Recent interviews:

An Aesthetics of Inadequacy (May 30, 2002)
Alan Shapiro, the author of Song and Dance, talks about poetry as an expression of mourning.

Kyla Dunn: The Life (and Death?) of Cloning (May 22, 2002)
Kyla Dunn, the author of The Atlantic's June cover story, talks about the state of therapeutic-cloning research and why it should not be banned.

Alec Wilkinson: Relationships of Invention (May 15, 2002)
A conversation with Alec Wilkinson, whose new book, My Mentor, pays tribute to the pitch-perfect writing and abiding friendship of William Maxwell.

Atul Gawande: Under the Microscope (May 1, 2002)
Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a writer, talks about why he set out to demystify the world of medicine.

Steve Olson: History in a Cell (April 26, 2002)
Steve Olson, the author of Mapping Human History, retells the story of humanity—including the creation of different "races"—through the information encoded in our DNA.

Mark Bowden: It's Not Easy Being Mean (April 25, 2002)
Mark Bowden, the author of The Atlantic's May cover story, talks about the strange life of Saddam Hussein and why his downfall is inevitable.

Antonya Nelson: Angles of Prose (April 11, 2002)
Antonya Nelson, the author of Female Trouble, talks about her unsentimental take on the untidy worlds her characters inhabit.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Zion's Vital Signs" (November 2001)
A journey through modern Israel, where terrorism has been a fact of ordinary life for decades—and where ordinary life defeats terrorism. By P. J. O'Rourke

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "The State of Israel" (May 18, 1999)
Israel has rarely been free of political and cultural turmoil, as a look back at Atlantic articles from the past century reminds us.

Flashback: "Israel at 50" (May 1, 1998)
Atlantic articles from 1919 to 1993—including "The Kingdom of the Spirit," by David Ben-Gurion—trace the origins and history of the Jewish state.

Interviews: "A Century of Zionism" (November 1996)
The British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft takes stock of Theodor Herzl's "mad" idea.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Michael Oren's Six Days of War
Michael Oren's homepage includes excerpts from and reviews of Six Days of War, a biography of the author, links to some of his recent articles, and information on his book tour.

Atlantic Unbound | June 12, 2002
The Roots of Our Discontent

Michael B. Oren, the author of Six Days of War, talks about how a short but momentous conflict forged the modern Middle East


Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael B. Oren
Oxford University Press
446 pages, $30.00

n the spring of 1967, as war loomed and as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, armed with Soviet weapons, brimmed with confidence that their combined forces could crush Israel, the Israelis themselves were experiencing a strange dichotomy in their self-image. On the one hand, they felt that with the well-trained Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) they were "militarily invincible." Yet at the same time, they saw their tiny country as "mortally vulnerable" to the threats surrounding it. Because of this complex, Israel's prime minister at the time, Levi Eshkol, called his country "Samson the nerd." But in the war that began on June 5, when the Israelis mounted a surprise attack against Egypt's air force, Israel proved to be much more Samson than nerd.

Israel's original plan for the war was to destroy Egypt's air force and knock out the Egyptian army's first line of defense. But the IDF moved so quickly and encountered such weak resistance that the goal kept on changing. As Michael B. Oren points out in his new book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, none of the other territorial conquests of the war were planned—not the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, nor Jerusalem's Old City. And it was these unplanned conquests, which tripled Israel's size and left 1.2 million Palestinians under Israel's control, that created the conditions for the stand-off in today's Middle East. They also fundamentally changed the way Arabs and Israelis thought of themselves. For Israelis, and for the Jews of the Diaspora, the overwhelming victory let them "walk with their backs straight." For the Arabs, who had to confront the failure of Arab nationalism, the war planted the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism.

In writing Six Days of War, Oren conducted hundreds of interviews and pored over thousands of documents—many of them recently declassified—in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and English. His book offers not only a military history, but a diplomatic history of the war, drawing as complete a picture as is now possible of the machinations of each country's government. Most pertinent to today, though, is Oren's account of how a tense situation beween long-time enemies escalated into war through a series of missteps, miscalculations, and unexpected sparks.

