Interview: Michael Oren Discusses His New Book "Six Days of War" and the Events Leading Up to Today's Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Fresh Air: June 11, 2002

Writer Michael Oren


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Earlier, we spoke with writer and Palestinian human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh about what his life has been like in the West Bank town of Ramallah since the Israeli incursion. My guest, Michael Oren, is an Israeli historian who has written a new book about the Six Day War. In this war, Israel captured, among other territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Oren's book is called "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." He's American born and moved to Israel shortly after the Six Day War. He has served as director of Israel's department of interreligious affairs in the government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and as an adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. Let's start with how life in Israel has changed in the wake of the suicide bombings.

Mr. MICHAEL Oren (Author, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East"): Well, on one hand, we go about our normal daily activity. We go to restaurants. We go to movie theaters. Our kids go to school. It hasn't curtailed our usual routine. On the other hand, we're always aware of the dangers, and we're always weighing the dangers. So if you go to a certain restaurant that has been in the proximity of suicide bombers in the past, you think twice about going there. And you're very curious to see what kind of security arrangements they have. Many restaurants in Jerusalem today have security guards, have gates where they can buzz you in.

I also have a son who's in the army, and I don't necessarily know where he is in any given time. Just this week, when there were 13 soldiers killed in a suicide car attack against a bus, for many, many hours of panic, we didn't know where he was, whether he was among these soldiers. So it's a constant source of anxiety and a factor for rapid aging.

GROSS: How do you feel about his being in the army now?

Mr. Oren: Where he is in the army, I feel good about it. I know that he feels good about it. I know he's not confronted with moral dilemmas. He feels very strongly about what he's doing. I feel a certain kind of onus in the sense that I moved to Israel. I was raised in the United States. That was my decision. He was raised as an Israeli, so what for me was sort of voluntary and optional is for him obligatory and a national commitment. And there's a certain amount of onus in that.

GROSS: Do you think that the Israeli incursions into the territories are an effective way of stopping the terrorist infrastructure?

Mr. Oren: Oh. Well, first I don't think you can stop the terrorist infrastructure. I don't think anybody reasonably thinks that you can stop terrorists solely through military means. Certainly the United States government doesn't feel that way in its war against terror. Obviously the only long-term solution to terror is a diplomatic political solution, and the only people who can really stop terror, ultimately, are the Palestinians themselves. This doesn't mean that military responses to terror cannot contribute to lessening the terrorist phenomena, can reduce the number of suicide bombings, simply make their work difficult for them.

I think it's also important for a sovereign state that when its citizens are attacked, when they're injured, the sovereign state responds in some forceful way. Again, the American paradigm is very relevant here. America, in striking back at Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, wasn't under the illusion that somehow this would kill al-Qaeda, but it would certainly send a message to people who support al-Qaeda in the world that if you are a regime that's going to give shelter to these type of terrorists, then there's a price to pay. And it's very important that Israel also exact a price for terrorist attacks.

GROSS: There's a counterargument that goes like this, that Israel's incursions in the occupied territories are creating more suicide bombers because the suicide bombers--it's so both low-tech and free-lance you don't need a big infrastructure, you don't need a lot of long-term planning. So the more angry young people there are amongst the Palestinians, the more potential suicide bombers there are, and Israel has created a lot more angry young people. Your reaction to that argument?

Mr. Oren: Well, I understand the argument, and there is certainly an element of truth in it. However, it's a situation that we've faced since our creation in 1948. We've experienced terror--almost daily basis. People have a very short historical memory. As an historian I chronicled terrorist attacks virtually from the day of Israel's creation. And what's going on today, and perhaps its degree, is more intense, but certainly the number of terrorist attacks--and I recently wrote this book on 1967, and in the months before 1967 there were hundreds of terrorist attacks. And if Israel never responded, it has never been proven that that lack of response to terror would somehow reduce the terror. On the contrary, that maintaining an element of deterrence has proven effective in reducing the number of terrorist attacks. I stress reducing and not eliminating.

