SIX DAY WAR - ISRAELI PERSPECTIVE
8. The Fateful Hour
When Israel realized that it had become a pawn in a global chess game, it could do little to prevent a war no one saw coming. Diplomat and historian Richard Parker wrote: "What cries out for explanation now, a quarter century later, is that a scant three weeks before June 5 no one - statesman, scholar, soldier, Eastern or Western, Israeli or Arab - has predicted a general Arab-Israeli war in June or even in 1967." Indeed, on May 5, 1967 the military intelligence service predicted that Israel faced no existential treat as her "security preoccupation" would revolve around Palestinian infiltration. This consensus is startling considering the effect Syrian support for FATAH infiltration had on Israeli--Soviet relations.
On April 7, there was a major air battle over Syria in which 130 planes participated, 6 Syrian MIGs were downed, and Israeli planes flew over Damascus. On April 21, the Soviet foreign ministry presented the Israeli ambassador with an oral document. Its first paragraph decried the collusion of imperialist forces with Israeli militarists against the decolonizing Afro-Asian world. The second paragraph was devoted to colonialist aggression in Vietnam, and the third again asserted that the forces responsible for the Vietnam war were "pushing the Middle East to the edge of war in order to secure larger oil revenues and are not taking into account its destructive effect on these countries and on Israeli territory." Moscow had to "pay attention" to events in "the vicinity of her borders," and Israel should not follow the advice of impatient political forces who were willing to become "playthings of hostile outside forces." When this was followed by an April 26 letter accusing Israel of "jeopardizing the vital interests of the people and the fate of the country," the director of the foreign ministry, Gideon Rafael, flew to Moscow to try to convince the Soviets that Israel was not part of any anti-Syrian conspiracy. He failed. Moscow made clear that it would consider any anti-Syrian action, a CIA "assignment."
On May 11 Israel wrote to the President of the Security Council warning that it considered Syrian support for "people's war" a flagrant violation of the General Armistice Agreement and regarded "itself as fully entitled to act in self-defense as circumstances warrant." U Thant agreed:
I must say that, in the last few days, the El Fatah type of incidents have increased, unfortunately. Those incidents have occurred in the vicinity of the Lebanese and Syrian lines and are very deplorable, especially because, by their nature, they seem to indicate that the individuals who committed them have had more specialized training than has usually been evidenced in El Fatah incidents in the past. That type of activity is insidious, is contrary to the letter and spirit of the armistice agreements and menaces the peace in the area.
Chief of Staff Rabin explained that since Syria itself activated the terrorists, the aim of Israeli reprisals had to be "different from those undertaken in Jordan and Lebanon." The Soviets interpreted Rabin's words as a threat to the Damascus regime. The Egyptians assumed that Israel intended to force a change in Syrian policy as it did in Egyptian policy. They told U Thant:
We understand that Israel does not intend to annex Syria, and Damascus is not part of their plan. Their plans are confined, however to south of Syria where the bulk of the Syrian Army is deployed . . . Israel could . . . invade south Syria. . . . Israel then, supported by its friends, would agree to having a new UNEF on Israel-Syrian frontier.
Israeli officials do not deny that they contemplated a major retaliatory operation against Syria, but argue that it would have been carefully designed not to trigger the Egyptian-Syrian mutual defense pact. In fact, on May 5, Nasser sent his prime minister to Damascus to warn that their mutual defense pact applied "only in the event of a general attack on Syria," and not "to merely local incidents."
Nasser himself acknowledged that he had no intention prior to May 13 of getting involved in the ongoing Syrian-Israeli-FATAH fight; he then received a series of Soviet warnings of an "immense concentration of Israeli troops on the Syrian border." The veracity of the reports were of little interest either to the Egyptians or the Soviets. Amer was not surprised when his chief of staff denied the Soviet reports and ambassador Chuvakhin insisted that his job was not "to observe facts in Israel" but "to present the views of Moscow."
In his May 14 battle command, Amer explained that the decision to march into the Sinai "was made with a complete awareness of all the global conditions and the international circumstances related to the situation and to the position of the imperialist forces helping Israel." Those conditions convinced Egyptians of the imminence of another round of conservative coups. The 1965 escalation in Vietnam was followed by the removals of Sukarno, Ben Bella and Nkrumah; the 1967 escalation had already produced a coup in Greece. Soviet intelligence gave Nasser a recording of an American agent discussing plans for Greek-like coups in Arab countries.
A raid on the AID offices in Yemen had produced proof of CIA mischief there, and the mysterious publication of an anti-religious tract in Damascus caused a general strike which severely weakened Syria's rulers. Since revolutionary regimes "constituted Egypt's first line of defense," Amer argued, their demise would isolate the Egyptian regime which the US was "actively working to unseat." However, "the Vietnam war totally exhausted the military potential of the United States," while the Soviets built up their Mediterranean navy. Acting publicly on Syrian behalf, at Soviet prompting, would force Moscow to protect Nasser and his regime from the US.
Had Nasser wanted to deter Israel, he could have repeated his successful 1960 exercise of moving troops into the Sinai in secret and dispersing them after an agreement had been reached. But, in 1967, he publicized his every move and emphasized the role of Soviet warnings as if to caution Moscow not to leave itself open to Chinese charges of betrayal. Indeed, Nasser responded to the initial Soviet silence by getting Shukayri to tour Gaza with the Chinese ambassador and the NLF representative.
