On May 14, 1948, Israel was formally declared an independent state with David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) being appointed as the first prime minister. Over the objection of both diplomats and officials in the military, the administration of President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave its support that same day. This historical event set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in a political and social divide across the Middle East that culminated with the Six-Day War in June 1967 in which Israeli armed forces launch strategic and coordinated attacks against several Arab nations. The conflict was brief but it changed the Middle East and heightened tensions between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. Prior to the conflict tensions had been brewing between Israel and the Arab world with war hawks on both sides pushing for military action. But the questions remains, was the war preventable? And what exactly did happen to kick off the battle that last only six days? Author Guy Laron addresses those questions and many others in this spellbinding investigative account in the battle that broke the Middle East.
Though I continue to learn the history of the Middle East, I sometimes feel that there is much about the region lost to the west. American intervention in Middle Eastern affairs was at times sorely misguided as I learned in the book. The story of the war begins many years prior to 1967 and Laron assembles the pieces of the puzzle. And to dissuade readers from any idea that the war was a “total victory” he explains somberly that:
“The Six-Day War seemingly ended in one of the swiftest victories in modern history; in reality, the new post-1967 lines created new war zones, especially along the Suez Canal, where the warring sides were conducting a six-year trench warfare, which ended only with a bold assault by the Syrians and the Egyptians in 1973.”
Essentially, the conflict produced a domino effect that has never been resolved. The author provides a thorough and informative discussion on Middle Eastern history but only as far back as needed to set up the remainder of the book. And the country that takes center stage is the nation of Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). This part of the story I found highly fascinating due to the discussion regarding Egypt’s relationship with the United States. Similar to Vietnam, decisions made in Washington could have changed history had another course of action been taken with regards to foreign policy. I felt a chill run down my spine as I learned of the deterioration in relations between Nasser and Washington. The refusal to support Egypt’s goal of becoming a major player on the world stage is regrettable and I believe it is a lost moment that quite possibly could have altered the course of history. Readers may find themselves staring in disbelief at the treatment Egypt received from its American ally. Nasser himself also felt the chill and realized that Egypt could not depend on Washington in the long run.
On the other side of the spectrum, the relationship between Washington and Israel is scrutinized allowing readers to learn of the actions behind the scene that help propel Israel towards the military campaign in 1967. Similar to Egypt, war hawks had been read for some time to launch an offensive against the Arab nations. Despite the pressure in place by hawks, the call for attack had been resisted by the fairly moderate Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895-1969) who was not overly anxious to ignite a major conflict in the Middle East. Further, Washington had refrained from giving its support while signaling it would not interfere. America was playing both sides while at the same time keeping its eye on the Soviet Union whose entry into world affairs was always a concern. Although the conflict was not an extension of the Cold War, its presence can be felt at times. And the picture that emerges in the book is one of multiple parties all playing their own games while a major conflict hangs in the balance.
Behind the scenes, the discussions between Washington and Israel were not as fluid as one may believe. In fact, more than once, the allocation of funds had been reduced and two presidents had threatened to severely reduce financial aid should war break out. As the mantle passes from Truman to Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), the tone from Washington becomes sterner. Eisenhower had seen the effects of war up close was had no desire to take part in the ignition of a major conflict. His successor, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) had even less desire and made it clear that Israel was to take part in the nuclear arms reduction plan his administration had set in place. This part of the book caught my attention because it is a part of the Kennedy presidency that receives very little attention. Prior to his death in November 1963, Kennedy had been applying pressure on Ben Gurion to open the Dimona nuclear facility for inspection. Israel had stalled forcing Kennedy to threaten to reduce financial aid in an attempt to get Tel Aviv to fall in line with his arms reductions plan. To illustrate just how heated the issue became, Laron explains that:
“Kennedy persisted and in mid-May 1963 sent Ben-Gurion his toughest letter yet, making clear that he would not budge and allow an Israeli nuclear bomb to jeopardize his administration’s campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A month after receiving that letter, Ben-Gurion stepped down as prime minister.”
After Kennedy’s death, the Dimona reactor never became an issue and the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) had his eyes and thoughts focused elsewhere, in particular the growing crisis in Vietnam. There are no conspiracy theories in the book about Kennedy’s murder but the issue of Dimona is a crucial part in understanding who would have benefited from Kennedy’s removal. I leave it to the reader to take it from there.
The story picks up in pace under Johnson’s administration. Tel Aviv realized that the new president was not following Kennedy’s course on several major issues. One of them was the growing tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Indochina had begun to consume Johnson who was also pushing forward on the domestic front with his Great Society programs. However, his actions with regards to weapons hardware across the Middle East are equally as surprising as the events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin. I could not believe what I was reading and wondered to myself what Washington’s endgame really was because it helped set the stage for what was to come in 1967. It soon becomes apparent that Israel has more freedom to carry out its own plans under Johnson’s watch. And the incident involving the USS Liberty still remains one of the more puzzling of that year. Laron does not go into the story extensively but does mention the attack. Egypt also fared differently under Johnson but certainly not in the way it would have desired. In fact, Laron explains that:
“As for Nasser, he seemed to have realized that the game was no longer worth the candle. Eisenhower and Kennedy had allowed Egypt to pay for US wheat with its own currency, which it could print at will. Johnson, however, insisted on Egypt paying in dollars, which it lacked due to its severe economic situation.”
Johnson was in no rush to nor had the desire to appease the Arab world. His main goal was the defeat of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) and the North Vietnamese government. Tel Aviv is keenly aware of this and plans are set into motion for the ultimate offensive. But was the attack a surprise? Laron reveals a lot of interesting facts about Egyptian operations prior to the conflict that produce more questions than answers. Further, the most crippling part of the Egyptian defense network comes across as one of the simplest components that should have been addressed but was not. Had it been, the war might have ended differently or never have taken place. The glaring inadequacy reveals fundamentally different aspects between Israeli and Egyptian society that highlights the importance of military intelligence.
More than fifty years have passed since the Six-Day War but its effects are still being felt today across the Middle East. The Gaza Strip remains a hotbed for clashes and only time will tell if true peace and a solution will become a reality. Anyone seeking to understand the region will find this book to be invaluable. It is a step back in time during a decade when political upheaval was occurring around the globe. War and conflict were constant reminders of the savageness of man that would have to be addressed for future generations. However old wounds must be addressed and allowed to heal before humanity can truly move forward. This book is a definitive account of the Six-Day War and its profound effect on the Middle East. Highly recommended.