#Jerusalem50: Israel’s precarious position in the lead-up to the Six Day War

Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was so complete and so sudden and so startling that, 50 years later, many people have forgotten the dire danger facing Israel in those awfully tense days. The Arabs, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, poured vicious threats and promises of murder and brutality on the heads of Israeli civilians. Israeli farmers were unable to cultivate their fields in the north due to shooting from the Syrians atop the Golan Heights, and civilians were victims of random sniper fire from the Jordanians to the east and terrorism from local Arabs (nothing much changed there).

Watch this video which records the vicious threats and Arabs which led up to the war (h/t Shirlee Finn):

For those of you more interested in learning from the source, the Israeli Archives have just declassified the secret transcripts from Israeli Cabinet discussions before and during the Six Day War. It is not only riveting reading. It is terrifying to realise how close Israel came to NOT taking preemptive action, which would most likely ended in disaster, even a second Shoah.

Yaacov Lozowick, Israel’s state archivist (and former blogger), brings us the story of the Secret Transcripts of the Six Day War in the Tablet. Here is the “blurb” to begin with, to give you an appetite for more:

Newly unsealed classified documents reveal: Jerusalem conquered almost by accident; Israel’s National Religious Party, forerunner to the settler movement, lobbied for military de-escalation at every turn; and nobody in Israel’s security cabinet seems to have seen the country’s most momentous war coming.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

The Six-Day War was run by a committee. A highly classified committee, whose transcripts have never been seen for 50 years. Until now: here they are.

The security cabinet of 1967 appears in these never-published transcripts as a group of serious, professional, and responsible decision-makers. While the ministers brought their worldviews to the table, they often didn’t vote on party lines, often did listen to one another, and generally managed to make decisions, albeit slowly and through compromises. These characteristics were not helpful in the maelstrom of the Six-Day War, when the cabinet receded in the face of its two most enigmatic members: Levi Eshkol, who can be read either as a weak figure or a master manipulator; and Moshe Dayan, who comes across as an arrogant but talented prima donna.

Menachem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and General Yeshayahu Gavish, during the six day war, 1967.(Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The very point of their committee was to manage Israel’s military challenges. Yet none of the ministers saw the approaching war until it was almost upon them; not a single one of them foresaw its outcome. Between January and mid-May 1967, the meetings focused on Syria. Between May 15 and June 4, the SC strove to comprehend the significance of unfolding events in Egypt. During the six days of June 5-10 it tried to remain in control of events, with only middling success. On June 11, 1967, having had exactly no time at all to prepare, they had to decide what Israel should do with its astonishing new borders.

There were two hawks: Yisrael Galili and Yigal Allon. The then-56-year-old Galili is probably the most powerful Israeli politician you’ve never heard of; indeed, few Israelis in 2017 remember him. A former leader of the Haganah, he had scant patience for restraint when faced with Syrian fire at Israeli farmers along the border:

I think that not to respond to tank shells is beyond what we can endure, especially as we’ve already tried it. We once didn’t respond, and that may have encouraged them to try again. If the logic of not responding is that it will create mutual calm along the border, we can save a lot of effort. Sadly, that message hasn’t proved compelling over the years… I don’t wish for any flare-ups on the northern border. Yet over the years when we’ve been slack, we’ve later been required to pay with blood. When we respond to fire with fire, we’ve gained control over fields, and we haven’t when we held back. (Jan. 3)

It’s elementary. One can’t not shoot back. … If they intend to broaden their fire along the whole line, how will our not responding thwart that intention? If they don’t intend to expand the front, we certainly need to respond where they shoot at us. (Jan. 7)

[Moshe Haim] Shapira is one of the surprises of the transcripts. The minister of the interior, he was the leader of the National Religious Party—which, within a few years (and after his death), was to become the political home and launching pad of the settlers’ movement. In 1967, he was one of the two whitest of doves in the SC.

Take the meeting of Jan. 12, at which the IDF, exasperated at the unrelenting attacks of the Syrians, requested permission to escalate its responses. Shapira would have none of it:

So far, we’ve always said we could justify using our air force to protect our civilians. To change our policy and use planes [against Syrian military targets which aren’t shooting at villages], that might lead to war. I can’t accept that… I understand when the chief of staff tells how hard it is to live in a state of constant vigilance and high alert. Well, I say it’s better to be on high alert than at war.

Perhaps surprised by the emerging resistance to what he had thought would be an easy sale, Levi Eshkol, 71, prime minister and minister of defense, uncharacteristically took a decisive position. Rejecting the position that because Israel had so far voluntarily refrained from cultivating the section for many years and could continue refraining, he fumed:

We were in exile 2,000 years, and then there was struggle and a war. I can’t forget the outcry when we had to relinquish 2.5 dunam (less than an acre) near Jerusalem. How will we justify relinquishing 600 dunam here? And why not refrain from insisting on cultivating all the other fields where the Syrians shoot at us? What if we’d brought that question to this table? Would you have said we should wait, the Syrians have been humiliated, we need to give them time? If not now, when? If we don’t act now, we’ll regret it for generations.

