Growing Arab-Israeli Tension and Progression
The decade after the Sinai campaign of 1956 was one of relative tranquility for Israel. Although no appreciable progress was made toward resolving the issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, no major hostilities took place. The Egypt-Israel frontier remained calm but tense, and there were exchanges along Israel’s frontiers with Jordan and Syria, including a growing number of terrorist raids into Israel.
As Israel put its National Water carrier into operation in 1964, and began to divert water from the Jordan river for use by the growing population in its heartland, the situation deteriorated. Syria responded with efforts to divert the Jordan river to reduce its flow to Israel. Tensions between Israel and Syria over water and the use of the DMZs between them led to numerous border incidents.
This war over water had its origins in the Arab Summit in cairo in 1964, when the Arab leaders made it a matter of policy to divert the waters of the Jordan river. Funds were allocated for this purpose, and both Syria and Lebanon began work on projects to shunt the waters of the Hasbani and Banias rivers away from the Jordan river, where Israel could not utilize it. Israel noted that such actions would be considered acts of war. Israel used artillery and tank fire and aircraft to stop these projects. The Israelis proved successful, and the Arab efforts were halted.
on February 22, 1966, a coup d’état brought a radical military regime to power in Syria. The new Syrian government noted its desire to make common cause with progressive and leftist elements of the Arab world to confront imperialist moves and alliances. The new regime’s policy focused on the Palestine problem and the necessity of a war to secure the liberation of the usurped Arab land. It called for the unification of popular forces to face the Zionist enemy and expel it from Palestine.
In a speech on February 22, 1966, President Nasser of Egypt (then known as the United Arab republic, or UAr, because of a short-lived union between Egypt and Syria) articulated his view that the forces of Arab unity and Arab nationalism were divided by imperialism and reaction. Nasser argued that Israel was planted in the heart of the Arab nation to prevent cooperation among the Arab states by sowing seeds of sedition, discord, and division.
on November 4, Egypt and Syria signed a mutual-defense agreement known as the cairo-Damascus Defense Pact. It provided for the establishment of joint command over the armed forces of the two states. Each state would regard armed aggression against the other as an attack against itself and would come to the aid of its defense partner by taking all necessary measures, including the use of armed force, to defeat the aggressor.
on November 13, Israel launched a retaliatory raid against the Jordanian village of Samua. Two days prior, three soldiers had been killed by a mine planted by Fatah, a group within the Palestine Liberation organization (PLo). Fighting between the Israeli army and a Jordanian legion unit ensued, leading to the deaths of 15 Jordanian soldiers. Palestinians rioted, complaining that Jordan’s King Hussein was not doing enough to defend them.
on April 7, 1967, Syrian military units fired on an Israeli tractor in the DMZ south of Galilee, and mortar, tank, and artillery shellings were concentrated on three Israeli villages in the area. Israel sent planes to destroy the artillery positions and engaged Syrian jets. Israel reported that six MiG-21 aircraft of the Syrian air force were shot down and no Israeli planes lost, while the Syrians claimed victory in the air battle.
Border skirmishes with Jordan and Syria culminated on May 8, 1967, when forces emanating from Syrian territory infiltrated five miles into Israel, planted an explosive charge on the main highway north of the Sea of Galilee, waited for a military vehicle to pass, and then detonated the charge under the vehicle. The deep penetration into Israel, the choice of a major highway, the decision to wait for an appropriate target, and the use of comparatively sophisticated equipment clearly indicated to Israel that the Arab terrorists were able to act in Israel almost with impunity.
Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol indicated that Israel reserved the right of action and that continued acts of terrorism would be responded to by Israel at a time, place, and method of its own choosing.Syria reacted by alerting its military, announcing the movement of forces to the Israeli border, and calling for the activation of the cairoDamascus Defense Pact. A state of emergency was proclaimed in Egypt on May 16, and consultations were reported in progress between cairo and Damascus on implementation of their defense pact.
on May 17, cairo and Damascus announced that the UAr and Syria were combat-ready and alleged that a strong Israeli military buildup on the borders of both countries was taking place. In fact, this was not true; there was no such Israeli buildup. on May 18, Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait proclaimed that their forces had been mobilized and were ready to take part in the battle against the common enemy.
Yemen’s support was also pledged to the UAr. Israel announced it was taking appropriate measures in view of the concentration of Arab forces on its borders. The following day, the United Nations Emergency Force was officially withdrawn from the Israeli-Egyptian border at Egypt’s request, and its positions were filled by contingents of the PLo and the UAr armed forces.
