How the 1967 Six-Day War Reshaped the Mideast
Most wars begin raggedly," the great historian A.J.P. Taylor once observed. And the Six-Day War of 1967, which would recast the Middle Eastern world into what we know today, was true to Taylor's dictum.
The great irony of this war was that it began with a hoax--a piece of faulty Soviet intelligence given to the Egyptians. On May 13, the Soviet ambassador to Cairo informed the Egyptians that Israel was massing "10 to 12 brigades" on the Syrian border in preparation for a big push against the radical regime in Damascus. There was no love lost between Syria's rulers and the charismatic leader at the helm in Cairo, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Egyptian was the dominant Arab of his time; on the eve of the war, he stood at the peak of a career full of reversals and triumphs. A few years earlier, he had taken his burdened country into a war in Yemen that would be dubbed Nasser's Vietnam. He had brought his fervor and revolutionary gospel of Arab unity to the Arabian Peninsula, a proxy war against the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia. The war had dragged on, and the man who had been the master and the voice of the "Arab street" was fighting a two-front war against the Syrians on the left and the Arab monarchies on the right.
Deliverance presented itself in mid-May, or so the Egyptian ruler thought. In response to that Soviet report, Nasser mobilized his troops on May 14 and dispatched them into the Sinai. Two days later, the Egyptians demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force serving as a buffer in the Sinai between Egyptian forces and those of Israel in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez War. Nasser's Arab rivals in Damascus; Amman, Jordan; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had taunted him about hiding behind international peacekeepers and dodging a showdown with Israel.
The casus belli would come on May 22, when Nasser cast caution to the wind and announced the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. "The Jews threaten war; we tell them: Welcome. We are ready for war." The Israeli port of Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, was vital to Israel's commerce; the whole Israeli doctrine of deterrence had been challenged. Euphoria gripped the Arab world; the Egyptian ruler, it seemed, had recovered his political mastery and magic. He hadn't fired a shot, but great gains had come his way. On May 30, King Hussein of Jordan rushed to Cairo to place his Army under Egyptian command. Now the balance of power of the region had been undone. In the words of a popular song making the rounds in Israel at the time, Nasser was now "waiting for [Yitzhak] Rabin," the chief of staff of Israel's forces.
Rabin, the taciturn soldier, had prepared his Army well for this war. But Israel was led by the mildest of men, an unlikely leader for a time of war, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Fate had cast Eshkol at the helm of a young country being hurled into a war for its very survival. He dreaded the prospect of war and sought to defer the moment of reckoning. There hovered over Eshkol and Rabin the shadow of the legendary David Ben-Gurion. The "Old Man" of Israeli politics, who had brought his people from dispersion to statehood, had quit the political field four years earlier. He was now a brooding prophet at odds with his former companions. In the midst of this great crisis, Rabin sought out the advice of the country's undisputed father. He was to find no comfort there. "You have led the state into a grave situation," Ben-Gurion said, scolding him for mobilizing Israel's reserves in response to Egypt's moves. "We must not go to war. We are isolated. You bear the responsibility."