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HIR Book Review: Before the Occupation

By David Wollenberg

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael Oren
(Oxford University Press, 2002. $30.00. 419pp.)

“IT’S THE OCCUPATION, STUPID!”—or so read a sign at a pro-Palestinian rally earlier this year in Washington, DC, officially entitled the “Stop the War Mobilization.” The event was jointly sponsored by a number of groups, such as the ‘National Youth and Student Peace Coalition’ and the ‘National Coalition for Peace and Justice,’ who have banded together, largely in reaction to September 11, to oppose wars of any kind, including a military response to last fall’s events. “War will not make us safe,” they argue, and they deplore its continued use as a means of achieving political ends.

Unless, of course, one is talking about the Palestinian intifada, which they claim remains a legitimate uprising despite its inherently violent nature. The “war on terrorism” must stop, we are told, because it will only breed more terror and hatred, but the Palestinian intifada must continue until it achieves its political ends. This contradiction is especially bizarre given that most Israelis and Palestinians hope for an eventual return to the negotiating table to continue the stalled diplomatic process, while it remains extremely doubtful that America could ever sit down with Bin Laden & Co. and reach an agreement that would satisfy both sides.

To defend the intifada, so-called “peace” activists have adopted the vilest language possible in their criticism of Israel. ‘Genocide,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘Nazism’—every slur imaginable has been used to claim how terrible Israeli rule has been for Palestinians in the disputed territories, and how “stupid” anyone who doesn’t support the current Palestinian uprising must be. Never mind that prior to the start of the intifada, Palestinians in the West Bank had a per capita income almost three times that of Egypt (not to mention a lower infant mortality rate, longer average life-span, and better rate of education and literacy than almost any Arab state): They had no other option, allegedly, except to abandon diplomacy and revolt to free the occupied territories of Israelis.

This term, “occupied territories,” typically includes Gaza, the ‘West Bank,’ and ‘East Jerusalem’—areas of land neighboring Israel’s June 4, 1967, borders. However, these borders, which mark the cease-fire lines of the 1948 Arab invasion, have no historical legitimacy. They were not intended by the United Nations or by Israel’s founders. Even more significantly, no Arab state recognized them as legitimate at the time (then again, no Arab state recognized Israel as legitimate at the time, and most continue not to). We are told that peace will come if Israel returns to these lines, this despite the fact that not one of the three primary sponsors of suicide bombers—Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Arafat’s Fatah—recognizes these borders as legitimate, and all call specifically for violence to bring about the complete destruction of the entire Jewish state.

Benjamin Netanyahu once remarked that those who simply call for a return to the old borders “have an understanding of history that goes back to the breakfast table,” that the “occupation” is isolated out of its historical context. For such people, history seemingly does not exist before June 10, 1967; they see only imperialism in Israel’s presence in these lands, and forget—or conveniently ignore—just how and why these areas came under Israel’s control in the first place. A welcome antidote to such historical short-sightedness is Michael Oren’s Six Days of War, a careful dissection of 1967’s Six-Day War—or, as many Arabs prefer to call it, the “June War” or Al-Naksah (“the setback”). Oren has conducted extensive research using recently released Israeli, American, and Russian government documents, exclusive interviews in Hebrew, English, Russian, French, and Arabic, and other primary and secondary materials in these languages to provide the most detailed account of the war ever written. Though Oren draws on sources collected in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, the Arab archives unfortunately remain largely closed. Until they become public, Oren’s book will most likely remain unmatched as an examination of this seminal event.

Although a great deal has been written on this momentous week in history, previous chronicles of the war tended to be either politically motivated toward one side of the conflict or the other, or more focused on the military aspects of the event itself, ignoring the international political maneuvering probably more interesting to the lay reader. Oren has sought to create a portrayal that is complete in its depictions of both the battlefields and the war room—on all sides. A full chapter is dedicated to each day of the war, and the scene flashes from Jerusalem to Amman to Cairo to Washington, providing the complexity and suspense of a motion picture. At the same time, the sheer quantity of information provided is invaluable for any reader interested in the region or simply in the workings of diplomacy itself.

