BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael B. Oren, author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East," why do we want to go back and look at that Six-Day War in '67?
MICHAEL OREN, "SIX DAYS OF WAR: JUNE 1967 AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST" Well, the Six-Day War was in many ways the pivotal, seminal event for the creation of the modern Middle East, the Middle East that we are witnessing today, the Middle East that is the source of so much tension and controversy and bloodshed. The obvious reason we want to go back is to find out how the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem principally, but also the Golan Heights, came into the possession of the state of Israel. And that happened in June, 1967.
But the war was also a pivotal event for many other and even more profound reasons. For example, the Six-Day War really spelled a death knell for the movement of Arab nationalism, which was a secular movement in its most sublime form, which was Nasserism, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt. That movement was delegitimized, it was debunked in 1967. And it opened the door to the entry of a new ideology into the Middle East, and that was an Islamic ideology. And that has had profound ramifications for everybody both in the Middle East and here in the United States, as well.
The Six-Day War also ended the period when the Arab-Israeli conflict was principally a state-to-state conflict, a conflict between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Syria, Israel and Egypt. And the conflict -- a new conflict emerged, a conflict that was principally one between Israel and the Palestinians. Before '67, you really didn't hear about the Palestinians. And it's not by accident that a year after the war ended, in 1968, the PLO under Yasser Arafat emerges as this powerful force in the Arab world. And we've been living with that, as well.
The '67 war was also -- also inaugurated the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel. People forget that Israel fought the '67 war not with American arms but with French weaponry. France was Israel's principal ally before that. Before 1967, only one Israeli prime minister one time for one hour had visited the White House, and it wasn't Israel's founder, David ben Gurion. It was Levi Eshkol -- one time, June, 1964. Today Ariel Sharon or any Israeli prime minister comes to Washington, it's obvious that he's going to march right into the White House.
That began -- that very, very close relationship, that cooperation, began in the aftermath of 1967, not before that.
LAMB: As you acknowledge, one more book on the Six-Day War - there have been a lot of them.
LAMB: What do you have new? What kind of things do you have...
OREN: Well, if you look at my bibliography, you'll see about 300, 400 books on the '67 war. And I always encounter that question. You know, why do we need another book on the '67 war? Well, the principal reason is the phenomenon of the 30-year rule. I ride the 30-year rule. That is the rule that obtains in most Western-style democracies, in the United States, in Britain, in Canada and in Israel, and which holds that after 30 years, the majority of diplomatic documents that were previously classified as top secret get declassified and they become accessible to researchers.
And once you have documents, it opens up an entirely new vista into the decision-making process, and that's what this book really is about, is about decision-making.
In addition, in the last, say, 12 years, Soviet documents, documents of the former Soviet Union, have become available to researchers. And the Soviets played a pivotal role in the '67 war, a very crucial role. In many ways, they precipitated the crisis. And I was able to go to Moscow and to access some of these documents.
There's also been a new opening in at least two of the three major Arab participants in the war. In Jordan and in Egypt, there's a tremendous wave of publications about the war -- memoirs, studies, even the release of certain documents, which is very rare in the Arab world, about 1967. The only place this hasn't occurred is in Syria. In Syria, officially, the war never occurred. There is not one single official book -- and all books in Syria are official -- about the '67 war. How the average Syrian believes that Israel came into possession of the Golan Heights that formerly belonged to Syria is a mystery to me.
LAMB: Let me go to your bio for a moment. You were born where?
OREN: I was born in a tiny town in upstate New York, but I was raised in New Jersey.
LAMB: When did you first go to Israel?
OREN: I first went when I was 15 years old. I went to work on a kibbutz, on a farm. I worked in the alfalfa. I worked in the cows. I became a cowboy. I was a lousy farmer, so I went and studied history.
LAMB: What kind of a Jew was your family -- your father, your mother?
OREN: My parents were -- I grew up in a conservative Jewish community. My parents were very Zionist, very pro-Israel, were supportive of the state of Israel, less supportive of my actually moving there. That was a shock to them.
LAMB: Were they both from here?
OREN: Both from here, yes. My father had been a career Army officer for a period in the U.S. Army, had served in World War II and Korea, and later on became a hospital administrator.
LAMB: So you say conservative -- is that like the orthodox/conservative/reform?
LAMB: You'd be right in the middle, then.
OREN: Correct. Right in the middle.
LAMB: And so -- did you fight in the '67 war?
OREN: No, I was a kid.
LAMB: You were a kid then.
OREN: I was...
LAMB: Did you fight in any war in Israel?
OREN: I fought in a couple of them, yes.
LAMB: Which ones?
OREN: Well, I fought in the Lebanon War. I was quite involved in the Lebanon War. I served in the Israeli paratroopers. At that point, I was in Israeli special forces and...
LAMB: What year?
OREN: This was in 1982, in June, 1982. For some reason, wars in the Middle East occur in June, almost to the day. It's probably good war-fighting weather. And I was among the first forces to -- of Israeli forces to enter the city of Beirut in June, 1982. And my actual unit was decimated in an ambush, and we ended up being attached to all sorts of other units for the duration of the war.
Later on, I became one of the few Israelis to be a veteran of the Gulf War. In a period just before the outbreak of the Gulf War, I was assigned as a strategic liaison between the Israeli army and the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. That's one -- it's an interesting thing as an historian, as well, because in the book, I point out that Israel had repeatedly requested in 1967 precisely such a liaison with the Sixth Fleet, and the U.S. denied the request. Well, in subsequent years, the United States acceded to the request, and I was the liaison.
And first -- it was a very interesting job. I essentially went out and partied a lot with American pilots who were on leave in Israel. We had a few maneuvers on the ground, nothing too serious. And all of a sudden, it became real. All of a sudden, there was a real war in which the United States and Israel had to collaborate strategically.
And you may recall that the United States provided Israel with Patriot missiles as an answer -- at least, a psychological answer because physically, they actually didn't work -- a psychological answer to the scud attacks, 41 scud missiles that fell on Tel Aviv and its environs. And I was a part of the team that brought in the Patriot missiles.
LAMB: And they were in Israel, the Patriots.
OREN: They were in Israel.
