The war Israel planned
Military action against Syria had been contemplated for several months prior to the Six-Day War of June 1967, writes Moshé Machover
Israeli leaders inspect their conquests
The June 1967 six-day war was in fact three wars rolled into one. In quick succession, Israel defeated Egypt and Jordan and then, as an apparent afterthought, it turned against Syria.
But appearances can be very deceptive: history unfolds in a paradoxical way. Israel’s 1967 wars against Egypt and Jordan were - like World War I - predictable, but accidental. In my last article, ‘Israel and the Messiah’s ass’,1 I showed that the dominant hawkish wing of Israel’s political-military leadership had long been waiting for an opportunity to wage war against Egypt and Jordan. In the case of Egypt, the main aim was to redress the unsatisfactory outcome of the 1956 Suez war, which Israel had won militarily, but lost politically. Israel had to unleash its military might against any uppity Arab leader, such as Abdul Nasser, who got it into his head to challenge its regional dominance. In the case of Jordan, the aim was to complete the ‘liberation’ of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), left unfinished at the end of the 1947-49 war.
But in the spring of 1967 these predictable wars broke out accidentally, in the sense that but a few weeks before June 5 Israel had no immediate plans to go to war against these two countries - nor had they been preparing for war. Thus, in a debriefing held by Israel’s general staff after the six-day war, the chief of general staff (CGS), Yitzhak Rabin, said that, while the IDF (Israel’s ‘defence’ force) had always assumed there was going to be a war against Egypt, “nevertheless, speaking for myself, I must say that, had I been asked in the beginning of May (and I think I was [actually] asked) whether there would be a war on June 5 67, I would have doubted it.” General Uzi Narkiss, commander of central area command, said that the IDF got only three days to deploy its forces for conquest of the West Bank, the order for which was issued on June 5.2
Things were quite different as far as Syria was concerned. From recently released documents it transpires that in the spring of 1967 Israel did plan to attack Syria. So this third part of the six-day war, quite unlike the other two, while not predictable long in advance, was anything but accidental. In fact, Israel’s plans to attack Syria triggered the whole bloody thing. When Abdul Nasser became aware of Israel’s intentions, he felt obliged to demonstrate solidarity with Syria, with which Egypt had a mutual defence treaty. His largely symbolic move, on May 15, was exploited by Israel as a casus belli against Egypt.
This involved a hasty change of plans: it took the Israeli political leadership three weeks to obtain a green light from the US for attacking Egypt; and the IDF also needed some time to redeploy its forces towards the south, putting off the pre-planned northern war against Syria to the six-day war’s third stage (on which I barely touched in my ‘Messiah’s ass’ article).
According to a widespread story, repeated by the tendentious ‘Six-day war’ entry in Wikipedia, “In May 1967, Nasser received false reports from the Soviet Union that Israel was massing on the Syrian border.”3 This canard, flown from the alternative fact factory of Israel’s hasbara, can now be finally shot down. Recently released documents, including minutes of Israeli cabinet meetings, make it clear that from December 1966 deliberate Israeli provocations led to an escalation of military clashes with Syria, culminating in the first two weeks of May 1967 in preparations for a major military operation.4
Israel’s main motive for this escalation was the growing Palestinian guerrilla (‘terrorist’) activity, led by Fatah, mostly from bases in Syria. Fatah was founded as an underground political organisation in 1959.5 In 1963 it came to an arrangement with Syria, which allowed Fatah’s armed wing, al-Asifa, to train in, and operate from, bases in Syria. Fatah incursions into Israel began in 1965; however, during that year the guerrilla fighters based in Syria did not enter Israel directly across the Syrian border, but mostly through Jordan, defying king Hussein, Israel’s ally, who strongly objected to this activity. The reason for the indirect route was that not all leaders of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath party were happy about the arrangement with Fatah. However, the 1965 Fatah guerrilla operations in Israel were pretty ineffectual, and caused no Israeli casualties.
A change occurred in 1966, when Salah Jadid became de facto ruler of Syria. Jadid was more radical than other Ba’athists in his Stalinist-style ‘socialism’, pro-Soviet orientation and - most worrying for Israel - his support for the Palestinian cause. In 1966 most Palestinian guerrilla operations in Israel (26 out of 42) came directly from Syria. Also, in that year 10 Israelis were killed by Palestinian guerrillas. This trend continued into 1967, and led to a growing feeling in the Israeli leadership that some decisive action must be taken against the Syrian regime.
