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How a brief war can resonate 40 years later

'Six Days' looks at Israel's victory over Arabs in '67

(ap images)

There is a term in journalism called "tick-tock." It refers to the linear reconstruction of an event in its real time. A story has "good tick-tock" when it presents a taut weave of detail and drama.

"Six Days in June" has phenomenal tick-tock. It chronicles, almost by the day, the tensions and strategies leading up to the Six Day War 40 years ago this week between Israel and many of its Arab enemies that changed the face of the Middle East. It then holds us hostage to a hypnotic look at the fighting, at times hour by hour, from all perspectives.

If you want to understand the Middle East today, "Six Days in June" is a must. The program triumphs with gripping footage of battle, tightly edited, and telling interviews with former protagonists. Strong writing provides a superior history lesson.

We meet combat veterans, politicians , and journalists of all stripes, old men now, who recount events with candor. We watch the dramatic battle for Jerusalem that reminds us of Gillo Pontecorvo's classic "Battle of Algiers," except the grainy film here is real.

We learn the thinking of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fiery Egyptian leader who sought to destory Israel and create a pan-Arab hegemony from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. We follow the tragedy of Levi Eshkol, the ineffectual Israeli leader who was bamboozled into war by his generals, including army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and the charismatic Moshe Dayan .

Both leaders failed -- Nasser to wipe out Israel and Eshkol to avoid war. Both lost control of their military. Both died soon after the conflict. So did the secular political class in Arab countries that could have buffered the religious extremism and the terrorism it spawned.

Israel made its preemptive strike on the morning of June 5, 1967, and in a matter of hours had destroyed the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground along with its Syrian counterpart. The outcome was determined then.

The program, a collaboration of WGBH with Canadian, French , and Israeli production companies, takes a broader look at the legacy of the conflict. This war was a brilliant military victory for Israel that increased land under its control three and a half times in an astonishing six days. Arab humiliation from this can never be overstated.

But it also burdened Israel with responsibility for one and a half million Palestinians in territory it still occupies. It is this occupation that, in 2007, continues to brutalize both sides and roil the Mideast. It was this war that locked Israel and Palestinians together in a bloody embrace.

And it is this occupation that alienated Europeans, who had been strong supporters of Israel. Hard as it is to imagine today, Europe was united behind Israel in 1967. We see demonstrations held across the continent in solidarity with the beleaguered state then less than 20 years old. But the hearts and minds in Europe began to shift as the occupation lengthened.

It will be news to most how close the United States and the Soviet Union moved from a Cold War to a hot one over this conflagration. Lyndon Johnson and Soviet leader Alexey Kosygin were on the hotline plenty. Johnson, who was also consumed with Vietnam, wanted no part of this war.

As the Israelis took the Golan Heights from Syria, Soviet fighters painted with Egyptian markings were poised to enter the fray. Soviet ships off the Israeli coast waited to land an invasion force. The US and the USSR prepared to fight each other. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara calls it the most dangerous Cold War moment since the Cuban missile crisis.

When the fighting ended on June 10, nothing was solved. Israel's offer to return most of the land it took for peace was rejected outright by the Arabs, their pride demolished by their catastrophic loss. The quivering absence of hostilities held all of six years until the next war began.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

'Related'

Six Days in June

Time: Monday, 10 p.m.-midnight

On: Channel 44 (repeats June 12 at 9 p.m. on Channel 2)

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