Finally, we come to the question, how did the war start? It is fair to say that the seeds for this war were planted in 1949, when the Arab armies trying to destroy the nascent Israel were routed, and that the Suez Crisis of 1956 raised tensions in the region even more. But to call those things causes of the Six Day War is like saying World War One caused World War Two; and since the Franco-Prussian War caused World War One, and the Napoleonic Wars caused the Franco Prussian War, we can say that the French Revolution caused World War Two. This is too much of a stretch. Without going back to far, the buildup to the Six Day War started three years earlier, in 1964.
In that year, Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister, and Yitzhak Rabin, its chief of staff agreed on the aims of Israel’s defence policy for the first five year plan for the military. The plan said that the State of Israel did not wish for more territory. Israel would not initiate conflict with an Arab state but if war were imposed on it, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would move swiftly into the enemy’s territory and destroy its war infrastructure.
More significantly, it was the year border clashes with Syria got deadlier. There were three sources of tension on the border: the demilitarised zones, water and Palestinian guerrillas. Moshe Dayan, Defence Minister during the Six Day War, said that in at least 80% of the clashes with Syria, “We would send a tractor to plow someplace where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarised area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot.” The Israelis were provoking the Syrians.
In addition, the water issue began in 1964. Israel began withdrawing water from the Jordan River. At a conference, the Arab League approved a $17.5m plan to divert the Jordan river at its sources, drastically reducing the quantity and quality of Israel’s water. Knowing that Israelis would not sit back while their country dried up, the same conference also created a United Arab Command to protect the project and prepare for an offensive campaign. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, or PLO, was yet another outcome of the conference. The Arab League began construction on its diversion plan the next year. The IDF attacked the diversion works in Syria in 1965, exacerbating the border tensions that led to the war.
In February 1966, an extreme left wing, anti-Zionist Baath regime took power in Damascus. It called for a popular war to liberate Palestine and sponsored Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israeli targets. These guerrilla attacks were not about to wipe Israel off the map, but they fanned the flames of mutual hostility between Israel and Syria.
Palestinian guerrillas, mainly Arafat’s Fatah, carried out 122 raids between January 1965 and June 1967. They were mostly staged from Lebanon and Jordan, but the guerrillas were largely armed, trained and run by Syrian general staff. In response to one such attack, the Israeli Defense Forces attacked the village of Samu on the West Bank. Dozens of Jordanian soldiers were killed. The attack shocked King Hussein and exposed his military weakness. On April 7, 1967, following a border skirmish, the Israeli Air Force shot down six Soviet-made Syrian MiGs in an air battle. The Syrian government was in a rage. The countdown to the Six Day War had begun.
Because the survival of the Baath regime was important to the USSR, the Soviets sent a report to Nasser that Israel was concentrating its forces on its northern front and was planning to attack Syria. The report was false. Some who were observing at the time said that, although the Soviet warning about Israel’s amassing troops on its northern border was wrong, the Israeli cabinet was planning to attack Syria and the Soviets had gotten wind. Nasser knew the report was untrue but he felt that, as the Arab world’s leadership was in question, he could not fail to act. Syria already had a defense pact with Egypt. There is general agreement among historians that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel. What he did was brinkmanship: pushing Israel to the brink and hoping war would not be necessary.
He did so for several reasons. First, he could not afford to look weak in front of his restive public. A major share of his army was already in the Sinai, and it would have been humiliating to pull them back. Second, the other side of the coin, continuing the troop buildup would enhance his status at home and in the Arab world. Indeed, reactions to the move were, in Michael Oren’s words, “enthusiastic, even ecstatic”. Finally, if there was no imminent threat to Syria, Nasser could take credit for increasing Egypt’s troop presence in the Sinai without fear Israel would attack. After all, he had already been assured it would not.
Nasser sent a large number of troops into the Sinai, removing the UN troops already there, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The Straits were important because, although few Israeli vessels actually transversed the Straits, it was where Iranian oil tankers exporting to Israel sailed. But more importantly, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence, failure to act to end the blockade of the Straits would make Israel lose its credibility and deterrent capacity. These tools have been essential for Israel ever since.
