“From the early morning hours today, fierce battles are being fought on the southern front between Egyptian air and armored forces – which have moved toward Israel – and [Israeli] forces that went out to stop them,” the Israel Defense Forces spokesman lied on June 5, 1967.
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Egyptian movement toward Israel had indeed occurred in preceding weeks. But topping the list of military principles is dedication to the mission, not necessarily to the truth, and the mission here was to deceive, in order to allow another two or three days of Israeli advance in Sinai.
It succeeded, extremely well. But the huge success of one war sowed the seeds for the failure of the next one six years later – and not just because armies tend to act according to a proven formula, even when the circumstances and methods have become outdated.
Exhibit number one for the prosecution: The influence of 1967’s deceptions and faked innocence on Israeli avoidance of taking the first strike six years later, on the afternoon of October 6, 1973.
The opening move of the Six-Day War, Operation Moked (Focus), the raid to destroy the Egyptian Air Force in its bases, subsequently led Prime Minister Golda Meir to hold fire in the hours before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. It is possible to call this syndrome “Sheep! sheep!” – the opposite of the false alarm of crying “Wolf! wolf!” – which ultimately leads to complacency when the real wolf finally comes.
Israel had covered itself in sheepskin twice and was revealed in all its wolfishness, so the third time it avoided baring its teeth.
In 1967, the government of Levi Eshkol and the IDF General Staff, headed by Yitzhak Rabin, ran into a double contradiction when they went out to war: between the diplomatic and military sphere; and between the strategic and operational one.
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The first contradiction is clear. Waiting for an accumulation of support, both externally and internally, scores points on the diplomatic front and is also reflected by the willingness to supply weapons. But it also allows the enemy to reinforce, dig in and improve – and raises the price (in blood and time) Israel will have to pay in the fighting.
The second contradiction stems from the challenge Rabin placed before the Syrian regime in Damascus: To go down to the basement or to go up to the roof – either to put a stop to the harassment and attacks Syria had carried out all through 1966, or to take the risk of full warfare and possible fall. Because the practical implication of this threat is restraint with a sell-by date, the Syrian side will find itself prepared to absorb an Israeli strike, and the chances of surprising it will drop.
When Eshkol, his new Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Rabin and other members of the small circle of decision makers mulled whether to go to war and when, considering the justifications for and against, they were confronted not just with French President Charles de Gaulle’s warnings and the urgings of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to avoid firing the “first shot”; they were also faced with the most recent report by Mossad head Meir Amit, who believed that Johnson would accept a lightning victory that did not involve the Americans in a conflict with the Soviet Union and the need to save Israel from the Russians. They also knew everything depended on the Israel Air Force – and the air force was completely dependent on the element of surprise.
In Dayan’s own statements, which lulled the world media to sleep over the first weekend of June 1967 by saying “it is too late and too early” to go to war, the deception had already been made. During the Sinai Campaign in 1956, Dayan, as IDF chief of staff, dictated to the IDF spokesman the announcement about Israeli forces who “penetrated [into Sinai] and attacked a unit of fedayeen [guerrillas] and took up positions close to the Suez Canal.”
The capture of a small unit of Israelis disguised as Arab guerrillas was staged and, in an act of overzealousness, an aerial bombing of Be’er Sheva was planned (and subsequently canceled). It became apparent that the military part of the 1956 operation was far more effective than the diplomatic part: Israel was accused of aggression, including by the Eisenhower administration, and the UN Security Council rushed to convene and demand a full and unconditional withdrawal from Sinai.
The diplomatic lesson learned in 1956 by then-Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) David Ben-Gurion for the next time was that the support of a superpower – whether that be France or America – was an essential condition for any Israeli military initiative. Lack of such backing during the first week of the crisis in May 1967 led to Ben-Gurion’s tormenting of Rabin, which depressed him and triggered his 24-hour breakdown. The military lesson – which had stayed with him from the days of the German Blitz on London during World War II, and reinforced when Egyptian planes bombed Sde Dov airfield in Tel Aviv on the first day of Israel’s existence in 1948 – was the necessity of opening the war by achieving air supremacy.
