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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The Changed Middle Eastern Landscape

So after this war, how was the landscape of the Middle East changed forever?

Immeasurably, incalculably, irrevocably. In addition to the sheer changes in the map of the Middle East, and those changes we're still dealing with today, it was really a swan song for this Arab nationalism that we talked earlier about, the pan-Arabism. And as pan-Arabism became discredited a new ideology would slowly emerge and eventually take its place, and that is Islamic radicalism. The Palestinian movement -- before '67 the Palestinians were placing all of their hopes in figures like Nasser, in Baathism, and it's only in '67 that Palestinian nationalism becomes a powerful force in Middle Eastern politics. It's not by accident that Yasser Arafat emerges a year after the war, in 1968, as the leader of the PLO. And that becomes a force in inter-Arab and Arab/Israeli politics.

It is the war which creates an alliance between the United States and Israel which did not exist before '67. It's the war which transforms the Israeli state, which was located on areas that were, for the most part, not part of the biblical land of Israel, it reunites this Israeli state with the biblical lands of Israel, with Jericho and Hebron and Shiloh, and transforms the Israeli state into much more of a Jewish state, which had a profound impact on Middle Eastern politics. As I said earlier, the ramifications, the reverberations, of this conflict are with us all the time.

What are the lessons of this war for policy makers as they look at a different landscape now? Are there things that policy makers can learn from history, or not?

Yes, I think there are. History does not repeat itself. What you learn from the Six Day War example is that the Middle East is a highly dynamic, unstable, volatile area in which situations can evolve and transform very radically. And so, you can wake up one morning and say, "Oh, there's no war for the next ten years, everything's stable," by the afternoon you could be in a regional conflict. This is precisely what happened in 1967, and I see many examples of it happening ever since then.

Governments have to learn not to be complacent. They have to learn to anticipate crises and to react to them when they begin to emerge. Just one example comes to mind. This is back in ancient history, 2002, when Israel was launching its counter-offensive on the West Bank, Operation Defensive Shield, and Hezbolah in Lebanon began to shell northern Galilee, and the Syrian army began to move toward the Israeli border, and the Iraqi army began to mobilize, moving toward Jordan and Israel's eastern border. You basically had a situation that if Israel struck at Hezbolah, Syria was liable to attack Israel, Iraq was liable to attack Israel, and what have you got? You've got 1967 redux. And it would've happened very rapidly. It could've happened within 24 hours, and Condoleezza Rice basically went to the Syrians and said, "If you don't rein in Hezbolah right now, we're going to unleash the Israelis at you." And it stopped, the firing stopped. So, here is an example where the Bush administration did something the Johnson administration failed to do in '67, which was to react forthrightly and promptly to a crisis and to prevent it from getting out of hand.

In this period that you're writing about, the threat or the ideology on the Arab side was pan-Arabism, which you discussed earlier. Now it's Islamic fundamentalism. Is there any useful comparison that we can make between those two movements? I'm wondering, will Islamic fundamentalism be destroyed on the rock of the state, on the shoals of the state boundaries, or is it an entirely different thing?

No, there are parallels. They're both pan-ist movements, they're both regional movements. They also view these borders that have been created in the Middle East as artificial borders that need to be erased at some point. There's no single leader that has emerged from Islamic radicalism that could aspire to the stature of Nasser yet, but it is most definitely a regional phenomena that impugns the legitimacy of many regimes and extols armed force. Pan-Arabism was very much a militant force, a militant ideology. There are many parallels. The big distinction, I think, is that pan-Arabism, as you mentioned earlier, was a secular movement, and secular movements have more latitude in terms of, say, a diplomatic process than Islamic radicalism will have. It's a much more intractable, truculent movement.

One final question. If students were watching this broadcast, how would you advise them to prepare for the future, if their interest is in the Middle East, whether as journalists, or policy makers, or just scholars?

It's very important to study the languages, study the history, visit the area. I'm often interviewed for television, and I'm interviewed a great amount for the printed press as well, and I'm always astounded at the degree of reporters who come to the Middle East who know nothing about the region. They don't speak the languages, they come through for three days, they read maybe one or two history books about it. Can you imagine if a foreign reporter was in this country, reporting about the presidential election, and not be capable of speaking English and knew nothing about the American political system? That would be extraordinary here, but in the Middle East it's the norm, unfortunately. It's the source of a great deal of misinformation about the Middle East. So, I would urge students to acquaint themselves, to gird themselves with linguistic abilities and a deep historical background.

Michael, on that note I want to thank you very much for joining us, and I want to show your two books again to our audience, Six Days of War and the novel, Reunion, and I want to thank you very much for taking time from your busy schedule to be with us today.

Thank you so much.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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