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The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs

A new five-hour documentary has done a highly commendable job of picking its way through the minefields of conflicting emotions and interpretations.

by Tom Tugend

January 21, 1999 | 7:00 pm

The history of the Middle East conflict, from the birthpangs of the Jewish state to today's headlines, has rarely, if ever, been presented with more immediacy and human color as "The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs."

The five-hour documentary will be telecast over PBS station KCET on Jan. 24 and 25, from 9 to 11:30 p.m.

Three years in the making and drawing on well over a hundred interviews with key players and eye witnesses, "The 50 Years War" is divided into six segments, grouped by both topics and chronology.

The first three segments, airing on Jan. 24, cover "Land Divided, 1948-56," "The Six Day War, 1967" and "Palestinian Exiles, 1970-82." Second night segments are "Peacemaking, 1970-79," "Banging Heads, 1987-91" and "Land Divided, 1992-98."

Even for those who have lived through or closely studied Israel's fortunes over the last half century, the documentary will hold some surprises.

Perhaps most startling are the interviews with former high-ranking Soviet diplomatic and military officials, which clearly detail how the USSR egged on its Egyptian and Syrian client states, just before the 1967 war, by falsely insisting that Israel was massing troops at the Syrian border.

In one of the mind-boggling historical asides that punctuate the documentary, the then-head of the Soviet Bomber Command reveals that his planes, disguised as Egyptian bombers, were ordered to attack Israel.

The plan was delayed, and then aborted, because his staff couldn't find the right paint to replace the Soviet insignias with the Egyptian colors.

On the Israeli side, a different perspective on the Six-Day War comes from Miriam Eshkol, the wife of then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who offers the often humorous comments of a haimishe but outspoken woman.

Earlier on, when the Truman administration was weighing whether to recognize the nascent Jewish state, we get a darker picture of then-Secretary of State George Marshall.

His opposition to recognition rested not only on strategic and geopolitical arguments, as previously reported, but on an emotional hostility toward the Israelis.

"They (the Israelis) have stolen the land, they don't deserve the land," Truman's advisor, Clark Clifford, quotes the revered general.

A rare slow spot in the documentary is its coverage of the Madrid peace negotiations of the 1980s, whose behind-the-scenes intricacies are likely to pall on all but professional historians of the period.

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