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The Diplomatic Prelude to the Six-Day War.

Today, the 1967 Six-Day War is remembered mainly for its immediate military results and eventual diplomatic consequences. In three lightning offensives, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) thoroughly smashed the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armed forces, respectively. These battlefield victories left Israel in control of the Sinai, Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan. Ever since the conclusion of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the final disposition of these territories has served as the basis of a protracted Arab-Israeli peace process. To date, this process has produced two formal peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors -- one between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and one between Israel and Jordan in 1994. On the other hand, despite some limited progress, Israel's negotiations with the Syrians and the Palestinians have thus far been much less encouraging, because of Syrian and Palestinian unwillingness to make the fundamental compromises necessary for a lasting Arab-Israeli peace.

In comparison to these results and consequences, the diplomatic prelude to the Six-Day War has been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the way in which the Arab-Israeli conflict has unfolded since this war cannot be genuinely understood without appreciating the background of the hostilities, especially its impact on the American-Israeli relationship. Indeed, the Six-Day War established a pattern of conduct in this relationship that has been in evidence during each subsequent war involving Israel and the Arab world. To recall briefly the history of the American-Israeli relationship in the weeks prior to the outbreak of this war, therefore, is a worthwhile intellectual exercise.

The origin of the Six-Day War lies in Israeli-Syrian border clashes in April 1967.(1) Syria's humiliating loss of six aircraft in one of these clashes served in particular to heighten tensions between the two states. Heavy fighting eventually abated, but Jerusalem and Damascus continued to trade threats and warnings over the following weeks. More ominously, Moscow claimed that Israel had clandestinely massed the IDF along the border, ostensibly in preparation for a full-scale invasion of Syria. Jerusalem promptly denied the charge, which had been concocted out of thin air, but its protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears. Prodded by both fellow Arab states and the Soviet Union to "defend" Syria against Israeli "aggression," Egypt decided in mid-May both to demand the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeeping troops, who had been stationed on the Egyptian-Israeli border since the end of the 1956 Suez War, and to reinforce substantially its Sinai-based military forces. Not to confront Israel at this moment, Egyptian leaders concluded, would threaten Cairo's position as leader of the Arab world. Naturally, Israel mobilized the IDF in response to Egyptian military activity. A major Arab-Israeli crisis had erupted, as Jerusalem and Cairo now eyed each other very warily across the border.

During the first phase of the crisis, which lasted roughly one week, Washington sought to defuse the situation before it spiraled out of control. While it did not formulate a specific solution to the crisis, it apparently hoped to restore the status quo ante -- that is, to put United Nations peacekeeping troops back at their posts as well as to convince Israel and Egypt to demobilize their armed forces. To this end, the Johnson administration pointedly asked Israel to give international diplomacy a chance to succeed. President Lyndon Johnson himself cautioned Jerusalem against quick military action when he said that, "You will probably understand that the United States cannot accept any responsibility for situations that are liable to occur as a result of actions in which we were not consulted."(2)

For its part, the Eshkol government consented to Washington's request for two essential reasons, even though it was clearly upset with what it considered to be a less than firm response by the United States to Egypt's aggressive behavior. First, because Israel's intelligence services had predicted that another Arab-Israeli war would not occur until the next decade, the crisis caught Jerusalem by surprise. Not only would the IDF need time to prepare its units for battle, but it would also need time to revise its operational plan to accord with the prevailing circumstances. Second, Jerusalem did not intend for the Johnson administration to be able to say that Israel had not given the United States a chance to resolve the crisis peacefully through diplomacy. The Eshkol government, in the words of Foreign Minister Abba Eban, did not want Washington to be able to "claim that Israel had not involved it [the United States] frankly in its [Israel's] dilemma."(3)

In spite of efforts to calm the situation, the crisis took a turn for the worse in its second week, when Cairo carried out its previously declared threat to close the Straits of Tiran to ships bound for Israel. During this second phase of the crisis, which also lasted for about a week, not only did Egypt enter into a formal state of war with Israel under the rules of international law by initiating a maritime blockade, but it also continued to build up its military forces in the Sinai. Moreover, Egypt and the rest of the Arab world intensified their war of words against Israel, openly calling for its complete and violent annihilation.

