There are longstanding allegations that over the Israeli Independence Day holiday in 1967 (May 11 to 14), Israeli leaders gave speeches and interviews indicating their intent to invade Syria and depose the Ba’athist government. Such allegations have long featured in history books and articles about the Six Day War. While it is the case that officials did give speeches and interviews about Syria, they were misconstrued by foreign journalists at the time and later incorrectly documented by historians.
This article will be divided into four parts and published over the course of four days. Starting with Israel’s head of state, the first part will compare Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s pre-war attempts at a diplomatic resolution with Syria to the abridged clips of his Independence Day speeches, the latter having falsely given the impression that he was making threats against Syria when he was actually making a plea for peace. The second part will document prior allegations by Moscow and Damascus about the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, threatening Syria with a war. The existence of the previous allegations demonstrates that there was a longstanding Soviet and Arab ploy to revert to such charges when it sought to paint Israel as an aggressor. The next part will explain how some historians have mistaken a carefully worded and off-the-record briefing given by the head of the IDF’s military intelligence, Aharon Yariv, as an indication of actual Israeli plans to invade Syria. The final and fourth part will analyze a selection of statements by Israeli officials in the decades following the Six Day War, which have been incorrectly viewed by some historians as an admission of Israeli guilt concerning their intention to start a war in 1967.
Turning Soundbites into Threats: Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Press
By May of 1967, Syria and Fatah’s “popular liberation war” strategy — which intended to make life so intolerable for Israel that it would eventually declare war — brought a preexisting conflict to its boiling point. Therefore, a large number of Israeli officials simultaneously addressed the problem in nationally broadcast speeches and interviews around the Independence Day holiday of 1967.
Coincidentally, international press coverage of the holiday that year was unusually high due to Israel’s controversial decision to hold its annual military parade in Jerusalem rather than in Tel Aviv. Jordan claimed the parade a violation of the 1948 armistice agreement since it involved the movement of military equipment closer to the Israeli-Jordanian border.
Although none of the Israeli statements contained direct threats to attack Syria, international reports highlighted the fact that there was strong rhetoric about Syria. Indeed, the initial press reports of the Israeli statements were deemed so inflammatory, that even American intelligence figures speculated on the likelihood of an imminent Syrian-Israeli clash. However, it was actually Gamal Adbel Nasser’s justification of his actions on the basis of the alleged Israeli threats that led early observers of the war to refer to them in their accounts. As a result, historians have taken for granted the existence of such threats as well as their accuracy.
Of course, in 1993 Richard Parker became the first writer to cast doubt on the authenticity of the threats claim. Specifically, he emphasized the fact that the initial press coverage had incorrectly attributed Yariv’s press briefing to Rabin. Nevertheless, Parker did not take the argument any further. He did not take into account the fact that it was not just confusion of attribution to Yariv or Rabin that was mistaken, but actually many Israeli statements had been incorrectly communicated and sensationalized by the press. Therefore, despite Parker’s unprecedented exposure of the flawed press coverage, many writers have continued to confirm or take for granted the standard interpretation of Israeli pre-war statements as bellicose threats, thus further promoting them as a legitimate excuse for Nasser’s call to arms against Israel.
Nevertheless, it was none other than Nasser himself who created this interpretation by identifying the so-called Israeli threats as an important factor in his decision to mobilize against Israel. Yet despite the fact that there was no evidence to support the underlying rumor of an imminent Israeli invasion of Syria, Nasser continued to refer to the threats each time he escalated his steps towards war in 1967. The allegation provided Nasser with a context to frame his steps as a necessary counterweight to Israeli militarism. The first instance occurred on May 22, when he justified a blockade on ships going to and from Israel through the Tiran Straits. According to Nasser:
On 12 May the first statement was made, a very impertinent one. Anyone who reads this statement must agree that these people are so boastful and arrogant that it is impossible to remain silent. The statement said that the Israeli leaders had announced that they would undertake military operations against Syria to occupy Damascus and bring down the Syrian regime. And on the same day, 12 May, the Prime Minister of Israel, Eshkol, made a very threatening statement against Syria.
