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  • The Revelations of 1967New Research on the Six Day War and Its Lessons for the Contemporary Middle East
  • Michael Oren (bio)

What Lessons Does One Learn for the Present from the June War of 1967?

One may begin to search for instructive insights by looking at a scenario that will probably sound familiar to most observers of the Modern Middle East. The scenario begins with an Arab leader who, though beloved by much of the Arab world, is feared and hated by other Arab leaders. He is a military dictator who is widely rumored to have stockpiled weapons of mass destruction—who has used non-conventional weaponry even against his fellow Arabs. He has openly defied UN resolutions, and evicted UN observers from his territory. He poses a fundamental challenge to the West—and one Western country accepts that challenge and goes to war.

The fighting proceeds far more swiftly than anybody anticipates. The once-thought-formidable forces of the Arab dictator rapidly collapse. And as the Western army advances, it is greeted by much of the local population, not as occupiers, but as liberators. That situation does not obtain indefinitely, however. Soon there are acts of armed resistance against the occupation force—acts viewed throughout the region as legitimate attempts to achieve liberation, but seen by much of the West as acts of terror. Does that scenario sound familiar? Of course it does. To anybody following America's involvement in Iraq it certainly should. Yet the circumstances just described pertain not only to America's year-old intervention in Iraq, but to events that transpired 37 years ago—in May–June 1967—in the period leading up to the Six Day War.

Then, as now, there was an Arab dictator—not Saddam Hussein, but Gamal Abdul Nasser, the president of Egypt—who was beloved by many people throughout the Arab world, but feared and hated by other [End Page 1] Arab leaders. Nasser was rumored to have stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, and was the first Middle-Eastern leader to introduce non-conventional weaponry into the region, using poison gas against the Saudis during the Yemeni civil war in 1962. Nasser had defied UN resolutions and evicted UN observers from his territory. He therefore posed a fundamental challenge to the West—to one Western-style country in particular, the State of Israel.

Nasser threatened to wage a war of annihilation against Israel and to cast its Jewish inhabitants into the sea.1 Israeli leadership did not wait around to see if Nasser was serious about that threat. On 5 June 1967, Israel acted preemptively. It attacked Egypt and its Arab allies, and the war proceeded far more rapidly than anybody anticipated. Nasser's forces crumbled; and though it is hard to imagine today, in many areas they captured, Israeli forces were greeted as liberators.2 That situation did not last long, however. Soon the Israelis became targets of acts of resistance—acts viewed as legitimate throughout the region, but seen by Israel and its allies as acts of terror.

Since that period (May, June 1967), every major event, every milestone in the Arab-Israeli conflict—the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, the whole peace process, the question of Israeli settlements in the territories, the status of Jerusalem—all of these events have been the direct outcome of 6 days of intense fighting 37 years ago. There does not seem to be another example in history of an event that was so short and so limited geographically that has had such profound, long-term regional, and indeed global, ramifications. It seems safe to say that, for statesmen and military leaders, both in the Middle East and beyond, the Six Day War never really ended. For historians, it is only just beginning.

It is only just beginning thanks to the declassification of tens of thousands of formerly top-secret documents in archives across North America, in Great Britain, in Israel, and even in the former Soviet Union, and the publication in Arab countries, Jordan in particular, and in England, of memoirs of former decision-makers and military commanders. These new sources provide us with unprecedented...


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