June 13, 2002

The Economist Reviews Oren, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East"

Yet another book that I must add to my to-be-read pile. Nevertheless, it is not clear to me from the body of the review how the Economist's reviewer or Mr. Oren reach the conclusion that Egyptian dictator Nasser did not want war. After all, Nasser "closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. 'The Jews threaten war,' he roared. 'We tell them: you are welcome, we are ready.'"

If you really don't want war or the risk of war, that is not what you do...


Arabs and Israelis: It needn't have happened
Jun 13th 2002
From The Economist print edition

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael B. Oren. Oxford University Press; 446 pages; $30.

WARS don't really break out by accident, do they? In June 1967, one did. The strength of Michael Oren's meticulous new history lies less in his account of the six-day war than in his analysis of the crisis that preceded it. With India and Pakistan in a hair-trigger confrontation over Kashmir, the sequence of miscalculations that propelled the Middle East into war 35 years ago looks newly relevant.

Mr Oren argues that neither Israel nor Egypt wanted war. So what caused it? First, of course, was the existence of an unresolved political conflict. In the late 1960s, the Arab states still deemed Israel's creation illegitimate and demanded its reversal. All-out war seemed improbable, but low-level violence was omnipresent. Cross-border Palestinian raids, many by Yasser Arafat's new Fatah organisation, prompted ever-harsher Israeli reprisals. There were artillery and--in April 1967--air skirmishes between Israel and a fiery Baathist regime in Syria. All the same, Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, did not believe that the Arabs were ready for war. And Israel's prime minister, Levi Eshkol, was determined to prevent tension with Syria sparking a wider conflict.

A second destabilising factor, however, was the cold war. The coup-threatened Syrian regime saw its hard line against the "ionist entity" as a way to shore up its own credibility. And the Soviet Union, though wary of starting a war that the Arabs might not win, nonetheless saw cold-war advantage to be gained by keeping regional tensions on a low boil. In April 1967, for reasons that Mr Oren still finds mysterious, the Soviets warned the Egyptians, erroneously, that Israel was massing its army for an invasion of Syria. Fatefully, Nasser took the Soviet warning seriously.

Nasser was aware of his army's shortcomings. But--and to Mr Oren's mind this was a third factor that precipitated war--his caution was not shared by Field-Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, the head of the armed forces, with whom Nasser shared a complex and rivalrous friendship. Under pressure from Amer, with tension high on the Israel-Syria border, and after the Soviet warning, Nasser could not do nothing. So he decided, initially as a mere gesture, to send his forces ostentatiously into the Sinai peninsula. When he discovered that Israeli troops were not after all massing against Syria, it was too late, without a climb-down, to call them back.

By now, the crisis fed on itself. Egypt's fire-breathing move into Sinai thrilled Arab opinion everywhere. Lionised by the masses, feeling himself on a roll, Nasser followed up by demanding, as was his right, the withdrawal of the UN forces deployed on his border with Israel. He then closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. "The Jews threaten war," he roared. "We tell them: you are welcome, we are ready."

These manoeuvres created confusion in Israel. Though Eshkol had mobilised much of Israel's army, his initial assessment was that Nasser was seeking prestige rather than war. But the closure of the strait shook his confidence. And Eshkol's reluctance to respond was soon seen in Israel as a problem in itself. Israel's generals were now advising the prime minister that showing such weakness would fatally compromise the nation's deterrence.

A final destabilising factor was the inadequate response of the great powers. The Americans did not give Israel the reassurance it sought. President Johnson called for Egypt to lift its blockade of what America considered an international waterway. In private, he made his partiality to Israel plain. But Johnson did not provide Israel with a non-military way out of the crisis. The Pentagon grumbled about a proposal to send an international armada through the blocked strait, and congressmen feared America being drawn into a second Vietnam. Israel, Johnson told its foreign minister, "will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone." But if Israel did not go it alone, who else would sever the noose it felt tightening around its neck?

The fear of fighting alone

So one-sided was Israel's victory when Eshkol did at last decide to strike that it is hard now to recall how vulnerable the Jewish state looked and felt in the waiting period before the war. As Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq made a great show of co-ordinating war plans, Eshkol was terrified of fighting alone, without the support of any great power. The army was confident that it could win if it struck first, but Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff, suffered a nervous collapse on the eve of battle. In the end, a beleaguered Eshkol chose war because he felt he had run out of alternatives.

The Americans thought he had, too. Mr Oren cites an eve-of-war note by Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, concluding that the "holy-war psychology" of the Arab world had collided with the "apocalyptic psychology" of an Israel that feared for its very survival. The six-day war changed the Middle East. But it did not change the psychology.

Posted by DeLong at June 13, 2002 11:03 AM


I saw Oren this morning on CSPAN2. If "Six Days of War" is half as good as his lecture, it's well worth the book. Oren's lecture demontrated a mastery of detail and a surprising amount of archival research, from sources as disparate as the Egyptian military and the British archives.

Trivia: Israel has looser declassification policies than the U.S....

Posted by: Paul Musgrave on June 17, 2002 02:41 AM

Take a look at Norman Finkelstein's devastating critique of Michael Oren’s "Six Days of War:
June and the Making of the Modern Middle East," http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/appendix.pdf

Finkelstein point out:

"Oren basically reiterates the official Israeli version of the June war. Notwithstanding his claim that the book’s conclusions are based on massive new research findings culled from multiple, recently opened state and
United Nations archives, it happens that all the Arab and most of the crucial Israeli (and Soviet) archives remain closed, while the UN archives
have been accessible for many years. The only substantially new documentation Oren brings to bear comes from US archives, yet none of his
cited findings significantly alter the known picture of American policy during these fateful months while, on the most controversial questions – e.g., Did the US give Israel a ‘green light’ on the eve of its pre-emptive
strike? – no new light is shed.
It would seem that Oren’s main achievement is lending a scholarly
veneer to, as it were, the Abba Eban version of the June war. "

Posted by: T Akram on July 25, 2003 11:40 AM
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