Israelis did not miss the ascendence of the "hawkish" Brezhnev-Grechko forces, advocates of what the head of the Israeli Communist Party called a Chinese-style foreign policy concerning the Arab-Israeli dispute. However, they doubted Soviet willingness to protect Syria directly and did not foresee that Nasser would buy Soviet assurances that the Arabs could beat Israel on an "isolated" battlefield. Eban's misreading of the effect of the Vietnam War on the Middle East was just as tragic:
Since the Vietnam crisis, I have felt that Israel's position in the United States has, if anything, become more secure. Vietnam taught American Presidents that any true definition of the national interest must include a capacity for reconciling the domestic consensus with foreign policy. . . . There is also the feeling that a humiliating defeat for Israel in the Middle East would be a Soviet victory of such strength and resonance that it would leave the United States enfeebled. . . . To honor the commitment to Israel, it is not necessary for Americans to be pro-Israeli. It is enough to be pro-American.
The trouble was that the very strategic, political and emotional attachment Americans exhibited towards Israel made her such an attractive target for both Moscow and Cairo. A correct reading of the global situation might not have prevented, war but it would have enabled Jerusalem to undertake the necessary military and diplomatic preparations for it. Instead, on May 21, when Eban asked Rabin "what the diplomatic establishment could do to help the army," Rabin said, "time, time, time!" With UNEF on the Egyptian border, the army had been deployed on the Jordanian and Syrian fronts and needed time to redeploy. The assumption that Israel would not have to fight before 1970, and the corollary decision to opt for American weapons had slowed military modernization. Few new American tanks had reached Israel, and the army needed time to return to service equipment it had thought obsolete.
Even more critical was the aircraft shortage. In 1956 Israel had 236 bombers and fighter planes, and the Arabs had 277. In 1967 Israel had 247 planes, including 44 training aircraft, and the Arabs had 571. This shortage led foreign experts to take a somber view of Israel's war prospects and enhanced Nasser's confidence that Israel would either not fight or that his superior Soviet aircraft would render him victorious. A wary Israeli cabinet member exclaimed: "I am ready to fight but not to commit suicide."
These shortages influenced policy. France, the major source of aircraft, was the first to embargo military supplies. It relented, only to reinstate the embargo a couple of days before the war. The US, too, used economic and military aid as a lever. Paradoxically, the aircraft shortage increased air force pressure for prompt action. Eshkol summed up the Israeli war prognosis: "The first five minutes would be critical" and victory would belong to the air force which would "hit first the airports of the other." Fear of Egyptian preemption led Weizman to suggest that the air force act alone until the ground forces were ready. Egyptian penetration of Israeli air space, and Israeli failure at interception, was just as troubling. When Eshkol suggested that air patrols be instituted to protect security objectives, such as the Dimona nuclear research facility, Weizman countered that such patrols would "finish our air force." Air patrols might force the cancellation of the plan on which victory depended.
In 1956, the British and French protected Israeli skies; in 1967, they would be wide open. The change reflected Israel's essential loneliness at a time when "Soviet fingerprints could be found everywhere." U Thant ignored Israeli advice to show flexibility and then succumbed to Nasser's request at a speed that left Jerusalem breathless. Israeli pleas for help in convincing Nasser not to take steps which would make war inevitable fell on deaf ears. Eban observes, "If any of the major powers addressed strong admonitions to Cairo between May 14 and May 22, their efforts are still unknown." Washington demanded consultations, but refused to reiterate her commitment to Israel. Eshkol told his Cabinet that he was "afraid that the Western countries would refuse to intercede in Moscow on Israel's behalf."
Israel demonstrated moderation: When asked: " Can Israel let it appear that his show of force has kept Israel from attacking Syria?," Evron answered that it could "provided" there were no "serious terrorist attack" and/or "interference with Israeli shipping through Aqaba." She appealed to American self interest: Her ambassador to Moscow told his American counterpart that there was a Soviet plan to evict the West from the Middle East and that Nasser's moves were intended to test Western obligations towards the area. She used her political clout: Letters and telegrams poured into presidential and Congressional mailboxes.
It was all for nought. Egyptian forces poured into the Sinai. Eugene Rostow informed Israel that "the Egyptian forces had the right to be anywhere on Egyptian territory that the Egyptian government desired." On May 20, the MOSSAD used an emergency communications channel to transmit a message from Eshkol to Nasser: "We don't want war. We will withdraw all our units now stationed on our frontiers if you withdraw your armies from Sinai to previous positions." The Israeli cabinet had already decided that "this was not the time to solve the terrorist problem." Cairo replied: "You will get our answer in time."
On the eve of Nasser's closure of the Straits, Eban met with Rabin. Rabin wanted to know the length of time a military campaign could last. Eban retorted: Israel was alone. No superpower would come to its aid. The IDF would probably have 24 to 72 hours before international pressure would curtail action. Rabin was taken aback. To go to war under such circumstances seemed absurd.
It was a long-held premise of David Ben Gurion that Israel should never go to war without the backing of a superpower. The Eshkol coalition placed its trust in the conventional Israeli army, international good will and American guarantees. Dayan's sojourn to Vietnam further decreased confidence in American commitments. In a crisis, he concluded, the "superpowers would dictate events in the Middle East" according to their global interests unless Israel forces them to take her well-being into account by potentially targeting nuclear warheads at Moscow.
