Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren
Reviewed by Doug Brown
Before reading Six Days of War, my American media view of the Six-Day War was that all the Arab countries attacked Israel, Israel pushed the attackers all the way to the Jordan, and then refused to give Gaza and the West Bank back in violation of UN Resolution 242. As is usually the case, history is not so clean. Israel struck first, though who really started the war is a murkier proposition. After the war, Israel accepted Resolution 242, but most Arab countries didn't. There were heroes and cowards on both sides, as were there hawks and doves. The one thing that is clear is that in June 1967 the doves were shouted down on all sides -- the Summer of Love never made it to the Middle East.
Oren begins his well-balanced overview of the war with a brief history of the creation of Israel, including the wars of 1948 and 1956. Oren places one of the starting points of the Six-Day War with Yasser Arafat's al-Fatah guerilla attacks launched from the West Bank in 1966, and Israel's belligerent response on the West Bank villages that had harbored the guerillas (a lesson still unlearned on both sides). Syrian-sponsored terrorism was causing everyone in the Middle East problems, not just Israel. However, one thing the Arab nations agreed on was Israel's illegitimacy, so when Syria began openly advocating war with Israel, Arab nations were willing to overlook their differences. Egyptian president Nasser formed a mutual defense past with Syria should Israel attack either Egypt or Syria. Syria bombarded Israeli settlements from emplacements on the Golan Heights and talked up war to anyone who would listen. In May 1967 Russia's ambassador met with Nasser and convinced him that Israel was massing forces along the Syrian border in preparation of an attack (they weren't). Nasser kicked UN forces out of the Sinai desert and moved his forces along the Israel border. Israel moved their forces to the border as well. Everyone rattled their sabers at everyone else. It wasn't a question of whether there would be war; just who would fire first.
Israel's leaders spoke in contradictory terms about the prospect of war. In one breath they would (correctly, it turns out) confidently predict that in the event of war they would defeat their enemies swiftly. However, in the next breath they would say war could well be the end of Israel. Oren calls this self-contradictory position "Samson the nerd." As insurance, Israel made efforts to get the US to join battle if Israel were attacked. Johnson was bogged down in Vietnam, and while offering moral support, merely said repeatedly that if the Israelis attacked first they would be on their own.
Nevertheless, it was Israel's besieged fear of decimation that led them to strike first -- against Egypt, who comprised the greater military threat. In the first few hours much of Egypt's Russian-supplied air force was gone, along with their runways. Through poor preparation and communications, Egypt's forces were quickly routed, many of them abandoning equipment and fleeing on foot towards the Suez Canal. Egyptian radio said the Israelis had attacked (true), that Egypt's forces were pushing them back to Tel Aviv (not true), that Syrian forces were pushing south into Israel (not true, though by treaty it should have been), and that the Israeli attack had been led by US and British air forces (so untrue Johnson referred to it as the "Big Lie"). Israel radio said Egypt had attacked (not true), but kept quiet about the progress of the battle. Israel knew they had a limited amount of time before the UN imposed a cease-fire, and they wanted to attain maximum gains during that window. They feared that if they accurately reported their blitzkrieg progress across the Sinai, the cease-fire would be hastened. Meanwhile Syria, the nation most responsible for initiating hostilities, did nothing except continue the perennial shelling from Golan (though of course Damascus radio claimed Syrian forces were halfway into Israel).
Befitting the title, much of Six Days of War is given over to what happened on each day of the battle, with a lengthy chapter for each day. While Israel made efforts before the war to avert it, once it started they worked harder than everyone to make sure it didn't end too soon. After the first couple of days a cease-fire looked imminent, but Israel found ways of delaying. A common tactic was to put forth conditional cease-fire resolutions that called for Israel to keep the ground gained, which they knew wouldn't be accepted by their opponents. At the end of day four, when a cease-fire seemed to be in place, Israel placed the condition on Syria that all shelling from Golan had to stop. Syria said it couldn't guarantee that some unit might have a broken radio, which was all Israel needed to call an attack on Golan and extend the war two more days.
By the time the firing finally stopped at the end of the sixth day, Israel's forces were at a perimeter three times the original size of the nation. All of the Sinai desert to the Suez Canal was under Israeli control, as were the Golan Heights. And most famously (or infamously), Gaza and the West Bank were no longer under Arab command. Most of Egypt's armed forces were decimated, though Russia built them back up over the next several years. UN Resolution 242 called for Israel to return to pre-1967 borders, but it also called for Arab nations to recognize Israel. Israel and Jordan agreed; everyone else refused. So Israel sat pat upon their spoils of war, allowing the Arab world to hypocritically paint Israel as an international scofflaw (though most Middle Eastern countries are also technically in violation of the resolution). Oren suggests that one of the worst outcomes of the war was the fall of secular pan-Arabism, and the rise of Islamic militarism with its embrace of terrorism. The war also made the US and Israel military allies (before the war France and Britain supplied most of Israel's military supplies), which in turn attached America's name to Israel's in the minds of the new Islamic extremists.
Six Days of War, though written by an Israeli, is not a pro-Israel take on the war. While Israel came out well militarily in the war, they don't come out as rosy in Oren's behind-the-scenes view. However, he avoids conspiracy theories. He makes a good case that Israel's shocking attack on the USS Liberty (it was repeatedly strafed, then torpedoed) was most likely the result of crossed signals and mistaken identity rather than an intentional act against a US warship. Oren feels much of the blame for the war lies with Syria, which to this day has never been called to task for it. I recommend Six Days of War for anyone wanting to know more about why much of the state of the Middle East is the way it is today. It has been thirty years since the Six-Day War officially ended, but in many respects it is still being fought â€“- on both sides.