Many here will be familiar with the military details of the 1967 six day war but less well known are the diplomatic shenanigans that went along with it and actually caused it in the first place. It was a massive miscalculation by the Russians who thought they could get one over on the Americans, demoralised by the Vietnam War, and the Israelis. The military result is enough to tell us that they made the balls-up to end all balls-ups and left their Middle Eastern Allies in a far worse position in a matter of a few weeks.
This article is based on a series of 5 10 minute videos on YouTube, part one below.
I was a teenager when this happened but still remember the reports we had that were all about the battlefield and the eventual (as usual) Russian demand for Israel to stop as the Arabs were about to be completely overrun. Very little was reported coherently about the behind the scenes stuff, as ever it all came out later on.
May 1967, Anwar Sadat, speaker of the Egyptian parliament, was in Moscow for a meeting with Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin. As Sadat departed, the deputy Soviet Foreign Minister took him to one side and told him that Israeli troops were massing on the Syrian border and asked him to inform Nasser as soon as he reached Cairo.
In those days Nasser was top dog in the Arab world and, as such, had to be seen to be taking a lead. He called General Fawzi his Chief of Staff and asked him to go to Syria to check out these reports. When Fawzi arrived in Syria he went to the border and found nothing, then they showed him the latest aerial recon photos and they showed nothing as well. Fawzi told Cairo nothing was going on but the the Soviet Ambassador in Cairo confirmed that Soviet Intelligence had reaffirmed that Israeli troops were definitely massing on the border. In fact, Soviet Ambassadors throughout the Middle East were telling all the governments about Israeli troop movements, even the Israeli government. Levi Eshkol, the Israeli Prime Minister was given a telegram from Kosygin at 2:30 in the morning demanding that he stop massing troops at the border. Eshkol said let’s go there right now, you will see nothing is happening, the Ambassador refused.
Even at the risk of war, the Soviets were convinced they could improve their diplomatic standing in the Middle East via their Egyptian Allies who they felt could stand up to Israel. As soon as Nasser received the reports he put his forces on alert, the fires were being stoked. They moved troops and armour to Sinai from where they could attack Israel if Israel attacked Syria. Nasser however did not want a war with the Israelis, he just wanted to put on a show of strength, playing to the gallery of the Arab World.
The Egyptian Minister of Defence was in favour of attacking Israel immediately. Nasser was coming under increasing pressure in the Arab World with people accusing him of hiding behind the UN’s skirts, there were peacekeepers on the border since the 1956 Suez fiasco. Nasser ordered them to leave. In an unfortunate step, he also ordered the UN out of the port of Sharm el Sheikh. This port controlled access to the Gulf of Aqaba and Israel’s only sea route to the East. Under Egyptian control they would have to close the Gulf to Israeli shipping, this could only lead to war but Nasser was more concerned with his image, duly expelled the UN and said Egypt was ready to fight Israel.
Levi Eshkol called a meeting of his cabinet and military commanders. Until the closure of the Gulf, Mossad were unsure where this was all leading but once it was closed they knew war was inevitable. The advice from the military commanders was simple, we have to mobilise and attack the Egyptians within 72 hours before they can fill the Sinai with more and more troops. The Chief of Staff, General Rabin, was concerned that they were completely unprepared for this. Rabin wanted a diplomatic solution. Abba Eban, the Foreign Minister went to Washington to ask for an international fleet to keep the waterway open.
Eban was called in to see LBJ, for once not sitting on the toilet, who wanted to stall any pre-emptive attack by the Israelis. LBJ was not convinced this was life or death for the Israelis and neither was he sure that Egypt was about to attack Israel. His opinion was that if Egypt attacked, Israel would lick ’em as he quaintly put it. LBJ then asked for an assessment by his military about any possible war. If Israel attacked first, they were expected to win in about 7 days. If Egypt attacked first, it was expected that Israel would win in 10 to 14 days. LBJ then said that if Israel did strike first, the USA could not come to its defence.
At the same time, an Egyptian delegation was in Moscow to discuss the situation. They were told not to strike first as it would lead to a superpower confrontation. Both sides were now being told to hold back by their respective backers. Nasser got the message and told his commanders to adopt a defensive posture.
The Egyptian Air Force Chief told Nasser that a first strike by Israel would cripple his Air Force. He was told, in that case you will only be fighting the Israelis, if you strike first you will be fighting the Israelis and the Americans. The crowds were now marching in Cairo’s streets protesting against the hated Israelis. Even King Hussein of Jordan, who had mostly been at odds with Nasser, turned up in Cairo to lend his support. The pressure in the Arab World must have been immense, Hussein had been successfully walking a tightrope for years doing just enough one way or another to preserve his position. But this time he signed a defence treaty with Egypt and put his Army under Egyptian command, he of course was having his arm twisted by Nasser.
