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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Israel's Response

Now let's talk a little bit about Israel, because although Israel had a plan for pre-emption, as did the Egyptians, it decided to act when it seemed that doors to peace were closed. You demonstrate through interviews and the documents that you cover in your analysis that there was real ambiguity and division within the government how to proceed as the war unfolded, after the successful attack against Egypt. Talk a little about that.

Israel had a number of contingency plans for combat, whether it be on the West Bank, the Golan Heights, or the Sinai, as any country would have. The question arose, which one of these plans, if any, was going to be operative as the war unfolded? On the eve of the Six Day War the Israeli government, together with the Israeli general staff, agreed on a program known as nocshun, which called for a surgical strike against Egypt alone, which had two objectives only: one was to neutralize the Egyptian air force, preferably on the ground, and the other was to conquer or capture the first of three defense lines that the Soviets had constructed for the Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula, just one of the three. This entire operation was to have taken 48 hours, and the question then arises, how then do you get from a 48-hour relative surgical strike to war in which Israel conquers all of the Sinai Peninsula down to the Suez Canal, all the Gaza Strip, all of the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, defeats three major Arab armies ...

In fact, more than triples it size.

Almost quadruples -- how does it get from 48 hours to a Six Day War in which all this happens? [This] is the story of the Six Day War, and I can recommend a certain book [laughs] ...

But I do want to quote something here that you quote. It's a quote from Rehavam Ze’evi, the deputy operations chief, who said, "Objectives arose from the bottom up, from the military to the political echelon. Only after the war did the government draw circles around our accomplishments and declare that these were its original goals." So, in a way, the momentum of military events drove things on, as also did the bad decisions on the Arab side.

Well, I'm convinced that Nasser did not want war, did not anticipate war. King Hussein certainly didn't want war. The Syrian regime probably didn't want war. Perhaps Arafat wanted war because he wanted to shake up the status quo which didn't redound to the Palestinians, certainly. Even on the Israeli side, perhaps most pointedly on the Israeli side, events got out of control. When Dayan first heard that Israeli soldiers had reached the Suez Canal (and he had given express orders not to reach the Suez Canal because he remembered the fiasco of 1956 where Israeli soldiers did reach the Suez Canal and were forced to evacuate under international pressure), he threatened to court martial the divisional commander. He didn't want Israeli soldiers in Gaza. He didn't want them to enter the Old City of Jerusalem.

In fact, the Israelis tried very hard to get Hussein to back away from an initial attack so that they wouldn't have to take Jerusalem or the West Bank. Is that correct?

Well, on the morning of June 5, while Israeli planes were speeding toward their targets in the Sinai against the Egyptians, the Israeli foreign ministry sent out a telegram to King Hussein through the UN saying, "Your Majesty, what's about to happen in the south is between us and the Egyptians." Basically, "you stay out of it, we stay out of it." And very strict instructions went out to Israeli soldiers serving along the Jordanian frontier, whether it be in Jerusalem or on the West Bank, that even if the Jordanians fired at Israel -- this is actually a quote: "Even if King Hussein had to lob a few shells into Israel to prove that he was a good Arab leader," Israel should not fire back, these soldiers should not fire back. And these orders pretty much held in spite of the fact that at 10:30 in the morning of June 5, Jordan lobbed a lot more than a few shells, lobbed a few thousand shells into west Jerusalem and Jordanian planes began to strafe Israeli cities. It was only in the afternoon of June 5 when Jordanian infantrymen began to move toward west Jerusalem that Israel finally struck back against Jordan.

And the Israelis tried again and again not to have to do that.

That's right. On June 7, when Israeli paratroopers were surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem, [there was] a big debate in the Israeli government. You look at the pictures of the Six Day War of all those Israeli paratroopers dancing around the Western Wall -- that event followed a long and painful debate in the Israeli government about whether Israel should take the Old City. Israel's prime minister, Levi Eshkol, sent a telegram to King Hussein and said, "Your Majesty, again, if you'll accept an unconditional cease-fire, if you'll evict the Egyptian generals who had been given command of the Jordanian army, and if you will agree to enter into a peace process with Israel, Israeli soldiers won't enter the Old City of Jerusalem."

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