Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Overview

Though it lasted for only six tense days in June, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war never really ended. Every crisis that has ripped through this region in the ensuing decades, from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to the ongoing intifada, is a direct consequence of those six days of fighting. Michael B. Oren?s magnificent Six Days of War, an internationally acclaimed bestseller, is the first comprehensive account of this epoch-making event.

Writing with a novelist?s command of narrative and ...

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Overview

Though it lasted for only six tense days in June, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war never really ended. Every crisis that has ripped through this region in the ensuing decades, from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to the ongoing intifada, is a direct consequence of those six days of fighting. Michael B. Oren’s magnificent Six Days of War, an internationally acclaimed bestseller, is the first comprehensive account of this epoch-making event.

Writing with a novelist’s command of narrative and a historian’s grasp of fact and motive, Oren reconstructs both the lightning-fast action on the battlefields and the political shocks that electrified the world. Extraordinary personalities—Moshe Dayan and Gamal Abdul Nasser, Lyndon Johnson and Alexei Kosygin—rose and toppled from power as a result of this war; borders were redrawn; daring strategies brilliantly succeeded or disastrously failed in a matter of hours. And the balance of power changed—in the Middle East and in the world. A towering work of history and an enthralling human narrative, Six Days of War is the most important book on the Middle East conflict to appear in a generation.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
As the Middle East reels from wave after wave of terrorist attacks and seemingly endless reprisals, Michael B. Oren, an acknowledged expert on that troubled region, takes us back to the events of "Six-Day War" of June 1967 and shows how what transpired then deeply affects what is happening there now.
From the Publisher
“POWERFUL . . . A HIGHLY READABLE, EVEN GRIPPING ACCOUNT OF THE 1967 CONFLICT . . . [Oren] has woven a seamless narrative out of a staggering variety of diplomatic and military strands.”
— The New York Times

“WITH A REMARKABLY ASSURED STYLE, OREN ELUCIDATES NEARLY EVERY ASPECT OF THE CONFLICT . . . Oren’s [book] will remain the authoritative chronicle of the war. His achievement as a writer and a historian is awesome.”
The Atlantic Monthly

“THIS IS NOT ONLY THE BEST BOOK SO FAR WRITTEN ON THE SIX-DAY WAR, IT IS LIKELY TO REMAIN THE BEST.”
The Washington Post Book World

“PHENOMENAL . . . BREATHTAKING HISTORY . . .
A PROFOUNDLY TALENTED WRITER . . . .
This book is not only one of the best books on this critical episode in Middle East history; it’s one of the best-written books I’ve read this year, in any genre.”
The Jerusalem Post

“[In] Michael Oren’s richly detailed and lucid account, the familiar story is thrilling once again. . . . What makes this book important is the breadth and depth of the research.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A FIRST-RATE NEW ACCOUNT OF THE CONFLICT.”
The Washington Post

“The definitive history of the Six-Day War . . . [Oren’s] narrative is precise but written with great literary flair. In no one else’s study is there more understanding or more surprise.”
—MARTIN PERETZ, Publisher
The New Republic

“COMPELLING, PERHAPS EVEN VITAL, READING.”
San Jose Mercury News

Publishers Weekly
This is the most complete history to date of the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel entered and began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While no account can be definitive until Arab archives open, Oren, a Princeton-trained senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center who has served as director of Israel's department of inter-religious affairs and as an adviser to Israel's U.N. delegation, utilizes newly available archival sources and a spectrum of interviews with participants, including many Arabs, to fill gaps and correct misconceptions. Further, Six Days of War is an attack on "post-Zionism": the school of politics and history that casts Israel as the author of policies that intentionally promote the destuction of Palestine as a separate entity and of Palestinians as a people, not least through the occupation that began with the 1967 War. By contrast, Oren convincingly establishes in an often engrossing narrative the reactive, contingent nature of Israeli policy during both the crisis preceding the conflict and the war itself. As Prime Minister Levi Eshkol held the Israeli Defense Forces in check that May, Operation Dawn, an Egyptian plan for a preemptive strike against Israel, came within hours of implementation. It was canceled only because Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser feared it had been compromised. Israel's decision to seek its own security in arms was finally triggered, Oren shows, by Jordan's late accession to the hostile coalition dominated by Egypt and Syria. Geographically, the West Bank, then under Jordanian rule and occupation, cut Israel nearly in half. The military risk to Israel was unacceptable, Oren makes clear, in the context of a U.S. enmeshed in Vietnam and a West unwilling to act even in support of the status quo. Far from being a product of strategic calculation, Oren further argues, occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was also contingent: the consequence of a victory so rapid and one-sided that even Israel's generals found it difficult to believe it was happening. Israel, having proved it could not be defeated militarily and now possessing something to trade, hoped for comprehensive peace negotiations in a rational-actor model. Oren notes that some initiatives for peace did in fact develop. He seems, however, trying to convince himself along with his readers. Oren puts what he sees as Israel's enduring weaknesses in relief: not arrogance, but self-doubt, self-analysis and self-criticism, all carried to near-suicidal degrees in 1967. Arab policy, by contrast, featured a confident commitment to erasing Israel from the map. The Six Day War shook that confidence, he finds, but did not alter the commitment. About the nature of Israeli policy since the war, the book says little, but finds that "for all its military conquests, Israel was still incapable of imposing the peace it craved." Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In perhaps one of the most valuable recent works on this subject, Oren, a scholar and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem, details events from the Six Day War known in the Arab world as Al-Naksah (the setback) or simply the June war. The book's value lies in its focus and extensive documentation of multilingual resources, including archives, newspapers, reports, books, interviews, and Internet sites. In addition, Oren covers the international, regional, and domestic implications of the war and uses maps to illustrate the geographical changes and military strategies. Many books, e.g., Ahron Bregman's Israel's War: 1947-1993, Tibi Bassam's Conflict and War in the Middle East, 1967-91, and Eric Hammel's Six Days in June, cover a broader period, rely heavily on analysis, or fall short of objectivity. While Oren also recounts some necessary historical context for understanding the war's catalysts and discussing its aftermath, he primarily focuses on the pivotal six days of conflict, dedicating a full chapter for each day. Predictably, the most controversial information is his new findings on an Egyptian top-secret plan that came very close to eradicating Israel's army and nuclear power plant. While this is an essential addition for academic libraries, the book's exhaustive documentary style makes it a lesser candidate for public libraries. Ethan Pullman, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughgoing analysis of the events that combusted 35 years ago to produce a maelstrom in the Middle East. Readers comparing historian Oren's thesis to current headlines may feel a certain sense of deja vu. He traces the origins of the Six-Day War of 1967 to several causes that were in no way resolved by the conflict, and underlines one of its effects-the Israeli conquest of the Sinai peninsula and the West Bank-that remains a subject of controversy today. One of those causes was resurgent nationalism in the Arab world's "postcolonial, revolutionary period," when Egyptian president Nasser attempted to play the Soviet Union off against the US, and to craft a military and political union of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt; Nasser's United Arab Republic soon collapsed, but among the unintended consequences of the destabilization were the rise of the Assad regime in Syria and, eventually, Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Another was a sudden upsurge of Palestinian nationalist activity, leading to the formation of groups such as al-Fatah and the PLO. Still another was internal conflict in Israel over whether and how to accommodate the demands of its neighbors. Slowly taking shape throughout the early and mid-1960s, these conditions "created an atmosphere of extreme flammability," Oren writes. "In such an atmosphere, it would not take much-a terrorist attack, a reprisal raid-to unleash a process of unbridled escalation, a chain reaction of dare and counterdare, gamble and miscalculation, all leading inexorably to war." Of course, that is exactly what happened, and Oren's narrative traces the military course of the war and its political aftermath, including lingering tensions in US-Israeli relations following the (accidental, in Oren's view) Israeli attack on the US naval vessel Liberty. Careful and well documented: Oren (Senior Fellow/Shalem Center, Jerusalem) finds fault on all sides of the conflict, which is sure to earn him critics everywhere he turns. Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the troubled region.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345461926
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 172,497
  • Product dimensions: 9.02 (w) x 6.06 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael B. Oren is the author of The Origins of the Second Arab-Israeli War, and has written extensively on Middle Eastern history and diplomatic affairs. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in Middle East studies. He has served as Director of Israel’s Department of Inter-Religious Affairs in the government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and as an adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
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Read an Excerpt

