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January 1, 2017 7:36 am

A New Book on the Six-Day War Should Be Required Reading for President Trump

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Israeli reconnaissance forces from the "Shaked" unit in the Sinai region during the 1967 Six-Day War. Photo: Matanya via Wikimedia Commons.

Israeli reconnaissance forces from the Shaked unit in the Sinai region during the 1967 Six-Day War. Photo: Matanya via Wikimedia Commons. — Guy Laron’s forthcoming book, The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East — to be published, fittingly, around the war’s 50th anniversary — is both impressive and disheartening, and it should be required reading for US President-elect Donald Trump.

Laron delved into the archives of different governments and thoroughly documents the mindset of the leaders of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Russia and the US in the days preceding the war, describing circumstances in which none of these countries really meant to go to battle, but political leadership, despite their misgivings, reluctantly capitulated to the pressure of the military.

There is a fundamental principle in the US that political leaders should set policy, while military leaders should carry it out, but — as former US President Dwight Eishenhower, himself a general in World War II, warned and as Laron corroborates — there is a powerful “military-industrial complex” that should have us all concerned. Yet, President-elect Trump is constructing a cabinet dominated by generals and business executives. I’m sure that Trump is very busy with other matters these days, but perhaps this book should be on his reading list, not only for what it can teach him about the Middle East of 50 years ago, but for what it can teach him about America today.

Laron describes the power struggle in Egypt between President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was primarily concerned with the country’s economic problems, and General Abdel Hakim Amer, who was eager for a confrontation with Israel and pushed rumors that the Jewish state would invade unless Egypt struck first. In Syria, the Ba’ath political party butted heads with its military-dominated rivals. The Jordan king wanted to stay out of the 1967 fight because he understood how poorly-trained and ill-equipped his soldiers were, but he feared a coup by army leaders if he didn’t agree to enter the war.

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Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hoped for peace and Foreign Minister Abba Eban wanted to ensure American support before going to war, but defense officials Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon believed that a surprise attack which destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground was the only way to win a war that they were certain was inevitable.

The cover of “The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East,” by Guy Laron. Photo: Yale University Press.

The cover of ‘The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East,’ by Guy Laron. Photo: Yale University Press.

Behind all four of these countries were global superpowers, who sometimes goaded the Mideast nations to fight and at other times cautioned them to have patience. Laron writes that the Soviet Union government was divided between two groups with contradictory policies, one encouraging the Arab countries to fight — even hying them up with claims based on no evidence that Israel was amassing troops on their borders — and the other telling Egypt and Syria to stay out of a conflict that they were bound to lose. The US urged patience but made no commitments, except vowing to do what it could to keep Russia from intervening.

And so Israel, Syria, Egypt and Jordan slipped into war, each one convinced that they needed to do so because the other side was about to attack.

The war was an astonishing success for Israel. The country tripled in size by conquering the Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem. Before the war, Israel was bracing for a second Holocaust. After the war, it was suddenly a mighty military force. Israelis who lived in a cramped and crowded country suddenly felt that they had room to breathe — no wonder they were euphoric. But very few people realized at the time that every success also brings problems. Nobody thought much about the fact that with all this new territory that Israel had acquired, the Jewish state had also acquired hundreds of thousands of new and hostile people to govern beyond the 1967 lines. Nobody understood that with the euphoria of 1967 came a settlement movement embodied by the refusal to surrender of any land whatsoever in peace talks. Nobody realized that experiencing humiliating defeat would lead to even more intransigence within the Arab world. And so today — 50 years later — the Six-Day War still hasn’t ended.

This book shows that leaders sometimes make decisions on foreign policy for psychological reasons. Sometimes they go to war in order to maintain their personal popularity and their ability to govern. Readers will learn that it’s sometimes much easier for leaders to go to war than to make peace. So perhaps, despite everything else on his calendar right now, this is a book the president-elect should read. At the very least, we ordinary citizens should read it.

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