Abba Eban with Footnotes
In his introduction Oren, an American-born Israeli historian, professes that his account of the June war is uncommonly detached (SDW: pp. xiv-xv). Were this the case it would surely be an achievement, especially in light of the author's own pronounced right-wing political biases. In fact, Oren basically reiterates the official Israeli version of the June war. Notwithstanding his claim that the book's conclusions are based on massive new research findings culled from multiple, recently opened state and United Nations archives, it happens that all the Arab and most of the crucial Israeli (and Soviet) archives remain closed, while the U.N. archives have been accessible for many years. The only substantially new documentation Oren brings to bear comes from U.S. archives, yet none of his cited findings significantly alter the known picture of American policy during these fateful months while, on the most controversial questions - e.g., Did the U.S. give Israel a "green light" on the eve of its preemptive strike? - no new light is shed.
It would seem that Oren's main achievement is lending a scholarly veneer to, as it were, the Abba Eban version of the June war. To reconcile the historical record with this apologetic narrative he resorts to several distinct, if overlapping, procedures:
The armistice agreement between Israel and Syria at the close of the 1948 war called for the creation of demilitarized zones (DZs) along their common border, and an Israeli-Syrian Mixed Armistice Commission (ISMAC). Oren initially states that the DZs constituted "areas of Israel evacuated by the Syrian army" but then quickly backpedals, designating them as areas "over which Israel claimed total sovereignty" (SDW: p. 23) - a claim lacking any international sanction. In his account of the unfolding conflict punctuated by armed clashes over the DZs, Oren occasionally implies that Israel acted the belligerent (SDW: pp. 9, 14) or that both sides were equally blameworthy (SDW: pp. 23, 48-9), but overwhelmingly he portrays Israel as the innocent victim of Syrian aggression: Israel "thwarted Syria's.attempts to dominate the DZs"; "Obstructing [ISMAC's] work was Syria's demand for control over the DZs [and] Israel's rejection of that demand"; "Israel was indeed preparing the groundwork for a reprisal against Syria.At the next Syrian provocation, Israel would send armored tractors deep into the DZs, wait for them to be fired on, and then strike back. The provocation was not long in coming"; and so forth (SDW: pp. 27, 44, 45-6; cf. pp. 29, 42, 64). In fact, all independent observers on the scene recalled that - in the words of Odd Bull, chief of staff of UN forces in the Middle East - "the status quo was all the time being altered by Israel in her favor" as Arab villagers were evicted, their dwellings demolished, and "all Arab villages disappeared" in wide swaths of the DZs. Oren frequently quotes from Bull's essential memoir but omits mention of these observations, and similar ones by numerous other eyewitnesses (I&R: pp. 131-2). Indeed, he suppresses what is surely the most revealing source on the root cause of these border clashes. In an interview that created a stir in Israel after its belated publication, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared:
I know how at least 80 percent of all of the incidents there started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let's speak about 80 percent. It would go like this: we would send a tractor to plow.in the demilitarized area, and we would know ahead of time that the Syrians would start shooting. If they did not start shooting, we would inform the tractor to progress farther, until the Syrians, in the end, would get nervous and would shoot. And then we would use guns, and later, even the air force, and that is how it went..We thought.that we could change the lines of the cease-fire accords by military actions that were less than a war. That is, to seize some territory and hold it until the enemy despairs and gives it to us.
It was just such a staged provocation - an Israeli tractor plowing through a disputed field despite Syrian pleas for compromise - that sparked the April 1967 aerial battle. In Oren's reckoning, however, the battle ensued after a pattern of "Syrian provocation" (SDW: p. 46).
