In the spring of 1967, tensions between Syria and Israel ran high, with flashpoints including terrorist raids against Israel originating from Syria and the Syrian diversion of water from the Jordan River. Following an attack on the water pump at Kibbutz Misgav Am, Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol resolved that after the next act of belligerence, Israel would position armored tractors deep into the demilitarized zones, wait to be hit, and then fire back. The plan went into effect accordingly and resulted in a large-scale dogfight on April 7 over Syrian skies, in which the Israeli Air Force shot down several Syrian planes. In the next month, Fatah, the Palestinian terrorist organization, launched more than a dozen attacks on Israel and planted mines and explosives on Israel’s borders with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. On May 5, violence escalated as Palestinian fighters shelled Kibbutz Manara. All the while, Israel continued with its forays into the demilitarized zones and Israel launched a diplomatic campaign to set the groundwork for retaliation.
An Israeli appeal to United Nations Secretary General U Thant led to unprecedented UN censure of the Arabs. On May 11, U Thant condemned the Arab attacks; but a proposed Security Council debate on the matter was derailed by Soviet obstructionism. The United States, meanwhile, refused Israel’s request for tanks and jets and suggested that its naval fleet in the region would remain neutral in case of war. Israeli statements about answering Syrian aggression were reported in the international press and goaded additional Syrian backing of Fatah operations.
In mid-May, Soviet meddling severely escalated the brewing conflict. On May 15, Israel Independence Day, plans for a parade involving large numbers of Israeli troops in western Jerusalem drew outrage in Arab countries. Wishing to defuse the situation, Eshkol forbade bringing heavy weapons into the capital. This decision was used by the Soviets to stoke tensions; on May 15, Anwar al-Sadat, then speaker of the National Assembly, visited Moscow, where he was warned (falsely) by the Soviets that Israel was planning to invade Syria sometime between the dates of May 16 and May 22. The Soviets cited the absence of weapons in the Jerusalem parade as proof that the Israelis were preparing for war and falsely claimed that Israel was massing brigades along its norther border with Syria. Syria also quickly passed the disinformation to Egypt’s President Nasser, who on May 14 declared a state of emergency and made a show of parading his troops through Cairo on their way to Sinai. During this period, Arab leaders and the media spoke daily of eliminating Israel. (See here for examples.)
Claims of Israeli Troop Buildup Debunked, But Evidence Ignored
On May 14, Gen. Muhammad Fawzi, the Egyptian chief of the general staff, visited Damascus and toured the Syrian border with Israel, where he saw no Israeli troop buildup. Fawzi’s findings, which were confirmed by the chief of Egypt’s military intelligence, the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and the CIA, were shared with Nasser, who nevertheless decided to proceed in his menacing troop buildups.
In response to the Egyptian troop buildup, Eshkol put the army on a first-level alert and authorized the placement of several tank companies in the south. Reluctant to send a message that Israel was eager for war, he did not call up the reservists. Israeli diplomats went into service on all fronts — inviting UN Observer Odd Bull to the north to confirm troops were not gathered there, seeking to relay to Egypt that Israel was not interested in war, and sending international warnings about the gravity of Egypt’s actions.
Between the nights of May 15 and 16, the Egyptian and Palestinian troop presence in the Sinai tripled. On May 17, Egyptian planes entered Israeli airspace to carry out an unprecedented reconnaissance of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, prompting the Israelis to heighten the alert of their army and airforce. Syria announced that its forces were deployed in the Golan Heights. Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin called up 18,000 troops and ordered the laying of mines along parts of the Egyptian border. General Murtagi, the Egyptian Commander of forces in the Sinai, declared an Order of the Day, which was broadcasted on Cairo Radio May 18: “The Egyptian forces have taken up positions in accordance with our predetermined plans. The morale of our armed forces is very high, for this is the day they have so long been waiting for, for this holy war.”
Egypt Evicts UN Forces
In the evening of May 16, Egypt presented the United Nations Emergency Force, which had been deployed in the Sinai peninsula and Gaza Strip to discourage hostilities between Egypt and Israel, with a demand to withdraw from key locations. Without consulting with the General Assembly, as required by a commitment made in the UN in 1957, UN Secretary General U Thant decided to withdraw all of the UN forces. By May 19, UNEF officers relinquished their posts to the Egyptians and the Palestine Liberation Army.
The Americans again rebuffed Israeli diplomatic appeals, refusing to approve any preemptive actions, provide assurances regarding Israeli security or transfer tanks and jets Israel had requested. Efforts to obtain from France and the United Kingdom expressions of support for Israel’s security similarly failed. By May 20, Israel had called up 80,000 reservists.
Straits of Tiran Closed
On May 22, Egypt blocked the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping for the first time since the 1956 war, an act of war under international law. (Israel had long made clear that blocking the Israeli port of Eilat was cause for war.) Nasser’s decision to close the strait set off activity across the Arab world. Lebanon, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia all activated their militaries. Iraqi troops reportedly approached the Syrian and Jordanian borders while Jordan moved tanks towards the West Bank.
