By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org
Guy Laron’s forthcoming book on the 1967 Six-Day War—fittingly slated for publication in the year of the war’s 50th anniversary—is both impressive and disheartening. And it should be required reading for President-elect Donald Trump.
The book is impressive because the author was able to discover an enormous number of documents in the archives of different governments that reveal the thinking of the leaders of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Russia and the U.S. in the days that led up to the Six-Day War. Laron’s documentation is so thorough that the reader feels like a fly on the wall, listening in to the conversations that took place within each country.
Yet this book is disheartening because of the realization that none of these countries really meant to go to war, and that in each country, it was the military leadership that forced the political leadership to give in and reluctantly agree, despite their misgivings.
The reader leaves this book wondering whether any nation ever really knows what the other side is thinking, even with all of today’s sophisticated drones and technically advanced hacking equipment. Are civilian governments of all countries dominated by the militaries that brief them and persuade them? A generation ago, former President Dwight Eisenhower, himself a general, warned America of the rising power of what he called “the military-industrial complex,” and this book about the Middle East corroborates Eisenhower’s warning. There is a fundamental principle in the U.S. that political leaders should set policy, while military leaders should carry it out. Yet President-elect Trump is selecting a cabinet in which generals and business executives seem to predominate. I’m sure that Trump is very busy with other matters these days, but perhaps this book should be on his reading list, not only for what it can teach him about the Middle East of 50 years ago, but for what it can teach him about America today.
Laron explains that in Egypt, the struggle for power was between President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was primarily concerned with the country’s economic problems and felt that the Egyptian army was tied down in Yemen, and Abdel Hakim Amer, the head of the army, who was eager for a confrontation with Israel. In accordance with the military leader’s agenda, Amer tried to influence Nasser with rumors that Israel was about to invade unless Egypt struck first.
In Syria, there was a power struggle between the Ba’ath political party and its rivals, in which the army held the balance of power.
In Jordan, the king wanted to stay out of the 1967 war because he understood how poorly trained and equipped his soldiers were. Yet he was afraid that he would be overthrown by the army if he didn’t enter the war.
In Israel, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hoped for peace and Foreign Minister Abba Eban wanted to ensure American support before going to war. But on the other side of the argument, defense officials Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon believed that a surprise attack which destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground was the only way to win a war that they were certain was inevitable.
Behind all four of these countries were the global superpowers, who sometimes goaded the Mideast nations to fight and at other times cautioned them to have patience. The Soviet Union’s government was evidently divided between two groups that seemed to have contradictory policies. One Soviet group urged the Arab countries to fight, and even hyped them up by claiming (without evidence) that Israel was amassing troops on those countries’ borders. The other group was telling Egypt and Syria to stay out of a conflict that they were bound to lose. The U.S., meanwhile, urged patience but made no commitment except vowing to do what it could to keep Russia from intervening. And so Israel, Syria, Egypt and Jordan slipped into war, each one convinced that they needed to do so because the other side was about to attack.
The war was an astonishing success for Israel. It tripled its size by conquering the Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem. Before the war, Israel was bracing for a second Holocaust. After the war, it was suddenly a mighty military force. Israelis who lived in a cramped and crowded country suddenly felt that they had room to breathe—no wonder they were euphoric. But very few people realized at the time that every success also brings problems. Nobody thought much about the fact that with all this new territory that Israel had acquired, the Jewish state had also acquired hundreds of thousands of new and hostile people to govern beyond the 1967 borders. Nobody understood that with the euphoria of 1967 came a settlement movement embodied by the refusal to surrender of any land whatsoever in peace talks. Nobody realized that experiencing humiliating defeat would lead to even more intransigence within the Arab world. And so today—50 years later—the Six-Day War still hasn’t ended.
This book shows that leaders sometimes make decisions on foreign policy for psychological reasons. Sometimes they go to war in order to maintain their personal popularity and their ability to govern. Readers will learn that it’s sometimes much easier for leaders to go to war than to make peace. So perhaps, despite everything else on his calendar right now, this is a book the president-elect should read. At the very least, we ordinary citizens should read it.