Denied the right to return home or compensation, Palestinian refugees organized commando raids against Israel and, after a February 1966 coup in Syria, the new "radical" regime escalated support for them. According to Oren, the "reasons for this upsurge [of Syrian support] were obscure, as inscrutable as the Syrian regime itself" (p. 42). Yet in a statement not quoted by Oren, head of Israeli military intelligence General Aharon Yariv bluntly acknowledged shortly before the June war that Syria backed these raids "because we are bent upon establishing.certain facts along the border" - i.e., in retaliation for Israel's land-grab in the DZs (I&R: p.133; Oren alludes to this explanation on pp. 24, 27). Oren's narrative is replete with references to these Syrian-backed Palestinian attacks supposedly causing Israel's "security situation" to deteriorate "from worse to insufferable": "Over the course of 1965.the armed wing of al-Fatah received Syria's support in carrying out thirty-five attacks according to Israel's reckoning, 110 by Palestinian accounts"; "Over the course of 1966, Israel recorded ninety-three border incidents - mines, shootings, sabotage - while the Syrians boasted seventy-five guerrilla attacks in the single month of February-March"; in late 1966 "eleven guerrilla attacks, most of them from Jordan, ensued in rapid succession - seven Israelis died and twelve were wounded..Then.a paramilitary police vehicle struck a mine. Three police were killed, one wounded"; "the first months of 1967 saw some 270 incidents - an increase, Israel acknowledged, of 100 percent.Al-Fatah issued a series of thirty-four communiques describing its actions in great detail and praising the courage of its martyrs"; during April-May 1967 "al-Fatah undertook no less than fourteen operations. Mines and explosives were planted not only on the Israeli side of the Syrian and Jordanian borders, but across from Lebanon as well"; and by late May "The IDF's hands were tied; al-Fatah could attack at will" (SDW: pp. 24, 27, 31, 45, 48, 63; cf. pp. 25, 28, 29, 42, 46, 53). After these cumulatively overwhelming statistics, it comes as something of a shock when Oren quotes Moshe Dayan from an October 1966 Knesset speech to the effect that "There is no major wave of infiltration today. Just because several dozen bandits from al-Fatah cross the border, Israel does not have to get caught up in a frenzy of escalation" (SDW: p. 81). In fact, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, Yehoshaphat Harkabi, concluded shortly after the war in a sober balance-sheet - not cited by Oren - that the "operational achievements" of the Palestinian commando raids "in the thirty months from [their] debut to the six-day war are not impressive by any standard" (italics in original). Emphasizing that the few successful sabotage operations and Israeli casualties in that period (a total of 14 civilians, police and soldiers) "did not endanger Israel's national life," he recalled that "to hide its mediocre results, Fatah inflated communiqu‚s which bore no resemblance to what actually took place. Often, reported actions did not take place at all, and the Israeli authorities had difficulty identifying them" (I&R: p. 133). Inflating the threat posed to Israel, Oren cites as if credible these communiqu‚s bearing "no resemblance" to reality. Elsewhere Oren mockingly reports that after the June war "in a communiqu‚ issued from Damascus, al-Fatah claimed credit for killing Prime Minister Levi Eshkol with a surface-to-surface missile" (SDW: p. 317). One wonders why Oren didn't credit this communiqu‚ as well.
Ridiculed in the Arab world for standing idly by after the Samu raid and the downing of Syrian aircraft, Nasser reacted in mid-May to the new Israeli threats by moving Egyptian troops into the Sinai and ordering the removal of UNEF from Sinai, Gaza, and Sharm-el-Shaykh overlooking the Straits of Tiran. To dampen tensions on the Sinai front, U.N. Secretary-General U Thant proposed (with the support of Israel's closest allies, the US and Canada) the repositioning of UNEF on the Israeli side of the border. Oren defends Israel's peremptory rejection of U Thant's initiative on the grounds that "incorporating contingents from countries hardly sympathetic to Israel, UNEF would be less likely to stop aggression than to limit Israel's response" (SDW: p. 72). Oren doesn't offer a jot of evidence to support this allegation of UNEF's partisanship (there isn't any), but acknowledges earlier on that "the mere presence of UNEF had sufficed to deter warfare during periods of intense Arab-Israeli friction, to keep infiltrators from exiting Gaza and ensure free passage through the Straits of Tiran" (SDW: p. 67). In addition, he repeatedly suggests that Nasser's decision to remove UNEF (as well as U Thant's acquiescence in it) put the Egyptian leader in a position to "threaten" peace (SDW: pp. 67ff). It's hard to understand, however, why stationing UNEF on the Egyptian side of the border preserved peace while stationing it on the Israeli side wouldn't have or, put otherwise, why UNEF would deter Egyptian aggression on the Egyptian side but not on the Israeli side. Oren also rapidly disposes of U Thant's stopgap proposal enthusiastically supported by Nasser (although Oren never mentions this) but firmly rejected by Israel to reactivate the Egyptian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission (EIMAC) (SDW: p. 74).
