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Twenty-Five Years Ago This Month
Who Started the Six-Day War on June 5, 1967? The Record is Clear
By Richard H. Curtiss
"Finally, on the night of June 4, we had a Democratic rally in New York, and Johnson was the main speaker. I had gotten word that afternoon and I went up to where he was sitting. I remember Mary Lasker was on one side and Mathilde Krim, who was then a professor at the Weizmann Institute, was on the other. And I whispered to him, on the side where Mrs. Krim was sitting. I said, 'Mr. President, it cannot be held any longer. It's going to be within the next 24 hours.' Well, he made a speech that night that absolutely brought the house down, completely extemporaneous. About Israel and about its survival."
-Democratic party leader Abe Feinberg, quoted in Lyndon: An Oral Biography, by Merle Miller, 1980
At precisely 8 a.m. on June 5, 1967, virtually the entire Israeli air force streaked into Egyptian airspace simultaneously. Some aircraft entered from Israel's Negev desert to the east, some directly from major Israeli bases to the northeast, and hundreds from the Mediterranean to the north and northwest.
Within minutes every military airfield in Egypt was under attack. By the end of the first morning of the Six-Day War, the Egyptian air force had been destroyed on the ground. The Syrian air force was destroyed that afternoon.
The war opened with shocking suddenness, and ended only six days later with much of the Arab world's military might, and all of its political illusions, in smoking ruins. But the buildup to war had been slow and ambiguous. Today what is clear is that the Israelis wanted war, Egypt did not, the Soviets could have prevented it, and the Americans should have. But origins of the attack that changed forever the course of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are as confusing now as they were 25 years ago.
During the eight years General Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States, he alternately courted and rejected Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who several times expressed to U.S. emissaries his willingness to enter secret negotiations for a peace treaty with Israel. It was Israel's charismatic Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who was not ready.
Egypt had even higher hopes with the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy. He had campaigned on a pro-Israel platform, but his record in the Senate, particularly in regard to Algeria's independence struggle, promised a whole new look at Third World aspirations-even Arab aspirations.
After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and the actions of his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, after he assumed the presidency and then won election in his own right in 1964, Nasser was convinced that he no longer had a suitor in the White House.
Egypt's relationship with the Soviet Union began to flourish. The Soviets sent Nasser arms in exchange for Egyptian cotton. They used his ports and airfields, and gave the Egyptians all the advice they could handle, whether they wanted it or not.
The Israelis would have an excuse to do what they wanted.
What the Egyptian president probably did not realize at the time was that Soviet adventurism in the Middle East had become a key issue in a power struggle within the Kremlin. Hard-liners, led by Leonid Brezhnev, were determined to counter-or exploit-growing American involvement in Vietnam. The U.S. was becoming progressively more reckless around the globe, playing for higher and higher stakes at increasing distances from home. The Brezhnev faction believed it could call the U.S. hand in the Middle East, an area where the Americans generally did everything wrong.
For some time the Syrians had been supporting Palestinian guerrilla raids across Israel's borders. True to their policy of retaliating against moderate Arab regimes, however, Israeli reprisal raids were carried out against Palestinian West Bank villages under Jordanian rule.
In November 1966, a PLO mine planted by Al Fatah guerrillas on an Israeli road near the Jordanian frontier killed three and wounded six Israeli soldiers. An Israeli armored column, supported by Mirage aircraft, crossed the frontier and destroyed the West Bank village of As-Sammu. Eighteen Palestinians and Jordanian soldiers were killed and 134 wounded.
At this time, King Hussein was the most effective spokesman for the Arabs with U.S. audiences. His English was excellent and he had become a familiar television personality on his frequent visits to the United States, explaining the Palestinian and Arab cause moderately and effectively, time and again.
The U.S. joined in U.N. condemnation of the Israeli raid. President Johnson, however, did not ask the Israelis why, if they were retaliating against Syria, they kept pounding Hussein's subjects on the West Bank.
With little U.S. intelligence capability in Israel, there was no one with easy access to the president to tell him that Israeli planners had calculated that, if Hussein appeared too weak to defend his subjects, those subjects would find a way to replace him. Nor did anyone warn Johnson that the new ruler probably would be more like Nasser or the hard-line rulers of Syria. Then the Israelis would have an excuse to do what they had wanted to do in 1948 and again in 1956: expel Jordan's Arab Legion militarily from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and ensure that as many Palestinians as possible went with it.
However, what the Israelis were going to do to realize this plan suddenly became immaterial. The power play in the Kremlin pre-empted all other plans in the Middle East, and in the end accomplished the Israeli purpose far more effectively than they could have by themselves.
