Michael B. Oren: Why Israel should bomb Syria

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author most recently of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press).]

Nearly 40 years ago, Israel and the Arab world fought a war that altered the course of Middle Eastern history. Now, as the region teeters on the brink of a new and potentially more violent cataclysm, it is important to revisit the lessons of the Six Day War, a conflict that few Middle Eastern countries wanted and none foresaw.

By 1967, ten years after the Sinai Campaign, the Arab-Israeli dispute had settled into an uneasy status quo. The radical Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser still proclaimed its commitment to liberating Palestine and throwing the Jews into the sea, as did its conservative rivals in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but none of these states made any attempt to renew hostilities. On the contrary, Egypt remained quiescent behind the U.N. peacekeeping forces deployed in Sinai, Gaza, and the Straits of Tiran since 1957. Jordan maintained secret contacts with the Israelis. Israel, for its part, had long learned to ignore bellicose Arab rhetoric and to seek backdoor channels to even the most vituperative Arab rulers. As late as April 1967, officials at Israel's foreign ministry were speculating whether Nasser might be a viable partner for a peace process.

But one Arab state did not want peace. Syria, then as now under the rule of the belligerent Baath Party, wanted war. Having tried and failed in 1964 to divert the Jordan River before it crossed the Israeli border--IDF jets and artillery blasted the dams--the Syrians began supporting a little-known Palestinian guerrilla group called Al Fatah under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. Using Lebanon as its principal base, Al Fatah commenced operations against Israel in 1965 and rapidly escalated its attacks. Finally, at the end of 1966, Israeli officials felt compelled to retaliate. But, fearing the repercussions of attacking Soviet-backed Syria, they decided to strike at an Al Fatah stronghold in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.

The raid unfortunately led to a firefight between IDF and Jordanian troops, and to Jordanian claims that Nasser had not done enough to protect the West Bank Palestinians. Desperate to restore his reputation, Nasser exploited a spurious Soviet report of Israeli war plans to evict U.N. peacekeepers. He closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, concentrated 100,000 of his troops along the Israeli border, and forged anti-Israeli pacts with Syria and Jordan. The Arab world rejoiced at the prospect of annihilating Israel, and even the Soviets, eager to find some means of distracting American attention from Vietnam, were pleased. Israeli leaders had no choice but to determine when and where to strike preemptively.

And so, suddenly and unexpectedly, a regional war erupted that the principal combatants--Israel, Egypt, and Jordan--neither desired nor anticipated. The lesson: Local conflicts in the Middle East can quickly spin out of control and spiral into a regional conflagration.

The lesson is especially pertinent to the current crisis. Then, as now, the Syrians have goaded a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, to launch raids against Israel from Lebanon. Then, as now, the rapid rise of terrorist attacks has forced Israel to mount reprisals. If the Soviets in 1967 wanted to divert America's attention from Vietnam, the Iranians--Syria's current sponsors--want to divert American attention from their nuclear-arms program. And once again Israel must decide when to strike back and against whom....

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    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    Unmitigated hot air that sidelines , thus totally ignoring, Israel's ever present expansionist designs best substantiated by its post 1967 annexation of Jerusalem, the construction of settlements on occupied territories, the ongoing construction of the land devouring Wall and its adamant refusal to return to 1967 lines.
    Banking on the short memory of the nonspecialist or the slightly interested is cheap , misleading PR; typical of Israeli propaganda masquerading as scholarship.