A "New History" and Old Facts
by Guy Laron
Yale University Press, 384 pp., $28
On May 15, 1967, Israel’s long-simmering border conflict with Syria and its PLO clients came to a boil when the Soviet Union falsely warned Syria and Egypt that Israel was about to carry out a large-scale attack on the Golan Heights. In response, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt advanced his army into the Sinai, which had been de facto demilitarized since the end of the 1956 Sinai-Suez War. A few days later, emboldened by waves of popular indignation across the Arab world, Nasser expelled the UN Emergency Force from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, thus blocking Israel’s maritime access to the Indian Ocean through its southern port of Eilat. Taken together, Nasser’s actions created the sense of an imminent, existential threat to the State of Israel. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government regarded the actions as cause for war.
American attempts to defuse the crisis led nowhere, and, once Syria and Jordan (with the material support of other Arab states) joined Nasser, Israel had no choice but to strike first. Its surprise air attack against Egypt’s air force on the morning of June 5 lasted three hours and destroyed most of it, giving Israel air dominance as the IDF launched its ground forces into the Sinai—an offensive that lasted four days and ended with the devastation of the Egyptian army and the occupation of the entire peninsula. At the same time, and in response to shelling by Jordanian artillery, the IDF launched an attack that ended in three days with the occupation of the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. Finally, Israel took the Golan Heights, in a battle that ended six days after the war began.
This, at least, is the story that has been told and retold by the authors of both older and more recent accounts, and it is this story that Guy Laron attempts to upend by placing it in the larger context of Israel’s military plans in the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for influence in the region. The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East, which Yale University Press brought out shortly before the recent 50th anniversary of the war, is an attempt to thoroughly revise our historical understanding of the conflict.