Michael Oren was born in the U.S., but has spent twenty-five years in Israel, including time spent as a commando in the IDF during the 1982 war in Lebanon. He has a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies from Princeton University and served as the director of Israel's Department of Inter-Religious Affairs in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He is now a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he leads the Middle East history project,

I spoke with Oren by phone on June 4.

—Katie Bacon

Michael B. Oren
Michael B. Oren   

You have said, "I'm a Zionist; I've devoted my life to Israel. Still, I set out to write a thoroughly honest and dispassionate book." Could you talk about how you went about trying to achieve that balance? How did your strong feelings about Israel play into the writing of the book?

No one writes an objective book. In the postmodern period, there's a tendency to indulge one's prejudices in history. The assumption is that you can't be objective and that to claim objectivity is to be disingenuous. But I believe that balance is something you strive for in the way a mathematician will strive for absolute zero, knowing in advance that he can't ever achieve it, but that he can get closer to it. Since my objective was to understand the Six-Day War and to understand how such a profound event unfolded—an event that is so profoundly impacting our current world—for me to indulge my prejudices would have been counterproductive. And I really viewed those prejudices as obstacles to overcome when I sat down to write history. Every time I came to a document that could be interpreted one way or another, I had to ask myself, Am I interpreting this document in the most balanced way possible, or am I reading it as an Israeli? From the first to the very last page of this book it was a challenge. But some of the most gratifying feedback I've received on the book has been from Arab scholars. I've spoken at Harvard, at Oxford, and most recently at the Council on Foreign Affairs and the National Press Club, and there have been Arab scholars at all of these talks and the feedback has been very encouraging. Recently I was invited to interview on Al Jazeera. It was the highest compliment I could get. I finally made it. I made Al Jazeera!

It seems from what you say in the book that in the years following 1967 the war was an incredibly painful, off-limits topic for the Arabs, so Arab scholars must have waited a while before they started studying it.

Even now it's very painful. This was the Arab world's first major postcolonial crisis, and they didn't fare well in it. They had to come to grips with why the promise of national liberation failed, and that is a painful endeavor. By the way, I think it's a necessary endeavor. It is an essential step in both the political maturation of the region and toward some resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They also probably had to come to terms with the way their armies fell apart. Particularly given that they had so many arms from the Soviet Union, and were therefore well-prepared in a material sense, their defeat must have been a very hard thing to come to terms with.

From the archives:

"The Crash of EgyptAir 990" (November 2001)
Two years afterward the U.S. and Egyptian governments are still quarreling over the cause—a clash that grows out of cultural division, not factual uncertainty. A look at the flight data from a pilot's perspective, with the help of simulations of the accident, points to what the Egyptians already know: the crash was caused not by any mechanical failure but by a pilot's intentional act. By William Langewiesche
Because it raises fundamental questions about flaws in Egyptian society and the way it's organized. Some of those flaws were addressed by Anwar Sadat, because six years later the Egyptian army fared much better in the Yom Kippur War. But many of those problems remain endemic to the Arab world. So by facing up honestly to the '67 War, they begin the process of addressing these fundamental flaws.

What was the state of mind of Israelis as their country edged closer to war? In Egypt people seemed convinced they would win the war (and in the first few days mistakenly thought they were winning the war). Did Israelis have the same confidence?

I make the point in the book that Israelis suffered from this bifurcation in worldview—and by the way, they still do. It's the view that holds that "We are invincible. Our army is the most powerful army on the block. But we're also on the verge of annihilation." My favorite story is when Moshe Dayan first got appointed chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces in November 1953, and he traveled to the Pentagon in Washington, and they asked him, "What is your assessment? What will happen if war breaks out in the Middle East?" And Moshe Dayan said, "If war breaks out in the Middle East, Israel will be in danger of destruction and our troops will be in Damascus in eight days." In the same breath. To me this is the ultimate summary of the Israeli worldview.

There are so many fascinating characters who shaped the conflict—Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Hussein, Dayan, Levi Eshkol, Lyndon Johnson, and others. Is there anyone whose actions or personality surprised you once you were deep into the book?

