Q&A with Michael Oren

On the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, renowned historian Michael Oren answers readers' questions.

michael oren 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
michael oren 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
On the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, renowned historian and senior fellow at Shalem Center's Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies answers questions sent by JPost.com readers on those six remarkable days in June 1967.
Daniel Teeboom, Amsterdam: I read that you discovered Jordanian plans about what to do with the vanquished Jews of Israel, had the Arabs won. These stories have been rumors for many years, will the documents be made available online? They can be used for all kinds of pro-Israeli activities and would be worth their weight in gold.
Michael Oren: I was indeed able to acquire Jordanian diplomatic and military documents from 1967. Among these were the plans for Operation Tariq, the planned Jordanian attack against West (Jewish) Jerusalem and the Latrun Quarter. These plans provided for the execution of the civilian populations of several Jewish communities, such as Moza, which lies just west of Jerusalem. Some of these documents fell into Israeli hands during the war and were later presented to King Hussein in the secret meetings he held with Israeli representatives in London. The King denied having any knowledge of Tariq.
It is important to demonstrate that not only the Jordanians but also the Egyptians and the Syrians had planned the conquest of Israel and the expulsion or murder of much of it Jewish inhabitants in 1967. Many of the so-called "revisionist historians" today are claiming that the Arabs never had aggressive intentions toward the Jewish state and that Israel precipitated the Six-Day War in order to expand territorially. The documentary evidence refutes this claim unequivocally.
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    Ann Lesser, Los Angeles: Do you agree with the recent article in The Economist that the Six Day War was wasted and that it has caused more problems than it solved?
    Michael Oren: The Economist article's argument only holds if one believes that Israel's survival is a bad thing. If Israel had lost the Six-Day War, it would not exist today. Yes, it is true that the Six-Day War precipitated the controversy surrounding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the conflict over Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, and contributed to the rise of Palestinian terror. But without Israel's 1967 victory, there would today be no peace between Israel and Egypt or Israel and Jordan. If the West Bank and Gaza remained under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation, as they were in 1967, there would be no talk today of creating a Palestinian state in those territories. And if Israel had not proven its military mettle over the course of six intense days, there would be no strategic alliance between the United States and the Jewish state. My guess, though, is that the Economist is not thrilled about that either.
    Yaakov Slabiak, Dallas: Your concluding statements in "Power, Faith and Fantasy" suggests that the USA can bring a new world order of security and peace and even democracy to the Middle East by "responsibly wielding its strength and consistently upholding its principles." What can we reasonably expect for the Middle East in the near term and beyond from the politicians in Washington, DC in view of the divided domestic opinion on the Iraq war, and what may be a united international stand on stopping Iran's nuclear power ambitions?
    Michael Oren: American policy-makers, whether Republican or Democrat, must convince the American people that there is no separating from the Middle East in the way that the United States separated from Vietnam in 1975, and this for the simple reason that the Middle East will not separate from America. Extremist elements in the region will continue to seek ways of harming American interests and killing American citizens long after the last U.S. soldier has left Iraq. It is imperative, therefore, that the American people are made to understand that this is a protracted conflict and one with invariable vicissitudes. There will be setbacks, much as there were in all of America's previous wars, but victory remains possible.
    To this end, the United States must explore the possibility of maintaining permanent ground and naval forces in the Middle East (much as Jefferson did in 1801), invest heavily in intelligence, and actively promote reformist forces in the Middle East. The United States should continue to support the advocates of democracy in the Middle East, but without trying to impose American ideas and institutions on the peoples of the regions. Most importantly, the United States must uphold its own principles and avoid at all costs a repetition of the Abu Graib atrocities.
    Even after taking all of these steps, American decision-makers will face a complex and potentially treacherous environment in the Middle East, one that will require patience, perseverance, and creativity to negotiate. In the long run, though, America has no choice.
