—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
14 August 2005

Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz

6. The Six-Day War

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Dershowitz's entire analysis of the June 1967 war is hung upon the rusty nail of a narrowly focused question: 'Did Israel start the Six-Day War?' Not surprisingly, he regards Israel's opening air strike as irrelevant and blames the ensuing conflagration on 'Egypt's decision to close the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and to order the removal of UN troops from the Sinai.'[1] As Gresh and Vidal have noted, however, this theory that the war was 'a thundering Israeli riposte to Egyptian aggression ... now finds few adherents'[2] and Shlaim adds that '[t]here is general agreement among commentators that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel.'[3] But in Dershowitz's mental universe 'virtually everyone recognizes that Egypt, Syria and Jordan started the war' which was 'planned to be a war of annihilation' and for which 'Egypt was preparing an imminent attack'.[4] We are thus asked to accept the Israelis' wobbly claim that a shipping blockade constituted a casus belli. In fact, Nasser's decision to move into the Sinai has more often than not been regarded purely as an attempt to restore his prestige as a pan-Arab leader, particularly in response to the scurrilous attacks emanating from Damascus and Amman to the effect that he was a paper tiger hiding behind the UNEF troops on the peninsula. Neither does Dershowitz leave any room for the theory, now prevalent among historians, that '[o]f all the Arab-Israeli wars, the June 1967 war was the only one that neither side wanted',[5] that it was proximately 'the result of Egyptian-Israeli brinkmanship that went over the brink.'[6]

Moreover, the statements of the Israeli leadership themselves belie the notion that the developments of late May / early June presented an existential danger to the state. General Mattityahu Peled has been quoted as saying that '[t]he thesis that claimed genocide was suspended above our heads in June 1967, and that Israel was fighting for its very existence, was only a bluff.'[7] And apparently Lyndon Johnson himself told Abba Eban that 'it was the unanimous view of his military experts that there was no sign that the Egyptians were planning to attack Israel and that if they did attack, the Israelis would "whip the Hell out of them."' Mossad director Meir Amit was told by Robert McNamara that 'the CIA had estimated that Israel could defeat the Egyptian army without any outside help'. Even Ben-Gurion opined to Rabin that 'I very much doubt whether Nasser wanted to go to war'.[8]

Noting that 'the Israeli General Staff had planned for many years to destroy the Egyptian army'[9] Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling has assembled the following précis of the reality on the ground at the time:
Both Yitzhak Rabin and Ezer Weizman clearly allude in their autobiographies to the fact that, prior to the attack of June 1967, the Israeli general staff organized a putsch, and barred any and all political solutions to the crisis. Rabin, chief of staff, admitted that: "Nasser didn't want war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it." (Le Monde, February 28, 1968). Levy Eshkol himself admitted that "the Egyptian layout in Sinai and the general buildup there testified to a militarily defensive Egyptian setup, south of Israel" (Yedhiot Ahronot, October 16, 1967). On August 8, 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, defending the invasion of Lebanon, said: "In June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him" (New York Times, August 21, 1982).[10]
Also omitted from Dershowitz's analysis is the chronicle of Israeli provocations that significantly contributed to the buildup of regional tension preceding the war. Israel's 1964 diversion of the headwaters of the Jordan river (and subsequent shelling of Syrian bulldozers and tractors attempting to arrest this) was a significant affront to Damascus and Amman. The November 1966 assault on the West Bank village of Samu was an enormously disproportionate attack in response to Fatah cross-border raids which Jordan had been doing its best to curb: a clinic, a school, and over 100 houses were damaged or destroyed while at least 15 Jordanian soldiers were killed. The incursion into Jordanian territory was all the more inexplicable for Israel's having openly (and correctly) suspected Syria's backing of the fedayeen raids. A major escalation on the Syrian front occurred in April 1967 when Israel destroyed six Syrian MiGs during an aerial engagement over the DMZ. At least one of the Syrian fighters was shot down over Damascus, and Rabin thereafter announced on Israeli radio that 'the moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government'.[11] Rabin made this threat in the full knowledge that Syria had recently formed the UAR with Egypt, an alliance whose treaty obliged one state to come to the rescue of the other in the event of just such aggression: its potential influence on Nasser's decision to shortly thereafter place troops in the Sinai as a warning to Israel is obvious. It's also worth noting that, ostensibly, the trigger for the border confrontation was the Syrian strafing of an Israeli tractor moving through the DMZ and the ensuing Israeli shelling and Syrian counter-shelling which escalated into an air battle. But the story does not end there. In an interview with an Israeli journalist published posthumously in 1981, Moshe Dayan himself confirmed the suspicion that Israel had provoked many such confrontations on the Golan:
I know how at least 80 percent of those clashes started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let's talk about 80 percent. It went this way: we would send a tractor to plow someplace where it wasn't possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and we knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn't shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and then the air force also, and that's how it was.[12]
In fact, that is exactly how it panned out on 7 April, 1967. To argue against this corpus of evidence that the six-day war was set against a backdrop of exclusively Arab belligerence is reductive to say the least.

And what of the Egyptian front? Dershowitz's argument that Nasser's request for UNEF forces to withdraw from the Sinai was a clear signal of an imminent attack leaves out two important factors. Firstly, the Egyptian President asked only for a partial redeployment[13] but UN secretary-General U Thant gave him only the choice of total withdrawal or none at all - which compelled Nasser to take the former option since the alternative was to do nothing. Secondly, an argument which asserts that Israel could only regard the removal of the UNEF buffer as a pernicious lowering of its defenses loses force in the face of Israel's subsequent refusal of the UN offer to have this buffer reinstated (on its side of the border). Moreover, Nasser, despite his rhetorical excesses, agreed to U Thant's suggestion of a two-week freeze of the blockade of the Straits of Tiran if Israel would send no vessels there during that time, and also to the appointment of a UN representative for the region. On the Egyptian side, this was not exactly the drumbeat of war. Israel, however, flatly turned down this dual proposal and launched its devastating air strike before the Egyptian vice president could make any progress in Washington towards averting hostilities.[14] Not exactly ein breira.

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1 Dershowitz, p. 91
2 Alain Gresh and Dominique Vidal, The New A-Z of the Middle East, I. B. Tauris, London, 2004, p. 5
3 Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Penguin, London, 2000, p. 237
4 Dershowitz, p. 91, 92
5 Shlaim, p. 236
6 Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Longman: London & New York, 1999, p. 33
7 Quoted in Gresh & Vidal, p. 5
8 Shlaim, p. 239, 241. See also Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso, London, 1995, p. 135.
9 Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians, Verso, London & New York, 2003, p. 57
10 Kimmerling, p. 58
11 Quoted in Finkelstein, p. 125. See also Shlaim, p. 236; David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, (Third Edition), Nation Books, New York, 2003, p. 342
12 Quoted in Shlaim, p. 235
13 See Schulze, p. 36, Finkelstein, p. 127
14 See Finkelstein, p. 129