The political legacy of the Six Day War remains a matter of intense controversy but there is no doubting Israel’s military achievement. The map of the Middle East was transformed in less than a week, with the armies of three neighbours defeated. The Sinai was taken from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. An image was created of extraordinary military acumen.
To understand what happened we need to understand the state of the military art at the time, but also the political context and how the experience of one war influences the next.
Israel fought Egypt three times over the Sinai Peninsula — in 1956, 1967 and 1973. The 1956 war ended with Israel required by the US to withdraw from the Sinai, and that meant that in 1967 it was focused on territorial gains, and the political leverage they might provide. The extra strategic depth acquired in 1967 led the government in 1973 to be more sensitive to the political risks of initiating yet another war and so the initiative was conceded to Egypt.
The backdrop to the 1967 war was developing tensions over Palestinian guerrilla activity and an apparent determination on the Arab side to forge more of a united front, able to work together to defeat Israel when the moment came. Another critical factor was the Soviet Union seeking to strengthen its position in the Middle East while the Americans were preoccupied with Vietnam.
It was Moscow that set events in motion when, on 13 May 1967, it warned Egypt of a massive Israeli troop build-up on the Syrian border and the imminence of an Israeli attack on its ally. Neither claim was true.
To show solidarity, Egyptian President Nasser decided to move troops into Sinai. This was combined with two provocative steps: a demand that the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) — a response to the 1956 war — withdraw from the Sinai and Gaza Strip and a blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba. This latter act both violated a 1957 agreement and provided a casus belli.
The Americans explained to the Egyptians that Israel was not preparing an attack on Israel, and by the time war came this was appreciated in Cairo. But the fateful steps had been taken.
Nasser may well have been pleased for a reason to see how far Israel might be pushed. Soviet motives are still debated, but the growing view is that they saw advantage in a war (including stopping Israel from becoming a nuclear power). As the crisis developed Moscow made scant contributions to the frantic diplomatic efforts to stop it turning into a war.
For a while the Israelis were torn between the risks of action and inaction, and between exposing themselves to the hazards of war and appearing paralysed in the face of Egyptian pressure. When Israel decided to act it did so decisively, in a pre-emptive air strike that destroyed Egypt’s air force.
Nasser was unable to admit the extent of the defeat to either his people or his allies who might yet be able to draw Israel into battles away from the Sinai. Hearing boasts from Cairo, and noting that the international media was treating reports from Tel Aviv sceptically, both Jordan and Syria decided to join the fight.
Despite urgent Israeli appeals to King Hussein to stay out of the war, Jordan opened up with artillery and air strikes. The impact was insufficient to hamper Israel but sufficient to propel its forces to action. Jordan’s air bases were destroyed as their jets refuelled.
The land battles thereafter were fierce but the momentum was with the IDF. This led to Israel seizing the old city of Jerusalem and the West Bank. After 50 years and much grief their status remains contested. It is one of the ironies of the war that this was not one of Israel’s objectives when the war began.
In 1973, still bruised by this experience, King Hussein held back from full participation in the next war, making only token gestures of solidarity with Egypt and Syria.
So the Six Day War both occurred and expanded because of false information. To a degree this could be put down to the ‘fog of war’, which has long created the fertile ground in which rumours, propaganda and downright lies can take root.
In recent years commentators have identified a stress on the importance of information operations as central to Russian strategy. The aim now is to exploit the complications created by social media and the existence of multiple sources of contradictory news by inserting its own fakery into the mix. Yet Moscow’s role in 1967 demonstrates there is nothing new in manipulating events by relaying false information.
Israel also employed deception, in its case with the aim of achieving tactical surprise. It was too small to cope with an enemy offensive. In 1956 surprise was achieved by pretending that the Israeli mobilisation was for a war with Jordan. Then the air force went into action first, with operations geared to the land campaign, supporting paratrooper drops and attacking Egyptian army positions as the IDF began their advance. It did not prevent the Egyptian air force staying engaged throughout the campaign, making its own strikes against IDF units.
In 1967, the military demands were much greater. The only way to deal with a larger and more capable Egyptian air force was a pre-emptive strike and total surprise. On the morning of 5 June some 200 aircraft struck Egyptian air bases. Flying remarkably low to avoid Egyptian radar and coming in over the sea, they were able to strafe and bomb runways and destroy parked aircraft. Those aircraft they could not take out then were finished off in later attacks. Around 300 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed. The Israelis lost 20. Egypt’s air force played no further part.
By 1973 air defences had improved on both sides. This limited both the first Egyptian strikes in 1973 but also the ability of the Israelis to use their superior air power to halt early Egyptian advances. At first they also had to deal with the more pressing situation created by the Syrian offensive to the north. The war demonstrated the value of surface-to-air missiles, not least as the Egyptian army became much more vulnerable once it moved beyond their protective range.
The lesson learnt by Arab countries from both the 1967 and 1973 wars was that the defence of their air assets must be strengthened. This was done using hardened shelters for aircraft, reinforced runways, reliable warning systems and effective anti-aircraft missiles. This development created new tactical imperatives. As could be seen in the 1991 Gulf War, in order to use aircraft in an offensive mode the first priority came to be degrading or disabling enemy air defences.
This shifting duel between offence and defence was also evident on the ground. All three wars involved thrusts and manoeuvres using tanks. In 1967 the Israelis had the British Centurion, designed during the Second World War and coming into service just after, plus modified versions of the war-time American Sherman, as well as the more recently developed French light-tank AMX-13.
The Egyptians had many Second World War Soviet tanks. Although there were some improvements on both sides, by the time of the October 1973 war the key change was in anti-tank systems. Egypt’s in 1967 were old-fashioned and cumbersome; by 1973 they had portable anti-tank missiles which were able to frustrate the first Israeli offensives.
The developing challenges posed by improved capabilities, as well as the difference made by getting in the first blow, can be seen in the casualty figures. In 1956 Israel suffered 231 killed. In the Six Day War its death toll rose to 776. In the October 1973 Yom Kippur War the losses rose to 2,688. This was the most difficult of the three, taking twice as long as the others to win.
A final feature of the 1967 war was how Israel rushed to get as much done as possible before they were obliged to accede to growing demands for a cease-fire. This created time pressures leading to hasty decisions. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan re versed his previous view and decided to order troops to take the old city of Jerusalem and then, once the extent of the Jordanian army’s withdrawal was appreciated, the West Bank. As these acquisitions had been opportunistic and not part of the original objectives there had been no high-level debate about whether or not this was really a good idea.
The fighting on the Syrian front was also shaped by the Security Council deliberations on a cease-fire, although here there was at least a debate in government about the wisdom of taking the Golan heights, albeit one begun after the fighting had started. This issue of achieving an optimum military position by the time a cease-fire has been agreed has been a feature of Israel’s subsequent wars.
Any country embarking on a war must make the most of its first move, which usually requires a degree of surprise and an ability to leave the enemy severely disabled. This is rarely achieved. The enemy is often able to absorb the first blows and fight back, leading to long wars of attrition instead of the dashing, swift wars of manoeuvre that excite military strategists. This is why the first day of the Six Day War remains remarkable as a rare example of a surprise attack that was decisive. Yet in another respect the war told a more familiar story, that however complete a military victory in the end, it is only as good as the political settlements it made possible.
The legacy of 1967 cannot be understood apart from that of 1973, but together these wars made possible a peace with Egypt and a remarkably stable standoff with Syria. Peace with Jordan was also achieved, but the West Bank, the unintended, last-minute acquisition, remains restive and contentious.
Prof Sir Lawrence Freedman’s latest book is Strategy: A History (OUP)