Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael B Oren
446pp, Oxford University Press, £25
The six-day war, which Arabs prefer to call the June 1967 war, was a war that nobody planned and nobody wanted. Nevertheless, it was a major turning point in the history of the Middle East in the 20th century. Big wars, as AJP Taylor once remarked, sometimes have small causes, and this is probably true of the six-day war. President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt triggered the crisis by embarking on an exercise in brinkmanship that went over the brink, with disastrous consequences for all concerned. Thirty-five years on, we continue to live in the shadow of that war, with some of its problems still unresolved - notably the Palestinian problem.
Israel, paradoxically, was both the victim and the victor. Before the war, it was not nearly as confident or self-assured as it was to become in its aftermath. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol captured Israel’s ambiguous position, which combined military invincibility with an acute sense of vulnerability, in the Yiddish words “Shimshon der nebechdikker” - poor little Samson. True, Israel fired the first shot, but the slide into crisis that culminated in war was not of Israel’s making. Rather, it was the result of over-bidding in the Arab cold war. Israel was like a football thrown on to the field and kicked around by the various Arab players - but the game ended, unusually, with the football kicking the players.
The war thus provides a striking illustration of the perennial predicament of the Arab states: they cannot act separately and they cannot act collectively; they keep getting in one another’s way. On this occasion, the level of incompetence displayed by the Arab leaders was quite staggering. After 10 years of preparation for what was often referred to as the battle of destiny, and after raising popular passions to a fever pitch with their blood-curdling rhetoric, the leaders of the confrontation states were caught by complete surprise when Israel took their threats at face value and landed the first blow.
The war lasted six days, 132 hours to be precise. But the battle was all but lost in the first hour, when the Israeli air force succeeded in destroying on the ground a very high proportion of the enemy combat planes. “Never in the history of military aviation has the exercise of air power played so speedy and decisive a part in modern warfare,” observed R Goring-Morris, Britain’s air attaché in Tel Aviv. Rarely, one might add, has such a short war had so many books written about it.
Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, deserves credit for producing the most detailed, the most comprehensive and by far the best-documented history that we have on this short but fateful war. The book includes chapters on the context, the countdown, and the aftermath of the conflict. But the bulk of the book is a day-by day, almost blow-by-blow account of the war itself. The description of military operations on the various fronts is accompanied by accounts of the political crises in the capitals of the belligerents, the role played by the superpowers, and the diplomatic moves to arrange a cease-fire at the United Nations in New York. Throughout the book, Oren uses the full panoply of sources in four European languages, Hebrew and Arabic. He is one of the first writers to take advantage of the thousands of official documents that were recently declassified under the 30-year rule. The products of this prodigious archival research, and of the interviews that Oren conducted with about 60 policy-makers, are used to very good effect. The result is a fast-moving and action-packed narrative that sheds a great deal of new light on all the major participants in the war and on the conflict and cooperation between them.
By the time the guns fell silent, Israel had captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. The ball was now clearly in its court. For the first time in its history, Israel was in a position to trade land for peace. Its post-war diplomacy, however, turned out to be as cautious and hesitant as its wartime strategy had been daring and decisive. The national unity government headed by Levi Eshkol was deeply divided. Eshkol and Abba Eban, his eloquent foreign minister, led a group of moderates who were willing to return virtually all the captured land, except Jerusalem, to achieve peace with their neighbours. Facing them was a group of hard-liners who, for strategic and ideological reasons, insisted on keeping most of the territories.
Defence minister Moshe Dayan was a law unto himself. Six weeks after the end of the war, according to the British Embassy’s count, Dayan expressed no less than six different opinions on peace. The resounding military victory over which Dayan presided greatly enhanced his political power at home, and he used this power to impose his muddled and myopic ideas on the wavering cabinet. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man was king.
On June 19, 1967, the cabinet secretly decided to withdraw to the international border with Egypt and Syria in exchange for peace and the demilitarisation of Sinai and the Golan Heights. No decision could be reached, however, regarding the future of the West Bank. Four months later, following the Arab summit at Khartoum, the cabinet went back on the offer which was never in fact communicated to the Egyptian or Syrian governments. Strong nationalistic and messianic currents propelled the Israeli government to start building settlements on the West Bank, which was ever more insistently claimed as an integral part of the ancestral Land of Israel.
During the period of uncertainty following the victory, the cabinet explored the option of an autonomous Palestinian entity on the West Bank, as well as the option of restoring most of the area to Jordanian sovereignty. The settlement drive undermined both options. It also began to erode the democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel. The great victory it had won in legitimate self-defence turned out to be an albatross round Israel’s neck.