By my calendar at least, the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War looms, and the refrain denying and downplaying the threat then facing down the Jewish state emanating from Israel’s revisionist critics will no doubt be heard again.
I must confess that I have always found this most peculiar. As an avid, life-long student of military history, I have always found the circumstances of the Six Day War (as I do all of the Arab-Israeli wars) fascinating to study: the cast of characters, the drama of the countdown to war, the clash of hubris and heroics, of courage and cowardice, but above all how a small, young nation groped its way through a crisis of danger and uncertainty, to mastery, security and victory. If I am ignorant of this subject, then my ignorance is incurable, as I have spared no effort to understand it, and have ransacked just about every book on it upon which I could lay hands over the last twenty-five years. How any person could know the circumstances of the conflict, and simply look at a map and not see the peril facing Israel in early June 1967, is a mystery to me.
Of course there is always the Arab narrative which, predictably, paints the Israeli action as an unprovoked act of aggression; no surprise there. Yet it is disturbing that the Western revisionist narrative downplaying the threat persists. According to “new” historian and columnist Tom Segev, in his otherwise very interesting and informative “Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East” (2006), there was no Arab threat—certainly no “existential” threat to the life of the Jewish state in May-June 1967. The Israelis, still hand-wringing and trembling in the shadow of the Holocaust, over-reacted even though they really had nothing to fear but fear itself. Segev sees nothing in the days leading up to the war in Israel but panic and hysteria. Any concern about the danger now ringing Israel’s borders “had no basis in reality” and “there was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it.”
Here is Segev shaking his head and tsk-tsking at the sight of Israelis digging graves in expectation of a slaughter in the days before the war:
“Only a society drenched in the memory of the Holocaust could have prepared so meticulously for the next one.”
And then, of course, there was Israel’s war-crazed generals,
“They clung to the Israeli culture of youth; they were like adolescent boys or bulls in rut. They believed in force and they wanted war. War was their destiny.”
Norman Finkelstein, who has soared to prominence in an obnoxious and execrable campaign to smear the Jewish state with using the Holocaust as a warrant for its alleged criminality and oppression, goes even farther than Segev. In a contentious review of Michael Oren’s Six Days of War (2002), he posits full blame on Israel for the crisis with Syria that led to the conflict, argues that far from being a response to a genuine threat, it was all a cynical land grab to extend the frontiers of the unthreatened Jewish state at the expense of its vulnerable, peace-seeking Arab neighbors, and deal a smashing blow to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser and Arab nationalism. He also hints that the Israeli attack on the American intelligence vessel U.S.S. Liberty, was no accident.
“There was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war…
“They believed in force and wanted war…
The Third Arab-Israeli War was not planned in advance by either side. The crisis that led to the conflict, of course, grew directly out of the missing peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors, then in its 19th year. In the years since the armistice agreements of 1949, the Israelis had suffered a virtual epidemic of infiltrations and terror attacks all along their borders, continuing through the years in a seemingly endless cycle of destabilizing Arab attacks and Israeli counterattacks and retaliations.
The positioning of UN peacekeepers in the Sinai in 1957 following the Suez War of 1956 largely quieted the border with Egypt, but the borders with Syria and Jordan continued to flicker and flame with attack and counterattack. Directly preceding the crisis of May-June 1967 was the continuing efforts of the Syrians to prevent the Israelis cultivating the demilitarized zone on their border, and the “Water War” between Israel and Syria, provoked by Syrian efforts to divert the waters of the Jordan River that would have reduced the installed capacity of Israel’s carrier by about 35%, and Israel’s overall water supply by about 11%.
The Syrians rained fire on the Dan Kibbutz in November 1964, and three more times throughout 1965, each time receiving a stinging response from the IDF. In July 1966, another Syrian attack was answered by an IAF strike which destroyed some earth moving equipment and shot down a Syrian MiG-21 that tried to interfere
In January of 1967, without any provocation or warning, Syrian tanks fired some thirty one shells on the Almagor Kibbutz and sprinkled a shower of light machine gun fire on the Shamir Kibbutz that wounded two. Further skirmishing provoked by these actions killed one Israeli and wounded two others by an antipersonnel mine, for which Fatah terrorists claimed credit, but which bore Syrian markings. And in case there is any doubt about who fired the first shots here, let the rare candor of a January 17, 1967 broadcast by Damascus Radio set the record straight:
“Syria has changed its strategy, moving from defense to attack…We will carry on operations until Israel has been eliminated.”
