Michael B. Oren Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

War in History and in Fiction: Conversation with Michael B. Oren, Historian and Writer; Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem; November 8, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Researching the Six-Day War

Let's talk now about your most recent major work of history. It's called Six Days of War, and it's about the war that, in a way, made the Middle East that we have come to know in the last forty years or so. book coverWhy did you do this book? What led you to do it?

Many reasons. First of all, as a historian I've been involved in the historiography of the Arab/Israeli conflict and the history of the State of Israel. It's what I trained to write. I'm not a military historian, I'm a diplomatic historian, and I actually had great trouble writing about, oh, just troops moving back and forth. I found it kind of dull, it's my biggest challenge ...

Well, it's not dull!

... to make it interesting. It's much more interesting to me to write about what goes on in a policymaking environment, for example, in the Oval Office of the White House. That's interesting. Or in the Pit where Israeli generals and Israeli politicians met to determine policies.

I wrote this book, first of all, [because] it was very much in keeping with my career. Secondly, I wrote it because starting in 1997 the United States, Israel and Britain, observing the thirty-year declassification rule, began releasing secret documents from the '67 war. One thing I'd learned as a diplomatic historian is that until you have those documents in hand you really don't know very much. And so, suddenly over the course of a five-year period, from '97 to 2002, I was privileged to access tens of thousands of formerly declassified documents, and this completely altered the picture of the '67 war. It provided immense detail for the narrative. So, I wanted to take advantage of that.

Finally, there was a political motivation. Clearly, the '67 war, as you mentioned, Harry, is the pivotal event in the making of the modern Middle East. So much of what affects our lives in the Middle East on a daily basis -- the future of the West Bank and Gaza, the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements -- all of this is a direct result of the six very short but intense and fateful days of fighting back in 1967, and it's rare that you'll find a single historical event that was so short and so geographically limited but has such profound regional and even international ramifications.

I will evaluate the book here and say that it's very balanced, because what is quite striking is that for all the actors on all the different sides, as you tell their stories, it's a balanced view. You show both their strengths and their weaknesses, both on the Egyptian side, on the Israeli side, the White House, even with some Soviet documents. Was that hard to do, or is that what finding the truth is about?

The answer to both questions is yes. I find the truth is about -- there is no such thing as objective history, we know. History comes through the prism or our perceptions, our perspectives, and yet I don't think -- my own sort of credo here is not to indulge my perspective but try to rise above it. I'll be very candid with you, I'm a citizen of the State of Israel, I'm a reserve officer, I believe in my country, and for me to write dispassionately about Israel and passionately about the Arab side is quite a challenge. A goal for myself in this book, and all my history writing, is to ask myself a question all the time: Am I indulging a bias? Am I looking at this in the most balanced and objective manner that I can? Knowing that I can't achieve total objectivity but striving for it is very, very hard. Am I seeing any given event or subject from both sides? It's a challenge, it's a goal that I set for myself in anything I write.

You say you're a diplomatic historian as you approach this conflict. Let's lay the groundwork for our audience before we talk about the events of the war. In a way, this was a war waiting to happen, and you relate that to the armistice settlement in '48 where everything was left unsettled about boundaries, and so forth. Talk a little about that, because in the prelude to war we move right into the events, but even before then the area was pregnant with war, so to speak.

In approaching this very important and pivotal event I posed a conceptual framework. What I wrote in the book was that the Middle East in the 1960s was a context of conflict, in which conflict is occurring at every possible level. It's happening on an international level in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, where the Soviet Union is supporting some actors in the Middle East and the United States is supporting other actors in the Middle East. And then there's a regional sphere of conflict in the often fatal clashes between Arab conservative leaders like King Hussein of Jordan and Arab radical leaders like Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Some states are closely linked with the conservatives, other with the radicals, and they're clashing with one another. And then you finally have a bilateral conflict which is the Arab/Israeli conflict, which as you mentioned, is a very, very complicated conflict, one that was not settled after the 1948 Palestine war or Israel's war of independence; the Arabs' claim that the state of war continued, there was no recognition of Israel's boundaries.

Therefore it didn't take much. Within this context of conflict we have all these conflicts interacting at the same time, and all you needed was a little spark and you could ignite a regional conflagration. This is precisely what happened, because in the spring of 1967 nobody, not the Americans, not the Israelis, not the Arabs, were anticipating a major regional war. What did happen was a series of events which triggered a domino effect, triggered this war that so profoundly affected everybody's lives, even to this day.

Let's talk about some of those events. If there's a first step in this process, it's Israel being affected by guerilla raids across its border. In the fifties I guess it was primarily from Egypt but during this period some of these guerilla raids by Palestinians were coming across the Syrian border, right?

The Syrian border, Lebanese border, and Jordanian border. The Jordanian border was then the West Bank border.

Right. And Israel responded to them, and this is one event that goes awry before the major events. Talk about that.

