Forty-five years ago at this time the Six-Day War raged between Israel and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, leading to the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Desert (the last since relinquished). The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have lived under Israeli control since that time, with the land of the West Bank progressively annexed de facto with Jewish-only settlements and a forbidding wall that surrounds Palestinian towns and separates families’ homes from their farmland. In Arabic this is known as an-Naksah, the setback.
What follows is excerpted from my “‘Ancient History’: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention,” published by the Cato Institute August 16, 1991. (See full paper for references.) For more, see my “Israel’s 1967 Attack Was Aggression; Israel’s Current Occupation Is Illegal,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 1991.
The Six-Day War, 1967
In six days during June 1967, the Israeli military devastated the air and ground forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and occupied the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank (an area west of the Jordan River), including East Jerusalem. The Six-Day War established Israel as the premier military power in the Middle East. Israel’s might was a product of American money and French armaments, in addition to dedicated personnel. The war also established the idea of Israel as a U.S. strategic asset in the region.
Before discussing the U.S. role in the war, it is necessary to briefly explain how and why the war was fought. Its start is generally treated as a preemptive, defensive strike by Israel, necessitated by mortal threats from its neighbors. The facts show otherwise. Kennett Love, a former New York Times correspondent and a scholar of the Suez crisis, wrote that Israel drew up “plans for the new war . . . immediately after the old. . . . The 1956 war served as a rehearsal for 1967.” That is important because it bears on the Arab reaction to the U.S. role, a reaction that has shaped subsequent developments in the region.
After the 1956 Sinai campaign, the Israeli-Egyptian border was quiet, partly because of the presence of the UN Emergency Force. But that was not true of the border between Israel and Syria. The specific causes of friction between the two countries were disputes about fishing rights in Lake Tiberias, Israeli settlement activity in the demilitarized zone established after the 1948 war, guerrilla incursions into Israel, and Israeli development of a water project involving the Jordan River.
Israel retaliated against the guerrilla activity with massive raids into Syria and sometimes into Jordan. Syria, which had left the United Arab Republic in 1961, underwent a left-wing Ba’athist coup in 1966 and had good relations with the Soviet Union. Syria pointed to the quiet Israeli-Egyptian border and the lack of Egyptian response to the attacks on Syria as evidence that Nasser was not up to leading the Arabs. Nasser was accused of hiding behind the UN forces. Actually, Egypt was absorbed in civil wars in Yemen and the British Crown Colony of Aden (soon to be South Yemen) at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. Intra-Arab rivalries were assuming greater importance in the mid- 1960s, with Nasser frequently bearing the brunt of Arab criticism.
The Syrian-Israeli friction continued throughout early 1967. Then, in April, Israel said it would cultivate the entire demilitarized zone between the countries, including land that Syria contended was the property of Arab farmers. When the Israelis moved a tractor onto the land on April 7, the Syrians fired on them. To retaliate, 70 Israeli fighters flew over Syria and shot down 6 Syrian war planes near Damascus. There was no response from the United Arab Command, an essentially paper military undertaking organized by Nasser at an Arab summit in 1964. (At the same meeting, the Palestine Liberation Organization had been set up–ironically, as a means of reining in Palestinian nationalism.)
Over the next several weeks, Israel threatened Syria. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin said in an Israeli radio broadcast on May 11 that “the moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian Government, because it seems that only military operations can discourage the plans for a people’s war with which they threaten us.” The Israeli director of military intelligence, Aharon Yariv, added that Nasser would not intervene. The Jewish state also directed massive military action against al-Fatah to stop infiltrations. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders did all they could to have their country appear in mortal danger.
The situation worsened when the Soviet Union told the Egyptians that Israel had massed forces on the Syrian border in preparation for a mid-May attack. The United Nations found no evidence of such preparation, but on May 14 Nasser moved troops into the Sinai. Yet U.S. and Israeli intelligence agreed that the action was, in Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s words, “no immediate military threat,” and several years later, in 1972, Gen. Ezer Weizmann admitted that “we did move tanks to the north after the downing of the aircraft.” Israel quickly and fully mobilized, prompting the Egyptians to ask the UN Emergency Force to leave the Sinai. The request did not mention the two most sensitive locations of the UN force, Sharm el-Sheikh (where it protected Israeli shipping) and the Gaza Strip, but the UN secretary general, U Thant, surprised everyone by replying that a partial withdrawal was impossible. Faced with a choice between the status quo and a complete UN withdrawal, Nasser chose the latter. When the United Nations offered to station its forces on Israel’s side of the border, the Jewish state refused (as it had in the past). President Lyndon Johnson, fearing that the Israelis would “act hastily,” asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to inform him in advance of any Israeli action. Israel replied that a blockade of the Strait of Tiran would be a casus belli.
No Position for War
Meanwhile, Nasser told the Egyptian press that he was “not in a position to go to war.” Israeli military leaders believed him. General Rabin said later, “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.” Ben-Gurion himself said he “doubt[ed] very much whether Nasser wanted to go to war.”
It is in that context that the following events must be intepreted. On May 21 Nasser mobilized his reserves. On May 22, with the UN forces gone and under the taunting of Syria and Israel, Nasser blocked–verbally not physically– the Strait of Tiran, which leads from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli port city of Elath. The strait’s importance to the Israelis was more symbolic than practical; no Israeli flag ship had used it in nearly two years, although Iranian oil was shipped to Israel through it. Nevertheless, the closure was a worrisome precedent for the Israelis.
