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PBS documentary sheds new light on well-studied Arab-Israeli conflict

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 18 (JTA) — Even for those who have lived through, or closely studied, Israel’s fortunes over the last half century, a five-hour documentary that PBS is scheduled to air next week on the history of the Arab- Israeli conflict will hold some surprises. Perhaps the most startling revelations in “The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs,” which will be telecast on Jan. 24 and 25, are the interviews with former top Soviet diplomatic and military officials, who clearly detail how they egged on their Egyptian and Syrian client states just before the 1967 Six-Day 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. Three years in the making and drawing on well over 100 interviews with key players and eyewitnesses, “The 50 Years War” is divided into six segments, grouped by both subject 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.” In time covered by the first segment, when the U.S. administration of President Truman is weighing whether to recognize the nascent Jewish state, we get a dark picture of then-U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall. His opposition to recognizing Israel rested not only on strategic and geopolitical arguments, as previously reported, but on an emotional hostility toward the Israelis. “They have stolen the land, they don’t deserve the land,” Truman adviser Clark Clifford remembers the revered general as saying about the Israelis. 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 bore all but professional historians of the period. Zvi Dor-Ner, executive producer of the documentary for PBS station WGBH in Boston, which co-produced the film with the BBC London, discovered a few surprises while researching the work — even after decades of studying the conflict. “I was astonished at how many opportunities both sides missed to negotiate seriously for peace,” Dor-Ner said in an interview. One of the best chances missed by the Arabs came at the end of the 1967 war, when Israel offered to return the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights to the vanquished Arabs if they would recognize the Jewish state. This Israeli generosity astonished even President Lyndon Johnson, who had earlier warned Israel against a pre-emptive strike, threatening: “If you act alone, you stand alone.” But the Arabs rejected the offer out of hand. The documentary has done a highly commendable job of picking its way through the minefields of conflicting emotions and interpretations. But this is unlikely to spare the series from criticism by partisans from both sides. Dor-Ner expressed some concern about the possible reaction from the more militant segments of the American Jewish community, which have frequently faulted PBS for its coverage of the Middle East conflict. By virtue of his background, however, Dor-Ner is more easily open to attack by Arab partisans. Born in Poland, he started his career with Israeli television. After 11 years as a cameraman, director and producer in Israel, he came to the United States on a Harvard fellowship and joined WGBH shortly afterwards. Documentaries on the nuclear age, the space program and on the history of anti-Semitism — “The Longest Hatred” – – rank among his acclaimed productions. “In my heart, Israel holds a special place,” he said. “As a professional journalist, I believe I have done a fair, factually correct and honest piece of work.”