This week, Jewish Ideas Daily commemorates the forty-fifth anniversary of the Six-Day War with a day-by-day synopsis, for which we are indebted to Michael Oren's comprehensive Six Days of War.
|Geographically,Israel was surrounded by its enemies|
But how did war break out? Michael Oren, historian of the war and current Israeli ambassador to the United States notes, "Even a discussion of a context must have a starting point," even if this point represents a somewhat "arbitrary choice." One starting point is Soviet-backed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He came to power in 1954 and by 1956 had already fought a war with Israel in the Sinai. Israel routed the Egyptians in that conflict but withdrew from Sinai after promises that it would have freedom of navigation through the vital Straits of Tiran, off the Sinai coast. As insurance, the United Nations put a peacekeeping force on the armistice line.
Nasser was also president of the United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria, and made the UAR position on Israel clear. "I announce on behalf of the United Arab Republic people," he declared in 1959, that "we will exterminate Israel." Egyptian Fedayeen guerrillas mounted cross-border attacks. There were occasional Israeli reprisals.
Another starting point is Yasser Arafat, who in 1964 led an abortive attempt by al-Fatah terrorists to infiltrate Israel. In that year the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which Arafat would later lead. The PLO's announced goal was to liberate the "usurped part" of the "Palestinian Arab people's homeland"—not from Egypt, which held Gaza, or from Jordan, which held the West Bank, but from Israel.
Tensions also mounted with Syria, which was engaged in a dispute with Israel over access to water resources. Israel also had larger reason to fear Syrian plans. "We have resolved," Syria's then-Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad addressed Israelis in 1966, "to drench this land with your blood, to oust you as aggressor, to throw you into the sea." Though some Israeli leaders considered trying to topple Syria's regime, Israel took no military action. But the Soviet Union falsely informed the Syrians that Israel was massing forces on the border. Syria responded by massing its own troops there.
Levi Eshkol, Israel's Prime Minister and Defense Minister, prepared for war but hoped for peace. "There is no lack of temperance and responsibility on our part," he wrote to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. "On the other hand, the problem is not solved indefinitely by inaction."
Egypt and Syria showed no such ambivalence. "Our basic goal," Nasser reaffirmed in 1967, "is the destruction of Israel." Syria's Information Minister said the coming battle would be "followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended."
Israel was also at an enormous disadvantage in personnel and equipment. Egypt and Syria had expanded their alliance to include Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. All began to contribute forces. The Arab armies numbered 550,000 men, with 2500 tanks and 950 aircraft. Israel had 240,000 under arms, 800 tanks, and 300 aircraft; it faced a very real possibility of annihilation.
That realization stirred world Jewry. Derek Lewis, a British Jew, reacted typically:
Looking back to 1967 when I was 19 years old, I cannot believe how little I understood about Israel's precarious position in the world. . . . I had not thought of the place as a homeland. Then, as the tension escalated suddenly, it hit me: This place was part of me, and for some unaccountable reason the whole Arab world was poised to destroy it and kill "my family."
Israel now had a national unity government. The country's mood changed overnight, and Ezer Weizmann, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, delivered his famous line: "The Arabs have surrounded us again—poor bastards." It was a brave piece of what looked like gallows humor.
Government radio announcers began to call up the reserves. Israeli poet Abba Kovner remembered the moment:
I was leaning on a newspaper stall at the time. The newspaper seller was in the very act of stretching out his hand towards the paper I wanted when suddenly the radio voice caught his attention. His eyes widened, he looked through me rather than at me, and said, as if in surprise, "Oh! They've called me up, too."
It was hamtanah, the waiting. The country's economy came to a halt while the citizenry held its breath.
As the sun rose on June 5th, 1967, squadrons of Egypt's MiG fighter jets took to the skies for their morning patrols. Fearing that an Israeli attack would begin at dawn, their aim was to be ready to meet any Israeli planes. With an air force twice the size of Israel's, consisting of over 400 modern combat aircraft (supplied by the USSR), they were more than a match for their adversary in the air. But finding everything quiet that morning, they returned to base for breakfast. At bases from the Sinai down to Luxor, the most powerful air force in the region stood inert on the tarmac, without even hangars for protection.