Following the removal of UNEF from Sharm-el-Shaykh, Nasser declared the Straits of Tiran closed to Israeli vessels (and foreign vessels carrying "strategic" cargo) bound for the Israeli port city of Eilat. Although acknowledging that "few Israeli-flag vessels in fact traversed the Straits," Oren designates them a "lifeline of the Jewish state" and Eilat a "thriving port" (SDW: pp. 81, 83). In fact, only five percent of Israel's trade passed through Eilat, and oil, which was the only significant commodity possibly affected by the blockade, could have been re-routed (if circuitously) through Haifa. Oren reports extensively on the "frightful" news that Egypt had mined the Straits and otherwise forcibly implemented the blockade, only to note later in passing that actually "the waterway remained mine-free" (SDW: pp. 84, 90, 95; cf. p. 166). Indeed, he makes no mention that just a few days after Nasser announced the blockade, vessels using the Straits apparently weren't any longer even being searched (I&R: p. 139).
Oren maintains that Israel had won "international recognition of its right to act in self-defense if the Straits were ever blockaded" and, even more emphatically, that the U.S. had "pledged" to "regard any Egyptian attempt to revive the Tiran blockade as an act of war to which Israel could respond in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter" (SDW: pp. 81, 12). Yet the actual documentary record shows that Israel obtained from the U.S. and other maritime states support only for its right of "free and innocent" passage in the Straits; that the U.S. called for "any recurrence of hostilities or any violation by any party" to be referred back to the U.N.; and that even U.S. officials and legal scholars, not to mention U.N. secretaries-general Hammarskjold and U Thant, stressed that this was a "complicated" jurisdictional dispute warranting mediation (there's a passing reference by Oren on p. 141 to the "murky legal waters of Tiran"). It would seem that Oren conflates Israel's declared policy - "Interference, by armed force, with ships of Israel flag exercising free and innocent passage in the Gulf of Aqaba and through the Straits of Tiran will be regarded by Israel as an attack entitling it to exercise its inherent right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and to take all such measures as are necessary." - with that of the U.S. and the international community.
Reaching Cairo just after the blockade was announced, U Thant elicited a "very significant" (his words) assent from Nasser to a new diplomatic initiative: the appointment of a special UN representative to mediate the crisis, and a two-week moratorium on all belligerent acts in the Straits. Israel peremptorily rejected both of U Thant's proposals. Its dismissal of the moratorium proposal rates only a scant mention in Oren's account (he never bothers to mention Egypt's acceptance and Israel's rejection of a special mediator), while Nasser's repeatedly expressed willingness to submit the Straits dispute to the World Court (for Israel inconceivable) is dispatched in a single, negatively charged phrase (SDW: pp. 126, 144; I&R, p. 129 and sources cited).
Alongside U Thant, the U.S. also tried its hand at mediation in late May and early June. In what Oren rightly describes as "precisely the opening the White House sought," Nasser agreed to send his vice-president to Washington to explore a diplomatic settlement (SDW: p. 145). Just two days before the Egyptian's scheduled arrival, however, Israel attacked. Recalling that the U.S. was "shocked.and angry as hell," Secretary of State Dean Rusk speculated that "We might not have succeeded in getting Egypt to reopen the straits, but it was a real possibility" (I&R: p 129; SDW: p. 196). Even Middle East Record, a semi-official Israeli compilation, observed after the June war that "a number of facts seem to indicate Abdel Nasser's belief in the possibility of terminating.the conflict through diplomacy" - pointing in particular to his "suggestion" that the World Court arbitrate the Straits dispute, his "vagueness" on the blockade's enforcement, and his "willingness" to revive EIMAC (I&R: pp. 129-30). One would never guess from reading Oren that such a "real possibility" existed for "terminating.the conflict through diplomacy," if only because the crucial facts enumerated in this mainstream Israeli compilation enter just barely or not at all in his uniquely comprehensive and impartial history of the June war.