    To stop Iran, for example, Washington will have to combine international diplomatic action with the imposition of its own far-reaching sanctions, all the while maintaining a credible military threat. If diplomatic initiatives and economic strictures fail-and all signs seem to indicate that that will-the United States must act to prevent the Iranians from acquiring strategic capabilities. The use of force will at that moment become not only justified but mandatory.
    Steve Lewine, Paradise Valley: The decision to give "Har Habiet" (the Temple Mount) to the Muslims, was it debated, was anything asked of the recipient, is it written in stone, did they even request this gift?
    Michael Oren: There was no debate surrounding Moshe Dayan's decision to keep the Temple Mount or, as the Muslims call it, Haram al-Sharif ("the noble sanctuary"), under the aegis of the Muslim authorities or Waqf. The decision reflected Israel's policy of maintaining the status quo toward all holy sites, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the Old City. For example, Christian control of the Holy Sepulcher was also retained. Israeli officials in 1967 were deeply concerned that the world would not accord with Israeli control of the Old City and were anxious to show that Israel would respect the rights of all religions.
    To be sure, the Muslims never asked Israel to recognize this right, nor do they in any way express gratitude for having received it. On the contrary, the Waqf has since served as a center and a catalyst for Muslim denial of Jewish rights, both in Jerusalem and outside, and has worked assiduously to destroy any remnant of the first and second temples. In retrospect, Dayan's decision was a terrible mistake but, in fairness, there was no way of knowing that in 1967.
    Gil Aharoni Los Angeles, CA: You mention in your book that, after the war, Eshkol entertained the idea of making peace with Jordan based on the UN partition lines. Do you mean the lines stipulated in UN Resolution 181? Could Eshkol really have considered turning over land that was sovereign Israeli territory for 19 years?
    Michael Oren: I don't recall asserting that Eshkol ever was willing to make peace on the basis of UN Resolution 181. That document, Israel contended, had been nullified by the Arabs' rejection of it and their attempt to defeat it by force of arms. Eshkol was, however, willing to trade all of the captured Sinai Peninsula and almost all of the Golan Heights in return for peace treaties with Egypt and Syria, respectively, and to consider creating an autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank. His offers, though, were rejected by the Arabs' decision, taken at the Khartoum Summit later in 1967, to deny Israel all peace and recognition and to reject any negotiations with the Jewish state. Palestinian notables expressed an interest in the autonomous entity plan, but feared that any attempt to negotiate with Israel would result in their assassinations by radicals-and the radical they mentioned by name was Yasser Arafat.
    Matthew Reid, Boston: As an Israeli Historian writing on Israeli history in an academically rigorous and honest fashion, what methods do you use to identify and hopefully filter out your own biases and preconceptions? Also, how does your own military service color your understanding or interpretation of your sources?
    Michael Oren: You have touched on the greatest challenge I face as an historian. Though it has become very fashionable in the history field to indulge one's prejudices and preconceptions, I view my biases-and I have them-as obstacles to be overcome. This means that in every paragraph, if not every sentence, I must pause and ask myself whether I am, in fact, being as balanced and objective as possible. Later, I submit my writing to readers whom I trust to render candid judgments.
    My military experience, on the other hand, assists me in understanding the dynamics of the battlefield and of war-time decision-making. I know what it's like to be in command positions as well as to be a simple soldier under fire, and I have tremendous sympathy for anybody-Israeli or Arab-in similar positions. As a result, I am less likely to judge soldiers in battle and prefer, when possible, to understand them.
    Toni Manson, London: Is there any credible evidence that Sadat's peace overtures in 1971-2 were credible? e.g. Did he offer diplomatic recognition?
    Michael Oren: From what we know-and the record is still far from clear-Sadat proposed that Israel withdraw from all of the territories captures in 1967, including the West Bank and Jerusalem in exchange for a non-belligerency treaty that would eventually evolve into peace. Diplomatic recognition per se was never mentioned. But one thing I know from studying Middle Eastern diplomatic history is that until the Egyptian, American and Israeli documents are de-classified, we will never know for sure whether or not peace was possible before the outbreak of the 1973 war. It is, however, interesting to note that many of the historians who now claim that Israel missed an opportunity to make peace before that conflict also say that Sadat required his "victory" in 1973 in order to gain the legitimacy necessary to make peace in 1979.
