On the Eve of the Six-Day War

Monday, June 4, 2012

This week, Jewish Ideas Daily commemorates the forty-fifth anniversary of the Six-Day War with a day-by-day synopsis.  Below, the first of a seven-part series.

Forty-five years ago today, on June 4, 1967, Israel and the Jewish world were in suspense. Today, we recall the Six-Day War as a stunning martial victory by the Jewish state; but on the war's eve, this outcome was wholly unforeseeable. Indeed, the odds appeared firmly stacked against Israel; that is why its victory became such an inspiration to Jews worldwide—an experience as formative, to the generation that watched it, as the Holocaust and Israel's founding were to the preceding one.

But how did war break out?  Michael Oren, historian of the war and current Israeli ambassador to the United States notes, "Even a discussion of a context must have a starting point," even if this point represents a somewhat "arbitrary choice."  One starting point is Soviet-backed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  He came to power in 1954 and by 1956 had already fought a war with Israel in the Sinai.  Israel routed the Egyptians in that conflict but withdrew from Sinai after promises that it would have freedom of navigation through the vital Straits of Tiran, off the Sinai coast.  As insurance, the United Nations put a peacekeeping force on the armistice line. 

Nasser was also president of the United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria, and made the UAR position on Israel clear.  "I announce on behalf of the United Arab Republic people," he declared in 1959, that "we will exterminate Israel."  Egyptian Fedayeen guerrillas mounted cross-border attacks.  There were occasional Israeli reprisals.

Another starting point is Yasser Arafat, who in 1964 led an abortive attempt by al-Fatah terrorists to infiltrate Israel.  In that year the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which Arafat would later lead.  The PLO's announced goal was to liberate the "usurped part" of the "Palestinian Arab people's homeland"—not from Egypt, which held Gaza, or from Jordan, which held the West Bank, but from Israel.

Tensions also mounted with Syria, which was engaged in a dispute with Israel over access to water resources.  Israel also had larger reason to fear Syrian plans.  "We have resolved," Syria's then-Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad addressed Israelis in 1966, "to drench this land with your blood, to oust you as aggressor, to throw you into the sea."  Though some Israeli leaders considered trying to topple Syria's regime, Israel took no military action.  But the Soviet Union falsely informed the Syrians that Israel was massing forces on the border.  Syria responded by massing its own troops there.

Levi Eshkol, Israel's Prime Minister and Defense Minister, prepared for war but hoped for peace.  "There is no lack of temperance and responsibility on our part," he wrote to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.  "On the other hand, the problem is not solved indefinitely by inaction."


Egypt and Syria showed no such ambivalence.  "Our basic goal," Nasser reaffirmed in 1967, "is the destruction of Israel."  Syria's Information Minister said the coming battle would be "followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended."

"Egyptian President Nasser kicks Israel into the sea."   Al-Farida, Lebanon (1967). 

 "Israel submits to the tanks of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon."   Al-Hayat, Lebanon (1967). 

"Jewish skulls piled in the ruins of Tel Aviv."  Al-Jundi al'Arabi, Syria (1967). 

Supporting the Syrian mobilization, Nasser moved Egyptian troops into the Sinai in May, 1967.  On May 16 he ordered the UN peacekeepers out.  British Foreign Secretary George Brown reacted acerbically: "It really makes a mockery of the peacekeeping work of the United Nations if, as soon as the tension rises, the United Nations force is told to leave."  On May 22 Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, denying Israel the access it had been promised in return for withdrawing from Sinai.  The blockade was an act of war.  Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban explained, "There is no difference in civil law between murdering a man by slow strangulation or killing him by a shot in the head."

Sinai Map

Geographically, Israel was surrounded by its enemies:


Israel was also at an enormous disadvantage in personnel and equipment.  Egypt and Syria had expanded their alliance to include Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco.  All began to contribute forces.  The Arab armies numbered 550,000 men, with 2500 tanks and 950 aircraft.  Israel had 240,000 under arms, 800 tanks, and 300 aircraft; it faced a very real possibility of annihilation.

That realization stirred world Jewry.  Derek Lewis, a British Jew, reacted typically:

Looking back to 1967 when I was 19 years old, I cannot believe how little I understood about Israel's precarious position in the world. . . .  I had not thought of the place as a homeland.  Then, as the tension escalated suddenly, it hit me: This place was part of me, and for some unaccountable reason the whole Arab world was poised to destroy it and kill "my family."

Israel now faced a political crisis as well: Eshkol was losing popular confidence.  He tried to promote calm with a radio broadcast that was widely viewed a disaster.  Calls for his resignation mounted.  On June 1, Eshkol relinquished the post of Defense Minister to Moshe Dayan, former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a hero of the Sinai War, and invited Menachem Begin, leader of the opposition Herut Party, into the Cabinet. 

Israel now had a national unity government.  The country's mood changed overnight, and Ezer Weizman, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, delivered his famous line: "The Arabs have surrounded us again—poor bastards."  It was a brave piece of what looked like gallows humor.

Government radio announcers began to call up the reserves.  Israeli poet Abba Kovner remembered the moment:

I was leaning on a newspaper stall at the time.  The newspaper seller was in the very act of stretching out his hand towards the paper I wanted when suddenly the radio voice caught his attention.  His eyes widened, he looked through me rather than at me, and said, as if in surprise, "Oh!  They've called me up, too."

It was hamtanah, the waiting.  The country's economy came to a halt while the citizenry held its breath.

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