LAMB: Now, go back to your education, then. Where did you go to college?
OREN: I did my undergraduate -- I did a B.A., M.A. all in Middle East history at Columbia, Columbia College, and then I went on to do an MA and a Ph.D. again in Middle East history at Princeton.
LAMB: Are you both an Israeli and an American citizen?
OREN: I am.
LAMB: And why did you end up in the '82 war in Lebanon? How did that work?
OREN: Well, I had always wanted to move to Israel. I saw my future in Israel. I wanted to raise my family in Israel. And in 1973, at the end of the '73 war, which I would have missed had I actually been living in Israel, I determined that I wasn't going to move just then, I was going to do my B.A. first. I did my B.A. and, as it turns out, an M.A. I ended up working for the Israeli foreign ministry as an adviser to Israel's mission to the UN during a very tumultuous period. It was the period of the "Zionism is Racism" vote, Arafat's speech before the General Assembly, a very, very tumultuous period.
And then I moved to Israel, and I tried out for this unit in the army -- the try-outs are rather rigorous -- and did 17 months of basic training, and got out just prior to the Lebanon War. But in Israel, we have -- you serve for a long period, your regular service, and then you do reserve service to the age of 52. Now I have a son in the army, who is 19, and in a very elite unit, and I am still doing reserve duty. We actually share uniforms. Very bizarre!
LAMB: How old are you now?
OREN: I'm 47.
LAMB: And so you can be called up at any time.
OREN: I have been, yes. I've served...
LAMB: And you...
OREN: I've served in the latest intifada in a combat role.
OREN: In Nablus.
LAMB: Full combat uniform?
OREN: I'm supposed to be semi-retired. I now -- you stop jumping in the Israeli army, in the paratroopers, at age 37, and you essentially cease being a combat soldier at age 42. At age 42, 43, I was asked to stay on as an adviser on media relations. Why not? Sounds interesting. You get good briefings.
But when the fighting broke out on the West Bank, they asked any of these media advisers if they had combat experience, and like a total fool, I said, "Oh, of course, I have one." And "Well, we need someone to be attached to the front-line brigade commander, who doesn't speak French, doesn't speak English. And CNN and French television is running around there. Someone has to interpret for him."
So I was quickly outfitted with a new ceramic flak jacket and a helmet and an M-16, the whole works, and flown out there on a Black Hawk helicopter, which had to do a big sort of detour around Ramallah because the IDF, the Israeli army, was convinced that the Palestinians had shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles. And when we landed, we landed in a hail of gunfire. I've never seen anything like it -- since Lebanon. It was -- it was intense.
And the brigade commander, as I landed, got shot in the head, got a 7.62 Kalashnikov bullet right in the head that was stopped by his newly-issued American Kevlar helmet. Israel hadn't had the new Kevlar helmets. He'd just got one. And there it was, the bullet was stuck right in the helmet. And I quickly got myself a Kevlar helmet.
LAMB: Have you ever been wounded?
LAMB: Have you ever been wounded?
OREN: I've been wounded very slightly. Very slightly.
LAMB: Did it ever feel surreal to you? I mean, one day you're at your desk, at home, doing your work or -- where do you live, by the way?
OREN: I live in Jerusalem.
LAMB: And next day, you're in a uniform and then...
OREN: Always surreal. The worst part is coming home. The worst -- it always takes a few days to make that switch. You -- it's bizarre. You get a phone call. You know, this week, I'm celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary -- congratulations -- and I got married on August 5th, 1982. As I came home from my wedding and I was unwrapping my gifts, I got a call from the army saying, "Listen, in three hours, we're going to pick you up in a Jeep outside your house in Jerusalem, and we're going to take you to Beirut."
And I said, "Wait a minute. I just got married." They said, "Well, that's not our problem. Three hours." And I had to don a uniform, get out of my wedding suit into a uniform. My new wife is crying. My parents, who were there from New Jersey, who hadn't seen me in uniform ever, were in a state of shock. And lo and behold, the Jeep comes by and picks me up. And making that transition is difficult enough, but coming back from it is even more difficult because you come back from combat, and everyone's basically going about their business and buying shoes and getting on buses and it's very bizarre.
The last two years, however, have been in a category all by themselves. Israel lives from crisis to crisis. Sometimes I think we're rather addicted to them. And -- but this is -- the last two years have broken the Israeli paradigm. The Israeli paradigm is there's a war. It breaks out on the Golan Heights. It breaks out in the Sinai. You get into your uniform, you go away. You come back in two or three weeks. You take a shower. You try to forget about it. You go back to your team.
Over the last two years, however, the war has come to us, and it is no longer "out there." The war is our back yards. And where I live in southern Jerusalem, it's been very, very close to the front. I mean, on a very typical evening with my children around a table, the house will be rocking with gunfire, with machine gun fire, with tank fire. Helicopters have come over my house and fired rockets. And now we've had the suicide bombings. The last major suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the bus bombing, blew out the windows of my house.
LAMB: So you live there full-time, but you also are associated with an organization called -- is it the Shalem...
OREN: Shalem Center.
LAMB: Shalem Center. Is that a full-time job?
OREN: Shalem is a very full-time job. Shalem Center is a young, very dynamic research center that was started about seven years ago through the generosity of the Zalman Bernstein Foundation. And it promotes the study of Israel, the study of the Middle East, Jewish history, Zionism. It was founded by several young people, graduates of Princeton. And now there are about 100 people working there.
LAMB: Did I read that Bill Kristol, "The Weekly Standard"...
OREN: He's on our board.
LAMB: ... publisher is on your board? Any other Americans that we know?
OREN: Who you would know -- Leon Kass is on our board.
LAMB: The bioethics...
LAMB: ... associated -- leader associated with President Bush's...
LAMB: ... administration.
OREN: Yes. Ronald Lauder...
LAMB: New York.
OREN: ... Roger Hertog of Alliance Capital.
LAMB: OK, go back to -- in the early part of the book, you say you wanted to write an unbiased...
LAMB: ... view of the '67 war. After hearing your background, is that possible to do that?
