Six Days of War
June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Author: Michael B. Oren

Oxford University Press, 2002

Dr. Oren has dual citizenship – US and Israeli. He is a graduate of Princeton and an Israeli army veteran. He tried to be fair in writing this book rather than just let himself run with his own biases, and his effort has been appreciated by some Arab scholars. As of this writing, all of the numerous customer reviews at give him high marks. Robert L. Pollock of the Wall Street Journal writes that "Oren brings a novelist's flair to recounting ... the war. His meticulous research cuts through the propagandized histories on all sides."

Oren describes the developments leading to war:

In 1966 many in Egypt were interested in erasing the disgrace that they connected with their country's performance against the Israeli military back during the 1956 Suez crisis. Also in 1966, Israel's neighbor to the northeast, Syria, frequently sent guerrillas into Israel. And, that year, Syria and Egypt were working on an alliance. In October, 1966, in Damascus, the leader of Egypt's military delegation proclaimed:

We are confident that we are making fast strides toward the realization of our common goal – the elimination of Israel and full unity.

On November 4, the Egyptians and Syrians signed a defense treaty, committing them to assist each other militarily during war.

On the morning of 16 May 1967, Egypt's president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, moved on his plan for a military offensive. He sent his tanks forward into Sinai-Egyptian territory. That same day Nasser surprised the world by asking the United Nations to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from the Sinai, and the UN complied. Four days later, Egypt erected a blockade at the Strait of Tiran, near Sharm al-Sheikh, against Israel's access to shipping in the Red Sea. On 24 May the Egyptians moved 9,000 men, 200 tanks and guns to positions at the edge of the Gaza Strip, near Rafah. The Gaza Strip at the time was under Egypt's control, and Egypt withdrew the families of its military officers from the Strip, and it transferred managers, engineers and doctors there in preparation for occupying the Negev region (Beersheba and points south). Egypt was planning to launch its offensive on 27 May.

Israel's military command was alarmed. Waiting while Egypt's strike force became stronger, and letting Egypt strike first, were militarily unsound. The Israeli government, under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who was also defense minister, held back, hoping war could be avoided by talking to the Russians and to the Johnson administration in Washington. The pressure was unbearable for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli army's chief of staff, who had not been able to sleep. Around25 May, Rabin had a nervous breakdown (not unlike Moshe Dayan would in the approach of war in 1973). Responsibility for Israel's survival was a heavy weight

Eshkol sent his diplomat Abba Eban to Washington. President Lyndon Johnson had called Nasser's blockade of the Strait of Tiran "illegal" and "potentially disastrous to the cause of peace." Johnson was sending letters to Egypt and Syria urging restraint, and he sent a letter to their ally, the Soviet Union, asking Premier Alexi Kosygin to exercise his influence over Egypt and Syria. Eban arrived in Washington on the morning of the 25 May, around the time that the pressure was becoming too much for Rabin.

Rather than acknowledge military and defense realities for the Israelis, Johnson's advisor, Walt Rostow – a hawk concerning Vietnam – warned Eban against Israel striking first. Johnson's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was advising Johnson to stay with multi-lateralism, non-intervention and prudence. When Eban met with Rusk, Rusk told him that a first strike by Israel "would be a horrendous error." Eban was told of forty-one Congressmen being against the United States intervening unilaterally against the blockade of the Strait of Tiran and of many more opposed to any military commitment in the Middle East while the US was still fighting in Vietnam. Eban was advised to trust the United Nations. In other words, Israel was being asked to ignore urgent military realities and the benefits of pre-emption.

Sitting in on a debate within the administration, Johnson's friend, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, complained that "the United States cannot let Israel stand alone." Rusk disagreed, saying that "if Israel strikes first, it'll have to forget the US." At that meeting, McNamara spoke against promising Israel anything concrete. Former ambassador to Egypt and now Assistant Secretary of State, Lucius Battle, spoke of what he saw as a dilemma, that if we fail to stand by Israel, "the radical Arabs will paint us as a paper tiger" and if we stand by Israel, "we will damage ourselves seriously with all the Arabs."

