Sunday, January 17, 2016

Six Days of War by Michael B. Oren (Book Review #104 of 2015)

Six Days of War
I read this book after reading Ari Shavit's My Promised Land and Izuddin' Abuelaish's I Shall Not Hate, as well as Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews. 1967 seems to be such a pivotal moment both in Israeli and Arab psyche and had wider implications in the perspective of the Cold War. I agree with those who call "lazy" the pundits who claim the rise of Islamic fundamentalism finds its roots in the disappointment of 1967. As usual, reality is more complicated than that. One  resource website I found while writing this review is, a good place to go for the quick Israeli-leaning narrative; Oren's work simply adds the military and political details and personalities. It's one of the highest-rated books I've read on any topic, especially one as widely covered as the Six Day War.

I'm 36, and it's not uncommon to hear people younger than me (and maybe some older) think gloom and doom about the world today, particularly the situation in the Middle East. "What has the world come to?" "Surely this is the end times." Nuclear Iran, ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Syrian civil war, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Saudi and Iranian proxy war in Yemen, etc. But let's examine 1967:
The world divided between communism and markets, both armed with nuclear weapons and just a few years away from various almost blowing up the world. America in the midst of a liberal social revolution while being increasingly mired in its own proxy war called Vietnam. Every nation surrounding Israel refusing to recognize any right to existence, armed and eager to invade. Much more of the world in poverty and under despotism than today.

The first half of the book is the long spring build-up to the 1967 war, which is dominated by actions by Abdul Nasser's Egypt. We forget (or are ignorant) today that Haffez Al Assad and Nasser forged an alliance unifying Egypt and Syria into one nation. Egypt had been fighting battles in Yemen. The Arab League was bent mostly on the destruction of Israel and if they had dreams of a pan-Arab region it was always at risk from internal squabbles. Nasser held contempt for Jordan after Jordanian troops refused to help his battalion, leading to a glorious defeat and his elevation as a national hero. Nasser held Jordan's King Hussein in disdain, and Jordan seriously feared (as Nasser threatened) Egyptian troops pushing through Israel straight into Amman. Hussein had already survived multiple coup attempts he saw Nasser's hand behind.

Oren does a good job helping the reader feel the building tension. The Israelis were genuinely concerned about being wiped off the map by the overwhelming 500,000-strong Arab force, and Prime Minister / Defense Minister Levi Eshkol walked a fine line between hawks calling for pre-emptive strikes and a desire for Western support by not being the belligerent. The Jewish diaspora held protest rallies at universities and raised funds and other support for the besieged country, increasingly cut off from trade after the Egyptians blockaded the Straits of Tiran. Meanwhile, the Soviets helped the Syrians design a battle plan (shades of 2014-2015) and were eagerly shadowing any US ships in the region; tensions were high. Lyndon Johnson advised the Israelis to be patient and not be the ones to strike first-- at least not until they absolutely had to. This would give the US some clout in the UN, Israel had to be recognized as the non-belligerent, something Soviet propaganda would contradict. Johnson, while now known as a complex figure and often racist in conversation, had many Jewish advisors in his White House. "They consider the war to be like the Alamo and I don't aspire to be like Santa Anna." The US proposed the "Regatta Plan" to sail a convoy of international ships through the Straits of Tiran (at the Gulf of Aqaba) which would demonstrate if Egyptian belligerence if prevented, but could also risk a much wider war if a NATO ship was fired upon. Johnson was not prepared to come to Israel's aid in anything other than diplomacy, hoping a wider war could be avoided or, at the least, that the Arabs would fire first and the UN could intervene quickly. 

Egypt poured troops into the Sinai while Syria did likewise on the Golan Heights, both expelling UN observers or preventing their access to locations where they could observe the buildup. Iraq and Jordan began mobilizing their own forces sensing the impending attack. Chief of Staff (and future Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin had to take a temporary leave of absence after exhaustion from stress. As Israel finally activated reservists, they were condemned by the USSR as war-mongerers. On May 30, the Jordanians signed a defense pact that gave the Egyptian army command of Jordanian forces while reopening PLO offices, the PLO would also play a part in the battle. Moshe Dayan was named Israeli Defense Minister and folk hero Menachem Begin was also brought into the Cabinet. Arab propaganda across all nations prepared their people for a glorious retaking of Palestine.

On June 4, the Israeli cabinet voted to launch a pre-emptive strike to end any Arab hopes of victory and force a quick UN resolution. The greatest emphasis in Israeli strategy was given to the Egyptian front in the hopes of crippling their military and convincing the Jordanians to the fight was futile. Air superiority is the key to any modern war. The most telling statistic in the book was that Israel had trained to develop an eight minute turnaround between a jet's landing and its refueling, rearming, and being back in the sky. Compare that to the reported eight hour turnaround for the Egyptian Air Force and it's not hard to do the math. Israel also had scouted any gaps in the Egyptian radar system.

On the morning of June 5, after dawn patrols and when Egyptian leaders were stuck in traffic, Israel flew almost its entire air force over the Mediterranean then back behind Egyptian lines from the west to strike Egyptian air bases. Jordan had cabled Egypt warning of the approaching planes but a remarkable miscommunication about the channel or updating the Jordanian codes to be used between the forces Egypt to entirely miss the warning. The Israelis were able to fly 144 sorties in 100 minutes in a strategy where waves of jets would be able to attack in a non-stop rotation.  

