Friday, May 20, 2011

Israel, Nasser and Fatah: An Inexorable March to War

The 1967 “Six Day War” was an inevitable result of the direct and indirect actions taken by the Arab Nations and Israeli responses to those actions, in the years and months leading up to the outbreak of the war. While armed conflict could perhaps have been delayed had different actions been taken by the United Nations, or possibly even the United States, the conflict itself was unavoidable. The nature of the resolution of the Sinai Campaign that placed UNEF forces in the Sinai subject to removal by Nasser only after the UN general assembly deemed the mission complete and that guaranteed Israeli passage through the Straits of Tiran while recognizing that any attempt to revive the blockade would be regarded as an act of war, left Nasser “defeated and humiliated”[1]. Nasser determined that the only way he could avenge his defeat at the hands of Israel and to maintain his political clout was to make the issue one of pan-Arab unity against Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs. No longer would the conflict be between Israel and Egypt, long the leader of the Arab world, but between Israel and all Arabs, with Palestine as the unifying cause behind which they would all rally—a classic utilization of the Mandala theory of foreign policy.

Although the roots of the conflict are firmly planted in the 1948 war and the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the primary causes of the Six Day War began with the Israeli National Water Carrier plan. As in most cultures where water is in short supply, rights to any available water are hotly contested. In spite of the existence of the Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan (the Johnston Plan) to which the riparian nations of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon agreed,[2] only Jordan and Israel appeared willing to abide by the plan. Israel planned the National Water Carrier in accordance with the Johnston Plan, and completed it in June of 1964. Jordan also created a project based upon her allocated water according to the plan, and completed the East Ghor Main Canal in 1966; both projects were funded at least in part by the United States. Although both countries were adhering to the water allocations set forth by the Johnston Plan, the Arab League, consisting of the nations of Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, and Morocco, held a summit in Cairo in early 1964 to address the Israeli water plan—again, despite the fact that the Arab water engineers in the other riparian states approved of the plan.

Following the Cairo summit, the Arab League initiated a project to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River in Syria and Lebanon, and created a United Arab Command to both protect the project and prepare for the war for water that they recognized was sure to follow.[3] The Arab plan would have drastically reduced, if not practically eliminated, the water available to Israel, and the Arab efforts to implement the project resulted in Israeli military actions to prevent it, which in turn significantly increased tensions between Syria and Israel. The ongoing dispute over water was a major factor in the war.[4]

Another result of the Cairo Summit, the establishment of the PLO as an umbrella group for the various factions of Palestinian Arabs, and the ensuing militant rhetoric and incendiary propaganda against Israel and the Jewish people contributed to the general unrest in the region; this, and the subsequent Syrian embrace of Fatah were also causative factors of the Six Day War. Although Nasser’s concept of the Palestine Liberation Organization was that it should be an organization that would enhance Arab stature and promote Arab unity through militant anti-Israeli rhetoric without actually taking direct action against Israel,[5] the fact that the PLO’s avowed goal was the destruction of Israel was nonetheless unsettling for Israel, especially after Nasser stated in March of 1965 that “[w]e shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand, we shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood,”[6] and a few months later that “we aim at the destruction of the State of Israel. The immediate aim: perfection of Arab military might. The national aim: the eradication of Israel.”[7] Fatah and the PLO, and indeed most of nations of the Arab League, began a propaganda campaign against Israel that continues to this day.

Syria was adamant that direct action against Israel be a part of the Arab posture against Israel, and when they determined that the PLO was more talk than action, Syria turned to Yassir Arafat’s Fatah organization, which had no qualms about perpetrating terrorist attacks against the Jews. Fatah, which would become a key element of the PLO, combined action with words, and in addition to its various and repeated threats to destroy Israel, Fatah, with the direct support of the Syrian government, initiated its campaign of guerilla warfare with a failed attack on Israel’s National Water Carrier in January 1965.[8]

From 1965 to the onset of the war in June of 1967, Fatah incursions into Israel from Arab territories proceeded apace. In the eighteen months preceding the outbreak of the war, Fatah would be responsible for over a hundred terror attacks against Israeli towns, water pipes, and railroads that resulted in the murder of Jewish civilians and the destruction of Israeli homes.[9] The constant drip-drip-drip of these attacks aroused Israeli ire, and along with the Israeli policy of deterrence and disproportionate response, led to increased conflict and were major catalysts leading to the Six Day War.[10] In fact, the Israeli tactic of disproportionate response led to an incident in November of 1966 that was in itself a major contributor to the war—the IDF raid on Samu’, a Jordanian West Bank border city from which many terrorist attacks had been launched. Israel sent 4000 IDF troops to the city, demolished over a hundred homes, and ambushed the responding Jordanian army.[11]

In the aftermath of the Samu’ incident, rhetoric from Syria and Egypt, who had entered into a joint defense pact in November of 1966, directed at Jordan, and from Jordan’s King Hussein directed at Egypt’s Nasser escalated, increasing tensions and further destabilizing the region. This exacerbated King Hussein’s fears of a Palestinian Arab coup and eventually led to the joint defense pact he signed with Egypt on May 30, 1966, that was quickly followed by a joint defense pact between Iraq and Egypt.[12]

The Six Day War is often viewed as a proxy war between the two cold war powers; much of the impetus leading to the commencement of the Six Day War was generated by a Soviet disinformation campaign. As Israel approached her Independence Day celebration in May of 1967, the anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish oratory from Arab nation-states was constant, ominous, and inflammatory, and Israeli threats of retaliation were publicly broadcast. With this backdrop, the Soviets entered the fray, falsely advising Nasser that Israel had “massed forces on the Syrian border.”[13] Nasser evidently took the Soviet message to heart, for he immediately mobilized his army. This Soviet meddling was a fourth major contributor to war.

