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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

While Israeli historian and former diplomat (he had served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013) Michael Oren’s Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East is first and foremost a military history of that brief but enormously significant conflict, it also represents the author’s attempt at placing that war in its proper context. Oren’s opening chapters provide the setting in which Israel’s preemptive attack on the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan occurred and by which that attack was justified.

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Israel was formally established as a state in 1948, its creation blessed by the United Nations and vehemently resisted by the Arab world that surrounded it. The establishment of a Jewish state amid hostile Arab (and overwhelmingly Muslim) nations determined to prevent it resulted in the 1948 war that immediately altered the U.N.’s initial plan for the realization of borders between Jewish and Arab states (including those referred to as Palestinians). Arab determination to prevent Israel’s survival, manifest in the policies of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, combined with the views of many Israelis that they needed to expand their borders both for survival and in line with Biblical prophecy, resulted in the perpetuation of hostilities that left the two sides mired in a sort of Cold War. As Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian leaders calculated ways that they could collectively defeat Israel, the Israelis adopted policies intended to keep the Arab leaders on the defensive while reunifying the city of Jerusalem, which Jews viewed (and still do) as the capital of their ancestral homeland and their sole bastion against anti-Semitism.

In between the 1948 war of independence (the Israeli view), or “the catastrophe” (the Palestinian view), and the 1967 war was the Suez Crisis of 1956, during which Britain and France conspired with Israel to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt, Nasser having nationalized that important navigational route carved through its territory by European colonialists. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower surprised his European allies by siding with Egypt and forcing Israeli forces to withdraw from the canal. To Arabs, unsurprisingly, the attempted seizure of the Suez Canal reinforced dominant perceptions of continued European (and, now, Israeli) determination to hold onto Arab lands. In the intervening years between the Suez Crisis and 1967 war, then, the seeds already planted for that eventual conflict were further cemented. Complicating matters was the Soviet Union’s determination to keep the region on edge, including by providing numerous advisors and weaponry to Arab governments, especially that of Egypt.

With this context, Oren describes in minute detail the events leading up to Israel’s surprise attack on its neighbors’ armies and the execution of the actual military operations, all the while informing the reader of important diplomatic and intragovernmental consultations and negotiations before, during, and after those seminal six days of war. As noted, most of Oren’s book focuses on the details of the battles. In Israel, though, those details are inseparable from the diplomatic context. The width of the point of a pen used to draft borders separating states in that region was and remains all it takes to perpetuate conflict over slivers of land separating Arab from Jewish land.

In the final chapters of Six Days of War, Oren describes the lingering diplomatic and military ramifications of Israel’s victory, especially the Jewish state’s capture of East Jerusalem (in which resides Jews’ holiest site, the Western Wall, access to which was denied to them when Jordan controlled that half of the city). Additionally, and of no less significance, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War enabled it to expand its borders to include areas known to Jews as Judea and Samaria and to Arabs as the West Bank of the Jordan River—results that continue to be felt today as Israeli governments seek to cement Israel’s hold on land while Arab villages feel increasingly squeezed by Jewish settlements. And, of course, there is the issue of terrorism attributed to Palestinian organizations dedicated to Israel’s destruction while enjoying support among Palestinians and Arabs outside those borders who view Israel as a European imposition on Islamic land. The subtitle of Oren’s book—June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East—provides the author’s main thesis regarding the long-term ramifications of Israel’s victory. Those ramifications, Oren observes, are among the most monumental in world affairs.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871

The best histories illuminate the limits of the human condition. The record of the past is the best guide to humanity’s paradoxical capacity for both greatness and degradation. Some histories read as farce, others as tragedy. A few histories manage to do both. Michael Oren’s Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East possesses this elusive distinction. Oren’s book is a substantial achievement. Its scholarship is impeccable; its implicit commentary on the human face of the Middle Eastern crisis is sobering.

Six Days of War is many things. First and foremost it is a cautionary tale. The events of June, 1967, defied both sides’ expectations. The Arabs were betrayed by their hopes; the Israelis were driven by their fears. Arab posturing set off a chain of events that backed the Israelis into what they believed was a corner. In the end, the Israelis proved more resourceful in adapting to changing circumstances, and they launched an offensive that devastated the military forces of their enemies. Israel’s leaders hoped that their victory would make possible a final settlement with their Arab neighbors; instead, military triumph saddled Israel with a sullen and eventually rebellious subject population in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, a war that was in many ways inadvertent begat more wars.

