'Six Days of War': Days That Shook the World

 

June 16, 2002
By GARY J. BASS


 

"Soon we'll be able to take the initiative and rid
ourselves of Israel once and for all,'' the Egyptain field
marshal Abdel Hakim Amer said in a phone call to the head
of the P.L.O. on June 4, 1967. In two weeks of escalating
crisis, Egypt had expelled the United Nations peacekeepers
stationed in Egypt, moved troops in huge numbers into the
Sinai and -- despite panicky Israeli and American warnings
that this was an act of war -- blockaded the Straits of
Tiran to Israeli shipping. Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi
Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya were all united,
encircling Israel and massing troops. Amer himself had
drafted several plans for invading Israel, including
Operation Dawn, which had been called off at the last
minute on May 27 after the Israelis found out it was
coming. From Algeria to Yemen, Arab leaders fiercely echoed
Amer's private call for Israel's annihilation. Israelis
were terrified; the army chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, no
wimp, was secretly said to be suffering from ''acute
anxiety'' and had to be tranquilized.

The day after Amer's phone call, Israel launched a
pre-emptive strike that smashed much of the Egyptian Air
Force on the ground, and went on to win a lightning
victory, haphazardly conquering the Sinai, Gaza, the West
Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Haim Bar-Lev,
Rabin's deputy, boasted in a cabinet meeting, ''We have
screwed every Arab country.'' The aftershocks have echoed
all the way to the current small, seething war between
Israelis and Palestinians. As told in ''Six Days of War,''
Michael B. Oren's richly detailed and lucid account, the
familiar story is thrilling once again.

Oren, an American-born, Princeton-educated Israeli
historian and former Rabin administration official, refuses
to pinpoint specific causes for the war; instead, he
opaquely writes of ''the butterfly, which, with a mere flap
of its wings, triggers a thunderstorm.'' But there is a
clear theme throughout the book: over and over,
postcolonial authoritarian Arab states fling themselves
into foreign adventures to divert attention from their
domestic instability. (Since Sept. 11, this kind of
diversionary dynamic is particularly worrying to Americans,
now scapegoated by the state-controlled news media of many
of the same unstable regimes that went to war against
Israel in 1967.) On the second day of war, Gamal Abdel
Nasser of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan agreed to blame
nonexistent American and British airstrikes for their
disastrous losses -- the kind of lie that has helped
embitter many Arabs against America.

Since a 1966 coup, Syria has been ruled by a narrowly based
Baathist military junta. ''Insecure at home and in fierce
competition with Egypt and Jordan,'' Oren writes, ''Syria's
rulers had tried to earn prestige by picking fights with
Israel.'' In Jordan, the 31-year-old King Hussein
reluctantly joined Nasser's coalition, worried that his
mostly Palestinian population would overthrow his
Bedouin-based monarchy, if the other Arab states didn't do
him in first. After the airstrikes on Egypt, Israel still
asked Jordan to sit out the fighting, which would have left
the West Bank and East Jerusalem in Jordanian hands. But
Hussein attacked Israel, preferring to take his chances
with the Israelis rather than with his own subjects.

Even Egypt, the most powerful and self-confident Arab
state, was wobbly. Before the crisis, Nasser was mostly
preoccupied with inter-Arab politics, trying to maintain
his position as the leader of the Arab revolutionaries.
With 50,000 Egyptian soldiers bogged down fighting
Saudi-backed royalists in Yemen, Nasser was in no hurry to
tangle with the Israeli Army. Yet it was all but impossible
for Nasser to claim the leadership of the Arab world
without addressing the Palestinian issue.

So, pushed forward by Syrian-sponsored Palestinian raids
and fierce Israeli reprisals, egged on by Jordan and Syria,
and duped by false Soviet reports of an imminent Israeli
invasion of Syria, Nasser began his ill-starred escalation.
The villain of Oren's piece is Nasser's friend and
right-hand man, Amer. Militarily incompetent, alcoholic and
possibly drugged, Amer repeatedly urged Nasser to escalate
the conflict.

On the Israeli side, Oren finds a strange mix of military
arrogance and deep fatalism, with Israelis simultaneously
convinced that their army was magnificent and that their
state was in mortal danger -- an attitude that Levi Eshkol,
the prime minister, called ''Samson the nerd.'' Israel's
saber rattling against Syria forced Nasser to respond.
Eshkol, struggling to restrain his can-do generals, tried
desperately to rally international support. ''Nothing will
be settled by a military victory,'' he snapped at the
39-year-old Ariel Sharon, who scorned Eshkol's diplomacy.
''The Arabs will still be here.''

Oren's blow-by-blow reconstruction of the war itself, which
takes up the second half of the book, has little of the
triumphalism that swept Israel after its victory. He
sympathetically quotes Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian
soldiers as well as Israelis. A Jordanian platoon commander
remembers trying to rally his troops: ''I looked into their
faces and saw what a soldier sees before death.'' But Oren
lapses by skimming over one of the most significant
consequences of the war -- the displacement of some 200,000
Palestinian refugees -- in a single paragraph.

Oren breaks ranks with the mostly Israeli revisionist
historians who have in recent years tilted against the
heroic version of Israeli history. For instance, Avi
Shlaim, in ''The Iron Wall,'' explains the war as largely
the result of Israel's reprisals against Syria, without
Oren's careful examination of Egyptian military and
political thinking. Oren also debunks conspiracy theories,
like the claim that Israel had always been scheming to take
over the West Bank (something that Shlaim does not believe
either).

What makes this book important is the breadth and depth of
the research. Oren draws on archives, newly declassified
documents, memoirs and interviews from Israel, America,
Britain and what was then the Soviet Union; although the
Arab state archives are sealed, he uses many Arab memoirs
and accounts, giving the book a balanced tone and offering
fascinating new details. ''Six Days of War,'' coming soon
after Israel -- on a 30-year declassification rule --
opened its archives on 1967, is a powerful rendering of
what has turned out to be a world-historical event.



Gary J. Bass, an assistant professor of politics and
international affairs at Princeton, is the author of ''Stay
the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes
Tribunals.''

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