The Six Day War Sparked Forty Years of Strife

By O'Brien Browne
8/16/2009 • Lyndon B. Johnson, MHQ

An anti-colonialist hero, Nasser was enormously popular. He had nationalized the Suez Canal and faced down a joint invasion by Israel, France, and Britain in 1956. Highly sensitive to goading and criticism from the Arab press, Nasser often felt he had to act dramatically upon the foreign policy stage to maintain his standing. But his country faced huge developmental challenges, and the army was structurally weak, in part because officer appointments were based on family ties and friendships. “We are not military officers now,” Nasser told Amer in 1962, “we are politicians.” Egypt was in no condition to fight in a major conflict.

There was no united front challenging Israel, no “Arab strategy.” Egypt, Syria, and Jordan distrusted each other. Tarring Israel as an enemy was pure propaganda, propaganda that segued into a policy of baiting, without the means to back up the threats.

Radio Cairo, for example, broadcast inflammatory messages, some directed at Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol: “We challenge you, Eshkol, to try all your weapons. Put them to the test; they will spell Israel’s death and annihilation.” But these were empty words, and King Hussein, a realist, argued for a policy of nonbelligerence toward Israel, believing that the Jewish state was planning to let Nasser “spark off a war in which Israel would be able to unleash its real intention and seize Arab territory.”

Planned to Perfection:  Israel's longstanding invasion plans ensured swift dominion over the Sinai, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.  (Map: Baker Vail)
Planned to Perfection: Israel's longstanding invasion plans ensured swift dominion over the Sinai, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. (Map: Baker Vail)

Of all the combatants, only Israel was ideologically, mentally, and materially prepared for war. With a population of about 3.8 million, it was outnumbered and surrounded by enemies. As early as February 1967, Prime Minister Eshkol had told Israeli Defense Force officers to be ready for battle, although he considered Syria and Jordan the likely transgressors.

Founded by European and American Jews who embraced Western sociopolitical and military organizational structures, Israel’s dynamic democracy was based on merit, not cronyism, and it fielded a motivated, professional army. Security was paramount. Many Israeli hardliners argued that the nation needed “strategic depth”—buffer zones distancing the Israeli heartland from its enemies. Zionists and the religious right were also burning to re-create Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), which would encompass biblical sites then located beyond the nation’s existing borders.

Furthermore, many Israelis felt they had been held back during the 1948–1949 war for independence, and had been forced to return lands conquered in the 1956 invasion of Egypt. They were eager to finish the job, and many were eager to incorporate Jerusalem into Israel. Mixed with these dynamics were pressing social issues: a declining population, a stagnant economy, and the realization among the political classes that something was needed to galvanize the nation.

As war approached, Israel placed 70,000 men—infantry and paratroops—near the Egyptian border. They had some 700 tanks, mainly well-armored British Centurions; the Israeli air force (IAF), commanded by Gen. Mordechai Hod, consisted of 207 combat airplanes, a motley mix of French Mirages, Mystères, Ouragans, and Vautours.

For its possible invasion of Jordan, Israel deployed 40,000 troops organized into eight brigades, about 200 tanks, most of them modified World War II–vintage “Super” Shermans sporting 75mm or 105mm guns, and ultimately more than 200 fighter aircraft.

Although the U.S. warned against firing the first shot, the Israelis decided to read the lack of a firm no-go as a green light for war

On the Golan Heights, Israel had a much smaller force, consisting only of a couple brigades. By June 9, however, when Israel decided to invade Syria as well, it would strike with around 150 aircraft, 250 tanks, and 20,000 troops.

“Luck,” wrote the Roman writer Seneca the Younger, “is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Israel benefited from its superb intelligence organizations, which had precise and accurate information about its enemies. Thanks to the bold creativity of the Mossad, Israel’s famed and feared secret service, a MiG-21 had been delivered to its hands in 1966 and had been intensely studied. Additionally, Israeli cryptologists had deciphered Syrian military codes and placed a spy in the Syrian government who provided detailed plans for the Golan defenses and technical specifications for Syrian equipment. Agents inside Egypt gathered similar information. Thanks to such stellar work, “the Israeli air force,” one observer said in June 1967, “knew accurately…where every Egyptian [as well as Syrian and Jordanian] aircraft was located, what it was doing, what it could do.”

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