On March 21, 1967, terrorists belonging to Yasir Arafat’s Fatah group slipped into Israel from Syria and dynamited a water pump in Kibbutz Misgav Am.
In the overall scheme of things, the action didn’t amount to much. No one was hurt, and it took ten days for anyone to even notice that something had been damaged. If the Palestinians wanted to destroy the Zionist entity one water pump at a time, few in Jerusalem thought it earned a claim on their attention.
The trouble was that one Israeli was outraged. And he just happened to be prime minister.
For most of his career, Levi Eshkol left the risk taking to others. The oft-repeated joke had him unable to decide what to drink, ordering “half coffee, half tea.” He couldn’t even bring himself to assume the office of prime minister without a strong tongue-lashing from David Ben-Gurion.
But even Eshkol had his limits. His military secretary, Yisroel Lior, writes in his memoir that the turning point came in 1966, when a young soldier disappeared along the Syrian border. The pain was deeply etched on Eshkol’s face as the father cried and the mother tearfully described how her son, an only child, came to her every night in her dreams. (The IDF later learned that the soldier was tortured to death.)
By now, Syrian-supported terrorism averaged one attack per day – not including the effort to pump Israel dry by diverting the waters of the Jordan River. The time for “half coffee, half tea” measures was long past. In that atmosphere, a dynamited water pump was as good a reason to strike back as any.
That only left the minor issue of a pretext. So on April 7, 1967, the Israelis sent a heavily armored tractor to work along the Syrian border in full view of UN observers. The Syrians fired on cue, and with that formality out of the way the Israeli Air Force got down to business. The startled Syrians were accustomed to seeing ground fire met only with ground fire. This time, Israeli planes mauled Syrian forces on the ground and shot down six fighter jets – two in the skies over Damascus.
The episode seemed to have the desired effect. Another tractor was sent on April 11; the Syrians didn’t fire a shot. But on May 13, KGB officers in Cairo and Damascus delivered news of a disturbing development along the Golan Heights: The Israelis, they reported, had mobilized for war.
That the Israeli “mobilization” was sheer fantasy has never been disputed. What is less clear is why the Soviets would deceive their allies. Whatever the reason, on May 15, during the Independence Day Parade in Jerusalem, a messenger quietly approached the podium and slipped a piece of paper to Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Egyptian forces were entering the Sinai Peninsula and heading east.
Gamal Abdel Nasser had an unfortunate penchant for throwing himself into situations he barely understood. The Egyptian dictator entered into a union with Syria in 1958 without ever having set foot in the country. He thrust Egypt into the middle of a civil war in Yemen – though he had to ask the American Embassy in Cairo for literature explaining what sort of country it was.
On May 16, Egypt demanded a partial withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula. UN Secretary General U Thant stunned the Egyptians by refusing a partial withdrawal, offering afull one instead. Nasser couldn’t be less pro-Egypt than the UN. Egyptian forces replaced UNEF along the border that evening.
The runaway train slowed momentarily as Nasser pondered his next move. Then, on May 22, he declared that “under no circumstances will we allow the Israeli flag to pass through the Aqaba Gulf. The Jews threatened war. We tell them: You are welcome [ahalan wa-sahlan], we are ready for war.”
After the war, in the cheap light of hindsight, the swift Israeli victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Few, however, saw it that way as events unfolded.
Israel was badly outnumbered, but this didn’t even begin to tell the story. Most of the Arab weaponry was the best in the Soviet arsenal, while Israel had to make do with a hodgepodge of outdated and obsolete equipment. A fifth of the air force was comprised of jets designed for training purposes only.
The Arabs held the high ground. And the Jewish state was so small that the map-makers of the world were usually forced to place the word “ISRAEL” far out in the Mediterranean. Israel was nine miles wide at the gut, with no natural obstacle standing between the Arabs and the sea. Because the army was made up of reservists, the economy would shut down unless the war was won quickly.
The only hope was to carry the fight into enemy territory. But substituting offense for defense carried its own set of challenges. Under classic military doctrine, the attacker needs an advantage of at least three to one. Many believe even that isn’t enough.
In short, the Israelis couldn’t give any ground. Many of their troops would be armed with obsolete weapons. They had to fight outnumbered roughly four to one, employing a strategy that required a superiority of at least three to one. They had to fight uphill. And they had to win in less than a month.
The working assumption in Jerusalem was that Eshkol was in way over his head. If the Labor Party hadn’t split in 1965, and if Moshe Dayan hadn’t left with David Ben-Gurion to form the Rafi Party, then the choice of defense minister would have been easy. As it was, Eshkol detested Dayan and wouldn’t hear of appointing him to anything.
After weeks of brutal negotiations, a compromise was reached. Dayan would serve as commander of the Southern Front against Egypt and Yigal Allon, the hero of 1948, would be appointed defense minister. That evening, Eshkol delivered a speech to a terrified nation. In an era before word processing, the documents he read from was marked up in numerous places by various hands. Eshkol was already suffering from cataracts, as well as the cancer that would kill him less than two years old.
In the middle of his address, he got stuck on a word, paused, mumbled something, paused again, then stuttered through the rest of the speech. A nation fighting for its life was being led into battle by what appeared to be a feeble old man.
Eshkol never recovered from the political damage he inflicted on himself that evening. His face barely appears in any of the “Album of Victory” books that were published after the war. The Allon deal was finished as well. The public outcry to appoint Dayan defense minister could no longer be ignored.