    Jason Ream, L.A: Do you think if Israel had offered all the territory it had conquered in 1967, including east Jerusalem, back to Jordan, Syria and Egypt the day after the war ended they would have accepted them in exchange for peace?
    Michael Oren: Absolutely not. The Arab states were categorical in declaring their refusal to grant Israel peace or recognition, or even to negotiate with it in return for the territories.
    Cliff Court, Cape Town: In recent times, renewed questions have arisen as to whether Egypt was indeed going to attack Israel at all at that time and, in turn, whether it was correct for Israel to launch their preemptive strike. In your opinion, was there any doubt that Egypt would in fact have attacked if Israel had not done so first?
    Michael Oren: We know from Egyptian documents that the Egyptian army prepared a detailed plan for bombing strategic sites throughout Israel and for cutting Israel in half with a combined armored and infantry thrust. The plan, codenamed "The Dawn " (or al-Fajr), was set to be implemented on May 27 but was blocked when the United States and the Soviet Union together pressured the Egyptians not to attack. The danger of an Egyptian offensive against Israel remained. However, with hundreds of thousands of Arab soldiers gathered on its borders, Israel could not respond to even a minor Palestinian guerilla attack without precipitating a general Arab assault. Pre-emption was the only option.
    James Michael Price, Haymarket, Virginia: In the book "The Secret War Against the Jews", by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, the claim is made that the US naval ship Liberty had on board two Hebrew-language experts who were translating Israeli military communications intercepted on the Liberty during the 1967 war. They further claimed that the translations were sent to a British intelligence site on Cyprus, where the British used that information to make maps of Israeli military deployments in the Sinai and then sent those maps to the Egyptians. Your book tells a much different story. What is your opinion of the claims of Loftus and Aarons?
    Michael Oren: There is absolutely no documentary evidence to support Loftus' thesis, this after several thousand documents relating to the Liberty incident have been declassified. Contrary to Loftus' contention, there were no Hebrew speakers aboard the Liberty, only Arabic and Russian translators.
    Brent Olsson, Oklahoma City: What credence do you give accounts that the Six Day War was precipitated by a Soviet scheme to wipe Israel before it could develop a nuclear weapon?
    Michael Oren: I have found no documentary evidence to support this thesis and one must assume that some evidence of it would be found in the tens of thousands of documents that have been declassified at American, Israeli and Russian archives. Nor is the theory substantiated even obliquely in the extensive Arabic sources that have become available. On the contrary, it appears that the Soviets, after helping to precipitate the crisis by encouraging Egypt to evict UNEF, did everything to discourage the Egyptians from closing the Straits of Tiran and going to war. Finally, the question must be asked why the Soviet Union, which had diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, would risk a global confrontation just to eliminate the Dimona reactor, which had yet to produce a single atomic weapon. Israel had never threatened the Soviet Union, nor had it pledged to use its strategic capabilities to "wipe off the map"-to quote Ahmadinejad -any of the Soviets' Arab client-states.
    Mark, Toronto: Moshe Dayan said the following: "After all, I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there 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 some area [in the Golan DMZ] where it wasn't possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and 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 later the air force also, and that's how it was." My question is: Is there truth to this or is this Dayan simply lashing back with exaggerations? This is coupled with stories of IDF soldiers masquerading as farmers to draw fire from the Syrians or whole Kibbutzim staffed by soldiers.