Four days later, Nasser repeated the charge. This time he mentioned Rabin and used the alleged threats to detract from the controversy over his enactment of the blockade: “Why all this fuss over the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba” he asked. “When Eshkol and Rabin threatened Syria, no one spoke of peace or the threat to peace.” And again, two days later, Nasser described his actions as a moral imperative in light of Israel’s intentions. He said, “we cannot accept that the Prime Minister of Israel should threaten us and say that he is going to advance on us and occupy us.”
After the war Nasser continued to play up the significance of the Israeli threats charge. Specifically, he referred to the charge in order to deflect from Egypt’s defeat by Israel. He even painted himself as a victim of Israeli machinations. Nasser said, “We all know how the Middle East crisis started in the first half of May. The enemy had a plan to invade Syria; this was frankly admitted in all the statements of enemy politicians and military commanders, and there was ample evidence of premeditation to that effect.”
Long after the war Nasser continued to emphasize the alleged Israeli threats as the guiding reason behind his actions. He even suggested that his actions had saved Syria from a more devastating defeat by Israel:
It was therefore inevitable that we should take action to confront the threat to Syria. For the statements of Israeli leaders, politicians, and military men, and their open threats against Syria which had been reported in the press and mentioned at the United Nations made it impossible to doubt that the information we had received was true. They also made it impossible for us to wait or hesitate.
Nasser’s view became the standard interpretation of Israeli pre-war statements. However, there is no doubt that in the case of the alleged Israeli threats to attack Syria, myths have replaced facts. Therefore, it is important to revisit the extent to which there were such Israeli threats or whether the lingering memory of the charge and its persistence in the historiography has succeeded in altering the historical facts of an important factor in the origins of the Six Day War.
Eshkol’s Search for a Modus Vivendi
To begin with, the routine Independence Day speeches of Prime Minister/Minister of Defense Levi Eshkol have been presented by many historians in the form of a string of threats to unleash Israel’s military forces against Syria. American diplomat Charles W. Yost was the first analyst to lend scholarly credibility to the string of threats by referring to them in a widely read Foreign Affairs article published shortly after the war. Yost claimed that Eshkol made “provocative announcements” on May 11 and 13 which “backfired by convincing the Soviets, Syrians and Egyptians that a major retaliatory strike against Syria was fixed and imminent.”
In order to prove his point, Yost provided two quotes and a paraphrased statement out of context, which he took from three different speeches. One from May 11 in which Eshkol had said, “In view of the fourteen incidents of the past month alone…we may have to adopt measures no less drastic than those of April 7.” And another from May 13 in which Eshkol had said, “It is quite clear to the Israeli government that the focal point of terrorists is in Syria, but we have laid down the principal that we shall choose the time, the place and the means to counter the aggressor.” Finally, Yost paraphrased Eshkol’s words from a second statement he made on May 13. According to Yost, Eshkol said that he “intended to make Israeli defence forces powerful enough to deter aggression, to repel it and to strike a decisive blow within enemy territory.”
Despite the fact that a more substantial reading of Eshkol’s remarks reveals the Israeli prime minister’s preference for obtaining a peaceful coexistence with the Arab states, other writers continued to present the version advanced by Yost. And the charge was subsequently amplified through decades of historians footnoting Yost and other historians who followed in his footsteps.
While there is no denying that Eshkol’s words form a different message when presented as stand-alone phrases, the overall sentiment behind the complete broadcast text is essential to understanding its original meaning.
An important context to Eshkol’s statements is the fact that it was the anniversary of the day when David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first head of state, had announced the country’s independence in the face of five invading Arab armies. Therefore, it was a tradition during each annual celebration for the current head of state to reflect upon the triumphs at hand as well as the rising challenges facing the nation. For Eshkol the challenges of 1967 included a high unemployment rate and a loud opposition movement spurred to a head by none other than Ben-Gurion himself. Coupled with the rising number of terror attacks on civilian centers and on the National Water Carrier, Eshkol faced a loss confidence from the general public. Therefore, the traditional patriotic speeches given over the holiday festivities were a timely occasion and a political opportunity for Eshkol to make his voice heard. As such, he delivered several pragmatic speeches that simultaneously called for peaceful relations with the Arab world and advertised the strength of the army (i.e., its ability to fend off any future invasions by the Arab states). In other words, his speeches were a double-edged sword.