Afterwood

MORE THAN TWO YEARS HAVE PASSED since the outbreak of the latest Middle Eastern turmoil, and there is still no cease-fire in sight. Called by Palestinians the al-Aqsa Intifada, and by the Israelis the “disturbances,” the “events,” or, simply, the Palestinian terror, the violence that erupted in September 2000, and which has raged ever since, is in every sense a war. No less than in 1948 and 1967, Arabs and Israelis are today once again battling over the final disposition of the area known in Arabic as Filastin and in Hebrew as Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. As in the processes leading up to previous Arab-Israeli confrontations, mounting violence between Palestinians and Israelis threatens to set the entire region ablaze.

In many respects, the current fighting resembles the civil war in Palestine that broke out in November 1947, following the UN’s decision to partition the country into independent Jewish and Arab states. The Zionist leadership accepted the notion of territorial compromise, but the Arabs of Palestine saw no reason to forfeit what they considered their exclusive national rights, and determined to block the partition with attacks against Jewish settlements, road systems, and neighborhoods. Other Arab forces, most prominently those associated with the militant Muslim Brotherhood, aided the Palestinian Arabs from across the border. The Jews, for their part, initially showed restraint, but in
April 1948, fearing annihilation, they too went to war. Subsequently, dozens of
Arab villages and towns were destroyed, their populations displaced, and their leaders either killed or rendered ineffective. But the Palestinians’ defeat generated sympathy throughout the Arab world and intensified the pressure on Arab leaders to intervene against the Jews. The result came one month later with the advent of the first Arab-Israeli war.

A remarkably similar process occurred more than fifty years later, in the latter half of 2000, when the Clinton Administration again proposed to partition the land between the Palestinians and the Jews. Specifically, the United
States called for the creation of a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West
Bank and the entire Gaza Strip—Israeli settlements would either be removed or concentrated in blocks—with its capital in East Jerusalem. A small number of Palestinian refugees would be repatriated to Israel; the rest were to receive compensation. The Palestinian state would live side by side with Israel in relations of full peace, but while Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak approved the formula, the Palestinian Authority under its president, Yasser Arafat, rejected it. Rather, Arafat demanded the return of all the refugees—a move that, if implemented,
would have created a Palestinian majority in Israel. As in 1947–48, the issue was not merely the borders of the Jewish state, but its very existence.

The Palestinians consequently embarked on an armed offensive using tactics reminiscent of those employed in 1947–48—roadside ambushes, snipers,
and car bombs—together with the innovation of suicide bombers. Militant Islamic elements once more played a prominent role in the campaign. At first,
Israel’s reaction was again restrained, but as casualties rapidly mounted, the
IDF finally struck back. In April 2002, Israeli forces reoccupied much of the
West Bank, causing extensive damage to Palestinian cities and villages, and killing or isolating many Palestinian leaders. As in 1948, the Palestinians’ plight aroused sympathy in neighboring Arab countries and placed pressure on their leaders to intercede. Soon Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon were launching rockets into northern Israel; the Syrian army went on high alert, as did units in
Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Israel mobilized its reserves. The region careered toward yet another Arab-Israeli war.

The fighting in 2000–2002 recalled not only the events of 1947–48 but,
even more poignantly, those of 1967. That war, this book asserts, was the result of a series of incidents triggered by Palestinian guerrilla raids and Israel’s retaliations against them. Today, more than three decades later, the Middle
East is still in the grips of a context of conflict in which a single spark can ignite a regional conflagration. Such a spark was kindled in September 2000, when
Ariel Sharon, then head of Israel’s parliamentary opposition, paid a visit to the
Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem.

