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Jewish World Review June 10, 2002 /1 Tamuz, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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June 1967 Revisited

New book on war debunks myths and offers insight into a war that never ended | For all too many journalists, history is yesterday's newspaper. Ask them about stories they worked on last month, let alone last year, and you're likely to get some blank stares.

So it's little wonder that much of the coverage of the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so unsatisfying.

For too many of us, 1967 is just the date that, in the phrase so often used by reporters, Israel "seized Arab lands."

But 35 years ago this week, the Middle East changed profoundly in ways that few then could have predicted. The events of June 5 to June 10, 1967, and the nervous weeks that preceded those days set in motion both ideas and events that determine the situation we struggle with today.

The reality of June 4, 1967, as the world watched and waited to see if Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser, and his Syrian and Jordanian allies, would really make good on their boasts of "driving the Jews into the sea" is something few of us seem able to recall, whether we are old enough to remember that time or not.

That makes this anniversary an especially propitious time for the release of a new book on the events of that week. Israeli historian Michael B. Oren's well-researched and beautifully written new "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" ought to be required reading for not only journalists, but everyone else who ventures to express an opinion about the Middle East.

Oren's dispassionate prose and meticulously detailed research provide wonderful examples of what we need badly but too rarely get these days: a work of history that is serious and well-sourced enough to gain the respect of scholars, while at the same time written in an engaging style that should not put off general readers.

Oren, who worked in the administration of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (the Israel Defense Force's commander in the war), has penned a volume that is broad enough in its outlines to give folks who are new to this history a good read, while also providing many nuggets of new information and insights to those who are familiar with the topic.


That said, it is more than likely that some who pick up this book will be disappointed by its unvarnished account of an event that the author clearly sees as the chance outcome of a host of mistakes and miscalculations on the part of both parties.

Arabs and critics of Israel who wrongly see the events of 1967 as the result of "Zionist aggression" will be forced to come to terms with the reality of a Jewish state confined to the 1949 armistice lines, the restoration of which they now claim would magically end the fighting. But far from being the formula for peace, the June 4 borders were a constant invitation to Arab terrorism and threats of war aimed, not at ending Israel's "occupation" of the "West Bank," but at the complete destruction of the Jewish state itself.

On the other hand, those Jews who have cherished their own myths about the war also need to understand that the actions of Egypt, Syria and Jordan that precipitated the war in spite of Israel's entreaties for peace were not part of an organized Arab master plan for Israel's end that was averted only by a miracle.

Instead, Oren shows that everything that Egypt did was mostly unintended. Although the war was one of self-defense for Israel, Egypt's eviction of U.N. peacekeeping troops from the Sinai and Gaza, its troop buildup on Israel's borders and the blockade of Israel's port on the Gulf of Aqaba that ensured that war would happen were all the result of gross miscalculations and blunders by Nasser and his underlings and allies.

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In fact, as Oren tells us, had the mischief-making Soviet Union not convinced the Egyptians that Israel was about to attack Syria in retaliation for that country's sponsorship of terror attacks on Israel by Yasser Arafat's Fatah, the whole chain of events that led to Israel's triumph might never have happened.

Making sense of what, on the face of it, was perhaps the most amazing military victory in modern history is not easy. Far from presaging Israel's end, the war resulted in the end, at least temporarily, of Israel's fears of destruction. Along with the gain of the Sinai and the Golan Heights, Israel captured the heart of the historic homeland of the Jews in Judea, Samaria and a reunified Jerusalem.

Yet on June 4, many Jews feared that a war between Israel and the Arabs might result in a second Holocaust in a generation.

Israel's Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, as well as Rabin (who suffered something approaching a nervous breakdown in the weeks leading up to the war), spent the previous month as Israel was gradually backed into a corner vacillating between confident boasting and fear that they had led the Jewish state into a war it should not undertake.

At the same time, most of the Arab world was in a state of expectant euphoria as they hoped the coming battle would result in the expunging of the disgrace of Israel's victory in the 1948 War of Independence. The naqba or "disaster" - the term by which Arabs still refer to Israel''s birth - would be revenged, even though none of the Arab leaders actually wanted to fight the tough Israelis. Nasser himself hoped only for a diplomatic victory that would strengthen his regime, not a war he knew his army was ill-prepared to win.

Indeed, as Oren reveals, most military experts on both sides, as well as in the United States, understood that Israel's miraculous victory was not unlikely. The highly motivated Israelis were prepared to fight, while the Arab armies were poorly led and had little idea of the strategy or the tactics that would enable them to stave off disaster. The events of June 1967 should teach us about the laws of unintended consequences. Hoping to merely humiliate the Jews, Nasser was himself humiliated. Israel, too, blundered by alternating between policies that radiated strength and those that undermined its capacity to deter war.


In the years since the war, Israelis and Arabs have tried to correct the mistakes made in 1967. Israel has sought to be open to the possibility of peace, hoping that its military prowess would convince the other side to give up fighting. The Arabs have gradually abandoned the conventional warfare of 1967, and instead used diplomacy mixed with terror to advance their hopes of destroying Israel.

Despite the hopes of many Israelis, far from ensuring peace, their victory was only one more battle among many in the war for the Jewish state's survival.

Looking at current headlines, "Familiar patterns of terror and counterstrike, incursion and retribution, have resurfaced," Oren writes. In truth, the Six-Day War never really ended. It was, just like the War of Independence, the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, as well as the current fighting, just one more battle in a war that has never ended.

Israel's survival may or may not have been miraculous, but it was the result of a set of bizarre occurrences that no one could have foreseen. Those pundits and world leaders who think that they have a magic formula for peace in their pockets (paging Tom Friedman of The New York Times) would do well to study this history and learn some humility.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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