JUST after dawn on June 5, 1967, the radar screens of United States and Soviet warships in the Mediterranean and the tracking stations in Jordan, Egypt, and Cyprus all registered brief blips of airplanes taking off from Israel and heading over the sea, which then quickly disappeared, flying low to avoid being detected. Radar operators were not initially alarmed since for two years the Israelis had been practicing such maneuvers.
But this one was not routine, for the blips suddenly reappeared, flying in attack formation, over Egypt. The war that was to change the map and history of the Middle East, as has no other modern conflict, had begun.
Middle East wars have, in 1984, become almost tediously regular and bloody, troubling but tiresome replays of Arab and Israeli hatreds and fears. One should care, but then it is all so complex, often leading to a turn-off factor rivaling the trauma of Vietnam.
Donald Neff offers one of the most significant contributions to modern historical literature with his definitive book on the 1967 conflict, the narrative as readable as any John Le Carre thriller, but far more potent and real. Like the first of his ''Warriors. . .'' trilogy, ''Warriors at Suez,'' his second volume is not simply a record of ''the six days that changed the Middle East,'' but a living, breathing drama that takes in the ''global scoreboard,'' the dynamics behind foreign policy, the human dimension of hubris. It puts an entire era into context.
Yet the color and detail is so vivid that a reader can almost see and hear the Israeli warplanes dive-bombing military airstrips and installations in Egypt , then Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. One feels the excitement of Ezer Weizman, Israeli chief of operations, when he calls his wife, Reuma, from headquarters, just three hours after the first attack began, to share the news, ''We've won the war!'' And the unbelieving reply: ''Ezer, are you crazy? At 10 o'clock in the morning you've gone and finished the war?''
There are the Russians, Premier Kosygin, activating the hot-line telex for the first time since its installation in 1963 to communicate Moscow's concern about the conflict, which seemed to take both superpowers by surprise. It was the first of many cable conversations between the US and Russia which Mr. Neff provides in chilling replay, offering a front seat to history through his exhaustive research and interviews with such participants as King Hussein of Jordan.
The players are examined from every angle: the coolness of Gen. Mordecai Hod, commander of the Israeli Air Force, after his fleet had zapped 309 of Egypt's 340 aircraft, most of which never even got off the ground, as he ordered simply, ''Do the Jordanians''; and the despair of Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, close to a breakdown, his voice choking, when he called his foreign minister to say the collapse of Egypt's 100,000 armed forces had been total and that Cairo had no alternative but to accept a United Nations truce.
But the importance of ''Warriors for Jerusalem,'' is the perspective Neff has woven into the narrative - his explanation about why this conflict set the stage for all that has happened since and how the subsequent impact has affected every corner of the globe.
The third Mideast war in 19 years was different, for during those six days Israel absorbed territory three times its size, plus the massive Sinai peninsula. Israel also established Jewish control over Jerusalem for the first time in 1,833 years. The Arabs had never been so powerfully challenged or so quickly defeated, and it bred an atmosphere that opened the way for massive backing of the then fledgling Palestine Liberation Organization and its evolution into the world's largest and most notorious guerrilla movement.
It also established the precedent for open United States support for Israel - ending American neutrality in the region, a process that began when the Johnson administration sold the first offensive weapons to Israel and was cemented during the war, perhaps more for reasons of pragmatism than principle. Obsessed with reversing the tide of his failing foreign policy, which centered on Vietnam , LBJ hoped, in effect, to maneuver a quid pro quo. As Mr. Neff notes, ''While he was being lobbied to aid Israel, Johnson was trying to use Israel's supporters to win backing for his Vietnam policy.''
US involvement in Israel was at least matched by Soviet support for its Arab allies, escalating the potential for wider warfare over a part of the world the superpowers had been drawn into only 11 years earlier, during the Suez crisis. The 1967 war was to end with the US Sixth Fleet confronting a Russian armada in the Mediterranean.
And this war witnessed the emergence of a new core of Israeli hard-liners, men like Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, as well as a stubborn independent streak in Israeli policy that included both defiance and trickery of the US and the UN. Mr. Neff documents how Israel agreed to a UN cease-fire, only to turn around and attack Syria, and how the Israeli military showed its appreciation to its primary backer by attacking the USS Liberty, killing 34 and injuring 171 US servicemen.
Mr. Neff, an award-winning foreign correspondent who was based for several years in Jerusalem, outlines the broader consequences of the war, which, 17 years later, seem so much greater than they did at the time. ''In 1967, Americans were so caught up in the reflected glory of Israel's triumph that they ignored or failed to realize how costly the war was to their own country. . . . It worsened relations with the Soviet Union,'' triggering a rivalry unmatched in any other part of the world.
''By steadfastly supporting Israel while it publicly and repeatedly defied the UN and its Charter, which Israel had sworn to uphold, the US contributed to weakening the international body it had helped create.
''Even graver, Washington's continuing support of Israel's occupation (of captured territories) directly conflicted with three of the greatest ideals of the American republic: human rights, the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by force, and the Wilsonian tenet that all people have the right to self-determination.'' That, in turn, ''brought into question, in many parts of the world, the sincerity and reliability of the US as a nation committed to its own widely proclaimed ideals.''
As he rightly concludes, ''the war of 1967 was the worst tragedy in the modern history of the Middle East. In the 16 years since then, the region has been racked by more hatred, violence, and bloodshed than at any time since the founding of the Jewish state. . . . There is every indication'' - in large part because of the events of 1967 - ''that more of the same, and perhaps worse, is in store.''