Though the visit had been cleared with the Palestinian Authority, many
Palestinians viewed it as a provocation and protested against it violently. Firing on the rioters, Israeli forces provided the pretext for launching an intifada, or popular uprising, named after the Haram’s al-Aqsa mosque. Mass demonstrations of Palestinian youths soon escalated into armed attacks against Israeli targets, most of them civilian, and increasingly fierce countermeasures by Israel.
Israeli reprisals in turn instigated unrest in adjacent Arab countries. The
“street” was once again agitating—a déjà vu of 1967—and Arab rulers had little choice but to act.

Unlike in 1948 and 1967, however, war between Arabs and Israelis did not erupt in 2002. Though the region has remained in many ways unchanged, several fundamental transformations nevertheless have combined to mitigate the dangers of war.

There is, firstly, the existence of peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and
Israel and Jordan. In spite of their failure to bring about any true reconciliation between their signatories, these agreements have nonetheless provided the nations with open channels of communication and venues for reducing tensions.
Another change is the emergence of the U.S.-Israeli alliance that not only guarantees
Israel a decisive military edge over its enemies, but also affords Washington far-reaching influence over Israeli actions. Finally, there is the nonconventional weaponry now in the arsenals of virtually every Middle Eastern state, which has sharply elevated the stakes in any Arab-Israeli confrontation.

Yet for every change curtailing the chances of war, another could equally contribute to its outbreak. Absent today is the peculiar stability engendered by the Cold War, of a rational counterpart whom the U.S. president might hotline in a crisis, and superpower constraints over key regional players such as Iraq,
Iran, and Syria. The once neat division between Arab radicals and Arab conservatives has been replaced by internal fissures within each Arab country—between each regime and its domestic, often Islamic, opposition—and even the lines in the Arab-Israeli conflict have become obscured. Most destabilizing,
arguably, is the growth of terrorist organizations, global in outlook and adamant in their theology, transcending all borders and contemptuous of any attempt to restrain them.

These countervailing changes, coupled with the continuing friction surrounding nondemocratic Middle Eastern regimes and Arab resistance to the very idea of a Jewish state, might have set the stage for an Arab-Israeli war bigger and possibly more destructive than those of 1948 and 1967. Instead, war in 2002 was averted by the timely intervention of the United States. As tensions in the region spiraled toward an explosion, President George W. Bush strongly advised Syria to rein in its Hezbollah allies and told the Palestinian
Authority that its support of terror was totally unacceptable to Americans. At the same time, Washington publicly recognized Israel’s right to defend itself and convinced Israelis that they did not stand alone. Bush’s actions—admonishing the Arabs and reassuring the Israelis—were precisely those that Lyndon
B. Johnson failed to take in 1967, and in 2002 they succeeded in containing, if not defusing, the crisis.

Like Johnson, Bush was engaged in an international struggle with an implacable enemy—no longer communism, of course, but Islamic extremism—
but rather than tie his hands as Vietnam once had Johnson’s, America’s new conflict impelled George Bush to act. The events of September 11, 2001, spurred a radical departure from long-standing American policies toward the Middle East.
Having become the victim of large-scale Arab terror, the administration voiced newfound empathy for Israel and its struggle against suicide bombers and gunmen,
and went so far as to identify Israel’s enemies—Hamas and Islamic Jihad—
as America’s. Moreover, in declaring war against international terrorism, in dispatching its soldiers thousands of miles to fight in Afghanistan and, avowedly,
in Iraq, Washington could hardly deny Israel the ability to strike back in the West Bank and Gaza, its own backyard. Concomitantly, American leaders expressed severe reservations regarding the Arab states, even toward their traditional allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, citizens of which were heavily implicated in 9/11. Relations between the U.S. and the Arab world were further strained by the Arabs’ reluctance to support a military effort to invade Iraq and oust its dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The success of Bush’s effort to rally an anti-Saddam coalition is not, as of this writing, guaranteed. Numerous obstacles, domestic and foreign, stand in the president’s way. Nor is it certain whether the toppling of Saddam will install democracy or merely another dictatorship in Iraq, or whether war in the gulf will ultimately enhance or further impair the area’s stability. One fact,
alone, is incontestable: that the Middle East remains a flash point of multilateral confrontation, a source of seemingly intractable controversies, and a powder keg that the slightest spark could ignite. A context of conflict continues to seize the region, demanding of its leaders almost constant displays of both courage and caution.

November 2002

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Table of Contents

List of Maps
Acknowledgments
A Note on Sources and Spellings
Foreword
The Context: Arabs, Israelis, and the Great Powers, 1948 to 1966 1
The Catalysts: Samu' to Sinai 33
The Crisis: Two Weeks in May 61
Countdown: May 31 to June 4 127
The War: Day One, June 5 170
Day Two, June 6 211
Day Three, June 7 240
Day Four, June 8 257
Day Five, June 9 278
Day Six, June 10 294
Aftershocks: Tallies, Postmortems, and the Old/New Middle East 305
Afterword 328
A Conversation with Michael B. Oren 332
Notes 342
Bibliography and Sources 416
Index 434
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First Chapter

Afterwood

MORE THAN TWO YEARS HAVE PASSED since the outbreak of the latest Middle Eastern turmoil, and there is still no cease-fire in sight. Called by Palestinians the al-Aqsa Intifada, and by the Israelis the "disturbances," the "events," or, simply, the Palestinian terror, the violence that erupted in September 2000, and which has raged ever since, is in every sense a war. No less than in 1948 and 1967, Arabs and Israelis are today once again battling over the final disposition of the area known in Arabic as Filastin and in Hebrew as Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. As in the processes leading up to previous Arab-Israeli confrontations, mounting violence between Palestinians and Israelis threatens to set the entire region ablaze.

