Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Michael Oren
The events of June 1967 have been written about extensively. Never before, however, has a book been published that not only chronicles the six days of the war itself but also the factors which led to it. In this important new work, Michael Oren looks back and comprehensively examines each and every aspect of the conflict.
Oren presents the history from a military, diplomatic, political and cultural perspective. Through the extensive examination of archives, official reports, memoirs and interviews with surviving figures, Oren details the roles played by all the major players from the perspective of, not just the Israelis but the Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians as well as the United States and the Soviet Union.
After beginning by presenting a brief synopsis of the Arab-Israeli conflict to that point, Oren describes the series of miscalculations by Nasser that led Egypt into war several years before he intended. A combination of Syrian bellicosity, support of Palestinian terrorist incursions in Northern Israel together with the goading of his unstable general Amer, led Nasser to force the United Nations out of the de-militarized Sinai and to illegally close the Tiran straits to Israeli shipping, tantamount to a declaration of war. As Oren clearly shows, war with Egypt was inevitable the moment the straits were closed. No sovereign nation could ignore a blockade of its shipping.
Oren chronicles Israel's political struggle with the United States and the Soviet Union to permit an appropriate military response to Egypt's provocations. Despite the clear act of war by Egypt, the Johnson administration, hobbled by Vietnam and fearful of a confrontation with the Soviets, urged Israel to show restraint. Oren describes the agony of Eskhol and the Israeli government in deciding how to attack preemptively without alienating the United States. In the famous meeting between Abba Eban and President Johnson, Johnson practically urged Israel to absorb a first strike. The execrable Charles De Gaulle did overtly demand this. Israeli military doctrine required the preemptive destruction of the enemy air forces. The tension drove Rabin to a temporary breakdown and probably took years off Eskhol's life.
Once the war started with Israel's lightning strike on the Egyptian Air Force, Oren shows how events followed their own trajectory with Jordan drawn in and then Syria and Israel's military objectives changing on a constant basis. Indeed, what becomes clear is that Israel never had any particular political objective other than the elimination of the direct existential threat. Contrary to anti-Israel revisionists, Israel never had any specific designs on the West Bank or even the old city of Jerusalem. Ironically, the decision to conquer the old city of Jerusalem was not made until he last possible moment, even after much of the West Bank was already in Israeli hands.
From the Arab perspective, Oren shows just how and why the war turned into a disaster. The Egyptian forces lacked any semblance of unified command or communications. Nasser's officers were afraid to tell him the truth. While her forces were in full retreat, her air force lying in ruins, Egypt continued to broadcast the basest propaganda that her forces were advancing towards Tel Aviv. Hussein, meanwhile, was trapped by his fear of Nasser and the Syrian radicals into attacking Israel in Jerusalem.
Also fascinating is the extent to which political and diplomatic considerations played a role in military strategy and increased Israeli casualties. For example, Eskhol delayed for so long the decision to take the Golan heights, that the IDF was unable to take the proper preparatory steps which would have included artillery bombardments, air bombings and a night time attack. Instead the brave soldiers of the IDF advanced straight into murderous Syrian fire. This was true for the Jerusalem campaign as well.
Ultimately, the value of this book is that it shows the context of the war. Oren shows that with the exception of Jerusalem, the Israeli offensives were not for the purpose of expanding Israel's territory but purely for diplomatic purposes. Once forced to fight, Israel was determined not to be forced to remain within indefensible cease fire lines as she was in 1948. There is no question that Israel's basic war aims were to eliminate the offensive capabilities of the enemies on her border and to force them to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the nature of these regimes made a peaceful solution impossible and more bloodletting would be required.
Oren contrasts the totalitarian Egyptian and Syrian regimes with the raucous Israeli democracy where decisions on basic war strategy were taken by consensus in the famous "pit". Oren makes a point of noting that, despite the general's dismay and outright disgust at Eskhol's restraint (borne of his fear of antagonizing the Soviets and the Americans), never for one moment did they consider disregarding his orders. Nasser, by contrast, was in constant fear of military overthrow.
This book is destined to be a true classic. This is the book to read if you want to understand the 1967 war.