As a result, it was easy for experienced U.S. analysts to anticipate that Israel would have to reduce the numerical superiority of the Egyptian Air Force – which was over twice the size of Israel’s and spread out over 28 bases – and that this would be the main focus of the Israeli military plan: The difference between initiative and defense; between a ground victory in a week to a week and a half, or three weeks of intense fighting with thousands of Israeli soldiers dead.
This was the basis for the systematic tracking of the preparations of the Israel Air Force, especially during the emergency situation in May and June 1967, and reports on any unusual activities. When the opening salvo of Operation Moked was planned, the air force’s operations department made sure to shift the flight paths of planes taking off from the Ramat David air base in the north away from the shortest and most convenient route along the Mediterranean coast, so the planes would not fly over the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv or the homes of American diplomats in Herzliya and Kfar Shmaryahu, just north of Tel Aviv.
The big lie
Dayan wrote in his memoirs of his deliberations on June 4 with the former IDF chiefs of Staff Yigael Yadin and Zvi Tsur, along with Military Intelligence head Aharon Yariv, as to which lie to choose: Big or small, active or passive.
A big lie meant a concocted scenario in which the Egyptians would be the ones who fired the first shot, opened with an aerial and ground attack “in which we returned fire, and that is how the war began,” wrote Dayan. He opposed that plan, because “every lie will be found out in the end and could have serious consequences.” This fiction could “waste the moral and just setting of our actions,” he added. At the same time, it seems Dayan had forgotten about the Sinai Campaign, and certainly could not know at the time he would return to a similar idea in 1973.
The small lie, which Dayan preferred, was: “Right after the aerial attack, there will be a general announcement that won’t go into details and won’t say anything about who attacked first – something along the lines of ‘Hostilities broke out,’ and then the background that made it necessary for Israel to break the noose.”
Even when the air force had destroyed more than 300 Egyptian aircraft, while the Egyptians were reporting they had shot down 40 Israeli air force jets, “We were well served by the Arab boasting and exaggerations,” he said. “I asked that no statement be issued – at least not on the first day – about our victories. Our actions should be depicted as a response to the Arabs’ attacks, and in the first 24 hours we should ‘be the ones in jeopardy.’”
Eighteen months before the Six-Day War, speaking about the Sinai Campaign, Dayan said the deception in 1956 had been directed toward the Americans as much as it was directed at the Egyptians.
On June 5, 1967, both Washington and Cairo were again deceived. At dawn that day Washington time (noon in Israel and Egypt), in order to assess the situation, the U.S. administration had to rely mainly on the official statements by both sides. In a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Johnson wondered whether it was indeed reasonable for him to believe it was the Egyptian tank movement toward Israel – which the IDF spokesman had announced – that had set the war in motion.
Rusk considered this: “It’s possible. But I’d put more weight on the Israeli claim that they had a large number of Egyptian aircraft headed for Israel, from the sea. But I think it’s just a little too early yet. My instincts tell me that the Israelis probably kicked this off. But I just don’t know yet.” Later in the conversation, Rusk expressed doubts concerning the Israeli claim about the “big tank column” heading toward Israel.
The small lie was not entirely convincing, but it sufficed to sow doubt that prevented quick decisions against Israel, in the American and international arena, before it achieved its goals on the ground.
Six years and four months later, Israel was the prisoner of the duplicitous reputation it had acquired for itself. This was a mirror image of the previous war. In 1967, it was taken for granted – based on Israel’s defense doctrine, the difficulty of keeping the reserves called up and the addition of Dayan (and Menachem Begin) to the government – that at some point Israel would attack. Nasser indeed surmised that such an attack would come, and he preferred to absorb the blow on the assumption that he would manage to contain it, swing into attack mode and make diplomatic gains as the victim.