Indeed, on May 11 Eshkol was the keynote speaker at a Mapai (Workers Party of the Land of Israel) meeting. He described how future action against the Ba’athist government in Syria would likely take the form of the Israeli retaliation of April 7 — in which ground units had been brought to action and jets scrambled to penetrate Syrian airspace after Syria opened fire. However, such a skirmish was hypothetical. It was premised on a notion that based on past experience Syria would eventually provoke such an incident. Therefore, Eshkol thought it was prudent to prepare for such an inevitability. Furthermore, an examination of the Israeli press coverage from the event reveals that Eshkol sought to justify his defense record — especially by way of confirming his enhancements to border security.
Specifically, Eshkol sought to refute a rumor that he had increased the length of Israel’s mandatory military service in order to lower the rate of civilian unemployment. Eshkol dismissed the rumor as nothing more than “toxic malice.” He had another reason: lengthening the service requirement would increase the number of active soldiers and therefore “help prevent infiltration and sabotage.” Moreover, since “there had been no less than 14 attacks [along the border] in the last month alone,” Eshkol believed that Israel would eventually have little choice but to adopt the effective response used on April 7. What is important to note was that Eshkol was referring to the nature of an Israeli response rather than making threats of an unprovoked Israeli action.
Two days later, Eshkol repeated his arguments in a broadcast interview with Kol (Radio) Israel. However, this time his remarks were intended for a wider public audience and they were presented in a patriotic and galvanizing manner. He acknowledged his intention to procure sophisticated weaponry that would make Israel’s army stronger and therefore more capable of controlling the terms of a likely clash with the Syrians. However, this was not the main message of his broadcast. It was actually focused on the role of global powers in tilting the regional balance of forces against Israel’s favor. He said, “It is not for nothing,” that the Syrians had sought protection from the Soviets. “But we do not rely on miracles. We will be on guard and we will be ready for any possible deployment.” It was a message of reassurance to the Israeli public. He was stressing defensive rather than offensive action.
Eshkol gave the same message in his annual Independence Day statement, which was delivered in a separate broadcast later that day — an important distinction in the chronology that historians have mostly overlooked or meshed together with the earlier statements. After acknowledging recent and difficult losses caused by Syria and Fatah’s attacks along the border, Eshkol offered a prayer of speedy recovery and noted that the strength of Israel’s military was being focused on providing a more secure future. He ended the prepared statement with a clear message to the Arab world and foremost the Syrians: “The Arab states and the nations of the world ought to know that any border which is tranquil from their side – will also be quiet from our side, and if they will try to sow unrest on our border – unrest will come to theirs.”
However, reports only containing Eshkol’s most provocative statements were received with alarm by international observers. For example, on May 13 the American President Lyndon B. Johnson was made aware of them in his Presidential Daily Briefing, which is prepared by the CIA and identifies potential foreign conflicts. In the report it was noted that the “Israelis continue to threaten the Syrians with retaliation for recent Syrian-supported terrorist incidents. Prime Minister Eshkol has warned publicly…” Likewise, UN Secretary General U Thant deplored both sides to refrain from provocative rhetoric. However, Eshkol’s words had been formed into attention-grabbing headlines by foreign, and Israeli journalists. For example, on May 12 the New York Times ran an article titled “Warning by Israelis Stresses Air Power”; while on May 14 the Israeli left-wing Davar published an interview with Eshkol titled “Eshkol Warns Syrians: We will not tolerate sabotage incursion.” Thus, journalists were responsible for misrepresenting Eshkol’s speeches.
Eshkol’s need to reassure Israelis — politicians and civilians alike — about the military’s ability to handle the Syrian/Fatah security threat should sufficiently illustrate his preference for a regional detente. So should his so-called ultimatum of May 13, in which his determination to avoid an escalation of hostilities appeared through his carefully worded plea for reason and logic to prevail between the two countries. In fact, it was no different than Eshkol’s earlier attempt at reviving moribund communications with the Syrians via discussions through the Israeli-Syrian Mixed Armistice Commission (ISMAC), a dedicated diplomatic manoeuvre, nonetheless, amidst a rising occurrence of terror attacks by Fatah and sponsored by the Syrian government.