A Kremlin Power Play
The Soviets told the Syrians that Israeli troops were massing on their border for a major strike. It made sense, since the Israelis, in April 1967, had lured the Syrians into an aerial dogfight that began when Israel sent an armored tractor into a demilitarized zone to start plowing Syrian soil for planting by an Israeli kibbutz.
The Syrians responded with gunfire, which the Israelis returned. Only when the Syrians sent in aircraft did they discover it was a trap, with Israeli aircraft aloft and waiting for them. By the end of the day, six Syrian planes had been shot out of the skies, some within sight of Damascus and others over Jordan-but none over Israel.
While the Syrians were denying losses which their own people had witnessed, Jordan television showed downed Syrian pilots being treated in an Amman hospital. It had embarrassed Syria's Ba'th leaders, who found it easy to believe Soviet reports in May 1967 that the Israelis were massing on their borders.
The reports, however, were false. Either the Israelis deceived the Soviets with fake military transmissions they knew the Russians would intercept and pass on, or the Soviets simply made up the whole war scare.
The Syrians, who had ostensibly mended their fences with Nasser after their break from the United Arab Republic, now demanded his assistance. By this time, taunts against the Egyptian president from many parts of the Arab world, and particularly from Jordan, had become unbearable.
Egyptian troops, separated from the Israelis by a screen of U.N. forces on Egyptian territory in the Sinai, had done nothing in November 1966, while a short distance away in As-Sammu Israeli tanks were leveling Palestinian homes with the occupants still inside. Again in April 1967, Egyptian forces did nothing as Israeli planes pursued Syrian planes over the Syrian capital.
The Syrians now demanded to know whether Egyptian forces would continue to hide behind the U.N. screen while Israeli tanks ran over Syrian villages as well. Nasser had always vowed that the moment for Egypt to strike at Israel would come, but at a time and place of his own choosing. Could he stand by, however, doing nothing during a major Israeli attack on Syria, and still claim to be a leader of all the Arabs?
He asked the Soviets if the Syrian reports of Israeli troop concentrations on their borders were true. The Russians confirmed the reports, which of course Nasser did not know the Soviets themselves had originated.
Nasser then made one of the theatrical gestures which had helped him capture Arab hearts and minds, but which also had made him increasingly dependent upon the U.S.S.R. He asked the U.N. secretary-general to remove U.N. forces "from the international frontier between Egypt and Israel."
The Israelis are depicted in the U.S. as eternally on the defensive. In fact, however, they had never permitted U.N. forces to be stationed on Israeli territory. That meant that the only U.N. forces separating Egypt and Israel were on Egyptian territory. When they were removed, Egyptian forces would be free to strike against Israel's southern borders if Israeli tanks and planes crossed Israel's northern borders to attack Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, however, inexplicably decided to remove U.N. forces from all Egyptian territory, not just from the border with Israel. Unfortunately for Nasser, the U.N. withdrawal meant that his troops were perfectly free to move back into their former position on the Sinai side of the Straits of Tiran.
The position had been occupied in 1956 by the Israelis, who violated the cease-fire they had accepted just long enough to seize it. Facing Eisenhower's displeasure and the threat of U.N. sanctions which the U.S. obviously would not veto, Israel reluctantly turned the position over to the U.N. when Israeli forces withdrew in 1957.
Now, 10 years later, U.N. forces withdrew and Nasser moved Egyptian forces back to the Straits. It is not clear whether the Egyptian president was trapped by circumstances and his own rhetoric, or whether he really believed he could use political means to win a strategic victory over the Israelis. Whatever the reason, he announced that he would not permit Israeli shipping to enter the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's only outlet to Asia and the Far East.
It was obvious to President Johnson that he had to watch Israel attack Egypt, or else head off a war by organizing an international fleet to open the Straits with a show of force. President Johnson set about organizing what became known as "the Red Sea regatta" by White House aides.
Did the Israelis plan military action all along, setting up a screen of false military communications to deceive and alarm the Soviets? Or was it Russian disinformation to the Arabs that made war inevitable? No clear answer emerges from reading memoirs of the Americans involved. In fact, there were forces working at cross purposes within the Arab camp, and also within the Soviet and American governments. Only within Israel did there seem to be careful planning to maximize opportunities presented by every possible contingency.