There were two people. One of them was Prime Minister Eshkol, who turned out to be my hero. When you do research on historical figures, you get to know them intimately. You read their mail. And Eshkol was the person I hadn't known very well before this research. I came to see a person who was very much a leader for his time, and his model is very applicable for our time. He was extremely wise and had a wonderful sense of humor and was warm, but he had a terrific sense of prudence and knew when to use restraint and when to give up on restraint. He was not a charismatic leader. He wasn't a great warrior. He wasn't a great orator. These were the things that were valued by the Israeli public at the time. He had none of them. He did have a sense of what Israel needed to do to win the war, in order to maintain American support for the war. And he was proved right. Rehavam Ze'evi, who was assassinated about six months ago while he was Israel's tourism minister, was in many ways the man who planned the Six-Day War. He was the deputy chief of operations. I interviewed him about a week before he was assassinated. Here's a person who ideologically had very little in common with Eshkol—he was very right wing, Ze'evi—and he said to me point blank: "All of us were wrong and Levi Eshkol was right. He made Israel wait for those three torturous weeks until he was absolutely certain that he had convinced the Americans that the Israelis had done everything possible not to go to war."

The other person who surprised me was Lyndon Johnson. I grew up in a generation of Americans who reviled LBJ, who viewed him as the ultimate bad guy. But reading LBJ's mail, reading his protocols, reading thousands of documents related to him, I found a person who was first of all a very colorful personality, warm and engaging, with a good sense of realpolitik and how to achieve strategic balance in the world. He was a person who really wanted to do the best for the Middle East, whose heart was in the right place but whose body was bogged down in the quagmire of Vietnam. There were many tragedies around the Johnson Administration. The unsung one was that it couldn't stop the Six-Day War.

Do you think maybe he could have prevented the war if he had had more power to go to Congress and get them to support Israel? If his hands hadn't been so tied?

No question about it. It wasn't just a question of supporting Israel but of ending the crisis. He couldn't end the crisis. He didn't have the wherewithal. He wanted to challenge Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran, but he went to Capitol Hill and found no support. Even the most pro-Israeli senators—Robert Kennedy, Jacob Javitz—said, "Listen, with Vietnam we can't risk another military imbroglio in the Middle East."

Many people—not just Israelis—talk about the Six-Day War as a defining experience. What was your experience of the Six-Day War, hearing about it as a twelve-year-old in New Jersey?

Well, growing up in an American-Jewish community, there was a terrible sense in the period before the war that Israel was facing a second Holocaust, that nobody was going to do anything about it, and that we would just be forced to sit on the sidelines and watch this happen. There was tremendous depression and anxiety in the American-Jewish community. I remember it poignantly. And then, all of a sudden, there was this total switch from despair to jubilation as Israel won the war. A big turning point for me as a kid was watching my father come to the breakfast table with a copy of Life magazine. On the cover was a now-famous photo of an Israeli soldier chest-deep in the Suez Canal with a Kalashnikov over his head. I remember my father kissing this picture and saying, "See this? This is what we can do as a people." And I'm saying to myself, Gee, I want to be that soldier.

By the way, I later met the soldier in the picture. He became a famous general, and he happens to be a nieghbor of mine. An enigmatic guy to say the least. And I went up to him at a wedding and I said to him, "It's all because of you. It's because of you I'm in this place. It's because of you I went to war." And he stood up and he kissed me!

Could you talk about the time you spent fighting for Israel in the 1982 war against Lebanon? How did that experience inform the writing of this book?

Well, I had what I would say was extensive and rough combat experience in Lebanon. Beirut was decimated in the first couple of days of the war, and I spent a long time there. It gave me sort of a grunt's-eye view of military history, which is different from the overview. In writing my book I was determined to give the simple soldiers' view of the war, not just the commanders' and the politicians'. It also made me very much aware of what they call "the fog of battle"—that during battles people are operating in a milieu of confusion for the most part, and once that happens all sorts of outcomes become possible. I'll give you one painful example from the Six-Day War: the Liberty incident, in which the Israelis mistakenly fired on an American ship in the Mediterranean and killed thirty-four people.