Eshkol’s preference for diplomacy over action, often at the expense of his popularity, can be seen as far back as October 1966. In the aftermath of a string of terror attacks, which culminated in the unprecedented bombing of a Jerusalem flat no less than one mile from Eshkol’s residence, an Israeli complaint was lodged to the Security Council. The decision not to launch a military reprisal was received with mixed emotions. Some editorials in the Israeli press advocated for the use of force to stop the attacks, while others acknowledged the usefulness of seeking international condemnation of Syria’s role in sponsoring terrorists. Likewise, key opposition figures from Ben-Gurion’s Rafi party, such as the popular former chief-of-staff Moshe Dayan, used the opportunity to advocate for a mild form of military action against the Ba’ath regime. At one point, while informing the Knesset of his plan, Eshkol was sternly rebuked by a parliamentarian, who demanded that he, “Tell the world what you mean when you promise retaliation. You know that your super-moderation will not help matters when the Soviet Union is spurring Damascus to onslaughts on our border.”
Indeed, the UN proceedings proved fruitless. When a team of observers concluded two investigations of separate incidents stemming from the Jordanian and Syrian borders it was capped by technical difficulties — such as the inefficiency of tracking dogs that were apparently impeded by inexperienced handlers. In the words of the UNTSO chief-of-staff, General Odd Bull, who was head of the permanent unit of UN observers stationed along the border and therefore responsible for the investigations: “It was extremely difficult to say where the perpetrators of many of these acts came from, which meant that the chairmen of the MAC’s [Mixed Armistice Commissions] often abstained when a vote was taken on a resolution put forward by Israel.” Nevertheless, despite the failure to bring about justice, Eshkol still continued to work through the UN and offer diplomatic overtures to Syria.
However, the UN in spite of Eshkol’s persistence, was powerless to directly stop Syria and Fatah’s attacks. In the first two weeks of January 1967 alone there were no less than seven terror incidents — one of which involved the lethal mining of a football field in Dishon village. In light of the attacks Secretary U Thant called for an “extraordinary” ISMAC meeting “with a view to reaching an understanding on the problems of cultivation in the area which have given rise to the incidents of recent weeks.” The agenda, as made clear by U Thant, was to discuss the cultivation rights of Arab and Israeli farmers in the DMZ, over which Israel had claimed sovereignty since 1949. Although ISMAC had last convened in 1960 and had not met since, due to Israel’s perception that more often than not the Syrians hijacked the agenda for issues outside its purview, there was an expectation that this time would be different. In fact, according to reports in the Israeli press, Eshkol was prepared to offer extraordinary measures including, among other, things allowances for Syrian farmers to work plots inside of Israel’s legally recognized boundaries.
That optimism, however, was short-lived. On January 26 the Syrians, reflecting on the first ISMAC meeting from the day before, accused the Israeli side of attempting to go “beyond the fixed agenda and deal with the Palestine question in general.” Presumably this was a reference to an Israeli recommendation that Syria adhere to a non-aggression clause signed between the two countries in the 1949 armistice agreement. In the second ISMAC meeting (January 29), the Syrians themselves strayed from the agenda and took a hardline approach. They demanded, among other things, that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their former homes in the DMZ. The Syrian delegation also noted their objection to the idea that ISMAC meetings had re-established “direct contact” with Israel. Instead, they claimed that Israel was using the meetings in order to “[deceive] world opinion [and] to camouflage the new plan of aggression it is preparing against Syria.” Not surprising, the talks permanently stalled after the third and final meeting of February 2, at which point General Bull proposed adjournment due to “unyielding positions” and the “number of fresh topics outside the agreed agenda.”