In 1973, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declared that in the absence of diplomatic progress toward the return of Sinai to Egypt, he would go to war. But Meir and Dayan preferred, for diplomatic reasons and based on the assumption that the military blow would not be too costly, to wait for the Egyptians to strike.
On the morning of Friday October 5, in light of the reinforcements on the Egyptian front, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar said in the weekly discussion with the defense minister’s staff, “I don’t have sufficient proof that this isn’t going to be an attack” – thereby nullifying the intelligence assessment and superseding it with preparation for war.
The conclusion was neither a preemptive strike, nor a call-up of reserves, nor implementation of the emergency plans for deployment of the standing army. Dayan forbade “troop movements, unless it really begins,” adding, “We want the Americans to tell the Russians what is going to happen, to tell them with 100 percent confidence that Israel is not about to attack or do anything. If in 1967 it began and no one knew who was suspicious of whom, now it is necessary to try to break this cycle of sleight of hand. In the relationship we have with [U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger, is it possible to ask him to call [Soviet Ambassador to Washington Anatoly] Dobrynin and also tell him that Israel isn’t doing anything and what about their clients, or not? Clearly, it’s necessary to ask Golda [Meir], to tell her that our line is to create the alibi that we aren’t going to do anything. To give them a promise, that on our part there are no aggressive intentions.”
This promise was given three times the following day: in a cable to Kissinger, which was handed to his deputy at the National Security Council, Brent Scowcroft; in a conversation between Meir and Kenneth Keating, the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv; and again to Kissinger. Israel boxed itself in from all directions and threw away the key.
There was no basis to the illusions held by Elazar and Israel Air Force Commander Benny Peled that Dayan would circumvent this commitment by some trick. A quarter of a century later, Justice Moshe Landau, a member of the Agranat Commission in 1974, justified the decision not to call up the reserves: “Both Golda and Dayan feared that such a call-up would create a false impression that Israel was about to initiate a war, something that was liable to have led to the imposition of an embargo on essential U.S. arms supplies.”
Two hours after the Egyptians and Syrians opened fire in 1973, the Washington Special Action Group – a crisis management subcommittee of the National Security Council – convened. Scowcroft was there, along with Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Rush, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer, CIA chief William Colby, the NSC’s William Quandt and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Roy Atherton. All of them were realistic and experienced, and all of them relied on personal and organizational memory of the way Israel functioned.
Schlesinger: “Their reputation for veracity is not very high, but if the Israelis didn’t start it it’s the first time in 20 years.”
Moorer: “It could be that Israel felt things were getting out of hand and followed their normal reaction and let fly.”
Atherton: I accept that Israel will preempt when they can. But all the evidence is that they were caught by surprise. This is the last day in the year [Yom Kippur] when they would have started something.”
Schlesinger: “This could be part of an elaborate cover story. On Yom Kippur, little Israel was set upon by Arab extremists.”
Scowcroft: “And the buildup of Egyptian and Syrian forces has been unmistakable.”
Schlesinger: “That could argue either way. The Israelis may have seized the opportunity.”
Atherton: “The original plan was to attack at nightfall.”
Moorer: “That argues for the Egyptians and Syrians having started it.”
The question of who fired the first shot was not decided there, and it quickly lost importance when the leaders of Egypt and Syria began to express pride in breaking the cease-fire. For the moment, the Special Action Group decided that “no military equipment should move to either side” – when the only client for such equipment was Israel.
The Six-Day War must not be isolated from what happened before and after. Israel’s reputation, the IDF’s reputation and especially Dayan’s reputation – as the only one who was a member of the leadership in 1956, 1967 and 1973 – stuck to them like a shadow. Israel’s leaders were suspected of lying even when they deviated from their customary behavior and actually told the truth. The bad check they gave on June 5, 1967, was returned on October 6, 1973.