June 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War, a very short military confrontation between Israel and its three immediate Arab neighbors that reshaped the political geography of the Middle East. When the last battle ended within 132 hours on June 10, 1967, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had not only inflicted devastating military defeats on the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies; they were also in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. In less than one week, Israel conquered an area three-and-one-half times its original size and extended its rule over approximately 1.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The war has spawned a voluminous and still growing body of scholarly literature. Until the turn of the century, most of these studies treated each of the belligerents as an internally unified actor, paying little attention to the political dynamics that influenced the behavior of military and political elites within each combatant state. In addition, the bulk of the literature focused heavily on the military aspects of the war. Furthermore, most of the analyses laid the major blame for the outbreak of the war on a series of grievous miscalculations by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Reflecting greater access to declassified materials and archival sources, more recent works — best exemplified by Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002) — have examined in much greater depth the internal political conflicts that took place within Israel, Egypt and Syria before and during the war. (My review of Oren's book may be found in Middle East Policy IX, no. 4 (December 2002): 171-76).
Guy Laron, lecturer in international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, follows and expands Oren's pioneering work. Relying on heretofore unpublished materials in the national archives of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, Laron attributes the outbreak of the 1967 war to a long-term shifting balance of power from civilians to the military in Israel, Egypt and Syria. The ascendance of the trigger-happy generals and the political weakness of the more moderate civilians are in turn attributed to the unpopular and harsh economic policies forced upon civilian leaders by serious balance-of-payments crises.
Laron maintains that early on, during the second week in May 1967, the military Baath regime in Damascus initiated a propaganda campaign designed to shift the Syrian public's attention from the regime's violent confrontations with the Muslim Brotherhood to a deliberately exaggerated threat posed by the IDF. Unfortunately, the Syrian government's fabrication of a massive Israeli troop buildup along the 1949 armistice lines gained plausibility, for two reasons.
First, unbeknown to the Syrians, Israeli intelligence services initiated their own disinformation effort by using a double agent to deliver a threat to Syria through the Soviet KGB — that the IDF would launch an attack against Syria if it continued to permit Fatah guerrillas to initiate attacks against Israeli civilian targets from its territory. Second, between May 11 and May 15, both Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin issued public warnings that Israel would respond severely against Syria if it failed to rein in Fatah infiltrators and saboteurs.
As it turned out, on May 13, Soviet intelligence sources misinformed the Syrians that the IDF was preparing a ground and air offensive, most likely to be carried out between May 17 and 21.
Syrian Foreign Minister Ibrahim Makhus immediately forwarded the false warning to Cairo. Although fully aware the intelligence was false, Nasser felt compelled to act, not only because Egypt had concluded a defense pact with Syria in November 1966, but particularly because Nasser had sat idly by when the Israeli force shot down seven Syrian MiGs in a dogfight over the outskirts of Damascus on April 7, 1967.
Meeting with Nasser on May 13, Vice President and commander of the armed forces Abd al-Hakim Amer urged Nasser to dispatch the Egyptian army into Sinai and to demand an immediate and full withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). Nasser agreed to the deployment of the army in the Sinai and to a partial removal of UNEF, but insisted on keeping some UNEF troops along the Gaza Strip and Sharm al-Sheikh in order to avoid war with Israel. Undermining Nasser's commitment to brinkmanship without resort to war, Amer deliberately deployed Egyptian troops in the Sinai on an offensive maneuver for which they had never been trained. By May 16, one infantry division and three armored brigades had entered Sinai, yet, despite Amer's assurances that the Egyptian army was ready for war, half the forces consisted of poorly trained reserve soldiers, many of them without uniforms or weapons.
Contrary to Nasser's order, Amer submitted on May 16 a request for a full UNEF withdrawal. When UN Secretary-General U Thant rejected the partial-withdrawal option, insisting that UNEF units must all stay or all go, Nasser was left with little choice but to agree to their full withdrawal on May 18. The vacant military installations in Sharm al-Sheikh thus compelled Nasser to save face and regain his leadership in the Arab world by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping on May 22. That move denied Israeli ships access to and from the Persian Gulf through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba and the port of Eilat.
That Israel would undertake a drastic response to the naval blockade was inevitable. At the time, Israel was importing almost all of its oil from Iran. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Golda Meir declared in March 1957 that Israel would regard the closure of the Tiran Straits a casus belli. Laron also unearthed considerable evidence for a central finding of his study: From as early as 1953 onward, the IDF General Staff formulated and updated various contingency plans to expand Israel's borders and increase the country's strategic depth. These plans envisaged the conquest and annexation of Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
Hence, it came as no surprise that, when he met the General Staff on May 22, Chief of Staff Rabin had in front of him a diverse menu of five competing military options. His own plan was to initiate a surprise air attack on Egypt and then occupy Gaza and use it as leverage to compel Nasser to remove the blockade. Rabin believed his plan would be sufficient to provoke Syria to join the war, and thereby provide Israel an opportunity to unleash the IDF against Damascus.
Rabin's plan was unanimously rejected by the General Staff for being too limited. Commander of the northern front David Elazar urged an immediate takeover of the Golan Heights that would quickly draw Egypt into the war. Yeshayahu Gavish, commander of the southern front, favored immediate mobilization of all reserve forces for an assault against the Egyptian army in the Sinai. General Uzi Narkiss, head of central command, pushed for a conquest of East Jerusalem and a takeover of the West Bank. Ezer Weizman, Rabin's deputy and chief of operations, advocated a stealth-aircraft attack against all adjoining Arab air forces on the very first day of war.