At one point in his chapter on the "countdown" to the June war Oren implies that Nasser had resolved not to attack on the eve of Israel's preemptive strike (SDW: p. 158). This acknowledgment easily gets lost, however, amid a barrage of alleged contrary indications. For example, he solemnly quotes the 4 June Israeli Cabinet decision to "launch a military strike aimed at.preventing the impending assault by the United Arab Command" and, citing the UNEF commander that Egyptian troops stood poised for an "offensive" as well as the renewed hopes of `Amer "to launch an air and ground offensive in the Negev," he closes the chapter by invoking Eshkol's plea on 5 June that "all Israel strove for was an end to the immediate threat" (SDW: pp. 158, 167, 160, 169; cf. p. 99). In fact, there almost certainly wasn't an impending Egyptian assault. "The Egyptian buildup in Sinai lacked a clear offensive plan," Avraham Sela, a colleague of Oren's at the Shalem Center, reports, "and Nasser's defensive instructions explicitly assumed an Israeli first strike." Oren doesn't adduce any evidence refuting this standard view. Even Menachem Begin, a member of the Israeli cabinet in June 1967, publicly admitted: "The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." Oren omits any mention of Begin's remarkable testimony.
Citing mostly public statements and tendentious memoirs, Oren suggests that Israel's security was rapidly deteriorating and, on the eve of the preemptive strike, Arab armies posed an "existential threat" (his phrase): "It is now a question of our national survival, of to be or not to be" and "The noose is closing around our necks" (Yitzhak Rabin, IDF chief of staff), "Eshkol now understood that time was not on Israel's side.," "The news in the interim was frightful. Egypt's 4th division had completed its deployment in Sinai.," "[T]he general staff determined that `every day is a gamble with Israel's survival,'" "Should Egypt attack first, `Israel has had it'" (Avraham Harman, Israel's ambassador to Washington), "[Israel's] one chance for winning this war is in taking the initiative and fighting according to our own designs..God help us though if they hit us first" (Dayan), "`This is Egypt's greatest hour,'.the combined Arab armies could push Israel back to the UN partition lines, or further" (Aharon Yariv, chief of military intelligence), and so forth (SDW: pp. 153, 86, 87, 90, 97, 147, 149, 150-1; cf. pp. 100, 106, 156, 157, 164, 168, 210).
Yet, these avowals are flatly contradicted by what intelligence agencies and officials were privately reporting: Israel's security situation was in fact steadily improving and it would win a quick and easy victory regardless of which side initiated hostilities. Indeed, Oren cites portions of this confident internal record in the very same passages that he uncritically reports the panicky pretenses. U.S. intelligence predicted that "the IDF would win a war in two weeks even if attacked on three fronts simultaneously - one week if Israel shot first," and, according to Oren, U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates "agreed entirely." The U.S. ambassador to Israel reported back to Washington that "[the Israelis] feel they can finish Nasser off." Labor Minister Yigal Allon expressed to the Cabinet "total faith in the IDF's ability to beat the Egyptians," Chief of the Central Front, Uzi Narkiss, dismissed the Arab forces as a "soap bubble - one pin will burst them," and Divisional Commander Ariel Sharon declared that "The army is ready as never before to repel an Egyptian attack.to wipe out the Egyptian army." Mossad chief Meir Amit assured Eshkol that "If [Nasser] strikes first, he's finished" and he also told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that "the war would be over in two days." In this regard it also bears notice that Oren cites the premonition of Quartermaster General Mattityahu Peled that "the Egyptian threat had to be eliminated at once if Israel were to survive" but not Peled's subsequent admission that this posture had been a "bluff," and he quotes statements by IDF chief of operations Ezer Weizman that "We must strike now and swiftly.we must deal the enemy a serious blow, for if we won't other forces will soon join him," and "All the signs indicate that the Egyptians are ready to strike. We have no option but to attack at once," but not Weizman's later acknowledgment that actually "there was no threat of destruction" and the Egyptians would have "suffered a complete defeat" even if they "attacked first." (SDW: pp. 110, 139, 146, 147, 122, 133-4, 151, 87, 99; cf. pp. 104, 152, 159, 165, 172) Far from panicking on the eve of the June war, the "IDF under Rabin" was - in the words of Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld - "at the peak of its preparedness," "confident in its power" and "spoiling for a fight and willing to go to considerable lengths to provoke it."
