The 'Gold Mine' on the Border

Newly released transcripts of meetings before and after the Six-Day War show a cautious, questioning prime minister facing an aggressive army

On the eve of the Six-Day War, chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin suggested that Israel initiate an escalation in response to Syrian-led border incidents in the North. Rabin called the incidents a "gold mine" and believed they would play into Israel's hands. The points of departure were simple, logical and mistaken: Escalation would deter Syria from carrying out further attacks, or at least bring about a war that would topple the regime, with Egypt remaining on the sidelines. A kind of northern version of the 1956 Sinai Campaign.

As the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War approaches, the General Staff deliberations leading up to and following the war have been declassified by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Archives. One such illuminating discussion involving prime minister and defense minister Levi Eshkol took place in January 1967, four months before the crisis. Rabin and the generals urged Eshkol to take the offensive. Eshkol, ostensibly the representative of the civilian sector and the economy, asked questions and was not tempted by the arguments of the military men. As developments lurched out of the control of the prime minister - together with the defense portfolio, which he was pressured into yielding to Moshe Dayan - Eshkol proved that his caution was wiser than their militancy.

In a meeting of the General Staff and the ministerial committee for defense on June 2, just days before the war broke out, one of the participants - almost last on the list of officers and mute during the meeting - was operations head Lt. Colonel Haim Nadel, now a member of the Winograd Committee investigating the Second Lebanon War. Nadel can testify that not much has changed since then. The only difference is that the feeling of depression in 1967 came before the war, not after it.

Military Intelligence director Aharon Yariv, generally a sensible person, was guilty of racist remarks in an August 1967 meeting, after the war: "We said in 1964 that the basic flaw in the Arab character still exists. An inability to make full use of the means of war, lack of initiative, a limited ability to carry out non-standard actions in a non-standard framework, weakness of leadership, lack of tenacity in attaining the objective. I would like to put the lesson I want to draw in slightly vulgar terms. I ask the pardon of the forum. We have seen again that the Arabs are dreck."

As the transcript of a January 1967 meeting shows, the generals - the Israeli aristocracy - didn't have a much higher opinion of the Israelis who lived in border communities.

Harassment against harassment

Rabin: "The central problem between us and the Syrians lies in the fundamental approach of the attempt to be the standard-bearer of immediate war in Israel, in the matter of the diversion [of the Jordan River headwaters] and above all the people's war [of the PLO] ... In regard to the border problems, this regime [in Damascus] differs in its tactics but not in essence from all the other regimes of the past 15 years. For us, the implication is more how we play the game concerning the gold mine of possibly developing border incidents. Can one have a limited clash with Israel, one Israel accepts as a fact without bringing about a more serious explosion?

"Clearly, other possibilities may be presented as well ... First, let us make an exceptional intelligence effort and send agents to infiltrate the countries of origin. Second, let us build a 'Shield of David' line, if that is possible, and close off all of Israel's borders with fences and mines. Third, gentlemen, the Syrians are harassing us, but for every landmine of theirs, we can put 20 mines and at greater depth [inside the country]. We will launch a war of harassment against a war of harassment at a ratio of 10 to one."

Eshkol: "What are we doing today along the border?"

Rabin: "That's a matter of defense."

Eshkol: "Is what we are doing worth anything? The army is defending the borders, but in light of the harassment, if it has no value, what needs to be done to give it value? In a war, would we conquer Syria, and what would we do after that? This would seem to obligate a different operation, to block the people's war ... I said, maybe this is like a price per scalp, because after all some will be killed, maybe there are people for whom this is self-sacrifice. What are we doing to kill the enemy's initiative, whatever the consequences for the regime?"

GOC Northern Command, David Elazar: "The solution is not only military, or partially military, defensive, but an overall political-military solution. Regarding the border, the Syrians did not initiate the talks [on the demilitarized zones]. They were pushed into them because they could not refuse. I trust the Syrians to show up with extreme demands and not to come to talks truly intending to find a settlement. It is good we went to the talks, and if they bring us both quiet on the border and end the terrorist strikes and the mines, then as far as I am concerned let [them] go on until the spring. It's good.