Despite a blizzard of diplomatic activity in and outside the United Nations, tensions rose over the next days, until, on June 5, Israel attacked Egypt–thereby launching what came to be known as the Six-Day War. (The Israeli government told the UN Truce Supervision Organization that its planes had intercepted Egyptian planes–a patent falsehood.) In short order, Israel destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Israel prepared a letter to President Johnson assuring him that Israel, in the shorthand of U.S. ambassador Walworth Barbour, “has no, repeat no, intention [of] taking advantage of [the] situation to enlarge its territory, [and] hopes peace can be restored within present boundaries.” But that soon changed, as signaled by a request from David Brody, director of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, that Johnson not mention “territorial integrity” in his public statements about the war.
On June 8, Egypt, having lost the Sinai to Israel, accepted the cease-fire called for by the United Nations. The next day Syria also accepted it, but Israel launched additional offensive operations. By June 10 Israel controlled the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, Sharm el-Sheikh, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and its capital city of Quneitra. With the road to Damascus open, the Soviets threatened intervention if Israel did not stop. The Johnson administration signaled its readiness to confront the Soviets by turning the Sixth Fleet toward Syria. That was to be the first of two near-confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union in Arab-Israeli wars. Then, according to Johnson, the U.S. government began to use “every diplomatic resource” to persuade Israel to conclude a cease-fire with Syria, which it did on June 10.
The unseen side of the Six-Day War was Israel’s nuclear capability. Although Prime Minister Eshkol promised in 1966 that Israel would not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, it had been developing a nuclear capability almost since its founding. The locus of the program was the Dimona reactor in the Negev near Beershea. Israel apparently received help over the years from the American firm NUMEC, the French, and the U.S. government, including the CIA. It probably had operational nuclear weapons in 1967. According to Francis Perrin, the former French high commissioner for atomic energy who had led the team that helped Israel to build Dimona, Israel wanted nuclear weapons so it could say to the United States, “If you don’t want to help us in a critical situation we will require you to help us; otherwise we will use our nuclear bombs.”
Israel never signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not allowed inspection of its nuclear facilities since the late 1960s. According to Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, the inspectors were consistently deceived in the early 1960s. Israel had 12 to 16 warheads by the end of 1969, according to the Nixon administration. A CIA report concluded that Israel also tried to keep other Middle Eastern countries from developing nuclear weapons by assassinating their nuclear scientists.
What was U.S. policy before and during the Six-Day War? In the tense days before the outbreak of hostilities, Johnson moved the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean. On May 23, while declaring an embargo on arms to the area, he secretly authorized the air shipment to Israel of important spare parts, ammunition, bomb fuses, and armored personnel carriers. After the war started, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for Israel to return to its prewar boundaries, and Johnson refused to criticize Israel for starting the war.
Author Stephen Green has written that the United States participated in the conflict even more directly. Green contends that pilots of the U.S. Air Force’s 38th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing flew RF-4Cs–with white Stars of David and Israeli Air Force tail numbers painted on them–over bombed air bases in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan to take pictures for the Israelis. They flew 8 to 10 sorties a day throughout the war, and the pilots carried civilian passports so they would appear to be contract employees if caught. When the enemy air forces were destroyed, the RF-4C mission was changed to tracing Arab troop movements at night, which enabled the Israelis to bomb the troops the next morning. The pilots also flew close-in reconnaissance sorties around the Golan Heights. Apparently, none of the flights proved decisive, but they did enable Israel to achieve its objectives quickly. Ironically, the Arabs accused the United States of providing tactical air support, which apparently was untrue. In re- sponse to the accusations, President Johnson said publicly that the United States provided no assistance of any kind to the Israelis.
U.S. Green Light?
A critical question is whether the U.S. government gave Israel a green light to go to war. Israeli officials frequently consulted with U.S. officials in the days before June 5; they were looking for support, claiming that Israel had been promised access through the Strait of Tiran in 1956. U.S. officials often told the Israelis that “Israel will only be alone if it decides to go alone”–a statement that was interpreted by some Israelis as a nod to go ahead. That impression could have been confirmed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s reported comment to a journalist, regarding the U.S. attitude toward Israel: “I don’t think it is our business to restrain anyone.” Finally, Foreign Minister Abba Eban later wrote in his autobiography that when he visited Washington in late May, “what I found . . . was the absence of any exhortation to us to stay our hand much longer.”
The Six-Day War was a diplomatic disaster for the United States. That might have been foreseen, but President Johnson had other things on his mind. He seems to have been motivated by a desire to win Jewish American support for the war in Vietnam and to advance the “strategic relationship,” begun by President Kennedy, with Israel against the Soviet Union.
The cost in Arab alienation was great. Johnson had assured the Arabs that Israel would not attack and that he would oppose aggression. Yet he never called on Israel to withdraw from the conquered territories or to resolve the Palestinian question. Rather, the United States gave Israel substantial help, including diplomatic support that facilitated Israel’s conquest of neighboring territories by providing critical delays.
In no sense did the war bring stability to the Middle East, if indeed that was a U.S. objective. Nasser summed up the consequences: “The problem now is that while the United States objective is to pressure us to minimize our dealings with the Soviet Union, it will drive us in the opposite direction altogether. The United States leaves us no choice.”
Nasser’s prediction was borne out by events. Within three years the Soviets were shipping military equipment to the Egyptians, including surface-to-air missiles to defend Egypt against Israel’s U.S.-made F-4 Phantom jets. Thousands of Soviet troops, pilots, and advisers were provided. The Soviets also moved closer to Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The United States responded by giving more weapons and planes to Israel.
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Postscript: Years after the war, Prime Minister Menachem Begin said, “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” Likewise, Mordechai Bentov, an Israeli cabinet minister present at a key prewar government meeting, said the “danger of extermination” was “invented of whole cloth and exaggerated after the fact to justify the annexation of new Arab territories.”