Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World writes that Israel’s escalation of tensions on the Syrian front prior to June 1967 was the “single most important factor dragging the Middle East to war”. Prior to the war news stories told again and again of Syrian’s firing at Israeli farmers from the Golan Heights but the full circumstances of those conflicts was not revealed publicly until 1997 when a reporter published notes of his interview with the military commander Moshe Dayan in 1976. In that interview
Dayan confessed that his greatest mistake was that, as minister of defense in June 1967, he did not stick to his original opposition to the storming of the Golan Heights. Tal began to remonstrate that the Syrians were sitting on top of the Golan Heights. Dayan interrupted,
Never mind that. After all, I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let’s talk about 80 percent. It went this way: We would send a tractor to plow someplace where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was. I did that, and Laskov and Chara [Zvi Tsur, Rabin’s predecessor as chief of staff] did that, and Yitzhak did that, but it seems to me that the person who most enjoyed these games was Dado [David Elazar, OC Northern Command, 1964–69].
The Road to War
According to the evidence in Shlaim’s study neither side wanted the 1967 war. There was no conspiracy by Arab states to launch a surprise attack on Israel and Israel had no plan to seize extra territory at the time. War came about as a consequence of political miscalculations and blunders, or a “crisis slide that neither Israel nor her enemies were able to control.”
Stage 1 – careless threats in media interviews
To begin with, Israel made a series of threats against the Syrian regime unless it stopped its support for Palestinian guerillas:
- 11 May 1967, Israel’s director of military intelligence in a briefing of foreign journalists “gave a distinct impression that Israel was planning a major military move against Syria.”
- Then the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces dropped a hint published in an Israeli newspaper “that the aim might be to occupy Damascus and topple the Syrian regime.”
Stage 2 – cornered into a show of leadership
The Soviet Union, supporter of the Syrian government, in response sent a report to Syria’s ally Egypt to warn that Israel was moving its forces towards the northern border and planning to attack Syria. Egypt’s president, Nasser, was pressured to take some decisive action to maintain his credibility as leader of the Arab nations:
The report [from the USSR] was untrue and Nasser knew that it was untrue, but he was in a quandary. His army was bogged down in an inconclusive war in Yemen, and he knew that Israel was militarily stronger than all the Arab confrontation states taken together. Yet, politically, he could not afford to remain inactive, because his leadership of the Arab world was being challenged. . . . Syria had a defense pact with Egypt that compelled it to go to Syria’s aid in the event of an Israeli attack. Clearly, Nasser had to do something, both to preserve his own credibility as an ally and to restrain the hotheads in Damascus. There is general agreement among commentators that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel. (252f)
Nasser decided on three-fold action to impress the Arab public:
1. He sent a large force into the Sinai
2. He ordered the removal of the U.N. peacekeepers from the Sinai
3. He closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel shipping
Stage 3 – the psychological hit
It was #3 that rankled in Israel the most since the Straits were the prize gain of the Israeli forces in the 1956 Suez War:
For Israel this constituted a casus belli. It canceled the main achievement of the Sinai Campaign. The Israeli economy could survive the closure of the straits, but the deterrent image of the IDF could not. Nasser understood the psychological significance of this step. He knew that Israel’s entire defense philosophy was based on imposing its will on its enemies, not on submitting to unilateral dictates by them. In closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, he took a terrible gamble—and lost. (253)
Stage 4 – collective psychosis
According to Shlaim the Israeli government was paralyzed for two whole weeks with indecision. The lack of leadership led to public panic:
During this period the entire nation succumbed to a collective psychosis. The memory of the Holocaust was a powerful psychological force that deepened the feeling of isolation and accentuated the perception of threat. Although, objectively speaking, Israel was much stronger than its enemies, many Israelis felt that their country faced a threat of imminent destruction. For them the question was not about the Straits of Tiran but about survival. Weak leadership was largely responsible for permitting this panic to spread from the politicians to the people at large. (253)
Stage 5 – threat of the religious party
Israel’s political impasse was resolved on 1 June with the formation of a national unity government. But the National Religious Party threatened to withdraw from the coalition unless the outspoken and belligerent Moshe Dayan was put in charge of the Defense Ministry.
From Israel’s primary founder and first prime minister
Ben Gurion, no longer prime minister, was furious. He excoriated the military Chief of Staff:
“I very much doubt whether Nasser wanted to go to war, and now we are in serious trouble,” said Ben-Gurion. He claimed that the mobilization of the reserves had been a mistake. Rabin replied that he had recommended mobilization in order to make sure they were ready. “In that case, you, or whoever gave you permission to mobilize so many reservists, made a mistake,” repeated Ben-Gurion. “You have led the state into a grave situation. We must not go to war. We are isolated. You bear the responsibility.” (255)
From the President of the United States
Johnson told Eban [Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs] that it was the unanimous view of his military experts that there was no sign that the Egyptians were planning to attack Israel and that if they did attack, the Israelis would “whip the hell out of them.” Johnson promised to act with other maritime powers to open the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and he warned against the initiation of hostilities by Israel. He repeated several times, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.” Eban’s report to the cabinet on the disappointing results of his trip reopened the debate on the proposal for military action. By a majority that included Eshkol, the cabinet decided on 28 May to wait two or three weeks. (255)
From Israel’s Prime Minister
That evening [Prime Minister] Eshkol met with the General Staff to explain the decision of the cabinet. The meeting was very stormy. The generals used blunt language in charging the civilian leadership with weakness, muddle, and confusion. . . . . All the speakers stressed that time was of the essence because the longer they waited, the heavier would be the price of victory in terms of casualties. Eshkol disputed that the only way to achieve deterrence was by launching an immediate attack, and he elaborated on his reasons against preventive war. “Would we live forever by the sword?” he asked, his voice rising in anger. (256)
Stage 6 – The U.S. winks
Since Eban’s visit the U.S. had changed its mind and assured the Director of Mossad in a secret meeting that it would favour an Israeli attack on Egypt, and that
the CIA estimated that Israel could defeat the Egyptian army without any outside help. (257)
Sunday, June 4, the full cabinet took the decision to go to war.