After further provocations, the decision was taken by Levi Eshkol, then-Israeli Prime Minister, in late March to retaliate in force to the next Syrian attack in the Demilitarized Zone. When, on April 7, two tractors were operating near Tel Katzir, the Syrians, as the Israelis expected, opened up with 37mm cannon fire on the tractors. Israeli tanks then returned fire, and the Syrians responded not by shooting the tanks but by bombing the nearby Israeli settlements with 81mm and 120mm mortar fire.
The Golan was now flooded with cannon and machinegun fire, and by 1:30pm UN observers had noted that some 247 Syrian shells had hit the Gadot Kibbutz, where several buildings were destroyed. The IAF, acting on queue, now scrambled into action, hitting Syrian bunkers and artillery positions. Syrian MiG-21’s now met the IAF Mirages in the skies over Damascus and in thirty seconds the IAF downed six MiG’s, and established complete supremacy over Syrian airspace. To emphasize their triumph, the IAF Mirages then did a victory loop around Damascus.
On April 8, 1967, Damascus Radio blustered:
“Our known objective is the freeing of Palestine and the liquidation of the Zionist existence there. Our army and people will give our backing to every Arab fighter acting for the return of Palestine.”
On April 10, 1967, the official al-Bath, ever keeping a stiff upper lip amidst disaster and humiliation, exuberantly boasted,
“Our heroic people, singing songs of war, is longing to begin the final battle. There is no way to remove occupation other than by smashing the enemy’s bases and destroying his power.”
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Other than the border violence, one of the things that made the May 1967 crisis so difficult to contain was the ever-present macho posturing and competitive rhetorical muscle-flexing of the regional Arab leaders about who was being “soft on Zionism” and “imperialism” and who was not.
The April 7 incident, among other things, set off a new round of inter-Arab bickering, and the towel-snapping taunts between the Arab capitals also increased markedly. King Hussein, who, after the Samu raid of 1966 had taunted Nasser for “hiding behind UNEF’s skirts” now needled him for his inaction to the April 7 incident and sharply jabbed him with the following sarcastic taunt: “Our enemy unfortunately now knows how serious President Abdel Nasser is when he said in his recent speech that the UAR would join the battle the moment Syria was attacked by Israel.”
Hussein then taunted the Ba’ath of Damascus by noting (falsely) that the three downed Syrian planes that crashed in Jordan were found to have wooden rockets; Assad, it was said, would not give them real ones.
Not to be outdone,Nasser replied that “Jordan is becoming a garrison of imperialism, a camp for training mercenary gangs, a reactionary outpost for the protection of Israel.” Hussein, like his grandfather, was in league with the Jews, who were “born agents, raised on treason—Hussein works for the CIA.” Also, “Hussein is an imperialist lackey.”
To which Hussein, swinging back, replied that it was Nasser who was “the only Arab leader who lives in peace and tranquility with Israel. Not one shot has been fired from his direction against Israel…We hope he is satisfied with this disgrace.”
Like obnoxious teenagers, Arab leaders were thus goading each other with intolerable peer-pressure to act against Israel in some capacity, and, in addition to this ever-escalating exchange of schoolyard taunts being traded between the Arab capitals, on May 13 the already tense situation got another boost: the Soviets officially (and falsely) informed the Egyptians that Israel was going to attack Syria. The same day, Hafez al-Assad requested that Egypt attack Israel as a diversion.
Yet, when former Egyptian Field Marshal Muhammed Fawzi arrived to consult in Damascus, he was surprised to find no evidence of any IDF buildup on the Syrian border: no reserve call-ups, and no unusual deployment of troops and armor.