Unbeknownst to the Egyptians, the Israelis were wise to their daily routine. They had gathered intelligence not only on every Egyptian jet, but on every pilot, down to the sound of his voice. This intelligence was the basis of "Operation Focus": the plan, revealed to only a handful of ministers, to attack the Egyptian air force at its most vulnerable. Still, no one expected what was to follow.
At 7:10 a.m., the Israeli Air Force set off for what looked like routine patrols. But although the planes appeared to be Mirage jets, they were in fact no more than a mirage: the real fighter jets, flying below radar detection, were about to begin the assault on Egypt's airfields. Some flew out into the Mediterranean, to come back around to hit targets from Al-Mansura in the north, to Cairo, and still further to Al-Minya in the south. Others flew south over the Negev before turning east to hit targets across the Sinai peninsula. Still others continued on over the Red Sea, on their way to Luxor.
Just after 7:30 a.m., the first bombs were dropped. By 8 a.m., Egypt had lost 204 planes. Before the end of the morning, Egypt had lost 286 combat aircraft, together with 13 bases, 23 radar stations—and a third of its pilots. Even the head of the IAF, Motti Hod, refused to believe the initial reports. It was only after debriefing his pilots that he reported back to Yitzhak Rabin: "The Egyptian air force has ceased to exist."
If Hod and Rabin were surprised by Focus—and they were, almost to the point of stupefaction—the Egyptians remained blissfully unaware of it. In the wake of the attack, the Egyptian government released the following communiqué: "With an aerial strike against Cairo and across the UAR, Israel began its attack today at 9 a.m. Our planes scrambled and held off the attack." Cue wild celebrations on the streets of Cairo. But it wasn't only the Egyptian populace that was shielded from the truth. Abdel Hakim Amer, the Egyptian Chief of Staff, had seen the reality with his own eyes: his plane had just taken off when the assault began, and as it flew from airbase to burning airbase, Amer witnessed the scale of the devastation, barely making it to Cairo International Airport before he was shot out of the sky himself. Yet he never revealed this to Nasser, who persisted in believing his own government's propaganda.
Meanwhile, the ground assault on the Sinai desert (codenamed "Red Sheet") had begun—though for the time being, the Jordanian front remained quiet. For Eshkol, Dayan, and Rabin, all-out war with Jordan was to be avoided as far as possible. Artillery, ammunition, and men had been diverted to the Egyptian front. As tensions flared along the border in Jerusalem, and Jordan's King Hussein weighed his options, he received a telegram from Israel, telling him that Israel would not attack unless Jordan opened hostilities. But Hussein didn't trust the Israelis. So when Nasser called him confirming the reports of massive Israeli casualties, and claiming that the planes flying over Israel which had showed up on Jordanian radar were not Israeli jets returning to base but Egyptian MiGs raiding Israeli airfields, Hussein resolved to join the fray.
Suddenly West Jerusalem came under sustained artillery bombardment. Hadassah hospital was hit; twenty civilians were killed, and over a thousand injured. Dayan retaliated by bombing the Jordanian airfields, destroying her twenty Hawker Hunter jets as they refueled after bombing raids on Kfar Saba and Netanya. Yet Israel's retaliation remained muted, and when the UN attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, she accepted. Jordanian forces responded by seizing UN headquarters at Government House Ridge. Still, it was only when Jordanian radio announced the capture of Mount Scopus that Dayan began to worry: not because the Jordanians had already taken it, but because if that was their next target and they took it successfully, West Jerusalem would be easy prey. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces were massing in the West Bank, threatening to strike the coastal corridor and cut Israel in half.
Asher Dreizin and his reservists were charged with retaking Government House Ridge from the supposedly invincible Arab Legion. Dreizin started with eight WWII Sherman tanks, five of which broke down en route. Yet with more guns and men, Dreizin broke through. The Legionnaires fled, but Dreizin's men gave chase. For four more hours they fought, at times hand-to-hand. By 6:30, Dreizin, with only ten men left, had beaten the Legion back to Bethlehem.
Meanwhile, Dayan orchestrated an assault on the cannonry at Jenin and mooted capturing the Latrun corridor. Rabin objected: Why give Hussein a pretext for further attacks? But Dayan had already given the orders to the troops.
