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Reviewed by:
  • Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
  • William B. Quandt
Michael B. Oren , Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford, 2002. 446 pp. $30.00.

Six Days of War, Michael B. Oren's comprehensive account of the June 1967 Arab- Israeli War, has been widely praised for its vivid and detailed account of this seminal event in Middle Eastern history. The book has been called "definitive" and certainly has been a timely reminder of how many of the issues that confront Israelis and Palestinians today were shaped by events of a generation ago.

Although I share this generally high regard for Oren's book, I was hoping that his exhaustive research would help to unravel some of the minor—and a few not-so- minor—mysteries that have surrounded the conflict. On a few issues he has been able [End Page 145] to do so, but on many of the most significant puzzles the picture remains clouded. In a few cases he could have done more with the evidence at hand, but on balance he has used the available sources well and carefully.

Oren is not interested in grand theory, nor is he trying here to score a lot of debating points about who was at fault, although occasionally his political preferences do seem to show through. Overall the tone is cool, the narrative is objective, and the writing is fluent. It is an exciting, sad story well told.

To the extent that Oren relies on an explicit conceptual apparatus, it is a fairly simple one. He sees the attempt to identify a single cause or even several causes of the war as probably futile. He does say on page 2 that "water was the main issue," but his own account does not really sustain the notion that the war was primarily about water. Instead, he paints a picture that is much more complex. By the mid-1960s, when Egypt's President Gamal Abd al-Nasser was trying to restore his damaged prestige, one step toward that goal was his convening of Arab summits to do something about Israel. That "something" came to be a project to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River. The proposal caught Israel's attention, and the Israeli military began to worry about its deterrent credibility. Some of the generals were eager to show that Israel had not gone soft under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.

Meanwhile, a new Palestinian guerrilla movement was emerging, and by early 1966 it was encouraged by the radical Syrian regime to launch raids from Syria and Jordan against Israel. On top of all this, U.S.-Egyptian relations, which had been tolerable during the Kennedy administration, had deteriorated rapidly under Lyndon Johnson. Soviet leaders, for their part, were nervous about their influence in the Third World, as they watched the ouster of Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, and Indonesia's Sukarno by less pro-Soviet leaders. All of this made for a heady mix. Oren refers to these circumstances as the "context" that by the end of 1966 made war all but inevitable. In his words, it did not take much "to unleash a process of unbridled escalation, a chain reaction of dare and counterdare, gamble and miscalculation, all leading inexorably to war" (p.32).

But was war really inevitable by the end of 1966? I am not so sure. Few seemed to think so in early 1967. Indeed, until mid-May 1967 the view that war was coming was not widely shared in either Israel or Egypt, to say nothing of Moscow and Washington. Oren is a bit too reluctant to go beyond his analogy from chaos theory—that small events can have big consequences (p.2). Small events mattered, but there were also some major moments of decision and indecision that made a difference. Human agency cannot be downplayed so much in favor of something called "context." Fortunately, Oren tells the tale so well that the reader can identify most of the turning points when leaders faced and made momentous decisions.

Prior to Oren's...