OREN: Not easy. Not easy. Today, in history, it's very fashionable in post-modernist, relativist history to say, "You can't write objective history. Don't even bother trying. So write subjective history." And I adhere to that very quaint 19th-century notion that there is an historical truth out there and that we, as historians, though we can never really reach that truth completely -- we have an obligation to strive toward it.
And therefore, if we have prejudices -- and of course, we all have them -- if we have biases, that we have to regard them not as opinions to be indulged but as obstacles to be overcome because if we want to understand this war -- and this is a war that, as I said before, so profoundly impacts our lives in Israel, in the Middle East, even in the United States -- if we're going to understand it, then indulging my opinions is not going to help us very much.
And on a sort of daily methodological level, in writing every page, every paragraph, and sometimes even every sentence, I'd have to stop and ask myself, "OK, am I letting my prejudices, ideas, opinions impinge on what I'm writing here? How might I write this if I was completely objective?" And very often, I'd change the text. Very often, I changed the text.
The best compliments I've had from this book, Brian, have come from Arab scholars. And the reaction from the Arab world has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I've really had no negative reactions. I've been written about in the Egyptian press. I've been asked to interview on Al Jazeera. I've given lectures at universities where Arab scholars were present -- at Oxford and at Harvard recently. It's been very -- it's given me a tremendous amount of satisfaction, that reaction.
LAMB: By the time you got to the '67 war, how many wars had Israel fought in?
OREN: As I said, the '67 war was Israel's third war. Sometimes it's referred to as the third Arab-Israeli war.
LAMB: What were...
OREN: In 1948, which was Israel's war of independence, the 1956 war, which was Israel's -- the Israel's call the Sinai Campaign, the Arabs call it the Tripartite Aggression. It's one of the things about total war -- we even have different names for our war. The Arabs call the 1948 war the "Nakba," the "disaster," all right? But this was -- this was not a disaster for the Israelis. It was Israel's war of independence.
The '67 war is called by the Israelis the Six-Day War. It's referred to in the United States as the Six-Day War. But the Arabs take great umbrage at that term. It simply means, "Oh, the Israelis beat you in six days." I actually used it once accidentally in an interview with a Jordanian -- former Jordanian general. He almost ended the interview right then, he was so insulted. They prefer to refer -- they refer to it as the "setback." They have a number of euphemisms for the war, but mostly they refer to it as the "June War," sort of an anodyne term.
LAMB: After the '67 war -- and of course, we'll go back to it -- but how many wars have there been since '67?
OREN: Well , we even count the wars differently. The Israelis identify a War of Attrition which broke out along the Suez Canal shortly after the end of the Six-Day War and continued to August 1970, in a United States-brokered cease-fire. And then there was the 1973 war. The Arabs refer to the -- the Egyptians, in particular, refer to the '67 war, the War of Attrition and the '73 war as one long war, all right? The '73 war is called -- known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War. In Egypt and the Arab world, it's either referred to as the October War or the Ramadan War.
June, 1982, the Lebanon War, which in one way or another continued until May of 2000. And the Gulf war, which wasn't exactly an Arab-Israeli war but it had, certainly, an Arab-Israeli component to it, as I mentioned earlier. And now we've had the outbreak of two intifadas, if you can say those words in the plural, the first from 1987 to 1992, and the last from September 2000, to the present.
LAMB: By the way, how many Americans are living in Israel and have dual citizenship?
OREN: You know, I don't know. It's probably around 70,000 to 80,000.
LAMB: Go back to '48 for a moment. When did the UN declare Israel to be a country?
OREN: The decision of the -- the UN came on the 29th of November, 1947, when the UN General Assembly voted to create a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, to partition Palestine into two states, all right? Upon this declaration, the Palestinians declared war on the Jewish half. That effort was frustrated ultimately by Jewish defense. And when the partition resolution came into being on May 14th, 1948, seven Arab armies invaded the new Jewish state, the nascent Jewish state, in an effort to prevent its emergence. And that was all -- that effort was also rebuffed.
LAMB: What was the size of the Jewish state after the vote in the UN and they partitioned it off?
OREN: Let me -- well, I'll rephrase the answer a little bit. The Jewish state that emerged as the state of Israel at the end of the war of independence, at the beginning of 1949, was 30 percent larger than the Jewish state created by the UN in November of 1947. The Israeli forces had succeeded in pushing the Arabs back. Now, the Israelis had conquered no sovereign Arab territory, but that 30 percent would have been part of the Palestinian Arab state, had that state, in fact, come into being. As it happened, the area that was supposed to -- that had been earmarked for the Palestinian state was taken up by Israel, by Jordan, which annexed the West Bank -- the West Bank was supposed to have been part of that Palestinian state -- and by Egypt, that occupied -- which occupied Gaza strip.
LAMB: So Israel didn't have Gaza, didn't have the West Bank.
OREN: Did not.
LAMB: What part of Jerusalem did they not have?
OREN: They did not have the eastern part of Jerusalem.
LAMB: Did they -- what about the Old City?
OREN: The Old City was part of East Jerusalem.
LAMB: And that didn't belong...
LAMB: It belonged to Jordan.
OREN: That belonged to Jordan. Jordan annexed it -- by American terms, annexed it illegally. The annexation of the West Bank and Jerusalem was recognized only by two states in the world, by Britain and Pakistan.
LAMB: Now, how long did that Israeli state stay together until it was -- I mean, in '56, what was that war all about?
OREN: The '56 war was about, on the Israeli side, the fear that Nasser had become a proxy of the Soviet Union, had acquired mass amounts of Soviet arms.
LAMB: He was the head of Egypt.
OREN: He was the head of Egypt. And he had been sending Palestinian guerrillas -- fedayeen, as they were called then -- to attack deep within Israel, and it was only a matter of time before Nasser used this massive Soviet weaponry in an offensive war of destruction. And Israel sought to launch a preemptive strike. It found an opportunity in the Suez crisis.
You recall that Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July, 1956. Britain and France, as the principal shareholders in the Suez Canal Company, tried to negotiate through American mediation a solution to the Suez crisis. When no solution could be found, Britain and France elected to retake the canal by force of arms and enlisted Israel's help in that effort. So Israel saw an alliance of convenience between Britain and France and herself and launched this war.
