It is often claimed that Israel’s attack on Egypt that began the June 1967 “Six Day War” was a “preemptive” one. Implicit in that description is the notion that Israel was under imminent threat of an attack from Egypt. Yet this historical interpretation of the war is not sustained by the documentary record.
The President of Egypt, then known as the United Arab Republic (UAR), Gamal Abdel Nasser, later conveyed to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that his troop buildup in the Sinai Peninsula prior to the war had been to defend against a feared Israeli attack.
In a meeting with Nasser, Johnson’s special envoy to the UAR, Robert B. Anderson, expressed U.S. puzzlement over why he had massed troops in the Sinai, to which Nasser replied, “Whether you believe it or not, we were in fear of an attack from Israel. We had been informed that the Israelis were massing troops on the Syrian border with the idea of first attacking Syria, there they did not expect to meet great resistance, and then commence their attack on the UAR.”
Anderson then told Nasser “that it was unfortunate the UAR had believed such reports, which were simply not in accordance with the facts”, to which Nasser responded that his information had come from reliable sources (presumably referring to intelligence information passed along by the USSR).
Nasser added that “your own State Department called in my Ambassador to the U.S. in April or May and warned him that there were rumors that there might be a conflict between Israel and the UAR.”
U.S. intelligence had indeed foreseen the coming war. “The CIA was right about the timing, duration, and outcome of the war”, notes David S. Robarge in an article available on the CIA’s website.
On May 23, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms presented Johnson with the CIA’s assessment that Israel could “defend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts … or hold on any three fronts while mounting successfully a major offensive on the fourth.”
In an document entitled “Military Capabilities of Israel and the Arab States”, the CIA assessed that “Israel could almost certainly attain air supremacy over the Sinai Peninsula in less than 24 hours after taking the initiative or in two or three days if the UAR struck first.”
Additionally, the CIA assessed that Nasser’s military presence in the Sinai was defensive, stating that “Armored striking forces could breach the UAR’s double defense line in the Sinai in three to four days and drive the Egyptians west of the Suez Canal in seven to nine days. Israel could contain any attacks by Syria or Jordan during this period” (emphasis added).
Although the Arabs had numerical superiority in terms of military hardware, “Nonetheless, the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] maintain qualitative superiority over the Arab armed forces in almost all aspects of combat operations.”
Johnson himself told the Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, “All of our intelligence people are unanimous that if the UAR attacks, you will whip hell out of them.”
Israel meanwhile claimed that it was “badly outgunned”, apparently presuming, Robarge writes, “that Washington accorded its analyses such special import that US leaders would listen to its judgments on Arab-Israeli issues over those of their own intelligence services.”
Yet “Helms had the Office of National Estimates (ONE) prepare an appraisal of the Mossad assessment”, which stated: “We do not believe” that the Israeli claim of being the underdog “was a serious estimate of the sort they would submit to their own high officials.”
Neither U.S. nor Israeli intelligence assessed that there was any kind of serious threat of an Egyptian attack. On the contrary, both considered the possibility that Nasser might strike first as being extremely slim.
The current Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael B. Oren, acknowledged in his book “Six Days of War“, widely regarded as the definitive account of the war, that “By all reports Israel received from the Americans, and according to its own intelligence, Nasser had no interest in bloodshed”.
In the Israeli view, “Nasser would have to be deranged” to attack Israel first, and war “could only come about if Nasser felt he had complete military superiority over the IDF, if Israel were caught up in a domestic crisis, and, most crucially, was isolated internationally–a most unlikely confluence” (pp. 59-60).
Four days before Israel’s attack on Egypt, Helms met with a senior Israeli official who expressed Israel’s intent to go to war, and that the only reason it hadn’t already struck was because of efforts by the Johnson administration to restrain both sides to prevent a violent conflict.
“Helms interpreted the remarks as suggesting that Israel would attack very soon”, writes Robarge. He reported to Johnson “that Israel probably would start a war within a few days.”
“Helms was awakened at 3:00 in the morning on 5 June by a call from the CIA Operations Center”, which had received the report “that Israel had launched its attack” and that, contrary to Israel’s claims that Egypt had been the aggressor, Israel had fired first.
Yitzhak Rabin, who would later become Prime Minister, told Le Monde the year following the ’67 war, “I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent to the Sinai, on May 14, would not have been sufficient to start an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledged in a speech in 1982 that its war on Egypt in 1956 was a war of “choice” and that, “In June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
Despite its total lack of sustainability from the documentary record, and despite such admissions from top Israeli officials, it is virtually obligatory for commentators in contemporary mainstream accounts of the ’67 war to describe Israel’s attack on Egypt as “preemptive”.
[Correction, August 26, 2014: as originally published, Yitzhak Rabin in this article was quoted as saying “The two divisions he sent to the Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war.” Rabin’s actual statement was: “The two divisions which he sent to the Sinai, on May 14, would not have been sufficient to start an offensive against Israel.” The misquote has been corrected. This does not affect the substance of the article or the purpose for using the quote here. Rabin goes on in the interview to note that additional divisions were moved into the Sinai after closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Rabin’s explanation for this, however, is not that Nasser intended to attack Israel. On the contrary, he stated that, “judging by the seven divisions which he sent to Sinai after the closure of Aqaba, he knew that we would consider his gesture to be a casus belli.” In other words, the reason additional forces were sent into the Sinai, in Rabin’s assessment, was because Nasser feared Israel might attack Egypt. A translation of the interview from the French original can be found here.]