The protean character of the Six Day War underscores one of Oren’s major themes. He argues convincingly that those six days in June, 1967, were the crucible of the modern Middle East. The war changed the map in ways that made an already ugly conflict between the Arabs and Israelis even more intractable. It exposed the hard foundation of political and cultural difference that divides Arabs and Israelis. Finally, it aggravated the historical patterns of Israeli defensiveness and Arab humiliation which have done so much to embitter the struggle for the Holy Land.

Oren writes with authority. An American-born Israeli, he has grounded his history on an impressive body of research. He consulted available Arab resources and mined archives in Israel, the United States, Europe, and Russia. His is the most comprehensive account of the Six Day War available. It is also the best written. Oren’s history reads with the fluidity, pace, and suspense that one associates with a great work of fiction. His incisive and sympathetic portraits of the men caught up in the flow of events in 1967 give his narrative great dramatic power. Six Days of War is a masterful work of history.

Oren makes clear that this was a war that need not have been. This is a crucial element in the tragic dimension of these events. Leaders on both sides created a situation in which they felt themselves embroiled in forces beyond their control. Oren opens his book with the compelling image of a butterfly which, by flapping its wings, generates air currents that eventually explode into a storm. A fatal capriciousness runs through the events leading to war in 1967. Many flapping butterfly wings would come together to produce a major war.

Oren is careful to note, however, that no amount of butterfly wings flapping would have led to the Six Day War without the context of fierce enmity between Arabs and Israelis. The Arab states surrounding Israel had striven to smother it at birth in 1948. Unsuccessful in that attempt, they had subsequently refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Right through to the outbreak of war in 1967, they sponsored cross-border raids by Palestinian guerrillas. They also broadcast a torrent of stridently anti-Israeli rhetoric in their mass media. Opposition to the existence of the state of Israel became a rallying point for Arabs in the years after World War II as powerful currents of anticolonialism and nationalism roiled the Middle East.

The man who best embodied these forces for change in the Arab world was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had come to power in Egypt following a military coup in 1954. Nasser saw himself as a revolutionary and preached a heady brew of socialism and Arab nationalism. He dreamed of heading a pan-Arab state that encompassed most of the vanished caliphate. Nasser expended most of his energies and resources battling the more conservative Arab rulers in the region. On the eve of the Six Day War, much of his army was embroiled in a civil war in Yemen so brutal that his forces resorted to gassing recalcitrant villages. However, Nasser nursed a special grievance against Israel: He yearned to revenge the defeat inflicted on the Egyptian military in a 1956 war with Israel. Nasser recognized the real dangers of tangling with the Israelis, but the hope of a victory in any conflict raised glittering possibilities. The destruction of Israel would bring him the prestige in the Arab world necessary to fulfill the destiny that he saw for himself.

Nasser was not the only player in the Arab world. Other Arab leaders rivaled him in their extravagant denunciations of the “Zionist entity.” In Syria, a front-line state in the struggle against Israel, the commander of the air force, Hafez al-Assad, was already emerging as the dominant figure in the ruling Baath Party. Unfortunately for the Arab cause, these leaders were victims of a blindness wrought by their own despotic rule. In their national echo chambers, words too often substituted for effective action, or even for a sure grasp of reality. In June, 1967, they and their regimes would be found wanting.

Israel would be another story. In 1967, Israelis still thought of themselves as underdogs in the region. They had won two wars against their neighbors and had continued to resist robustly a series of guerrilla attacks. Nevertheless, Israelis were acutely conscious of the vulnerability of their small state, where a few hours drive could take one from one end of the country to the other. They were also aware of their isolation. The Israelis knew that they could count on the good will of the United States, but a close military alliance would come, ironically, only after the Six Day War. In the years leading up to the 1967 conflict, France had been Israel’s leading arms supplier. As another war loomed, however, the French made it clear that Israel could no longer rely on them for support. The Israelis were therefore prepared to go it alone if necessary. One expression of this was their officially unacknowledged nuclear weapons program at Dimona. The prospect of an Egyptian air strike on Dimona would be a major factor in firming up the Israeli resolve to strike first in June.

