Michael Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He has served as director of Israel's Department of Inter-Religious Affairs and as advisor to Israel's delegation to the United Nations. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and has written extensively on Arab-Israeli affairs, notably on the USS Liberty affair. Recently, using newly-declassified documents from Israel, the United States, Russia and the Arab world, he published the critically-acclaimed Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002). He discussed his research with the Middle East Forum on May 6, 2002.A Familiar Scenario
Thirty years ago, just before the 1967 Six Day War, a Palestinian terrorist organization, Fatah, headed by Yasir Arafat, conducted terrorist acts within Israel with the dual purposes of inflicting as much damage as possible on Israeli civilians, and of bringing the Arab world into a war against Israel.
Israel's retaliation against this terrorism triggered violent protests throughout the Arab world. Radical Arab regimes, such as Syria, called for war. More "moderate" Arab states, afraid of confronting Israel's military, stopped short of declaring war. Meanwhile, the Europeans, led by France, condemned Israel's acts of self-defense, and the United Nations condemned Israel's actions almost daily. The United States, for its part, was embroiled in its own war in the East (Vietnam), and was reluctant to become directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At home, Israel experienced a difficult economic crisis. With no one else to turn to, Israel's main support came from Diaspora Jews, who worked tirelessly to ensure the Jewish state's survival.
Today, amidst the so-called Intifada al-Aqsa, Israel is revisiting its past. Arafat has inflicted untold damages on Israel via terrorist groups under this control, while simultaneously drawing Arab states closer to war. The international community regularly chastises Israel, and until recently, America was reluctant to get involved due to its war in Afghanistan. Israel, all the while, must endure a grave economic crisis as it works to avoid another war.
The Countdown to the Six-Day War
The countdown to the Six-Day War began in November 1966, when a terrorist attack by Fatah against three Israeli soldiers prompted an Israeli reprisal. A large Israeli force entered the Jordanian-occupied West Bank village of Samua, and encountered a battalion of Jordanian soldiers, leading to a firefight that left 15 Jordanian soldiers dead.
Arabs in the West Bank and Jordan reacted violently, demanding that Jordan's King Hussein make greater efforts to protect his people. Hussein, in turn, made scathing remarks about Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Egypt's president, suggesting that he needed to do more to "liberate Palestine" and that he was hiding behind the UN, which had stationed troops in the Sinai Peninsula (between Israel and Egypt) since the 1956 Arab-Israeli war.
Thus, Nasser needed a pretext to eject the UN peacekeepers from Sinai and save face. His pretext came on May 12, 1967, when the USSR misinformed the Egyptians that Israeli forces were massed on Israel's northern border, ready to destroy Syria. With the threat of war looming, Nasser, evicted the peacekeepers from Sinai, closed the Straits of Tiran, thereby blocking Israel's oil imports.
The degenerating situation put Israel in a dire situation. A deepening economic crisis grew, while many in Israel criticized the government for not doing enough to protect the country. This prompted Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to form a national unity government. This helped ease some societal tensions, but did little to help Israel with their security problem and increasing international isolation. The pressure was building towards war.
An Arab Attack Averted
Recently declassified documents reveal a number of Arab countries had extensive plans to attack Israel several days before the Six Day War began. The Egyptian attack plan, "Operation Dawn" called for strategic bombings of major ports, airfields, cities and the Dimona nuclear reactor. The Arab armies would then effectively cut Israel in half with an armored thrust from northern Sinai, through the Negev desert.
Nasser was intent on reversing the humiliating Arab defeats of 1948-49 and 1956. He had provoked Israel when he closed the Straits of Tiran. In the weeks leading up to Israel's preemptive strike, he had mobilized the Egyptian army in Sinai, and was poised to launch what he called "the operation that will surprise the world." Abdel Amer, an Egyptian general who sought to augment and consolidate his power in Egypt, planned the operation, set to take place on May 27, 1967.
Unaware of this development, on May 26, 1967, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban arrived in Washington to determine America's position if war broke out in the Middle East. Upon his arrival, however, Eban received a secret telegram from Eshkol directing him to convey to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson that Israel had just learned of the Arab attack plan.
