'Six Days of War,' and so much more

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  June 11, 2003 at 3:22 PM
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Michael B. Oren's account of the Arab-Israeli internecine war in "Six Days of War" should be required reading for every member of the Bush administration. An understanding of the situation and the people involved in it, their motives and ambitions, their strengths and weaknesses, their powers and limitations, is essential if the road map to peace is to reach its goal.

Much has been written on the subject, in many languages, and much will continue to be written, at least until the problem is resolved, but as the author explains in his foreword, the release of secret diplomatic documents in the 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union have unearthed a huge cache of documents previously unavailable.

Oren's goal was to address the military and political facets of the war, plus its international, regional and domestic consequences, and to do this in a way that was both scholarly and easily accessible to the general public.

I would hazard to say that Oren has succeeded. He has painstakingly researched his subject in English, French, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, and interviewed scores of people. His interviews gave him access not only to unpublished material, but also to personal insight into people and situations.

He presents clearly and in minute detail the events that led up to the war, including an analysis of the characters of the various people involved: King Hussein of Jordan, the charismatic Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Israel's Moshe Dayan and, of course, President Lyndon Johnson and the Soviet Union's Alexei Kosygin.

Also illuminated are the rivalries within the Egyptian high command, the contradictions within the Israeli government, the disagreements between Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians, and the intervention of the Russians and the Americans with the largely ineffective U.N. caught in the middle.

Unfortunately, the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, which started as local disputes in the 1920s and 30s, had expanded not only to the rest of the region, but now included the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was busy with Vietnam, an unpopular war at home, and far from eager to get involved in another foreign dispute.

Still smarting from the Cuban missile debacle, the Soviets were eager to develop a sphere of influence in the Middle East, enough to establish their prestige but not enough to start a war. No one wanted the conflict to escalate to a confrontation by the two superpowers, so diplomatic efforts on every side were concentrated on avoiding a war. The tensions between these countries had created, as Oren points out, "an atmosphere of extreme flammability" that would not take much to explode into open conflagration.

On the 5th of June, at 7:10 a.m., Israel launched the first offensive, its own military command and government divided on the wisdom of going to war at that time. Ben Gurion wrote in his diary, "My heart is troubled by tomorrow's action... I'm very worried about the step we're about to take... The haste involved here is beyond my understanding. Would it not really be wiser to consult [with American leaders] first?"

That same thought also troubled Yitzhak Rabin, who remembered that American pressure had halted the Franco-Israeli-British offensive against Egypt in 1956.

Once the war started, Oren gives us a blow by blow account of the air and land strikes, with the chilling numbers of casualties on all sides.

It is interesting to note that at the time, all of Israel's planes and weaponry were supplied by France, while the Egyptians had been armed by the Russians.

The Israelis took maximum advantage of the element of surprise and annihilated the Egyptian air force before it could even get off the ground.

Miscommunication and lack of communication between the various Egyptian and Arab leaders caused chaos within their ranks, with the ultimate result that they lost the war. If they had been able to coordinate their efforts, the result might have been vastly different. As it was, after 132 hours, the shortest war in recorded history, the Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians had lost the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. They also lost far more men and military materiel than the Israelis.

Could this war have been avoided? Oren traces the origins of this particular conflict to the fact that a letter of condolence written by King Hussein to Levi Eshkol after three Israeli policemen accidentally struck a mine and died, reaffirming Jordan's commitment to border security, never reached the Israeli Prime Minister.

Taking the incident as an excuse for large-scale reprisals, Israel struck with 10 tanks, 40 half-tracks and 400 men. The operation was aimed at punishing Palestinian villages that had presumably aided Fatah guerrillas.

Oren says that although he is an avowed Zionist and longtime Israeli resident, he tried to write an unbiased and historically accurate narrative. He tries to deal fairly with King Hussein and Nasser, whom he says he learned to appreciate and admire while researching his material.

In his conversation with Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, Oren said that he was 12 years old when the war broke out.

"For me, personally, the war's impact was especially poignant. I will never forget my father rushing to the breakfast table, waving a copy of Life magazine. On its cover was a photo of an Israeli soldier chest-deep in the Suez Canal, a captured Kalashnikov brandished over his head. "You see that!" he shouted. "That is what we can do!" And then he kissed the picture."

Who remains of the original cast of players? Ironically enough, only Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. Dayan, Nasser, King Hussein, Eshkol, Ben Gurion, Rabin, Lyndon Johnson and Kosygin are all dead.

In 1967, Arafat was the leader of Fatah, the guerrilla branch of the PLO, responsible for countless attacks on Israel, and Ariel Sharon was on the general staff of the IDF. In 1953, Sharon had led Israeli commandos in a reprisal raid in the West Bank town of Qibya, where they blew up dozens of houses, killing 69 civilians. Sharon would later gain notoriety as the defense minister who promoted the invasion of Lebanon and who is being held responsible for the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp massacres.

Will the Arabs and the Israelis ever achieve peace? Oren believes that in the Arab world, the leaders are ready but the people more reluctant. "Forbidden by dictatorial regimes to voice political ideas on any subject but Israel and increasingly driven by the lack of basic freedoms to seek Islamic solutions to their problems, Arab populations remain as anti-Israel as they were in 1967."

In Israel, he says, a majority of Israelis are ready to support the creation of a Palestinian state even if it means removing settlements from Gaza and the West Bank. That remains to be seen.

"In the end, there is no substitute for face-to-face personal encounters between Arabs and Israelis," he writes. Borders of hostility must be broken down before those of peace can arise." We can only hope that the recent meetings between the new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon are the first steps towards that peace.

("Six Days of War", by Michael B. Oren, Ballantine Books, 341 pages, $16.95)

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