Having been in battle I realize that soldiers three, four days into combat aren't thinking very clearly. From the Israeli point of view, they were not looking for an American boat off the shore of Gaza. There were reports of Israeli forces being shelled from the sea, there was a boat out there that was a military boat, not an Israeli boat, so they shot it. That's basically the Liberty incident right there. On June 8, 1982—fifteen years later to the day—I was with a group of Israeli paratroopers and Special Forces outside of Beirut. We'd just fought a pitched battle in the city and were on a ridge eating breakfast in broad daylight. Our vehicles were marked with big orange panels for aerial identification. And while we were eating breakfast a squadron of Israeli Skyhawks descended on the column and bombed it. I had a piece of a cluster bomb pass right over my head. Twenty boys were killed, blown to bits. I asked a pilot, How could that happen? He said, "First of all we don't see the orange panels, we're moving too fast. But you know, in the fog of battle you could easily mistake one column for another." It happens. In Vietnam in 1967 over 5000 Americans were casualties from friendly fire. In battle 20 percent of casualties from friendly fire is almost an acceptable rate. Having that kind of experience affected the way I wrote about the Liberty incident.

One of the things that most surprised me about your account of the war was how the Israeli government and the IDF really seemed to come up with a lot of their strategies on the fly. Many of their war aims changed and grew with the circumstances.

Yes. This has been a double-edged sword for Israel. One of the drawbacks of the Six-Day War is that Israel came to rely a bit too much on improvisation. And we've suffered from it ever since. Turns out you can't always do things on the fly. The Six-Day War was supposed to be the forty-eight-hour war that had as its goal the destruction of the Egyptian air force and the neutralization of the first of three lines of Egyptian defense in the Sinai. How that limited surgical strike snowballed into the conquest of all of the Sinai, the capture of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the seizure of the Golan Heights is a very instructive story.

What are some times when Israeli improvisation hasn't gone so well?

The Yom Kippur War. Lebanon. Certainly in the last year and a half, things have not always gone according to plan, or there is no plan. I say that the example of the Six-Day War is instructive because the same dynamic is visible in Israel today. Occasionally I do some work for an international consulting company in Washington, and recently they asked me to give them a worst-case scenario on the Middle East. In the scenario I came up with the Palestinians get "lucky." They don't blow up a bus, they blow up a schoolhouse, they blow up a refinery; and they don't kill a couple hundred people, they kill a thousand people. Then Israel responds massively in the West Bank and Gaza. Immediately Hezbollah begins shooting rockets into Israel. Israel retaliates against Hezbollah, and the Syrian army mobilizes. The Iraqi army starts moving through Jordan, then the Egyptians begin moving tanks into Sinai, and all of a sudden Israel is presented with the '67-esque question, Do we pre-empt? Nine weeks ago we came within a hair's breadth of that scenario. It was the Passover massacre. Israel responded with a defensive shield; Hezbollah began firing rockets. I'm actually watching this unfold. My scenario was informed by what I knew of '67, and here it was happening again. This time it was averted by the timely intervention of Colin Powell. That's what didn't happen in '67. But it shows you how the same thing can happen again. It happens so fast that very few people have time to react to it.

I'd like to ask you something about Ariel Sharon. You describe a vivid scene in which generals of the IDF are pushing Prime Minister Eshkol to attack Egypt, and Sharon comments, "All this fawning to the Powers, begging for help, undermines our case. If we want to survive here, we have to stand up for our rights." Do you think that Sharon's position in the current situation is in keeping with the attitude he displayed in 1967? What lessons should Sharon take from the 1967 conflict?