For the watching world, as the dust settled on the first day's fighting, the spoils were even. With only Arab propaganda to guide them, the London Times reported that the Syrians had destroyed the Haifa oil refinery and that the Iraqis had bombed Tel Aviv. Though at least one cartoonist was less convinced:
In reality, the dust hadn't even settled: at 10 p.m., under cover of night, Ariel Sharon was intensifying artillery fire on Egyptian defenses in the Sinai until they were under constant bombardment. Only a select few in the Israeli government knew the full extent of the damage wrought against the Arab forces. And though Eshkol preached caution, the prize of the Old City was coming into view.
Meanwhile, Gaza had been severed from Sinai. Though Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had predicted that this move would cripple the Strip, fighting was heavy; Gaza would ultimately account for nearly half of all the war's Israeli casualties. Still, Dayan's prediction was correct: Gaza was taken by mid-morning.
Yet even as Egyptian anti-aircraft gun barrels melted from the continuous, unsuccessful efforts against Israeli planes, more than half of Egypt's forces were intact. Some important detachments had yet to see action. Pilots remained available. Forty-eight Algerian aircraft were en route, along with volunteers from Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan. Expressions of support poured in from Arab sympathizers. By contrast, Israel's forces were exhausted from over 24 hours of non-stop combat and were low on fuel and ammunition.
Meanwhile, another front was opening in the war—a political front. In a 1:00 a.m. radio broadcast, IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin had informed Israelis of the previous day's astounding military successes. The broadcast boosted morale; but, Rabin knew, carried a risk: The international community might now seek a cease-fire, preventing further Israeli advances and threatening Israel's gains with pressures for unreciprocated concessions. The United States and Britain had declared neutrality, while France, then Israel's primary patron, had embargoed further arms shipments.
Egypt's leadership now ordered a wholesale retreat: An army assembled in 24 days began trying to draw back in as many hours. Egyptian leaders may have believed that the more devastating their reversal looked, the more likely it was that the United Nations or Soviet Union would intervene. They also began propagating the disinformation that America and Britain had intervened on Israel's behalf. During the day, this rumor spread across the Middle East. Mobs attacked American embassies and consulates. Exports to America and Britain were banned. Egypt severed its U.S. diplomatic ties; other Arab states followed suit. Americans were deported from Egypt at virtually a moment's notice.
In the east, Jordanian forces were losing ground in tense, sometimes hand-to-hand combat as Israeli forces sought to "atone for the sin of '48," their failure to take Jerusalem's Old City in the War of Independence. By 5:15 a.m., Israel had won East Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill in one of the bloodiest battles in Arab-Israeli history. It took more hours of heavy fighting for the Israelis to capture Mount Scopus. Angering some field commanders, Dayan decided to surround the Old City rather than attack. Even the efforts at encirclement proved arduous.
Of the promised Arab reinforcements, only Iraqi forces saw combat. The Saudis sent a contingent, but it did not fight. An Egyptian doctor attached to Saudi forces on the eastern border remembered: "We hoped"—fruitlessly—"that one Israeli plane would attack us, so that we could say that we participated in the war and we fired our guns."
Jordan's military retained significant strength, but King Hussein panicked when his generals warned him before dawn that failing to retreat from the West Bank would decimate his army. He feared that if he accepted a cease-fire while Egyptians still fought, Egypt would blame him for defeat; he might face mutiny from his military and Jordan's Palestinian Arabs. He summoned Western ambassadors in Amman to warn that his kingdom might fall without an internationally imposed cease-fire. He repeated the rumor that America had intervened to support Israel. President Lyndon Johnson heard and was infuriated.
Hussein also requested orders from Egypt but, for hours, received none. Meanwhile, the IDF took the West Bank cities of Jenin and Ramallah and advanced toward Nablus and Qalqilya. Hussein raced to the battlefield in a jeep. He later recalled what he saw there: "In groups of thirty or two, wounded, exhausted, [soldiers] were trying to clear a path under the monstrouscoup de grace being dealt them by a horde of Israeli Mirages screaming in a cloudless blue sky seared with sun."