The strength of the book, fittingly, is in its description of each of the six days themselves. One goes through each day of the war with a comprehensive feeling of understanding of what each major player experienced. The flip side of this close focus, of course, is the de-emphasis of the war’s historical context and its consequences. Of the book’s 330 pages of text, only about thirty are dedicated to history before 1967 and closer to twenty are spent describing the aftereffects. Both topics, of course, really require books unto themselves, yet Oren could have easily brought to light the relevance of this war to the current conflict had he chosen to make the appropriate comparisons. In fact, given Oren’s choice of subtitle, “June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” the final chapter of the book seems rather lacking, as the reader is presented with only cursory information about the major players’ futures, and the politics that would lead up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and eventually to the present day. Oren remarks in his foreword that his major goal was “simply, to understand how an event as immensely influential as this war came about—to show the context from which it sprang.” But while Oren does provide a brief history of the conflict up to that point and a few events in particular that he feels created an aura of mistrust in June 1967, he ignores the larger issue, which is the mindset of the Arab governments, the weltanschauung of belligerency and hatred that could not tolerate the idea of any Jewish presence in the Middle East. In the history of this war, we see the shadows of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.

Bravado and Recklessness
Almost twenty years after its independence, no Arab state was willing to recognize Israel or come to terms with its existence. Israel in 1967 was unable to avoid terrorism even before any Gaza/West Bank occupation—Hamas, Fatah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had all been founded and were already using violent means to accomplish their stated goals. As is true today, common hatred of Israel was the only issue that could unite Arab states, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser happily used such rhetoric to try to establish himself as the leader of the Arab world. The day would come soon, he promised, when all of Palestine would be liberated. Noticeably absent, however, was any talk of creating a Palestinian state. Egypt had no intention of relinquishing its grip on the Gaza Strip, nor did Jordan’s King Hussein want to give up the West Bank. Both had taken control of these territories in 1948, and their presence on Israel’s borders provided the Jewish state with a permanent sense of insecurity. Israel had no outlet to the outside world other than by air and sea, and only imaginary lines as physical borders to the north, east, and south.

Consequently, Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran on May 22 to 23, 1967, left Israel in a state of panic. By blockading international waterways and cutting off Israel’s oil supply, Egypt had effectively declared war on Israel’s very existence. The closing, however, had not happened in isolation. Tension had been building for years, and had accelerated over the previous few weeks. But for Oren, it was not the events on the ground but rather the atmosphere of rhetoric, in no small measure spurred by the Soviets, which made it impossible to turn the tide away from war. Arab governments played a game of one-upsmanship in pomp and bombast to show just who hated Israel the most and just how severe the destruction would be when the final battle came. Nasser promised to “liberate Palestine in a revolutionary and not a traditional manner.” Syrian Prime Minister Yusuf Zu’ayyin proclaimed that “any Israeli movement will result in a final grave for Israel.” No one wanted to be seen as soft on Israel. Nasser refused to abandon his stature of Arab leadership to the increasingly belligerent Syrians, and Jordan’s King Hussein did not want to be seen as a coward. Thus, small events of violence, followed by Israeli military reactions, quickly catapulted into a full-blown war that was in no country’s self-interest at the time.

But was war inevitable? Oren leaps from Israeli to Egyptian to American war rooms, showing what efforts all three made to try to avoid the outbreak of fighting. In all three camps, the governments were divided between the diplomatic and military leaders. In Israel and in America, the military men tended to favor war, while the men in charge—especially Lyndon Johnson and Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol—tried to find ways to avoid it. The opposite was true in Egypt, where Nasser’s generals argued that they had neither the troops nor the arms to fight the Israeli military which, while smaller, was better equipped. Moreover, thousands of Egyptian troops were currently fighting in Yemen, and the ones in Sinai were generally poorly trained with an officer corps built on patronage rather than ability. But Nasser was unable to back down from Syrian taunts. Syria, protected most closely by the USSR, had been bombarding northern Israeli towns for months, but Israel had largely been afraid to strike back too hard for fear of facing the Soviets’ wrath.