LAMB: I want to just show on this map here -- where the lines, the diagonal lines -- one at the bottom is the Sinai. And then over here is the Gulf of Suez. Just for the audience to look around and see where Jordan is located. Jordan used to control that area right there in the middle of Israel, which is the West Bank. And then you have Syria up at the top, and Lebanon.
The '56 war lasted how long?
OREN: Well, for the British and the French, it lasted about -- about three days. The Israelis, it continued a little bit longer, about three, four days, because Israel started -- it -- the French -- Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal really occurred on the 3rd to 4th of November, 1956, and Israel had launched its attack already on the 29th of October.
LAMB: Who was in charge then? Who led the country in '56?
OREN: David ben Gurion was the prime minister, and the chief of the Israeli army, chief of staff, was Moshe Dayan.
LAMB: And where were people like Ariel Sharon? Were they still involved in that action?
OREN: Oh, sure. Ariel Sharon was involved in a very controversial action. Oh, this gets complicated, Brian! As part of the deal between -- with Britain, France and Israel, Israel was to create a forward feint at the Suez Canal by dropping paratroopers in and around the Mitla Pass. Mitla Pass is the great pass that leads from Sinai, the interior of Sinai, to the canal zone. Britain and France would then issue an ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt, saying that in order to protect the canal, Britain, Israel and Egypt were to remove their forces from the proximity of the canal within 24 hours. It was assumed by the planners of this rather arcane operation that Egypt would reject the ultimatum and that Britain and France would then use that as a pretext for reoccupying the canal in order to protect it. And -- welcome to the Middle East!
The Israeli commander of the paratroopers, the founder of the paratroopers, who parachuted into the Mitla Pass was none other than Ariel Sharon. And to this day, there is a controversy over whether Sharon moved his troops -- exceeded his orders by moving them into the Mitla Pass and engaging a far superior Egyptian force, and in the process, incurred a great number of casualties. The greatest number of casualties in the entire war were from the Mitla Pass operation. And to this day, it's a point of controversy in Israel.
LAMB: How old would he have been then?
OREN: He was a young man. He was in his early 30s.
LAMB: Some of the other personalities involved -- Yitzhak Rabin -- where was he in '56, leading up to the '67 war?
OREN: Yitzhak Rabin was a commander in the north of Israel. He wasn't involved in the war.
LAMB: Where was Moshe Dayan?
OREN: Moshe Dayan was the chief of staff.
LAMB: Where was Golda Meir?
OREN: Golda Meir was a Labor Party functionary. I believe at that time she was the foreign minister.
LAMB: Where was Levi Eshkol? And who was he?
OREN: Levi Eshkol was the finance minister.
LAMB: In '56?
OREN: In '56.
LAMB: Who were some of the other leaders?
OREN: Who were around at that time?
OREN: Abba Eban. Abba Eban was the -- had a dual capacity as Israel's ambassador both to the UN and to the United States.
LAMB: Was his name really Aubrey Solomon?
OREN: It was. Still is.
LAMB: He's still alive?
OREN: He is.
LAMB: He was born Aubrey Solomon.
OREN: He was.
LAMB: This is Abba Eban.
LAMB: In Capetown, South Africa.
OREN: Right. And his wife still calls him Aubrey.
LAMB: When did he change his name?
OREN: He changed his name when he moved to Israel, as so many people do. Most of the people like Moshe Dayan, David ben Gurion, Golda Meir -- these weren't their original names. The notion was to Hebraicize one's name, to make immediate contact -- connection between the Israeli Zionist present and the ancient biblical past.
LAMB: What was Golda Meir's name, do you remember?
OREN: Golda Meyerson. David ben Gurion was David Green.
LAMB: And he was from where, originally?
OREN: From the Ukraine, from Eastern Europe.
LAMB: Where was Yitzhak Rabin from? Was he a sabra?
OREN: Rabin was a sabra. He was a native-born Israeli. He was the first native-born Israeli
LAMB: Ariel Sharon -- where was he from?
OREN: Ariel Sharon is from Russia originally. He still speaks Russian.
LAMB: And Moshe Dayan?
OREN: Did you know that Ariel Sharon speaks Russian? Not great Russian, but passable Russian.
LAMB: And Moshe Dayan was from where?
OREN: Moshe Dayan was born in Nahalal in ….
LAMB: What about Shimon Peres?
OREN: Shimon Peres is from Poland. Still has a Polish accent on his Hebrew that is often the butt of humor in Israel.
LAMB: What was his original name?
OREN: It's a good thing I remember these things, as a good Israeli should.
LAMB: Yeah, you're doing good here. OK, some of the -- we're leading up to 1967.
LAMB: By the way, did Israel win '56?
OREN: Israel won the '56 militarily. There is a pattern always in Israeli military, diplomatic history that Israel wins wars militarily but cannot necessarily win them diplomatically, politically, all right? Certainly, this was the case in 1948. In 1948, Israel won an overwhelming victory over the Arabs, and yet it didn't secure the one thing that most victorious countries achieve in war. It didn't achieve peace. Didn't end the state of war. In 1956, Israel decimated the Egyptian army, decimated the Egyptian air force, and yet did not achieve peace again. In '67, one of the great military victories in all history, all right, in terms of the amount of material lost by the Arabs, the men lost, the territory sacrificed by the Arab forces -- it was just an overwhelming victory. Did Israel achieve peace in 1967? No.
LAMB: So the -- actually, as you read your book, you get to day one. I mean, you break it up eventually. And day one takes right off from the first paragraph. I mean, it was interesting. Up until then, it's a history.
LAMB: And then, boom, you're in the middle of a war. I mean -- and you say by 7:30, close to 200 planes were aloft.
LAMB: So what, again -- June 5th, 1967 -- how big is the Israeli military?
OREN: The Israel military -- about 100,000, 125,000 men, 200 aircraft...
LAMB: And what kind of aircraft were they?
OREN: Mostly French aircraft.
LAMB: No American aircraft?
OREN: No, no, mostly Mystères and Mirages.
LAMB: And what about the...
OREN: …. jets.
LAMB: Did they -- I thought -- I thought I saw a reference to Patton tanks.
OREN: There were a small number of Patton tanks. It was the first American-Israeli arms deal. They sold Patton M-48 tanks. But Israel had a limited number of them. The largest M-48 tank force in the Middle East was the Jordanian army, which was almost completely built around the M-48. They had about 240 of them.