Sharing De Gaulle's analysis that Moscow initiated the crisis as a response to events in Vietnam, and aware of the country's isolation, Ben Gurion and Peres argued that Israel should "dig in for six months or a year without taking any military initiative." But Dayan concluded that, desirable or not, Israel could not escape a war and he proceeded to reacquaint himself with the IDF. He told the commander of the Southern forces: "You will win this war. We will screw the Arabs, but you will have 20,000 to 30,000 fatalities. Everyone. The best of our youth." For a nation of two and a half million, that would indeed have been a pyrrhic victory. Yet, the commander recalled that Dayan was the first person he heard express his belief in victory.
An anxiety filled Rabin sought advice from Ben Gurion and Dayan. Ben Gurion opposed the precautionary mobilization of reserves because it constricted the time for diplomatic maneuvering. He told Rabin: "You, or whoever gave you permission to mobilize so many reservists, made a mistake. You have led the state into a grave situation. We must not go to war. We are isolated. You bear the responsibility." Clearly, he wanted Rabin to rectify his mistake. Dayan held his fire. The proper thing to do on the eve of the battle was to imbue confidence in the force commander. Rabin writes: "He spoke of the IDF with admiration, and I was grateful to him for that. If I was to be blamed for recommending mobilization of the reserves, thereby causing the situation to deteriorate and placing the country in danger, at least no one could accuse me of failing to prepare the IDF for the grave test in store for it."
Rabin was clearly out of his depth. Since Ben Gurion's departure, Rabin had functioned as the country's chief security officer. But the young chief of staff, who had relished his uncommon power, was unnerved by the unexpected developments. Eshkol understood the gravity of the situation, but repeatedly asked Rabin, "What should we do next?" or "What do I want from the cabinet?" Rabin complained more and more loudly that he was not receiving clear instructions. In Israel of 1967, such leadership weakness could not be kept secret. Israelis from all walks of life instinctively turned to their founding father as demands that Eshkol step aside in favor of Ben Gurion grew louder. They came from members of the leftist MAPAM and the rightist GAHAL. Nasser had concluded that Israel would not fight even if he closed the Straits, in part because its leadership was divided.
When Johnson's long delayed letter to Nasser was shown to Harman, he exclaimed that Nasser would regard the letter "as an invitation to interfere with shipping in the Straits." The letter was delivered after the closure of the Straits, along with the "more explicit" note-verbal. Foreign Minister Riad described Nasser's incredulity:
For the previous ten days Nasser had been questioning me closely over US intentions and so I promptly delivered the two communications to him. . . . Nasser asked if I was confident that this reflected a sincere and genuine position by Johnson. I said that I did not think the President of the United States of America would put his seal to an official document to beguile and deceive us.
Yet Nasser was not reassured. After a moment's silence he said: `I doubt gravely the sincerity of Johnson. For a man who has always sided with Israel it is inconceivable that, all of a sudden, he would become even-handed.'
The Egyptian media reported that Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China would back the UAR if the US would be foolish enough "to make the same mistake she did in Southeast Asia." Israel was clearly in a bind.
Eban to the Rescue.
When the Israeli Cabinet met on May 23, it seemed to have two choices: go to war despite the lack of army readiness and the diplomatic isolation, or swallow hard and hunker down. The second option meant turning the government over to RAFI. Interior Minister Haim Shapira insisted:
Because the situation is so severe, and we should not go to war under such circumstances. Only a personality known as an activist could tell the nation the unpopular truth without endangering the country with internal collapse. Only David Ben Gurion could tell this to the nation. But if his addition is impossible, Dayan could also do this."
But there was the third option. Johnson asked Israel to delay action for 48 hours, and Eshkol was reluctant to turn him down. His memories of Samu and of the 1956 Soviet-American cooperation were too vivid. Some argued that, in the Vietnam era, Soviet-American relations were too strained to permit such collaboration. But others emphasized the American desire to avoid war at all costs. The French told Israel that the crisis had been instigated by the USSR because of Vietnam. If so, argued Eban, perhaps Moscow would not "agree to lose it." Eban thought he had a way to draw Washington into "the Middle Eastern whirlpool." Moreover, Rabin was unwilling to say that a 48 hour delay would jeopardize the outcome. The Cabinet decided to give Johnson time by authorizing Eshkol to send Eban to America.
Eshkol preferred to send Golda Meir, a tougher negotiator, but she declined and Eban insisted. Rabin had collapsed, and Eshkol was under enormous political pressure. No one considered the probability that an official meeting between Eban and Johnson was bound to result in an American demand for a significant delay in military action. But then, the Israeli army was not even fully mobilized yet.
Eban's trip was an attempt to justify the Eshkol/Eban foreign policy. The two believed that, by closing the Straits, Nasser had handed Israel a secret weapon in the form of a written American guarantee. If Washington did not want Israel to open the Straits, she would have to open them herself. Such an American undertaking would vindicate their trust in presidential commitments, eliminate the need to turn over the government to Ben Gurion or Dayan, and save Israel from war.
Already Washington had promised to notify Moscow that "interference with the freedom of navigation would be considered an act of aggression which entitled Israel to defend itself." The US had also floated the idea of an international task force to open the Straits, had ordered units of the Sixth Fleet towards the Eastern Mediterranean, and had agreed to provide Israel with 100 troop carriers, spare parts for tanks and even information on improving the capabilities of the Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. Opening the Straits, Eban could argue, would rescue the Johnsonian principle of "commitment" from drowning in the marshes of Vietnam:
Here, the American risk was minimal. Israel was strong, resolute and united. . . . The likelihood of Soviet or Chinese intervention was less than in Vietnam. The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam War was not.
