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Book Review 202: Six Days of War

July 10, 2011 - Harry Eagar
SIX DAYS OF WAR: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael B Oren. 460 pages illustrated. Ballentine paperback, $16.95

The Six-day War is nearly half a century in the past – as far distant as World War I was from the Vietnam War. So in what sense is it still meaningful to say it made the modern Middle East?

Only perhaps in the sense that if the outcome had gone the other way, the Jews – and probably most of the Israeli Arabs, too – would have been murdered. Michael Oren's “Six Days of War” reminds us forcefully of that. Almost everybody seems to have forgotten.

The Arabs, fractured dozens of ways among themselves, agreed on that. The numerous quotations in the book prove that. In an afterword interview with Oren appended to the paperback edition of this 2002 study, Oren says. “Among the causes of the 1967 war, ignorance was perhaps the most prominent.”

The Arab governments did not themselves know what their policies were. And, it appears, the USSR was also confused. It did not take much additional confusion to torpedo what little firmness of purpose Nasser and the other Arab “leaders” (scare quotes advisable) may have entertained.

The Israelis, despite their famed intelligence, were in the dark, but with perhaps better justification. There was an awful lot of dark.

Among the many excellences of Oren's book is his recovery, for American readers, anyway, of the central importance of Abd al-Hakim Amer, Nasser's best friend – from Nasser's point of view, anyway – a drug-addled incompetent who seems to have combined the worst features of a Iago and a Conrad von Hotzendorf (the Austrian army commander who was disastrously confident of victory in 1914).

The incompetence of the Arab governments was comical, in the sense that Minitru in “1984” was comical. It was literally true that Arabs were expected to believe, for example, one week that Jprdan was the tool of the Jews, and the next that it was the true friend of the Arabs. It is not so clear, then or now, that Arabs have the kind of cynical reaction to the vagaries of party lines that Russians developed to such a fine pitch. In any event, whether Syria or Saudi Arabia was the enemy of the “true Arabs” that week or not, the message of “kill the Jews” was unvarying and, so far as it is possible to judge in societies where freedom of expression was limited to rioting, always heartily welcomed by everybody.

It also appears that few in power in the Middle East really wanted a war at that time. To say that the Arabs, and notably the Egyptians, did not want war would be going too far, though. Nasser often said he would deal with the Jews when he was strong enough. There is no reason to think he did not mean it.

The expansionist wing of Israeli politics was not then very influential. The important dispute was between accommodationists and those who thought that force was the only way. We see now that accommodation was never possible.

In the afterword. Oren says, “Today, a solid majority of Israelis have abandoned the notion of a Greater Israel.” This is correct, but even in 1966-67 there was never any chance that the Israeli Defense Forces were going to invade the West Bank solely for the purpose of annexing it. Oren goes on to say, “The Palestinians, however, have yet to reciprocate that recognition.” No kidding.

Then and today, the second controlling fact in Middle East politics, as important as universal Jew-hatred, is that nobody can stand the Palestinians. Their bottomless self-pity – so like the rightwing Germans – must be fueled by the sense that they are as hated and despised as the Jews, with this difference: The Jews have been admired and feared because of their supposed cleverness. No one ever admired the Palestinians for their cleverness.

It is notable how small a real role the Palestinians played in the runup to and fighting of the Six-day War. No Arab leader thought it necessary to consult with the “leaders” of the group whose interests were supposedly the reason for conflict.

As the Arab leaders attempted the difficult-to-balance trick of sounding bellicose without actually fighting, the Palestinians kept Israeli nerves frayed by endless terrorist raids, while constricting the freedom of action of the men who controlled real Arab armies.

While they vastly overrated the capability of these armies, they also worried that they were not strong enough to match the IDF, but none thought the Palestinians were worth anything militarily either.

Certainly none of the Arab leaders in positions of responsibility was willing to fight for the Palestinian cause. The Palestinians, then and now, had no value to them except as a distraction from their incompetence, and for them the only really satisfactory settlement of the Palestine/Israel problem would have been for the last Israeli to be strangled with the guts of the last Palestinian.

While the desperate connivings of the Arabs are comical, the flailings of the democratic Israelis are tragic. Seldom has a society faced such a crisis, not merely to the survival of a state, but to the continued life of each person in it. But domestic maneuvers went on as usual, as if it was more important who would be prime minister than whether there would be any Israelis to govern.

The Israeli government had a hard time knowing what its policy was, and then when it did decide could not get Abba Eban to faithfully represent it to the United Nations, United States or world opinion.

It seems odd, today, that France was Israel's solidest ally. The United States, despite claims, then and now, that its government is blindly supportive, even subservient, to Israel, was unhelpful, even inimical to Israel's survival. President Johnson was committed, but as with Roosevelt's commitment to democracy in 1940, he found it impossible to rein in the antidemocratic momentum of, especially, the State Department, never happy to have to deal with a free government, especially a small one.

Oren does not say all these things in so many words. He set himself a goal of presenting the events impartially, and he has done as good a job as anyone might. If the Arabs come across as bloodthirsty incompetents, that is because they were bloodthirsty incompetents.

He ransacked the public documents, which are good for Israel and America and recently not so bad for the Soviet Union, but the Arab governments have not opened their archives. Since all the Arab governments controlled their press and radio, it was possible at least to reconstruct what the Arab leaders wanted the world to think they were thinking. Significantly, Sadat, the closest thing to a non-fascist leader the Arabs have produced, sulked in his tent throughout. Presumably he was not shocked by the defeats, perhaps the only Arab who was not.

“Six Days of War” is really about policy and diplomacy. The war itself takes up only half the book and is sketchy. There is not even an order of battle.


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