“History is written by the victors,” the famous dictum goes, except, apparently, when it comes to BBC’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen’s “Six Days that Changed the Middle East,” a fortieth anniversary retrospective of the Six Day War broadcast in May 2007 on BBC News Radio 24 and on June 4-10 on BBC Radio 4, is a case in point. As with Bowen’s recent online article about the Six-Day War (for information on that article, click here), the radio series revises history, ignoring documented facts to paint the Arab states as victims of Israel’s alleged expansionist ambitions.
According to Bowen, Israel exploited Arab bluster and blunders to implement longstanding plans to expand its territory. Bowen discounts the reality of a beleaguered Israel facing an existential threat and identifies the “occupation of Arab lands” as the major historical outcome of the war. His designation of disputed territories as belonging de facto to the Arabs is indicative of his biased perspective.
Airing Arab Revisionist Claims
Bowen unquestioningly accepts the assertions of Arab officials that their leaders really didn’t mean it when they threatened to eliminate the Jewish state. After briefly recounting the events leading up to the war, Bowen turns over much of the lengthy series to claims by various officials that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his cohorts never intended to go to war. Jordanian official Zaid al-Rifai is heard claiming, “I am sure they [the Israelis] knew very well that the Arab countries were not preparing for war and that they were not going to be attacked.” Rifai later reiterates, “They were not interested in finding a way out. They had planned and prepared for this war for some time…. They knew the Arab side was not going to attack.” Bowen accepts Rifai’s interpretation of Arab intent despite the 1967 pronouncements by Nasser, Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad, PLO leader Ahmed Shukheiry and other Arab leaders who publicly pledged to annihilate Israel.
Elsewhere in the broadcast, Bowen referred to supposed “overwhelming Western support” for Israel. By echoing this Arab complaint, Bowen misrepresents the facts. The Western governments did little to help Israel. In fact, France imposed punitive measures by curtailing weapon deliveries to the Jewish state. On the other hand, the Soviet Union played a direct role in supporting the Arab states.
Justifying Jordan’s Entry into the War
Bowen justifies King Hussein of Jordan, belying the King’s own account of the war. The BBC editor asserts that Hussein “believed he had no option but to fight” and attacked only because “he was convinced Israel would find a reason to attack, no matter what he did.” But in his eagerness to cast blame on Israel, Bowen did not bother to prepare himself with the facts. Had he read King Hussein’s own memoir, he would have realized his defense of the monarch was misplaced. In his memoir, “My War with Israel,” Hussein recounts the lead-up to the war:
… we received a telephone call at Air Force Headquarters from U.N. General Odd Bull. It was a little after 11 A.M. The Norwegian General informed me that the Israeli Prime Minister had addressed an appeal to Jordan. Mr. Eshkol had summarily announced that the Israeli offensive had started that morning, Monday June 5, with operations directed against the United Arab Republic, and then he added: “If you dont intervene, you will suffer no consequences.” By that time we were already fighting in Jerusalem and our planes had just taken off to bomb Israeli airbases…
Cherry Picking Quotes
In contrast to his portrayal of the Arabs as non-belligerent, Bowen depicts Israelis as war-mongerers, intent on “inflict[ing] the defeat they had been planning since the early ’50s, rather than allow any Arab success — bloodless or bloody.” To support his statement, Bowen carefully selects the quotes he repeats. To give the impression that the Israelis were eager to find an excuse to attack the Arabs, Bowen repeats an alleged discussion between Israel’s Mossad director, Meir Amit, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan confirming that Israel had received a “green light” from Washington to attack. Several times, he quotes Dayan urging his generals to ignore diplomatic niceties and attack. What Bowen fails to mention is the intense diplomatic effort launched by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to avoid war by garnering international pressure on Nasser to reverse his aggressive acts in the Sinai.
Misrepresenting the Balance of Forces
To dispel what Bowen labels the “myth of 1967” -namely, that the “Israeli David slew the Arab Goliath”– Bowen omits the facts that contradict his thesis. For example, he does not cite the balance of forces at the start of the war–the Arabs had a 4:1 advantage in aircraft, a 3:1 advantage in tanks, a 4:1 advantage in regular troops and a 15:1 advantage in population. He also tries to diminish the extent of the Israeli victory by reporting, without citing a source, that approximately 5000 Egyptians were killed or wounded in combat. This is a far lower estimate than any provided by historians Michael Oren, Nadav Safran, Eric Hammel and others, who cite figures of 10,000 to 15,000 Egyptian combat deaths with an additional two to three times that number wounded.
Repeating Unsubstantiated Accusations of War Crimes
Bowen charges Israel with being guilty of indiscriminate violence. He repeats unsubstantiated accusations against Israel, while ignoring official repudiations of these charges. For example, he repeats an allegation by an Israeli far-right extremist, Arieh Yitzhaki, that Israel executed 900 Egyptians and Palestinians after they surrendered. But there has never been reputable evidence that this was true.
In his discussion of the mistaken Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, an American naval ship collecting intelligence on the Sinai’s Mediterranean coast, he cites the allegations of survivors and anonymous “veterans of the Johnson White House [who] believe Israel knew exactly what it was doing.” Bowen neither names the “veterans” nor does he mention the six U.S. government committees of inquiry that found no evidence to back these allegations.