Unfortunately for them, Arab leaders seemed to have had great difficulty distinguishing between their rhetoric and reality. Oren recounts many of the Arabs’ opening moves in the war as a series of power grabs, absurd almost to the point of comedy. Nasser, tired of being mocked by the Syrians for his unwillingness to back up his anti-Israel rhetoric with military action, declared to the world that he wanted an immediate evacuation of the UN Emergency Force in Sinai (located there as a buffer between the two sides). To the surprise of the world, and most particularly Nasser, Secretary-General U Thant had the entire peninsula evacuated within two days. The Egyptian president was therefore forced to carry out his threat and move his troops up to the Israeli border, at which point he had “no choice” but to blockade the Straits.

Nasser proclaimed that he was ready for war. When U Thant traveled to Cairo to attempt to change the Egyptian position, Nasser said to him, “My Generals tell me we will win…What would you say to them?”—as if the worthiness of defeating Israel was self-evident. But Nasser’s generals were unwilling to say anything else, even after the war began. When Egypt’s air force was all but wiped out on the morning of June 5, Nasser was not only spared the news, he was told fairy tales of overwhelming success: that the Israelis had lost 75 percent of its air power, and that the Egyptians were launching an offensive from Sinai. Radio Cairo declared “our airplanes and our missiles are at this moment shelling all Israel’s towns and villages,” and that soon Arab armies would be marching on Tel Aviv. No one was willing to tell Nasser the truth, and the stories of success soon spread throughout the Arab world. Thus King Hussein received with suspicion a note from the Israelis telling him that Israel would not attack him unless he initiated hostilities, and assumed it was proof of Israeli weakness. Having been labeled a traitor for years by the other Arab states for his unwillingness to take a hard-line stance on the Zionist enemy, Hussein launched his attack on Israel, a move that would quickly cost him the entire West Bank.

When the actual devastation of the war was finally revealed, the Arab states immediately found a scapegoat, claiming that the Americans and British had launched an attack from the sea. The fabrication backfired, resulting in a loss of trust not only from the Americans, who had tried to maintain a state of neutrality before the war, but also from the Arabs’ Soviet allies, who were unwilling to come to their aid for fear of having to fight a war against the West.

Oren does his best to tell the story of the war from every side, and it is through his level of detail, especially in dialogue, that the characters come to life. At times, the mass of Israeli material often creates the impression of this being the ‘main’ storyline, although this is not to say that the book is biased toward the Israeli perspective. Just as Arab militancy and anti-Israel rhetoric scared the Israelis into military actions in the period before the war, the results of such actions are rarely portrayed as having improved Israel’s defensive situation, and often seem to have pushed Arab leaders to go one step further in response. Those leaders hesitant to rush into battle, like Eshkol, are generally portrayed as the heroes of the war, while those less concerned with diplomacy, like Labor Minister Yigal Allon, tend to be portrayed as overly hawkish and impatient. Nonetheless, the book will go far to silence the revisionist historians who have tried to label the war an act of Israeli aggression. While popular opinion and Arab pressure may have forced Nasser and Hussein into a war that for which their militaries were not quite ready, they were clearly responsible for fomenting the hatred of Israel that forced them into a state of belligerency in the first place. For it is clear that even if the Arab states were willing to negotiate with Israel before the war—which of course they weren’t—Israel would have had little to offer. There had been no immediate causus belli, no clear goals for the war (other than Israel’s complete destruction), no willingness to accept any pleas for peace, and no acceptance of international mediation. In effect, Oren makes clear that there had been nothing but rage and madness—and there was nothing Israel could do to assuage the other side and prevent the fighting.