A May Meeting
Lyndon Johnson, in his book The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969, published in 1971, describes a May 26 meeting in the White House with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban:
"Our conversation was direct and frank. Eban said that according to Israeli intelligence, the United Arab Republic (Egypt) was preparing an all-out attack. I asked Secretary [of Defense Robert] McNamara, who was present, to give Mr. Eban a summary of our findings. Three separate intelligence groups had looked into the matter, McNamara said, and it was our best judgment that a UAR attack was not imminent. 'All of our intelligence people are unanimous,' I added, 'that if the UAR attacks, you will whip hell out of them.'
"Eban asked what the United States was willing to do to keep the Gulf of Aqaba open. I reminded him that I had defined our position on May 23. We were hard at work on what to do to assure free access, and when to do it. 'You can assure the Israeli Cabinet,' I said, 'we will pursue vigorously any and all possible measures to keep the Strait open. . .'
"Abba Eban is an intelligent and sensitive man. I wanted him to understand the U.S. position fully and clearly, and to communicate what I said to his government. 'The central point, Mr. Minister,' I told him, 'is that your nation will not be the one to bear the responsibility for any outbreak of war.' Then I said, very slowly and very positively: 'Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.'"
After Eban's return to Israel, he cabled Johnson on May 30 that the Israeli Cabinet had decided two days earlier to postpone military action and to "await developments for a further limited period." Eban added, however, "it is crucial that the international naval escort should move through the Strait within a week or two." On June 2, an Israeli diplomat told the president's aide, Walter Rostow, that nothing would happen before "the week beginning Sunday, June 11."
"Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone."
Johnson believed he had lined up ships from the UK, the Netherlands and Australia to join U.S. ships in lifting Egypt's threatened blockade of the Straits of Tiran. He therefore decided to go to Congress with the plan during the week of June 5. Meanwhile, both Ambassador Charles Yost and Robert Anderson, President Eisenhower's longtime confidant and occasional secret emissary to the Middle East, were in Cairo.
Initially they suggested a visit to Cairo by Vice President Hubert Humphrey to defuse the building tension. Then it was decided that UAR Vice President Zakaria Muhieddin would first visit Washington on June 7. Neither of those plans to avert war was tested, however. Instead, U.S. Middle East specialists of the time concluded, the scheduled Washington visit by the Egyptian vice president caused Israel to move the date of its attack forward by one week.
The Israeli aerial attack on June 5, 1967 was a masterpiece of planning. The date was known only to a few senior officers. As a deception, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan sent thousands of Israeli soldiers on leave. They were photographed for the press as they relaxed on the beaches of Tel Aviv over the weekend.
The time chosen was 8 a.m. Israeli intelligence had established that Egyptian military personnel who had been on alert all night started going to breakfast each morning at 7:30. At 6 a.m., therefore, Israeli planes had engaged in routine maneuvers, landing back at their bases at 7:30 a.m.
As Egyptian radar operators who had been watching them land relaxed and headed off to breakfast, wave after wave of Israeli aircraft took off. Some flew west out to sea, some headed south toward Eilat. The last waves to take off streaked straight toward Egypt. All of the planes then thundered into Egyptian airspace at the same moment.
Withing minutes, Israeli planes were diving on every major military airfield in Egypt to unleash bombs or rockets on grounded Egyptian aircraft, and then rising to circle and dive again. Only minutes after each flight of Israeli attackers vanished into the clear skies, a new wave would roar in over the same battered Egyptian bases.
With turnaround time on Israeli airfields for rearming and refueling down to as little as four minutes, most Egyptian airfields stayed under almost continuous attack, unable to activate their anti-aircraft defenses or get their planes airborne before all were destroyed.
Egypt's air force was permanently out of action by 1 p.m. Then it was Syria's turn. Six separate waves of Israeli fighter bombers swooped in to destroy the Damascus international airport in the course of a long afternoon, while Damascenes stood on their flat rooftops watching in glum astonishment.
Each wave came in high from the east and then, one by one, the planes dove through clouds of black anti-aircraft bursts from batteries ringing the airport. As each wave departed, flying low through the mountain passes back to Israel, it left behind columns of black smoke from burning gasoline storage tanks and airport buildings, as well as from planes caught on the ground.
The same tactics that had worked so well in the morning in Egypt were followed throughout the afternoon in Syria. Observers on the high mountains above Damascus could see columns of smoke rising far out across the desert, each one marking the site of a destroyed Syrian military airfield. The fastest Israeli planes struck distant bases near Aleppo in the north, and in the eastern desert and along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border. The slower planes, meanwhile, continued their shorter bombing shuttles between the Syrian capital and Israeli bases.