Well, for example, November 11, 1966, three Israeli soldiers are walking along what was then the border between Jordan and Israel, along the West Bank, and they step on a mine. This mine was planted by Yasser Arafat's Al-Fatah organization. Israel decided it was going to strike back at an Al-Fatah stronghold in Jordan. So, on November 13 Israeli paratroopers struck back at this stronghold in a village called Es Samu, but en route to the target something went awry and they encountered a battalion of Jordanian soldiers and shots were exchanged, and fourteen Jordanian soldiers were killed.

The Palestinians in the West Bank who were never particularly enamored of the Hashemite regime used this incident to rise up in violent revolt against King Hussein of Jordan, calling for his violent overthrow. King Hussein panicked, so he began to broadcast throughout the Arab world -- he had these very powerful transmitters -- that not he had failed to protect the Palestinians but Gamal Abdel Nasser had failed to protect the Palestinians, and that Gamal Abdel Nasser was "hiding behind the skirts of UN peacekeepers in Gaza." You don't say any Arab leader is hiding behind anybody's skirts, and especially not one of the stature of Nasser, so Nasser was mortified and he sought some way to get rid of this UN force in Sinai.

That excuse was furnished to him by the Soviets on May 12, 1967. The Soviets informed the Egyptians falsely that they had learned of a secret Israeli plan to attack Syria. Nasser quickly ascertained that the plan was false but he used it anyway, and he kicked the UN forces out of Sinai Gaza, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, made offensive pacts with Syria, Jordan and Iraq. So, from that moment, from mid-May, it was only a matter of time before Israel made its decision to launch a pre-emptive strike as it did on June 5. So, you can trace all of that process back to this abortive raid by the Israeli army on the West Bank village of Es Samu back on November 11, 1966. That's a spark.

But when you describe an environment like this, you almost want to say, well, if not that, then something else.

I don't want to say it. I say it. If not that, it would've been something else.

One of the things that you've already brought up and that emerges again and again is this inter-Arab rivalry in the context of a myth of pan-Arab secular nationalism. Talk a little about that, because there are moments in this narrative where you wonder who's at war with whom, although the Arabs aren't killing each other.

Well, Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, was deeply influenced by nineteenth-century European nationalism. It sought to create, on the basis of common language, common history, if not common religion (some of the earlier pan-Arabists were Christians) a more regional identity and to treat the borders in a region like the Middle East as foreign, imposed by the Europeans, and to knock down all of these borders, which is very fine and good. The problem is that there are sovereign states within these borders and not all of the sovereign states want to be overthrown by another sovereign state in the area.

So, a situation was created beginning in the late forties and fifties in which a state like Egypt under the Nasserist government would broadcast to Arab populations in Lebanon and Syria and Saudi Arabia, and simply say to them, "Listen, your leaders are not legitimate, your borders are imports from Europe. We should unite under the banner of Egypt's pan-Arabism." This created tremendous friction within the Arab world, and not just friction. King Hussein survived eleven assassination attempts, most of them perpetrated by Nasser. His own prime minister was killed right next to him by Nasserist agents.

So, there's a tremendous amount of upheaval and friction related to the notion that the Arab world should somehow coalesce under a united government without borders. This, needless to say, impacts the Arab/Israeli conflict, but one of the ways that Nasser on one hand, and Hussein and conservative leaders on the other, would attempt to de-legitimize one another would be to accuse their nemeses of being pro-Zionist, of being secretly in league with the Zionists. And so, one of the ways that they could prove that they were not in league with the Zionists was by being more belligerent toward Israel. King Hussein, for example, who later becomes a peace partner with the Israelis and becomes an important actor in the search for Middle East peace, if you would read some of his speeches from the 1960s you would be appalled.

Another theme besides the Arab rivalry that comes out is the extent to which the superpowers were not in control of the situation. As you mentioned, the Soviets informed Sadat on a visit that Israel was about to attack, it wasn't; the U.S. tried to lower the tensions, prevent war, the U.S. government was [opposed to] Israel acting alone. I think you quote Johnson as saying to Israel, "You will not be alone if you don't do anything alone." Talk a little about that, because it was striking on both sides that although the superpowers, or powers such as France, were supplying arms or had supplied arms, they were not able to control the dynamics of the situation with regard to their own ally in the region.

Well, the Soviets are certainly a case in point. One of the things I learned in the Soviet archives in Moscow was the degree to which the Vietnam War influenced the course of events in the Middle East. The Soviets were aghast at the American bombing of North Vietnam and they had no really response for it, and they were looking to take some of the heat literally off their North Vietnamese allies by triggering another flash point elsewhere in the world, and they decided to go in the Middle East, which seemed like a good gamble at the time. They spread this rumor that Israel was planning to attack Syria, hoping that the Egyptians would, oh, maybe move the UN forces out but not actually go to war, and they certainly didn't expect the Israelis to go to war against the Egyptians. By mid-May 1967, from the Soviet perspective, things have gotten completely out of hand. Also, the Soviet leadership was not monolithic. There were three Soviet leaders at this point, Pagorney, Brezhnev and Kosygin. They didn't get along. Kosygin was a man of détente, wanted to reach some kind of accord with the West, and Brezhnev wanted conflict. Brezhnev was more in favor of actually triggering some type of conflict in the Middle East, not necessarily a war. Nobody anticipated a war. Things got out of control.

Next page: Israel's Response

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