Old Habits Die Hard
It is this need for constant self-defense against irrational and rejectionist neighbors that links the Israel of 1967 with that of 2002. After reading Oren’s book, one is unfortunately left with a nagging feeling that very little has changed in the thirty-five years since. Many of the names are the same, of course. Some—Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and until very recently Shimon Peres—remain in positions of power, while others—Hafez Assad, King Hussein, Yitzhak Rabin, Rehavam Ze’evi—have only just passed away. But more disturbing still is just how little has changed politically. While Israel has formally made peace with two of its enemies, Egypt and Jordan, Syria continues to encourage terror and violence, with financial support from Iraq and Iran. Most Arab states remain officially in a state of war with Israel, and, as stated earlier, there are still groups who pledge to fight until Israel’s eradication. And while it would seem at least on the surface that the Palestinian intifada has more immediate goals than the Arab armies of the 1960s, Israel still must deal with an adversary who will not be pacified, and who acts more out of fury than from reason.

The legacy of dishonesty continues, again with disastrous results. Arafat denied any connection to or knowledge of the Karine-A—the arms vessel captured sailing to Gaza with tons of Iranian weapons—until it was proven that he had authorized its payment. Much of President Bush’s intolerance of Arafat is a result of Arafat’s lies during the event. When Israeli troops entered the West Bank city of Jenin in April of this year, official Palestinian sources claimed that “hundreds, possibly thousands” had been massacred by Israel, only to later admit that there had been no massacre and a few dozen had died in the fight at most. When Israel entered the city again a few months later, media sources were far more reluctant to believe PA claims. Financial documents in support of the terror attacks were discovered bearing Arafat’s signature, after he had declared he was doing his utmost to end the violence, leaving the EU to wonder how their billions of dollars in aid were being spent (although they continue to send the money). Arafat has proven himself unwilling to use any other tool but violence to settle the decades-old struggle, and Israel is left with few options. Israel can choose not to fight, but it cannot choose not to be fought against.

Of course, the man at the rally holding his “It’s the Occupation, Stupid!” sign would disagree. There are many like him who still believe that the solution is simple, that if Israel returned to its pre-war lines then there would be no more reason to revolt. But what is painfully obvious when reading Oren’s book and considering the present day is that the violence has never been driven by logical analysis. The presence of a few Jewish settlers outside the so-called ‘green line’ cannot explain the intifada, let alone justify its violence. If the PA’s goals were simply independent statehood, there would clearly be more effective means than an armed rebellion that the Palestinians could never hope to win. But the struggle to rid the West Bank and Gaza of Jews is a microcosm of the former undertaking to rid them from the entire region. And it is equally irrational. While the pronounced goals of the violence may have changed, feelings toward Israel have not. There is little reason to believe that a return to the status quo pre-1967 will be any more peaceful than the present. Oren writes toward the end of the book:

The 1967 war…had changed the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not by making Israel any less repugnant to the Arabs, but by convincing them that it could never be eliminated by force of arms. Many Israeli leaders shared [this] conviction, and some went even further, believing that for the first time peace was attainable, if purchased with Arab territories.

The Israeli cabinet would first decide to exchange land for peace on June 19, 1967, and Ehud Barak would try again, still unsuccessfully, with Syria and the PA in July of 2000. For many Israelis, this dream of peace through negotiation has faded away. As long as hatred is taught in Arab schools and savagery is glorified as virtue, no real end to the violence can come, occupation or no. It is hatred that brought violence to the region in 1967 and in 2002, and it will continue to do so in the future. Only a fundamental change in worldview can bring peace—this is the sad lesson of history.

David Wollenberg, Harvard Class of 2003, is from Short Hills, New Jersey.

This Issue

HIR Notebook
Compiled by the editors

What Many Liberals Can't See Arthur Hertzberg

The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
Daniel Feith

Reviving Religious Zionism
Daniel Shoag

Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh