The Making of the Modern Middle East

By the last months of 1966, the Israelis were growing increasingly impatient and frustrated by a series of attacks initiated from the West Bank. Though the area was under the ostensible supervision of Jordan, the attacks were largely instigated and supported by Syria.

On November 10, 1966, three policemen were killed when their vehicle struck a mine. The attack occurred on Israeli land near the West Bank city of Hebron. Michel Oren in Six Days of War describes Jordan’s frantic effort to conciliate and calm the Israelis. “[King ‘Abdalla] Hussein penned a personal condolence letter to [the Israeli Prime Minister Levi] Eskol along with a reaffirmation of his commitment to border security.”

Since there was no direct diplomatic contact with Israel, the King’s letter was rushed off to the US Embassy in Amman, Jordan. From there, the message was cabled to the US Ambassador to Israel in Tel Aviv, Walworth Barbour. The normally efficient and well-respected ambassador tragically decided there was no particular urgency to the cable. He did not convey the letter to Israeli authorities until Monday. Monday was too late. Over the weekend, Israel launched Operation Shredder.

The operation involved 400 soldiers and 10 tanks. Israeli forces plunged into the West Bank town of Rujin al-Mafa’ and destroyed the local police station. In Samu’, the Israeli Defense Forces rounded up the residents and dynamited the homes of those suspected of involvement in attacks.

However, what began as a surgical strike mushroomed out of control. A convoy of 100 Arab Legionnaires stumbled into the area and was decimated by the Israelis. Fifteen Legionnaires died and 54 were wounded. The resulting riots against King Hussein threatened his regime. Rather than punishing the perpetrators of the attacks, the Israelis managed to undermine the most moderate of their Arab adversaries.

With the same insight and illuminating detail and drawing upon recently released archival information, Michael Oren chronicles a detailed and definitive history of the Six Day War. The war is crucial to understanding present day Middle East politics. It is tragic and ironic that the current publicly claimed aspiration of Palestinians (at least for the benefit of the West) is to return to the 1967 borders. If they had been willing to settle for such an arrangement more than thirty years ago, much bloodshed would have been averted and fewer histories written.

Even a third of a century later, Oren’s Six Days of War reminds us of at least three relevant and important lessons now.

Lesson One: It is dangerous to depend on the United Nations (or even friends) for security.

Following Egypt’s defeat in the Suez War of 1956, UN troops occupied the Sinai, separating Israeli from Egyptian troops. Ten years later, both to improve his military position and standing in the Arab world, Nasser demanded that UN peacekeepers vacate the Sinai. U Thant could have postponed and delayed to prevent the UN withdrawal in an effort to stabilize the situation. Instead, U Thant decided that since the Egyptians had invited the United Nations in originally, the UN troops had to leave immediately.

The UN’s precipitous withdrawal from the Sinai helped to set up the chain of events leading to the Six Day War by emboldening Egypt and frightening Israel. Egyptian troops filled the vacuum left by the United Nations, even occupying Sharm Al-Sheikh overlooking the Straits of Tiran. The straits connect the Gulf of Aquaba and the Red Sea. Egyptian control of this strategic point prevented navigation of Israeli shipping. With Egyptian troops on their border, freedom of navigation to the Red Sea threatened, and bellicose statements pouring from Arab capitals, Israelis reasonably feared for their safety and even survival. This fear impelled the Israelis to launch the preemptive attacks that marked the beginning of the Six Day War.

Israel could not even rely on its allies and friends. The US, still trying to be an honest broker, refused to guarantee Israeli security. Tangled in Vietnam and unable to garner support from other western powers, the US would not manage to use its Navy to challenge freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran.

Lesson Two: Intra-Arab political bickering manifests itself in anti-Israel actions.

Syria sporadically attacked Northern Israel from the Golan Heights partially as a way to challenge Egypt’s Nasser as the erstwhile leader of the Arab world. Jordan, fearful of its own Palestinian population and a reluctant combatant was pressured to avoid accommodation with Israel. To a large extent, Egyptian truculence and aggressive actions in the Sinai were an effort to recapture Egyptian leadership in the Arab World. Its prestige had been severely tarnished in an ongoing and frustrating war in Yemen. Unfortunately, prestige in the Arab World accrues to those most successfully belligerent to Israel.

Lesson Three: Arab dictators cannot even be relied upon to act in their own or their own country’s self-interest. The allure of self-delusion is often too powerful.

The Israelis were afraid that a modest strike against their adversaries would only embolden them. After the initial attacks, the primary strategic Israeli fear was that Egypt, Syria, and Jordan would petition the United Nations to pressure Israel into a premature armistice. If the war ended too quickly, their adversaries might still be in a position to threaten Israel. Israel could not even depend upon the United States to block any cease-fire resolution in the United Nations Security Council. Fearful of destabilization in the area, the Johnson Administration in the US wanted a cease-fire as soon as possible.

Despite the experience of the Israel War for Independence and the Sinai War of 1956, Nasser was convinced of Egypt’s military superiority. After all, he had recently been able to garner significant military support from the Soviet Union. Syria’s Salah al-Jadid felt safe in Damascus, behind Syria’s fortified perch in the Golan Heights. In the first days of the war, both Syria and Egypt broadcast victorious reports to their people. The reports on Arab radio boasted of troops on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The “Arab Streets” were alive in joyous anticipation of final victory and revenge for the past two wars.

From a military standpoint, the best move for Egypt and Syria would have been to call for an immediate cease-fire. But the self-delusion of their leaders combined with the inflamed public made this move politically difficult. Israel desperately wanted to avoid a cease-fire before their military goals were accomplished, while their adversaries desperately wanted to avoid the ignominy of acknowledging their need for cease-fire. For a few brief days, both the Israelis and Arabs resisted outside pressure for a cease-fire. This strange alliance of purpose between Israel and its neighbors was in the best interest of Israel.

Jordan was the least belligerent of the Arab countries. Ironically, despite the loss of the West Bank, the Jordanian military acquitted itself better than its larger and more aggressive Arab neighbors.

Oren’s chronicle of the period presents a balanced and honest history that puts the period into perspective. It documents much of the predicate of the current situation in the Middle East. Without the conquest of the lands, there would have been no “land for peace” possibility. Immediately after the war, Israel offered such a proposition to each of its neighbors. It would take a decade for Egypt under Anwar Sadat to accept such a proposal. The Palestinians in the West Bank have not yet figured out how to accept a land for peace proposition. Syria still provides support for terrorist attacks. They will not likely soon regain the Golan Heights.

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