In June of 1967, a joke making the rounds in Israel involved an Israeli man asking a young woman if she would like to go out on a date that night. The flustered woman blurted, "We can't go out on a date! Don't you realize that we're at war with several surrounding Arab countries that are all intent on destroying us?"
The man shrugged and said, "Oh, OK. Then, how about tomorrow night?"
Such was the way the stunningly swift and complete Israeli victory in the Six-Day War was viewed throughout much of the world. Americans were impressed, Europeans were aghast and the Russians were wildly envious. Palestinians, to this day, dryly refer to it as the June 1967 War, as though simply uttering the conflict's more common name would re-open the wounds of ignominy at having been on the wrong end of one of the worst tail kickings in the history of warfare.
It was a war that lasted less than a week, but one whose echoes rumble through our consciousness and nightly news reports on an all-too-regular basis. Indeed, as argued in Michael B. Oren's meticulously researched and remarkably even-handed new book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, the ease and totality with which Israel had vanquished its multiple enemies appears to have made things infinitely worse on both sides.
The Arabs, having hated the presence of the Israelis ever since a guilt-ridden Britain and the United Nations had foisted the Jews into their midst after World War II, took on an added, hair-vest sense of rage at the humiliating defeat. Even a shred of common sense would have told the Arabs that all of the countries in the region combined were no match for the Israeli juggernaut and that perhaps the best thing to do would be to find a way to just get along. But the sting of the defeat was so intense that six years later, they were at it again. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 dragged on for a full month, but despite a massive sneak attack on the Jewish Holy Day and early Arab advances, the results were the same. And so it goes, as the resentment grows.
On the other hand, Israel proved to be something less than a gracious winner after the Six-Day War. All of a sudden, the once-plucky underdog became the Beast of the Middle East. While Americans, in particular, truly love a winner, they also have feelings for the downtrodden. The pro-Palestinian sentiment in this country, still decidedly a minority view, began after the Six-Day War and has seen growth spurts after each lopsided Israeli victory that followed.
In less than a week, Israel had quadrupled in land area. What to do with this land would be at the heart of that nation's foreign-policy decisions and internal strife over the next three decades. The occupation of the holy city of Jerusalem (which has always been met with a shrug by most Christians) is a constant dagger in the side of Arabs. And the government-sponsored programs to encourage Jewish settlements in the captured Gaza Strip and Golan Heights has provided neither added security for Israel nor economic prosperity for the occupied territories. The problem is that Israel builds fences around the Palestinians, but then insists on standing on both sides of the fence. Probably the best thing they ever did was to give the Sinai back to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty (one that has been severely tested but is still in effect today).
Oren begins the book not with the onset of the actual fighting, but with events from years before that, when looked at in a historical context, lead inexorably to the conflict. Truly, many Arabs in the region felt that they had been in a constant state of war since the inception of the Israeli state in the late 1940s. He tells of a laughingly inept commando raid led by a young Yasser Arafat, who sneaked into Israel from Lebanon on Dec. 31, 1964, armed with Soviet-made explosives. They wanted to blow up an aqueduct pump, but the group got lost, the explosives failed to detonate, and then the entire team got arrested by Lebanese police as it exited Israel. Despite the fiasco, the even-then befuddling Arafat issued a victorious communiqué, publicly declaring a "blow for the jihad."
Richly detailed, the narrative nevertheless flows smoothly, saving the reader from having to absorb the information in fits and starts. Working from recently declassified documents, Oren looks into the halls of power not just in the Middle East, but in Moscow and Washington, as well.
Then-President Lyndon Johnson--whose Jewish advisors included Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, speechwriter Ben Wattenberg, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg and brothers Walter and Eugene Rostow--was in yet another political hell. If he didn't back Israel, he feared that the U.S. would be seen as a paper tiger; if he did back the Israelis, he feared that Arabs would hate the U.S. for generations to come. Johnson had before him detailed intelligence reports that correctly predicted a swift and overwhelming Israeli victory, but was reluctant to act on them, having been burned by similar intelligence reports concerning Vietnam. And while he eventually reconfirmed the American-Israeli bond, he was "fed up with being pushed around" by American Jews who bombarded the White House with telegrams and delegations insisting upon U.S. intervention on the side of Israel.
The second half of the book takes us through the war on a day-by-day basis, showing us the strategy that was ever bit as brilliant as that which allowed the Israelis to execute the stunning reversal of fortune in the Yom Kippur War. We read in awe as the Israeli military, fighting with precision and controlled fury, gobbles up territory at a rate far exceeding even the most optimistic projections by military planners.
It must be remembered that the Israelis fight the way they do not simply so they can hold on to the oil-less piece of Middle Eastern dirt they now call home, but because there still exists the haunting memories of what happened the last time in history they found themselves powerless in a hate-filled world. This point is driven home by what might be considered a companion piece to Six Days, the grim and compelling Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rhodes has also gained acclaim for his masterful dismantling of the phony Edward Teller "Father of the H-Bomb" legend in Dark Sun and for detailing the link between kuru, scrapie Mad-Cow Disease and Jacob-Kreutzfeld in the startling Deadly Feasts.
In Masters, Rhodes coldly and methodically traces the origins and brutal campaigns of the Einsatzgruppen, the S.S. division that started and carried out much of the Holocaust. From the early days of the atrocities, where the S.S. troops would release Lithuanian troops from prison in exchange for their participation in "impromptu" anti-Jewish riots to the time that the Germans would work to come up with more efficient ways to kill people (like lining them up three deep so that one bullet could kill all three), the book tells a story that's too horrible to read, yet too important to ignore.
The two books shed light on why things are the way they are. It's easy to see why the Israelis have an obsessive need to remain forevermore undefeated and why many Arabs in the region exist in a state of sustained fanaticism, one in which they would much rather die in pieces than live in peace.