In the immediate aftermath of Israel's Defensive Shield operation there was a radical fall-off in the number of terrorist attacks. And terrorists who have become prisoners to Israel, have failed in their suicide attacks, have talked about the difficulties, the tactical and logistical difficulties, they've had in mounting these attacks since Israel's recent operation.

I wish, Terry, we could speak in absolutes, that I'm saying if Israel retaliated, then the terror would stop. But we are deeply into the area of gray where things are not necessarily always black and white.

GROSS: Do you feel you can justify putting an entire population basically under solitary confinement for the duration of the incursions?

Mr. Oren: Well, I think we're placed in a position as a society whereas we may be very uncomfortable with this, and no one likes being in the position of occupier, that we really have no choice. We didn't bring this upon the Palestinians. The Israeli perception is the Palestinians brought this on themselves, that Israel made an equitable offer to the Palestinians back in 2001 at Camp David and then at Taba(ph). The Palestinians responded with terror, with violence. And this has forced us to clamp down on the Palestinians in a way that nobody really enjoys, but we really have no choice.

I served in the Rabin administration in the earlier half of the 1990s, and there was a significant amount of terror then as well, several hundred Israelis killed. People forget that during the Rabin period. And that is when Israel began to close off and put up Palestinian cities, began to limit the number of workers who came into Israel, established checkpoints. And it was always a very painful, difficult decision 'cause we had embarked on what we thought would be a process, ultimately, of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinian people. It didn't happen. It is unfortunate.

GROSS: You served in the Israeli army during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Mr. Oren: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You've written about that a little bit, and you say, `If it came down to a choice between upholding Israel's higher moral standards or returning home to my new wife, which would I pick?' When did you have to make that choice? Talk a little bit about the dilemma that you faced.

Mr. Oren: Well, Israel faces a dilemma. The Israeli soldier faces a dilemma in going into an Arab town where he knows there are snipers, he knows there are gunmen. And most armies in the world, and I include the United States under that rubric, will send in its bomber forces, B-52 bombers, and level the city. This is why the United States had no major casualties in Kosovo or in Afghanistan. Israel army puts a high...

GROSS: Wait, wait. Let me stop you for a second. 'Cause I think...

Mr. Oren: Hmm?

GROSS: ...the United States made a point of trying to not attack civilians in those bombings. Whether they were successful or not, that was the official strategy.

Mr. Oren: Always you try to avoid civilian casualties in the United States Army and in the Israeli army. The question is the degree to which you're willing to risk your own soldiers' lives...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK.

Mr. Oren: protect civilian lives. And I do not think--and correct me if I'm wrong--that the United States sent in ground forces into Kosovo into civilian areas. They preferred to bomb from 35,000 feet. And there were several thousand civilians killed as a result of that. Those civilian deaths, I would imagine, could have been severely reduced, significantly reduced, if the Army had gone house to house rather than bombing from the air. This is what Israel chooses to do.

GROSS: So what was the specific dilemma you faced when you were in the military?

Mr. Oren: Well, I was often in a Jenin-like situation. I went through many villages in Lebanon where there were snipers, where snipers were causing casualties to our men. I was often a target of them. And there's a tendency while you're sitting, you know, under a collapsed building with your head down--'cause you can't keep your head up for more than a second, and you're there for hours--you say, `Well, why don't they call in the air force? Why do we have to do this?' And at that point your military education kicks in and you recall why you have to do that, because this is what we're about. This is what we're about as an army; it's what we're about as a society.

GROSS: My guest is Israeli historian Michael Oren, author of a new book about the Six Day War. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Oren. He is an Israeli historian. He's lived in Israel for about 25 years. He was born in the United States. And he's the author of the new book "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

Let's talk a little bit about your book. The '67 War is the war in which Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Oren: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so a lot of the conflict now dates back to that '67 War. What questions did you set out to answer when you undertook writing this history?

