Tensions had been simmering for years between Israel and its neighbors. There was a dispute about how to share the waters of the Jordan River. Palestinian guerrillas had been attacking Israel from bases in Jordan and Syria, attracting powerful Israeli reprisal raids. Controversially, Israel was constructing a nuclear power plant.
While there were many points of contention, it was a single skirmish that presaged war. On April 7, 1967, the IAF shot down six Syrian MiGs after Syrian artillery had shelled two Israeli tractors that had entered a demilitarized zone. Adding insult to injury, the elated Israeli pilots flew victory circless over the skies of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The Soviets told the Egyptians in May 1967 that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian frontier. Although United Nations observers discovered no buildup, the Syrians—fatally, it turned out—asked the Egyptians to make some demonstration to relieve the pressure on them. Seizing this chance to play the “protector” of the Arabs, Nasser mobilized his army, placed it into defensive deployment in the Sinai, and asked the peacekeeping UN Emergency Force to withdraw. But what came next ensured war: After Field Marshal Amer sent troops to take control of Sharm el-Sheikh, Nasser closed the Tiran Straits on the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping on May 21.
Israel defined closing the straits as an act of war. Nasser’s move was, writes historian Laura James, primarily “aimed at reaping political gains, which he knew carried a high risk of precipitating military hostilities.” Underlining Egypt’s lack of hostile intention, its military intelligence knew virtually nothing about IDF plans, tactics, size, or deployment. Egyptian field commanders didn’t even know where their enemy was located. But by deploying troops and engaging in hostile acts, Egypt played into the hands of Israel’s hard-line leaders.
On May 23, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli chief of staff; Gen. Aharon Yariv, head of Aman, the IDF’s intelligence branch; and others advised the Israeli cabinet to declare war. The cabinet stalled. U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara informed the Israelis on May 26 that “three separate intelligence groups” had concluded that the “Egyptian deployments…were defensive.” This fit with Aman’s estimate that Egypt would “not be ready for war at least until the end of 1970.”
At this stage, Nasser apparently thought everything could be politically managed. He believed the United Nations would step in to end any hostilities, that the Soviets would counterbalance any move by the United States, and that Eshkol wished to avoid war. Even if it came to war, Field Marshal Amer had assured him that the army could hold off and perhaps even defeat Israel.
Under intense pressure from hardliners, Eshkol hesitated, hoping that the United States would suggest a diplomatic solution. Alternatively, he wanted the United States to bless any Israeli strike. But in high-level meetings between American and Israeli officials, the Americans were noncommittal: President Lyndon B. Johnson had his hands full with unrest at home, a looming election, and the Vietnam War. Although one high-placed U.S. official had warned, “do not fire the first shot,” the Israelis decided to read the lack of a firm American “no-go” as a green light.
The creation of a new Israeli cabinet on June 2 brought in hawks such as Moshe Dayan as defense minister and hardliner Menachem Begin. They insisted that the bluff be called to put an end to Syrian threats, deflate Nasser’s prestige, and maintain the IDF’s credibility—all while achieving Israel’s geopolitical goals, that is, expanding the state’s borders and increasing its strategic depth. On June 4, the cabinet voted to go to war.
[continued on next page]