Heavy Words / Minutes Into Days of War

The IDF is wont to refer to it as "inter-hierarchical dialogue." It is the kind of correspondence that takes place between the Northern Command and the General Staff just before a hypothetical war with Syria or Hezbollah. Decisions that require implementation are not made during these communications. Rather, they are taken either before or afterward. The discussions are meant to clarify outstanding issues, calibrate expectations and coordinate on a common terminology.

It is precisely this dialogue that took place between the government headed by Levi Eshkol and the General Staff commanded by Yitzhak Rabin on Friday, June 2, 1967. This was not a decisive session. In some respects, the decision fell the day before when the Mapai and Labor-dominated government welcomed representatives of the Rafi and Gahal factions to the coalition.

Two of the three newly minted ministers - the third was Yosef Sapir of Gahal - carried special importance. For the first time, Menachem Begin of Herut (which was then a part of Gahal ) crossed the dividing line that separated him from the ruling establishment. Moshe Dayan took the defense portfolio from Eshkol, mostly to restore a sense of security that had been lost in the preceding two weeks of limbo, hesitation, and government deadlock. Dayan and Begin, "the partners to victory" whose inclusion into the government was not welcomed by Mapai secretary-general Golda Meir, did not enter the coalition to aid in preserving Eshkol's seat on power, nor did they wish to see a continuation of the government's policy of restraint.

In another sense, the decision fell the day after, on the evening of June 3, during consultations held between Eshkol and Mossad chief Meir Amit. Amit had just arrived from Washington to sound out Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and CIA chief Richard Helms. The Mossad head provided a positive answer - implied rather than explicit - to the question that had most disturbed the prime minister and his hesitant cabinet: How would the Johnson administration respond to an Israeli military initiative against Egypt?

Previous messages that were communicated from Washington - particularly those that were relayed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk - were negative. At times it seemed that the content of the message changed depending on the audience. Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who was in contact with Rusk, opposed war, while Amit - a former IDF general, commander of the military's operations branch during the Sinai Campaign of 1956, and a close confidant of the militant Dayan - agreed with his colleagues in the General Staff that the risk Israel would take in avoiding war would be even greater than those incurred as a result of war.

An especially significant factor that played into the decision was Dimona. Statements made by Rabin - and the supposed censored statements uttered by Dayan - reveal deep concern over the prospect that high-flying, penetrative Egyptian fighter jets would succeed in bombing the nuclear reactor.

The minutes of the June 2 meeting, which have been quoted in numerous documents, research papers and books, and which have been fully published (minus the censored portions ) by the Defense Ministry to mark today's 15th anniversary of the Rabin assassination, is a highly valuable resource for anyone who takes an interest in civilian-military relations in the state of Israel. Its value has only grown with time. Still, the reader in 2010 knows all that has happened since, not just during the war. Among the protagonists of that conflict were four prime ministers - Eshkol, Rabin, Begin, and Ariel Sharon, who was a general and the commander of the General Staff's instruction department as well as the commander of one of three divisions along the Sinai border. Dayan's fate - from basking in the glory of 1967 to the disappointment of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, all the way to his appointment as Begin's foreign minister during peace talks with Egypts - is also known.

For all intents and purposes, Eshkol provided his successors with a lesson in the abundance of responsibility that is borne by the civilian echelon in general, and the prime minister in particular. The officers are tasked with improving the conditions in the field that would make it conducive to fulfill their mission and minimize the number of casualties during the next battle.