Egypt’s Ministry of religious Affairs ordered the country’s religious leaders to preach a jihad (holy war) to regain Palestine for the Arabs. Vitriolic radio attacks were made against Israel, Zionism, and imperialism. Field Marshal Abdul Hakim Amer indicated that UAr armed forces had taken up positions from which they could deliver massive retaliation against Israeli aggression. Troop buildups continued throughout the ensuing period.
on May 21, both Israel and Egypt announced the calling up of reserves, and cairo spoke of the continued eastward movement of Egyptian armed forces. Ahmed Shukairi, leader of the PLo, announced that some 8,000 of his troops had been placed under the military commands of the UAr, Syria, and Iraq. He declared that Israel would be completely annihilated if war broke out and that the PLo would continue its raids on Israel. In addition, Shukairi called on the Jordanian people to overthrow King Hussein. Syrian defense minister Hafez alAssad stated that his country’s armed forces were ready to repel Israeli aggression and to take the initiative in liberating Palestine and destroying the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland.
on May 23, the UAr announced not only the closing of the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping but also the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba. Such actions effectively blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat at the head of the gulf, Israel’s only outlet to the red Sea. The cairo announcement said that the blockade applied to vessels flying the Israeli flag and to ships of any other country carrying strategic goods to Eilat.
Nasser knew that this would be regarded by Israel as an act of aggression (casus belli) and would almost certainly lead to an armed clash. Israel described this action as a gross infringement of international law and an aggressive act against Israel. It was logical to assume that the United States would concur in Israel’s view since it was on record as supporting freedom of passage through the Strait of Tiran.
on May 23, Eshkol spelled out the dangers resulting from the blockade of the strait and called on the United Nations and the major powers to act without delay in maintaining the right of free navigation through the Strait of Tiran and in the gulf.
The importance of the Gulf of Aqaba and of Israel’s willingness to use military action in support of its claim to freedom of passage was emphasized by Eshkol on May 29, 1967: “Members of the Knesset, the Government of Israel has repeatedly stated its determination to exercise its freedom of passage in the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba and defend it in case of need. This is a supreme national interest on which no concession is possible and no compromise is admissible.”
U.S. president Lyndon Johnson stated that the United States considered the Gulf of Aqaba to be an international waterway and that the blockade of Israeli shipping in the gulf was illegal and potentially dangerous to peace. He also expressed dismay at the hurried withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula and noted that the United States remained firmly committed to the support of the political independence and territorial integrity of all the nations of the Middle East.
on May 26, Nasser stated that if war with Israel should come, the battle would be a general one and “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” This was based on his assessment of the combined weight of Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, and Kuwait against Israel. He referred to the United States as the chief defender of Israel and an enemy of the Arabs, described Britain as “America’s lackey,” and noted that France had “remained impartial” on the question of Aqaba and did not toe the U.S. or British line. In Jerusalem, Israeli officials warned that Israel would not wait indefinitely for an end to the Egyptian blockade of Aqaba and stressed that it would be entirely within its rights in breaking the blockade as an act of self-defense if the United Nations or the maritime powers did not do so.
on May 30, Egypt and Jordan entered into a defense pact in which both states committed themselves to “immediately take all measures and employ all means at their disposal, including the use of the armed forces.” on June 4, King Hussein announced that the Egyptian-Jordanian Mutual Defense Treaty had been extended to include Iraq. With Iraq’s acquiescence, Egypt could include Syria, Iraq, and Jordan in its defense system.In June 1967, Israel was surrounded by Arab states dedicated to its eradication.
The objective was referred to as “politicide,” the destruction of a state. Between 1949 and 1967, many Israelis had been hopeful that peace with the Arab states could be established based on the 1949 armistice agreements. Now, the crisis of 1967 convinced many Israelis that politicide was the goal of the Arab world. Egypt was ruled by Nasser, a nationalist whose army was the strongest in the Arab Middle East. Syria was governed by the radical Baathist Party, constantly issuing threats to push Israel into the sea. The PLo focused on replacing Israel with Palestine.
As the crisis developed, Israel sent Foreign Minister Abba Eban to the United States to inquire into its position. En route he met with President charles de Gaulle of France and Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain. During his discussions with U.S. president Johnson, Eban noted that Israel was ready, willing, and able to utilize military force in support of its position concerning the Gulf of Aqaba. Johnson urged restraint and suggested that Israel wait for the exhaustion of diplomatic efforts.
once the United States and Great Britain had attempted to ensure freedom of navigation and were seemingly making little headway, public pressures in Israel were exerted to include former chief of staff of the IDF Moshe Dayan in the government as minister of defense. It was reported that on the evening of May 30, Eshkol was confronted by his cabinet, who suggested that for the sake of stability either Dayan or Yigal Allon, former commander of the Palmach, had to be co-opted. Eshkol’s initial opposition to the inclusion of either man stemmed from long-standing political arguments, as both were critics of Eshkol and opponents of his policies.
Dayan, widely admired in Israel because of his role in the establishment of the IDF’s commando units and for an aggressive retaliatory doctrine that culminated in the Sinai campaign, felt that the appropriate and immediate response should be essentially military, not political. His co-option to the government as minister of defense indicated that the time left for diplomacy to prevent war was short. Israel established a national unity government, with a “wall-towall” coalition to deal with the crisis.