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How War Came

The Motives and Maneuverings Behind Israel's Attack

 by By David Paul

 

Though Eisenhower forced Israel, Great Britain and France to back down from their attack against Egypt in 1956, Israel did not retire empty handed-- the Straits of Tiran were opened to the passage of Israeli flagships. In addition, for evacuating the Sinai Peninsula, Israel received from the US a written guarantee that it considered the straits an international waterway and that the US would help secure "free and innocent" passage for all countries' shipping through them.

This was a significant victory for Israel and a humiliation for the Arabs. Further, Cairo argued that even without a technical state of war existing it had the right to deny usage of the straits to Israel or any nation because the waterway was within Egyptian sovereign territory. The question had never been adjudicated by the International Court of Justice or any world form.

In actuality the opening of the straits was of no great importance economic-ally to Israel. It had done just fine before the straits were opened. The only immediate benefit was that it allowed Iranian oil to reach its shores at a much cheaper price. In fact, no Israeli flagship had used the straits for nearly two years prior to the June war. The real value for Israel was symbolic-- another 'right' seized from the Arabs. It held the same but negative symbolic value for the Arabs.

On the night of 22/23 May Nasser announced, "Under no circumstances will we allow the Israeli flag to pass through the Aqaba Gulf. This water is ours." Israel's reaction is to turn to war. Without a war Nasser will be victorious and his prestige will soar among the Arabs-- all to the detriment of Israel.

Abba Eban, in his memoirs: "For us the importance of denying Nasser political and psychological victory had become no less important than the concrete interest involved in the issue of navigation."

24 May 1967

Abba Eban, Israeli Foreign Minister, rushes off to Washington to determine the US position on Israel's move for war.

In Israel attention quickly shifted from the straits to an issue of Israeli prestige. However, from the Government of Israel came a rash of exaggerated claims about the country's immediate peril. This sent the US intelligence agencies back to check the situation.

26 May 1967

By the morning of Friday the 26th the US government knew that there was no immediate threat to Israel. In fact the new Board of Estimates report went so far as to state that Israel could defeat any combination of Arab states or all of them together and do it in a week. This intelligence was shared with Abba Eban as though he represented a military ally of the United States.

That evening Eban wrote in his autobiography that US officials said to him, "the idea that Israel is being outmaneuvered in the military domain, and would have to act in a mood of 'now or never' seemed to them so remote that they would be interested to know on what such appraisals were based.

Earlier in the day Secretary of State Dean Rusk had sent a memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson outlining State's recommendations for US policy: "As you know the Israelis have told us their intelligence indicates that an Egyptian and Syrian attack is imminent. They have therefore requested a US public statement of assurance and support to Israel against such aggression. Our intelligence does not confirm this Israeli estimate."

He reminded the President of US Ambassador to Israel Walworth Barbour's intervention on May 23 to stop a "preemptive strike" of Israel by floating a British idea of a maritime convoy which might pressure Nasser to protect maritime rights in the Gulf of Aqaba if UN action failed. He then continued, "Eban is here to find out whether this alternative is feasible. You have two basic options now:

"1) to let the Israelis decide how best to protect their own interests: i.e., to 'unleash' them. We recommend strongly against this option."

"2) to take a positive position, but not as a final commitment, on the British proposal for forming a group of maritime powers to defy the blockade. We recom-mend this policy as our best hope of preventing a war which could gravely damage many American national interests."

He also told the President that, "we put the case against preemptive strikes to Eban very hard." Then he added, ". . . we can proceed only on the assumption that Israel will make no military move that would precipitate hostilities in the area. Preemptive action by Israel would cause extreme difficulty for the United States . . . The American people would do what has to be done if 'the fault is on the other side and there is no alternative.' Therefore, the question of responsibility for the initiation of hostilities is a major problem for us."

Noting that Israel was under an economic strain in keeping its reserves on active duty he offered aid to Israel, thereby eliminating 'economic stress' as a motive on which Israel might go to war.

Eban wrote about LBJ: "(he) established with Prime Minister Eshkol the kind of intimate confidence that had never before existed between heads of American and Israeli governments. We no longer had to use the back door for access to the center of American policy."