Israel now faced a three pronged attack, from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. If they lost, they knew they would be annihilated. At this point the Israeli Army had been mobilised for two weeks but remaining fully mobilised for any length of time was not an option, the country was effectively shut down. All males aged 18 to 55 had been mobilised and almost every factory was closed.
Levi Eshkol again met with his top Generals to remind them of America’s warning about attacking first and explained the diplomatic efforts that were under way in Europe and the USA to find a peaceful solution with Nasser. The Generals were not impressed, they wanted a first strike. Eshkol’s first response was to appoint a new Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan , the one with the eye patch and a hero of the 1956 Suez campaign. General Meir Amit, head of Mossad, was sent to Washington to find out what the Americans were up to, were they organising a naval task force, were they doing anything to help the Israelis. It turned out they were doing precisely nothing, with the ongoing disaster in Vietnam, the USA was not prepare to act alone and nobody else would join in with them.
On his return, General Amit told the Israeli leaders that they could expect no help from the USA and they should attack the Egyptians immediately. Nobody disagreed.
On the morning of June 5th 1967, the Israeli Air Force launched its pre-emptive strike on the Egyptians. 180 aircraft took off for Egypt, only 12 were left to defend Israel. While the Israelis were wiping out the Egyptian Air Force, the Egyptian Chief of Staff and all his top Generals were on their way to inspect their troops in the Sinai. When they got word of the attack , their plane returned to Cairo where they had to find a taxi to take them to their HQ, by the time they arrived it was all over , their Air Force had been destroyed.
The Chief of Staff phoned the head of the Air Force and ordered him to implement the counter attack plan. The Air Force head said, how can I, I don’t have any airplanes. The Egyptian armour in the Sinai now had no air cover and was smashed to smithereens by the Israeli Air Force and tanks. They were ordered to withdraw but there was no organisation and the results look like the turkey shoots in Gulf Wars.
The day the war started, the Israelis contacted King Hussein telling him that the war was between the Israelis and the Egyptians. If he stayed out there would be no attack on Jerusalem nor the Golan Heights. Foolishly the Jordanians started shelling Jerusalem and so the Israelis took the other half of Jerusalem and eventually the West Bank.
Having defeated Egypt and Jordan, General Dayan decided to take the Golan Heights. The whole war had started based on false reports of Israel mobilising troops on the Syrian border made by the Soviets. Now that Israel was attacking Syria, Moscow had to act. They phoned the USA and said if Israel did not stop attacking Syria they would intervene militarily on the Syrian side and help deal Israel a mortal blow. The Russians readied four squadrons of bombers to fly to Syria , quickly painted in Egyptian colours.
LBJ told the Soviets he was doing everything possible to get the Israelis to stop the war. It was done at a leisurely pace via the Israeli Ambassador at the UN who had to talk to the Foreign Minister who tried to contact the Prime Minister begging him to stop the war. Eshkol was at that point enjoying a trip to the Golan and could not or would not be contacted. The USA now ordered its Sixth Fleet to within 50 miles of the Syrian coastline. The Russians blinked and did not send their forces to Syria. Israel continued in Syria until they had achieved their objectives.
Israel then went to the United Nations ready to accept the demands for a ceasefire, having achieved all they wanted, it was not as much of a concession as it appeared to be. They had occupied Gaza and the Sinai up to the Suez Canal, Jerusalem and the West bank plus the Golan Heights from where the Syrians had often shelled Israeli farmers and villages.
In exchange for peace, Israel was prepared to hand back the Golan Heights and the Sinai. This came as quite a shock to the Americans, victors handing back their spoils was not expected behaviour. Kosygin was in Washington meeting with LBJ and they came up with a peace plan that was accepted by the Israelis but rejected by the Egyptians. Their objection, it implied Israel’s right to exist.
Nasser now threw another spanner in the works, he said he was stepping down as president and resuming private life. The crowds took to the streets and demanded he stay, so he “reluctantly” stayed on. His vice-president Marshal Amer was ordered to step down but refused and was arrested, followed quickly by his suicide. Amer ended up being the scapegoat for the defeat.
The one question that remains unanswered is who in Moscow was sent to the Gulags. The Soviets needed their scapegoats as much as anyone else.
Later that year the Arabs got together and decided their total opposition to the State of Israel, they would have nothing to do with it.
By 1973, six short years later, the Egyptians launched their own first strike in the Yom Kippur war but eventually they got their butts kicked again and the Russians had to step in and stop Israel surrounding Cairo. Some things never change.
© well_chuffed 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file