Attention, Please: Israel did not “choose” war in June, 1967

A recent article here in the Times by Mr. Emanuel Shahaf posits the assertion that Prime Minister Netanyahu is needlessly escalating tensions with regard to the situation in Iran and their nuclear program, that he has shunned the path of compromise and diplomacy, and that this militant tendency of Israelis to escalate tensions that lead to wars has become something of a national pastime. One can just hear the impatient shrug of Mr. Shahaf’s shoulders: When, oh when, will they ever learn?

Illustrating his point, Mr. Shahaf cites the example of the Six-Day War of 1967, where, he asserts,Israel needlessly chose war from a menu of other viable options:

“During the nerve wracking buildup to the war there were plenty of opportunities to deescalate. To make the closure of the Straits of Tiran into a casus belli was not necessarily the correct choice and it might have been smarter to put the US on the spot and insist on the fulfillment to keep the straits open to Israeli shipping. To make a long story short, most scholarly accounts of the build-up towards the Six-Day War attribute its eventual outbreak to an unwanted escalation. Despite a desire to avoid war on all sides, everyone in the end was responsible for making it unavoidable.” 

I hope Mr. Shahaf, will grant me a moment of his time and bear with me a while I take a moment to rehearse a slice of history in the lead up to the crisis that sparked the ’67 War, which concerns two issues that are as depressingly familiar to Israelis today as they were to them back in 1967: the regional issue of water, and the issue of the violent, provocative instability of the Ba’athist regime in neighboring Syria, and perhaps we can get an idea of just who was doing the escalating that led to the war, and who was not. 


In January 1964, it was decided at an Arab League Summit in Cairo to divert the waters of the Jordan River in order to frustrate Israel’s Water Carrier initiative. This counter-initiative, where a canal was dug to divert the waters of the Hazbani in Lebanonand the Banias in Syria into the River Yarmuk in Jordan, would deprive Israelof two-thirds of the water of the River Jordan, would have reduced the installed capacity of Israel’s carrier by about 35%, and Israel’s overall water supply by about 11%. The preamble to the decisions of the Summit read:

“The establishment of Israel is the basic threat that the Arab nation in its entirety has agreed to forestall. And since the existence ofIsraelis a danger that threatens the Arab nation, the diversion of the Jordan waters by it multiplies the dangers to Arab existence. Accordingly, the Arab states have to prepare the plans necessary for dealing with the political, economic and social aspects, so that if necessary results are not achieved, collective Arab military preparations, when they are not completed, will constitute the ultimate practical means for the final liquidation of Israel.”

 Said Michael Comay,Israel’s permanent representative to the UN in a note to the Security Council:

 “The clear purport of this proclamation is that 13 member states of the UN have set themselves the aim of liquidating another member state, have declared that to be a central policy objective guiding their collective actions, and have determined to concentrate all of their national potential on the attainment of this aim.”

 This unilateral attempt to divert the headwaters of the Jordan and the effort to prevent Israeli cultivation of the DMZ evacuated by Syria following the 1949 armistice agreements which were located on the Israeli side of the demarcation line were thus hostile, aggressive acts against Israel. This was a direct, Arab/Syrian provocation to which the Israelis responded in kind, not vice-versa.

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

Then, 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 untilIsraelhas been eliminated.”

UN Seretary General U Thant requested both Syrians and Israelis put the dispute to rest within the Israeli-Syrian Mutual Armistice Commission. At a January 25 meeting,Syria’s representative, one Captain ‘Abdullah, justified the Syrian attacks as “putting an end to Zionist aggression against Arab land” and he refused to guarantee the “security of the gang state inside Palestine.” Moshe Sasson, the Israeli representative, proposed a bilateral pledge signed by both Israel and Syria “to abide faithfully by their non-aggression obligations and refrain from all other acts of hostility against one another” which ‘Abdullah rejected out of hand. Abdullah then demanded ‘practical measures’ to defuse the dispute. When called upon to propose such measures he hemmed and hawed, and then blustered through a lengthy tirade against Israel. The meeting was a waste of time, ended without result, and the border incidents continued.

On April 8, 1967, the day after the Israelis retaliated against a Syrian artillery bombardment from the Golan, 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, 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.”

In early May, Hugh H. Smythe, the American ambassador to Syria, noted the “Stalinist” Ba’ath regime’s “fear and frustration” and cabled the State Department that “the paranoiac fear of plots and aggressions, with its constant provocations of Israel, could lead to a military adventure which can only end in defeat.”

On May 11, UN Secretary General U Thant denounced the Syrian attacks as “deplorable” and “insidious” as “menaces to peace” and “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Armistice.” He noted that the raids “seem to indicate that the individuals who committed them have had more specialized training than has usually been evidenced in al-Fatah incidents in the past.” He called upon all “responsible governments” to stop them, and he didn’t mean Israel.

The Syrians, through sheer truculence, had sabotaged the Israeli-Syrian Mutual Armistice Commission meeting set up by U Thant in January to resolve the dispute, and the diplomatic consensus (later endorsed by U Thant) was that the Syrians were the aggressors in this matter. This was also confirmed by none other than the United Arab Command chief ‘Ali ‘Ali ‘Amer himself following the April 7 incident:

“How many times have I pleaded with our Syrian brothers not to provoke Israel? We have begged them time and time again and yet they continue shelling Israeli settlements, in sending in al-Fatah cells to shoot up transport or to mine the roads, and all this hurts our military efforts.”  