In many respects, the current fighting resembles the civil war in Palestine
that broke out in November 1947, following the UN's decision to partition the
country into independent Jewish and Arab states. The Zionist leadership accepted
the notion of territorial compromise, but the Arabs of Palestine saw no
reason to forfeit what they considered their exclusive national rights, and determined
to block the partition with attacks against Jewish settlements, road
systems, and neighborhoods. Other Arab forces, most prominently those associated
with the militant Muslim Brotherhood, aided the Palestinian Arabs from
across the border. The Jews, for their part, initially showed restraint, but in
April 1948, fearing annihilation, they too went to war. Subsequently, dozens of
Arab villages and towns were destroyed, their populations displaced, and their
leaders either killed or rendered ineffective. But thePalestinians' defeat generated
sympathy throughout the Arab world and intensified the pressure on Arab
leaders to intervene against the Jews. The result came one month later with the
advent of the first Arab-Israeli war.

A remarkably similar process occurred more than fifty years later, in the
latter half of 2000, when the Clinton Administration again proposed to partition
the land between the Palestinians and the Jews. Specifically, the United
States called for the creation of a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West
Bank and the entire Gaza Strip—Israeli settlements would either be removed
or concentrated in blocks—with its capital in East Jerusalem. A small number
of Palestinian refugees would be repatriated to Israel; the rest were to receive
compensation. The Palestinian state would live side by side with Israel in relations
of full peace, but while Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak approved the
formula, the Palestinian Authority under its president, Yasser Arafat, rejected
it. Rather, Arafat demanded the return of all the refugees—a move that, if implemented,
would have created a Palestinian majority in Israel. As in 1947–48, the
issue was not merely the borders of the Jewish state, but its very existence.

The Palestinians consequently embarked on an armed offensive using tactics
reminiscent of those employed in 1947–48—roadside ambushes, snipers,
and car bombs—together with the innovation of suicide bombers. Militant Islamic
elements once more played a prominent role in the campaign. At first,
Israel's reaction was again restrained, but as casualties rapidly mounted, the
IDF finally struck back. In April 2002, Israeli forces reoccupied much of the
West Bank, causing extensive damage to Palestinian cities and villages, and
killing or isolating many Palestinian leaders. As in 1948, the Palestinians' plight
aroused sympathy in neighboring Arab countries and placed pressure on their
leaders to intercede. Soon Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon were launching
rockets into northern Israel; the Syrian army went on high alert, as did units in
Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Israel mobilized its reserves. The region careered toward
yet another Arab-Israeli war.

The fighting in 2000–2002 recalled not only the events of 1947–48 but,
even more poignantly, those of 1967. That war, this book asserts, was the result
of a series of incidents triggered by Palestinian guerrilla raids and Israel's
retaliations against them. Today, more than three decades later, the Middle
East is still in the grips of a context of conflict in which a single spark can ignite
a regional conflagration. Such a spark was kindled in September 2000, when
Ariel Sharon, then head of Israel's parliamentary opposition, paid a visit to the
Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem.

Though the visit had been cleared with the Palestinian Authority, many
Palestinians viewed it as a provocation and protested against it violently. Firing
on the rioters, Israeli forces provided the pretext for launching an intifada, or
popular uprising, named after the Haram's al-Aqsa mosque. Mass demonstrations
of Palestinian youths soon escalated into armed attacks against Israeli
targets, most of them civilian, and increasingly fierce countermeasures by Israel.
Israeli reprisals in turn instigated unrest in adjacent Arab countries. The
"street" was once again agitating—a déjà vu of 1967—and Arab rulers had little
choice but to act.

Unlike in 1948 and 1967, however, war between Arabs and Israelis did not
erupt in 2002. Though the region has remained in many ways unchanged, several
fundamental transformations nevertheless have combined to mitigate the
dangers of war.

There is, firstly, the existence of peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and
Israel and Jordan. In spite of their failure to bring about any true reconciliation
between their signatories, these agreements have nonetheless provided the nations
with open channels of communication and venues for reducing tensions.
Another change is the emergence of the U.S.-Israeli alliance that not only guarantees
Israel a decisive military edge over its enemies, but also affords Washington
far-reaching influence over Israeli actions. Finally, there is the nonconventional
weaponry now in the arsenals of virtually every Middle Eastern state, which has
sharply elevated the stakes in any Arab-Israeli confrontation.

Yet for every change curtailing the chances of war, another could equally
contribute to its outbreak. Absent today is the peculiar stability engendered by
the Cold War, of a rational counterpart whom the U.S. president might hotline
in a crisis, and superpower constraints over key regional players such as Iraq,
Iran, and Syria. The once neat division between Arab radicals and Arab conservatives
has been replaced by internal fissures within each Arab country—between
each regime and its domestic, often Islamic, opposition—and even the
lines in the Arab-Israeli conflict have become obscured. Most destabilizing,
arguably, is the growth of terrorist organizations, global in outlook and adamant
in their theology, transcending all borders and contemptuous of any attempt
to restrain them.

These countervailing changes, coupled with the continuing friction surrounding
nondemocratic Middle Eastern regimes and Arab resistance to the
very idea of a Jewish state, might have set the stage for an Arab-Israeli war
bigger and possibly more destructive than those of 1948 and 1967. Instead, war
in 2002 was averted by the timely intervention of the United States. As tensions
in the region spiraled toward an explosion, President George W. Bush
strongly advised Syria to rein in its Hezbollah allies and told the Palestinian
Authority that its support of terror was totally unacceptable to Americans. At
the same time, Washington publicly recognized Israel's right to defend itself
and convinced Israelis that they did not stand alone. Bush's actions—admonishing
the Arabs and reassuring the Israelis—were precisely those that Lyndon
B. Johnson failed to take in 1967, and in 2002 they succeeded in containing, if
not defusing, the crisis.

