The Six-Day War, 45 Years Later (النكسة)

June 11, 2012


Exactly 45 years (or 16,448 days) ago today, Israel (and the world) awoke to a new, stunning geographical reality:  The young Jewish David had essentially humiliated the “Arab Goliath”. Israeli forces were in occupation of the whole of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip (Egyptian territory), the West Bank including Arab East Jerusalem (Jordanian territory) and the Golan Heights (Syrian territory). This triple-times expansion of Israeli territory was stunning in light of the perceived quantitative superiority that the Arabs possessed: At the time of the outbreak of hostilities, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq had 410,000 troops, 2,200 tanks, and 810 warplanes, while Israel in turn had 264,000 soldiers (including the reserves), 800 tanks, and 350 warplanes.(Kurtulus, 223).

Many people to this day believe that Israel faced an “existential threat” to its survival in 1967, and that the Six-Day War was one of necessity borne out by the desires of Arabs to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea. Specifically, pro-Israeli sympathizers point out that on May 14 1967,  Gamal Abdel-Nasser sent the first of what were to be several thousand Egyptian soldiers into the Sinai Peninsula. Two days later, Nasser ordered the evacuation of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from Egyptian soil. Finally, on the night of May 22-23, Nasser declared the Straits of Tiran closed to Israeli shipping.  (Gat, 608).  Many consider these collective actions as constituting a legitimate casus belli (i.e., a justification for initiating war).  Thankfully, declassification of historical evidence now proves that such a claim is flat out wrong. Although Nasser had ordered about 80,000-90,000 troops stationed in the Sinai Peninsula, the evidence suggests that this was an entirely defensive, as opposed to offensive, troop deployment. (Kurtulus, 233). That same was true for Jordan and Syria–neither country, as far as intelligence assessments at the time could suggest an impending attack against Israel. Moreover, as some have noted, in 1967 it would have been utterly unrealistic, if not sheer madness, for Egypt to go to war with Israel. At that time, Nasser had thousands of troops in Yemen fighting a proxy war in the North-South divide, and that conflict had surely depleted considerable resources of the Egyptian military. (Gat, 609). According to many sources, Nasser’s decision to send Egyptian forces into Sinai was a political one, intended to provide defensive deterrence against Israeli threats against Syria and to score points with the Arab masses across the Middle East. (Gat, 611). Yitzak Rabin, the Israeli chief of staff in 1967, endorsed this view in full. In Rabin’s opinion, Nasser, by sending his troops into the Sinai, had merely wanted to improve his increasingly shaky position in the Arab world and prove, at little risk, that he, and he alone, could challenge Israel. (Gat, 611).

Key insight into about whether Israel went to war in 1967 because it felt that its survival as a nation and the physical survival of its people were at stake, or for other, necessarily less ‘moral’ reasons was given on the the fifth anniversary of the Six-Day War. On June 5, 1972, the government of Israel took the unusual step of publishing the official text of the Israeli cabinet’s decision of 4 June 1967 to go to war. In it General M. Peled, the quartermaster-general of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1967 claimed that Israel’s survival was not in question in May 1967 and that the Israeli cabinet under Menachem Begin “never heard from the General Staff that the Egyptian military threat was dangerous for Israel.” (Geist, 631). Moreover,  it was an undisputed fact that Israel’s military command, without exception, assured the government of Israel during the continuous deliberations of 20 May-4 June 1967 that, if war broke out, Israel would undoubtedly inflict heavy damage on the Arabs and come out the superior party in the Middle East. In the spring of 1972, General Matetiyahu Peled, Chief of Logistical Command during the war and one of 12 members of Israel’s General Staff, addressed a political literary club in Tel Aviv. He said: “The thesis according to which the danger of genocide hung over us in June 1967, and according to which Israel was fighting for her very physical survival, was nothing but a bluff which was born and bred after the war.”

During the June 1967 Six-Day War, Bar-Lev served as the Deputy Chief of Staff in the IDF. Bar-Lev also agreed: “No, there was no danger of destruction on the eve of the Six-Day War, and neither did we speak or think in these terms. This danger existed only in the War of Independence and it became clear very quickly that, actually, even then this danger was not serious.” (Geist, 641). Most damning of all is the admission by Prime Minister Begin in 1982. “In June 1967 we had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us, We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” (Hammond, 2007). Yitzhak Rabin, who would later become Prime Minister, told Le Monde newspaper the year following the ’67 war, “I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to the Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it.” (Hammond), 2007).

Bibliography (sources)

Ersun N. Kurtulu, The Notion of a “Pre-Emptive War:” the Six Day War Revisited, Middle East Journal, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 220-238

Benjamin Geist, Question of Survival Benjamin International Journal, Vol. 28, No. 4, The Arab States and Israel (Autumn, 1973)

Jeremy Hammond, Israel’s Attack on Egypt in ’67 was not ‘Preemptive’,

Moshe Gat, Nasser and the Six Day War, 5 June 1967: A Premeditated Strategy or An Inexorable Drift to War? Israel Affairs, Aug. 6, 2006


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