Oren maintains that Israel's sole objective in the June war was "eliminating the Egyptian thrust and destroying Nasser's army." The conquests of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, West Bank and Golan Heights weren't "planned or even contemplated." In formulations strikingly reminiscent of Benny Morris's account of the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem ("born of war, not by design"), Oren avows that the Israeli offensives had been "determined less by design than by expediency" and by "the vagaries and momentum of war, far more than by rational decision making." In fact, just as Morris's formulation apologetically distorted the dynamics of the 1948 expulsions, so Oren's formulations apologetically distort the dynamics of the 1967 conquests. (SDW: pp. 311-12, 259-60; cf. p. 291)
Unsurprisingly, many external circumstances shaped the course of Israel's offensives: Arab resistance (or the lack thereof), international public opinion, U.N. diplomacy, Soviet threats and American responses, and so on. There also wasn't a tactical or strategic consensus among Israelis on exactly how to proceed with the offensives. For example, despite pressures, Dayan temporarily held off conquering the West Bank and Golan Heights apparently because, attaching top priority to the Egyptian Sinai, he dreaded a multi-front war (SDW: pp.187, 190-1, 195, 232, 253, 260-2, 276, 279). Finally, Israel required pretexts - however flimsy - to launch the offensives: on the Egyptian front it alleged that Nasser's belligerence justified a preemptive strike, while on the Jordanian and Syrian fronts it pointed to armed hostilities. Oren dramatically reenacts the Jordanian actions - "Two batteries of the American-made 155-mm `Long Tom' guns went into action, one zeroing in on the suburbs of Tel Aviv.The Jordanians gradually escalated the fighting,.introducing 3-inch mortars and 106-mm recoilless rifles.Arab Legion howitzers launched the first of 6,000 shells on Jewish Jerusalem" (SDW: pp. 184-7) - whereas in van Creveld's rather more sober balance-sheet Hussein responded to Israel's preemptive strike against Egypt with "two symbolic thrusts," and a "few" artillery shells and air attacks (against Israeli airfields) because "he had no choice but to do something, all the while hoping to avoid serious retaliation." And, for all his purple prose depicting a "massive artillery barrage" here and a "Syrian thrust" there, Oren seems to concede that Syrian hostilities were largely symbolic (to ward off the accusation that "Syria was willing to fight to the last Egyptian"), and that Israel desperately sought the "right pretext" to attack Syria (SDW: pp. 229-31, 260, 262, 276, 278, 291).
Although a plurality of circumstantial factors plainly came into play during Israel's offensives, it's plainly untrue that these offensives weren't "planned or even contemplated." Rather the contrary; with external constraints temporarily in abeyance, internal differences provisionally resolved and just barely credible pretexts in hand, Israel implemented - albeit hesitantly and in piecemeal fashion - long-incubating plans to conquer the Sinai, Gaza, West Bank and Golan Heights. Ironically, Oren himself copiously documents that Israeli elites had contemplated and meticulously prepared for these offensives over many years. He reports that on the southern front "contingency plans" had been developed after conquering the Sinai in 1956 "for moving tanks over desert wastes that were widely believed insurmountable"; on the eastern front "the dream of completing the War of Independence and freeing the Land of Israel" had "guided" the "military planning" of "all" Israeli commanders, and "a drawer full of plans" had been developed to "knock out Jordanian artillery concentrations on the West Bank and lay siege to East Jerusalem"; and that on the northern front an "array of contingency plans for dealing with Syria" had been developed "from a limited assault on the Golan ridge.to.conquering the entire Heights," and "to conquer[ing] the enemy's capital within eighty hours" (SDW: pp. 211, 155, 154, 302; cf. p. 284). Even as Oren claims that Israel never "even contemplated" anything beyond neutralizing the Egyptian military threat, he reports that in the weeks leading up to the June war (or before hostilities actually broke out on the Jordanian and Syrian fronts), different IDF commanders expected to "conquer Gaza"; "strike Egypt, and then we'll fight Syria and Jordan as well"; "advanc[e] into Sinai and.to the Jordan headwaters in the north and the Latrun corridor leading to Jerusalem"; "advance westward to al-`Arish and, time permitting, beyond in the direction of the Canal"; "take care of the Syrians"; "eliminate the Egyptian army and.seize the initiative on other fronts as well"; "get to the Canal and to Sharm al-Sheikh"; "eliminat[e] the Jordanian air force even without provocation"; and "take Jenin" in the West Bank. With his eye riveted on conquering "all of the Sinai Peninsula," Dayan declared in early June, according to Oren, that "Our success.will be judged not on the number of Egyptian tanks we destroy.but on the size of the territory we'll seize" (SDW: pp. 81, 87, 90, 91, 122, 133, 155, 187, 208, 153; cf. 88, 152).
