Some Israeli leaders do sometimes tell the truth”
Still today, 48 years on, there are relatively few people who know the whole truth about how Israel set the stage for war in June 1967 to grab more Arab land. The single most decisive event that made war inevitable happened on Thursday 1 June, four days before Israel launched its attacks. What was it?
On that day in Israel there was a coup organised and executed by the Israeli army’s top generals and other security chiefs without a shot being fired. They required Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to form a unity government and bring into it as minister of defence Israel’s one-eyed war lord, General Moshe Dayan. Up to this point Eshkol had been both prime minister and minister of defence; and for two years Dayan had been in the political wilderness, devoting his time to archaeology. In effect, Eshkol was stripped of his command of Israel’s war machine.
The problem with Eshkol for Israel’s military and other security establishments was that he didn’t want Israel to go to war because he knew the assertions of its hawks that the Arabs were about to attack were propaganda nonsense (more on this in a moment). He also understood and accepted the advice given to his foreign minister, Abba Eban, by French President Charles de Gaulle. In a conversation with Eban in Paris de Gaulle said Israel should not go to war because, if it did, it would create Palestinian nationalism which would never go away. (In my opinion that was the best advice anybody ever gave Israel.)
But even more to the point was that Eshkol believed Israel should not take more Arab land and should be prepared to make peace on the basis of the Zionist state’s borders as they were.
And that was the main reason why the hawks, military and political, wanted Dayan as minister of defence (for which read attack) in a unity government. They knew he would take Israel to war to complete Zionism’s unfinished business of 1948 – grabbing more Arab land, including and especially the West Bank.
Another important aspect of the whole truth about how the stage was set for war in June 1967 is that Israel set a trap for Egypt’s President Nasser. And the key to understanding here is the fact that that on 4 November 1966 Egypt and Syria signed a defence agreement, in the hope on Nasser’s part that it would enable him to prevent war.
The problem from then on for Nasser was that if Israel did attack Syria he would have to make a choice: either to be seen to be going to the defence of an Arab state under attack or to do nothing and lose face and his credibility as the leader of the (so-called) revolutionary Arab world.
It was after the signing of the defence agreement between Egypt and Syria that Israel began to set its trap for Nasser by provoking cross border shootings with Syria. These provocations climaxed on 7 April 1967 when, in the course of a seven-hour battle, Israeli Mirages shot down six Syrian MIG 21s. Two of them were shot down over Damascus with the debris falling on the outskirts of the city. It was a very public humiliation for Syria’s leaders.
After that Israel put extraordinary effort into making the Arab world and the Soviet Union believe that it was going to invade Syria at a time of its choosing. (I tell the full story of this great con in “America Takes Sides, War With Nasser Act II and the Creation of Greater Israel”, Chapter 1 of “Conflict Without End?” – the sub-title of Volume Three of my book Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews).
In reality, the real purpose of Israel’s provocations on the Syrian front and their supporting propaganda was to force Nasser to make a military move which Israel’s hawks could present as proof that the Arabs were intending to attack Israel and that its very existence was in danger.
When Nasser ejected the UN peacekeepers, put two divisions into the Sinai right up to Israel’s border and closed the Straits of Tiran, he had walked into Israel’s trap. But he did so with both eyes open. He knew the Johnson administration knew that neither he nor any other had Arab leader had any intention of attacking Israel, and that the actions he had taken and the deployments he had made were for face-saving reasons; and he invested his hope in the idea that US would cause the growing crisis to be resolved by diplomacy. But Israel’s hawks were never going to allow that to happen.
Let’s now return to Dayan’s hijacking of Israel’s defence/war policy.
Master of deception
From the moment he became defence minister he demonstrated that he was the master (not a master) of deception.
On Friday 2 June, Dayan’s second day as defence minister, the beach and streets of Tel Aviv (where many foreign correspondents were based in two hotels) were suddenly alive with soldiers returned from the front lines. They were swimming, playing on the beach, strolling and drinking in the pavement cafes of Dizzengorf Street. This was evidence – even proof – that Israel was not, after all, going to war. Contrary to expectations, Dayan was standing down the Israeli army. Now that he had the prime responsibility for Israel’s security, he wanted to be seen to be giving diplomacy a chance. The two weeks of waiting since Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran were ending with an anti-climax. Message: no war. Somehow the dovish Eshkol had finally got his way. Or so it seemed.
Most foreign correspondents were fooled. Some called for their bills and, after filing their “No war” stories, booked the first available flights out of Israel. Other battlefields were calling.
There were two reasons why I believed that the recall of many Israeli soldiers from their frontline positions was a brilliant Dayan deception strategy.
The first was the comment Dayan himself made to me. Because I had a source with highest level access to Israel’s military and other security services I was aware two days before it happened that Dayan was going to be imposed on Eshkol. The day before his appointment I door-stepped him with my ITN camera crew. If I had asked him if war was coming, he would have ignored me and walked on without saying a word. So I settled for “What do you think the future holds?”
He stopped, gave me a big smile and made a gesture with the index finger of his right hand which supported his words. His reply was, “The desert is beckoning.”
I said to myself and then my ITN crew, “That means war is very close.”
That judgement was confirmed in my own mind by what I witnessed when just before midnight on Saturday 3 June I took a stroll through one of central Tel Aviv’s main residential areas. The following is what I saw.
Away from the lights of the empty, quiet streets, blacked out, single-decker buses were strategically parked. The only sign of life in one was the glow of a driver’s cigarette. Then, as though on cue, and actually following the script Dayan had written, apartment doors opened. The last hugs and kisses had obviously taken place inside. There were no goodbyes in the doorways. Just a quick burst of interior light as each door was opened and quickly shut again. Silently, in ones and twos, like ghosts, the soldiers who had come home on Thursday were returning to their frontline positions. As they neared their assigned buses, the ones and twos became groups. And they spoke not a word to each other. My “Shaloms” drew no response.