Conflict is given the Holywood treatment

Six Days of War
September 26, 2003

This book aspires to offer a comprehensive history of a pivotal episode in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Such an aim, studiously pursued by the author, is prodigiously accomplished through the use of original documents, rare papers and personal interviews with a number of participants, either decision-makers or field operatives.

Moreover, comprehensiveness is meant to resituate the contemporary ramifications of this conflict in the context of the six-day war, both as a political event and a military encounter. Thus, the 1973 October war, the Lebanese wars, the Camp David Accords, the controversy over the status of Jerusalem and Zionist settlements in occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, in addition to a succession of intifadas, are all presumed to be the direct result of that fateful military confrontation.

Unfortunately, the book gets off to a bad start by revealing, among other things, an inadequate grasp of Arab affairs and their historical background. In the opening chapter, which is designed to explain "the context" of the conflict, Palestine is arbitrarily assumed to be the "historical homeland" in which "the Jewish people's movement", known as Zionism, aspired to build an independent polity. By postulating such a deep-rooted legitimacy, the author has thereafter no compunction in branding almost all manifestations of Palestinian resistance to the occupation of their country as mere acts of terrorism. So much so that the responsibility for the six-day war itself is laid at the door of a number of ineffective guerrilla operations. In this sense, the structure of the other chapters, narrating the story of how the war broke out and its unfolding events, is largely determined by the author's contrived context.

Moreover, this allows Oren to indulge in a number of inaccurate statements regarding modern Arab history. Jordan, for example, did not drop its former nomenclature, that is, the Emirate of Transjordan, after its annexation of the West Bank but in 1946 on its formal independence. Nasser did not declare Egypt "an Arab country", which would have been a tautology and politically inconsequential; he rather considered Egypt an integral part of "the Arab nation", a totally different proposition. Nor did he unilaterally nationalise "the Suez waterway", which had always been an Egyptian territory - the Suez Company operated and managed the Canal.

Furthermore, neither Salah Jadid nor Hafez al-Assad participated, as the author contends, in the 1961 coup that broke up the United Arab Republic.

Intriguingly, the reader is referred to Patrick Seale's Asad: the Struggle for the Middle East (1988) as the source for this. A cursory inspection of Seale's book reveals a diametrically opposite picture. This creative use of references is further refined to include a statement affirming the teaching of Russian as a second language in Syrian schools in the 1960s. These examples make readers slightly anxious when they are confronted by quotations from unpublished sources.

As for the narration of events, Oren offers a script fit for a Hollywood movie. Largely restricted to battle plans, military engagements and back-room exchanges, it reveals as much as it hides. One is compelled to savour a dizzying selection of verbal exchanges between, say, US President Johnson and Aba Eban, the Israeli foreign minister, on the one hand, and feel propelled to soar, eagle-eyed, on the wings of successive military feats, on the other.

The book constitutes a celebratory documentation of Israel's stupendous victory and a sobering account of a crushing Arab defeat. The Israeli victory, virtually sealed in the early hours of the first day of the war, is depicted throughout as a defensive mechanism that sprang into action almost as an afterthought. The author shows, for example, how the occupation of the whole of Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights unfolded as spontaneous responses rather than the result of a premeditated strategy. The absence of clear Israeli strategic aims was, according to Oren, matched by the prior formulation of Arab battle plans, drawn up by the Soviets for the Egyptian army. Once more, the initial context, constructed by the author in broad outline, enters the military field as a governing principle that determines the distribution and documentary evidence deemed necessary to buttress firmly held views.

It would have been less difficult to provide a different context, whereby the same facts and events could be made to tell a more credible story. Had the author chosen to discuss Israel's strategy of preemptive attacks (against states or individuals), a more balanced account, or an alternative model, would have emerged. This omission skews the narrative in the direction of secondary factors and ends up proposing Yasser Arafat as the person who helped "precipitate the war" in June 1967.

The book's strength lies in its minute depiction of the course of the six-day war and its dramatic moments. Although it furnishes no major revelations, its sympathetic portraits of most of the major participants give it a certain quality of originality. However, it remains an Israeli point of view, addressed to a presumably captive western audience.

Youssef Choueiri is reader in Middle East history, University of Exeter.

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Author - Michael B. Oren
ISBN - 0 19 515174 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 446

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