In the north there was an abortive Syrian probe but general disorganization: The bridges across the Jordan River, for instance, were too narrow for Soviet tanks. Dayan resisted opening a northern front.
In the United States, President Johnson, with an election season beginning, was cognizant of the public's pro-Israel feeling—and angered by the Soviet role in the war and the misinformation about American behavior. He was inclined to let Israel keep its gains and use them as bargaining chips. Yet America allowed the UN to move toward a cease-fire. Eban reluctantly acquiesced, and a resolution was passed. But Israel was saved from the potential consequences when Egypt rebuffed the resolution, complaining that it did not require full and immediate Israeli withdrawals.
At 11:15 p.m., King Hussein finally received word from Egypt that its air force was obliterated and its army in full retreat. Now Hussein could, and did, order a withdrawal from the West Bank. He then heard about the UN resolution; the cease-fire would take effect at dawn. Hussein accepted the resolution—and rescinded the order to retreat, in hopes that his forces and their Iraqi reinforcements could hold parts of the West Bank and the Old City until morning.
As Nasser was ordering his army to flee the Sinai, King Hussein commanded his to stay put. But within the Old City, only a hundred soldiers remained, the rest having already retreated toward the East Bank. Doubting that he could retain the city by force, Hussein opted to negotiate an immediate ceasefire. The Jordanian Prime Minister, Sad Juma, petitioned both the UN and the U.S. Ambassador, Findley Burns, Jr., to convince Israel not to seize the Old City or Nablus. If Israel did, he warned, the Hashemite monarchy could collapse. Relaying the message to President Johnson, Burns perceived a much more dangerous threat: The Soviets could intervene.
Wary of Nasser's wholly unsubstantiated allegations of direct American support for Israel, Johnson neglected to recommend any course of action to Eshkol—short of informing him of the offer, and warning, from Hussein. More problematic was an impending Security Council decision, coupled with the gradual return of Jordanian troops to the Old City. If they couldn't win the battle, they could at least delay the Israelis until the Security Council stepped in. Eshkol, Dayan, and Rabin agreed: for Israel to retake the Old City, she had to act now.
As the sun rose on June 7th, 1967, artillery started shelling the area around the Augusta Victoria hospital east of the Old City, swiftly followed by air raids, clearing the way for paratroopers. The soldiers proceeded southwest, taking the Mount of Olives, and then descending the hillside until they stood outside Lions' Gate. They were soon joined by tanks, which opened fire, cleaving the gate. The troops charged into the square, through a hail of gunfire from Legionnaires on the walls and rooftops, and onwards into the city's narrow, medieval streets. As soldiers spread out, heading for the Via Dolorosa, the Damascus, Jaffa, and Zion Gates, Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur led his men up to the Temple Mount. After another exchange of fire, Gur relayed back the words that the country was waiting to hear, now immortalized: "Har ha-Bayit b'Yadenu"—"The Temple Mount is in our hands."
But the Temple Mount was still not the biggest prize: Gur had yet to take the Kotel. But neither he nor any of his men knew the way down. At a loss, Gur asked directions from an old Arab man. But this time, Gur was beaten to the punch. Men from the Jerusalem Brigade and the 71st Paratroopers Battalion were already there—celebrating, in spite of the continuing sniper fire.
In an interview with the Observer's Conal Urquhart, Zion Karasenti, who appears in DavidRubinger's iconic photo, claimed to have been the first to the wall—though at the time he had no idea where he was:
I was the first paratrooper to get to the Wailing Wall. I didn't know where I was, but I saw a female Israeli soldier, so I asked "Where am I?" and she said: "The Wailing Wall." She gave me a postcard and told me to write to my parents before she disappeared. It might have been a dream, but then many years later I met the woman. She had been in the postal corps.
Paratrooper Moshe Amirav, who left his hospital bed to visit the Kotel after hearing of its capture on the radio, recalls following in Gur's footsteps down from the Temple Mount through Mughrabi Gate:
We ran there, a group of panting soldiers, lost on the plaza of the Temple Mount, searching for a giant stone wall. We did not stop to look at the Mosque of Omar even though this was the first time we had seen it close up. Forward! Forward! Hurriedly, we pushed our way through the Magreb Gate and suddenly we stopped, thunderstruck. There it was before our eyes! Gray and massive, silent and restrained. The Western Wall!