During the '67 War Ariel Sharon was telling Eshkol, "You've got to attack. You've got to attack immediately." Eshkol comes back and says, "No, we have to wait and convince the Americans that we've done everything possible to avoid this war, because we need the Americans, we've got nobody else." And what does Sharon do when he gets into power? Well, Israelis are getting blown up and people are pressuring him to respond, and he keeps on telling them, "Wait, we've got to make sure that the Americans are convinced that we've done everything to avoid a conflict." And he keeps on calling for a unilateral cease-fire. I can't think of any country when presented with the kind of casualty rate that Israel has been that would respond in such a restrained manner. Look at what the United States did in Afghanistan. Israel's casualty rate has been proportionately higher. We've lost the equivalent of 20,000 Americans. And we haven't laid Palestinian cities to waste with our air force. The question is whether at the end of the day Sharon will also provide what the Israelis call a "diplomatic horizon." That's something Eshkol did. He tried vigorously to turn the '67 victory into a political victory, a diplomatic victory. It didn't work at the time because the Arab world wasn't open to it, but he certainly tried. And for Sharon to remain in power, he has to convince the Israelis that he's offering them a diplomatic horizon.

The Likud party recently passed legislation rejecting a Palestinian state. There's a degree of foot-shooting there, because the Israeli public wants to hear that their leaders are offering some element of hope. Offering more than just continued violence. It doesn't even matter if it's an illusion, as long as it's a hope. Sharon hasn't done that convincingly yet.

Show them that there's light at the end of the tunnel?

At least show them that Israel is willing to hold up the light. Whether the Arabs will beckon to it is another question.

If Israel does offer a diplomatic horizon it could also affect world opinion.

It could. But world opinion is the secondary consideration. The first is what we're about. What is our vision of the future? No one's saying the Arabs have to accept our vision of the future, but we should be clear about what it is. Back in '67 and in the immediate aftermath it was much clearer. On June 19, less than ten days after the war, the Israeli cabinet voted secretly to give back all of the Sinai peninsula and all of the Golan Heights in return for full peace treaties with Egypt and Syria. They explored the possibility of creating an autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank, possibly leading to independence. Now, the Arabs at the time rejected it, but at least the government knew where it stood.

In the aftermath of the war you quote a White House lawyer who visited Israel and reported back to Lyndon Johnson that "The spirit of the army indeed of all the people has to be experienced to be believed." I'm wondering what the cultural effects—both short term and long term—were of the war.

A lot of Israelis would probably take issue with some of my conclusions in the book. The aftermath of the '67 war is remembered by Israelis for arrogance. It's thought that Israelis were so intoxicated by their victory that they possibly overlooked opportunities for breakthroughs for peace. That they laid the groundwork for the next war which was a disastrous war for Israel, the Yom Kippur War. I fully subscribed to that school until I went back and did the research. What I found was a far more nuanced picture. I found that along with arrogance—and there was arrogance, what with the Moshe Dayan key chains and victory cakes and things like that—there was a tremendous amount of introspection and a lot of people who had trouble with the extent of Israel's victory. I quote extensively from a book called The Seventh Day, which is all about kibbutz members talking honestly about their feelings about the victory and how deeply ambivalent they were toward it. And the British ambassador at the time, Michael Hadow, who was a pretty shrewd observer of Israeli politics—he in turn was disturbed by it. He said that there was something a little bit spooky about the way Israelis go off to war, win a huge battle and then go back to their lives as though nothing happened. No huge victory parades, no drunken celebrations in the street. It disturbed him to see this.

In the book you talk about how the war was to a great degree sparked by Arab nationalism, a movement that collapsed in the wake of the United Arab Republic's stunning defeat. Did the vacuum that nationalism left behind contribute to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?

No question. The subtitle of my book is "June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." How has it made the modern Middle East? The obvious answer is that Israel acquired all these territories that remain the point of controversy today. But there are actually more fundamental far-reaching changes that were wrought by the war. One of them was the death of Arab nationalism as the hope, as the uniting force, as the idiom of Arab politics. That died a cruel death. It was the primary victim of the war. What replaced it was Islamic extremism, fundamentalism, purism—whatever you want to call it.

The other impact was that the war transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict from what was principally an interstate conflict to much more of a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It thrust the Palestinian issue to the fore. It's not by accident that Yasser Arafat took over the PLO right after the '67 war and emerged as this major force in Arab politics. Before the war the PLO had been a front organization for Nasser, and Arafat was just a small-time guerrilla. But five years later he was recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

The last significant impact of the war was the birth of the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship. People forget that the Six-Day War was fought with French arms by the Israelis. The United States really didn't offer the Israelis anything. While there was a lot of sympathy in the White House, it didn't find concrete expression in terms of arms or economic aid. That all began around '67. The United States stepped in to fill the void left by France, which changed sides, as the French are wont to do.

