The Setback That Lasted Thirty-Five Years

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Review of 'Six Days of War', Michael B Oren, Oxford University Press £25

The Arab governments referred to the Six Day War, with tragicomic understatement, as 'the setback'. In reality the conflict, in June 1967, was a shattering example of Israel's military superiority over its Arab neighbours which left it in illegal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

In stark contrast to Iraq, which became a pariah following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Israel has suffered no UN bombing or sanctions as a consequence of its failure to implement resolutions demanding it return the territory it occupied in the war. Israel was allowed to freely develop weapons of mass destruction in the years which followed.

The 200 Israeli nuclear warheads currently deployed in the Negev desert are a legacy of the 1967 conflict. As Michael B Oren concedes in his 'Six Days of War', 'Israel's fear for the [nuclear] reactor [at Dimona]--rather than Egypt's of it--was the greatest catalyst for war.'

To describe Oren's acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility for the start of the war as a concession is to question his claims to academic objectivity. His book is unarguably the most thorough account of the conflict. Nevertheless, his claim to have set aside his own political prejudices should not be taken at face value.

The author is currently a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, and has served time both as a member of the government of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and as an adviser to the Israeli delegation to the UN. In the early chapters of the book, in which he explores the origins of the war, the words 'Zionists' and 'Jews' become all but interchangeable. The cross-border battles of the 1950s are put down to Arab 'terrorism' on the one hand and Israeli 'activism' on the other.

Oren makes numerous references to the manipulation of the masses in the 'Arab street' by their political leadership, never once asking himself if those leaders, including the militarily reluctant Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, would have been compelled into conflict with Israel by the immense sympathy for the Palestinians among their people.

Nevertheless, the book's fast-paced, thriller-style narration of the events puts meat on the bones of the established knowledge that Nasser found himself involved in a war for which he knew Egypt was unprepared. Syria, whose unity pact with Egypt had broken down six years earlier, had already suffered numerous defeats in skirmishes with the Israeli Air Force, and it was Israel's air power (made up almost entirely of French and US hardware) which proved decisive. By the end of day one, 5 June, 90 percent of Egypt's fighter aircraft had been obliterated without even leaving the ground.

Israel sent full details, including maps, to its allies in Washington. In a premonition of comments by US pilots returning from raids over Baghdad 24 years later, US Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow sent a note to President Johnson celebrating 'the first day's turkey shoot'. The war was effectively over hours after it had begun. In the end, 25 Arab soldiers died for every Israeli combatant killed, with, perhaps, the greatest symbol of Israel's military superiority being the flight of 95,000 Syrian civilians from the Golan Heights amid rumours that the Israelis were attacking with nuclear weapons.

For the founders of Israel, the Six Day War was unfinished business, creating living room for an expanded Zionist state. Notice had been served on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees that the Arab leaders lacked the wherewithal, militarily or politically, to overturn their dispossession.

From there the conflicts of the following 35 years were all but inevitable. If one seeks an explanation for Israel's illegal settlement building, two mass Palestinian uprisings, despairing suicide attacks in Israeli towns or Ariel Sharon's emasculation of the Palestinian bantustan brokered at Oslo, it is there in the conquest of 1967. If one seeks the key facts of that war, jaundiced though they are by the author's Zionism, they are there in Oren's book.