The Six Day War was the product of misconception, misunderstanding,
mismanagement and mistakes by almost all the parties involved. The first major
misstep was the Soviet warning to Egypt in early May 1967 that Israel had massed
11 brigades on its northern border and was prepared to attack Syria. The
information was false, and the assumption of the Soviet leaders that they could
win points with their Arab clients without unleashing the highly explosive
emotions in the Middle East proved their total misunderstanding of the
Following the Russian warning Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser
sent his armored divisions into the Sinai on May 15, 1967. He repeated his
actions of 1960 when, following an Israeli reprisal raid on Syria he had also
dispatched his army into Sinai; he had then demanded that the United Nations
remove their peacekeepers from their positions on the Egypt- Israel border and
the Straits of Tiran on the Red Sea. But the secretary-general of the UN in 1960
had been Dag Hammarskjold, a smart diplomat who sent the peacekeepers to the UN
camps in Gaza, where they played volleyball, basketball and got bored to death;
a month later, the tension faded away, Nasser pulled back his army, and the
peacekeepers resumed their positions and their duties.
But in 1967 the
secretary-general of the UN was U Thant, a mediocre, dour, inflexible diplomat,
totally misunderstanding the Middle East. It was his turn to make a major
mistake. He told Nasser: either the peacekeepers stay where they are – or I
shall remove all of them from Egypt. Nasser stuck to his position, and U Thant
immediately ordered his peacekeepers out of the Sinai and Gaza.
mistake was next. Having acquired control of the Straits, he couldn’t help but
close them to Israeli shipping. Israel had declared many times in the past that
it regarded a closure of the Straits as casus belli, yet at that time Nasser
still didn’t believe he was going to war.
Next in line – Israel. Prime
Minister Levi Eshkol, a good man, a wise prime minister – but not a war leader –
did not know what to do. He actually transferred all the defense and military
decisions to Yitzhak Rabin, the IDF chief of staff, who could hardly cope with
this burden, and collapsed for a short period. Eshkol also sent foreign minister
Abba Eban to Paris, London and Washington to ask for the help of the Western
powers. That was a misconception at the cabinet level.
While the military
assumed it would be victorious in a war with Egypt, Israel’s civilian leaders
desperately looked for help abroad. So Eban went on his tour. The British were
sympathetic, but France’s president Charles de Gaulle openly moved to the side
of the Arabs, decreeing a total embargo on weapons for Israel, whose military
equipment was mainly French. And in Washington, senior officials told Eban
stories about “the Red Sea Regatta,” an international flotilla that would force
the blockade on the Straits of Tiran.
These were stories and nothing
else, and any astute observer should have understood from the first moment that
America was going to do nothing.
President Lyndon Johnson could make no
move without the support of Congress, and it was clear that would not
The Israeli cabinet met over and over again and decided to wait;
in the meantime Jordan and Syria signed military agreements with Egypt, creating
a united front against Israel. The writing was on the wall, and yet only two men
in the Middle East apparently understood the situation. One was Moshe Dayan, who
told Rabin in a night meeting at his home that the only solution would be to go
to war and destroy the Egyptian army.
The second man was an Egyptian:
Muhammad Hasnain Haikal, the editor of the pro-government Al Ahram
Nasser’s friend and confidante. Haikal’s analysis was clear and concise, and
read like a mathematical formula. In an article headed: “Why war with Israel is
inevitable,” he wrote: Israel exists in the Middle East thanks to its power that
deters the Arab states from attacking and destroying it. The massing of the
Egyptian troops in the Sinai, the ouster of the UN peacekeepers, the closure of
the Straits, the united front of Arab nations against Israel – all those have
destroyed Israel’s deterrent force. If Israel wants to survive, she must restore
her deterrent. To do so, she has to go to war. Therefore – war with Israel is
Eshkol slowly realized that there was no other way. The
Mossad chief, Meir Amit, returned from a secret mission to Washington with the
feeling that the US would approve of an Israeli offensive. Under the pressure of
his own party, Eshkol had to cede the defense portfolio to Dayan. And on June 5,
The war started with a stunning raid by practically the
entire Israeli air force on Egypt’s air bases. That raid, meant to destroy the
Egyptian air force on the ground, was the condition of a swift and total
victory. The day before the raid, Rabin visited several air bases and told the
young pilots: “Remember: your mission is one of life or death. If you succeed –
we won the war; if you fail – God help us.” The raid was utterly successful –
three hours later the Egyptian air force had ceased to exist. A few hours later,
both the Syrian and Jordanian air forces, that had tried to join in the battle,
had been annihilated, as well as a part of the Iraqi air force.
army, controlling the skies, made its way fighting through the Sinai and after a
couple of days reached the Suez Canal. In the meantime, following Jordan’s
attacks and bombardments, other Israeli units occupied the West Bank and took
Jerusalem. In a last stage of the war, Israel conquered the Golan
On June 10, the war was over, and Israel was stunned to discover
it had an empire in its hands.
The postwar tragedy was that there was
nobody in the Arab world ready to negotiate for the return of the conquered
lands. When the author of this article was appointed adviser to Moshe Dayan, the
defense minister told him: “Michael, take your car and go see the West Bank
before we return it.” (He was to become more hawkish later).
announced that he expected “a phone call from King Hussein.” But instead of calling
Israel, the all-Arab conference in Khartum, in August, decided there would be
“no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no peace with
It would take 10 more years and another bloody war for Egypt to
realize that it would have to pay the price of peace to get back its
territories, and 27 more years for Jordan to make peace with the Jewish state.
(Not before prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, in 1987, sabotaged a historic
agreement between foreign minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein that could have
brought peace to the Middle East).
And yet, the revolution in Egypt and
the civil war in Syria remind us how fragile and ephemeral peace in our
neighborhood can be.The writer, former Knesset Member and adviser to
Moshe Dayan, fought in the Six Day War. He is the official biographer of David
Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres, and author of, among others,
Mossad, The Great
Missions of the Israeli Secret Service.