The war nobody wanted

On June 10, the war was over, and Israel was stunned to discover it had an empire in its hands.

June 9, 2013 21:20
IDF soldiers celebrate at the Western Wall in 1967

IDF soldiers celebrate at the Western Wall in 1967_370. (photo credit: Courtesy Werner Braun/Jerusalem Post Archives)

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 Arabs.

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.

Nasser’s 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 happen.

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 newspaper and 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 inevitable.”

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, Israel attacked.

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.

Israel’s 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 Heights.

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).

Dayan also 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 Israel.”

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.

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