Having achieved total mastery of the air on Monday, the first day of the war, Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin knew that the Egyptian forces in Sinai stood no chance. It became a twice-fought war as Israeli tanks repeated the 1956 race across Sinai to Suez, and Israeli aircraft carried out disabling attacks against Egyptian vehicles to block the narrow, winding roads of the Mitla and Gidi passes. This stopped reinforcements or supplies from reaching the Egyptian forces in Sinai, and cut off their retreat.
One occurrence on the first day of the war only magnified the Israeli advantage. When the first Israeli planes struck, Egyptian air base commanders were not at their commands. Most had assembled at one airfield to welcome back the Egyptian air force commander from an inspection trip.
In retrospect it seems incredible that with Israel poised for an attack for days, and with foreign residents being evacuated from virtually every Middle Eastern capital, the officers in charge of Egypt's air defenses would congregate in any one place. It underscores the total lack of preparation in Egypt for war.
There had been considerable Arab activity on the political level, however. On May 30, King Hussein of Jordan had flown secretly to Cairo for a six-hour visit in which he patched up things with President Nasser. Jordan's army was placed under a unified Arab command and token Egyptian units were flown to Jordan to signify formally that an Israeli attack on Syria, Jordan or Egypt would be treated as an attack on all.
It must have been a day of celebration in the Israeli Defense Ministry, where planners had been seeking for years to entice Jordan into a war which would enable Israel to seize all of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Israelis have made much of their efforts to dissuade King Hussein from coming into the war at Egypt's side. They warned him against committing his forces, they point out, and they did not attack him first.
The moment Hussein's guns opened up in response to telephone calls from Nasser to fulfill his commitments, however, Israeli troops went into action. They began their ground attack on East Jerusalem after dark on June 5. It was superbly planned. Previously placed explosives blew a huge hole in the wall of the Old City, and machine guns opened up on its defenders from pre-prepared positions on the roofs of West Jerusalem.
The Arab Legion resisted, but this time both Jerusalem and the West Bank, which the Israelis had fought so hard to occupy in 1948, and which they had come tantalizing close to seizing, with French complicity, during the Suez war of 1956, fell to the Israeli army.
The world saw dramatic photos of sweat-stained, powder-blackened Israeli paratroopers, whose elite units had been assigned to this most important attack of the 1967 war, weeping with exaltation as they pressed themselves against the ancient stones of the Western Wall. Even secular Jews around the world were electrified by this sudden, literal fulfillment of their time-honored symbolic toast: "next year in Jerusalem."
As Israeli troops on Wednesday mopped up the last defenses on the eastern banks of the Suez Canal, the Israeli air force turned its attention back to Syria. Israeli aircraft began softening up with bombs, rockets and napalm what appeared to be impregnable Syrian defenses on the Golan Heights.
An attack scheduled for Thursday was postponed for 24 hours, and Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked and incapacitated the USS Liberty, an American intelligence vessel monitoring military communications of both sides from international waters a few miles off the Sinai coast. Thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 wounded in the Israeli attack (see page 52 of this issue).
On Friday, at a heavy price in blood, Israeli infantryman climbed up the hills, fighting from one fortified bunker to the next, while Israeli armored bulldozers scraped a road out of one of the steepest hillsides. When the infantrymen and bulldozers secured the crest, hundreds of Israeli tanks fanned out across the rocky but level terrain of the Golan Heights.
All day Friday cease-fires with the Egyptians were being violated and reinstated. In Syria, however, the Israelis ignored all of the U.N. secretary-general's cease-fire proposals and kept moving forward. It appeared that their armored columns might even attack Damascus, where the Syrians were digging anti-tank ditches across southern approaches to the sprawling oasis capital.
On the morning of Saturday, June 10, Soviet Chairman Alexei Kosygin asked that President Johnson come personally to the hot line that linked the Kremlin with the White House. Kosygin told Johnson flatly that if the Israelis did not halt their thrust into Syria, the Soviets would take "necessary actions, including military."
Incredibly, Johnson's first reaction was not to call off the Israelis. Instead, he ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which had been steaming in circles 300 miles west of the Syrian coast, to change course and proceed directly toward Syria. Later in the day, the Israelis agreed through U.N. negotiators to a cease-fire, thus sparing President Johnson and Chairman Kosygin, who continued to exchange hot line messages throughout the day, from deciding whether or not to begin World War III over the actions of America's headstrong Israeli protege.
This report was adopted from Chapter 9 of A Changing Image: American Perceptions of the Arab Israeli Dispute, by Richard H. Curtiss, which is available from the AET Book Club.