Among Gur's party was Shlomo Goren, the IDF's Chief Rabbi, who said kaddish and then blewthe shofar—perhaps heralding the advent of the Messiah. Goren suggested to Dayan, Rabin, and General Uzi Narkiss, who had arrived in a triumphant procession, that the IDF use its remaining ammunition to destroy the mosques in anticipation of the reconstruction of the Temple.
But Eshkol had preempted Goren's reverie. Refusing to be caught up in the euphoria, unlike the rest of the country—including his senior officers—Eshkol had placed the holy sites of the Old City under the jurisdiction of their respective religious authorities. Moreover, as his forces continued their conquest of the West Bank, he was already starting to worry about what to do with its inhabitants.
Similarly cut off from the Jerusalem fever were the troops still fighting in the Sinai. In the early hours of the morning, an aerial reconnaissance mission went to scout what were presumed to be redoubtable Egyptian defenses at Sharm el-Sheikh, only to find it deserted. The garrison at Sharm el-Sheikh had received orders directly from Amer to fall back. A similar scene awaited Israeli soldiers in the central Sinai. The second line of the Egyptian defense had dissolved into isolated pockets of resistance, as the troops fled back towards the Suez Canal, burning their own bases as they went. The Israelis gave chase, aiming to circumvent the Egyptians and cut off their escape. But with men and burning vehicles clogging the roads, the Israeli advance was held up by the Egyptian retreat.
Meanwhile, cognizant of the collapse of the Arab forces, the USSR issued Eshkol an ultimatum: "If Israel does not comply immediately with the Security Council Resolution, the USSR will review its relations with Israel [and] will choose and implement other necessary steps which stem from the aggressive policy of Israel." The immediate response to this new Soviet belligerence came not from Eshkol, but from Amer. Having ordered a general retreat, Amer now told those battalions which had already crossed the canal to turn around to make one last stand on the western shore.
The war was not over, but the symbolic victory was overwhelming, and the spirit of the people indelibly altered. While Eshkol and his cabinet were debating strategy, "Hatikvah" was ringing out at the Kotel and "Jerusalem of Gold" was filling the airwaves.
On June 1, 1967, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol yielded to public pressure and turned over the portfolio of defense minister to former IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan, the mood in Israel changed overnight. With the reappearance onstage of the hero of the 1956 Suez campaign, a besieged people regained its morale and the belief in its ability to win. Within days of his appointment, Dayan would preside over a victory eclipsing the one to which he had previously owed his fame.
A great deal, according to a new biography by Mordechai Bar-On, who served Dayan as bureau chief more than fifty years ago. Although Dayan was not, to be sure, an active participant in the June 1967 fighting, he carried with him the advantage of tested battlefield experience. As a commander in Israel's 1948 War of Independence, as Bar-On relates, he faced fire with great daring; eight years later, in Sinai, Dayan, who "had no patience with the minutiae of management," was largely to be found in the field, where he could "feel the battles from up close and, if possible, personally observe developments." And even in 1967, when for the most part he "had to stay in constant touch with the prime minister and participate in cabinet meetings," Dayan made his indelible mark behind the scenes, contributing in significant ways to the formulation of Israel's overall strategy.
Among other things, in the early days of the war Dayan opposed action both on the Jordanian front—as long as King Hussein's armored forces remained on the eastern side of the Jordan River—and in the north "even if Syria shelled and bombed Israeli towns." To him, dealing with that nuisance wasn't worth risking the involvement of the Soviets. What mattered most was Egypt.
But by the end of June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, Egypt was finished. Jordan, which had indeed attacked, had been severely punished. As for Syria, it had not yet dared to do anything more than engage in the kind of bombardment that Dayan thought it best to endure more or less in silence. Although some in the government were demanding stronger action, Dayan resisted, most notably at a meeting of cabinet ministers with citizens from eastern Galilee. "It is true that the Syrians embitter the lives of our settlements on the northern border," Dayan said, referring not only to the events of the past week but to repeated attacks over a period of years. "But if . . . the situation needs changing, it is better to move the farm buildings away from the border than to embroil Israel in a state of war with another Arab state."