Israel, concerned at the troop buildup, advised the U.S. Embassy in Israel that there was no Israeli troop concentration on [the] Syrian, Egyptian, or other frontier,”[14] but by May 17, according to a memorandum from Walt Rostow, Special Assistant to President Johnson, Egypt had moved forces into the Sinai “in front of the UN Emergency Force on the Israel-UAR border and all but ordered it to withdraw,”[15] and by May 18, Nasser had issued a formal request to the U.N. for withdrawal of UNEF forces from Egyptian territory in the Sinai.[16] Secretary General U Thant played for time, but in a predictable demonstration of UN irrelevance, complied with alacrity, despite pleas from the United States that the forces remain.[17]

The withdrawal of the UNEF forces set the stage for even more virulent Arab rhetoric and increased Syrian shelling of Israeli villages from the Golan Heights, followed by the blockade of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, a fifth major contributor to the Six Day War and the casus belli upon which Israeli response was justified. On May 23, 1967, Nasser announced from the Sinai that “under no circumstances” would Egypt “permit the Israeli flag to pass through the Gulf of Aqaba,” and according to a U.S. Department of State document dated May 23, 1967, stated that if “Israelis want war, we welcome it.”[18] Additionally, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad stated that “the UAR would stop Israeli ships and confiscate strategic cargoes [on] all other vessels.”[19]

Once the blockade took effect, Nasser and Israel were effectively committed to war. Israel could not allow the blockade to continue given their assertion in 1957 that they would view the closure of the Straits as an act of war for fear that their deterrent power would be forever compromised, and once Nasser’s troops occupied Sharm al Sheikh, he could not back down and lose face in front of the Arab world.[20]

A key difference between the parties is evidenced by the key differences in their leaders. Ben Gurion, and by extension Eshkol and the Jewish government, believed that Israel was under constant threat of extermination, but held as their overriding objective the survival of the Jewish state—all other concerns were secondary,[21] while Nasser’s view was that losing face was worse than leading his nation and in fact the entire Arab nation, into a war that he knew he could not win.[22] The die was cast.

Ben-Ami concludes with the benefit of hindsight (and that perhaps occluded by good intentions) that Arab posturing and the multitude of Arab threats in the period leading up to the war were merely “rhetorical”[23]; however, in light of the sheer quantity of threats from such a wide range of Arab nations, it would be difficult for any responsible leader to gamble the existence of his people and that of his fledgling nation on such an estimation.

Although there were several moments at which intervention may have prevented a war in June of 1967, it seems unlikely that such intervention would have resulted in much more than a postponement of the hostilities. Once the United Nations under Secretary General U Thant abandoned Israel to the wolves of Egypt in the Sinai, there was little to be done to prevent war, and the additional impact of the Jordan-Egypt-Syria mutual defense pact on May 30 and the June 4 addition of Iraq to the pact left Israel surrounded by hostile Arab armies whose leaders were spouting incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric that became more threatening almost by the hour, including Iraqi president Aref’s statement that “the existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear—to wipe Israel off the map.”[24] Additionally, continued failure by the United States and the United Nations to successfully implement the Flotilla plan, as well as the failure of the Johnson administration to declare American support for Israel in the event of an Arab attack left Israel ever more isolated, and gave her the appearance of powerlessness. At that point, and with their knowledge of Egypt’s plans for Operation Dawn on the horizon, Israel had no choice but to launch a pre-emptive strike.

[1] Ben-Ami, Shlomo. Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Arab-Israeli Tragedy, (Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 87
[2] Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents, 7th Edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009) p. 267-8
[3] Ben-Ami, p. 97
[4] Smith, p. 268-70
[5] Ibid, p. 270
[6] Sachar, Howard. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 616.
[7] Katz, Samuel. Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine (NY: Bantam Books, 1985), pp. 8; also 11 May 2010,
[8] Ben-Ami, p. 99
[9] Smith, p. 272; Ben-Ami, pp. 98-100. Additional resources at and
[10] Ben-Ami, p. 87 and Smith, pp. 279-80
[11] Ben-Ami, p. 96 and Smith, p. 273
[12] Smith, p. 273-4
[13] Smith, p. 280
[14] United States. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Historian, Foreign Relations of the United States. Volume XIX, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1967, Document 2, Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State. 11 May 2010.
[15] Ibid, Volume XIX, Document 7. 11 May 2010.
[16] Smith, page 280
[17] United States Department of State, Volume XIX, Document 11. 11 May 2010.
[18] Ibid, Volume XIX, Document 38. 11 May 2010.
[19] Ibid, Volume XIX, Document 40. 11 May 2010.
[20] Smith, pp. 280-281 and Ben-Ami, p. 103
[21] Ben-Ami, p. 90
[22] Ben Ami, p. 103
[23] Ben-Ami, p. 97
[24] 11 May 2010.

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