It is no surprise that any book about events in the Middle East attracts vastly contrasting views in different reviews, especially when – as in this case – the author is a former official in the Israeli government. However, the critics of the book – who claim it is heavily pro-Israel – left me puzzled by the time I reached the end, as its detailed and clear accounts of events leave the reader with plenty of material with which to criticise the author’s own country.
Whether, for example, you think Israel was right or wrong to start the Six Days War, there is much in Oren’s account to bolster your view. If you start reading it without a clear view on the topic then neither does it bludgeon you into taking the same view as him.
That is not to say the book is flawless, for which book is? In this case, the main blemish is the way the account in the book simply reports at face value much of the rhetoric from Arab leaders about wiping out Israel. How seriously such rhetoric should be taken – whether the comments indicate real intent or traditional phraseology aimed at winning popular support – is of course a continuing matter of heated debate. For the comments of this ilk made in the run up to the June 1967 war, Oren alas does not give much in the way of other evidence to help the reader judge them.
Otherwise, for the Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian actions, Oren paints a nuanced picture of conflicting motives, disagreements amongst rulers and numerous shades of grey when it comes to judging their actions. The Syrians, by contrast, are the inscrutable, consistent villains of the piece. That is, however, in large part a side-effect of the absence of sources on the internal workings of the Syrian government. The result of this absence is that the sorts of disagreements and tensions portrayed elsewhere are simply not known about when it comes to Syria.
Yet where the book does have sources, it shines. Oren is particularly good at pointing out how the Egyptian and Jordanian governments ended up being fooled by their own propaganda, failing to seize early chances for a ceasefire or to make sensible military reactions because too many of their decision makers believed the stories of glorious victory being pumped out in their media when in fact they were suffering heavy defeats.
Yet the difficulty of knowing what to do even if you have accurate information is poignantly reflected in the book’s closing pages, which follow the key figures through later years. On the Israeli side, numerous figures were at various times in favour of strong military action and at others in favour of trading land and other major concessions for peace. There are some consistent hawks and doves, but for most either approach appealed at some point.
The printed version of book has a slightly disappointing range of photographs and a rather complicated and unhelpful set of maps, particularly as they do little to portray the geographic features such as the heights of the Golan Heights, which are so important to understanding the political tensions and military actions. Other than that, it’s a book I recommend highly.