Like Johnson, Bush was engaged in an international struggle with an implacable
enemy—no longer communism, of course, but Islamic extremism—
but rather than tie his hands as Vietnam once had Johnson's, America's new
conflict impelled George Bush to act. The events of September 11, 2001, spurred
a radical departure from long-standing American policies toward the Middle East.
Having become the victim of large-scale Arab terror, the administration voiced
newfound empathy for Israel and its struggle against suicide bombers and gunmen,
and went so far as to identify Israel's enemies—Hamas and Islamic Jihad—
as America's. Moreover, in declaring war against international terrorism, in
dispatching its soldiers thousands of miles to fight in Afghanistan and, avowedly,
in Iraq, Washington could hardly deny Israel the ability to strike back in
the West Bank and Gaza, its own backyard. Concomitantly, American leaders
expressed severe reservations regarding the Arab states, even toward their traditional
allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, citizens of which were heavily implicated
in 9/11. Relations between the U.S. and the Arab world were further
strained by the Arabs' reluctance to support a military effort to invade Iraq and
oust its dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The success of Bush's effort to rally an anti-Saddam coalition is not, as of
this writing, guaranteed. Numerous obstacles, domestic and foreign, stand in
the president's way. Nor is it certain whether the toppling of Saddam will install
democracy or merely another dictatorship in Iraq, or whether war in the
gulf will ultimately enhance or further impair the area's stability. One fact,
alone, is incontestable: that the Middle East remains a flash point of multilateral
confrontation, a source of seemingly intractable controversies, and a powder
keg that the slightest spark could ignite. A context of conflict continues to
seize the region, demanding of its leaders almost constant displays of both courage
and caution.

November 2002

Copyright© 2003 by Michael B. Oren
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Interviews & Essays


Fouad Ajami is professor of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the author of The Dream Palace of the Arabs.

FOUAD AJAMI:
How old were you in June 1967?I presume you were too young for this war to be part of your formative experience. I was twenty-two then, and this was truly a great divide. Do you have early memories of this war?

MICHAEL OREN:
In 1967,I was twelve years old, very impressionable, and growing up outside New York City. It was a turbulent time throughout the United States, the time of the civil rights and antiwar movements, of the feminist and youth revolts. But no single event had a greater influence on my development, on my identity, than the Six-Day War. The beginning crisis coincided with my birthday —May 20 —and instead of celebrating, I watched as my parents cried over what they feared was Israel ’s imminent destruction. A second Holocaust was about to occur, they believed, and the world would once again witness it silently. I remember going down to our synagogue, where the entire community had gathered to pledge its fullest resources to help ensure Israel ’s survival.

Then came June 5 and the war that altered not only the Middle East but also American Jewry. Israel ’s victory, it was said, allowed American Jews “to walk with their backs straight ”and flex their political muscle as never before. American Jewish organizations that previously kept Israel at arm ’s length suddenly proclaimed their Zionism. For me, personally, the war ’s impact was especially poignant. I will never forget my father rushing tothe breakfast table, waving a copy of Life.

On its cover was a photo of an Israeli soldier chest-deep in the Suez Canal, a captured Kalashnikov brandished over his head. “You see that!” he shouted. “That is what we can do!” And then he kissed the picture. Years later, I met that soldier in person —he ’s my neighbor in Jerusalem — and told him that it was because of him that I decided right then and there, in 1967,to move to Israel and take part in the drama of Jewish independence. Because of him I too, would fight in wars and struggle in the face of terror. The man listened to my story, stood, and kissed me on the cheek. He understood how the Six-Day War had profoundly changed not only my life but a vast number of lives, in the Middle East and in America.

FOUAD AJAMI:
You rightly observe that wars in history also become wars of history. Where do you see yourself in the battle of Israeli historians?

MICHAEL OREN:
For twenty years now a fierce debate has been raging over the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, its origins, its escalation, and its wars. The controversy revolves around which party —the Israeli or the Arab —bears greater guilt for initiating and exacerbating the dispute, and for frustrating repeated efforts to resolve it.

On one side of the argument are the self-styled “new historians,” mostly Israeli Jews of a distinctly leftist or Marxist orientation, who pin the blame primarily on Israel. The Israelis, they claim, sought to deprive the Palestinians of their homeland and to provoke Arab states into wars of territorial aggrandizement. In making their case, the “new historians ”marshal documents from British, American, and Israeli archives, and apply their findings to the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They strive to pass judgment on historical figures —to be, as one of their spokesmen declared,” the hangmen of history.”

On the other side of the debate are the more traditional historians who see a prominent Arab role in starting and perpetuating the conflict, who rely not only on English and Hebrew documents but also extensively on Arabic and Russian sources, and who are less judgmental of former decision makers and more inclined to examine historical events on their own merits, free of contemporary influences. The debate surrounding the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been one of the most vicious in all of scholarship.

Though I would place myself within the second, traditional, school, in writing Six Days of War I nevertheless sought to rise above this fray. My goal was to present a truly comprehensive narrative, one that treated both the Arab and the Israeli sides in a fair and balanced manner, to utilize all of the available sources in all of the relevant languages, and to examine the war in the historical context of 1967,and not of 2002.

Of course, no historian can be entirely objective, and as an Israeli and an American, I take strong stands on issues relating to war and peace in the Middle East. My objective, however, remained to overcome, rather than to indulge, my prejudices —to understand, rather than pass judgment on, the pivotal events of 1967.By creating a new and less polarized paradigm for the study of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I hoped to contribute to the resolution not only of the historiographical debate but ultimately of the conflict itself —to making a peace of history the peace in history.

FOUAD AJAMI:
I very much admire the serenity and the nonjudgmental quality of your observation that history is made by leaders in real time, not by historians in retrospect. In light of that, would it be fair to say that Egyptian president Nasser wanted the fruits of war but not war itself? As you put it yourself, he did not want war but only kudos. Do you see him as a tragic figure played upon by history and popular pressures?

MICHAEL OREN:
As an Israeli and as a Jew who had grown up hearing of his repeated pledges to destroy the Jewish state and to cast its inhabitants into the sea, I naturally approached the subject of Gamal Abdel Nasser with reservations. Twenty years of studying him, however, beginning with my dissertation on the origins of the Suez crisis, led me to know a more nuanced Nasser — ruthless at times, yes, and cunning, but also incorruptible, charismatic, and committed to the good of his people.