As Eban and Eshkol saw it, a public meeting with Johnson was a no lose proposition as it would put the Americans "on the spot" and assure that at least they "would not act against" Israel once a war began. News that De Gaulle, who had remained ominously silent, was willing to see him led Eban to stop in Paris on his way to Washington. De Gaulle was threatening to cut the massive military airlift which poured in from France. Also, State had already tried to engage the British and the French in daily consultations about the crisis. The French ambassador soon called it quits with a pointed reference to 1956. If Israel could persuade the French to join the Red Sea regatta, Washington would be thrilled. But De Gaulle told Eban that Western solutions were passé. The more Israel looked to the West, the less would be Soviet readiness to cooperate. Israel had "a case," De Gaulle said, but acting on it would put her own existence in jeopardy. The French military concluded that Israel would either lose or be terribly damaged. Eban continued to London and was delighted to find Wilson enthusiastic about the regatta and raring to discuss its "nuts and bolts" with the Americans.
In New York reporters inquired whether Eban "was asking that American soldiers risk their lives for Israel?" He said that he was not; he merely came "to seek U.S. respect for Israel's right of self defense." They remained skeptical. In the meantime, urgent cables from home indicated that Israeli intelligence had gotten wind of an Egyptian plan to launch a preemptive air attack on the night of May 27. The only way Israel could continue to refrain from action, argued Rabin, was if Johnson agreed to issue a statement declaring that "any attack on Israel would be considered an attack on the United States." When confronted with the unlikelihood of such an American declaration, he retorted: "For the sake of history, I want it written down that before we acted, we fully exploited all the diplomatic avenues available to us."
Eban showed Rusk the ominous cables. Since US intelligence did not know of the Egyptian plans, his hosts dismissed the Israeli alarm, but informed the Soviets and the Egyptians of the Israeli suspicions and warned them not to initiate hostilities. Johnson and his men who believed their own intelligence resented what they viewed as undue Israeli pressure.
To strengthen his hand, Eban wanted to focus attention on the Eisenhower/Dulles guarantees. He asked Harman to "call Scotty Reston and remind him that in March 1957 he published an article summarizing the understandings between Golda and Dulles." A few minutes later, Reston called back to say that he found the article and got the point. Reston published a column on Johnson's failure to honor Eisenhower's pledge "to act unilaterally, if necessary" and recognize Israel's right to do the same.
Eban's encounters with policy makers continued to be disastrous. McNamara and Wheeler doubted the utility of the international naval force, but assured the unhappy foreign minister that there was nothing to worry about. Israel would win the war in one week if she struck first, and in two if the Egyptians attacked first. The difference was "minor." Israel should sit fully mobilized for months and await the outcome of dubious American diplomatic initiatives.
Finally, after a series of unnerving delays, indignities and mishaps, Eban found himself in the President's private White House apartment being told that the fulfillment of past guarantees depended on public and Congressional support which were difficult to come by in the Vietnam era. If Israel wanted American help, it had to risk an air attack on itself. The US would try in the meantime to organize an international regatta, and Israel should help her do so. Twice Eban suggested that the Israeli and American military get together to plan their response if Israeli rather than the American intelligence proved to be accurate, but was adroitly deflected.
Finally, Ambassador Harman lost his patience. Disregarding protocol, he said that he hoped the Israeli military experts were wrong, "but nevertheless if Israel was attacked, it would not have any telephone number to call, no military group to plan with." Eugene Rostow reminded him of American warnings to the UAR, but Johnson demurred. He said that while he did "not wish to establish any joint staff which would become known all over the Middle East and the world," McNamara should get together with the Israelis and look into the problem. McNamara remarked that he would be thrilled to be better informed about Israeli plans. "It was agreed some liaison arrangement would be made." The following day, Eugene Rostow suggested starting "the military liaison" with intelligence coordination. To Harman, "it was 100% clear," that no serious emergency planning was going to take place.
Johnson insisted that his meeting with Eban would receive no media coverage, and he made Eban leave the White House through the back door. But NBC's Joseph Hersh found him at the airport. Eban took only one question: "Are you leaving as an optimist or a pessimist?" "I am a realist," was the retort broadcast around the world along with the evaluation that Eban had left the US empty handed. Especially rattled by the news were the Soviets whose strong opposition had convinced Nasser to call off the Egyptian preemptive attack earlier that day, May 26. Consequently, while Eban was flying home, Eshkol and his wife were "entertaining" Chuvakhin in their bathrobes. He came knocking on their door at 2:30A.M. with a note from Kosygin urging Eshkol not to permit "war-loving circles" to gain the "upper hand." Eshkol made no promises, but suggested reapplying Tashkent formula to the Middle Eastern dispute and expressed willingness to go to Moscow. Chuvakhin promised to transmit the offer to his superiors.
