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Israel: A refuge or a colonial project? Pt.4 Israeli historian Tom Segev

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re back in Jerusalem, and we’re joined again by Tom Segev. He’s the author of 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So why did the 1967 war take place? And how did it transform the Middle East?

SEGEV: This is the question that took me about 700 pages to answer.

JAY: Here it is, if you don’t believe it. Seven hundred pages.

SEGEV: Right. We are really talking about three different wars in 1967. The Six-Day War is not one war. It’s a war between Israel and Egypt, a war between Israel and Jordan, and a war between Israel and Syria. And they had different reasons why they broke out at the same week. The major war is between Israel and Egypt, and that one broke out mainly because Israelis were cut in [sic] by fear. They believed when the Egyptians threatened to destroy Israel. It’s very—takes a long time to explain why they believed it, but basically they believed it because these threats came at a particularly weak time in our history. The society was weak for many reasons. Economically this was a time when more Israelis would leave Israel for good than to come. The founding father of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, was no longer ruling the country. Instead, you had a prime minister who was a very decent man, but he was only a life-sized politician. Many reasons why the society was weak, but the major reason why the Israelis in those days believed that Egypt’s Nasser, President Nasser and Egypt, is about to destroy Israel was because of the memories of the Holocaust. There were so many Holocaust survivors still living in Israel. For them, the Holocaust was not part of history but it was real. And I think you have to remember that a few days before the war broke out, municipal rabbis in Israel went out to sanctify public gardens and parks and football fields, because they thought that tens of thousands of Israelis will be killed. And it’s only, I think, a country that has experienced a society that has experienced one Holocaust can prepare so meticulously for the next one. And so they honestly believed that Egypt is going to repeat the Holocaust. And that is why Israel attacked Egypt. Of course, within a few hours the threat was over, because within a few hours Israel was able to destroy the entire Egyptian Army, the Egyptian Air Force. And the question then is, so, okay, fine, the threat is over. Why didn’t you stop? Why did you go on occupying the West Bank?

JAY: Before you go further, from what we know now, was Egypt in fact ready to attack Israel?

SEGEV: We don’t really know that to the present day. They didn’t know it for the fact even then. The Israeli intelligence didn’t know. It’s arguable. There are historians who will tell you for certain yes, but I’m not satisfied with the information we have. I think that the Egyptian intentions to the present day are very, very difficult to determine as a fact. You can argue both ways.

JAY: Because Israeli intelligence is renowned. So at the time, one would think Israeli intelligence at least would have a pretty good idea how real it was, whether the population believed—.

SEGEV: No, they didn’t; the Israeli intelligence didn’t really know. All they knew was that he who strikes first is likely to win. And so they said, since we don’t really know what the intentions are, we can’t say for sure, it’s better for us to strike first. This was the position of the army. The government was very hesitant, very reluctant, waited for weeks before they eventually said, okay, there’s no alternative, so let’s strike first.

JAY: Okay. So let’s jump to where you were. So they knock out the Egyptian Air Force within a matter of hours.

SEGEV: And the threat is over. So why occupy the West Bank? The question is even more complicated, because six months prior to that, they did something which Israelis don’t very often do: they thought. They sat down to think, the heads of the foreign office, prime minister’s office, the Mossad, the army intelligence. The question was: is it in our interest to take the West Bank in any circumstances? It might happen that we need to take the West Bank if King Hussein falls, if the Iraqis—.

JAY: Now, just for viewers that don’t know the historical context here, the West Bank at the time is now under the control of Jordan.

SEGEV: Of Jordan, and it’s populated by Palestinians. And Israeli strategists raised the question: it may be necessary to take the West Bank. And so they discuss it six months prior to the war. And the final—the bottom line of these discussions, very long discussions in writing, is: it is not in our interest to take the West Bank. Why? Because it is populated with Palestinians. So let’s try and not take the West Bank. Comes the Six-Day War, comes this week, we have just defeated the Egyptians, and all reason is forgotten. The decision to take the West Bank, especially the decision to take East Jerusalem, is not rational. It doesn’t come from the head. It comes from the heart. It comes from the guts. It’s about holy places. It’s not about security. It’s about history. It’s about the Bible. It’s about, wow, the Wailing Wall. And when you look at the discussions that led to the occupation of East Jerusalem—it’s all in writing—these cabinet ministers sitting there, and not one of them raises the question, “Excuse me, why is it in the interest of Israel to have East Jerusalem? Why is it in our interest?” The question doesn’t come up. Why? Because they don’t think rationally. It’s, wow, we can have the Wailing Wall all of a sudden. It’s not a strategic interest. On the contrary, having taken East Jerusalem, they in fact decided that there won’t be peace. Why? Because there is no Israeli government who will ever be able to give it back. And so for the last 40 years we do have the Wailing Wall, but there is no chance that we can ever agree on dividing rule in Jerusalem. So this is the major problem of the Six-Day War.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s take there and also jump ahead, because my question will be: isn’t there a section of Israeli leadership that quite deliberately doesn’t want peace, and that this idea of a greater Israel has been an idea amongst a section of the people that make decisions in Israel for quite some time?

SEGEV: No, they want both.

JAY: Greater Israel and peace.


JAY: Okay. Well, let’s talk about that. Please join us for the rest of our interview with Tom Segev on The Real News Network.

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Tom Segev (Hebrew: תום שגב‎) is an Israeli historian, author and journalist. He is associated with Israel's New Historians, a group challenging many of the country's traditional narratives.

He worked during the 1970s as a correspondent for Maariv in Bonn. and he was has been a visiting professor at Rutgers University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Northeastern University,