Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. By Michael B. Oren. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-515174-7. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xv, 446. $30.00.
"We have screwed every Arab country" was the crass verdict of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Haim Bar-Lev, speaking to the cabinet a few days after the end of the Six Day War. But a reluctant screwing it was, according to Michael Oren, in his acclaimed history of the war. He efficiently summarizes political-military events leading up to the [End Page 297] 1967 crisis and moves at a measured pace through the six days of combat, with judicious selections from participant interviews and memoirs, along with recently declassified documents. Military historians will find little about force structure, armaments, or the planning and preparation that made the IDF so formidable in 1967, and the author's maps are wholly inadequate. But the narrative is lively, breaking new ground on many points, and the incorporation of Arab sources and first-hand accounts gives it a balance that cannot be seriously challenged.
In forcing the crisis, Arab leaders displayed unwarranted confidence in their military power. Egypt in particular suffered from hubris; their dismal campaign in Yemen—characterized in equal parts by incompetence and brutality—should have alerted them to deep-seated problems, but these were ignored by the man Oren identifies as the architect of Egypt's disgraceful performance in the Six Day War—Field Marshal 'Amer, Nasser's longtime crony and a man with a truly staggering gulf between his ambition and his talents. Nasser himself, desperate to regain his preeminence within the Arab world, pushed the Israelis to the wall during the spring and summer of 1967 by closing the Straits of Tiran, forward-deploying Egyptian troops while expelling UN observers from the Sinai, and encouraging the Egyptian Air Force to overfly the Dimona nuclear reactor.
After painful and acrimonious debate Israel elected to seize the
initiative, planning to fight a single-front ground war against Egypt
on the heels of a brilliantly conceived and executed omnidirectional
air campaign to neutralize all three principal Arab air forces. The IDF
expected Jordan and Syria to be verbally bellicose while militarily
restrained, but the willingness of both countries to bombard targets
in Israel finally drove the cabinet—after success in the Sinai
was assured—to expand the war. Oren painstakingly documents
the reluctance with which Israeli political and military leaders
authorized the IDF's bloody incursion into the West Bank and East
Jerusalem. Jordan's self-defeating pugnacity was a late development,
triggered by King Hussein's fear that remaining aloof from Nasser's
confrontation with Israel would threaten his dynasty. In the case of
Syria the hatred of Israel was reinforced, Oren notes, by irresponsible
behavior on the part of the U.S.S.R., which had long been feeding Arab
paranoia with false intelligence about an IDF buildup in northern Israel
and alleged invasion plans. The Israelis tolerated Syria's cross-border
shelling for a remarkably long time after the outbreak of the war,
with the cabinet voting on June 8th (at Moshe Dayan's recommendation)
not to attack the Golan Heights. Dayan reversed himself the next morning
and—without consulting the Prime Minister—authorized an
uphill frontal assault that succeeded in large part because the Syrian
Army had prudently decided to withdraw most of its
forward-deployed forces from the Heights.
One issue Oren lays decisively to rest (which has gone virtually unmentioned by most reviewers) is the attack on the USS Liberty. Military professionals with first-hand experience of the "fog of war" will find Israel's case for [End Page 298] mistaken identity persuasive. Sadly, we cannot expect it to persuade the powerful and persistent "Liberty Lobby" in the U.S., which brushes off every Israeli apology as readily as it embraces every conspiracy theory. Oren notes that after thirty-five years no plausible motive for such an attack has surfaced, and given the Israelis' cautious and convoluted political-military decision making process (which he so ably documents), it is impossible to disagree with him.
Oren somewhat surprisingly lapses into ambiguity at the end of his
narrative. He asserts that "Even from the perspective of thirty-five
years, the answer to the question 'Did six days of war truly change the
Middle East?' remains equivocal." But the record of the past three decades
suggests that in occupying Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem the
Israelis made a decisive break with the past. They got into colonialism,
and opened the door to a settlement movement that has frustrated every
attempt to bring peace to the region. The key counterfactual is how the
Palestinian community on the West Bank might have evolved had Jordan
showed the modicum of restraint that would have stayed the Israelis'
hand in 1967. Given the opportunity, would Palestinians have resigned
themselves to becoming citizens of Jordan instead of collectively
endorsing "PLO, Inc.?" The answer is beyond the scope of Oren's book,
but he might have posed the question.
Ralph M. Hitchens