Washington had a twofold reaction to these events. On the one hand, the Johnson administration now sought not only to reinstall United Nations peacekeepers on the Egyptian-Israeli border and to demobilize Egyptian and Israeli military forces, but also to lift Cairo's blockade of Eilat. It began to consider different plans, especially to accomplish the latter goal. The idea of some sort of international naval flotilla to contest the blockade featured prominently in its discussions. On the other hand, even as it assured Jerusalem that it would respond favorably to Israel's plight, the Johnson administration insisted that the United States had to achieve both a national and international consensus before any concrete steps could be taken to end the crisis. Furthermore, Washington again urgently requested that Jerusalem refrain from independent military action in order to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. In correspondence with the Eshkol government, Johnson stated that "Israel just must not take preemptive military action and thereby make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities."(4)

The mood of the Eshkol government changed noticeably during the second stage of the crisis. Many generals among the IDF's high command argued that Israel should embark on war against Egypt sooner rather than later. The longer that Israel waited, they asserted, the more death and destruction it would suffer in a war that they had come to see as inevitable, now that Israel's very right to exist had been challenged by the Arab world. A portion of the civilian leadership supported this perspective, highlighting the economic and psychological damage that indefinite mobilization would inflict on the state and its population. In deference to Washington's wishes, however, Jerusalem decided to hold off on military action for the moment. According to Eban, "[Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol now asked the Cabinet to give the United States ... a chance for a `few more days' to succeed -- or to acknowledge failure -- in [its] efforts. Of the eighteen ministers, only one ... was prepared to vote for immediate military action."(5)

The third (and terminal) stage of the crisis began during the final days of May and dragged on throughout the first days of June. Jordan agreed to enter into a war coalition with Egypt and Syria, putting its own military forces trader Egyptian command. Iraq joined the three states, moving significant military forces into Jordanian territory. Smaller military contingents from other Arab states deployed for battle alongside Egyptian forces. The Palestinians, too, made last-minute preparations for war with Israel. Arab rhetoric remained murderous. War appeared extremely likely to break out in the very near future.

While Washington continued to search for a peaceful solution to the crisis, it no longer did so with any real intensity. Once efforts to end the crisis through international diplomacy had come to a virtual halt, due to the intransigence of the Arab world and the Soviet Union as well as to the indifference of the Western and Third worlds, the Johnson administration basically disavowed any responsibility for settling the crisis. It refused to contemplate unilateral American action, even to end the blockade. Concomitantly, however, Washington signaled to Jerusalem that it would no longer be opposed to Israeli military action. In contrast to the first and second stages of the crisis, when the Johnson administration frequently urged restraint on the Eshkol government, the third stage of the crisis was marked by a relative absence of similar demands. Washington, to put it differently, had tacitly given Israel a "green light" to embark on war.

Jerusalem received this signal loudly and clearly, particularly when Mossad director Meir Amit returned to Israel from a hasty visit to the United States. After speaking with senior American military and intelligence officials, Amit came away convinced that, although the United States would take no direct military action to help Israel, it would understand and support an Israeli decision to go to war. In the words of Eban:
 We had gained enormously by patiently allowing the United States to test
 its plan for international action up to its total collapse. As I examined
 the [diplomatic] cables, I observed that we were now being released from
 the weight of Johnson's pressure. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had been
 asked by the press whether any efforts were being made to keep Israel from
 precipitate action. His reply had been: `I don't think it's our business to
 restrain anyone.' ... I believed that this [military action by Israel]
 would now be received with unspoken relief ... in Washington.(6)

Aware that Israel could not expect any intervention on its behalf from abroad, convinced that its very existence was at stake, and assured that Washington would not react badly, Jerusalem opted for war. On the morning of June 5th, therefore, the IDF struck hard at Egypt in the air and on the ground.

