Book Review | The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East by Guy LaronHow Much Did Nasser Know?
2017 / 384 pp. / $28
The 1967 Six-Day War is most accurately viewed as another round in the 100 years’ war for Palestine that started with the anti-Zionist riots in 1920. Since then a series of armed conflicts between Jews and Arabs has shaped the history of this country; the Six-Day War was neither the first nor the last of them. Having grown up in refugee camps following 1948, Palestinian guerrillas launched a series of terror attacks against Israel, often operating out of Syrian and Jordanian territory. Israel repeatedly struck at these countries, including with air strikes and bombings. Syria appealed to Egypt for help. The Egyptians turned against Israel, closing the waterway to Eilat. In the war that broke out, Israel came to control substantial Arab territories, including East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That control turned into occupation, which is the main reason the war still warrants significant attention today.
Guy Laron’s challenging new book, The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East, is well worth reading even though Laron, a lecturer in international relations at Hebrew University, focuses too much on the war’s international context and, at times, relies too heavily upon unsubstantiated speculation. For example, Laron recounts that on June 2, 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser convened a meeting of all the senior commanders of the Egyptian army and told them that Israel would attack Egypt on the 4th or the 5th. According to Laron, Nasser later became more precise and stated that Israel’s opening offensive would be an aerial attack on June 5. It was. In spite of this alleged forewarning, almost the entire Egyptian air force was annihilated on that morning, thus guaranteeing Israel’s victory in the war.
Laron cites two sources for Nasser’s statement to Egypt’s senior military staff. One is Reconstructing a Shattered Egyptian Army, a memoir by General Mohamed Fawzi, the Egyptian chief of staff; the other is a speech made immediately after the war by the Soviet Communist Party leader, Leonid Brezhnev. There is no particular reason to trust either of the two. Laron offers no verbatim record of Nasser’s statement. Indeed, Arab official records are hard to obtain and are not all reliably trustworthy. While the memoirs of a former Egyptian politician can be relied upon for his personal experiences and feelings, a direct quote from Nasser needs a stronger source. Brezhnev’s speech is obviously not a reliable source on this point, and Laron does not offer a good reason to accept it.
In what he hopes will be the major exposé of his book, Laron tries to find out how Nasser achieved this extraordinary scoop: Nasser’s information, he argues, came from Washington, and he traces it to Meir Amit, chief of Israel’s Mossad, who had spent the week preceding the war in Washington. Details of this trip are available because Israeli records about Amit’s mission are accessible. Amit was dispatched there to obtain a green light for Israel’s strike against Egypt. In his talks with CIA officials and with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Amit stressed the urgency of Israel’s action and promised that if allowed to strike immediately, Israel would win swiftly and would not have to ask for U.S. intervention. Laron speculates that someone at CIA HQ may have leaked the Cairo information “gleaned from Amit’s loose talk.”
“Of course,” he adds, “without further documentation it is hard to know for certain, but what the sequence of events confirms is that information on the timing of the Israeli assault started leaking in the two days that preceded the Six-Day War.”
There is nothing we investigative historians and journalists hate more than scoops which remain scoops, and Laron’s does not even pass muster as speculation. Amit could not have mentioned the date of Israel’s forthcoming attack while in America because it had not yet been determined by the Israeli cabinet. In fact, the cabinet delayed its decision pending the results of Amit’s talks in Washington. Upon returning to Israel, Amit’s recommendations were to delay the attack for another week in order to give the Americans more time to defuse tensions in the region.
The official record of that cabinet meeting shows that the main objection to any further delay came from the minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, and the chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin. Thus the record appears to substantiate one of Laron’s other major arguments, that the heads of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) drove Israel into the war despite the fact that in June 1967 Nasser did not intend to have a military confrontation. The available documentation does not sufficiently demonstrate what Nasser’s actual intentions were, but what matters is what Israel assumed to be the case.
According to Laron, the IDF anticipated no existential danger but regarded the crisis as an opportunity to expand Israel’s borders. In order to achieve that goal, the army disregarded the weak prime minister, Levi Eshkol. Laron points out that similar tensions between the military and political branches of government existed in Egypt, Syria, the Soviet Union and the United States. All four countries, he contends, had their own reasons to incite war in the Middle East.
Militarists naturally tend to believe in their power and often demand action. The IDF is no exception. In a previous book about the 1956 Suez crisis, Laron presented convincing evidence that Dayan and the IDF, in cooperation with France and Great Britain, pushed Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion into war against Egypt. In the ensuing years, the IDF designed more plans for territorial expansion, but Ben-Gurion repeatedly rejected those plans.
The situation in 1967 was more complex. Prime Minister Eshkol’s political weakness played a role in the course of events leading to the war; indeed, some generals put brutal pressure on him. However, Eshkol also emerges as a statesman with nerves of steel who withstood all pressure until he could obtain the green light from Washington. Like the IDF, he probably did not fear for Israel’s very existence, but he agreed with Dayan and the army that a war might improve Israel’s strategic situation.
For the most part, Laron ignores the social and psychological fragility of the Israelis at the time. Nine out of every ten Jews living in Israel in 1967 had not been born there. Nearly one out of every five had lived in Israel for less than a decade. Many of them were Holocaust survivors or newcomers from Arab countries. Most Israelis had not yet mastered the Hebrew language. Egypt’s threats to exterminate Israel caused widespread and growing panic which the cabinet could not ignore. Some militarists and politicians manipulated the public’s apprehensions, but there is ample evidence to show that most of it was authentic Holocaust panic. In their private correspondence in the period leading up to the war, Israelis expressed feelings of complete helplessness, repeatedly referring to Arab threats to “exterminate Israel.” These words, broadcast by Arab radio stations, indicated, for many Israelis, the possibility of a second Holocaust. Nasser was compared to Hitler; municipal rabbis went through public parks sanctifying them to serve as cemeteries. This was a major factor in the decision to strike at Egypt, and Egypt’s almost immediate defeat became a major factor in the decision to take East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which resulted in an instantaneous transition for Israelis from the depths of despair to the heights of national and religious elation. Thus the Six-Day War was mainly a result of panic and euphoria in Israel rather than of the rational policy interests of Moscow, Washington or Tel Aviv (or even of the U.S. and the USSR acting out Cold War dynamics in the Middle East). Regardless of the reasons, taking East Jerusalem and the West Bank proved to be a fatal decision: Fifty years later, it still prevents any progress towards peace.
Tom Segev is the author of 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. He has just completed a biography of David Ben-Gurion.