When the two met, Johnson said he had no evidence of an impending attack. In the event that Israeli intelligence was correct, Johnson instructed the Egyptian ambassador to send a cable warning Nasser to not attack Israel. Additionally, the administration warned the Soviets that if Egypt attacked Israel, the U.S. would hold them responsible. Indeed, U.S. and Soviet pressure forced Nasser to cancel the attack planned for the next day.
Six Days of War
In the weeks leading up to June 5, Israel found itself surrounded by large armies in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The combined military forces on these three fronts gave Israel a distinct disadvantage in all areas of military readiness. In the face of what must have looked like overwhelming odds, Israel planned to strike the Egyptian air force while still on the ground. When Israel did strike, on June 5, 1967, it destroyed this air force in hours.
In just Six Days, Israel's defense forces successfully pushed back the Syrians on the Golan Heights, the Egyptians in Sinai and the Jordanians in the West Bank. It was only Israel's self-restraint – a restraint shown in 1956 and later in 1973 – that kept them from further advancing into Amman, Damascus and Cairo.
The Jordan Factor
The Six Day War was the result of miscalculation and misunderstandings. For its part, Jordan wanted to avoid a war. Declassified documents reveal that King Hussein had even attempted to send Prime Minister Eshkol a letter expressing sorrow for the death of the three soldiers in Samua. This letter was received on a Friday afternoon by U.S. Ambassador Walter Barbour, who decided to wait to deliver the letter after the Jewish Sabbath. Unfortunately, Israel struck before he did. Thus, if not for an American ambassador's procrastination, the Six-Day War may have been avoided.
The war also might have been avoided if King Hussein had not feared a backlash from the Arab world for abstaining from the conflict. In an attempt to absolve Jordan of culpability, Hussein gave control of his army to Egypt, protecting Jordan from possible Egyptian recrimination, but allowing his country to descend into war.
When the war began, Israel did its best to avoid conflict with Jordan. But on the morning of June 5, 1967, the Jordanian army bombed West Jerusalem, the suburbs of Tel Aviv, as well as targets in the Galilee. Eshkol sent Hussein a letter stating that Israel would take no actions against him if he ceased hostile activities. Jordan, however, received misinformation of Arab victories emanating from Cairo, and pressed forward. They sent troops to Mount Scopus and government hill ridge in Jerusalem. The Jordanian forces might have faired better, if not for the Israeli discovery of a major Jordanian intelligence blunder. Indeed, Jordanian radio broadcast its military plans roughly an hour ahead of the actual deployment.
After several decisive victories on the battlefield, Eshkol made one final attempt to end Jordanian-Israeli hostilities. He sent Hussein a letter asking that he recall his troops. If Hussein would comply, Israel would not take control of the old city of Jerusalem. Eshkol's call went unanswered. Israeli paratroopers subsequently entered the old city through the Lion gate and took control of the Temple Mount, and Jerusalem has been in Israeli hands ever since.
In spite of its short duration, the repercussions of the Six Day War were far reaching. The Israeli conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem led to quandaries that lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whereas the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict prior to 1967 was simply the Arab desire to destroy Israel, the Six Day War created a more complicated conflict. Issues resulting from the war now include settlements in the disputed territories, the Palestinian refugee question, and sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Still, most Arab countries have adopted a position towards Israel of "no negotiation, no recognition and no peace." Most Arab nations have either continued to denounce Israel and her right to exist, or actively work towards hastening Israel's destruction by fueling the flames of hatred and funding terrorist operations.
In the Middle East, Israel is a strong military power. However, because of its size and its hostile neighbors, Israel is mortally vulnerable as well. The same type of tinderbox situation that precipitated the 1967 is happening in Israel today, as the 20-month old intifada rages. Even today, it may only take a spark to set off another regional conflict on the scale and gravity of the Six-Day War.
Summary account by Gil Marder, research associate of the Middle East Forum.