On May 14 Levi Eshkol invited the Soviet ambassador to Syria to inspect Israel’s side of the border; it was declined, probably for the simple reason that the Soviets, not believing their own lies, knew there was no buildup. The next day, Odd Bull, chief of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, noted that he “had no reports of any buildup” from any border observers.
In the next few days, Nasser ejected the peace-keeping United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from the Sinai, remilitarized the Sinai and Gaza, and on May 22, he blockaded the Tiran Straits, all acts of lawlessness and blatant acts of war. Even he made no bones about that. He called the UNEF “a force serving neo-imperialism” and ordered their removal on May 16. Three days later they complied and that evening Cairo Radio blared: “This is our chance, oh Arabs, to deal Israel a mortal blow of annihilation.”
Nasser said in a speech to a convention of Arab trade unionists on May 27:
“We knew that closing the Gulf of Aqaba meant war with Israel. If war comes it will be total and the objective will be Israel’s destruction. This is Arab power.”
Israel’s 1957 evacuation of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, occupied in the 1956 war, was contingent upon the UN’s guarantee of the demilitarization of the Sinai and Gaza, the international status of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran, and the inviolability of Israel’s maritime rights there. The UN deployed the United Nations Emergency Force to monitor and enforce the peacekeeping in the Sinai along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Israel further stipulated that any breach of these guarantees by Egypt would constitute an act of war, and that Israel would invoke its rights under Article 51 of the UN Charter to defend itself.
On February 20, 1957, President Eisenhower said,
We should not assume that if Israel withdraws, Egypt will prevent Israeli shipping from using the Suez Canal or theGulf of Aqaba. If, unhappily,Egypt does hereafter violate the Armistice agreement or other international obligations, then this should be dealt with firmly by the society of nations.”
Needless to say, Nasser’s May 1967 actions were not “dealt with firmly by the society of nations” and Israel, who had stipulated their withdrawal from the Sinai in 1957 on the promises of the U.S. and the UN to ensure the non-belligerent status of the Sinai and the Gaza strip, and to assure Israeli maritime rights to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran, recognized to be international waterways, was left completely in the lurch. In May of 1967, in fact, Eisenhower, in an interview, reaffirmed the commitments made by the U.S.to Israel 10 years before, much to the embarrassment of the Johnson Administration, who was busy equivocating on that commitment.
When UN Secretary General U Thant met with Nasser to urge him to reconsider his actions, Nasser told him:
“We will never be in a better position than now. Our forces are well equipped and trained. We will have all the advantages of attacking first. We are sure of victory. My generals told me we will win—what would you say to them?”
And so, as with Saddam Hussein and the 17 un-enforced UNSC resolutions condemning his non-compliance with inspections three decades later, the UN did absolutely nothing about Nasser’s open defiance of international law and his brazen advertising of his intentions to commit an act of unlawful aggression, save complaining aloud about his “unfortunate” and “unhelpful” behavior. Not for the first or last time, Israel had been completely flimflammed by the UN for accepting its assurances about its security, and utterly abandoned to its fate.
On May 27 the Soviet Ambassador had informed Nasser that the Americans had got wind of a pending Egyptian assault on Israel. On the same day Egyptian Field Marshall ‘Amer issued orders for an attack on the Negev, but Nasser, alerted to possible American intervention and the obvious unease expressed by the Soviets about such an eventuality, countermanded the order. ‘Amer was furious. Impatient, and itching to go to war, he had told Nasser that, “by waiting, Egypt loses even before the war starts.”
(Soon enough, ‘Amer would get all the war he wanted)
There is some evidence to indicate that by remilitarizing the Sinai, expelling UNEF, and closing the Tiran straits, that Nasser sought to score a bloodless political victory short of war which would consolidate his prestige as the premier leader of the Arab world, and was guided by his belief that the UN and the superpowers would intervene like a boxing referee to separate Israel and the Arabs, and send them back to their corners before things got out of hand.