Dayan won the day—but the following morning, hours after the Syrians had accepted a UN ceasefire order, he set aside established procedure and, neglecting to contact chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, instructed David Elazar, head of the northern command, to "Attack! Attack!"Only then did he inform his prime minister what he had done.
Bar-On's attempt to explain Dayan's conduct in this affair is very cautious. Some in Levi Eshkol's entourage accused the defense minister of blatant self-aggrandizement, of "stealing the limelight on this front" just as he had during the battle for Jerusalem and the capture of the Western Wall earlier in the week. Without either rejecting or endorsing such insinuations, Bar-On cites Dayan's own account of this episode in his autobiography, where the general's proffered rationale for his failure to go through proper channels sounds to Bar-On "more like an excuse," attesting, at the very least, "to a typical impatience with bureaucracy." And at the most? Bar-On declines to say.
A question that Bar-On does not even broach is whether the notoriously erratic Dayan made the right decision in sending troops to seize the Golan Heights from Syria, to Israel's longer-term strategic benefit but at a heavy cost in casualties both in 1967 and again in 1973, when the territory had to be defended from fierce Syrian assault. Bar-On's silence might come as something of a surprise to readers who are aware that he became an activist in Peace Now in the 1980s and an admiring historian of that movement in the 1990s. In his new book, too, he allows his politics to intrude—up to a point. As he tells us in his introduction, his political path and Dayan's eventually diverged, "and both my fascination with and my criticism of Dayan's course after the Six-Day War find expression in this book."
Bar-On's criticism of the latter-day Dayan focuses mostly on his role as "prime architect of policy in the occupied territories." While stipulating that Dayan's decisions could be benevolent, he faults him for having condoned Israeli settlements and thereby helped to "impede future efforts to compromise with the Palestinians." Nor is Bar-On impressed by Dayan's formation in the late 1970s of a political party advocating unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza—for even then he remained opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
When it comes to Dayan's conduct during the Six-Day War itself, however, Bar-On is evidently prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt—and at least some of his countrymen seem similarly disposed.
Once Dayan decided against a limited attack in the Golan and opted instead to take the entire Heights, Israel's air force pounded the Syrians. The Syrians had supposed the Israelis to be tired and intimidated by their incessant shelling; unprepared for the ferocity of the barrage, their morale suffered, and some officers and soldiers deserted. But the bulk of Syria's forces remained in place, ready to give fight, while hoping for UN intervention.
Traffic jams delayed Israeli reinforcements from other fronts, retarding an assault from the south; the attack proceeded in the center, but involved exhausted Israeli tank crews climbing the rocky terrain of steep (2000 ft) hills in broad daylight, totally exposed to Syrian fire from the enemy's most formidable forces. Upon hearing of the plan, some commanders described it as "suicide.'' But they proceeded unafraid.
With tank maneuverability reduced by the terrain, the Israelis found themselves at the mercy of dug-in Syrian tanks. Pressing on, the fighting was intense and confused as tanks fired at extremely close range. Maps were lost, bulldozers were destroyed as they tried to clear away barbed wire, and the threat of landmines was everywhere. The Israelis also underestimated the ability of the Syrian bunkers to withstand massive bombing.
"The Syrians fought well and bloodied us,'' recalled one Israeli commander, but after a whole afternoon in battle, the IDF had made important advances. The successes were not without cost, however, in men and arms. The Syrians did manage to stop the IDF's movement, but they too had taken a beating, and were left fearful and chaotic.
Even without reinforcements, the IDF in the south moved ahead with an attack reminiscent of the bloody battle for Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem: fighting at close quarters, often hand-to-hand. As troops advanced, the first soldiers to reach the Syrian perimeter laid down on the barbed wire, enabling the rest of the squad to vault over it. Reaching the trenches, the fighting remained intense: "Whenever a helmet popped up, we couldn't tell if it was one of ours or not,'' related an Israeli battalion commander. The seven-hour struggle left many dead.