LAMB: Who started...
OREN: That was the most advanced tank at the time.
LAMB: Who started the '67 war?
OREN: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind, Brian, that this is a war that nobody -- very few people wanted and nobody anticipated.
LAMB: Who's prime minister?
OREN: Prime minister is Levi Eshkol.
LAMB: Who is the defense minister?
OREN: The defense minister is Levi Eshkol as well up until a few days before the war when Moshe Dayan is brought in as the defense minister.
LAMB: And what had he been doing?
OREN: He had been in an opposition party to the government with Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion had broken away from the Labor Party to form his own party and had been a very vituperative, acerbic critic of the Israei government of Levi Eshkol.
LAMB: Was it a coalition government?
OREN: It was a coalition government but not with Ben Gurion in it.
LAMB: Who was the chief of staff of the military?
OREN: The chief of staff of the military was Yitzhak Rabin. There were some very prodigious personalities in this government. There was the National Religious Party, which today is, by the way, is a pretty outspoken right wing party. Then it was an outspoken left wing party. There was the ….. the Kibbutz Party that was in many ways so far left wing it came around and was right wing, sort of labor hawks.
LAMB: So let's go over them quickly. Who ran Jordan?
OREN: King Hussein.
LAMB: Who ran Syria?
OREN: There was a triumvirate of what they called the doctor's government because they all had doctorates in psychology or philosophy but there was a Ba'athist regime, a radical Marxist regime that had a front of a civilian government but behind it was a military junta in which the principal figure was Hafez al-Assad.
LAMB: And his son now is in control?
LAMB: And King Hussein's son is now in control?
LAMB: Who ran Saudi Arabia?
OREN: Saudi Arabia was run by the Saudi Family. There was King Saud.
LAMB: Did they get involved...
OREN: And Assad.
LAMB: Did they get involved in the '67 war at all, the Saudis?
OREN: They sent a force to the border saying that they were going to join the war and then they didn't join the war.
LAMB: Who ran Iraq?
OREN: Secretly they were telling the Americans, "we hope the Israelis get rid of Nasser."
LAMB: Who ran Iraq?
OREN: Iraq was also run by a Ba'athist regime. It was President Aref who is no more, a radical. The Arab world was divided between conservatives and radicals, the conservatives being the monarchies, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf States, and the radicals being Egypt, Syria, and Iraq and Algeria.
LAMB: Where was Arafat?
OREN: Arafat was running an organization called Al-Fatah which remains his basic organization today.
LAMB: Living where?
OREN: He was operating out of Damascus at the time and he was conducting terrorist operations against Israel with the specific objective, a long-term objective of creating instability in the Middle East and dragging the whole area into war. I opened this book, a discussion of the '67 war with Al-Fatah's first terrorist operation against Israel on New Year's Eve 1965. It was an abortive operation and then I show how a series of these attacks led to an escalation of tensions in the Middle East and eventually succeeded in plunging the region into war, far beyond expectations of even the Syrians who were promoting these operations.
LAMB: Now you mentioned Nasser earlier. Where was Sadat?
OREN: Sadat was an underling of Nasser. He was the spokesman of the National Assembly, a person not highly regarded in Egypt, though he did have a key role in the outbreak of the Six-Day War. On May 11th and May 12th, Sadat had been sent on a state visit to North Korea. Remember Egypt at this time is a radical state. They have connections with North Korea.
On the way back from North Korea, Sadat pays a courtesy call to Moscow and there he is told by Soviet leaders that the Soviet Union has learned of an impending Israeli invasion of Syria.
LAMB: Who's running the Soviet Union?
OREN: The Soviet Union is also run by a triumvirate. This is a day of troikas. There was Podgorny, Brezhnev and Kosygin and there were tremendous divisions between them but in the Brezhnev camp there was an interest in lessening pressures on North Vietnam, which at that time was being bombed by the United States by fomenting a crisis in the Middle East.
LAMB: So as Sadat lands in Moscow in May of 1967, what is the readiness of the Israeli army at that point and the air force?
OREN: Not very ready.
LAMB: I mean you would have been at your desk at the...
OREN: No, the reserves haven't been called up. There's general tension in the area particularly with the Syrians. The Syrians had been firing on border settlements in northern Galilee. They Syrians had been attempting to divert the Jordan River before it reached Israel and to really dry up the Jewish State by diverting this river and Israel had responded to this project by bombing the Syrian earth work projects.
LAMB: Who controlled the Sea of Galilee at that time?
LAMB: So it was not a part of...
OREN: The Syrians were only ten meters off on one part of the eastern shore and it was not uncommon for Israeli fishing boats to be shot at or shelled. There were a number of incidents. There was constant tension on the northern border but the estimate of Israeli intelligence, which had such a high reputation, was that war in the Middle East would not break out for at least another three years. Nobody foresaw the war.
LAMB: And it ended up breaking out June 5th, right after the May visit of Sadat.
OREN: Right. Well, Sadat arrives in Moscow and the Soviets tell him that there's this plan by the Israelis to invade Syria, to capture Damascus the Syrian capitol. Sadat goes back and tells this to Nasser. Nasser sends his chief of staff Fawzi to Damascus to see if there's any evidence of this. See the Soviets had told Sadat of between 13 and 15 Israeli brigades massing on the northern border. So Fawzi lands in Damascus.
LAMB: Northern border of?
OREN: Of Israel on the southern border of Syria, and Fawzi goes to Damascus and very quickly ascertains from the Syrians that the Syrians know nothing of this. The Syrians aren't on alert. He actually takes a small plane up to look at the border, doesn't see any Israeli forces massing there and he reports this to Nasser. Nasser decides for political reasons to ignore the advice of his chief of staff and to act as if the Soviet warning is true that Israel indeed intended to invade Syria and he send his entire army into Sinai, sends 100,000 men into Sinai, a thousand tanks.
LAMB: And the Sinai is about how far from Jerusalem if you got in a car and drove?
OREN: If you got in a car and drove it would be about five hours.
LAMB: And if you got all the way to the end?
OREN: The closest point is about two and a half hours, take it back.
