Review by Amb. (ret.) Daniel Kurtzer
The Role of US Diplomacy in the Lead-Up to the Six Day War: Balancing Moral Commitments and National Interests by Zaki Shalom, Sussex Academic Press, ISBN-13-978-1845194680, 2012, 190 pp., $65.00.
For all the disputes about Middle East historiography, there is no disputing the monumental changes brought about by the June 1967 war. Virtually everything that preceded the war changed as a result of the resounding Israeli military victory, the massive Arab defeat and the occupation by Israel of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. The war was the beginning of the end of Nasserism, the idea of secular pan-Arab nationalism propagated by the charismatic leader of Egypt. The war restored Palestinians to center-stage in the Arab-Israeli conflict, from which they had been displaced in 1949. Israel went from a small, beleaguered state to a regional military powerhouse. And the benefits of strategic depth enjoyed by Israelis soon became the burdens of prolonged occupation.
For all these reasons, books on this war and the period preceding it are most welcome, for the most critical questions relating to the motivations and strategies of the main players have yet to be answered adequately. Zaki Shalom’s contribution to the literature is very useful, as he has drawn on Israeli government archives and on U.S. government records located at the Lyndon Johnson Library to assess the role of the United States in Israeli calculations leading up to the war. Shalom adds content and color to what we know about the diplomacy and policies of the United States and Israel.
Shalom does not address directly but adds analytically to the key issues that have not yet been answered satisfactorily: What motivated Nasser to act in 1967 when he had warned other Arabs for more than a decade that Israel should not be threatened until the Arabs were fully prepared? Egypt was totally unprepared for war in 1967, suffering not only from an imbalance in weapons but also from its protracted deployment in Yemen. Shalom doesn’t answer this question — no one has done so yet with any authority — but reports that (p. 84) “Egypt’s position reflects the enormous self-confidence felt by the leadership on the outcome of a clash with Israel.” Heady words, but did Nasser really believe this?
Shalom devotes considerable attention to the uncertainties and contradictions of Israeli policy in the lead-up to war. In 1966 and early 1967, Israel responded harshly to guerrilla attacks emanating from Syria and Jordan, usually by hitting at Jordan. This was curious even at the time — Shalom points out the consensus within the Israeli leadership that Jordan’s survival was important for Israeli security — because the real target of Israeli wrath was Syria. Indeed, the Israeli government, as Shalom points out, affirmatively sought to engage Syria in a confrontation that would lead to regime change, but it was not until the fateful air engagement of April 7, 1967 that Israel really went after the Syrians. Equally interesting, the “provocative swaggering” (p. 64) of Israel’s military intelligence chief at the time, Aharon Yariv, soon turned to a “sense of foreboding, apprehension and uncertainty” among Israel’s military chiefs. We are not informed as to why this was the case.
Shalom’s central interest in this volume is the diplomatic engagement between Israel and the United States, and he covers familiar ground in explaining Israel’s dilemma during the crisis that began in mid-May to try to bring the United States around to support unequivocally Israeli military action against Egypt. Shalom refers, without entering into much detail, to the bitter internal Israeli struggle underway at the time between the hawks in the defense establishment who wanted immediate go-ahead to attack Egypt and the more temperate politicians, especially Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who preferred to give diplomacy a chance. This struggle represents the backdrop to Eban’s high-wire diplomacy in Washington starting on May 25 with a meeting at the White House. Shalom’s mining of the archives presents the reader with a most insightful insider’s perspective on the give-and-take between Eban and the American senior leadership.
The Eban mission failed to achieve any of its objectives, and Shalom assesses that the failure persuaded Eshkol that Golda Meir, not Eban, should have been dispatched to make unequivocally clear to Washington that Israel deserved U.S. support. Eban could not persuade the administration to reaffirm Eisenhower’s 1957 commitment to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba and couldn’t even bring the administration to agree with Israel’s assessment of the danger. In a most telling statement, Shalom reveals Eban’s discomfort in conveying to the administration Israel’s view that a Syrian/Egyptian attack was imminent — an assessment that Eban himself did not believe — and juxtaposes this (p. 148) with a stark assessment by State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research that the Israeli claim was “an incorrect reading of the situation estimate, if not an intentional falsification and distortion of reality.”
Inexplicably, Shalom concluded this volume with the Eban mission, with no reference at all to the subsequent secret visit to Washington by then-Mossad director Meir Amit, or to the American intelligence assessment given to President Johnson that Israel would win a war against the Arabs in less than a week. Between Eban’s departure from Washington on May 27 and the Israeli pre-emptive attack on June 5, the American position changed rather dramatically, as Johnson became convinced that Israel would win a war and thus became more relaxed about the prospect of American intervention, a problem he did not want to face.
Shalom has made a useful contribution to the literature on this period, and it would have been interesting to learn his views on the conclusions reached by others: for example, Michael Oren’s rehabilitation of Levi Eshkol’s leadership, or Richard Parker’s pioneering work to discern Egyptian and Soviet motives, or the provocative thesis of Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez that it was Soviet Mig-25 aircraft (“Foxbats”) that buzzed Dimona just before the war as part of a Soviet strategy to take out Israel’s nuclear program. (Shalom refers to one of the overflights on p. 103 but says it was conducted by Mig 21s, the same class of Soviet aircraft which the Israeli air force decimated in the April 7 clash with Syria.
Given the wealth of material yet to be declassified and mined, as well as the depth and breadth of the questions as yet unanswered relating to the June 1967 war, one can hope for an early sequel by Shalom as he continues to examine the conundrums surrounding war and diplomacy in 1967.