The Albatross of Victory
Review of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael Oren. 446 pp., Oxford University Press, 2002.
The Guardian, 8 June 2002.
The Six-Day War, which Arabs prefer to call the June 1967 War, was a
war that nobody planned and nobody wanted at that particular time.
Nevertheless, it was a major turning-point in the history of the Middle
East in the 20th century. Big wars, as A J P Taylor once remarked,
sometimes have small causes and this is probably true of the Six-Day
War. President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt triggered the crisis
by embarking on an exercise in brinkmanship that went over the brink,
with disastrous consequences for all concerned. Thirty-five years on,
we continue to live in the shadow of that war, with some of its
problems still unresolved, notably the Palestinian problem.
was both the victim and the victor in this war. Before the war, it was
nowhere as confident or self-assured as it was to become in its
aftermath. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol captured Israel’s ambiguous
position, which combined military invincibility with an acute sense of
vulnerability, in the Yiddish words Shimshon der nebechdikker -- Samson
the wimp. True, Israel fired the first shot, but the crisis slide that
culminated in war was not of its own making. Rather, it was the result
of over-bidding in the Arab Cold War. Israel was like a football thrown
onto the field and kicked around by the various Arab players but the
game ended, unusually, with the football kicking the players.
The war thus provides a
striking illustration of the perennial predicament of the Arab states:
they cannot act separately and they cannot act collectively; they keep
getting in each other’s way. On this occasion, the level of
incompetence displayed by the Arab leaders was quite staggering. After
ten years of preparation for what was often referred to as the battle
of destiny, and after raising popular passions to a fever pitch with
their blood-curdling rhetoric, the leaders of the confrontation states
were caught by complete surprise when Israel took their threats at face
value and landed the first blow.
The war lasted six days,
132 hours to be precise. But the battle was all but lost in the first
hour, when the Israeli air force succeeded in destroying on the ground
a very high proportion of the enemy combat planes. ‘Never in the
history of military aviation has the exercise of air power played so
speedy and decisive a part in modern warfare,’ observed R.
Goring-Morris, Britain’s air attaché in Tel Aviv. Rarely,
one might add, has such a short war had so many books written about it.
Michael Oren, a Senior
Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, deserves credit for producing
the most detailed, the most comprehensive, and by far the
best-documented history that we have on this short but fateful war. The
book includes chapters on the context, the countdown, and the aftermath
of the war. But the bulk of the book is a day-by day, almost
blow-by-blow account of the war itself. The description of military
operations on the various fronts is accompanied by accounts of the
political crises in the capitals of the belligerents, the role played
by the super-powers, and the diplomatic moves to arrange a cease-fire
at the United Nations in New York. Throughout the book, Oren uses
the full panoply of sources in three European languages, Russian,
Hebrew, and Arabic. He is one of the first writers to take advantage of
the thousands of official documents that were recently declassified
under the thirty-year rule. The products of this prodigious
archival research, and of the interviews that Oren conducted with about
sixty policy-makers, are used to very good effect. The result is a
fast-moving and action-packed narrative which sheds a great deal of new
light on all the major participants in the war and on conflict and
cooperation between them.
By the time the guns fell
silent, Israel had captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank
from Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. The ball was now
clearly in its court. For the first time in its history, Israel was in
a position to trade land for peace. Its post-war diplomacy, however,
turned out to be as cautious and hesitant as its wartime strategy had
been daring and decisive. The national unity government headed by Levi
Eshkol was deeply divided. Eshkol and Abba Eban, his eloquent foreign
minister, led a group of moderates who were willing to return virtually
all the captured land, except Jerusalem, to achieve peace with their
neighbours. Facing them was a group of hard-liners who, for strategic
and ideological reasons, insisted on keeping most of the territories.
Defence minister Moshe Dayan was a law unto himself. Six weeks after
the end of the war, according to the British Embassy’s count,
Dayan expressed no less than six different opinions on peace. The
resounding military victory over which Dayan had presided greatly
enhanced his political power at home, and he used this power to impose
his muddled and myopic ideas on the wavering cabinet. In the country of
the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
On 19 June 1967, the
cabinet secretly decided to withdraw to the international border with
Egypt and Syria in exchange for peace and the demilitarisation of Sinai
and the Golan Heights. No decision could be reached, however, regarding
the future of the West Bank. Four months later, following the Arab
summit at Khartoum, the cabinet went back on the offer which was never
in fact communicated to the Egyptian or Syrian governments. Strong
nationalistic and messianic currents propelled the Israeli government
to start building settlements on the West Bank which was ever more
insistently claimed as an integral part of the ancestral Land of
Israel. During the period of uncertainty following the military
victory, the cabinet explored the option of an autonomous Palestinian
entity on the West Bank as well as the option of restoring most of this
area to Jordanian sovereignty. The settlement drive undermined both
options. It also began to erode the democratic and Jewish character of
the State of Israel. The great victory it had won in legitimate
self-defence turned out to be an albatross round Israel’s neck.
In the immediate
aftermath of victory, Levi Eshkol began to sport a Churchillian V sign.
His wife Miriam, a militant moderate, said to him: ‘Eshkol, what
are you doing? Have you gone mad?’ With characteristic humour
Eshkol replied: ‘No. This is not a V sign in English. It is a V
sign in Yiddish! Vi krikht men aroys?’ Roughly translated, this
means ‘How do we get out of this?’ It is a question to
which Eshkol’s compatriots have not yet found an answer.