In January 1967 Yigal Allon, one of the most hawkish members of the Labor Alignment (which later went on to form the Labor Party) and minister of labour in the Eshkol cabinet, wrote in the Alignment’s official journal, Ot: “Guerrilla warfare against Israel, if it continues, will eventually expand. This is in my opinion one of the most terrible dangers, more serious than a general war.”6
By early May, Allon’s view was shared by most members of the cabinet. In a cabinet meeting held on May 10, prime minister Levi Eshkol stated: “We must find an important target, even one that is far from the border … a serious target, hitting which will lead to Syria losing prestige.” The minutes of the cabinet meeting state that what took place following Eshkol’s statement “is not recorded”. But on the following day United Press reported, quoting an unnamed senior Israeli source, that if terrorist actions do not stop Israel would take limited, but forceful, military action “designed to overthrow the Damascus regime”.7 Given the close relations between Jadid’s Syrian regime and the Soviet Union, there is every reason to assume that the United States, by then Israel’s imperialist sponsor, would have no objection. On May 12, CGS Yitzhak Rabin gave a newspaper interview in which he threatened to occupy Damascus and overthrow the Syrian regime.8
In view of the fact that Egypt had a mutual defence pact with Syria, it is astonishing that the Israeli political and military leadership was surprised by Abdul Nasser’s closure of the Tiran Straights and movement of troops into Sinai. Minutes of the Israeli cabinet beginning on May 15 leave no doubt whatsoever that the surprise was absolutely genuine. Rabin himself panicked and around May 25 had a nervous breakdown, which effectively ended his military career.9
To be sure, the Israeli generals knew very well that Egypt’s army was in a rotten state. The majority of the infantry deployed in Sinai consisted of poorly trained peasants, and whatever meagre training they had was for defensive combat. They were badly equipped, without adequate weapons, uniforms, maps, food and water. Israeli military intelligence snooped into the Egyptian signals, and could hear the soldiers in the hot desert pleading with their commanders for a supply of water.10 So there was little doubt that the IDF would be able to defeat Egypt’s forces - given time. The point was that time was precisely what Israel needed: its forces, mostly reserves, had to be mustered and deployed at short notice. There was also the political need to negotiate with the US to get a green light.
But why was the IDF unprepared for Abdul Nasser’s move? Recall the famous anecdote about the man who was terrified by a barking dog. His friend reminded him of the proverb, “A barking dog never bites”. “Yes,” he replied, “you and I know this proverb; but does the dog know it?” The Israeli generals knew the dire state of Egypt’s forces: it was obvious. So a possible explanation of their surprise is that they assumed that Egypt’s military rulers also knew the true state of their own forces, and would therefore not dare to make a move. In other words, Israel’s leaders may have fallen victim to their own preconception about their Egyptian enemy - a mistake that would be repeated in somewhat different form in 1973.11
Lust for land
A secondary motivation for Israel’s war on Syria was the land lust of the kibbutzim in the northern Jordan valley, just below the Syrian Golan Heights. They coveted the Golan’s fertile land. On June 8, while the Israeli cabinet was considering whether to extend the war and conquer the Heights, it was approached by a delegation of these kibbutzim who urged their minister friends to vote for an offensive. In an interview granted by Moshe Dayan to an Israeli journalist, with the proviso that it would be kept secret during Dayan’s lifetime, he said:
Of course, they [the kibbutzniks] wanted to get the Syrians out of their sight. They had suffered a lot because of the Syrians ... But I can tell you with absolute certainty: the delegation that came to persuade Eshkol to go up to the Heights did not think about these matters. It thought about the Heights’ land. Listen, I myself am a farmer, I come from [the village of] Nahalal, don’t I? Not from Tel Aviv. And I recognise this thing. I saw them and spoke with them. They didn’t even try to hide their lust for that soil. This is what guided them.12
This subsidiary motivation of Israel’s 1967 war against Syria has left a lasting heritage in the form of Israeli colonisation of the Golan. Israeli settlements in the West Bank were spearheaded by religious, rightwing nationalist fanatics, followed by ordinary, ‘non-ideological’ folk looking for subsidised housing. The settlements are urban, many of then dormitory towns of people employed in pre-1967 Israel. There is very little agriculture.
In stark contrast, the Golan Heights are colonised by kibbutzim, practising agriculture and viniculture. If you boycott the best Israeli wines, you are harming the business of these ‘socialist’ colons.
1. Weekly Worker June 1 2017.
2. Quoted in a report (Hebrew) by Gili Cohen in Ha’aretz June 5 2016: www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/1.2965691.
4. D DeMalach, ‘Blog of the workshop for social history’ (Hebrew) Ha’aretz June 20 2016: www.haaretz.co.il/blogs/sadna/1.4181041.
5. Until 1967, Fatah was quite separate from the PLO, which until then was a puppet organisation sponsored and dominated by the Arab states.
6. Quoted by D DeMalach op cit.
8. A Shlaim, ‘Israel: poor little Samson’ in A Shlaim and WR Louis (eds) The 1967 Arab-Israeli war: origins and consequences Cambridge 2012.
9. MB Oren Six days of war Oxford 2002; M Dann, ‘Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy reconsidered’ Jerusalem Post November 3 2014.
10. G Laron, ‘Blog of the workshop for social history’ (Hebrew) Ha’aretz June 16 2016: www.haaretz.co.il/blogs/sadna/1.4175260.
11. This explanation is offered by Daniel DeMalach op cit.
12. Quoted by Guy Laron op cit.