U.S. Rejects Israeli Appeals
Up north, the Syrians blocked UN observers from reaching a critical road and began pouring troops into Golan Heights. At that point, the Israelis received a message from President Lyndon Johnson stating that they should not initiate fire or take any action without first consulting with the United States. Eshkol therefore argued against entering into war at that time, and on May 23 the government agreed to accept an American proposal in which the U.S. would weigh the possibility a multinational escort of Israeli ships through Tiran. (In the wake of the 1956 war, the United States had committed itself to guaranteeing Israel’s access to the Straits of Tiran.) That night, Chief of Staff Rabin, suffering from anxiety, pressure, exhaustion, depression and perhaps nicotine poisoning, secretly withdrew from his duties for a two day period. His operations chief, Ezer Weizman, filled in for him and expanded upon Rabin’s limited war plan with a more aggressive plan called Operation Axe.
However, Eshkol did not approve the operation, as foreign minister Abba Eban was in the middle of what proved to be an unsuccessful diplomatic campaign in France, Britain and the United States, where he asked for an American commitment that any attack on Israel would be equivalent to an attack on the U.S. Although Johnson had condemned the blocking of Tiran as “illegal” and “potentially disastrous to the cause of peace,” and sent word to Egypt that its aggression would meet “gravest international consequences,” he nevertheless held firm in his opposition to unilateral Israeli action. The French and Soviets also warned Israel against starting a war.
Egyptian Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer, a onetime close confidant of Nasser whose growing power eventually came to threaten the president, was largely able to wrest control of the country’s armed forces from the Supreme Headquarters. He developed a war plan, called “Dawn,” whose goal — capturing the whole Negev desert — far exceeded the more limited plan to isolate Eilat and bomb specified targets. Nasser didn’t intervene with Amer’s orders, despite the fact that they wrought chaos among the poorly-equipped troops pouring into Sinai, and contradicted Egypt’s longstanding three-pronged defense strategy, dubbed “Conqueror.”
In a tense meeting of Israeli leadership, Eshkol agreed to call up the remaining reservists, though he and Rabin again decided against going to war in favor of waiting for positive results to Eban’s ongoing diplomacy trip. In France, Eban received a stern warning from Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle to refrain from attacking Egypt. Britain’s response was less hostile and included promises to try to bring an end to the blockade.
Eban returned to Israel and joined a strongly polarized Cabinet debate about whether or not to strike preemptively. During the meeting, communications from Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk reiterated the American commitment to opening the Straits as well as U.S. opposition to an Israeli attack. The Israelis decided to keep their army mobilized but to hold off on war so as to give the Americans an opportunity to work their diplomacy.
The strain on the Israeli leadership was tremendous. A May 28 radio address, in which an exhausted Eshkol bumbled through a speech about the choice to rely on American diplomacy, left the nation in a state of panic. The army had been biding time until Eban’s return, developing various contingency plans, but keeping everything on hold, resulting in confused troop movements in the Negev desert. Concerned about the deteriorating situation, army commanders were furious at the government’s decision to withhold from war. The public responded similarly, expressing impatience for formation of a national unity government and preparing itself for war.
The Soviet Position
In Moscow, the Egyptians sought to clarify the Soviet position in case of war, and like the Israelis vis-a-vis the United States, received an ambiguous response. The Soviet ambassador in Cairo informed Nasser about a cable sent from Washington containing a warning of an imminent Egyptian attack and urged Nasser not to strike. As a result, Operation Dawn was called off. Although some in the Soviet Union had urged caution, Shams Badran, the Egyptian defense minister, returned from Moscow with the message that the Soviets would stand by the Egyptians in battle.
As for the Egyptians, their troops continued to pour into Sinai. Despite some disorganization, shortages and exhaustion among his forces, Nasser was sure of victory. On the Jordanian front, battalions from the Arab Legion, under the control of Egyptian General ‘Abd al-Mun’im Riyad, were laregely spread out across West Bank Palestinian villages instead of being concentrated in more strategically important locales. Confident of victory, the Jordanians resolved to cut off western Jerusalem by attacking Israeli positions in the north and south of the city at the start of the fighting. As for Syria, it failed to coordinate with Egypt despite their defense pact. Like the Jordanians, the Syrians adopted ambitious war plans, opting for an offensive operation as opposed to a more limited plan to fend off Israeli attacks on the Golan Heights. Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia all sent troops to the Sinai. With the Arab nations united like never before, Arab oil companies pledged to boycott any country that supported Israel and Nasser threatened to close the Suez Canal. The Soviets, too, lent a hand of support by way of 10 warships which arrived in the eastern Mediterranean.
In addition, Israel received word from France, the nation’s major arms supplier, that De Gaulle had issued a complete ban on weapons sales and transfers to Israel. And in a June 4 meeting, the newly formed Cabinet, received a cable from President Johnson seeming to contradict the earlier American softening on the issue of preemption. It warned that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.” Nevertheless, the Cabinet, in a 12-to-2 vote, opted for war, scheduled to begin early the next morning, Monday, June 5.
Soldier of Peace: The Life of Yitzhak Rabin, Dan Kurzman, 1998
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Michael B. Oren, 2002
Israel: The Embattled Ally, Nadav Safran, 1981