In all countries, the masses were whipped into a war frenzy. They heard about the hourly radio reports from Arab countries about Israel’s impending doom, and the general feeling was of a noose tightening around the nation’s neck. Israel’s Holocaust survivors were particularly scared when Israeli newspapers likened Nasser to Hitler. According to Charles Krauthammer, “It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks [before the war]. Egypt, already in an alliance with Syria, formed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco began sending forces to join the coming fight. With troops and armor massing on Israel’s every frontier, jubilant broadcasts in every Arab capital hailed the imminent final war for the extermination of Israel. ‘We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants,’ declared PLO head Ahmed Shuqayri, ‘and as for the survivors–if there are any–the boats are ready to deport them.'”
Everyone predicted a war. Eshkol was expecting a war; Cairo Radio said “our forces are in a complete state of readiness for war”; Syria’s government said “The war of liberation will not end except by Israel’s abolition.” Israel’s preemptive strike on its enemies was justified to end the tension and the fear–to stop waiting to die and start fighting to survive.
On May 12, in a newspaper interview, Rabin said “the moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government”. On May 19, Rabin told his generals, “[t]he politicians are convinced they can solve the problems through diplomacy. We have to enable them to exhaust every alternative to war, even though I see no way of returning to things the way they were. If the Egyptians blockade the Straits, there will be no alternative to war.” Nonetheless, Rabin also did not think Nasser wanted war.
On May 30, King Hussein flew to Cairo to sign the mutual defense pact with Nasser. An Egyptian general was appointed commander of Jordan’s army. On June 3, two Egyptian commando battalions were flown to Jordan, and on the following morning an Iraqi mechanised brigade crossed into Jordan and moved to the Jordan River. Egypt and Iraq, traditional enemies, signed a mutual defense pact.
Israel attacked when it did because it obtained approval from the US. Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence, gave Israel a green light to attack Egypt. However, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, said he was outraged that Israel attacked at all.
What was the most important factor in starting the Six Day War? At a glance, it would appear to have been Nasser and Egypt’s amassing of troops in the Sinai and closing of the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Eliat. The closing of the Straits was an act of war in itself. But historians disagree with this explanation. First, there is evidence that Nasser did not want war. His public was highly belligerent but he knew Egypt could not simply defeat and occupy Israel. He had learned from the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Second, there are alternative explanations. Avi Shlaim says that border skirmishes with Syria were the main cause of the war. “Israel’s strategy of escalation on the Syrian front was probably the single most important factor in dragging the Middle East to war in June 1967”. Israel had been forced to abandon its plan to divert water from the Jordan in the central demilitarised zone to the Negev desert (southern Israel) in 1953. The Arab states, led by Syria, poked and prodded Israel by diverting the Jordan River. Israeli and Syrian troops clashed and Israel gained the upper hand. “Having been defeated in the water war,” says Shlaim, “the frustrated Syrians began to sponsor attacks on Israel from their territory by Palestinian guerrilla organisations.” The violence escalated.
Michael Oren believes that, because (arguably) water politics led to fighting on Israel’s northern border, more than anything else, “the war would revolve around water.” The Arab League’s plans to take most of Israel’s water was provocation bigger than its threats, and the dry noose was the catalyst for Israel’s decision to strike.
Diplomacy came to naught. Tempers were not defused, the noose was not given any slack, and the push to war continued. At 07:45 on June 5, Israel attacked Egypt, beginning the Six Day War and setting in motion all the conflicts and killings Israel has suffered or delivered since.
Oren, Michael: Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Finkelstein, Norman: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Shlaim, Avi: The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
Morris, Benny: Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001
Charles Krauthammer: Prelude to the Six Days: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/17/AR2007051701976.html
The complete Short History of the Six Day War can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/22787004/A-Short-History-of-the-Six-Day-War.