"It is better to respond in the spring than in the winter. When I say that the solution against Syria regarding the people's war is political-military, I am referring to three conditions: an international constellation that the Syrians believe enables Israel to attack them, the knowledge that Israel is capable of attacking them, and the belief that this is what Israel intends to do ... Under those three conditions, we will not arrive at war. They will prevent the people's war before we have recourse to a genuine war against Syria. If there is more terrorism, it will be necessary to strike against the Syrians - the time has come, not in place of defensive measures.

"To your question, if we are doing a lot and whether it is worth something - we are doing a lot, more than we ever did before. In Northern Command, three or four companies are lying in ambush every night, dozens of ambushes. During these nights we sometimes have to evacuate people who freeze to the hospital, because in the Galilee it reaches minus four degrees [Celsius], and to lie for five hours without moving, you get cold even if you are wrapped in all the blankets possible.

"These squads come from across the way. He [the Syrian] is sitting 300 meters [away] and watching from 5 o'clock. If we do not come when darkness falls, he is there before us; if we come as darkness falls, he spots the ambushes. He feels and hears, because we do not send a highly trained squad of three vs. three, we send 100 people who set up 12-13 ambushes. It's enough for one person to drop his Uzi for him [the Syrian] to sense there is an ambush. There are many signs that a small squad of three people can feel. When we fence in moshavim, each moshav member cuts himself a hole, so at the moshavim we need to rely more on lighting, maybe a warning system, not a fence.

"In war, every means has a counter-means. I believe the Arabs will not manage to become acclimatized so quickly; this will solve us the problem for a while. I am against a means that can be overcome because it is so primitive, like a fence. That is not practical in Northern Command."

GOC Central Command, Uzi Narkiss: "You asked what they want - that is quite clear. Since they believe they cannot destroy us now, they want to harass us until they have convenient conditions to do so. Mentally, what denotes the Arabs is that when they take a blow they retreat, they calm down for a time."

Eshkol: "We are getting into psychology. Is it really only Arabs?"

Narkiss: "It's quite Arab. Of the Jews, it says in the Pesach Haggadah, when they were tortured they multiplied and broke forth."

Eshkol: "For the time being they are mainly breaking forth."

Narkiss: "In any event, when the Arabs are hit - we remember this from before there was a state - they calm down. It's all relative. Currently Syria is the source of the abomination and is pulling all the strings and is behind the big terrorist activity. We can't be sure this will not change over time. No one can guarantee that both Jordan or Egypt will not get into the act. So it is very worthwhile for us to get into a frontal war even before war with Syria, so that activity there will also calm down for a very long time. That does not mean that if something happens in another sector we will not respond or apply pressure intelligently ... The Central Command sector is known - the Sharon district, Jerusalem, the railway line - places that are prone to attack and for which there is no trick in the world, including a thousand ambushes, for preventing infiltration. We talk about reprisal operations and from here jump to the Samua issue. Today everyone sees the justice of that operation [in the West Bank]. It doesn't matter that there was a week when people trembled, not only [King] Hussein but all kinds of people. In the UN and here and there."

Eshkol: "Can we switch the word 'justice' for 'effectiveness'?"

No national consciousness

Narkiss: "The king realized his throne is not secure. We induced Hussein to take measures. Syria is the source of the evil, that is true, but that does not mean that if there are troubles from other places, we will not use this means. We are far more vulnerable than they are, but it will not be pleasant for them, either, if 20 forces enter 20 villages and don't let them sleep. There will be explosions or shootings, to kill one or two people night after night, even if they turn to the authorities, 'Save us.' Let us remember what happened [in Israel] the night after those three soldiers hit the landmine. What the mood was and what the nation said."