In the meeting between Eban and the President that Friday LBJ told him, "What you can tell your Cabinet is that the President, the Congress and the country will vigorously support a plan to use any or all measures to open the straits." Then he repeated Rusk's meaningless clich�: "Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone."

Eban asked if he could tell the Israeli Cabinet that "you are going to use all efforts in your power to get the Gulf of Aqaba open to all shipping, including that of Israel?"

"Yes," was Johnson's reply.

In the aide-memoire handed to Eban at the end of the hour and twenty five minute meeting there appeared this:

"I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to do it alone. We cannot imagine that Israel will make this decision."

On his way back to Israel Eban stopped in New York to talk to US Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg. He told Eban that there was little world support for action to open the straits and that the UN Secretary-General U Thant had just returned from Cairo where he had been promised Egypt would not initiate war. "I found this assurance convincing. Nasser did not want war, he wanted victory without war," was how Eban recalled that news.

Goldberg also told Eban, "If it is established in the American mind that Egypt's action was illicit, then Israel could hardly lose. Either she would gain international support against the blockade or if she acted alone, she would have the United States committed to the doctrine of Israel's rectitude and Cairo's guilt."

Nasser, in his contacts with the Americans, was expressing a desire for friendship; that he was no Communist; that he found the US oriented to see the Israeli point of view but not that of the Arabs.

In Israel the generals were pushing with all their might for war-- that it was a great opportunity to do something terrific to the Jordanians, that "the solution to reopening the straits is . . . to liberate Jerusalem and the West Bank."

Friday-- 2 June 1967

Israeli Embassy Minister Epsy Evron visited Walt Rostow at the White House that morning. His purpose was to determine the Administration's attitude toward a first strike by Israel. Rostow said he'd check with the President. This answer may have implied to Evron a US acquiescence in an Israeli first strike. Israel needed US support during the war to counterbalance the Soviet Union and after to support its diplomatic position to retain whatever gains it reached.

At the same time the Israeli spy master Meir Amit was checking his sources in Washington as was Israeli Ambassador Harmon.

For the Administration, so deeply involved in Viet-Nam, so weak domestically and thus preoccupied with how to recapture political support, the dispute in the Middle East seemed far away and best settled by compromise. Compromise was anathema to the Israelis for it would leave Nasser's prestige at an all-time high and Israel shorn of its gains in the war of 1956.

By the end of the day the Israelis could not fail to realize that Israeli and American interests had reached a divide. The administration wanted a resolution that would not further weaken its eroding support in Congress and the Arab world. It did not want war, but had no real idea how to make Nasser back down.

Eshkol, Allon, Dayan and Rabin had secretly agreed among themselves that day that Israel would not go to war before Monday 5 June; that is to say Israel would go to war on 5 June.

Saturday-- 3 June 1967

That evening at a meeting at Eshkol's Jerusalem home, Eshkol, Allon, Dayan and others met. Discussing the information they had from various sources gathered over the past two weeks they concluded that the US would not oppose an Israeli first strike. Thus, they would recommend to the Cabinet, meeting the next day, that Israel go to war.

Sunday-- 4 June 1967

The Cabinet officially decided on war with a unanimous vote. The resolution

read:

"After hearing a report on the military and political situation from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, the Chief of Staff and the head of military intelligence, the Government ascertained that the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan are deployed for immediate multifront aggression, threatening the very existence of the State.

"The Government authorizes the Prime Minister to confirm to the General Staff of the IDF the time for action.

"Members of the Cabinet will receive as soon as possible the information covering the military operation to be carried out.

"The Government charges the Foreign Minister with the task of exhausting all possibilities of political action in order to explain Israel's stand to obtain the support of the powers.

Monday-- 5 June 1967

Israel attacks it neighbors.

7 June 1967

Abba Eban at the UN is declaring that only Israel has accepted the cease fire. At the same time Israel is building up its forces at the border with Syria preparing to attack. Israel had shut down Government House in Jerusalem barring the UN Security Council from getting the truth from its own observers about the cease fire progress and observance. There was no way for the US or the UN to learn of this military buildup on the Syrian border except from the USS Liberty, 15 miles off shore.

