Book Review: Fifty Years After the “Breaking of the Middle East”

Book Title: The Six-Day War: The Breaking of The Middle East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.)

Author: Guy Laron

 

By Terry Tait

 

 

Our understanding of one of the briefest yet most consequential wars of the 20th Century is still evolving. The Six-Day War began on June 6th, 1967 after several months of political tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors: Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Border clashes and hostile rhetoric pressured Israel to feel that the state’s existence hung in the balance. After much deliberation, the Israeli Knesset authorized an offensive campaign, which dramatically expanded the country’s borders, reshaping the physical and political landscape of the region. The war continues to define the contours of the “Arab-Israeli conflict” today.

Guy Laron’s The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East, published on the fiftieth anniversary of The Six-Day War, is a significant contribution that expands our understanding of the conflict. With new archival materials from former Soviet bloc countries, such as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany that include diplomatic cables, letters, and government reports, Laron is able to shed light on a new aspect of this conflict to provide a clearly written analysis of the economic and political factors that led to the outbreak of hostilities in June, 1967. In The Six-Day War, Laron seeks to explain how the region as we know it today was shaped by the conflict when several historical forces converged at a single moment. For Laron the various crises that led to the June war were produced by internal political divisions as well as regional and cold war politics.

Laron points to the collapse of Bretton Woods international monetary system as the impetus for a balance of payments crisis that exacerbated tensions between “weak civilian leaderships” and “trigger-happy generals” in the 1960s. The economic situation in each state empowered their respective military establishments as various crises diminished and divided the support for civilian authorities. For instance the Syrian Ba‘ath party, which took power in 1963, had long maintained a tense but stable border with Israel along the disputed Golan Heights. But when the regime was put under pressure due to internal economic and political crises, Salah Jadid, the country’s strongman, decided to shift the public’s attention by playing the “Israel Card” in order to gain popular support and distract people from other events in the country. However, this military movement enabled Jadid’s political rival Hafez al-Asad to gain a greater foothold in the country’s tumultuous politics.

Syria’s military posturing with Israel was mirrored by the growing support for an offensive, expansionist policy among Israel’s general staff. Those desires were at odds with the country’s older civilian leadership, who wanted to pursue diplomatic solutions to any potential conflict. Whereas these elder statesmen and women were primarily born and raised in Europe, the younger, Israeli-born generation of generals, thought of themselves as “the brave new Jews who fought to make Israel a reality, while all the politicians had done was sit and talk” (110). In pursuit of their more hawkish views the general staff developed a large arsenal of military technology to defend the nation by expanding its borders in the years before 1967.

The tense civilian-military relationship is best illustrated for Laron in Egypt and in the struggle between Nasser and his partner-turned-rival, Abdel Hakim Amer. The combination of Nasser’s ineffective economic policies, the collapse of Bretton Woods, and the ongoing war in Yemen created an unstable situation. Nasser became the object of ridicule, while Amer’s political influence grew to new heights. Once partners in overthrowing the monarchy in 1952, the two had drastically different approaches to Israel. Nasser is depicted as dovish and steady-handed, while his counterpart is portrayed as aggressive, nearing-unstable. The divergence in their personalities matched their goals as they plotted a way forward in relation to Israel.

In an effort to deter conflict, Nasser signed a joint-military agreement with the Syrian government. But after a series escalating border skirmishes, Egypt was forced to move troops into the Sinai Peninsula. To show, or feint, his willingness to use force, Nasser expelled the UN peacekeeping force which had been preserving peace between Egypt and Israel since 1956. The action was a political victory and restored Nasser’s reputation throughout the region. But Amer was not satisfied and eventually moved the Egyptian military to close the Straits of Tiran. Severed from vital oil shipments coming from Iran, Israel now had a casus belli to start offensive operations. Inside Israel the lengthy debates were concentrated on whether U.S. support would come, and whether or not the country should wait to strike.

The mixed signals coming from Moscow and Washington certainly did not help resolve the crisis that was unfolding in the spring of 1967. Political divisions in the U.S.S.R. led to the development of two competing Middle Eastern policies, pursued simultaneously by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin. With agendas designed to appeal to their respective conservative and liberal constituents within the Kremlin, Moscow’s approach to the Middle East often seemed vague and unclear to its Arab allies. (Given Laron’s Soviet source base, however one would have hoped for a more extensive discussion on the U.S.S.R.’s relationships in the Middle East.)

Meanwhile, President Lyndon Johnson took an equally bipolar approach to Israel, saying one thing publically, but something very different in private. Laron effectively conveys the tense and confused situation on the eve of war as well as the resigned feeling that Israeli politicians felt on June 4th when they approved the June 6th offensive.

Although Laron does not discuss the war extensively, his account of the events, negotiations, and power struggles that produced this short, destructive conflict is a valuable narrative for anyone who wants to understand how the events of 1967 fit into the region’s longer history.  He concludes by pointing out that The Six-Day War cemented the control of generals in Middle Eastern politics, and ponders that, “perhaps that is the reason why there the sound of gunfire never quite dies down” 313. Indeed, in all of the states that participated in the Six-Day War, the military remains among the strongest and most durable institutions. The protracted war in Syria is but one recent example in a region where conflict, rather than diplomacy has become the norm.

By connecting The Six Day War to current developments in the region, Laron forces the reader to think of this fifty-year-old war beyond its immediate aftermath. However, Despite this small drawback, Laron’s work, with its unique set of archive materials and long-term framework, is an objective and well-argued read, and a welcome addition to the study of The Six Day War and the Middle East as a whole. He makes it clear that we cannot understand the region’s current political instability without understanding the role of this short but important war.

 

Email: taittt@miamioh.edu

Review Author Bio: Terry Tait is a Master’s Candidate in history at Miami University.

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