Mr. Oren: Well, here's a war that was very short, very limited in its geographic scope. And I can think of very few examples in history where such a limited, intense conflict had such profound regional, and even global, ramifications over the course of now 35 years. We're dealing--not just in the Middle East, but throughout the whole world we're dealing with the outcome of this war. And, indeed, every major even that has occurred in Arab-Israeli relations since '67--you know, the Yom Kippur War, the war of attrition, the Lebanon War, the peace process, the whole question of Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem--all of that is an outcome of these six intense days of fighting. So the question I set out to answer was: How did it happen? How did we get from there to here?

I was fortunate because at the time that I started writing many Western archives that observe what's known as the 30-year rule. After 30 years they begin to declassify formerly top-secret documents, began to release these documents. And I was able to gain access to tens of thousands of these papers. And that significantly changed certainly my interpretation of the war, things I never imagined. It was quite an eye-opener.

GROSS: Give us an example of one of the documents that changed your interpretation.

Mr. Oren: Well, there was a--for a long time in the history field there was an assumption that the Arab calls for war against Israel, President Nasser saying he was going to destroy Israel, other Arab leaders saying they were going to throw the Jews into the sea, was really only so much rhetoric, and the Arabs really never had any operational plans. And going through the documents, both Israeli and Arab, I began to come across actual operational plans by the Egyptians to launch a surprise attack against Israel, an air and ground attack, on May 27th, 1967. That's about nine days before Israel launched its surprise ground and air attack.

And then there's the whole story about why this attack didn't take place. It was a complete fluke. It was the Israelis operating on a hunch, telling the Americans that really in the night between the 26th and the 27th, that they think that the Egyptians are going to move. The Americans, President Johnson, informed his counterpart in the Kremlin, Kosygin, who, in turn, sent his ambassador to wake up Nasser in the middle of the night and said, `Don't you dare.'

And on the basis of that threat, Nasser canceled the operation. Now had that operation gone off, the Middle East would have looked very different than it would look today.

GROSS: One of the contested issues about the 1967 War is: Was Israel's strike against the Egyptian army an act of aggression or an act of self-defense? With the documents that you've uncovered, how would you answer that question?

Mr. Oren: I think the '67 War was largely a case of misperceptions and miscalculations. We know now from Egyptian records that Nasser didn't exactly want to go to war, even in spite of his often bellicose rhetoric. What he wanted to win was a bloodless political victory.

On the Israeli side one was hard-pressed to try to convince Israeli leaders that Nasser's warlike rhetoric was only just that, rhetoric, and that he didn't mean to do exactly what he said. Moreover there are Arab armies gathering on all of Israel's border, not just on the Egyptian border--on the Jordanian border, which is Israel's longest and most vulnerable, and then on the Syrian--army from the Golan Heights. And then there were Arab contingents arriving from 21 Arab states. So there was a tremendous sense of war frenzy in the Arab world. Israeli leaders were uniform in thinking that if they don't act quickly and act first that the future survival of the state was indeed in jeopardy.

GROSS: After the war ended and Israel was left with new territories, including the West Bank and Gaza, was there controversy within Israel about what to do with that land?

Mr. Oren: We have to recall that what later became known as the Six Day War was originally conceived by the Israelis as a 48-hour limited operation that really only had two objectives: to eliminate the Egyptian air force in a surprise attack on the ground and to neutralize the first of three Egyptian defense lines in Sinai. That's it. No conquering the whole Sinai Peninsula, no taking Gaza, no seizing the West Bank and Jerusalem, no capturing the Golan Heights.

How the war got out of control, how it snowballed from that original plan, is a compelling story. It represents a big chunk of what my book's about, and it's one of the major questions that I sought to answer. In the aftermath of the war, on June 19th, 1967, less than 10 days after the cease-fire, the Israeli government voted to return all of Sinai and all of the Golan Heights in return for full peace treaties with Egypt and Syria. Well, that offer was effectively rejected by the Arabs when they met at their summit meeting in Khartoum at the beginning of September, where the Arabs voted no peace, no negotiations, no recognition of Israel. So Israel's initiative was stillborn then.

One of the major revelations of the book is the secret Israeli plan, in the summer of 1967, to canvass Palestinian leaders in the West Bank regarding the possibility of creating an autonomous Palestinian entity that could possibly evolve into an independent Palestinian state. Eighty Palestinian notables were interviewed that summer, as I said, secretly, about the possibility and each of them came back, more or less, with the same answer. They said, `Gee, you know, we'd really like to be autonomous. We'd love to be independent someday. But if we make a treaty with Israel at this time, Arab radicals will kill us. We'll get a bullet in the head.' So that initiative also withered on the vine and never got anywhere. But it's interesting that 35 years ago Israel was dealing with questions of Palestinian statehood, Palestinian autonomy and independence. And a great opportunity, I believe, was lost.

GROSS: Would you argue, after writing this history, that it would have been in the Arab states' best interests to recognize Israel after the Six Day War in an exchange of land for peace?

Mr. Oren: It's easy to operate in hindsight. The Arab world in 1967 was, in many ways, a different world than it is today, and there was a different dynamic. I believe that many Arab leaders--King Hussein, for example, and even Nasser at certain times--were genuinely interested in reaching some type of accommodation with Israel. An earlier research that I did was on the secret peace process between Egypt and Israel in the 1950s. Between 10 and 15 years before '67, Nasser was secretly writing letters to Israeli leaders and saying, `Listen, I'd love to make peace with you, but if I do they're going to chop my head off, so I can't do it.'

Unfortunately, the dynamics and the environment in the Middle East hadn't changed significantly in 1967 and Arab leaders could not come out publicly and say they wanted peace. That dynamic began to change with Sadat's historic visit to Israel in November of 1977, and that has really opened the way to a peace process, which, though, it has had many vicissitudes and many pitfalls, today still remains the only real show in town.

GROSS: What are some of the ways that you think Israel's victory in the Six Day War and Israel's occupation of the territories that are conquered changed Israel?

Mr. Oren: Well, it changed Israel. It changed the entire Middle East. People tend to forget that the Six Day War was fought by Israel with French arms, not with American arms, and there had not been a strong or close strategic relationship between Israel and the United States before that. Ben Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel, never once set foot in the White House. As a matter of fact, only one Israeli prime minister, the Prime Minister Levi Eshkol during the war, visited the White House approximately once for one hour before 1967. After 1967, the United States began to view Israel as a strategic asset and began to develop a defense relationship with it. And that has become a predominant factor in Middle Eastern politics today. And that really began with '67.

It is also--the '67 War also brought, for the first time, Palestinian populations in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel proper together under one rule--under Israeli rule. And it had the tremendous impact of developing and formulating a Palestinian identity. It also--the war also heralded the end of Arab nationalism in its purest form, Nasserism, as the predominant political idiom in the Middle East and opened the door for the development of Islamic ideologies which today predominate. And it also ended the Arab-Israeli conflict as an intrastate conflict--principally a conflict between Israel-Syria, Israel-Jordan, Israel-Egypt and began the development of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's not by accident that in 1968 the PLO, which had really been a shadow organization before the war, emerges as a serious force in Arab politics and that Arafat takes over that organization in 1968.

But more to the point it created a division with Israeli society that has widened over years, that really for the last 30 years, the major issue dividing Israelis has been the future of these territories almost to the distraction of any other issue--our economy, our society, religious, secular relations. And in that way the impact of '67 was deleterious and was injurious to Israeli society.

GROSS: Michael Oren is the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

Coming up, Geoff Nunberg reflects on the expressions `moral equivalence,' `moral relativism' and `moral clarity.' This is FRESH AIR.

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