Making Sense of the Six-Day War
A briefing by Michael Oren
May 6, 2002
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.
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
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.
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 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
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
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.
The Middle East Forum
Getting It Right: CIA Analysis of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War