Six Days of War by Michael B. Oren
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael B. Oren
Oxford. 419 pp. $30.00
Iseael won two conflicts with its neighbors before the Six-Day war, and one after it. But the modern Middle East had never witnessed anything quite like what transpired between June 5 and 10, 1967. Even today, the astounding chain of events of some 35 years ago reads more like fiction than history.
Cut off from military aid by France’s Charles de Gaulle, hitherto a reliable arms supplier, and not yet an ally of the United States—which had recently sold or given away hundreds of millions of dollars in arms to the Arab world—a beleaguered Israel found itself surrounded by massive armies in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. These combined militaries fielded 900 combat aircraft, 5,000 tanks, and 500,000 soldiers, ensuring an astounding edge of three-to-one or even greater in every category of military asset.
Preening with sophisticated Soviet arms, and with assurances that the Soviets would hold off the Americans while his pan-Arabic forces liquidated the Jews, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser prepared to marshal the Arab nations for what he called “the operation that will surprise the world,” reversing the humiliating Arab defeats of 1948-49 and 1956. Privately, Nasser told his generals to launch the attack (code-named Plan Dawn) by “June 5 at the latest.” Ahmad Shuqayri of the PLO, a terrorist organization founded three years earlier and headquartered in Cairo, summed up the increasing jubilation in the Arab world at the rumors of war: “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants, and as for survivors—if there are any—the boats are ready to deport them.” Just as today, a murderous Assad ruled in Syria and a passive-aggressive Hashemite king in Jordan. Each based the degree of his own bellicosity not on confidence in his armies but on lies and distortions from his intelligence services, promises from Egypt, threats from the Soviet Union, back-door maneuvering with the U.S., and fear of the omnipresent “Arab street.”
As 1967 wore on, Nasser proceeded to evict the UN’s peacekeepers from Gaza, close the Strait of Tiran and thereby cut off Israel’s access to imported oil from its Red Sea terminus, increase the number of flights over Israeli territory, and sponsor terrorist raids from Lebanon and Gaza. For their part, the Israelis quietly prepared for the worst, making plans to strike the Egyptian air force’s 420 sophisticated Soviet jets—the linchpin of Plan Dawn—while they were still on the ground. And so, in the event, they did. In just 100 minutes on the morning of June 5, Israeli pilots carried out 164 sorties, destroying 286 planes and wrecking thirteen air bases. Minutes after the attack, General Mordechai Hod reported that “the Egyptian air force has ceased to exist.”
These early Arab losses were catastrophic; but they were also not reported in the Arab press—and the Israelis themselves were observing silence. As an Egyptian intelligence officer later lamented, “The whole world thought our forces were on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.” In the meantime, the fighting on the ground went on at a furious pace. Israel’s defense forces found themselves battling—and pushing back—Egyptians in the Sinai, Jordanians on the West Bank, and Syrians on the Golan Heights.
The ultimate butcher’s bill for the six days of conflict was staggering: 30,000 Arab casualties, including 5,000 Egyptians captured along with 21 of their generals. Military hardware worth billions was destroyed outright; indeed, the Jordanian, Syrian, and Egyptian militaries were temporarily out of commission altogether. As had happened in 1956, and would happen again in 1973, it was not Arab armies but outside pressure and a sense of self-restraint that kept the Israelis from rolling into downtown Cairo, Amman, and Damascus.
With Israel’s triumph, however, there also came a reminder of the perennial dilemma that has faced that country from its birth—translating tactical success into strategic victory. In the aftermath of the war, the Arab states rushed to replenish their arms, while both France and the United States delayed military assistance to Israel. Rather than causing introspection or a movement of democratic reform within the Arab world, defeat only deepened the sense of shame and the thirst for vengeance. Arab autocracies mobilized to threaten oil embargos against the West, to spread terrorism worldwide, and to prepare for the next round of fighting.
Israel also now found itself with 1.2 million Palestinians under its control in the West Bank and Gaza, indigent and stateless refugees who, despite their efforts to destroy the Jewish state, expected (and got) better treatment from it than what they had been receiving until now at the hands of Jordan and Egypt. Arab leaders, quietly relieved that the Palestinians were Israel’s—and no longer their own—immediate problem, championed their cause more vociferously than ever. The world turned its attention to the West Bank and Gaza and forgot about the anti-Jewish pogroms that arose in Egypt and Libya, not to mention the 7,000 Jews who were immediately arrested and expelled from Baghdad and Damascus.
In short, rather than being a prelude to lasting peace, Israel’s brilliant victory in the Six-Day war was followed by years of terror originating from land it had never sought to acquire but could not afford to give up. On the diplomatic and cultural front, having lost its status as an underdog, it came to be seen, and to be portrayed, as a bullying regional superpower.
