rushed forward, Syrian civilians--except for the Druse minority--fled eastward.
IN THE MIDST of the fighting, the first proposals were born for the aftermath. At Military Intelligence's research department, Colonel Shlomo Gazit and his staff completed a document that called for a near-complete Israeli pullback to the prewar lines in return for full, formal peace agreements. Gazit's paper also proposed establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The paper was sent to Dayan, Rabin, and other top military figures on June 9. None responded.101
The same day, two Israeli officers met in Ramallah with Aziz Shehadeh--an Arab refugee from Jaffa who was a prominent lawyer and opponent of King Hussein's regime. Shehadeh quickly formulated his own proposal for a Palestinian state that would sign a peace agreement with Israel and passed it on to the Israelis--and also got no response. Shehadeh's sixteen-year-old son, Raja, raised on memories of the lost paradise of pre-1948 Arab Jaffa, with its beach and nightlife and affluence and scent of orange groves, typed the document for him. But what stuck in the teenager's memory that week was the shock of defeat, and his first sight on a Ramallah street of an Israeli soldier, barely older than himself, chest hair showing from his half-unbuttoned shirt, carrying a long rifle, someone "who had trained as a soldier and fought a war against us and won. And what had I been doing? A few marching exercises.... I felt more ashamed than I had ever felt in my life," he wrote years later, touching an issue beyond the reach of his father's paper. "But worse...I felt my manhood compromised."102
On that day as well, Allon shocked two of his old Palmah brigade commanders with his own gestating ideas. Allon picked up the two men, members of northern kibbutzim, for a jeep trip into the Syrian heights, following the advancing Israeli troops. Beforehand, by Allon's testimony, he had already toured the West Bank by helicopter and jeep, and what he saw defied his expectations: Though some of the residents were fleeing across the Jordan, "most were staying put...which hadn't happened in 1948." He saw that annexing the entire West Bank--as he and his party had long advocated--would shift the balance of Jews and Arabs in Israel and make it a binational state. He needed a compromise between old commitment and new facts.
So on the road into the heights, when one of his old comrades turned to him and said, "Nu, Yigal, the Whole Land of Israel at last!" Allon answered, "Right. But I have second thoughts about implementing that." Then he began describing a plan for holding much of the West Bank, what he saw as strategically essential, while giving up the mountain ridge where most of the Arabs lived. For Allon's friends, this was heresy from the prophet, at the very moment of fulfillment.103
ON SATURDAY, JUNE 10, as nightfall approached, the fighting guttered out in response to a United Nations call for a cease-fire. Quneitrah, now a ghost town, fell that day.
It was less than a week since Israelis had feared a new Holocaust. Measured by the original goal of defense, Israel's victory was complete. The armies that had loomed on its borders were in ruins. Measured in tactical terms--battles won, land gained--the Israeli success was stunning, as was the Arab humiliation. It was in those terms that Israelis, Arabs, and the watching world responded.
Yet during the war, "friction" and appetite overwhelmed strategic plans. Accidentally, Israel had acquired an empire. It was a shirt-pocket empire, to be sure, less than 3 percent the size of France's recently relinquished Algerian lands or Belgium's former holdings in the Congo. But the territory conquered, 26,000 square miles, was still more than three times the size of Israel itself on June 4, 1967. With 2.7 million citizens, most of them Jews, Israel occupied land that was home to an estimated 1.1 million Arab noncitizens.104 Now, after the fact, the purpose of conquest would have to be defined. A meaning needed to be found.
THE ACCIDENTAL EMPIRE Copyright © 2006 by Gershom Gorenberg
Meet the Author
Gershom Gorenberg is a columnist and associate editor at The Jerusalem Report. He is the author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount and co-author of Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, Ha'aretz, and Ma'ariv. Born in America and educated at the University of California and Hebrew University, Gorenberg lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount and co-author of Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. The Jerusalem correspondent for the Forward, he has also written for The Jerusalem Report, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The American Prospect. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.
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