I followed the Egyptian leader ’s life from its humble beginnings through its formative experiences of the Palestine War, from Nasser ’s startling rise to power in the Free Officers ’revolution of 1952 to his rapid achievements in foreign affairs and domestic reform. I came to appreciate Nasser the man and the vision, and the reasons why both were so fervidly revered by Arabs. But I also saw the personal foibles that gradually undermined so many of his successes. These faults —egoism, and a tendency to confuse rhetoric with reality and to be swayed by public opinion —were dominating Nasser ’s decision making by the 1960s.

This is not to say that Nasser acted entirely irrationally in 1967.He felt an urgent political need to rid Egypt of UNEF ’s presence, and he moved to fulfill that need. He evicted UNEF, poured his troops into Sinai, and closed the Straits of Tiran —all while the United States and Israel watched passively and the world seemed unwilling to intervene. The Soviets supported him unreservedly. Nasser had every reason to believe that he had won a bloodless victory, a political triumph that restored him to his former ascendancy in the Arab world. A more perceptive Nasser, however —a Nasser less prone to believe his own propaganda and the misinformation supplied by his underlings, a Nasser willing to stand up to ‘Amer —would have known that the Israelis would not remain inactive indefinitely, and that when they did react, the United States would back them. He would have estimated the glaring deficiencies of his army and those of his allies, and better weathered the disappointment when those deficiencies were starkly exposed on the battlefield. Was Nasser a tragic figure? I believe he was. In history as in literature, tragic figures are those who initially show great promise and aspire to lofty goals, but who are ultimately defeated by blind ambition and serious deficiencies of character. Nasser was precisely such a figure, and his tragedy is not his alone but of Arabs and Israelis alike.


FOUAD AJAMI:
Moshe Dayan is an intriguing figure in your account, and enigmatic in many ways. He says he waited for the phone to ring from Arab leaders after the guns fell silent, but he also did not want to make territorial concessions. What was he? An opportunist? An adventurer? Was there a method, a deep core, to him?

MICHAEL OREN:
Researching great leaders in history, I get to know them quite intimately —I read their mail —with the one exception of Moshe Dayan. The more I studied him, it seemed, and the less I felt I knew him. He was a man of utter contradictions —passionate and cold, creative and close-minded, fearless and fainthearted —with a mind capable of holding not only two but many opposing opinions at once.

These qualities alternatively infuriated and delighted the people around Dayan, instilling in them both admiration and contempt. On historic decisions such as whether or not to conquer the Old City of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, he went from abject opposition to unqualified support literally within hours. Later, on questions of peace, he resisted territorial concessions, but also returned the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem to the Muslim authorities and offered to withdraw Israeli troops from the Suez Canal in return for an Egyptian pledge of nonbelligerency.

The key, ultimately, to understanding Dayan resides in his prodigious ego. He, and nobody else, would give the command to enter the Old City. He, and not the Israeli government, would sanction capturing the Golan. And he alone
would determine the governance of a site holy to three major religions. As a figure in history, Moshe Dayan leaves an ambiguous legacy, and as an historian, I remain ambivalent toward him. He was a leader of a caliber virtually unknown in the Middle East today, the architect of Israel ’s greatest military victory and its later peace treaty with Egypt, but also an expert at political machinations and naked displays of power. Hidden behind his trademark eye patch was a mind as enigmatic as it was inaccessible.

FOUAD AJAMI:
The Six-Day War represented the end of the legend of Egypt in Arab life, it has been said. Do you think that Egypt has ever recovered from the bleakness of that defeat?

MICHAEL OREN:
Of great political changes wrought by the 1967 war, few were as traumatic and as momentous as the collapse of Nasserism.Beginning in July 1954,when Nasser officially declared Egypt an Arab country, Egypt conducted an ambitious campaign to unite the Arab world —to realize the dream of pan- Arabism —under its leadership.

Nasser ’s efforts, building on the widespread understanding of Egypt ’s historically central role in regional politics, fired the imaginations of Arabs from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Egypt ’s union with Syria, from 1958 to 1961, seemed to augur a new and cohesive future for the Arab world. But the union dissolved, and another attempt to link up with Iraq similarly foundered, and by 1967,the dream had all but faded. The final blow came on June 5,when the vision of Arab unity was left smoldering among the wrecks of hundreds of Egyptian planes and tanks. Egypt ’s defeat opened the door to new and compelling ideologies in the Middle East. Palestinian nationalism rose to the fore, and the PLO under the leadership of Yasser Arafat became a dominant force in Arab politics. More influential still was the rise of Islamic extremism, which also sought to unify the Arab world, albeit as a part of a global Islamic nation, on the basis of common Muslim identity. Here, too, Egypt played a central role as the home of the most powerful purist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the post-1967 era, and certainly after the 1973 war, Egypt began to play a different role in Arab and Middle East politics —no longer the leader in waging war but the forerunner in the search for peace. The transition was championed by Anwar Sadat,Nasser ’s successor, and to this day, Egypt ’s stature is a product not of its military force, prodigious though it remains, but of its potential contribution to regional stability and, ultimately, to peace.

FOUAD AJAMI:
As a historian and an Israeli, have you ever allowed your imagination to conjure up what a defeat would have meant for Israel in the Six-Day War?

MICHAEL OREN:
I read Robert Littell’ s If Israel Lost the War (New York: Coward McCann, 1969) as a teenager, and it left me sleepless for nights. In vivid prose, the author describes endless columns of burned-out Israeli tanks and trucks, thousands of destitute Israeli POWs, and widespread massacres of Jewish civilians. Especially haunting for me was the final chapter in which Nasser ’s helicopter flies over the ruins of Tel Aviv, and Moshe Dayan is placed in front of a firing squad. Defeat for the Israelis might have yielded less apocalyptic results, of course. Failure to react at all to the Tiran blockade would have constituted a severe political defeat for Israel, as would a military confrontation that ended in a standoff like that of 1973.The fact remains, however, that Arab armies in 1967 were poised to inflict existential damage on the Jewish state. The vast array of Arab forces on all of Israel ’s borders, combined with the anti-Zionist frenzy sweeping the Arab world produced a momentum for Israel ’s destruction that no Arab leader could resist. Irrespective of their specific goals in the war, neither Hussein nor Nasser had the power to rein in their forces once they vanquished the Israel Defense Forces and occupied Israeli territory.