When he met the Cabinet on May 23, Rabin recommended going immediately to war and urged acceptance of his own plan. The Cabinet, however, rejected it and decided instead to dispatch Foreign Minister Abba Eban to Washington to find out whether the Johnson administration was willing to mobilize a multinational naval convoy to challenge Nasser's blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Eban's mission did not seem to bear fruit. In their White House meeting on May 26, President Johnson implied that if Israel acted, the United States would not be able to come to its assistance. He conveyed this message by repeating twice the enigmatic phrase, "Israel will not be alone, unless it decides to go alone." However, when he met with the Cabinet on May 27, Eban lied, claiming that President Johnson was close to securing an enabling congressional resolution and that he would deploy the Sixth Fleet to open up the Tiran Straits. When Eban prevaricated again at the next Cabinet meeting on May 28 — claiming Johnson had committed himself to open the Straits even if the United States needed to act alone — the Eshkol Cabinet voted to delay Israeli action for three weeks.
The anticipated timetable changed dramatically during the next three days. Instead of helping assure the country that it was safe, Eshkol's bumbling radio speech to the nation on the eve of May 28 intensified public concern about the government's passivity. When he met the General Staff after the broadcast, Eshkol was confronted by a group of angry officers, unanimously clamoring for an immediate preemptive attack against Egypt. Tensions increased further on May 30, as King Hussein of Jordan flew to Cairo and joined the Egyptian-Syrian military alliance. By June 1, Eshkol learned that an American commitment to open the straits was a figment of Eban's imagination. Under severe pressure from the military and his fractious coalition partners, Eshkol offered the position of defense minister to former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan. The hawkish Dayan immediately accepted, and the right-wing Gahal leader Menachem Begin also entered the Cabinet as part of the bargain.
On the following day, Eshkol met with Dayan, Rabin and Eban, a small group that unanimously accepted Dayan's proposal for the convening of a Cabinet meeting on June 4 and the commencement of the preemptive strike on June 5. At the same time, the IDF General Staff agreed that the major aim of the war was to destroy the Egyptian army in the Sinai. The Cabinet then met on June 4 and authorized Eshkol and Dayan to launch a war against Egypt at a time of their own choosing.
For all practical purposes, the outcome of the 1967 war was decided during the first three hours of combat on the morning of June 5 as the Israeli air force annihilated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces, enabling the IDF to dominate the ground war during the next five days. While it was one of the shortest military conflicts ever fought, the June war was an incredibly bloody affair that resulted in the deaths of approximately 10,000 Egyptian soldiers.
Laron attributes Israel's sweeping victory to meticulous planning, excellent intelligence and rigorous training. On the other hand, the Arab armies were better designed to serve as internal police forces. The Egyptian and Syrian troops had been trained only to carry out defensive plans, and they failed to make effective use of the advanced military technology they had received from the Soviet Union.
Laron sheds new light on Dayan's stances regarding Israel's eastern and northern fronts. He rejects Oren's claim that Dayan had initially opposed the IDF takeover of the Old City and East Jerusalem, concluding that Dayan had always insisted Israel had to conquer the West Bank in order to bring about the fall of Jerusalem. Furthermore, while Oren fails to explain why Dayan had changed his mind and eventually approved the IDF takeover of the Golan Heights, Laron attributes Dayan's volte face to pressure from the General Staff and to credible incoming evidence that the Syrian army was hastily retreating from the Heights.
While Laron's study is rich in new details about the prewar machinations in Syria, Egypt and Israel, we learn very little about the processes that led King Hussein to enter the conflict on June 5 despite Eshkol's pleas to him to keep Jordan out of the war. And, while amassing considerable evidence that Nasser was hoping to avoid a war with Israel, Laron might have noted that Nasser's belligerent speeches to his National Assembly in late May clearly sent the opposite message to Israel.
There are several weaknesses in Laron's argument that the 1967 war resulted from victories of trigger-happy generals over civilian leaders in Damascus, Cairo, Amman and Jerusalem. First, as Laron himself admits, it is very difficult to draw clear distinctions between military and civilian leaders in the Middle East. Salah Jadid, Nasser, King Hussein and Moshe Dayan were all nominal civilian leaders who had spent most of their lives in the military. Second, in both Egypt and Israel, there were moderate generals who sought to contain the conflict as well as civilians who were very hawkish.
Laron's claim that balance-of-payments crises were critical contributors to the political weakness of civilian leaders in each of the belligerent states is also problematic. First, Jordan did not experience balance-of-payments deficits in the 1960s. Second, Eshkol's political difficulties before the outbreak of the war can be attributed much more persuasively to the structure of his coalition government, his personal leadership style, and the high prestige the IDF has enjoyed within Israel from its very founding.
Unfortunately, Laron's concern with balance-of-payments crises causes him to meander and delve throughout the volume into topics whose relevance to the 1967 war is not clearly apparent, such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the 1960s and the evolution of the American and Soviet aid programs throughout the third world, beginning in the 1950s.
In my review of Michael Oren's book, I noted that the definitive account of the 1967 war still waits to be written. Indeed, new details about the June war keep steadily trickling in. Recently, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the war, Israeli and American media revealed that Israel had a secret plan to detonate a nuclear device atop a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula in case it was about to lose the war. Code-named Shimshon (Samson), the plan was to explode the bomb 12 miles east of an Egyptian encampment at Abu Ageila in order to demonstrate Israel's military power, stop the Egyptian army, and compel the United States and the USSR to intervene. (See William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, "Israel's 1967 Doomsday Plan: A Nuclear Display," New York Times, June 4, 2017). Clearly, the very last word about the Six-Day War still remains to be said.