Deputy operations head Colonel Rehavam Ze'evi: "We might have acted more quickly and in greater numbers, but the international community faces similar problems and no one acts more smartly. People even get past the Berlin Wall, even though it is in a built-up area that was leveled and is guarded on both sides. We have committed the maximum number of forces. There is no solution in a defensive mode ... Our army is small and is not built for problems like these ... A second reason is the steadfastness of our communities ... True, in the communities [the kibbutzim] they did not vote with their feet, but it will be a sorry situation if that happens in the moshavim. We have to understand that the moshavim and their demographic composition do not have the national consciousness that will hold them for long when they have to be awake evening after evening with the problems.

"There is the problem of control in the demilitarized zones, the diversion of the Jordan river's sources and, most serious of all, the terror attacks in Israel. A war with Syria will solve all three problems. I would not go to war over the first or second issues, but on the third issue there is no choice but a clash ... This kind of terror movement, if it is not eliminated, becomes an infectious disease. If one can attack Israel and nothing happens, that opens the eyes and whets the appetite of other Arab states.

"Fencing off areas is not feasible for us ... Every fence gets breached. A fence is an investment of a great amount of materials, and in the end it will become a target for theft by Arabs on both sides and by Jews on one side. All the fences in the kibbutzim disappear. The metal is valuable, the barbed wire is valuable, and it disappears. There is no choice but an all-out clash with them in order to solve the central problem of the terrorist attacks."

Eshkol: "So you are effectively ruling out the use of fencing. I am a bit of an advocate of these primitive methods, but I did not suggest encircling all of Israel with a fence. In the areas where there are no arguments about the border, if I can block it with a fence, why not? The cost? Common sense says we would need fewer guards. I can concentrate more, put up the barrier to block infiltrators in a different place. Here there is a complication, there is a fence."

Rabin: "When there is a fence, they will move two kilometers. More than that, Eshkol, there is no information about what our action prevented, what would have happened if we had not taken action. I cannot say it prevented x number of attacks."

Eshkol: "That is almost tricky. That is a good explanation, and I am ready to use it, too, because otherwise who needs the whole thing, why should people need to lie in ambush? But since the infiltrations are by individuals - it is not a camp of hundreds of thousands every night - if they nevertheless infiltrate and we do not encounter them, then it is either-or: either I surround myself with a protective belt, or the question arises as to whether this explanation is adequate. I wanted to ask - this concern that they might see us, because we move out at dusk and they are under a rock and see us, I am like the Jew who brings the gadget to Moscow on a bicycle - is it not possible, once it is completely dark, to switch the [ambush] locations?"

Rabin: "If we do that, we will have more killed than we will kill."

Eshkol: "Still, if we are imbeciles like that ..."

Rabin: "With the binoculars we have, things are improved. With infared, our vision is even better."

Eshkol: "How many are there in Israel?"

Rabin: "If we could give every three patrols binoculars, that would change things ... I don't believe it would solve the problem, but it would improve things."

Eshkol: "Am I asking for a 100-percent solution? Something."

Rabin: "If I may say so, Gandhi [Ze'evi] tried to say this - with the existing means we will not eliminate the infiltrations, even if we get another 500 binoculars and another 200 infrared, and if we build a 100-kilometer fence. The issue is the will to infiltrate. Why am I in favor of investing in another 30 binoculars? It gives the residents of the border communities the feeling that we are with them. In my opinion, that is worth more than all the casualties inflicted on the infiltrators. If you sum up the ambushes, they have not been a success, we must speak the truth here. I am exactly of Gandhi's opinion. The terrorism can be eliminated only by attacking the fomenters. We have not carried out a Samua-like operation against Syria, which is the fomenter. The problem is not to capture territory. Fundamentally, Sinai [the 1956 campaign] was not to conquer territory as much as it was to strike the Egyptian army. A military blow and the conquest of territory should go hand-in-hand."

Eshkol: "Syria, what a thing. We are not going to kill the 7 million Syrians."

Rabin: "But after Sinai we had 10 years of quiet on the Egyptian border."

Eshkol: "He [Nasser] developed other thoughts. It's hard to prove. I don't say this in order not to act. I say that anyone who thinks we will finish things with several blows, I don't know. We will have to live and see. I don't know whether all the Arabs, with Jordan also, will not all unite when Israel is struck. It could happen."