The question that suggests itself at this point is: Why did Washington and Jerusalem each act as it did prior to the outbreak of war? Washington's conduct during the crisis can only be understood in light of perceived American national interests. Its military and intelligence services predicted a swift and crushing Israeli victory in a war. Such an Israeli triumph, Washington thought, would undoubtedly lead to a deterioration in American-Arab relations, because the Arab world would hold the United States responsible for its defeat. To make matters worse, Moscow's influence in states like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, all of which were already aligned with the Eastern bloc, would undoubtedly expand in the wake of an Israeli victory, posing an increased threat to the free flow of oil from pro-Western Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Washington, of course, wanted to avoid these expected negative consequences. But it was not prepared simply to abandon an American client, with all of the harm that such a policy could inflict on American prestige around the globe, especially when Israel had not provoked the crisis in the first place. With national interests at stake in both the Arab world and Israel, then, Washington sought to restore peacefully the status quo ante, a solution that it believed would uphold America's national interests. To this end, Washington strongly urged Jerusalem to forgo independent military action so long as it seemed that the status quo ante could be restored by diplomacy. Once Washington acknowledged that the crisis would not be settled through negotiations, however, it implicitly approved of Jerusalem's decision to go to war, because it was not willing to become involved in a violent face-to-face confrontation with the Arab world. An Israeli triumph in war, it reasoned, would do less harm to American-Arab relations than a direct American-Arab confrontation. Furthermore, Washington determined that the United States could not afford to embroil itself in another regional conflict at a time when it was bogged down in Vietnam.

Jerusalem's conduct during the crisis only makes sense in light of its relationship with the United States. Although Israel did not expect to receive American arms during a war, it nevertheless did not intend to risk alienating its American patron by initiating military action without first securing Washington's tacit consent to the use of force. Jerusalem had confidence in the IDF's ability to defeat any combination of Arab armies, but it also thought that the cost of victory to Israel could be very high. Moreover, Jerusalem could not assume beforehand that an Israeli triumph would result in a final resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel, therefore, would have to replenish its arsenal in order to prepare itself for future wars, and the United States appeared to be the only reliable source of arms. Jerusalem would also need postwar support in the diplomatic arena to ensure that it would not be stripped of the fruits of its victory, as it had been to a significant extent in the wake of the Suez War. Finally, Jerusalem had to think about the possibility of Soviet military intervention on behalf of the Arabs. If the United States were to counter Soviet support for the Arabs during a war, and to supply Israel with arms, money, and diplomatic backing after a war, Jerusalem had to make sure that Israel remained in Washington's good graces. This logic explains its decision to delay military action until Washington acknowledged that the crisis would only be resolved by war.

With their specific national interests in mind, Washington and Jerusalem had struck what might best be called a "security-for-autonomy" bargain. For its part, Jerusalem surrendered its freedom to make foreign policy decisions on its own in the weeks prior to the war by bowing to Washington's repeated requests for time to work out a diplomatic solution to the crisis, thereby displaying sensitivity to American concerns. Because Jerusalem had kept its part of the bargain before the war, Washington kept its part of the bargain during and after the war. It made certain that the Soviet Union did not intervene in the fighting. It did not compel Israel to surrender the fruits of its victory. United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which had firm American sponsorship, asserted that Israel did not have to return any of the territories that it had captured in the war until peace agreements with the relevant Arab parties had been hammered out, and also strongly implied that Jerusalem could retain some of these territories permanently. Of even greater importance, the United States renewed arms deliveries to Israel following a short delay, and eventually agreed to furnish more and better arms than it ever had in the past. The United States, to phrase it another way, had bolstered Israel's security.

The same security-for-autonomy bargain has been at the center of the American-Israeli relationship in every subsequent war involving Israel and the Arab states, from the 1969-70 War of Attrition to the 1991 Gulf War. The precise terms and scope of the bargain, to be sure, have varied from war to war, depending on each war's unique set of circumstances. In common with the Six-Day War, however, each of these wars presents a revealing tale of its own about the actual (as opposed to the mythological) nature of the American-Israeli relationship. But these stories must be saved for other days.


(1.) For accounts of American and Israeli diplomatic conduct in the weeks prior to the Six-Day War see Michael Brecher, Decisions in Crisis: Israel, 1967 and 1973, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980; Abba Eban, Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes, New York: Putnam, 1992; Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America's Middle East Policy, from Truman to Reagan, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 136-150; and Janice Gross Stein and Raymond Tanter, Rational Decision-Making: Israel's Security Choices, 1967, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1980.

(2.) Quoted in Brecher, Decisions in Crisis, p. 107.

(3.) Eban, Personal Witness, p. 408.

(4.) Quoted in Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 143.

(5.) Eban, Personal Witness, p. 399.

(6.) Eban, Personal Witness, p. 405.

DAVID RODMAN has published in various journals and has taught Middle East politics at the University of Michigan.
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Author:Rodman, David
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:May 1, 2001
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