Israeli forces managed to accomplish most objectives well ahead of schedule, but were still only eight miles into Syrian territory. The conquest of the entire Golan, Rabin estimated, would take another two days of fighting at least. Beyond its front lines, Syria's forces remained intact, though some were recalled to defend Damascus. Defense Minister Assad swore in a speech to continue to battle "Zionist imperialist aggression,'' Arab ambassadors were summoned to determine what military assistance their countries could provide, and a special appeal was made to Egypt, Syria's ally by treaty.
But Egypt was reeling from Israel's coup de grace in the Sinai and could offer no help. The Israelis took the Suez Canal, but—whether out of overconfidence or fatigue—did not occupy its northern terminus, thus neglecting a port critical to the massive Soviet rearmament of Egypt. No new arms, however, could compensate for the impression of thousands of Egyptian soldiers limping in humiliation back to Cairo. Nasser later remarked that the IDF could have also entered the capital.
The Egyptians rioted against Nasser, who took the blame. When it seemed like the people might demand a firing squad, he tendered his resignation in a live broadcast:
But then, in a bizarre turnaround, the people flocked to the streets in a display of public mourning, demanding that he stay in power. Westerners were incredulous about this course of events, but whether impromptu or planned, the demonstrations of support convinced Nasser to accept the resignations of his military commanders while remaining in office himself.
Meanwhile, the Israeli agenda at the UN was to stall, so that Israeli forces could create conditions on the ground for a real and stable ceasefire. But while demands to end the fighting waned in New York, they waxed in Washington, where the State Department was truly fearful of Soviet intervention.
Back in Israel, Prime Minister Eshkol supported Dayan's turnaround and granted approval to continue the campaign through the night. Dayan was skeptical as to how much farther the IDF could advance, but with the arrival of the delayed reinforcements, the commanders on the ground were preparing to move. The Syrians braced themselves for the Israeli onslaught. "Pave the roads with the skulls of Jews,'' Assad ordered. "Strike them without mercy.'' The fight, Damascus held, was not over.
After five days spent battling Arab forces, Israel now faced a new opponent: time. With the Egyptians and Jordanians out of the war on day four, and the Syrians having agreed to a ceasefire, the Security Council was becoming restless. General David Elazar's forces would have only a few hours to take the strategically important Golan Heights.
Fighting through the night, Elazar aimed to reach Quneitra junction in the north and Butmiya junction in the south. But the Syrians held their lines. By dawn, Elazar had made little progress, and thinking that a ceasefire was imminent, despaired of reaching his objectives. But then he received a telephone call from Rabin: the government had not yet committed to a ceasefire; he would have more time.
Granted this reprieve, Elazar rallied his men and redoubled the assault. But now—to his astonishment—the Syrian resistance evaporated. At the village of Mansura, they found empty tanks; at Banias, the trenches were deserted. While Quneitra remained in Syrian hands, Radio Damascus was nonetheless broadcasting its capture.
Mistrusting their Arab allies, the UN, and, most of all, the Soviets, the Syrian government had given up on a ceasefire and ordered a full scale retreat. By announcing the fall of Quneitra, they had their pretext for consolidating their troops around Damascus. Indeed, the leadership did not feel safe even there: first the general staff, then the ministers fled the capital for Aleppo.
But the Soviets had not yet given up on their Arab protégés. The Kremlin formally broke diplomatic relations with Israel and gave the White House an ultimatum: "We propose that you demand from Israel that it unconditionally cease military action . . . We propose to warn Israel that if this is not fulfilled, necessary actions will be taken, including military." The White House issued a verbal response that the USSR should place similar pressure on Syria; but to make sure the message got through, President Johnson ordered the Sixth Fleet, sailing west of Cyprus, to turn back east to within a hundred miles of Israel's coast.
Having dealt with the Soviets, Johnson set about following their advice. At the UN, the the American Ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, met with the Israeli Ambassador, Gideon Rafael, telling him that "the United States government does not want the war to end as the result of a Soviet ultimatum. This would be disastrous for the future not only of Israel, but of us all. It is your responsibility to act now."
The message from Washington came back to Jerusalem and on to Elazar at the front: Eshkol and Dayan would give him until 2 p.m. to finish the job, before agreeing to a ceasefire. Quneitra, completely deserted, fell at 12:30 p.m. But the advance was still too slow; the retreating Syrian army had littered the roads with heavy equipment, hindering the Israeli offensive. Moreover, Elazar coveted Mount Hermon, with its panoramic views of Damascus.