It is certainly clear that Nasser viewed the presence of UNEF in the Sinai in 1967 in a manner not unlike that which Saddam Hussein viewed the UN weapons inspectors in the 1990’s—as a foreign infringement upon his sovereignty and an insult to his prestige, and, as Nasser knew from the UN and his senior military advisors that there was no Israeli military threat to Syria, that he merely seized upon this latest crisis as an opportunity to eject them.
That is undoubtedly true. But the weight of evidence is even more compelling that he was also guided by a belief, widely shared then in Arab quarters, that the time had at last come for the final showdown with the “Zionist entity” in order to finally wipe clean the humiliations of 1948 and 1956, and that Israel, who had won her 1956 victory only with the help of Britian and France, could not resist the combined might of the Arabs by herself, and that only war could, and must, regain what was taken from the Arabs by war.
It is equally clear that he was acting out of no master plan, and just improvising his rhetoric and his actions according to events, of which he was often the servant rather than the master. But by expelling UNEF, remilitarizing the Sinai, and closing the Straits of Tiran he lit a fire that he could not now put out without a humiliating loss of prestige—always a priority concern of his. The crisis created by these actions raised his prestige in the Arab world to unprecedented heights; fulsome praise now flowed in to him from every Arab quarter. The capitals across the Arab Middle East were now in the grip of a hysterical frenzy of war-whooping, and were engulfed with oceans of demonstrators shouting Nasser’s praises and proclaiming Israel’s doom; press and propaganda busied themselves writing Israel’s obituary in cartoons and in print. The Arab world was united as never before against its common enemy.
The dye had been cast: there was no turning back. UN Secretary-General U Thant undoubtedly believed that if Israel had agreed to station UNEF troops on their side of the border, that war could have been averted, but this was naïve. Had the Egyptians attacked, the UNEF troops would simply have been marginalized or simply ignored. When it comes to life and death decisions, nations do not entrust their fortunes to ineffectual peacekeepers, nor should they. They would have had as much chance to actually prevent any attack from either side as their boys in the blue helmets did to prevent ethnic cleansing and murder in Bosnia in 1992-1995 and genocide in Rawanda in 1994.
The truth is that no amount of high pressure diplomacy, from the UN or anyone else, would ever have caused Nasser to now withdraw from where he had now advanced. He must have known that his actions meant war, though, being Nasser, it is possible that he deluded himself that it did not. Even the Soviets, who were always happy to fan the flames of the region but did not want a war, were taken aback and shocked by Nasser’s closure of the straits. They knew what it meant.
On May 30 King Hussein of Jordan had signed a military pact with Nasser in Cairo. The same day Iraqi forces took up positions in Jordan. Said President Aref of Iraq on May 31:
“Our goal is clear: to wipe Israel off the map.” He added: “There will be no Jewish survivors.”
Said Nasser on May 31:
“The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel… to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation.”
Said Ahmed Shukairy, chairman of the PLO on June 1:
“The Jews of Palestine will have to leave…Any of the old Jewish Palestine population who survive may stay, but it is my impression that none of them will survive.”
Said Damascus Radio:
“Arab masses, this is your day. Rush to the battlefield…Let them know that we shall hang the last imperialist soldier with the entrails of the last Zionist.”
Said Hafez al-Assad to his troops in a frightening hint of what he would do to 20,000 of his own people 15 years later in Hama:
“Strike the enemy’s [civilian] settlements, turn them into dust, and pave the Arab roads with the skulls of Jews. Strike them without mercy.”
Assad also said:
“Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian Army, with its finger on the trigger, is united… I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”
By June 4, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq all had reserves called up, mobilized, and massed on the Israeli border.
On the Egyptian border, the Egyptians now had deployments of three active divisions from the Erez checkpoint in northeastern Gaza all the way south to Al-Qusayma, one division on the border south of Kuntilla, three divisions behind the forward positions, and several assorted armored and artillery brigades in west and south Sinai—all told about 100,000 troops, 900 tanks and about 800 heavy artillery.
Jordan had massed some 56,000 troops organized into a deployment of nine infantry brigades, two armored brigades, a mechanized brigade and an Iraqi brigade. They had 294 tanks and 194 artillery pieces.