Johnson met with Eban and said that he understood "the seriousness of Israel's situation" but that he could not promise to do more than what his advisors had already told him could be done. He was, he said, exhausting all efforts at a peaceful solution to the crisis. He described the UN as "a zero" and said that following a UN failure in dealing with the crisis he would seek congressional approval for concerted action. Without this approval, he said, "I am just a six-foot-four Texan friend of Israel."

Johnson was being bombarded with telegrams urging intervention on Israel's behalf, and what Johnson did not say to Eban was that he was upset over widespread hostility among Jews in the US to his policies regarding Vietnam. He was angry also with Israel for its failure to publicly support his war in Vietnam and failure to press Israel's friends in the US to back his policies in Vietnam. "Israel gets more than it's willing to give," he had commented, "It's a one way street."  

Eban left Washington on the morning of the 26th. On the 27th, Nasser postponed the assault he had planned for the 28th. Nasser was afraid of  US intervention and not knowing whether he would be getting military support from the Soviet Union. When Nasser's pilots were informed of the postponement they were disappointed, one of them asking why they did not "trust that Allah will aid us?"

It was a lucky break for the Israelis, a reprieve, accompanied by more argument within the Israeli government.  Rabin was beginning to function again. Some were still looking with hope to President Johnson. Others were against waiting. Yigal Allin, the Labor Minister, asked "Does anyone around this table really think that we should let the enemy strike first just to prove to the world that they started it?"

Expecting war, and feeling obliged to side with his fellow Arabs, King Hussein suggested a treaty between his kingdom and Egypt, and on May 30 the treaty was signed. It stipulating that Jordan's forces were to be placed under Egyptian military command. Iraq joined the pact. The Egyptian newspaper, Al Akhbar, reported that "Under terms of the military agreement signed with Jordan, Jordanian artillery, coordinated with the forces of Egypt and Syria, is in a position to cut Israel in two."

Israel's request to the Johnson administration for hawk missiles, Patton tanks and 24 Skyhawk jets was being ignored. Britain was favoring the restoration of a symbolic United Nations force in Strait of Tiran under Egyptian army control. Within Israel, public opinion had been demanding that Moshe Dayan step forward. On 1 June, Dayan was made Defense Minister in place of Eshkol. A military realist, Dayan was adamant about striking as soon as possible.

Nasser's strategy was now to let Israel strike first. Egypt, he explained to people around him, could not risk alienating world opinion by attacking first. Nasser believed Israel striking first would be its strategic defeat. On the second day of June he assured his military commanders that they could manage a first strike from Israel and said that it would come by 5 June at the latest.

On 5 June, Egypt's air force was on the alert, expecting an attack at dawn. When the attack did not come, the pilots went from ready to relaxed and had breakfast, away from their planes. The Israeli airforce, employing the important element called "the unexpected," showed up at nine in the morning. They had managed to avoid Egypt's radar and come from an unexpected direction. Egypt's combat aircraft were caught on the ground. Within 100 minutes, 13 airbases, 23 radar stations and anti-aircraft sites and 107 aircraft were destroyed – the Israelis having lost nine planes. Israel now had control of the skies. At 10:35 that morning, Chief of Staff Rabin received a report that Egypt's airforce had "ceased to exist." It was more of a success than the Israeli military had hoped for.

Meanwhile the ground war in Sinai had begun. Egyptian radio announced the outbreak of war and initial Egyptian successes, although there were none. Egyptians packed city streets and celebrated.

With Israel ruling the skies, the ground war could not go well for Egypt. Egypt also suffered from broken communications within its military. There had been too much wishful thinking rather than devotion to exactitude.

The Israelis told Hussein of Jordan that if he did not move against them, they would leave him in peace. Jordanian artillery began shelling Israel at 1:00 in the afternoon, a heavy barrage on both West Jerusalem and around Tel-Aviv. And the Israelis counterattacked.