A two day Cabinet battle commenced on May 27. Eban led the pro-delay forces, and explained the obstacles that Vietnam placed on Johnson. If "misguidedly" or not, Johnson believed that given time he could overcome those obstacles, Israel "had an interest in granting him the time." The Americans believed the Israeli military was strong enough to wait. Politically, as long as there was a chance that Washington would come through, there was no need to hand over the leadership to Ben Gurion or Dayan. But Rabin despaired of the possibility that the US could ever be prevailed upon to permit Israel to preempt. He saw no reason to wait and make the war costlier. Others argued that "the past two weeks represented an impressive diplomatic achievement," but it was time to act. The manifest international impotence in the face of Nasser's admission that "his basic objective" was "to destroy Israel," and that all his moves were carefully planned towards that end, produced a major shift in world opinion from one of trepidation to open identification with the Jewish state. Western governments would be thus hard pressed to condemn a preemptive move, or rob Israel of the fruits of victory. Eshkol pleaded with the Cabinet not to make fateful decisions at 5 A.M.
By the time it reconvened, Eshkol had received strong messages from Washington, Paris and London urging restraint. "A top American official" had even gone to Amit's home and told him that, if Israel preempted, the US would "land" forces in Egypt "to protect her." Moreover, Nasser's mouthpiece Heikal reported that the Egyptians, to their ultimate peril, had acceded to Soviet demands and decided to ditch the first strike strategy in favor of "a second blow." He also stated that war was inevitable, which meant that Nasser had rejected a Middle East Tashkent. Johnson limited the political usefulness of his promises by prohibiting Eshkol from making them public. Eban and the religious ministers had to threaten resignation before the Cabinet agreed to turn down the IDF's recommendation for immediate action.
Eshkol decided to explain the Cabinet decision to the country. His own job was on the line. The demand for the creation of a national unity government, which would mean turning over decision making powers to Ben Gurion or Dayan, seemed almost unstoppable. The papers printed calls for a such a change from leading industrialists, former chiefs of staff, police, university professors and other public figures. "We need men with international reputations who can surprise and not only be surprised," wrote an eminent physician. "Only a national unity government can guarantee all of us that the policy of cool restraint which is supposed to be the acknowledged policy of the government is not the result of hesitancy, lack of initiative or unfounded expectations," wrote Amos Kenan, a radical leftist columnist.
Golda Meir retorted that such "talk" was undermining the government's negotiating position. Israel's friends were "being tested." "If they would not be able to prevent the wounding of the State of Israel, it would signal the general decline of civilization and the moral standing of humanity." Her argument was not aided by reports from abroad: "The word Vietnam is heard here like a magic spell designed to deflect any suggestion that the US use force to open the Straits," wrote one correspondent. Another viewed Johnson's inaction as revenge for Israeli and American Jewish failure to support his Vietnam policy. Analysts also explained Soviet interest in using the Middle Eastern arena to get back at the Americans for Vietnam, to exploit Western disunity caused by its preoccupation with Vietnam, and to work out "a package deal" with the US. They also got hold of a French note of caution delivered to the Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors: "You will fight and in so doing you will become playing pieces in the global contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Think before you turn your countries into a 'second Vietnam.'"
Eshkol's May 28 radio address failed miserably. The attempt of the hurried prime minister to read a text full of erasures and corrections on live radio ended up convincing the nation that he shared their fear and confusion. Eshkol, refusing to admit defeat, told his outraged generals that, because of his personal acquaintance with Johnson, he believed the American president would "fulfill his promise." His speech to the Knesset the following day was just as defiant: The army was "at the zenith of its strength in manpower, fighting spirit and military equipment" and the ties Israel had forged with other nations had helped, and would continue to help. He also reported that Nasser had upped the ante once more: "The Egyptian President has proclaimed his intention and readiness to attack Israel for the purpose of destroying her. Yesterday, he went further and threatened to begin at once with extensive sabotage operations against Israel, her towns and villages, and her citizens. This very day attacks have been carried out against us from the Gaza strip." Nasser was clearly getting restless.
The Lot Is Cast
The UNEF removal from Gaza immediately raised the question of Palestinian infiltration. UNEF had provided Nasser with an excuse for prohibiting it. To give substance to the policy of PLO "preparedness," as opposed to FATAH's immediate action, Nasser, with UNEF acquiescence, had gradually moved PLA soldiers into Gaza where they manned a series of posts parallel to UNEF positions. On May 14, Nasser asked UNEF to withdraw from their posts in territorial Egypt and concentrate their forces in Gaza. That would have precluded PLO infiltration into Israel and prevented Gaza from becoming an early Israeli target. Shukayri tried to change Nasser's mind by revealing the existence or PLA units there. But when given a choice between no withdrawal of full withdrawal, Nasser chose the latter. The seventy-two UNEF posts in Gaza were turned over to the PLA.
"Nasser permitted Shukayri to get organized," but would "he permit him to act?" That was the question asked in trepidation in Israel and, provocatively, in the Jordanian press. The Egyptians wrote that he would:
The Fedayeen are the owners of Palestine and Israel does not have the right to challenge their rights. Had the United States with all her power succeeded in blocking what she calls infiltration into South Vietnam? . . . THE ACTIONS WITHIN THE CONQUERED TERRITORY OF PALESTINE ARE LEGITIMATE. These actions will not end and there is no force in the world that could end them.
Israel let it be known that a major terrorist incident would produce a strong response. But Israeli intelligence worried. Failure to act, it cautioned Eshkol, would lead to "terrorist activities" against which "Israel would be helpless." Nasser might embark on imaginative scenarios such as a massive crossing of the border by Palestinian refugees.
