“Most wars begin raggedly,” the great historian A. J. P. Taylor once observed. And the Six-Day War of 1967, which would recast the Middle Eastern world into what we know today, was true to Taylor’s dictum.
The great irony of this war was that it began with a hoax-a piece of faulty Soviet intelligence given to the Egyptians. On May 13, the Soviet ambassador to Cairo informed the Egyptians that Israel was massing “10 to 12 brigades” on the Syrian border in preparation for a big push against the radical regime in Damascus. There was no love lost between Syria’s rulers and the charismatic leader at the helm in Cairo, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Egyptian was the dominant Arab of his time; on the eve of the war, he stood at the peak of a career full of reversals and triumphs. A few years earlier, he had taken his burdened country into a war in Yemen that would be dubbed Nasser’s Vietnam. He had brought his fervor and revolutionary gospel of Arab unity to the Arabian Peninsula, a proxy war against the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia. The war had dragged on, and the man who had been the master and the voice of the “Arab street” was fighting a two-front war against the Syrians on the left and the Arab monarchies on the right.
Deliverance presented itself in mid-May, or so the Egyptian ruler thought. In response to that Soviet report, Nasser mobilized his troops on May 14 and dispatched them into the Sinai. Two days later, the Egyptians demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force serving as a buffer in the Sinai between Egyptian forces and those of Israel in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez War. Nasser’s Arab rivals in Damascus; Amman, Jordan; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had taunted him about hiding behind international peacekeepers and dodging a showdown with Israel.
The casus belli would come on May 22, when Nasser cast caution to the wind and announced the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. “The Jews threaten war; we tell them: Welcome. We are ready for war.” The Israeli port of Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, was vital to Israel’s commerce; the whole Israeli doctrine of deterrence had been challenged. Euphoria gripped the Arab world; the Egyptian ruler, it seemed, had recovered his political mastery and magic. He hadn’t fired a shot, but great gains had come his way. On May 30, King Hussein of Jordan rushed to Cairo to place his Army under Egyptian command. Now the balance of power of the region had been undone. In the words of a popular song making the rounds in Israel at the time, Nasser was now “waiting for [Yitzhak] Rabin,” the chief of staff of Israel’s forces.
Rabin, the taciturn soldier, had prepared his Army well for this war. But Israel was led by the mildest of men, an unlikely leader for a time of war, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Fate had cast Eshkol at the helm of a young country being hurled into a war for its very survival. He dreaded the prospect of war and sought to defer the moment of reckoning. There hovered over Eshkol and Rabin the shadow of the legendary David Ben-Gurion. The “Old Man” of Israeli politics, who had brought his people from dispersion to statehood, had quit the political field four years earlier. He was now a brooding prophet at odds with his former companions. In the midst of this great crisis, Rabin sought out the advice of the country’s undisputed father. He was to find no comfort there. “You have led the state into a grave situation,” Ben-Gurion said, scolding him for mobilizing Israel’s reserves in response to Egypt’s moves. “We must not go to war. We are isolated. You bear the responsibility.”
In the countdown to war, Israel would dispatch Foreign Minister Abba Eban to Paris, London, and Washington in search of support. France had been the principal supplier of Israel’s arms, an ally and a diplomatic protector. But a different wind now blew: Charles de Gaulle had walked away from the fight over Algeria and had embarked upon a great accommodation with the Arab-Islamic world. “Don’t make war,” de Gaulle told the visiting Israeli. “At any rate, do not be the first to shoot.” Reminded that France had championed Israel’s rights in the Gulf of Aqaba a decade earlier, de Gaulle crystallized the change that had overtaken French diplomacy: “That policy was correct, but it reflected the heat of the hour. That was 1957. It is now 1967.” The Franco-Israeli alliance had been severed.
No diplomatic way out was to be offered by the British or by the Americans. Eban had known Lyndon Johnson for a dozen years or more, but the man he encountered had a “tormented” look in his eyes. Vietnam was now Johnson’s nightmare. He sympathized with Israel but was averse to being drawn into new entanglements. He was not a “feeble mouse or a coward,” Johnson was to tell Eban, but Israel had to show patience. Johnson knew that America had given commitments to Israel’s freedom of navigation, but these commitments, he said, “will not be worth five cents if the people and Congress did not support their president now. Without the Congress, I am just a 6-foot-4 Texan.” He was not worried about Israel, Johnson added, for American intelligence was unanimous in its judgment that “you will whip the hell out of them.”
In the years to come, an intense debate would arise over the color of the light that Washington had given Israel. In one version, Johnson had given Israel a clear red light, an admonition not to use military force. In the other, the light had been green from the start, aimed perhaps at toppling the Egyptian ruler. On the 25th anniversary of the war, the debate was settled by William Quandt, an American foreign policy analyst with considerable government experience. Quandt’s analysis sustains a “yellow light” interpretation of the diplomacy that preceded the war. In the early days of the crisis, Johnson had “genuinely hoped to avoid war in the Middle East,” Quandt wrote. But this would change as Johnson realized that the only way to avoid a crisis entailed an American military commitment to reopen the Strait of Tiran, the waterway from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aqaba. “As far as Johnson was concerned, Israel was free to act, but on its own. The red light turned yellow-but not quite green. For the Israeli cabinet, that was enough.”
Decisive actions. When the war came on June 5, its military outcome was sealed in the first hours. It had been predicted that the war would start with an Israeli airstrike against Egypt’s air bases. The Egyptians had known this and insisted that they could handle the first blow. But when Israel’s strike came, the Egyptians were unprepared, and their Air Force was eliminated as a factor in this war. A Jordanian chronicler, Samir Mutawi, in an unsentimental account, Jordan in the 1967 War, wrote of the military outcome in stark terms: “From the afternoon of the first day of the war the Arabs fought with virtually no air cover at all. As a result, the war was lost almost as soon as it had begun.”
It was not just Egypt’s Air Force that was destroyed in the course of this battle. What lay mortally wounded was the myth of secular Arab nationalism. The old order in the Arab world of monarchs and emirs and feeble semiparliamentary regimes had lost the war of 1948, and this had become its shame and burden. Now these “New Men” in Cairo and Damascus had been shown to be braggarts and pretenders. The road to Cairo, Damascus, and Amman lay open before Israel’s Army. But Israel had its hands full with one great, taxing outcome of its victory: its acquisition of the territories of mandatory Palestine and its control over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Wars have cunning; the Palestinians, defeated and dispersed in 1948, were the unintended beneficiaries of this new war. The defeat of the standing Arab armies had rid them of the shame of their own debacle in 1948. For Israel, now sovereign over the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, there had come a monumental change: The “first republic” (1948-1967) had been an overwhelmingly secular polity, its center of gravity, and demography, in Tel Aviv and along the Mediterranean coast. The new country that emerged out of this war was now in possession of Jerusalem and of Hebron and Jericho-lands suffused with religious meaning. Israel’s secularism would now have to duel with the religious pull of these new territories.
At the remove of four decades, we should not overdo the importance of that Soviet report about the phantom Israeli brigades. At the heart of the war lay the willful Arab refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy and statehood. Israel’s victory in 1967 delivered a message: that the state that had fought its way into the world in 1948 is there to stay.
Contributing Editor Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author, most recently, of The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.
This story appears in the June 11, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.