Michael Oren’s riveting account of this entire saga—drawn from previously untapped American, Russian, and Israeli archives, along with Syrian and Jordanian sources—puts to rest a number of old misconceptions and untruths. One of them is that, with its predawn raid on the Egyptian air fields, Israel itself “started” the war; in fact, as Oren shows, Nasser was just hours away from bombing Israeli cities and hitting the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Nor was the Israel Defense Force (IDF) planning a war of conquest; it believed that its preemptive strike on Egyptian planes would buy, at most, a year or two of peace. The conquest of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights was mostly the result of ad-hoc fighting by commanders in the field. So unprepared were many of them that they got lost when they reached the Old City of Jerusalem and had to negotiate its unfamiliar streets.
The Israelis were not the only ones confused. Throughout much of the war, the U.S. was buffeted by threats of intervention from the Russians and lies about its role being propagated by Radio Cairo and Damascus. Our embassies were under siege in Arab capitals. To compound matters, the American surveillance ship Liberty was mistakenly hit by Israeli jets. All this, coupled with the quagmire of Vietnam, hampered a well-meaning President Lyndon B. Johnson from properly assessing or exploiting his full range of options.
There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu in reading Oren’s history just now, and the cumulative effect of his meticulous research is quite depressing. Today we talk in hushed tones about Saddam Hussein’s horrific use of gas against his own people in Iraq—forgetting that Nasser had no qualms about gassing Yemeni villages. Ten years ago, in the Gulf war, Israelis donned gas masks—but in 1967 they had to be given thousands (from Germany!) in preparation for Nasser’s threatened attacks on Tel Aviv.
There was also the same chilling rhetoric, and from the same chilling places—the threats to exterminate the Jews, the lies that Americans were fighting alongside Israelis, the lunatic claim that Arab martyrs were on the march to a great victory. Indeed, some of the principals in the present conflict got their start before and during the Six-Day war—the thirty-something Yasir Arafat leading terrorists into Israel on a murderous nocturnal raid, the young Hosni Mubarak, then in the Egyptian air force, claiming falsely that his fellow pilots had encountered American jets, the fathers of the present Syrian and Jordanian rulers doing then what the sons are doing now.
In his systematic and exhaustively researched narrative, Oren presents the whole frightening tale with a detached matter-of-factness. As an Israeli, he is perhaps reluctant to offer any explicit answers to one of the most baffling military questions of all: how the Israelis routed their enemies so thoroughly on the battlefield. Yet his narrative provides plenty of reasons for the Arabs’ defeat, most of which come down to the role of culture in modern warfare.
The Israelis had been scrupulous about maintaining their tanks and planes in prime condition, ensuring that their dated models were far more battle-ready than the state-of-the-art weaponry held by the Arabs, 20 to 30 percent of which was so ill-kept as to be inoperable on any given day. Once the fighting began, Israeli officers talked constantly with their enlisted men, arguing and improvising as they went along; by contrast, Egyptian generals and grandees feared execution if they reported honestly the unfolding disaster of the first day, and did not dare make on-the-ground changes in their preconceived and unrealistic battle scripts. Israeli generals braved gunfire; many Arab commanders ran away before their troops did. At the government level, the Israeli cabinet hourly hammered out military solutions to unexpected crises with (as the record shows) banter, black humor, and candor; on the other side, Nasser, Hussein, and Assad lived in terror that their generals were lying to them, even as they could only lie to their own people.
The heroes of the book emerge as an odd array of truly brilliant, courageous, and eccentric Israelis, military and civilian alike, not all of them mutual friends and many of them downright rivals or enemies: Ben-Gurion, Dayan, Rabin, Eshkol, Elazar, Hod, Allon, Eban, Meir, Peres, and, yes, Sharon. What they shared was Pattonesque audacity and, above all, no illusions about the nature of the danger their country faced.
From where did such rare officers and statesmen come? Some were battle-hardened veterans of World War II; others were Holocaust survivors. A few were experienced, wounded, and maimed veterans of the 1948 and 1956 wars. None of them really felt any innate hatred toward their Arab neighbors; all instinctively mistrusted them, and were confident they could be beaten in a fair fight. One wonders if Israel will ever see such types again, in such profusion—and one can only be thankful that there are still a tiny few of the 1967 generation in the country’s current hour of peril.
Michael Oren has written a near masterpiece of judicious but captivating history. In its suspense and human drama it is reminiscent of Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople or Donald Morris’s The Washing of the Spears; in its scholarship and professionalism, Gerhard Weinberg’s A World At Arms. While Oren’s goal is to write history, not contemporary political analysis, Six Days of War turns out to be a far better guide to the present crisis than what we read and hear daily from our historically ignorant columnists and pundits.
Well before the occupation of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Gaza, Arab leaders promised to destroy Israel and wipe the Jews off the face of the earth—not for what they had done, but for who they were: successful and proud reminders of what their neighbors were not. Without first seeing a change in the heart and minds of the Arab world, one would have to be mad today to advocate returning land for “peace.” Americans should read this book and remember that.