In Washington, Dean Rusk was relieved that the Israelis were not driven to the beaches, but he was angry with them for having struck first. A cable from Kosygin was received expressing hope that the US would "exert the appropriate influence on ... Israel." And Rusk talked with the Soviet Union's foreign minister, Andre Gromyko, about Washington's efforts to prevent the fighting.

On that first day of the war, Nasser's commander-in-chief and close friend, Amir, agreed to the fiction of British and American intervention. It was his way to explain the poor performance of Egypt's military, to minimize Egyptian dishonor and to prod the Soviet Union into intervening. At 6:05 that evening listeners to Cairo's "Voice of the Arabs" were told that "the United States is the enemy, the United States is the hostile force behind Israel ... the enemy of all peoples, the killer of life, the shedder of blood that is preventing you from liquidating Israel."

During the second day of the war, mobs attacked American embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East. American diplomats barricaded themselves in their compounds. The governments of Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain responded to Nasser's call to suspend shipments of oil to the United States and Britain. On the radio it was announced that "the American presence ... must be exterminated from the Arab homeland." And that day, Americans in Egypt were given minutes to pack. They were searched at gunpoint and deported.

On the second day of the war, Nasser called King Hussein of Jordan, trying to coordinate with him about American and British intervention. Nasser asked Hussein whether Britain had aircraft carriers and whether to say that just the United States had intervened or both the US and Britain. Hussein favored the claim that it was both, and the two agreed to issue statements to that effect.

Nasser told his colleagues in Egypt of forthcoming help form the Soviet Union. "The message from Kosygin," he said, "is that the Soviet Union supports us in this battle and will not allow any power to intervene until matters are returned to what they were in 1956."

Saudi Arabia sent a military force to its northern border but, according to Michael Oren, "Secretly they were telling the Americans, 'we hope the Israelis '" (Oren to Brian Lamb on CSPAN)

On the third day, Israeli forces defeated the Jordanians and captured the whole of l the West Bank. On the fourth day, Israelis were turning around an attack by Syria. They attacked the Syrians on the Golan Heights – high ground from which the Syrians had been shelling Israel. In Egypt that day, common people were learning that talk of victory had been a sham. In Algiers people rioted, chanting "Nasser traitor!" In Tunis, the Egyptian cultural center was destroyed by fire. On television, Nasser took full responsibility for Egypt's failure.  He resigned as president. Egyptians poured into the streets again. This time to demonstrate their support for him. The cabinet and the National Assembly voted not to accept the resignation, and Nasser withdrew it.

The fighting ended on the sixth day. Israel emerged from the war in control of that part of Jerusalem that had been controlled by Jordan – East Jerusalem. It was in control of the entire West Bank, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Its major cities were no longer within range of Arab guns.

Israeli war dead numbered between 700 to 800. The Egyptians had suffered about 10,000 common soldiers and 1,500 officers killed, 5,000 common soldiers and 500 officers captured, and eighty percent of its military destroyed. Jordan lost several thousand men, and Syria lost around 200.

According to Oren, Arab politicians failed to engage in introspection regarding the defeat. Nasser gave up on claiming responsibility for Egypt's defeat and instead blamed his military officers, the Americans and the British. King Hussein told his subjects that "I seem to belong to a family which ... must suffer and make sacrifices for its country without end ... " He turned fatalistic, telling his subjects that "if you were not rewarded with glory it was not because you lacked courage, but because it is Allah's will." Syrian leaders proclaimed themselves victors in the war because Israel had conquered only a few miles of territory -- the Golan Heights – and had failed to topple their "progressive government." And they blamed Nasser for taking Egypt into an "ambush that Israel had laid with American help."

On June 25, Alexi Kosygin, added to the nonsense. He accused the United States of encouraging Israeli expansion and dealing perfidiously with Nasser. He played to Arab sentiments, predicting that the Arabs would "fight with hunting rifles, even their bare hands" to regain the lands they had lost.

Copyright © 2003-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.