Distorting the War’s Aftermath
Bowen portrays Israel as intransigent and unwilling to make the gestures necessary for peace after the war. He quotes Jordan’s Prince Hassan as saying, “It became perfectly clear that every single peace mission from Jarring onward was going nowhere. Golda Meir made that very clear, that they were there to stay.” But in fact, the peace mission by Gunnar Jarring, a Swedish UN envoy, formed the basis of UN Resolution 242 which was signed by Israel, Egypt and Jordan, but not by Syria. Bowen also includes King Hussein’s post-war statement to the United Nations in which he condemns Israel and warns that the UN should not “permit the aggressor to use the fruits of its aggression to gain the ends for which he went to war.” However, he omits mention of the Khartoum Declaration, in which the Arab participants replied to the proposition of peace with Is rael, with their famous “three no’s” – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with it.
The Results of the War
Bowen proclaims that Israel still occupies all (with an emphasis on the word “all” ) the land it seized that week in 1967 except for Egypt’s Sinai Desert. He does not bother to explain that the Sinai Desert represents 89 percent of the land taken in the war. Moreover, he insists that Israel still occupies Gaza, despite its evacuation of the territory two years ago. Bowen’s depiction of the situation adheres completely to the Arab position.
But it is about the West Bank and East Jerusalem that Bowen is most dishonest. In the first segment of the series, he states, “In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it [Israel] has settled more than 400,000 settlers in defiance of every interpretation of international law other than its own…” He repeats this statement in the last segment as well. Either Bowen is unfamiliar with, or does not acknowledge, the opinions of former U.S. Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, and Professor Julius Stone, an expert on international law and jurisprudence. They maintained that Israeli settlements were indeed legal under international law.
Bowen does include plenty of discussion about the “occupation” and its impact on the Palestinians. Several Palestinians are interviewed at length, each with a story about Israeli brutality, indiscriminate shooting and villages destroyed. He gives no attention at all to the riots and violence against Jews who lived in Arab countries as a direct result of the 1967 war.
To support his argument that the main result of the war was the imposition of Israeli occupation rather than Israel’s survival as a Jewish state, Bowen attempts to deny Israel’s security gains. He insists that the “fruits of Israel’s victory… has made Israel less secure.” According to his perception, “Israel continues to settle its people on occupied land. One of Israel’s justifications for settlements has been security. There is plenty of evidence that the occupation has weakened the army and made its citizens’ lives more dangerous.” The facts indicate the contrary. The small Israeli population suffered heavy civilian losses as a result of Arab terrorism in the immediate years after its founding. Even though there was more terrorism in the first few years after the Six Day War, the terrorist risk ultimately decreased. Between 1967 and 1992, the incidence of Israeli civilian deaths due to terrorism decreased to 0.83 per 100,000 population per year from 1.21/100,000 from 1950 to 1967. (Sources: Israel Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Terrorism deaths).
Israel’s Improved Military Position
Bowen ignores the fact that Israel’s military position was substantially improved. While it required six and a half years of further warfare–including repelling the massive Arab attack in 1973–to solidify Israel’s military gains from the Six Day War, there has been no major Arab invasion since 1973. Since 1974, about one-third of all deaths of Israeli servicemen and women can be attributed to hostile action (non-hostile fatalities include accidents, suicides and illnesses). The relatively low losses since 1974 compare to the extensive losses Israel suffered in 1947-1949, 1967 and 1973 and attest to the strategic advantages obtained in the Six Day War and consolidated in the Yom Kippur War. (Sources: Israeli Casualties from Yom Hazikaron web site). It is worth considering what might have happened in 1973, had Israel lacked the Sinai and the Golan Heights as buffers.
For Bowen, the Problem is Zionism, not Arab Rejectionism
It is not surprising that Bowen also attempts to blame Zionism for the difficult relations between Arabs and Jews, ignoring both the historically precarious position of Jews in Islamic societies and the current religious-based incitement against Jews. In his viewpoint, “the conflict between Jews and Arabs goes back to the first Zionist settlements in Palestine more than a century ago.” But even in the decades immediately preceding the first Zionist settlements, numerous anti-Jewish incidents or mob riots took place in Algeria, Morocco and other Arab lands.
Bowen’s conclusion attempts to blame Israel for the conflict between the West and the Islamic world. He says:
“The legacy of 1967, military occupation and violent resistance, the unresolved refugee crisis and the competition for control of land and water…lies behind most of the shameful brutal and tragic events I have witnessed in 16 years of covering the Arab Israeli conflict for the BBC.”
“It would be bad enough if the misery of the past 40 years was confined to the Palestinians and the Israelis. But now at the start of the 21st century, their war affects all of us.. It’s at the center of the conflict between the West and the Islamic world… Ignoring the legacy of 1967 is not an option.”
One wonders how Bowen came to the conclude that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to the wider crisis between the West and the Islamic world. The bloody wars in Bosnia and Chechnya and numerous Islamic insurgencies from the Philippines to Nigeria are not linked to the situation in Gaza or the West Bank. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at most, a peripheral issue to the growing radicalism within Europe’s own Muslim communities. After all, French policy has favored the Arabs for decades, but that has not stopped the unrest among its growing Muslim population. It is far from evident that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even central to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the concluding segment of “Six Days that Changed the Middle East,” Bowen remarks, the “Arabs learned the hard way that you can’t believe what you hear on the radio.” Too bad Bowen doesn’t recognize just how much this observation applies to his own listeners.