LAMB: How long does it take you to drive across to Sinai?
OREN: Sinai is like about four or five hours from tip to tip.
LAMB: So now Mr. Nasser sends the troops up to the border of the Sinai?
OREN: On the long Israeli border.
LAMB: Along the Israeli border?
OREN: Yes. Yes. Now the question is...
LAMB: Sinai is controlled by the Egyptians?
OREN: Right, but at the end of the 1956 war in return for Israel's withdrawal from Sinai, Sinai was also taken by the Israelis in '56, the United Nations put in a UN peacekeeping force into Sinai. The United Nations Emergency Force, UNEF.
LAMB: How many men?
OREN: At that time about 15,000 and Nasser when he begins to send forces into Sinai informs UNEF that they're going to have to leave.
LAMB: How can he do that?
OREN: Because Egypt's rights, vis-à-vis UNEF, were very ambiguous. Dag Hammarskjöld who was really the architect of UNEF in 1957, early 1957, described the arrangement as the Good Faith Agreement, that is essentially the UNEF was situated on sovereign Egyptian territory. It was there at the discretion of Egypt.
Once Egypt decided to oust UNEF, it certainly had a sovereign right to do that, but before it did that, it was understood that Egypt would first inform the General Assembly that there would be a General Assembly discussion about whether UNEF had fulfilled its historic mission.
Now Nasser ignored that part of the Good Faith Agreement and simply informed the UNEF that they had to leave. Now the secretary general of the UN was U Thant at the time and rather than raising a protest to Nasser’s precipitous move, he immediately acquiesced and ordered UNEF to remove itself.
LAMB: You imply that U Thant, was he a Burmese?
LAMB: Who was head of the UN or secretary general?
OREN: Secretary General.
LAMB: Was a weak character?
OREN: I don't think he was the strongest character in the world. I think that was the understanding of the United States as well.
LAMB: Had Dag Hammarskjöld been a strong character?
OREN: He had been a much stronger character, very dominant character.
LAMB: So you have - and what kind of a - let me jump off track just a second here because you got some interesting personal stuff. You say, I mean you talk a lot about Nasser and his chief of staff.
LAMB: That at one point in this whole thing that they contemplate suicide or at least Amir contemplates suicide.
OREN: The relationship between - Amir is the de facto head of the Egyptian army, Abdul Hakim Amir. Nasser is the president of Egypt. He is by any other terms he's a military dictator. He came to power in a military coup and he has been the unchallenged leader of Egypt since the Egyptian revolution in the early 1950s.
But Amir begins to acquire power beginning in the late 1950s, early 1960s. He becomes the commander of the army and the army is the base of power for this military regime. He acquires all sorts of other titles. By 1966, he's also the head of the Egyptian Soccer Federation. He acquires considerable wealth and influence.
And, Amir and Nasser have this extraordinarily complex and convoluted relationship. On one hand, Amir poses the greatest threat to Nasser's rule. He is Nasser's most bitter political rival. On the other hand, Nasser and Amir are best friends. They live next door to one another. They go on vacations together. Their families marry with one another. They have nicknames for each other and they love each other.
So you have this strange mixture of fear and affection and it greatly confuses Egyptian decision-making. I'll give you just one example. About the question of UNEF, we talked about the UN forces before, Nasser wanted UNEF to pull back from the border and to remain in Sharm el-Sheikh. Now Sharm el-Sheikh is an area of the Sinai Peninsula that overlooks the Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Red Sea.
Those straits had been blockaded to Israeli shipping. If you look on a map, Brian, you'll see that the Red Sea leads up to Israel's southern port of Eilat, and from Eilat, Israel could reach the ports of Asia and Africa, and once you sealed off those straits, those straits were only about a mile and a half wide, Israel was effectively blockaded from the sea and that was an act of war under international law as well. It's a casus belli, a reason for going to war.
Nasser did not want the UN forces to be moved from Sharm el-Sheikh because he knew that once they were removed from Sharm el-Sheikh he, as an Egyptian, would not be able to sit there and watch Israeli boats pass by. He would have to blockade those straits again and that could cause a war. So he sent instructions to his officers, who were to meet with the heads of UNEF, telling them we want you to move back from the border but we want you to stay in Sharm el-Sheikh. We also want you to stay in Gaza.
Amir changed the orders. He changed the orders for personal reasons. He actually was interested in precipitating a war with Israel so he could regain some glory that he had lost in the '56 war. He changed the orders and we know this for a fact now. We actually have the protocol of the meeting that the Egyptians who came to the UN, the UN forces in Sinai said, "we need you to pull out entirely from Sharm el-Sheikh, from Gaza." At the same time, Amir sent Egyptian paratroopers to occupy Sharm el-Sheikh. Once he did that...
LAMB: Where did you find this information?
OREN: We found this information in the UN archives. UN archives also operate according to the 30-year rule. They're in terrible disarray. There are thousands upon thousands of documents in stacks on the floor.
OREN: At the UN archive on 29th Street.
LAMB: In New York City?
OREN: In New York City, and you sit there and you sift through these and you eventually come up to reports from the field. I received them from Egyptian sources, from memoirs of the officers involved, from Egyptian documents that existed in one particular archive in Cairo, the …archive, and a very interesting source for me - I also rely heavily on oral histories, and I really went around...
LAMB: Which you did?
OREN: Which I did in most cases. I didn't go to Syria, I'll tell you.
LAMB: That's the only place you didn't go?
LAMB: You went to Jordan, went to Egypt?
LAMB: Did you go to Saudi Arabia?
OREN: No. There were no interviews in Saudi Arabia.
OREN: Only the three countries in which interviews took place in the Arab world are Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.
LAMB: And you didn't go to Syria?
OREN: No, I had an assistant go to Syria. It's a little problematic. I could as anAmerican citizen but...
LAMB: Because you're a Jew? Is your assistant a Jew also that went to Syria?
OREN: No, but not because I'm a Jew because I'm an Israeli.
LAMB: Any Israelis go to Syria?
OREN: There have been Israelis go to Syria on foreign passports but it's risky. Why risk it? And, I have an excellent assistant.
LAMB: How many oral histories did you capture?