Larger events were soon to overtake two decades of violence on the Syrian border. On May 14, Israel’s 19th Independence Day, Egypt began loudly and publicly to move troops through Cairo and into Sinai. […] The SC first discussed the matter the next day, and while the descriptions of the military preparations were better than in the full cabinet, on this third day of the crisis, no one seems to have seen a war coming. The Egyptians were assumed to be putting on a show.

U Thant with Gamal Abdel Nasser 2 weeks before the Six Day War

The tone changed on May 21. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser had asked UN Secretary General U-Thant to move the UN troops in Sinai (UNEF), and U-Thant, astonishingly, removed them completely. The main achievement of the 1956 campaign had vanished overnight. Most of the meeting was dedicated to updates from Rabin, Foreign Minister Abba Eban, 52, and Eshkol. Given the gravity of the situation, it was decided to discuss the implications in the full cabinet sitting as the SC.

Yet even as the discussion was being postponed, both Galili the hawk and Shapira the dove said they understood Israel to be facing war. Shapira was resigned, saying the Egyptian actions wouldn’t be reversible without war. Galili’s position was sharper: War had already started. What he wanted to know was how the air force could assure that it would knock out Egypt’s air force before it was itself attacked. Three weeks before the historic attack on Egypt’s air force, the key Israeli move of the Six-Day War was already on the table.

By the meeting on May 23, Egypt had blocked the Tiran Straights, stopping Israeli trade with Asia. The ministers all agreed this was likely to lead to war, but most of them, including Rabin, who, as a general, had no vote, accepted the importance of convincing the Americans that Israel wasn’t rushing to war. Maj. Gen. Ezer Weitzman, 43, head of operations and previously commander of the IAF, explained that while the opportunity for strategic surprise had passed, the air force was still confident it could achieve tactical surprise when needed. As there was an American request to allow 48 hours for diplomacy, the ministers decided to refrain from military action.

But by May 26, the members of the SC felt trapped. The Egyptians were digging in and reinforcing. Rabin reported evidence of their intent to attack. Jordan was about to join Egypt. Most of the IDF reserves had been mobilized, and the economy could not afford them to stay mobilized for long. There was no realistic prospect of Israel acquiring additional weapons. Yet everyone understood they had no choice but to wait for Abba Eban to return with his reports from Europe and the U.S. So they discussed the possibility of broadening the coalition by creating a national unity government. Expecting a long and bloody war, they sought political consensus.

I found the following transcript to be the most significant for its parallels to Israel’s diplomatic situation still today. (Emphases are mine):

On Saturday night, May 27, the entire cabinet sitting as the SC deliberated almost until dawn. Abba Eban arrived after 10 p.m. from the airport, gave his report, left to report to the Knesset Committee of Foreign and Security Affairs, then returned to find the ministers still agonizing. Key world leaders were all demanding Israel not attack; the ministers all knew war was inevitable but couldn’t agree on a course of action. If we attack first, what will the international cost be? If we’re hit first, how many lives will we pay with? (Many thousands, they expected). If we wait, what do we gain? At what cost? If we don’t wait—at what cost?

Aharon Yariv, 46, head of intelligence, began: We see no military advantages in further waiting, and considerable danger. The Arab armies are continuing to dig in, prepare, and acquire further arms. We have no potential for re-arming. Rabin: The coordination among the Arab armies is growing. They are emboldened by our inaction. Mordechai Hod, 41, head of the air force: We will do our job under any conditions, but each 24-hour-delay raises the potential price we may have to pay. Yishayahu Gavish, 42, commander of the southern front: Here’s a map of Egyptian forces on May 22. Here’s what they had last week. And here’s what they have today. Additional [Egyptian] forces are on their way from Yemen. They get stronger every day. (Gavish is the only person in these transcripts who is still alive, at 92.) Reserve Division Cmdr. Avraham Yoffe, 54: I’ve been in the Negev with my troops for 14 days. We must wrest the initiative from the Egyptians! Division Cmdr. Ariel Sharon, 39: We’re ready, and we’ll destroy the Egyptian army. There will be casualties, but we must do the job. Begging other nations to save us won’t work. Waiting for hypothetical additional arms isn’t necessary. We will do the job. Quartermaster Matti Peled, 43: What are we waiting for? Tell us: What are we waiting for?

And still, the cabinet hesitated. There was another inconclusive meeting on June 4.

