June 8, 2007

All Reason Lost

This week's 40th anniversary of Israel's 1967 war has brought a barrage of retrospection. Instead of re-affirming the myth of the miraculous victory over promised annihilation, the date has forced an acknowledgment of, if not a full reckoning with, a generation-long occupation with disastrous consequences for both the state of Israel and the Palestinians who have been held captive ever since. With no end in sight, there is only the slow creep of the disaster, one measured slab by slab of the West Bank's dissolution into containment walls and barbed-wired settlements. It is hard to imagine now that Israel will find any peaceful way to relinquish what it cannot conquer, recalling Thomas Jefferson's famous quote about the U.S. and slavery: "As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is one scale, and self-preservation is in the other." Forty years after that comment, the country was on the eve of its Civil War.

In the U.S., Israeli-journalist Tom Segev's media tour has been the most prominent expression of this mood. He describes without qualification Israel's grave mistake in choosing occupation of the West Bank over all law, reason, national interest, or moral regard. Through interviews and an opinion piece in The New York Times (June 5, 2007) he outlines the signs the Eshkol government had for refusing the temptation of seizing East Jerusalem and the rest of the Jordan-controlled territories. That Israel gave into that temptation against its own intelligence was, he says with sad exasperation, an absolute "loss of reason." The push of euphoria, the seduction of fantasy, the bloody enthusiasm of victory turned the thrust of occupation into the myth of "liberation." Segev writes:

"[E]motions propelled the Israelis to act against their national interest. It may have been a series of threatening moves taken by Egypt, or it may have been the intoxication of victory, but in view of the results of the war there was indeed no justification for the panic that had preceded it, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it, which is what makes the story of Israel in 1967 so difficult to comprehend."

Segev's new book, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, may provide more nuance than his interviews in explaining the panic that preceded the conflict with Egypt. Nasser's rhetoric of annihilation certainly inspired fear in Israelis, but one cannot, as Segev suggests, simply cite the personal letters that came from Israel during that time as if those letters, outside government declarations, expressed some unvarnished truth. Those letters surely borrow from the Holocaust language that saturated the public discourse in May of '67. It was a language that tried to give measure to the threat by invoking Auschwitz, and with the specter of the Shoah, justify a preventive war. It turned the historical destruction into a borrowed drama to be played again. That facts that Egypt was incapable of carrying out its threats and Jordan could be rebuffed without taking the West Bank dissolved in the rhetoric that replaced politics with ecstatic visions of death and deliverance.