    Michael Oren: There is an element of truth to Dayan's claim, but it is important to note that Israel regarded the de-militarized zones in the north as part of their sovereign territory and reserved the right to cultivate them-a right that the Syrians consistently resisted with force. Syria also worked to divert the Jordan River before it flowed into Israel, aiming to deprive the Jewish state of its principle water source; Syria also actively supported Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel. Israel occasionally exploited incidents in the de-militarized zones to strike at the Syrian water diversion project and to punish the Syrians for their support of terror. Dayan's remarks must also be taken in context of the fact that he was a member of the opposition at the time. His attitude toward the Syrians changed dramatically once he became defense minister. Indeed, on June 8, 1967, Dayan bypassed both the Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff in ordering the Israeli army to attack and capture the Golan.
    David Guy, Rehovot: The BBC's Martin Asser suggests the origin of the Six Day War was a water dispute Your response?
    Michael Oren: Water indeed played a principle role in precipitating the Six-Day War. The Egyptians closed the Straits of Tiran to all shipping bound for Israel's vital southern port of Eilat.The Syrians attempted to divert the Jordan River before it flowed into Israel, and attempted to obstruct Israel's effort to convey water from the Sea of Galilee to the parched Negev Desert. All of these efforts, whether Egyptian or Syrian, originated in the Arab refusal to accept the existence of the permanent and legitimate Jewish state in the Middle East. That, and not water, was the cause of the Six-Day War.
    Luis Bautista, Chicago: How did the Israel Air Force so brilliantly carry out the plan to demolish the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan?
    Michael Oren: The plan, code-named Focus, was meticulously planned and rehearsed over the course of four years. It involved extensive coordination between the air force, army intelligence, and the Mossad, and employed the newest in military and avionic technology. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Focus was the result of a courageous decision on the part of the Israeli leadership.
    Mike Lawson, San Francisco: Dear Mr. Oren, why is it that so many authors out there publish blatantly anti Israel material, far more than there are people producing fair or pro Israel books? Why are these books given legitimacy and how can this be combated?
    Michael Oren: This is a very complicated question with a multi-faceted answer that lies beyond our issue today. I will, however, say that promoting research projects such as "Six Days of War" and "Power, Faith and Fantasy," which present Israel and the U.S. involvement in the Middle East in an equitable and balanced light, is crucial. Such projects, which are quite expensive to carry out, are only possible through the assistance of academic bodies such as the Shalem Center, where I am a senior.
    Andrew White, London: Tom Segev's new book on the Six Day War received a gushing review in this week's Economist (26 May 2007). Is this the beginning of Six Day War revisionist history?
    Michael Oren: Alas, it's not the beginning. Segev's primary thesis, namely, that the Six-Day War was the product of irrational Israeli fears and war-mongering, has been around for many years. It is implicit in Jimmy Carter's recent book, which describes Israel-quite wrongly-as having attacked Jordan and Syria pre-emptively in 1967. It is crucial to note, however, that neither Segev nor Carter employ even one Arabic source. In essence, the Arabs simply do not exist for them. The end result is not only an injustice to Israel but moreover gross discrimination toward the Arabs, who are treated as two-dimensional figures, incapable of independent decision-making and political dynamics.
    Alan Feinberg, Jr, Washington DC: Given the way the shocking victory in 1967 created and reinvigorated Zionist sentiment in Israel and around the world and the current cynicism about the origins and effects of that war today, how do you assess the state of Zionism in Israel and the West? Does it concern you?
    Michael Oren: I'm deeply concerned about the state of Zionism in the world today. In the West and especially in the academic community, Zionism is increasingly seen as an illegitimate if not illicit concept that has produced a racist and colonialist regime. More troubling still, many Israelis, and particularly the youth, have lost a sense of the meaning and morality of the Jewish state. The good news is that there are today a growing number of grass roots organizations and philanthropies dedicated to defending Zionism on Western campuses, while in Israel, institutions such as the Shalem Center are working to strengthen the Zionist idea. It was heartening to note that last summer's call-up of the Israeli reserves received more than 100 percent response (that is, more reservists reported for duty than those who were listed as active). That percentage was higher than the one recorded in 1967.
    The Zionist heart is strong, but its mind needs to be reinvigorated. We need writing and research that can articulate the Zionist mission-its foundations and its ethos.