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Six Days of War

Six Days of War

A new, definitive book on the Six Day War.


The most overwhelming victory in the annals of warfare took place in June 35 years ago, when Israeli forces defeated the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies in a mere six days. And this June is marked by the publication of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Oxford University Press) by Michael Oren, the finest book ever on this topic.

Oren, an Israeli scholar of American origins, tells his story in a spare, direct and gripping way, replete with punchy quotations.

"Six Days of War" benefits from sources in six languages and is the first account to rely on recently opened state archives, which let the account provide the previously unknown inside story, including a number of scoops (such as the Arab plans for conquering Israel; or how Defense Minister Moshe Dayan's orders to seize the Golan Heights violated his terms of office). No wonder it is a U.S. bestseller even before its formal release.

Several questions still endure about the '67 war, and Oren provides helpful information for answering them. Here are three key ones:

Why did the war take place?

The question arises because, like World War I, no one planned for or wanted this war. Oren's research offers insights into its thoroughly accidental quality.

In November 1966, for example, after the killing of three Israeli policemen at the hands of Jordan-based terrorists, the usually efficient U.S. ambassador to Israel waited a few days to transmit a message of condolence from Jordan's King Hussein to the Israeli prime minister. His delay prompted the Israelis to retaliate, and that retaliation in turn became a major episode in the escalation to war.

The role of accidents needs to be kept in mind these days, as the winds of war again blow in the Middle East: Even the slightest misstep could cause a blow-up.

How did the Israel Defense Forces win so overwhelmingly?

A Syrian general predicted a victory over Israel in four days "at most."

By meticulous practice and absolute realism, in contrast to the Arab militaries, which lived in a fantasy world.

If the Israelis were all nerves on approaching war -- Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin suffered a breakdown -- the Arab leaders were supremely overconfident. A Syrian general predicted a victory over Israel in four days "at most." Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser showed no signs of concern, insisting that Israelis were incapable of mounting precisely the surprise air attack that they in fact pulled off.

More broadly, one high Egyptian official said about his side's leadership that it believed "the destruction of Israel was a child's game that only required the hooking up of a few telephone lines at the commander's house and the writing of victory slogans."

(Washington, ironically, was more confident than Tel Aviv of an Israeli victory; two weeks before war broke out, Oren shows, the U.S. secretary of defense predicted that if Israel pre-empted, it would defeat its three enemies within the week -- precisely what happened.)

How did the war affect Arab-Israeli diplomacy?

It fundamentally changed the terms.

Already in mid-May, weeks before hostilities started, the Middle East hand at the White House, Harold Saunders, suggested that Israel should be allowed the time to trounce its enemies, seeing in this a way "of settling borders and, maybe even refugees."

By the second day of warfare, President Lyndon Johnson had formulated the outline of the land-for-peace policy that 35 years later still drives U.S. diplomacy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel should return the land it conquered in 1967 in exchange for its recognition by the Arabs.

Americans expected the scale of Israel's military triumph to show the Arabs the futility of their hopes to destroy the Jewish state, an analysis that found immediate agreement among some Israelis (including Yitzhak Rabin, later the prime minister who initiated the Oslo negotiations, which was premised on precisely this assumption).

But, as recent events have so vividly proved, the land-for-peace premise was false. With just a few exceptions (such as Egypt's President Anwar as-Sadat), Israel's willingness to make this exchange precipitated violence against it, not acceptance, by the Arabs.

Oren shows how land-for-peace was based on American hopes, not Middle Eastern realities; his research points to this failed policy needing finally to be replaced by a more realistic approach.

As Oren's subtitle suggests, those six days of war had truly profound consequences.

June 8, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Dvirah, February 25, 2014 8:23 PM

Question and Answer 1 are Wrong

With respect, the Arabs made their intentions very clear before the war, with weeks of speeches from Nasser of Egypt boasting to "push Israel into the sea." As for the statement that "no one wanted or planned this war" - on the contrary, 4 Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq) both wanted and together planned ahead for Israel's destruction. (Jordan did not want to fight but was bullied into it and their army was augmented by Iraqi troups.) And what about Nasser's informing the UN of their intention to attack Israel and the UN withdrawing its "peace-keeping" troups in consequence?

It was just that certainty which encouraged Israel to take matters into their own hands and launch a pre-emptive strike. Contrast Israel's behavior in 1973, when the Arabs made their preparations stealthily (having learned at least one lesson from the past) and Israel was in doubt of an actual attack.

(4) Sharon E. King, June 5, 2007 5:38 PM

Thank you for subscription I just signed up for. I like the layout of your website and am glad I found it. I hope it will be helpful to many people.

(3) Jonathan Coull, October 16, 2002 12:00 AM

The Arabs can talk all they want, their goal is to simply push Israel into the sea- period.

History does not lie. Sure, it is open for interpretation, and the Middle East's history will likely never be agreed upon. The fact remains, however, that as long as Islamic "fundamentalism" exists, Israel will have to fight to exist. What we called fundamentalism in the 20th Century and today, is simply an extension of ethnic nationalism from the Safavid and Ottoman Empires. As we are Jewish and love being so, Muslim Arabs of this region so love their ethnicty which is so closely tied to their religion. They held the land in which Israel sits, as well as the surrounding area, for centuries. Then the region's leaders sided with absolutism during WWI and then Facism during WWII. They picked the wrong side and lost. Now they're crying foul. Now that they're getting a taste of their own medicine, they don't like it. Boo-hoo. They'll even distort facts, lie, and hold natural resources, the world has a right to, in order to assert dominance. That is what they're good at- or I should say- what they're bad at, isn't it? And who started the wars involving Israel and the Arabs? They're on a losing streak aren't they? Israel should stand fast and hold their ground. Period.

(2) , June 11, 2002 12:00 AM

We cant trust the arabs

I believe israel should not return the land because the arab countries will just use them as places to send out their . The Israelis did infact return some of the land such as the saini desert to egypt in return that they recognize isreal as a jewish stae. Also how can they return land to the arabs while there are organizations such as the P.L.O. who want to make a palestinian state use terroism as theier main weapon and have been usuing it for years, and who can forget that Yasser Arafat was the head of that organization but then joined the P.A. which has close ties with the P.L.O. and other ist groups. Israel just cant negotiate with them and i believe they are wasting their time trying to

(1) murray gorelick, June 10, 2002 12:00 AM

these facts should be sent to every newspaper

I feel that the world should see and read about what happened atthat time.It has never come to pass that the victorshave to give bach wahtwas gained from this war.The Arabs have lost all the wars that they instituted and then want to start over whn they make an effort at peace with the same ideal that this time they will push the Jewish people into the sea.The world opinion is that the jews are the aggressor and the poor Arabs have nothing.I firmly belive that the land of Palestine, Isrealbelongs to the Jews as they have been there for four thousand years.The Arabs were wanders in the Dessert and they should go back there.

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