Yet Dayan was not out of tricks yet. He had arranged ceasefire talks with the chief UN Observer, Norwegian General Odd Bull, in Tiberias; but when Bull arrived, he found that the meeting had been moved to Tel Aviv. The two finally met at 3, and set the ceasefire for 6 p.m. But Dayan issued Bull a condition: no UN observers were allowed near the ceasefire line. Thus the war was already over when, the following morning, an Israeli helicopter crew made it to the summit of Mount Hermon and planted its flag.
The fighting was over, and the Great Powers were appeased; but between Israel and her Arab neighbors, the tension was hardly defused. Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had all lost territory, military hardware, and men—in Egypt's case, between ten and fifteen thousand. Despite her stunning victory, Israel had also suffered casualties, with some eight hundred dead, and two and a half thousand wounded. With no desire to fight again, on June 19th, Eshkol's cabinet decided—albeit by only one vote—to surrender the Sinai and the Golan in exchange for peace.
But the Arabs were hardly amenable to reconciliation. Meeting on September 1st at Khartoum, the Arab League summit issued a resolution affirming that peace with Israel was too high a price to pay:
The Arab Heads of State have agreed to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to eliminate the effects of the aggression and to ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5. This will be done within the framework of the main principles by which the Arab States abide, namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.
The Arab League's commitment to the rights of native peoples did not extend to Jews born in Muslim lands. The World Islamic Congress, meeting in Amman later that month, declared:
Jews of Arab Countries: the Congress is convinced that Jews living in Arab countries do not appreciate the kindness and protection that Muslims have granted them over the centuries. The Congress proclaims that the Jews who live in the Arab states and who have contact with Zionist circles or the state of Israel do not deserve the protection and kindness that Islam grants to non-Muslim citizens living freely in Islamic countries. Islamic governments must treat them as enemy combatants. In the same way, Islamic peoples must individually and collectively boycott them and treat them as mortal enemies.
Pogroms followed in Tripoli, Tunis, and Baghdad; across the Islamic world, Jews abandoned their ancient communities—many fleeing to Israel. In Egypt, the persecution began during the war. A Jew in Cairo, Benjamin Melameth, recalls being arrested on the first day of the war and systematically beaten:
All this time officers were walking up and down whipping us with their branches of palm trees,and some of them ran and jumped on our shoulders. Anyone who lost their balance or who flinched received a rain of blows . . . . When the turn of the Rabbi of Alexandria arrived, they crucified him to the bars of the front door of the prison. Then they beat him until he lost consciousness.
Yet it was the plight of the Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank which captured international attention. Forty-five years on, with the Palestinian question still unresolved, the received wisdom holds that the Six Day War was, in hindsight, a defeat for Israel. The Economist called it "one of history's Pyrrhic victories," stating that "in the long run, the war turned into a calamity for the Jewish state no less than for its neighbors."
Der Spiegel was even more explicit, with a hint of guilty pleasure:
But Israel still pays the highest price today in the Palestinian territories. The state that has its roots in the bitter experiences of 2,000 years of persecution had, in fact, subjugated another people itself. An army that had been established for the purpose of defense suddenly found itself in the role of an occupier.
But to see victory as a worse outcome for Israel than defeat is to forget that Israel fought the war just to survive; victory was the only option. As Moshe Dayan's daughter, Yael, wrote in the Daily Telegraph just a year after the war:
A year ago I was in uniform with a division on the Egyptian border. We, in the front, had no doubt as to the inevitability of war. We also knew we were going to win it. We were not going to win because we were more numerous, more battle-happy, or more ambitious. We were going to win, at whatever cost, because losing meant extermination . . . . These obvious facts should be remembered, simply because we were victorious. When a David wins, he stops being David in a way, and his motives become suspect. On June 5, 1967, we risked all we had.
If Israel exchanged the sympathy of a beleaguered minority for the moral dilemmas of a majority in 1967, it is only because peace with her Arab neighbors was impossible. To quote Yael Dayan again: "If our face is changed, it is only because security and peace did not prove to be synonymous and we have chosen the first, are not offered the second, and have to live with the results."
Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.