On the 50th Anniversary of the Six Day War: The Path to Conflict

The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East (Yale University Press)

by Guy Laron

THE SIX-DAY war was partly an accidental conflict into which all parties drifted — a war in which the balance of influence between politicians and the generals tipped towards the military. Only one of Levi Eshkol’s government — average age 64 — had been born in Palestine, compared to 13 out of 18 members of the Israeli General Staff. The generals referred to the often hesitant cabinet ministers as “the Jews” whereas Eshkol labelled his top military commanders, “the Prussians”.
Guy Laron, a Hebrew University academic, has written a detailed book about the prior period of escalation rather than the actual conflict itself. He describes how King Hussein of Jordan was sucked into a war after his military told him that they could not guarantee the loyalty of the army if he did not act. Israel had prepared for this eventuality in 1963, when Hussein had internal problems. Attorney-General Meir Shamgar had crafted a codex of laws for the conquered territories, which Chaim Herzog would administer.
Eshkol attempted in vain to locate a diplomatic solution to reverse Nasser’s closure of the Straits of Tiran through which 90 per cent of oil for Israel passed. Abba Eban thought that President Johnson had given him an assurance that US power would reopen the Straits, but then, after an indeterminable delay, the US stated that no such guarantee had been offered.
With this realisation, Eshkol caved in to the military and invited the right to enter an Israeli cabinet for the first time. Moshe Dayan was brought in as Minister of Defence — and consequently refused to accept Hussein’s offer for a ceasefire during the battle for Jerusalem — in order to conquer the West Bank. Nasser’s attempt to avoid conflict was gradually eroded by the actions of a radical regime in Syria that supported Fatah operations against Israel.
The Egyptian armies, trained to defend rather than attack, were chaotically organised in Sinai. No measures had been put in place to prevent a recurrence of the destruction of the air force when British bombers destroyed 200 aircraft on the ground during the Suez campaign. Nasser, sensing all this, postponed Operation Assad, an air-raid on southern Israel, and Operation Fajer, to capture Eilat.
Laron argues that a double misinformation operation may have backfired and actually been responsible for the outbreak of war. Israeli intelligence, via a double agent, conveyed information to Moscow that there had been a build-up of troops on the Syrian border. The Syrians in turn confirmed this even though they were monitoring IDF communications from the Golan Heights. In part, the Syrian leadership wanted to turn their public’s attention away from a looming conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although at times unnecessarily gossipy and judgemental, Laron’s book explains the complexity of this watershed episode in Israeli history.

Jewish Chronicle 2 June 2017

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