The existence or absence of PLO insurgency emerged as a barometer of Egyptian intentions and, for the first two weeks of the crisis, peace reigned. Therefore, its termination signaled a shift in Nasser's thinking. As he told the Egyptian National Assembly, he had succeeded in restoring "conditions to what they were in 1956" and "God" would help him "to restore conditions to what they were in 1948." To cover his campaign with the aura of national liberation, he needed to be seen as leading an Arab coalition on behalf of the PLO. Permitting the PLA army to undertake mining operations, and to open fire on Israeli border settlements, was the first step in redefining the nature of the crisis; accepting Jordanian surrender was the other.
On May 21, the Jordanian chief of staff, came to Cairo to propose reconciliation between Hussein and Nasser. He was turned away unceremoniously. On May 29, Nasser agreed to sign a mutual defense pact with King Hussein. Strategically, Nasser had always insisted that an attack on Israel could only originate from the West Bank. Jordanian forces were weak but, within a day, Iraq joined the pact and promised to send Iraqi units to Jordan. An Egyptian general was given command over the joint forces, and Egyptian commando units were dispatched to Aqaba. Hussein flew to Cairo to sign the pact and Nasser forced him to take Shukayri (the man who declared that "to liberate Tel Aviv" the PLO had first to "free Amman") back to Jordan. The following day, Hussein and Shukayri paraded down the main street of Amman and control over the Palestinians was transferred to the PLO, which began to distribute weapons to the population at large. The stage was set for an intensified "people's war."
On May 22, Johnson wrote Nasser that "the great conflicts of our time are not going to be solved by the illegal crossings of frontiers with arms and men - neither in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America. But that kind of action has already led to war in Asia, and it threatens the peace elsewhere." In his belated June 2 reply, Nasser carefully decoupled Vietnam and the Middle East by writing that he agreed with Johnson in principle, then denied responsibility for Palestinian actions:
If you are referring to the crossing of the demarcation lines by some individuals of the Palestinian people . . . I may ask how far any government is able to control the feelings of more that one million Palestinians who, for twenty years, the international community - whose responsibility herein is inescapable - has failed to secure their return to their homeland.
Hence Rabin's observation that Israeli failure to go to war in 1967 "would have led within a short period of time to a difficult guerrilla war" followed by an Arab attack in which Israel would not have been aided by "anyone!" But Eshkol, whose political survival depended on the materialization of outside help, told his commanders: "You have to believe that the President of the United States does not lie. If time went by and nothing will be achieved I, Levi Eshkol, will tell him (Johnson) personally that I see myself free of my vow (to wait)."
On May 28, the Israeli government decided to give the Americans two to three weeks to open the Straits; Ambassador Barbour was so notified on May 29. But news from Paris and Washington as well as Cairo, changed things. The Soviets finally notified the French that they would not participate in a four power conference because the Arabs were opposed, the Americans and British supported Israel and the US was involved in Vietnam. Joe Alsop told Evron that Washington doubted direct Soviet interference. So, on May 30, Eshkol wrote Johnson a letter welcoming his commitments and promising to defer action for a week or two. To begin intelligence coordination, take Washington's temperature and convince Johnson to let Israel preempt, MOSSAD chief Amit flew secretly to Washington.
Amit left Israel intent on presenting the following case: Events in the Middle East were part of the global struggle. The kind of Soviet influence in the area inherent in the Egyptian-Jordanian-Iraqi pact would present the US with a serious problem, as would the victory of the militant faction in the USSR which seemed to be responsible for the activation of the Middle Eastern front. Israeli forces were fully mobilized and the Israeli economy could not afford to keep them so for any length of time. Israel therefore wanted the United States: 1. To replenish the Israeli military arsenals after the war. 2. To give it political backing in the UN. 3. To isolate the battlefront.
Amit met with Helms, who informed him that "he couldn't agree more" with his analysis, that regardless of what Israel had been told, he did not head the task force to organize the regatta, and that Amit must see the men who really counted - Johnson, McNamara and Rusk. Helms arranged for Amit to meet with McNamara. The first of Amit's discouraging reports coincided with a cable from Evron indicating that, instead of organizing a regatta, Washington was sending special envoys to cut a deal with Nasser.
In a last ditch effort to spur Johnson into action, Eshkol asked Eban "to hold a press conference with maximal reverberations." Eban did by comparing Israel to "a coiled spring." The May 31 conference rattled the Russians, not the Americans. They warned that following the line of action advocated by the "warmongering circles . . . would bring irreparable harm from Israel's point of view." Following that line was, indeed, Eban's solution to the failure of American guarantees. He hoped that, if all went well, the Eshkol government (not a National Unity one) would get the credit. On June 1, without even consulting Eshkol, Eban told Rabin that he withdrew his objections to preemption. It was too late. As the demand for a government reshuffle was emanating from his own party secretariat, Eshkol had swallowed already hard and turned over the post of defense minister to Dayan, showing his mettle by staying at his post as prime minister despite the fact that the whole world knew that, in the upcoming war, his role would be mostly ceremonial. The fig leaf designed to cover up MAPAI's surrender to RAFI was the creation of a "national emergency Cabinet" which included the GAHAL party headed by Menachem Begin. This legitimization of the right emerged as one of the important unintended consequences of the crisis.
