Last night I finished Six Days of War, by Michael Oren. A friend and I had a conversation about the Middle East one day, and out of the kindness of his heart, he ordered the book for me. The book covers Israel’s 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and like any good history book, it does a masterful job of describing not only the key events (the six days of the war itself) but the context in which they occurred.
My writings here on the past may seem as though I’m anti-Israel (at least that’s what some Israelis who have written to me tell me), but in reality, I actually hold Israel in high esteem as a state. It’s just that I expect more from them than I do from their neighbors because they have an educated populace and live in a liberal democracy.
The book confirms that Israel’s basic level of decency as a nation far exceeds that of its enemies, a fact that escapes partisans against Israel. The Israeli government and individual citizens of Israel have committed barbaric and cruel acts, but they treat their enemies (and friends) with far more respect than do their Arab neighbors. Based on my reading of the book, Israel’s greatest sin at the time was a desire for territorial expansion. The great sin of the Arabs was being driven by a perverse hatred of Jews and Israel.
Overall, I found the book incredibly educational. I had never before understood the struggles among Arab countries for precedence that dragged them all toward war, nor did I understand how the larger context of the Cold War contributed to encouraging the conflict and preventing a reasonable settlement in its aftermath. The other thing that stood out is just how grim Israel’s odds were of winning. Had the Arab armies not been so incompetently led and had cooperation among the countries involved in the war not been so low (they lied to each other constantly about how they were doing), Israel would never have won in the way that they did. These days we’re used to thinking of the United States and Israel as having a huge technological advantage over their usual enemies, but in 1967 that was not true at all. In most cases the Arab armies had the same (or superior) equipment — the difference was that superior training and leadership won out. The most important advantage the Israelis had, though, was accountability. The war showed just how costly dishonesty and denial can be. The Arab armies consistently made awful decisions because nobody told the truth.
The book left me more sympathetic toward Israel in the end. It also made me feel particularly sympathetic toward Jordan’s King Hussein. The war cost his country more than it did anyone else (he lost the West Bank and Jordan’s half of Jerusalem to Israel), and he never really wanted the war in the first place. Jordan was caught in an awful position prior to the war, and remains in an awful position today. Hussein’s regime was caught between the Arab nationalists who wanted to see him overthrown, a majority population of Palestinians who were eager for war with Israel, and the fact that Jordan was a convenient whipping boy for the Israelis, who feared it less than they did Syria or Egypt.
In any case, aside from being insightful and educational, the book was a fun to read as well, if you enjoy history at all. I recommend it. It also left me wanting more. I wonder whether there are books of similar quality (and lack of bias) on the 1948 and 1973 wars.