In the 1948 war, for example, while a large Arab population remained within Israel, no Jews were allowed to stay in any areas conquered by the Arabs. Defeat, then, for Israel was simply not an option in 1967,and that realization informed its decisions throughout the crisis, both in the cabinet room and on the battlefield.

FOUAD AJAMI:
The war ’s legacy, you say, is equivocal. I am reminded here of something the late Chinese premier Zhou En-Lai said when asked about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789:“It ’s too soon to tell,” he answered. Nearly four decades later, is it still too early to tell what the legacy of the Six-Day War is?

MICHAEL OREN:
In addition to Israel ’s conquest of vast stretches of Arab territory —much of which remains a source of controversy —the 1967 war had several political results that profoundly altered the Middle East.

There was, as mentioned earlier, the collapse of secular pan-Arabism and its replacement by Islamic extremist ideas, the rise of Palestinian nationalism, and the acceleration of the Middle East arms race. On the Israeli side, the war inaugurated Israel ’s strategic partnership with the United States, richly arming the IDF with American weaponry and according Washington far-reaching control over Jerusalem ’s policies. Reunited with its biblical homeland in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria),Israel became more “Jewish,”spawning Messianic nationalist groups such as Gush Emunim,as well as the secular leftist movements that opposed them.

In spite of these momentous changes, it is nevertheless too early to pass judgment on the war ’s final legacy. Whether the West Bank and Gaza will form the basis of an independent Palestinian state, whether Israel will return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a full peace treaty, whether Islamic radicalism will sweep the Arab world and trigger another and potentially bloodier Arab-Israeli war —all that is yet to be seen. Though one can posit that it is always premature to decide the ultimate impact of any historic events —we are still witnessing the consequences of World War II —the consequences of the 1967 war to this day remain alarmingly fluid and volatile.

FOUAD AJAMI:
King Hussein, one of your rich cast of characters, died in 1999.Is it fair to say that the man had no choice in 1967:It was either war with Israel, or civil war within his own country and the possible destruction of his dynasty? He lost the West Bank but saved his realm. What do you think?

MICHAEL OREN:
Hussein faced a terrible dilemma in 1967.If Nasser went to war against Israel and Hussein failed to join him, and if Nasser lost the war, then Jordan ’s Palestinian majority would accuse the king of treason and kill him. But if Nasser won the war against Israel and Hussein failed to join him, then the victorious Egyptian forces would proceed through Israel and march on Amman, where Nasser would kill the monarch. To escape this bind, Hussein came up with what he believed was a viable solution: Abrogate all responsibility for the crisis and place Jordan ’s army under direct Egyptian command.Thus,on June 1,the Egyptian general Riad arrived in Jordan to take control of Hussein ’s military. The scheme seemed to be succeeding when, on June 5,in response to wildly inaccurate reports from Cairo regarding the course of the fighting, Riad ordered Jordanian forces to attack. Having repeatedly petitioned Hussein not to join the fighting, Israel responded with a counterattack that, within forty-eight hours, left most of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem in Israeli hands. Hussein also allowed himself to be carried away by the war fever —albeit briefly —but he quickly awakened to the hopelessness of Jordan ’s military situation. Ultimately, it was Hussein ’s untenable position —a function less of the Arab-Israeli conflict than of the Arab cold war —that made Jordan ’s loss of the West Bank, and of Jerusalem, unavoidable.

FOUAD AJAMI:A book of historical research so close to a historian ’s own world changes the historian and his or her outlook. Could you let your readers in on one or two changes in your outlook that happened by the time the work was completed?

MICHAEL OREN:
Prior to my work on the 1967 war, I believed the politics in the Middle East —as elsewhere in the world —were the product of rational decision-making, a reflection of cogent analyses on the part of Arab and Israeli leaders. Today I know differently. Of all the insights I gleaned from my research —the extent of Egyptian war planning, for example, or the depth of Israeli fears —none altered my thinking more than the realization that politics in the Middle East are, more often than not, random and unpredictable, arbitrary in their course and potentially explosive in their outcome.

The deeper I delved into the sources, the more I came to view the Middle East in 1967 as a context of conflict. And in such an unstable and volatile context, it did not take much —a single spark —to ignite a regional conflagration. Such a spark was indeed kindled by Israel ’s raid on the West Bank village of Samua six months before the war, in November 1966,an incident that touched off a chain reaction of events culminating in Israel ’s preemptive strike that June. But even if the Samua raid had been averted, some other event would have triggered the war, so combustible was the atmosphere in the Middle East at the time. Today, more than thirty-five years later, the region remains cast in context of conflict every bit as flammable as that which existed in 1967 —if not more so.

Think: In confronting a Middle East crisis today, who could the U.S.president hotline —Osama bin Laden? The peculiar stability of the bipolar Cold War has disappeared, to be replaced by numerous and far less responsible unconventional powers.

Moreover, were war to break out in the Middle East today, it would not be a classic contest between regular armies fought for the most part in the desert, far from population centers, but rather a ballistic exchange involving a variety of
warheads, conventional and nonconventional, aimed at Middle Eastern cities. That revelation about the context of conflict and its catastrophic potential has had an immense impact on my political thinking. War in the Middle East
must at all costs be averted, but by standing up to, rather than mollifying, terror. The context of conflict must be defused, gradually but unstintingly, by guaranteeing basic human rights —above all, women ’s rights —to all the region ’s inhabitants. Only then, with deterrence restored and freedom implanted, can Arabs and Israelis, together with the many other Middle East protagonists, begin to address the core issues dividing them. Only then can the universal prerequisites of peace —mutual respect and empathy —take root.