All of which leaves us with one of the great “what ifs” of history: What if Eshkol had found his inner Churchill that evening? What if Yigal Allon had been defense minister instead of Moshe Dayan?
Allon never made any secret of his belief that Israel should have thrown all the Arabs out of the West Bank. In stark contrast, when Dayan heard on the third day of the war that an Israeli commander had emptied out the Palestinian city of Kalkilya, he went there in his jeep to see to it that the residents were returned to their homes.
Dayan even insisted that compensation be paid to those whose homes were damaged. But for a botched speech, history may not necessarily have been better, though it certainly would have been different.
As for the conflict we know today as the Six-Day War, what is not commonly understood is just how close a shave it was for Israel. Not only were there not enough men and equipment to fight on three fronts simultaneously – there weren’t even enough planes to deal with Egypt alone.
In the initial wave that destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground, only 12 airfields were hit. A thirteenth base couldn’t be knocked out until planes from the first wave returned to base, refueled and rearmed. The attack on that thirteenth base was considered little more than a suicide mission. Surely the Egyptians would be expecting the attack to come.
And yet, somehow, the Egyptians in the thirteenth base were just as surprised as those in the other 12. Nasser was surrounded by a group of incompetent sycophants. Mahmoud Sidqi Mahmoud was commander of the Egyptian Air Force when the British destroyed it on the ground in 1956. And the same Mahmoud Sidqi Mahmoud was commander of the Egyptian Air Force when the Israelis did the same in 1967.
Still, the situation could have been salvaged. Nasser had only to reach out to the Americans and they would have gladly imposed a cease-fire. Instead, he lashed out at Washington, insisting that it was American, not Israeli, planes that had destroyed his air force.
Then, instead of having his generals dig in until the inevitable UN-imposed cease-fire, he ordered them to retreat.
With practically its entire army engaged in the Sinai, Israel pleaded with Jordan’s King Hussein to stay out of the war. But Jordanian radar had picked up waves of planes heading toward Israel, and the Jordanians mistakenly assumed they were Egyptian fighters on the offensive, not Israeli aircraft returning from their runs over Egypt.
Nasser, meanwhile, phoned Hussein and described stunning victories over the Israelis. Why would he lie to the king? Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad states in his memoirs that the Egyptians mistook jettisoned Israeli fuel tanks for jets they’d shot down.
Raphael Patai, a well-known commentator on Arab culture, probably came closer to the mark. He explained that it is a common practice in the Arab world to state an untruth in a solemn tone in order to save face. The listener ordinarily reads between the lines and understands the subtle message being conveyed.
If the king had spent more of his formative years among the Arabs instead of the British, Patai argued, he would have understood that Nasser’s words were not to be taken literally.
As it turned out, two columns of Jordanian tanks headed west from Jericho with nothing standing between them and Jerusalem. The most the Israelis could muster in defense was a group of Fougas, slow training planes that were each jerry-rigged to carry 12 small rockets. After the war, the plane’s French manufacturer expressed shock that tiny Fougas could even carry weapons. The Jordanians were equally shocked to find out how badly tanks could fare against 12 little rockets.
King Hussein had placed his army under Egyptian command, and it too was ordered to retreat. It is accepted in Israel as an article of faith that Jordanian officers would never have fled without a fight. As it was, the Old City was captured, and the Jewish people finally returned to the Temple Mount.
That left the unfinished business of Syria. Miraculously, the country that had done so much to spark the crisis stayed on the sidelines while the IDF was engaged elsewhere.
As for the Israelis, the battle for the Golan Heights was initially fought over the telephone. The general commanding the sector, David Elazar, wanted to take the Heights and silence Syrian guns once and for all while Dayan was hesitant to press his luck.
If Dayan hadn’t relented on the morning of June 9, 1967, the conflict would have been known as the Four-Day War.
In the two days before the UN imposed a cease-fire, Israeli troops charged up the Heights and across the hilly terrain. Buried underneath one of those hills was the ancient city of Gamla, the regional capital of Judea in the time of the Second Temple. If the war had broken out in August instead of June, the liberation of Gamla would have taken place 1,900 years to the day after it fell to the Romans in 67 C.E.
The diplomatic wrangling began almost from the moment the guns went silent. The French denounced the Israelis as aggressors, employing what one of Nasser’s closest friends called “a cynicism extraordinary even in French diplomatic dealings.”
But Israel was four times larger than it had been a week before. And for the first time since the rule of King Agrippa, the Jews didn’t need permission to pray at the Kotel.
For the Arabs, the Russian deception in May, U Thant’s bizarre offer to withdraw UNEF, and all the other unlikely events that led up to war were evidence of some sort of grand conspiracy. For many Jews, those same events were evidence of a different kind of intervention.
Zerach Warhaftig of the National Religious Party began the June 11 cabinet meeting with the Shehechiyanu blessing. The official Israeli government transcript records that even the atheists present responded “Amen.”
Later, someone opened up the Book of Deuteronomy (Devorim) and noticed something interesting. The State of Israel was founded in 1948, which on the Jewish calendar is the year 5708. If you count the verses in the Torah, the 5,708th reads:
And the Lord shall bring you to the Land that your fathers inherited and you shall inherit it and he shall improve your lives and make you more numerous than your forefathers.
What does the 5,727th verse (corresponding to 1967) say?
And the Lord shall do to them as he did to Sichon and Og, the Kings of Canaan, and to the lands – that he destroyed them.