Now, however, Eshkol saw war as inescapable. Two days after the Cairo pact – and only four days after agreeing to Washington’s request to refrain from a preemptive strike for three weeks – he formed a war cabinet including opposition leader Menachem Begin. Dayan was appointed defense minister, a clear signal that war was coming.
Washington also recognized that the situation had changed. It was bogged down in Vietnam but if it continued to prevent Israel from acting in its own defense as it saw fit Washington would have a moral obligation to intervene if Israel were attacked. Israel picked up signs of a softening in Washington’s stance regarding a preemptive strike even though officially America’s position was unchanged.
The date for war was fixed on Friday, June 2, the day after Dayan’s appointment, in a small forum that included him, Eshkol, and Rabin. The decision to go to war would be put to the Cabinet for approval at its regular meeting in two days. If approved, the air force would launch its preemptive strike the following morning.
Speed was essential. The Iraqi and Saudi forces designated for the eastern front had not yet reached Jordan and intelligence reported that Egypt was shoveling troops into Sinai so fast that some units had been without food or water for 48 hours. Israel hoped to confine the war to the Egyptian front. No overall battle plan against Jordan had even been formulated.
* * * * *
At the decisive Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, several ministers wanted the decision on war put off but Eshkol said that every day’s delay meant more casualties. Washington had not flashed a green light, he said, but the light was no longer red. The last speaker was Dayan. If the Egyptians struck at Israel’s air bases (“to do to us what we want to do to them”), which they were known to be contemplating, it would at a stroke eliminate Israel’s principal strategic card. Their reconnaissance flight over Dimona meant that the nuclear reactor, which the Egyptians believed to be about to come on line, would be among the first targets attacked. The deployment of the Egyptian forces showed their intention to cut off the southern Negev and capture Eilat, in conjunction with a Jordanian brigade.
The sirens that sounded shortly before 8 a.m. Monday caught children in Jerusalem on the way to school, men on the way to work. Ten minutes later six high-pitched beeps signaled a news bulletin announcing the beginning of war with Egypt. People took a deep breath and experienced a tangible shifting of mental gears – a detached awareness that the talk was over, that soon, in minutes or hours, violence would be upon them. Barefoot shopgirls downtown fixed strips of tape to the inside of display windows to prevent shattering. Men slapped blue paint over car headlights, leaving only a tiny gap in the center to serve as a blackout light.
At Bikur Cholim Hospital, closest of the city’s three general hospitals to the front line, cots were set up in the corridors under the supervision of a doctor whose urgent demands for speed seemed overly dramatic to a visitor stepping in from the still-tranquil streets. A column of high-school boys and girls arrived at the building breathing hard after a forced march from their school. The youths, who had been assigned to fill sandbags and carry stretchers, sat down on the stone steps just inside the entrance and waited to be called. They would still be there 24 hours later, slumped over from exhaustion, their blue school uniforms covered with the blood of wounded men.
In one wing of the Israel Radio studio, the war was already in full swing. Unlike the other radio departments, the Arabic section did not depend for its items on handouts from the army spokesman. Linked by direct line to army intelligence, it unleashed a propaganda campaign with the first announcement of war.
“Today Nasser has carried out his threat,” the Arabic announcer said after the 8:10 bulletin. “We said to you that if war comes it will be a bad war for you. Israel will bring the war to your territory. This time will not be like 1948 or 1956. This time the victory will be great. Rivers of blood will be shed but the responsibility is President Nasser’s. We are fighting for our survival.”
About the Author: Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter with The Jerusalem Post who covered the Six-Day War. His classic account of the conflict, from which this essay was adapted, has just been published in a revised and expanded eBook – “The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest That Echoes Still” – available at Amazon.com.
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