FOUAD AJAMI:
Yitzhak Rabin won the territories of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967,and sought partition in 1992 –93.Will his legacy be vindicated in the years to come,or are Israelis and Arabs —more precisely Israelis and Palestinians —doomed to more warfare?

MICHAEL OREN:
Yitzhak Rabin ’s legacy will be vindicated once the Palestinians —and with them, the rest of the Arab world —reconcile themselves to the existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East. Today, a solid majority of Israelis have abandoned the notion of a Greater Israel, and support the creation of a Palestinian state, even at the cost of removing settlements from the West Bank and Gaza. They recognize the reality of a Palestinian people that has suffered injustices in the past and that enjoys a legitimate claim to part of the territory Israelis regard as their historical and spiritual homeland. The Palestinians, however, have yet to reciprocate that recognition. Many still deny that a Jewish people exists, that a Holocaust occurred, or that Jews have lived in the land for centuries.

Once that recognition emerges —once the Palestinian leadership ceases to educate Arab youth for rejection and armed conflict and instills in them the principles of democracy and mutual respect —then most Israelis will vote to
withdraw from virtually all of the territories and for generous concessions in Jerusalem as well. Until that happens,unfortunately, no arrangement, whether imposed by the international community or negotiated by Israeli and Palestinian representatives lacking in grassroots support, can succeed. Peace must be built from the bottom up, and until the groundwork for that edifice is laid, violence in the Middle East is almost certain to continue.

FOUAD AJAMI:
Is the Arab rejection of Israel today deeper or more amenable to resolution than it was in 1967?

MICHAEL OREN:
In its attitudes toward Israel, the Arab world today is starkly divided between rulers and the ruled. With few exceptions —Libya, Iraq —Arab governments for the most part accept the notion of negotiating with Israel and talk in terms of future peace arrangements. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan have signed such treaties already and regularly assert their commitment to them.

Arab public opinion, by contrast, is staunchly opposed to any form of recognition of Israel and highly supportive of military measures against the Jewish state.Anti-Zionist propaganda dominates the Arab press and poisons Arabic school textbooks. In Egypt, where the state-run television recently broadcast a multipart movie based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a vicious anti-Semitic forgery, the number-one hit song was “I Hate Israel.” Forbidden by dictatorial regimes to voice political ideas on any subject but Israel and increasingly driven by the lack of basic freedoms to seek Islamic solutions to their problems, Arab populations remain as anti-Israel as they were in 1967.

Altering this situation, generating a readiness for genuine peace and reconciliation, will require a long-term and concerted process of democratization in the Middle East —democracies, historically, rarely make war on one another — and the opening of Arab society to notions of free expression, elected governments, and women ’s rights. Only then, with the emergence of a strong middle class with a vested interest in stability and a society capable of debating the pros and cons of peace, can a real end to the Arab-Israeli conflict be contemplated.

FOUAD AJAMI:
With your research, you place yourself on that seam between Israelis and Arabs. Based on information from the archives, from the debates, do you think these antagonists know enough about each other?

MICHAEL OREN:
Among the causes of the 1967 war, ignorance was perhaps the most prominent. The Israelis failed to anticipate the degree to which inter-Arab rivalries and Soviet machinations could prod Arab states toward war, and Arab leaders failed to anticipate Israel ’s readiness to preempt that process militarily. Israeli decision makers were convinced that Nasser sought to destroy the Dimona reactor —the documents prove that he did not —while Nasser believed that Israel would reconcile itself to the loss of free shipping to Eilat. Though one might expect the Israelis, with their formidable intelligence services and cadres of trained Arabists,to be better informed about their neighbors, the Israeli files reveal a shocking unawareness of political currents and power relationships on the Arab side. The relationship between Nasser and Amer, for example, a major determinant in Egyptian policy, was virtually un-known to the Israelis. By the same token, Arab sources abound with myths about the nature of Israeli politics and society. Not a single Arab writer of the 1960s grasped the dynamism of Israel ’s democracy or gauged the military might that democracy could field.

It remains to be seen whether, nearly four decades and as many wars later, Arabs and Israelis have become better acquainted. Though the advent of modern communications promises to expand such mutual knowledge, in the Middle East the media often serve to spread falsehoods and deepen ignorance. In the end, there is no substitute for face-to-face personal encounters between Arabs and Israelis. Borders of hostility must be broken down before those of peace can arise.
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  • Posted June 24, 2013

    So well written and so thorough! An important reflection of toda

    So well written and so thorough! An important reflection of today's events.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2011

    AMAZING BOOK

    One of the few books that provides both sides of the story in a non biased way.

    You will read one paragraph and learn more than from reading most books.
    GREAT WRITER

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    Six days of miracles

    You go along with the troops in the struggle to overcome. The book is interesting easy to read.

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  • Posted November 17, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    One point of clarification....,

    There is a fundamental difference between `armistice' and `peace'. <BR/>Armistice is military. <BR/>Peace is political. <BR/>((It is strange to see that those who wanted to lend their names to `peace between Israel/Arabs, have been killed. (!!!) Sadat - Rabin - and even Arafat whose sudden demise is still questionable.)) <BR/><BR/>However, just one point of clarification: going back in history to the November 29th. 1947 UN Partition Plan of Palestine to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict, it is worth mentioning that the Arabs did indeed accept Partition. <BR/><BR/>The irony is that they (Arabs) have not had the audacity to declare it openly. <BR/><BR/>Arab delegations worked and attended meetings the gist of which had been the `Partition Plan', but never echoed their acceptance, with concern, to significant number of the Palestinian population, most of all to Hajj Amine Husseini and his supporters. <BR/><BR/>Whereas the `Jews' (there was no Israel per se in 1947) while publicly and vocally advocated their support for `Partition', actually worked against it and fought in 1948 with full force and got more than prescribed in the UN Resolution 181.

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    Posted July 8, 2009

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    Posted July 29, 2009

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