Michael Oren: Newly de-classified documents debunk claim that Israel sought '67 War





[Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."]

Great wars in history eventually become great wars about history. Only a few years after the last soldier leaves the battlefield, accepted truths about the nature of a military conflict and the motivations for it invariably come under assault by revisionists and counter-revisionists whose vehemence can rival that of the original combatants.

This again becomes the case with the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Confronted with a harsh economic blockade, military pacts between heavily armed neighbors for the express purpose of aggression against Israel and hundreds of thousands of enemy troops actually massed on its borders, it would have been the height of irresponsibility for Israel's government not to plan for pre-emptive action. The picture that emerges is one of a country and leadership deeply fearful of military confrontation, and desperate to avoid one at almost any price.

Few of the historiographical struggles are as bitter as the one now being waged over the Arab-Israeli wars, in which a force of self-proclaimed "new historians" has laid siege to previously unassailable descriptions of the creation and survival of the Jewish state.

The unusual ferocity of the debate over Arab-Israeli history is directly related to the singularly high stakes involved. The adversaries are not merely vying for space on university bookshelves, but grappling with issues that have a profound impact on the lives of millions of people: Israel's security, the rights of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem. The new historians make no attempt to disguise their agenda.

Published by leading academic presses and widely acclaimed by reviewers, the radical interpretations by the new historians have largely supplanted traditional Zionist histories. This success would not have been possible without the diplomatic documents made available at various government archives under the 30-year declassification rule allowing access to previously classified material that is observed by most Western democracies.

Papers released by Britain's Public Record Office and the United States National Archives, for example, provide fresh insights into the diplomacy of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in relation to the Arab countries, whose archives remain closed indefinitely. But when it comes to Arab-Israeli history, no collection can rival the Israel State Archives, which in addition to the wealth of firsthand accounts it contains, is particularly liberal in its declassification policy.

These documents — tendentiously read and selectively cited — have been marshaled to substantiate the most radical of revisionist theories about the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Sinai Campaign. With the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War now upon us, the same methodology is again about to be applied to smashing the "myths" of 1967.

The historical controversy over 1967 is especially brutal. The belief that the Six-Day War was imposed on Israel by an alliance of Arab states bent on its destruction — and that Israel's conquest of territories was the result of its legitimate exercise of the right to defend itself in a war which it did everything in its power to avoid — has been sacrosanct for Zionists across the political spectrum. That the final disposition of those territories continues to be the focus of Israel's internal political debate and of ongoing international negotiations makes the 1967 war a hugely inviting target for radical reinterpretation....


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