Oren uncritically quotes Yigal Allon's avowal that "Israel sought no territorial gain" (SDW: p. 122). Yet, he ignores Allon's seminal article written just before the June war analyzing Israel's prospects in the event of a preemptive strike: "In case of a new war, we must avoid the historic mistake of the War of Independence and, later, the Sinai Campaign. We must not cease fighting until we achieve.the territorial fulfillment of the Land of Israel." Oren reports that just after the June war Allon "led" the Cabinet ministers urging retention of the occupied territories (SDW: p. 314). It seems he didn't exactly undergo - as Oren's account suggests - an overnight conversion. In fact, the planning for and anticipations of the June offensives reflected Israel's long-standing territorial desiderata. From just after the first Arab-Israel war, many Israeli leaders lamented not conquering the West Bank and Gaza, and accordingly envisaged as part of the 1956 "Sinai campaign" annexing them, as well as the Egyptian Sinai. In many respects, 1967 was simply a replay of 1956 - but, crucially, with the U.S. now on board. Oren himself reports that Weizman reputedly claimed "the right to Hebron and Nablus and all of Jerusalem"; that Chief of Central Command Uzi Narkiss "regretted Israel's inability to seize the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1948" and saw the June war as an "opportunity to rectify Israel's failure in 1948, a miraculous second chance," declaring at a postwar briefing that "Central Command fulfilled its natural aspirations and established Israel's borders on the Jordan"; that "shortly before the outbreak of hostilities" Rabin exhorted troops on the Jordanian front to "complete what we were unable to finish" in 1948, and "many" officers "shared that sentiment"; and that already on the third day of the war Israel contemplated retaining the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai (SDW: pp. 135, 155, 192, 257, 191, 253-5). Oren also quotes uncritically Eshkol's claim that "Of course, we don't want a centimeter of Syrian territory." Yet he himself repeatedly notes that Eshkol "went a little crazy" coveting the Jordanian headwaters in the Golan (SDW: pp. 122, 228-9, 261; cf. p. 23, 280), while Moshe Dayan - in a postwar interview not quoted by Oren - stated with "absolute certainty" that the main impetus behind Israel's seizure of the Golan was not Syrian shelling but "good land for agriculture..lust for that ground."
According to Oren, Israel's territorial conquests during the June war "came about largely through chance": they just happened (SDW: p. 312). To judge by the historical record, however, they were just waiting to happen.
Oren claims that the IDF, unable to handle the throngs of Egyptian prisoners, dispatched them toward the Canal and was at pains not to harm them, and "no evidence was found" that Israel executed Egyptian POWs (SDW: pp. 259, 270-1). He is apparently unaware of the national debate that erupted in Israel a few years ago after the publication of unimpeachable eyewitness testimonies of Israeli soldiers as well as the testimony of an Israeli military historian that the IDF executed scores of Egyptian POWs during the June war. Oren also claims that only a "few" of the Palestinians who fled during the June war sought repatriation after it ended (SDW: 306), whereas a conservative Israeli scholarly source reports that fully 120,000 of these Palestinian refugees (half the total number) applied to return but only 21,000 were allowed to do so. Finally, in his survey of developments since the June war, Oren recalls that in the post-Oslo period "Palestinian terrorists killed dozens of Israeli civilians" (SDW: p. 313), but neglects to mention that Israeli forces killed a far greater number of Palestinians and that the "vast majority" of these killings were "unlawful" (Amnesty International).
Norman G. Finkelstein
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors