Stumbling Decidedly into the Six-Day War

By Popp, Roland | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Stumbling Decidedly into the Six-Day War


Popp, Roland, The Middle East Journal


In the historiography of the 1967 War, the common reading is to portray it as an "inadvertent war." Using recently declassified documents, this article offers an alternative interpretation. In critically examining existing master plan theories, it is shown that the United Arab Republic's (UAR) military actions were limited in size and were without aggressive intentions. The Israeli decision to strike was taken not for military reasons but rather to prevent a diplomatic solution which might have entailed disadvantages for the Israeli side.

W hue the historiography of US involvement in the Middle East is not without controversy, no serious scholar would disagree with the notion that the year 1967 represented a watershed in the post-World War II history of the region. The Six-Day War of June 1967' resulted in far-reaching changes, which continue to affect Middle Eastern politics to this day. Israel's overwhelming military victory established it as a major regional power, dramatically changed the strategic setting in the Middle East, and escalated superpower confrontation in the region. The most conspicuous element of the new regional power configuration was Israel's territorial expansion. The new cease-fire lines established Israeli control over all of Mandatory Palestine together with the conquest of Syria's Golan Heights and Egypt's Sinai, thereby more than quadrupling the territory under Israeli control. The conquests also triggered a new debate inside Israel about the territorial aims of Zionism and the emergence of the settlement movement, resulting in a reshaping of the political landscape together with strong repercussions for the political culture inside Israel.2 On the international scene, the Six-Day War brought the Arab-Israeli conflict to the forefront of international politics. A further result of the war was that the hitherto informal alliance between the United States and Israel evolved into a "special relationship," although it was not formalized until 1981.3 In light of these dramatic consequences, it is certainly no exaggeration to regard the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 as the "great seminal catastrophe" of the recent history of the Middle East, to borrow the famous epitaph George F. Kennan coined for the First World War and its effect on European history.

Upon examining the historiography of the 1967 War, one finds another parallel to the Great War of 1914-1918. Mimicking the classical topos of the causes of the First World War, many scholars working on the events of 1967 also seemed to adhere to the view that the conflict was "inadvertent," that none of the opponents actually wanted war in the first place.4 Arabs and Israelis "stumbled into war" in the same manner as the European statesmen did in August 1914. A recurring theme in both revisionist and traditionalist accounts of the Six-Day War is the treatment of the war as a classic example of miscalculation and misperception in international politics.5 According to Benny Morris, the different initiatives taken by the conflict parties, which culminated in the war, were "in large part a product of error and mutual miscalculation."6 Another revisionist writer, Avi Shlaim, even approaches the traditionalist viewpoint in describing the war as a "defensive war," fought foremost for reasons of safeguarding Israeli security. Apart from this caveat, Shlaim also reiterates the common view that the 1967 War "was the only one that neither side wanted." The war resulted from a "crisis slide that neither Israel nor her enemies were able to control."7 It would appear that even more traditionalist scholars subscribe to this view. Avraham SeIa, while stressing the responsibility of United Arab Republic (UAR) President Gamal 'Abdel Nasser [Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir] for initiating the crisis, writes of a "rapid escalation to the brink of war and beyond, culminating in a total ArabIsraeli confrontation."8 The claim of an inadvertent war nobody wanted also resurfaces in the latest analysis of the clash of 1967 by Michael B. …

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