Syria fielded about 70,000 troops into a deployment of six infantry brigades, with two paratroop and special forces battalions, along with two armored brigades, one mechanized brigade, and one independent armored battalion. They had 300 tanks and 265 artillery pieces.
Against this, Israel could now mobilize about 250-264,000 men, about three-quarters reservists, and about 100,000 which could be placed on the borders. They were divided into 11 infantry brigades, two paratroop brigades, two independent units of special forces infantry, and three mechanized infantry brigades. They had about 1100 tanks and 400 artillery, divided into 12 artillery and 6 armored brigades.
* * *
The number of nightmare scenarios now facing the Israelis were thus endless. First, there was the time factor. As Edward Luttwak and Daniel Horowitz have stated in their excellent study of the IDF:
“There was a basic asymmetry in the structure of forces: the Egyptians could deploy their large army of long term regulars on the Israeli border and keep it there indefinitely; the Israelis could only counter their deployment by mobilizing reserve formations, and reservists could not be kept in uniform for very long. Egypt could therefore stay on the defensive while Israel would have to attack unless the crisis was defused diplomatically.” (“The Israeli Army: 1948-1973,” p.110)
Secondly, and most importantly, the Israelis, as in 1948, had a distinct geographical disadvantage. True, they had the advantage of interior lines, but this was negated by the length of the borders they had to defend, the vulnerable narrowness of the coastal plain, which impeded their ability to shunt forces from north to south and vice-versa, and the ability of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt to strike, or advance a combination of multiple feints and actual strikes at any time of their choosing that would have had the numerically inferior Israelis jumping up and down 545 miles of borders thwarting one contingency after another with no guarantee that they could ever bring decisive force to meet any of them. Their only advantage therefore lay in anticipation. The only way to effectively deter such an attack from ever occurring was to preempt it.
The consensus of American intelligence before the war was that, in a war,Israel would win against the Arabs whether they were attacking or defending. While it is clear that this view of an Israeli first strike was dead-on, the notion that Israel could have safely absorbed an attack by the Arabs within her 1949 Armistice lines looks, in retrospect, utterly implausible.
An attack by Egypt alone from the Sinai into the Negev could have given the Israelis some, though not much, cushion to absorb an armored strike and perhaps conduct a mobile defense at which the IDF’s superiority in tactics and leadership would have a marginal advantage, but this would be offset by the Egyptians’ superiority in mass and equipment, not to mention their ability to focus the entire forward weight of their attack in a single direction at various points along the 211 mile Egypt-Gaza border without any concern for their rear or flanks; the Israelis, on the other hand, who were numerically inferior, would have had to meet this force with less than half of their mobilized strength, while the rest of their reserves stood defensively along 334 miles of winding border with Jordan and Syria.
Given the total lack of strategic depth on the 204 mile long border of the West Bank where Israel’s wasp-like waist along the coastal plain could be severed by the blow of a few heavy, well-placed Jordanian armored columns, this scenario was particularly hellish. All of the main Israeli population centers were within close striking distance from the West Bank: Netanya—9 miles, Tel-Aviv—11 miles, Beersheva—10 miles, Haifa—21 miles, Ashdod—22 miles, and Ashkelon a mere 7 miles from Gaza, not to mention cities like Eilat and Jerusalem that were within direct striking distance, and vulnerable to encirclement and siege.
Scattering their forces up and down their eastern border to meet multiple contingencies, and without any room to maneuver and retrench, their numerically inferior cadres could be smashed or bypassed, and their units to the north and south severed from one another, surrounded, and cut to pieces. Even the most ingenious tactical flair by the Israelis would be powerless to stop it. In this eventuality, geography, the Arabs’ superior numbers and equipment, and the advantage of timing, would put the Israeli superiority in tactics, leadership, and morale at a severe discount. Israel, in all likelihood, would have been destroyed.
It seems entirely plausible that Israel’s revisionist critics and antagonists, in their feverish attempts to rewrite the history of the 1967 war, can look upon the circumstances of May-June 1967 and conclude that there was not a real and imminent threat to Israel’s survival, but the Israelis did, and, once again, chose to survive, rather than not to.