Thus, the dynamic of the entire dispute that led to the May crisis that sired the war points unabashedly to Syrian provocation and aggression, countered by Israeli diplomatic parlay and occasional retaliation, answered by Syrian intransigence, further provocation, and escalation. But the water/land/border cultivation dispute was a mere symptom, not a cause, of Arab-Israeli tensions leading up to the 1967 War. Even if one subtracts the dispute from the equation, there was still Syrian sponsored Fatah-Fedayeen terrorism destabilizing the Syrian-Israeli border, and seeing it intensify in the months leading up to the war. And mind you: these were just the attacks on Israel from Syria. The first three months of 1967 on the Jordanian border saw some 270 Fatah-Fedayeen terrorist incidents, a 100% increase from the previous year. At the end of March, Fatah issued forth some thirty-four communiqués describing its “victories” and “praising the courage of our martyrs.”

The rest of the story is soon told. How the Soviets, on May 13 warned the Syrians of a bogus build-up of 15 Israeli brigades on their border that were allegedly poised to attack, how Nasser, informed by the UN border observers and his own intelligence that there was no such build-up, knew it to be bogus, and exploited the opportunity to remilitarize the Sinai, eject UN peace-keepers there, and close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. These unilateral escalations actions were all acts of lawlessness and a blatant act of war. Even Nasser 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 dealIsraela mortal blow of annihilation.”

This crisis, created solely by Nasser’s 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. The notion that Nasser and the other Arab leaders who had not only been goading their streets into a war-frenzy, but had been goading and taunting each other to attack Israel, would somehow have retreated from the brink and suffered the humiliating loss of face and prestige that would have accompanied such a move, is fantastic; they would just as soon have signed their own death-warrants. No amount of high pressure diplomacy, from America, the UN or anyone else, would ever have caused Nasser to withdraw from where he had now advanced. He knew that his actions meant war, as he himself openly admitted 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 beIsrael’s destruction. This is Arab power.”

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.

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?”

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 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.”

Thus, the idea that this escalation was “unwanted” by Nasser, the Syrians, and the others, is not only absurd, but demonstrably false. To allay and defuse these brazen provocations, aggressions, and escalations, and the violently revanchist furies that fueled them, the best efforts of Israeli diplomacy were as helpless and as useless as a tiny garden hose spraying a brushfire. The Arabs wanted war, provoked war, and got war.

Also, the notion that Nasser’s closure of the Tiran Straits need not have been a casus belli, and that ifI srael were only a bit more patient that the United States would have taken some kind of overt action to enforce free passage of the Straits while mired in the increasingly unpopular muck ofVietnam, is pure moonshine. While President Johnson had nothing but kind words of understanding and sympathy toward Abba Eban during his visit to Washington, he left him in no doubt that he had absolutely no mandate with either Congress or the international community to intervene in any decisive manner, so much so that Eban himself spoke of Johnson’s “rhetoric of impotence” when discussing the crisis. Johnson strained all of his powers of persuasion to deter the Israelis from taking preemptive action and bluntly told Eban that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone,” making it clear that no help would be forthcoming from America, and that Israel was on her own.

And it should also be noted that all of the blood-curdling, exterminiationist sentiments being shouted at Israel by Arab leaders were not mere bluff; they were backed up by a fearsome reality ringing Israel’s borders.   

By June 4, Egypt,Syria,Jordan, and Iraq all had reserves called up, mobilized, and massed on the Israeli border.

Some 28 Egyptian brigades (100,000 men) were deployed on the 211-mile south-west border, and some 23 Syrian and Jordanian brigades (126,000 men) were deployed along the 334 miles of eastern border with Syria and Jordan.

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.

Mr. Shahaf notes that “Israel at the time was militarily much stronger than its Arab neighbors and the performance of the IDF in the war was pretty much as predicted by the CIA.”

While a comparison of the Israeli and Arab ordrs of batle above calls the parity of forces into question,  Mr. Shahaf is correct when he notes that 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. But, as I have pointed out in an earlier blog essay, which I recount here below, 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 theWest 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 overwhelmed.

The CIA view that Israel could have absorbed and repelled an Arab assault in June 1967, in short, looks fit to hold the same company as their 2003 view that Saddam had WMD, and their 2007 view that Iran had suspended work on their nuclear program since 2003.   


In April 1948, October 1956, June 1967, June 1982, April 2002, July 2006, and December 2008, Israel responded in force to threats to its national security that I believe no sovereign nation would or could have met passively, though some of the threats were less dangerous to the life of the nation than others. But with the possible exception of April of 1948, in no other crisis did the life of the nation hang more perilously in the balance than in May-June 1967.    

I don’t know whether I have succeeded in making my argument, but I think I have; readers can judge for themselves. People of good will and conscience can agree to disagree on what the best course of action is concerning Iran’s nuclear program. These are, after all, questions of terrible weight and complexity, and the burdens that fall on those who must weigh the options and decide the course of action to pursue in this jungle of danger and uncertainty are no less terrible.

Mr. Shahaf is certainly entitled to his opinion as to what course of action his government should pursue in this matter; he is not, however, entitled to his facts about why Israel went to war in June 1967.






About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.