Dayan's appointment was treated with enormous relief in Israel, and as a declaration of war in the rest of the world. The news reached Amit at a meeting with McNamara and Maxwell Taylor. McNamara jumped off his chair, half hugged Amit and said: "I admire that person, give him my regards and my best wishes." Amit concluded that McNamara was no longer opposed to Israeli preemption. During the rest of the meeting, McNamara talked with the President twice and told Amit that Johnson knew Amit was in his office, was expecting a full briefing and that he would read Amit's report. Amit was peppered with questions ranging from the length of time Israel needed to secure victory, to projected Israeli casualties, to his evaluation of Soviet intentions. Upon hearing McNamara's skeptical response to his comment that it would be advisable to accelerate the preparations for the Red Sea regatta, Amit told his hosts: "I am going home in the belief that you won't do anything. I will recommend that Israeli go to war." McNamara retorted: "I read you clearly, it was very helpful."
But his most important encounter took place with Lyndon Johnson "outside receiving hours." Amit explained that the strong Israeli preference for preemption emanated from projected casualty figures. "If we can get the first blow in, our casualties will be comparatively light. Hundreds of dead - but no more. If we have to sit and wait for them to attack, we will still win - but our dead will be closer to ten thousand." Johnson told Amit that if Israel insisted on going to war, he would not stand in her way. Unwilling to assume full responsibility for presenting the probable American response to an Israeli preemption, Amit insisted that Harman return with him to Israel to present his own assessment of the situation. Harman went to see Rusk. Rusk cautioned him not to preempt but otherwise "sent him away empty handed" and Harman thought Rusk knew it.
After an overnight flight in a cargo plane filled with medical supplies and gas masks (Egypt had used poison gas in Yemen), Amit and Harman rushed directly to an ongoing Cabinet meeting. Both recommended further delay. Officially, Amit reported that the American administration was deeply divided, with various forces pulling in different directions. The Americans would not act against Israel if she waited until they suffered additional setbacks and then tied her action to the Straits. Unofficially, Amit reported that he found amongst many people a desire for a prompt Israeli action which would lead to the deflation of Nasser. He recommended testing the blockade by sending a ship through the Straits. Both Amit and Harman emphasized American opposition to preemption and the lack of American promises of support. Amit said: "If we start a war and succeed, everybody will be with us. But if we do not succeed - we would have difficulty."
In his first day in office, Dayan gave Rabin orders to be ready to start operations on June 5. But the Cabinet debate continued: Should Israel send a ship through the Straits before attacking? That was the course recommended by Amit and Harman. Dayan argued that it was not possible to deceive the Americans, and it was an "idiocy to wait for them!" Between May 23 and June 3, the number of Egyptian divisions in the Sinai had increased from two to six. Dayan warned: "We will be busy in El-Arish and they will take Jerusalem. If we wait seven-nine days, there would be thousands of dead. . . . We will strike and then embark on diplomatic activity. We must do this regardless of political disadvantages." It was not an easy sale. The June 4 Cabinet debate, which authorized preemption, lasted seven hours.
To recover a measure of tactical surprise, Dayan released a large number of Israeli reservists and told reporters that it was either too late or too early for an Israeli military response. To calm the US, he added that Israel was not another Vietnam:
I do not know whether we got . . . promises or not, but . . . I, personally, do not expect and do not want anyone else to fight for us. Whatever can be done in the diplomatic way I would welcome and encourage, but if somehow it comes to real fighting I would not like American or British boys to get killed here, and I do not think we need them.
Ben Gurion's tutelage showed in Dayan's strategic thinking. He insisted on capturing the Straits, but prohibited advancing to the Suez Canal or any serious operations against Gaza, Syria or Jordan. Originally, the plan had called for the capture of Gaza and the northern Sinai all the way to the Suez Canal. These territories would then be returned for an Egyptian agreement to open the Straits. His instructions were only partially followed.
Decisions under Fire
Shortly after the war, Dayan told a closed parliamentary forum:
The Six Day war was the least preplanned war. In the Sinai war we decided on the military moves ahead of time. In the Six Day War we did not. Not in the West Bank, not in Jerusalem and not in Syria. . . . There was operative planning by the army, but no political planning. We did not prepare a plan to where we were going. The goals were set during the War.
Hours before the war began, Harry McPherson stopped in Israel on his way back from Vietnam "to show the Israelis that we were friends and to take any messages back to him (Johnson) that they wanted." He brought an enigmatic message from Johnson: "May God give us strength to protect the right." Still, Israel went to war without an American promise to "isolate the battlefield" and with the Sixth Fleet far from her shores.
Eshkol waited until he was secure in the success of his air force before answering Johnson's June 3 letter. Eshkol had considered muddying the waters on the question of the first shot, but McPherson insisted that Johnson had to know whether he was "going to be talking on behalf of a country that was literally attacked or a country that launched a preemptive attack?" Eshkol wrote that Israel was "engaged in repelling the aggression" which Nasser had built up against it, i.e. Israel had a convincing casus belli. He gently reminded Johnson that the US had made "impressive commitments" to "pursue vigorous measures" to open the Straits, but had found their fulfillment "difficult." A less diplomatic Israeli citizen leaned into Barbour's car and said: "Don't believe the Americans. They'll lie to you."
McPherson wrote: "After the doubts, the confusions, and ambiguities of Vietnam, it was deeply moving to see people whose commitment is total and unquestioning." Eshkol's allusion to Vietnam was more subtle: "We rely on the courage and determination of our soldiers and citizens. Indeed maximum self-reliance is the central aim of our national revival. My information is that our defense is reaping success." McPherson elaborated: There was never any doubt about the outcome because "there was simply no alternative."