Why did the U.S. decide to step in? Was it a strategic decision?

Everybody loves a winner, and the Cold War was on. Israel had dealt a painful blow to the Soviet Union and its proxies. Israel's currency was running high not just among Jews but among Americans in general. Supporting Israel was a popular thing to do.

The Six-Day War was greatly influenced by Cold War politics, with the Soviet Union supporting and arming the Arab nations, and the U.S. cautiously backing Israel. How has the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the resulting shifting of alliances affected the situation in the Middle East?

The '67 war, though it was a blow to the Soviet Union, actually sharpened the Cold War divisions there. It deepened Soviet involvement in the region because they began to sell all of this military equipment very quickly to rearm the Arab countries. There was even a theory that the Soviets liked what happened in '67, because they made millions on it. They had to replenish all these arsenals. But ultimately the Six-Day War proved to be the Soviets' undoing in the Middle East. Anwar Sadat came to power in September 1970, and by May 1972 he had kicked the Soviet advisors out of Egypt. He had already realized from the '67 war that the Soviet Union couldn't bring him what he wanted, and that was a political settlement. Only the Americans could do that. The Soviet Union was good for some military hardware but nothing else.

From the archives:

"Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War" (August 1990)
The conditions that have made for decades of peace in the West are fast disappearing, as Europe prepares to return to the multi-polar system that, between 1648 and 1945, bred one destructive conflict after another. By Jonathan Mearsheimer
Strangely enough, I kind of miss the old Soviet Union. There was a balance to the Cold War. There was a thing called Mutually Assured Destruction. We knew exactly what was unacceptable damage for the Soviets. They knew if they nuked New York, we would nuke Moscow. A very simple calculus. Today you have a more pervasive, more potentially destabilizing force in Islamic extremism that has access to unconventional weapons, and you don't know what their redlines are. You don't know what deters them. Those were the good old days when there was such a thing as a hotline. Who do you hotline after 9/11?

You talk often about Nasser's Big Lie—that British and U.S. fighter jets helped the Israelis destroy the Egyptian air force. What reverberations has that lie had in terms of Egypt's relationship with the U.S.—and in terms of how Arabs think about the Western powers?

It didn't have a major impact, because American-Egyptian relations were at such a nadir anyway. What does persist is the belief that Israel is basically a proxy for the United States, that Israel's power is a direct product of American power. Part of it is the reluctance of Arabs to actually admit that Israel has its own power. How else can a handful of Jews have such influence? It's a way of avoiding responsibility for the Six-Day War, and it's amazing how much that big lie is still believed in large quarters of the Arab world. I encountered it many times in my research. As a matter of fact, the last interview I conducted was with some Palestinian intellectuals, and the interview was so disturbing that I didn't include it in the book. They told me outright that not only had the British and the Americans flown sorties for the Israeli Air Force, but that British and French mercenaries were used to conquer East Jerusalem. Because the soldiers, they said, were blond-haired and blue-eyed and spoke French and English, and of course the Israelis were incapable of beating the Jordanian army. The big lie as a cultural facet is very much alive today in the Middle East. We saw it recently in Jenin, when it was said that thousands of Palestinians had been massacred. What was disturbing about that lie was not that the Palestinians resorted to it—that's pretty much daily fare for the Palestinian Authority. You often hear Arafat accusing Israel of using depleted plutonium and putting AIDS in wells and spreading diseases and all sorts of heinous things. What was disturbing about it was the way the world was willing to believe it. The world rushed to believe it.

I wonder if some of that had to do with the fact that the Israelis didn't allow the UN in there to check out the conditions. Do you think if the Israelis had allowed them in, people would not have rushed to that conclusion?