One after another, each of the ministers had his say. All agreed war was inevitable. Most tried to justify the waiting period, hoping Israel had gained credibility in the eyes of the world.

The following words for me are the essence of Israel’s diplomatic situation even today:

Haim Gvati (66, Mapai) gently mocked his hesitant colleagues: “I’m surprised by those who think the great powers will ever, ever say to us that the time has come and we can attack our enemies. They never will.”

I can’t help but feel outraged when I read this. How DARED the world demand Israel to refrain from defending itself??! And yet – don’t we hear the same refrain every time we find ourselves fighting off Hamas or Hezbollah? Nothing has changed in 50 years and it seems that nothing ever will.

The rest of the transcripts in the article are almost an anti-climax because we know how the war ended. Still, they are fascinating if only for understanding the war’s miraculous turn of events:

The first meeting of the war was in the evening of June 6, more than 30 hours into the campaign. The first 90 minutes of the meeting were simply updates. The Egyptian army was collapsing in Sinai, Gaza had been mostly conquered, chunks of the West Bank had been taken, and the areas to the north and south of the Old City were secured by the IDF. Latrun, site of a series of humiliating defeats in 1948 and the cause of the rerouting of the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was in Israeli hands. None of this had been discussed, much less authorized, by the entity that legally commands the military.

The Paratroopers burst into Jerusalem’s Old City via the Lions’ Gate

The meeting marked the pinnacle of euphoria. Less than two days after fearfully authorizing a military campaign expected to cause thousands of deaths, the ministers could be forgiven a large sigh of relief. Eshkol, normally circumspect and careful, wondered if it might be possible to solve Israel’s water problems by taking southern Lebanon till the Litani River. Dayan, flamboyant and erratic, boasted that Israel could reach Cairo if anyone was interested, and would soon take Sharm el-Sheikh and hold it for 300 years. He also told the ministers they needed to talk less as he didn’t have time for a long meeting. When Allon and Begin insisted that the Old City be taken immediately before the United Nations might intervene, Dayan explained he didn’t want such a decision.

The iconic photo of 3 Israeli paratroopers looking at the Kotel in awe as Jerusalem is liberated in the Six Day War

Perhaps the single most important decision in millennia—that the Jews should rule in Jerusalem—was probably made early on June 7 by Moshe Dayan, not by Israel’s government. Because the IDF was already advancing deep into the West Bank, the government simply OK’d an advance that had already happened in the heat of battle. The most portentous decision in Israel’s history, to control the entire Land of Israel and its Arab population, was made almost in a fit of absent-mindedness.

As for the Golan Heights, I was surprised to learn that there was no consensus on capturing the area despite the constant Syrian shelling of farmers:

Most of the deliberations were focused on Syria, which had been shelling Israeli villages all week but was still on the sidelines of the territorial war. At first the IDF didn’t have the resources for what seemed likely to be a costly effort parallel to the main theater in Sinai and the unplanned one on the West Bank. As the fighting progressed, the cabinet feared a confrontation with the Soviet Union, which it perceived to be protecting Syria more than Egypt. Yet public pressure was mounting.

The next morning (June 9), Dayan told the ministers he and Eshkol had given the green light for an attack; in the transcript, Eshkol sounds evasive. Shapira was furious: This is not at all what we agreed upon. Everyone else was uncomfortable but unwilling to halt the troops in battle. Barzilai, interestingly, was mostly silent: Some of the kibbutzim under fire were from his political movement.

That evening only five ministers made it to the meeting in Tel Aviv. Because the Syrian artillery was still firing, they hoped the IDF units would reach them before the cease-fire. They did say the IDF shouldn’t launch a second attack from the southern Golan, and they recognized there were only hours left to achieve all goals.

Saturday night (June 10) there was another meeting. The IDF had attacked from the south. The Syrian army collapsed, said Dayan, and we had to take advantage of this. Eshkol explained, rather lamely, that “Dayan told me,” but he hadn’t stopped the advance because he was in favor of it. During the meeting, word arrived that the two IDF columns had met in the center of the Golan. The ministers stood for a moment of silence in honor of the fallen, then drank “l’chaim.”

By the time you get to the end of the article you feel almost breathless with the tension and then the utter relief at the victory.

We must never allow ourselves to be put into such an inferior position again, no matter the temptations of “peace” negotiations and promises of security guarantees from the international community. We have learned what those guarantees are worth.

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3 Responses to #Jerusalem50: Israel’s precarious position in the lead-up to the Six Day War

  1. Pingback: #Jerusalem50: Israel’s precarious position in the lead-up to the Six Day War – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Reality says:

    And all those bloody leftists sicken me by saying we caused another nakba.If they’d had their way we wouldn’t be alive in Israel today.Or possibly anywhere else either

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