One of the strengths of Oren’s account is his care in putting the Six Day War into the context of the Cold War being waged between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the 1960’s, the Middle East had become another front in the Cold War. The United States, distracted by the Vietnam War, was attempting a balancing act, striving to maintain good relations with Israel as well as with several friendly Arab regimes. Among the latter was the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. During the Six Day War, the Israelis would go into battle against Jordanians armed with more modern, American-made tanks. The Soviets, on the other hand, saw the Middle East as a field where they could extend their influence. Egypt and Syria were already clients, heavily dependent on Soviet weaponry. The Arab-Israeli conflict gave the Soviets their leverage. Hence, Moscow was interested in seeing tensions in the region percolate, though not boil over; full-scale war could lead to a dangerous confrontation with the United States and embarrassing defeats for Moscow’s allies. This policy of stoking trouble short of war required a delicacy of touch the Soviets did not possess. One of the stunning revelations of Oren’s book is his description of the role the Soviets played in bringing on the war. An ongoing source of tension in the region was the Syrian bombardment of settlements in northern Israel from their commanding position on the Golan Heights. In May, 1967, the Soviets sent word to the Egyptians that the Israelis were massing forces to strike back at the Syrians. This was demonstrably false; the Israelis would later drive a United Nations (U.N.) observer along their northern frontier to prove that conditions were normal. Soviet intentions in this matter remain a mystery. What is certain is that this misinformation had an electrifying effect on Nasser.

The Egyptian leader responded by moving large forces into the Sinai. He sent U.N. peacekeepers, who had patrolled the border since the 1956 war, packing. He also closed the Straits of Tiran, a crucial economic lifeline for Israel. In doing this, he all but forced war on the Israelis. However, Nasser became intoxicated by the wave of adulation that engulfed him from the Arab world. It seemed that he had surprised and humiliated Israel. Borne along by his own virulent rhetoric, he ordered his military to prepare for war.

The Israelis now found themselves in a terrifying position. Radio broadcasts from the Arab states all predicted Israel’s imminent demise. Egyptian jets were overflying Israel and were even nosing around Dimona. Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol looked for foreign support and found none. Europe gave him a cold shoulder, while the Americans urged restraint without doing anything effectual to help. After a vigorous internal debate, the Israeli government decided to eliminate the Egyptian threat.

Israeli air strikes on June 5 caught the Egyptian air force by surprise. Within hours, most of Egypt’s war planes were destroyed on the ground. For all the grandiosity of Nasser’s plans, his forces had been deployed in a chaotic fashion. The Egyptian commanders now fled home or collapsed in nervous prostration. Ordinary Egyptian soldiers paid the price for Nasser’s farcical pretensions. By the time the Israelis stopped their offensive at the Suez Canal, twenty thousand Egyptians were dead, wounded, or missing; another five thousand were prisoners. The war did not stop here. King Hussein of Jordan, anxious to show support for the Egyptians and misled by propaganda emanating from Cairo, launched an attack around Jerusalem. The Israelis counterattacked, capturing the Old City of Jerusalem and sweeping through the entire West Bank. In the last days of the war, the Israelis struck at the Syrians and drove them from the strategic Golan Heights.

By the time international pressure brought the Six Day War to a halt, Israel had routed its enemies and had clearly established itself as the dominant military power in the Middle East. The Israelis had won a great victory, but they soon learned that they had failed to achieve peace. The victors thought that they would be able to barter their conquests for guarantees of security. The humiliated Arabs, however, refused to negotiate. Tragically, the future held only more war and stalemate. Michael Oren’s splendid history provides necessary background for understanding the blighted hopes that still afflict the Middle East.

Sources for Further Study

The American Spectator 35 (July/August, 2002): 72.

Commentary 113 (June, 2002): 69.

The Economist 363 (June 15, 2002): 102.

Foreign Affairs 81 (September/October, 2002): 202.

Kirkus Reviews 70 (April 1, 2002): 474.

Library Journal 127 (May 1, 2002): 117.

National Review 54 (July 29, 2002): 41.

The New York Times, July 17, 2002, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (June 16, 2002): 30.

Publishers Weekly 249 (March 25, 2002): 51.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 27, 2002, p. 12.

The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2002, p. D7.

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