OREN: There's a long list there. I think there's maybe...
LAMB: A hundred?
OREN: Close to 100 maybe.
LAMB: And over what period of time?
OREN: In the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union, over three years, the former Soviet Union, in the United States, in France.
LAMB: Over how many years did you do this?
OREN: Three years. It was a three-year project.
LAMB: And you finished this book when?
OREN: The beginning of this year. I finished this book just around September 11th.
LAMB: Of 2001?
LAMB: OK. I want you to skip some of this personal stuff. Time goes by so fast in this. You learn in here that Yitzhak Rabin, who is the chief of staff of the army, had a nervous breakdown?
OREN: He did, physical and nervous breakdown, yes.
LAMB: Did he ever admit this?
OREN: Eventually he did, yes.
LAMB: And when did he have this?
OREN: He had it about a week into the crisis, a week after Egyptian forces enter Sinai and a week after the Egyptians evicted UNEF.
LAMB: But before the June 5th attack?
OREN: Well before, two weeks before.
LAMB: You also learn that Moshe Dayan had a nervous breakdown in the '73 war?
OREN: In the '73 war he did, yes, very similar to Rabin's.
LAMB: Did he admit that?
OREN: He basically had it very publicly. It was difficult to not admit it.
LAMB: And what does it look like, a nervous breakdown, for both of these gentlemen?
OREN: Well, with Rabin it happened behind the scenes. Nobody saw it. He just simply disappeared for 36 hours. Dayan had been interviewed on TV and was semi-comatose in '73. It was quite clear the man was going through severe emotional stress so it was very difficult to disguise it.
The rumor was put out that Rabin had suffered a bout of nicotine poisoning and only many years later, he came out and said that the pressure on him, I think this comes out in the book, that this just indescribable pressure on Israeli leaders in the period leading up to the war, as they try to find a way not to have a war. Everyone was struggling not to get a war. It just became insufferable.
LAMB: Well go back to Nasser for a minute. How long did he live?
OREN: Nasser lived until September of 1970. He negotiated a cease-fire in the Jordanian Civil War with the Palestinians called Black September, and then he died, but he was already an ill man by 1967. He suffered from severe diabetes.
LAMB: How about Amir, when did he die?
OREN: Well, that's an issue in Egypt to this day.
LAMB: Did he try to commit suicide?
OREN: The official version is that he tried - that he committed suicide in August of 1967 after he tried to launch an abortive coup against Nasser. Anti-Nasser forces in Egypt today will tell you that Amir was assassinated, Amir was executed by Nasser, and it remains a point of contention within Egyptian society.
LAMB: We need to close the loop on Sadat's meeting in the Soviet Union.
LAMB: When he went to meet with the Soviets, they told him that the troops were on the border. Did he come back, did Sadat come back and what did he tell Nasser?
OREN: He told him just what the Soviets said, that the Soviets expect Egypt to come to Syria's aid.
LAMB: What was Nasser's relationship then with the United States?
OREN: Very, very tense, as bad as it could be. Nasser had come to blows almost with President Johnson. Nasser attacked Johnson repeatedly orally in his speeches to the point that Johnson suspended shipments of U.S. wheat to Egypt, and a large portion of the Egyptian population was sustained by U.S. wheat shipments. Johnson cut it out.
LAMB: How much money at that time was the U.S. giving Israel or giving Egypt?
OREN: Israel, several million. There was very little aid, mostly loans.
LAMB: It's not the $3 billion and everything like it is now?
OREN: That started much, much later.
LAMB: So there is so much here.
LAMB: You can't even begin to get to. I need to get from you, though, the first day of this war, what happened? June 5th, what happened and what was the extent of the deaths and the destruction?
OREN: What's interesting here, Brian, is that what later became the Six-Day War was conceived by the Israelis as a two-day war with very limited objectives. The objectives were to knock Nasser down a couple of rungs, first of all by eliminating his air force, which was the cream of the Egyptian military, limiting the air force, and then by taking, conquering the first of three defensive lines that the Egyptian army had set up in Sinai. That's all.
No taking the entire Sinai Peninsula, no occupying Gaza, no reaching the Suez Canal, no seizing the Golan Heights, no taking the West Bank, and no entering Jerusalem, east Jerusalem. All of that happened in an unexpected, unanticipated way, and to me that's the fascinating part of the war. How did this war snowball into an event that has had this immense impact on us all? And each stage of that war that was unanticipated is a story unto itself.
LAMB: So, on the day that it started...
LAMB: ...when was the first indication that people either in Israel or in Egypt knew that this thing was underway?
OREN: Well, Israel devised a military plan which was ingenuous and in daring and borderline insane. The Israelis determined to send their entire air force, with the exception of eight planes, on a massive attack, surprise attack against the Egyptians.
LAMB: So, we're talking about 200 planes?
OREN: Two hundred planes all at once. In the book, I refer to it for American readers and Israelis will never understand this, as a Hail Mary play, right?
OREN: And the attack was coordinated at a time in the morning when Egyptian pilots had just finished their morning patrols. Their dawn patrols were coming in for coffee. They were sitting down for coffee. Their plan was to destroy first of all the runways, not the planes, so the Egyptian planes could not take off, essentially that they'd be bottled on the ground.
I interviewed the former chief, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, Moti Hod, and said to me that a plane in the air is the most devastating combat tool, but on the ground it's completely defenseless, and it was true. They developed special bombs, called Durendals that penetrated the runways with a retro rocket and blew up huge holes. Some of them were on delays too so the Egyptians never knew when they were going to blow up and they weren't prepared when they blew up.
So once the runways were destroyed, all of these Egyptian planes, Soviet supply planes, MiGs, Tupolevs, were trapped. They were sitting ducks quite literally and then the Israeli planes, mostly using canons and rocket fire not bombs, destroyed these planes one after another.
The Egyptians had never bothered to put them under canopies, concrete canopies. They were all out on the runways completely exposed. So within about two hours, Israel had destroyed well over 300 planes, so it was the largest single aviation victory in military history.
LAMB: How many planes did Egypt have?
OREN: About 400. They ultimately lost all but a handful.
LAMB: And on this day that it starts, are the Jordanians ready to go?