8 June 1967

Israel attacks the USS Liberty with the intent to sink her. It fails in this but it succeeds in destroying its ability to intercept communications.

9 June 1967

With the USS Liberty out of the way Israel now invades Syria-- despite the cease fire in place.

 

Quotes by Israeli Authorities on the War

There was never a threat to Israel:

Yitzhak Rabin, then head of the army:

"I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent into the Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it, and we knew it."

Le Monde, 28 February1968

General Mattitahu Peled of the IDF General Staff:

"All those stories about the huge danger we were facing because of our small territorial size, an argument expounded once the war was over, had never been considered in our calculations prior to the unleashing of hostilities. To pretend that the Egyptian forces concentrated on our borders were capable of threatening Israel's existence does not only insult the intelligence of any person capable of analyzing this kind of situation, but is primarily an insult to the Israeli army."

Le Monde, 3 June 1972

General Ezar Weizman, Chief of Operations (now President): "There was never a danger of extermination. This hypothesis had never been considered in any serious meeting."

Ha'aretz, 29 March 1972

General Yeshayahu Gavish, Commanding General, Southern Command: "The danger of Israel's extermination was hardly present before the six-day war."

Lilienthal, Alfred M., The Zionist Connection. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1978-- p. 558

General Haim Barlev, Chief of General Staff Branch, Israel Defense Force: "We were not threatened with genocide on the eve of the six-day war, and we had never thought of such a possibility."

Ma'ariv, 4 April 1972

General Chaim Herzog, Commanding General and first Military Governor, Israeli Occupied West Bank: "There was no danger of annihilation. Israeli headquarters never believed in this danger."

Ma'ariv, 4 april 1972

It was a war of aggression:

Mordechai Bentov, Minister of Housing: "The entire story of the danger of extermination was invented in every detail, and exaggerated a posteriori to justify the annexation of new Arab territory."

Al-Hamishmar, 14 april 1971

Yigal Allon, Minister of Labor and member of Eshkol's Military Advisory Committee on the origin of the Six-Day War:

"Begin and I want Jerusalem."

Haber, Eitan, Menahem Begin: The Legend and the Man. New York: Delacorte Press, 1978-- p. 271

Menahem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister in an op-ed piece in The New York Times:

"In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."

Op-ed piece. The New York Times, 21 August 1982

General Mordichai Hod, Commanding General, Israeli Air-Force:

"Sixteen years' planning had gone into those initial eighty minutes. We lived with the plan, we slept on the plan, we ate the plan. Constantly we perfected it."

op. cit. Lilienthal, pp. 558-9

General Meir Amit, head of Mossad in 1967: "There is going to be a war. Our army is now fully mobilized. but we cannot remain in that condition for long. Because we have a civilian army our economy is shuddering to a stop. We don't have the man power right now even to bring in the crops. sugar beats are rotting in the earth. We have to make quick decisions . . . If we can get the first blow in our casualties will be comparatively light . . ."

Eisenberg, Dennis, Uri Dan and Eli Landau. The Mossad: Israel's Secret Intelligence Service. New York: New American Library, 1978-- pp. 160-1

Gen. Aharon Yaariv, Israeli chief of military intelligence, gave a 'background' briefing to newsmen on 12 May 1967. He spoke first on Syria's support for guerrilla activity against Israel then hinted the Israelis were about to attack:

"If the Syrians continue for a long time the Palestinians will become a factor in the relations between us and the Arabs. They have not become a factor ever since almost 1949 . . . So we must make it clear to the Syrians that they cannot continue in this way and I think the only way to make it clear to the Syrians is by using force . . . I could say we must use force in order to have the Egyptians convince the Syrians that it doesn't pay . . . I think that the only sure and safe answer to the problem is a military operation of great size and strength."

Cooley, John K. Green March, Black September. London: Frank Cass, 1973-- p. 160

Air Force Commander Gen. Ezer Weizmann stated there was "no threat of destruction" but attack was justified so Israel could "exist according to the scale, spirit and quality she now embodies."

op. cit. Cooley, p. 162

 

Based for the most on:

Neff, Donald. Warriors for Jerusalem, New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1984

 


Source: http://www.salam.org


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