In all of the narratives of the Six Day War, there is one seminal figure who is left out — David Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Gurion might have been out of office for nearly four years by the time the fighting erupted in June 1967, but his policies and actions perhaps marked the main reason for the war, let alone Israel’s panic during the weeks prior to the preemptive strike on Egypt. Ben-Gurion’s role showed how decisions made by a national leader can influence regional events long after he is out of office. In this way, the lesson for Israel today remains stark.
David Ben-Gurion had wanted to be a military hero since his childhood. The British exploited this need during the mandate period when they promised him he would head an international Jewish army that would fight Hitler. In the meantime, Ben-Gurion used his Haganah and Palmach forces to search for Jewish dissidents and hand them over to the British. During the War of Independence, he followed British dictates and sank the Altalena, prevented the rescue of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, abandoned the Etzion Bloc and withheld weapons from his army commanders.
The seeds of the 1967 war had been sown more than a decade earlier. In October 1956, Ben-Gurion joined Britain and France and initiated an attack on Egypt. The terms for Israel’s participation with its Western allies were harsh. Israel was not allowed to defend its air space. France would be responsible for that. Israel could not attack the Sinai Peninsula or the Gaza Strip without French approval. Ben-Gurion, through Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, intervened in military decisions that cost Israel a large loss of lives — 170 in three days. The war ended with Ben-Gurion’s immediate capitulation to an ultimatum by Moscow and Washington for an unconditional withdrawal. Then, he went home to bed, his usual refuge in difficult times.
For Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, this was a victory. Nasser understood that Israel would crumble under international pressure regardless of the military and political cost. He and his military commanders determined that Egyptian troops had fought well in Sinai, despite being badly outnumbered by the IDF. He was sure the Egyptian military would do better next time.
Nasser already had an ally for his next war — West Germany. Since the early 1950s, scores of ex-Wehrmacht officers were in Cairo training the Egyptian Army in the tactics used to defeat France and occupy continental Europe in 1940. The Germans, encouraged by the Nazi-infested regime of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, envisioned that Egypt would adopt blitzkrieg — a ground-air assault that would confuse and quickly defeat the enemy. The Germans also helped Egypt in developing long-range rockets, which could be tipped with chemical weapons.
From the start, Ben-Gurion had been briefed on the German effort. But he refused to even raise the issue with Adenauer. By 1954, Bonn was supplying Israel with tens of millions of dollars in reparations, mostly in consumer goods. The deal was eagerly awaited by Mapai and the Histadrut, which now enjoyed a monopoly on trade with West Germany.
After a decade of German training, the Egyptian Army was ready to test its skills in blitzkrieg. In February 1960, Egypt sent a massive armor-infantry force into Sinai, including the 2nd Infantry Division and 4th Armored Division. Within three days, the Egyptians, using radio silence, deployed some 500 main battle tanks near the Israeli border. Israeli intelligence failed to detect the Egyptian force. In late 1957, Ben-Gurion had ordered an end to cross-border intelligence operations. Instead, military intelligence chief Chaim Herzog learned of the Egyptian operation, later called Rotem, from a U.S. officer at a cocktail party in Tel Aviv. As Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Ben-Gurion’s favorite general, put it, “We’ve been caught with our pants down.”
Ben-Gurion was in panic. He first censored the news of the Egyptian threat from Israeli newspapers. He refused to reinforce the IDF’s paltry deployment of 30 tanks, mobilize the reserves or conduct air reconnaissance missions over Egypt. In the end, the Egyptians proved their capability and did not attack. For Nasser, this marked another demonstration of Israel’s timidity.
In June 1963, Ben-Gurion stepped down from the premiership. His pro-German policy had become anathema to many in Mapai and led to a fallout with Mossad chief Isser Harel, perhaps his closest ally. Ben-Gurion harangued his successor, Levi Eshkol, and was finally denounced by much of the Mapai leadership in June 1965. Ben-Gurion, along with Dayan and Shimon Peres, formed the breakaway Rafi Party.
Ben-Gurion, however, remained influential within the IDF, many of whose commanders owed him their career. In May 1967, the IDF was taken by surprise by Egypt’s massive deployment in Sinai. In vain, Eshkol turned to Bonn, Paris and Washington for help, but eventually approved a plan for an Israeli preemptive air strike on Egypt. Ben-Gurion, recalling the 1956 war, and hoping to replace Eshkol was furious and urged that nothing be done without the permission of the United States. He focused on Rabin, warning that the chief of staff would be held responsible for the forthcoming debacle. At one point, Rabin went home and refused to take Ben-Gurion’s phone calls.
On the eve of the war, Dayan, now defense minister, briefed Ben-Gurion of the plans to attack Egypt. The former premier was still against war but could do nothing to stop it. As it turned out, his predictions of a military and political collapse failed to materialize. Soon after the war, he became the first major Israeli politician to call for a full withdrawal from Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
As it turned out, Ben-Gurion’s fear of war significantly influenced the behavior of Arab states and the superpowers. Judging from Israel’s performance in 1956 and 1960, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was convinced that the Jewish state could protect itself. Nasser was said to have seen the military buildup in Sinai as a show of force that would intimidate Israel rather than lead to war. As Egyptian Maj. Gen. Gamal Matlum, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, said in 1992, “The Egyptian leadership may have imagined the possibility of a show of military force that would end without war, as had happened in 1960.”
Binyamin Netanyahu has often compared himself to Ben-Gurion. As with Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu’s decisions over the last 12 years could have significant repercussions regarding Middle East adversaries — particularly Iran and its proxies. Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu refrained from destroying the Hamas regime in 2014 during the 51-day war that saw 4,700 rockets and missiles land in Israel. He suspended military plans to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. And just several weeks ago, he allowed Hamas to engage in another war that overwhelmed Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system with a rate of fire about five times that of 2014.
Whether Iran or its proxies will wait seven years — as Egypt did — is considered highly unlikely by Israel’s intelligence community. Instead, the community expects Teheran, emboldened by international support, to order its proxies to attack Israel again — this time with its arsenal of Iron Dome interceptors nearly depleted.
Years ago, a senior Israeli intelligence officer summed up the dilemma: “Our assessments of enemy intentions have often been ruined because they were based on the expectations of an Israeli government determined to deter and defend. All of these assessments were thrown straight into the garbage can when the government showed it would not defend our strategic interests.”