OREN: No. Here's what happens then. There's a ground - Israeli ground forces also move to take that first line of defense and Israel sent a letter to the Jordanians. Israel at that time had a pretty open connection with King Hussein. In his rhetoric, Hussein could be as anti-Israel as anybody but secretly he was meeting with Israeli emissaries. He had open communications to the American and British embassies.
The Israelis sent a warning saying: "Listen, this is between the Egyptians and us. Stay out of it. You stay out of it and nothing will happen." But Hussein had a terrible dilemma. He was afraid if he stayed out of it then the Arab world would accuse him of treason and they'd kill him. So he had invited the Egyptians to command his army.
He put his army under Egyptian command and the Egyptian commanders had received word in Cairo that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed, that the Egyptian ground forces were proceeding toward Hebron and therefore the Jordanian forces were to enter the war immediately.
So Jordan opened fire on west Jerusalem. It shelled Jerusalem massively. It shelled the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Jordanian planes strafed lower Galilee, and when Israelis began to fear that the Jordanian army was going to move into west Jerusalem, as it had in 1948, that's when they struck back. That's when they began to strike back on the West Bank and Jerusalem and that's how that stage of the war started.
LAMB: How bad did they hit Jordan, the Israelis?
OREN: No, they hit the Jordanians. The Jordanians, by the way, fought very valiantly, in many cases to the last man, the last bullet but eventually Israeli forces overwhelmed the Jordanians and they took the West Bank, and in a very bloody battle, they took east Jerusalem.
LAMB: What kind of planes were the Jordanians flying?
OREN: Jordanians had Hawker Hunters, British planes most of which never got off the ground.
LAMB: What about the Syrians? Were they flying...
LAMB: So they were flying Russian planes?
OREN: Russian planes.
LAMB: You were flying, the Israelis were flying French planes?
LAMB: And the Egyptians were flying Russian planes?
OREN: Russian planes.
LAMB: There was one point early in the history of all this, you say the Russians were very pro-Israel, then they totally flipped?
LAMB: What year did they do that?
OREN: They flipped, I actually have a date, 1953 they flipped.
LAMB: What was the reason for it?
OREN: Well, essentially because the reason was that the initial motivation for Soviet support for Israel was no longer relevant. The Soviets had supported the creation of Israel as a way of dividing the British Empire in half. Remember the British in the 1940s had their forces along the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal was the largest British base in the world. The British were also in Jordan. The British were in the Persian Gulf.
A British officer in 1945 could get in his jeep and drive from Egypt through Iraq and still be within a British sphere of influence, so the easiest way to put a wedge through the two halves of the British Empire was to create a Jewish State right in the middle. And if you look on the map, again you'll see strictly the negative desert divides Egypt from Jordan and Mesopotamia, Iraq.
So they supported and by 1953 Israel was an accomplished fact. Clearly the Soviets had more to gain from the Arabs. The United States had become very dependent on Arab oil and many Arab regimes were then, there was a tremendous political upheaval in the Middle East. There were coups every week and many of these coups were like the Ba'athist in Syria and Iraq were pro-Soviet. So it became natural for the Soviets to support these regimes.
LAMB: We only have a couple minutes left and I want to make sure we get to the end of all this. In the end, there were what, a half million Arabs that had troops involved in all this. How many of them died?
OREN: Between 15,000 and 20,000 Egyptians died, several thousand Jordanians, a thousand some couple hundred Syrians. The Syrians were the least scathed in this combat. They were the principal factor for precipitating the war and they pretty much stayed out of it to the last day when Moshe Dayan decided to take the Golan Heights as well.
LAMB: How many Israelis died?
OREN: Between 700 and 800.
LAMB: How many planes were lost?
OREN: Twenty percent of the Israeli Air Force was lost. In spite of this tremendous victory, Israel also paid a very, very heavy price. Many planes were lost.
LAMB: So when this war was over in six days, why do you say again this is such an important war and it still resonates today?
OREN: Well, as I said earlier, because the map had changed, all right. First of all, you had a relationship between Israel and the United States that didn't exist before and that was to play a central role in Middle East politics since then and continues to this day to play that role.
Nasser was finished. Moreover, not just Nasser the individual, but the idea of Nasser that there was going to be a nationalist Arab movement that was going to unite the Arab world, that was debunked. Now there would have to be a new idea and that idea, that idiom was going to be Islamic and not nationalist.
The Arab regimes were sick and tired of the Arab-Israel conflict. Let's give it back to the Palestinians. Let the Palestinians fight their own fight from now, and that's when you have Arafat emerging. And then, you have the physical reality that was different. Israel had more than tripled its size in six days, extraordinary, and Israel had the means now to bargain for peace.
November, 1967 a few months after the end of the war, the UN passes Resolution 242, which implies a deal of territory for peace, which remains the basis for all Middle East mediation to this very day. That was the document. This is the founding document and Israel was later to get a peace treaty with Egypt by giving back the Sinai.
If Israel is to have a peace treaty with Syria, it is because Israel conquered the Golan Heights in '67. And even if there is to be a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it will be a basis of a territorial deal that arose as a direct result of the '67 war.
LAMB: You told us that you're still in the reserves and you have a son now who is how old that's in the reserves?
LAMB: Is he on active duty?
OREN: Very active duty.
OREN: I don't know. He serves in the elite, very elite unit and I don't know where he is.
LAMB: How many people in Israel are under arms right now?
OREN: We have - well the actual numbers of our standing army is a state secret. It's large, several hundred thousand all together with the reserves. Israel can field an army of several hundred thousand people.
LAMB: By the way, are the Israeli-Arabs in this army?
OREN: There are Israeli-Arabs who serve in the army. They are under no obligation to serve. There is only one non-Jewish population in Israel, the Druze, who have volunteered to be drafted beginning in 1956. But there are great numbers of Bedouins, Israeli Arabs, both Muslims and Christians who serve in the army, and Circassians serve in the army.
LAMB: Do you still, by the way, have an American citizenship?
OREN: I do.
LAMB: We're out of time. We got a lot more we could talk about but "Six Days of War" is the title of the book. Our guest has been Michael B. Oren, who is both an American and an Israeli citizen, and we thank you very much.
OREN: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2003. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.