Israeli tanks and paratroopers poured into Sinai simultaneously, a costly but successful campaign. Some Israeli mistakes led to casualties, but the Israeli forces were able to push through to the Suez Canal where Israeli commanders had forbidden anyone to cross. Egypt lied via its state-run media about dramatic Israeli defeat and Egyptian forces pressing on to Jerusalem, which sowed greater confusion both among Egyptian army and the other Arab states. The author writes of pledges from around the world of volunteers to the Egyptian cause that came pouring in after June 5. The Egyptians ordered Jordanian forces to begin attacking while claiming they had destroyed 75% of the Israeli air force in the opening hours, when the opposite was true!

Given the information by the Egyptians, including a claim that Egypt was launching its ground invasion of Israel, the Jordanians rebuffed Israeli attempts to push a cease-fire with its sometimes amiable neighbor Jordan, Israel was promising no attacks on Jordan if Jordan would do likewise. Israel initially held off counterattacking the Jordanian forces who were inflicting casualties on the Israeli side. Suddenly, Jordan's army, weak compared to Egypt's, began fighting the most fiercely and took up positions formerly held by UN peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force seemed lax and uneager to join the fray and moved slowly before mobilizing-- remarkable given the long buildup and knowledge that the war was imminent.

Israel had remarkable luck or skill in destroying Jordan's small air force while it was on the ground refueling. The late-mobilizing Syrians and Iraqis also quickly lost any air superiority to Israeli jets. But Jordanian and Syrian artillery poised a threat, particularly to the airbases and civilian settlements. Jewish portions of Jerusalem that were surrounded by Arabs were also threatened. Having advantage in the air, the Israelis had success counterattacking near Jerusalem with a small, outnumbered infantry force on the ground while their air force punished any incoming reinforcements. The Israeli cabinet was ecstatic to learn that by the morning of June 6, recapturing the Temple Mount with the rest of Jerusalem was now a distinct possibility before a UN ceasefire could be imposed. Oren retells the story of the ecstasy of Israeli troops able to again pray at their holiest site. After heavy fighting against other Jordanian forces, Jordan was out of the fight on June 7 and a UN-brokered truce was signed.

By now, the Arab media spread false rumors of British and US planes and involvement, with Egypt blaming their embarrassment on intervention by Western imperialist forces backing the zionists. Despite no actual US involvement, 34 Americans on the USS Liberty died when Israeli forces mistook it for an Egyptian destroyer on June 8 (for which Israel later paid reparations to victims). With their Arab allies losing badly, the US feared Soviet involvement in order to avoid the humiliation of their supported allies' defeat.

Syrian troops were well-trained and with a Syrian advantage as most of Israel's army and air force was focused on the Sinai. But as Egypt retreated and Jordan dropped out, forces were quickly shifted to the Syrian front. Israel gained air superiority over Syrian on June 6, and after Syria violated a cease-fire on June 8, Israel mobilized its forces for the attack. After a fierce tank battle, Israel captured more territory, including Masada, while the Syrians tried to get the USSR more directly involved. A decision to announce the impending fall of Damascus in the media in order to ensure Soviet protection (again, think Russia moving to protect Assad in 2015) had the reverse effect of Syrian retreat and surrender, giving the Golan Heights to Israeli forces. Fighting officially ended on June 10. Some of the best fighting, interestingly, seemed to have been done by PLO operatives in already-occupied territories.

One of the bizarre effects of the war was to cause Abdul Nasser to withdraw from all contact for three days after June 5 when he learned his army had been humiliated. After he appeared on national television to announce the truth of the defeat, blaming US and British armed intervention and Israel for attacking "from the West," he resigned. People took to the streets in a panic, calling for Nasser to return (which of course he did).

As documented well by Ari Shavit, in the aftermath of the war Jews were rapidly expelled from all over the Arab territories. Confidence in Arab regimes was perhaps tainted, but not shattered. In 1973 everyone would again make a go at it before suffering similar humiliation and no liberation of occupied territories. Meanwhile, Israel would be left with a long legacy of occupation and abuse of Palestinians. Interestingly, the author does not mention much about the nuclear question. As Shavit points out, the Israelis had long since completed a nuclear reactor with the aid of France, and likely had nuclear arms by 1967. If Tel Aviv had been in danger of falling, might Israel have started a nuclear war?

An aftermath not mentioned is the increasing religiosity around the Israeli victory, which Shavit writes came soon after the insecurity 1973 Yom Kippur war. Zionism began in the late 1800s as a secular movement and most remained that way through the 1950s. But the capture of Jerusalem and a determination through archaeology and religious history to show historic claims to land began to justify continued occupation of the Arab territories, despite international condemnation. The UN passed Resolution 242 in 1968, which basically left Jewish ownership of now-occupied Jerusalem in question, but it increasingly became central to Jewish nation-state identity. It was vague enough to be interpreted a dozen different ways as in a "yet to be determined." In the West, many evangelicals see Israel's victories in 1948 and 1967 as miraculous fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The Six Day War seems to be straight out of the Hebrew Bible-- impossible victory with few casualties despite overwhelming odds. While there is widespread theological disagreement about Israel's claim to the land, given their rejection of the Messiah, many influential evangelical politicians (Michelle Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, etc.) point to 1967 as divine intervention that America would be wise not to ignore. As I read this book, I was reminded that there were always many fortunate coincidences that a much more organized military is able to take advantage of in all of Israel's wars (from what I've read regarding the Maccabean revolution, 1948, the Yom Kippur War, etc.). 500,000 troops, 5,000 tanks, 1,000 fighter planes from seven different countries, plus the pledge of support from the USSR was able to bring nothing but humiliating defense and further loss of Arab territory. The Israelis lost hundreds while the Arabs officially lost thousands. Relevant or not, I'm still exploring covenentalist theology versus dispensationalist in an attempt to understand events in my own mind.

I would like to read King Hussein's personal memoir of the war which he published later.
I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Highly readable, great with details. However, it makes me wonder what the author missed.

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