Ideally yes, but in practice emphatically no, because the UN would not have gone in and exonerated Israel. It was a foregone conclusion that they were going to go in there and find mass graves, because the Palestinians were going to provide them with mass graves. There was limited coverage in the United States, but one Israeli army camera caught a Palestinian funeral where the casket tipped over and the body got up and ran away. I saw it. It was pretty amazing. There were reports of them digging up bodies all over the West Bank to bring them into Jenin. The UN was bringing in these people who knew nothing about military operations, and it was pretty much a stacked deck. It was a case where Israel really stood by its guns, the United States backed Israel, and Kofi Annan backed down. He knew what was going to go on. If he had felt more justified in his position they would have raked Israel over the coals. They would have brought them up in front of the General Assembly, they would have passed sanctions. They didn't.

The Israelis ended the Six-Day War with much optimism and hope that they could trade some of the territory they'd won for peace with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Why do you think that promise has soured over the years? How do you think the search for peace could have evolved differently?

The one big myth that the Israelis brought into the war was that if we bop these guys hard on the nose and then we show them magnanimity, they'll accept us. This has been categorically untrue. We can give back territory to Egypt. We can give back territory to Jordan. We can offer to give back almost all the territory to the Palestinians. Israel gave back territory, literally answered all of the territorial demands of Egypt in the Camp David accords. It gave back territories to Jordan, it offered to give back 97 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, half of Jerusalem, plus some Israeli territory to the Palestinians. They still rejected it. Israel, in spite of its territorial magnanimity, remains fundamentally unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Arabs on the grassroots level. So Israel's assumption proved mythic.

How do you convince the Arab countries of Israel's basic right to exist?

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Islam" (December 12, 2001)
Is democracy compatible with Islam? Atlantic contributors from the early to the late twentieth century take up the question.
Well, then you've got to cure the Arab and American myths. The Arab myth was that you could have belligerency with Israel and deny your people democracy in the same breath. That you could funnel all the anger into the Arab-Israeli conflict and think that would do it. But what you saw very recently were riots in the Arab world directed at Israel that quickly degenerated into anti-government demonstrations. You can't keep the lid on.

The American myth is probably the most pernicious of all. That's the myth that if you browbeat an Arab and an Israeli leader into a room together and force them to sign on the dotted line and throw a lot of money at them, that somehow peace is going to trickle down to the general population. Peace will take root and flourish. But we know that is precisely the opposite of what happens. The very fact that the peace is imposed, the very fact that the peace is made with despotic leaders who benefit personally from these peace arrangements just contributes to the fact that they're fundamentally unacceptable to the vast majority of their constituents in the population.

How do you address all of these myths? I think you approach peace in a very different way. You approach peace first of all from the bottom up, by creating a climate for peace, whether it be through the Tenet Plan, or the Mitchell Plan, or other interim arrangements. You work to instill democracy in the Middle East, because democratic regimes rarely go to war against one another. You create confluences of interest between the Israeli middle class and the Arab middle class. You can impose a Palestinian state right now, but the Palestinians will say, "You imposed this on us, so it has no legitimacy." You can't impose a flimsy structure on a rotten core.

So this is a very long-term, slow solution.

There is no peace now. There's no quick fix. That need for instant gratification, for peace now, I understand it. I want it. God, I want it. But I don't believe it's going to happen. It took Europe a thousand years to get where it is today. Very recently Europeans were slaughtering each other by the millions. And even more recently still, not all Europeans agreed that democracy was the way to go. Let's cut the Middle East a little slack. History is telescoping, it's moving faster with technology. I'd like to think that twenty years down the line we might have something. By the way, I think that the call for democratization within the Palestinian Authority is potentially one of the great historical events in the Middle East, because if there's a Palestinian democracy created in the middle of the Arab world, it will reverberate profoundly throughout the area. The Syrians will say, Look, those Palestinians have the vote, how come I don't have the vote? The Egyptians will say, Wait, those Palestinians can criticize their government, how come I can't criticize my government? I think the greatest danger that a Palestinian democracy would face would be from Arab regimes.

They would feel threatened by it.

Oh, boy. And how. Israel would be put in the very ironic position of defending the Palestinian democracy. That would be an interesting thing to write about.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katie Bacon is an editor of The Atlantic Online. Her most recent interview was with Steve Olson.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.