Eshkol did ask "that everything be done by the United States to prevent the Soviet Union from exploiting and enlarging the conflict" or as McPherson reported, "they wanted us to keep the Russians off their backs and they wanted 'two or three days to finish the job.'" Eshkol's conclusion that the war could "create conditions favorable to the promotion of peace and the strengthening of forces of freedom in the area" was translated by McPherson to mean that, since Israel got Washington "out of a difficult situation in the Middle East," the U.S. should not repeat the 1956 scenario and force Israel "to withdraw within their boundaries with only paper guarantees that fall apart at the touch of Arab hands" but instead help it to secure "a peace treaty that recognizes the State of Israel" in lieu of the conquered territories.
On the first day of the war, Eshkol publicly announced that Israel had no territorial ambitions. Indeed, that day, Israel was willing to accept a ceasefire in return for the opening of the Straits. The Egyptian air force was destroyed, Israel suffered only minimal casualties, and a settlement under a joint Soviet-American sponsorship would secure for Israel a superpower guarantee of her existence and territorial integrity. Amer read the situation correctly and begged the Soviet ambassador to secure an immediate ceasefire, but Nasser refused to believe that all was lost. Subsequent decisions under fire turned the region, just as De Gaulle had predicted, into a central Cold War battlefront.
Dayan's determination to safeguard Israeli independence increased after witnessing the way the American presence had robbed the South Vietnamese of any semblance of control over their own lives. His efforts to retain some relations with Moscow were manifest in his opposition to plans to reach the Suez Canal or capture the Golan Heights. Eshkol and Eban were not only livid at Soviet willingness to sacrifice Israel on the altar of the Cold War but they no longer believed that Israeli actions or inactions impacted Soviet behavior. Intentionally or not, the Israeli success served Western interests and only the US could neutralize the inevitable Soviet retaliation. When Moscow warned that unless Israel agreed to an immediate UN mandated ceasefire (without waiting for Syrian or Egyptian responses) it would "reconsider" the future of diplomatic relations with Israel and would "examine and implement other necessary steps which emanate from the aggressive policy of Israel," Israel immediately notified Washington. She also passed along her Soviet experts' view that the threats were not a "serious ultimatum" but merely part of Moscow's "effort to retrieve" a "portion" of its "Vietnam diplomatic losses in present situation."
At first Dayan called the shots, and no one argued with him. But Eban's report that "an Israeli military success on the Syrian front would not incur displeasure in Washington," caused an internal debate. The American scenario was tempting. Though the Syrian military confined itself to the shelling of border kibbutzim, it inflicted enormous damage on them. Their members did not expect the war to end with the Golan Heights still in Syrian hands. Eshkol was also interested in capturing the Jordan water sources which the Syrians were diverting. He organized kibbutz delegations and incited army commanders. However, Dayan would not be moved. He even shocked the cabinet with the heretical suggestion that the kibbutzim be moved.
The Syrian front was under the direct control of Soviet advisers. For days, Russian speaking Israelis had been monitoring commands directing Syrian artillery. An attack on Syria would offend both the Soviets and the French. Dayan also worried about the ability of the "corroded" Israeli forces (the air force had lost 30% of its meager fighter planes) to fight a three front war but Eshkol had the Cabinet's support. When the army intelligence intercepted a cable from Nasser to Syrian president Attassi admitting that "they had lost this battle" and advising him to save his army by agreeing to an immediate ceasefire, Dayan concluded that at least "his short term reasons" had lost their force. To preempt Eshkol, Dayan ordered an attack on the Golan Heights. Reports of the collapse of the Syrian front notwithstanding, the conquest of the Golan was long and bloody.
Moscow threatened direct intervention. Washington countered the Soviet threats, but pressured Israel to end the fighting "so that the war would not end because of a Soviet ultimatum." An irate Goldberg "ordered" UN ambassador Rafael to accept a ceasefire resolution without instruction from Israel. Rafael retorted that he received his orders from Eshkol, and not from Johnson. In the Politburo, Soviet "hawks" demanded military intervention but Gromyko convinced them that cutting diplomatic ties with Israel would suffice. Such an announcement was made on June 10. On June 18, the Soviet diplomatic staff sailed home from Haifa. They took along their own POWs, five officers including one general, captured by Israel during the battle of the Heights.
A cold war between Israel and the USSR commenced. But Israelis were too intoxicated by the unexpected discovery of their spiritual roots to notice. The conquest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem followed an Israeli and American failure to convince Jordan to stay out of the war. The decision to capture the Old City of Jerusalem was taken with trepidation. It was going to cost many lives and the Cabinet was sure Israel would not be permitted to keep it. The head of the religious party said: "I guess they'll suggest turning the old city into an international city and I am personally not against it."
Then, something happened. "When a person fights for his life not as an isolated individual," explained philosophy professor Eliezer Shveid, "but as a part of a community and a member of a nation - whose existence is threatened by belonging to it, the walls separating the individual and the community fall and are replaced by a sense of identification with the collective as a collective. Then the history of the nation becomes a biographical experience and cultural symbols and traditions receive a direct personal meaning." The battle weary young paratrooper praying at the Western Wall crystallized that type of experience not only for Israelis but for Jews the world over, and rebonded them with their God in a manner which surprised them all. Dayan did what Jews had done for generations: He scribbled a note and placed it amongst the ancient stones. It read: "May peace descend upon the whole house of Israel." It did not.
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