Meanwhile, Eshkol faced considerable pressure from the Israeli public. On January 15 leading Israeli newspapers advocated for a more aggressive response to Syria. For example, Hayom called for deploying the Israeli Armed Forces, Shearim decried Security Council complaints as a useless response, and Hatzofe not-so-gently reminded its readers that the government’s foremost responsibility was to ensure public safety. Likewise, when there was another terrorist attack on January 27, Israeli newspapers underscored Syria’s lack of commitment to peace.
Yet at the same time, Eshkol doggedly pursued an unrealistic arrangement with the Soviets to establish a “Spirit of Tashkent” — a symbolic reference to Moscow’s mediation of the conflict between India and Pakistan. Eshkol hoped that Moscow could do the same between Israel and Syria. Once again, the optimism in his policy did not match the reality on the ground. Moscow remained cold to the idea. Yet despite constant rebuffs from the communist superpower, Eshkol remained hopeful. Even up to the three week crisis period before the Six Day War, Eshkol hoped that the Soviets would mediate peace, or at the very least restrain Syria.
In May 1967 there was an upswing in terror attacks. To be sure, Eshkol had the necessary public support to launch a strike against Syria. Instead, he stuck to his principles and opted for another round of UN mediation. As his effort was initiated on May 10, right before the unusually heightened publicity over Israeli Independence Day messages, it was overlooked by the Western press and therefore it has also largely gone unnoticed by historians. Specifically, Moshe Sasson, the head of Israel’s Armistice Committee, met with General Bull to discuss initiating indirect negotiations with Syria. That same day, Israeli ambassadors in countries that were Security Council members informed their host nations about the growing burden caused by a string of recent terror attacks along Israel’s northern border.
On May 11 the Israeli diplomatic campaign continued. This time a letter was sent to the Security Council, expressing Israel’s exasperation over the elevated frequency of terror attacks emanating from Syria:
I have the honor, on instructions from my Government, to draw attention to the very grave situation on the northern borders of Israel, as the direct consequence of the ever-increasing number and intensity of the acts of sabotage, violence and armed intervention being committed in the northern part of Israel at the instigation and with the operational planning and participation of the Syrian authorities….Since 14 April 1967, there have been a further uninterrupted sequence of acts of sabotage, mining of roads, armed infiltration, mortar shelling of a village, which culminated in the last few days in attacks on traffic along main roads.
The letter noted Israel’s resolve to stop the attacks once and for all:
The basic issue between Israel and Syria lies in the unrealistic and aggressive policy of the Syrian government…which is provoking such serious tension in the area…the Government of Israel must hold it [Syria] responsible for all the consequences; and in the face of continuous Syrian provocation and threats, regards itself as fully entitled to act in self-defense as circumstances warrant.
In a sign that the UN would once again be unable to administer an adequate measure of justice to stem further attacks, U Thant publicly responded via a spokesperson, saying that he did not condone the use of force by either country and that they should instead respect the armistice agreements. In response, Eshkol gave an interview to Davar on May 11, in which expressed frustration over Syria’s behavior in the ISMAC discussions. He also noted that there was some “room for criticism of the UN because, for reasons only understood by them, there is no discovery of the full truth [of why the ISMAC talks had failed].”
But given the prime minister’s interest in renewing UN mediated talks, evidenced by his long-term commitment to work through the organization despite its prior shortcomings, it is unlikely that he would immediately turn around and threaten to launch a full-scale war against Syria. A far more plausible scenario — particularly in light of a complete rendering of his May 11 and 13 statements — is that he was continuing to act upon his initiative to reach a modest understanding with Syria. And while his strong statements were no doubt intended to quell a frustrated Israeli public, they did not indicate a preconceived intent to attack Syria. In fact, the topic of Syria was only one aspect of his speeches, which also covered a variety of other domestic issues pertaining to Israel’s well-being.
What this closer analysis of Eshkol and his speeches reveals is that historians have incorrectly deemed his statements belligerent when, if they actually are examined in context, they show that the Israeli leader did not have aggressive designs towards Syria. In fact, he favored a diplomatic solution with defensive measures being a last resort.
Gabriel Glickman is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. He founded and runs a foreign policy website, www.themodernhistorian.org. Gabriel is writing a book about the historiography and origins of the Six Day War.