The Six Day War and the Golan Heights
Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in the early hours of June 5 1967.
. . . but false information was given to Egypt’s allies to encourage them to join in the fighting. At noon the air forces of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq started to attack targets inside Israel. Within two hours the Syrian and Jordanian air forces were also wiped out, as was the Iraqi airbase . . . near the Jordanian border. In all, four hundred enemy planes were destroyed on the first day of fighting, and that in essence sealed the fate of the Arab armies. (257)
The fighting on the eastern front was initiated by Jordan, not by Israel. King Hussein got carried along by the powerful current of Arab nationalism. . . . On 5 June, Jordan started shelling the Israeli side in Jerusalem. This could have been interpreted either as a salvo to uphold Jordanian honor or as a declaration of war. Eshkol decided to give King Hussein the benefit of the doubt. Through General Odd Bull, the Norwegian chief of staff of UNTSO, he sent the following message on the morning of 5 June: “We shall not initiate any action whatsoever against Jordan. However, should Jordan open hostilities, we shall react with all our might, and the king will have to bear the full responsibility for the consequences.” King Hussein told General Bull that it was too late; the die was cast. Hussein had already handed over command of his forces to an Egyptian general. He made the mistake of his life. Under Egyptian command the Jordanian forces intensified the shelling, captured Government House, where UNTSO had its headquarters, and started moving their tanks into the West Bank. (260)
Syria and the Golan Heights
My own highlighting throughout…
Syria for its part, wanted to stay out of this war. True, its air force made a sortie and its artillery bombarded Israeli settlements along the front line on 5 June, but these were limited hostilities and they ceased after Israel’s devastating counterattack on Syria’s air force. There was no need for Israel to open a second or third front. David Elazar, OC Northern Command, exerted all the pressure he could for all-out war against Syria, but Dayan kept him on a very tight leash.
. . . .
Dayan was determined not to run the risk of Soviet military intervention on the side of Syria. He was also worried that their forces would become overextended. “We started the war in order to destroy the Egyptian force and open the Straits of Tiran,” he said. “On the way we took the West Bank. I do not think that it is possible to open another campaign against Syria. If the idea is to go into Syria and change the border in order to make life easier for the settlements, I am against.” Dayan pointed out that the Syrians would never accept the loss of their territory, and the result would be never-ending conflict. Dayan pointed out that the Syrians would never accept the loss of their territory, and the result would be never-ending conflict. Rather than trying to move the international border, he proposed moving ten settlements to a distance of fifteen kilometers from the border.
. . . .
Dayan’s next move completely astounded his colleagues. Early in the morning on 9 June, a few hours after Syria requested a cease-fire, Dayan called General Elazar directly, bypassing the chief of staff, and ordered him to go to war with Syria.
. . . .
What prompted Dayan to change his mind so suddenly was a message from Gamal Abdel Nasser to the Syrian president, Nur al-Din al-Atasi, which was intercepted on the night of 8–9 June by Israeli intelligence. The message said,
I believe that Israel is about to concentrate all its forces against Syria in order to destroy the Syrian army and regard for the common cause obliges me to advise you to agree to the ending of hostilities and to inform U Thant [the UN secretary-general] immediately, in order to preserve Syria’s great army.
We have lost this battle.
May God help us in future.
Your brother, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Dayan claimed that this message completely changed the situation and led him to give the order to storm the Golan Heights and capture even more territory than had been proposed the preceding day. His order was “Do whatever can be done.” In the margin of the text of Nasser’s message, Dayan scribbled,
1. In my opinion this cable obliges us to capture the maximal military lines.
2. Yesterday I did not think that Egypt and Syria (the political leadership) would collapse in this way and give up the continuation of the campaign. But since this is the situation, it must be exploited to the full.
A great day.
. . . .
Although Dayan got most of the glory for the victory over Syria, he himself later regarded the decision to go to war against Syria as a mistake. In his 1976 conversations with the journalist Rami Tal, Dayan confessed that on the fourth day of the June War he had failed in his duty as minister of defense by agreeing to the war with Syria. There was really no compelling reason to go to war with Syria, he said.
. . . .
The allegation that Israel went to war against Syria because the kibbutz residents coveted Syrian land provoked strong indignation in Israel. There was even greater anger at Dayan’s allegations from the grave that Israel’s security was not threatened by the Syrians. For it became an article of faith among Israelis that the Golan Heights were seized in 1967 to stop the Syrians from shelling the settlements down below. When Rami Tal tried to make this argument, Dayan cut him short: “Look, it’s possible to talk in terms of ‘the Syrians are bastards, you have to get them and this is the right time,’ and other such talk, but that is not a policy. You don’t strike at every enemy because he is a bastard but because he threatens you. And the Syrians, on the fourth day of the war, were not a threat to us.” (262-266)
Landau, Noa. 2019. “Trump Signs Order Recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli Territory.” Haaretz, March 26, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-trump-signs-order-recognizing-golan-heights-as-israeli-territory-1.7058996.
Shlaim, Avi. 2014. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. London: Penguin.
Trump, Donald J. 2019. “Proclamation on Recognizing the Golan Heights as Part of the State of Israel.” The White House. Accessed March 27, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-recognizing-golan-heights-part-state-israel/.
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