THE 1967 WAR Political Backgrounds

In document Strategic logic and ability: revisiting the Arab-Israeli wars (Page 123-130)

After the 1956 war that was perceived and proclaimed by Nasser‟s regime, and accepted by most Arabs, as a political victory, a new era of Nasserism erupted in Egypt and the region, the pillars of which were first, charismatic leadership with a radical political ideology mixing Arab nationalism and socialism and, second, a policy with a sense of adventurism.63

Nasser intended to portray himself as representing the “Arab Nation”, at that time a new identity or rather an aspiration to be the new Saladin who would unite the artificially divided Arab states in order to free the Arab World from western imperialism and its regional stakeholder - Israel.64

Within Egypt, Nasser launched a promising process of development based on industrialization and social reform, starting with land re-distribution and accelerating with the nationalization of the banks in the late 1950s and corporations in the early 1960s. Accompanying these policies was a programme of political indoctrination.

Regionally, Nasser played an active role in accelerating the independence movements in Algeria and other Arab countries, especially in the Arab peninsula, Iraq and the Levant. He also encouraged the founding of the Palestine Liberation

62 Gerges, “Egypt and the 1948 War” in Rogan and Shlaim, The War on Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2007) p.168. No wonder if the humiliating defeat of 1948 due to the perceived “corrupted and collaborating” monarchy was a major point in the revolutionary first address of 23/7/1952.


Laura M. James, Nasser at War: Arab images of the enemy, (London: Palgrave, 2006) p. ix.



Organisation (PLO) in 1964. However, these moves were seen by the traditional kings and presidents of the region as threats directly aimed at overthrowing their regimes.

In 1958, the year of the union with Syria, two major attempts at changing regimes took place in Jordan and Lebanon which required the deployment and intervention of foreign troops, British and American respectively.

Poor relations with the Saudi Arabian regime were exacerbated by Egypt‟s involvement with the 1962 republican “revolution” in North Yemen which Riyadh viewed as a direct threat.

Outside the Arab world, Nasserite Egypt achieved a high place in the political discourse as Nasser took a major role in the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement. Despite the Movement‟s professed neutrality between the protagonists of the Cold War, Nasser invented a policy of “positive non-alignment” which brought him closer to the USSR in terms of rhetoric and practical action.

Until 1962, he maintained some balance, if not equality, in dealing with the two major powers. Egypt received regular economic aid from the United States, and the US tone towards it was not very critical until the Yemen War erupted.

Nasser‟s non-alignment policy was not much welcomed by Khrushchev, but the Soviet leadership was forced to maintain its relationship with Egypt to gain greater influence in the Middle East, especially in view of the change of Soviet doctrine in the 1960s towards having military bases in the ME to assist its “external function”.65 During his visit to Egypt in 1965, Khrushchev underlined the generous nature of the Soviet relationship with Egypt – highlighting the scale of military and economic aid which exceeded its aid for any other state outside the USSR.66

65 Galia Golan, “The Cold War and the Soviet Attitude towards Arab-Israeli Conflict” in Nigel Ashton, The Cold

War in the Middle East: Regional Conflict and the Superpowers 1967-73 (London: Routledge, 2007) pp.61-63.



Nevertheless, by 1967 the outcomes of Nasserite policy were not great from all perspectives. Domestically, in spite of a growth rate reaching 7% and expanding education, the domestic economy had been facing severe problems since 1964. High inflation, deteriorating productivity of the newly nationalized industrial system, and the grave shortage of wheat reserves due to US reluctance to continue its aid, were failures that forced Nasser to impose a policy of austerity that affected even the military budget.67 Meanwhile, the costs of the war in Yemen were rocketing up.68 Politically, Egypt was an autocratic state in which political parties were forbidden, including the Egyptian Communist Party, whose outlawing raised tensions with the USSR. Freedom of speech and travel was very restricted, and the state suffered a serious, albeit hidden, confrontation between two big institutions, the political organisation of the Arab Socialist Union which was rallied behind Nasser, and the army led by Abdul-Hakim „Amer.

Regionally, the Arab Cold War69 was at its peak during the Yemen War in which a propaganda war and externally supported attempts at political subversion were dominant. However, Nasser was still the undisputed leader of the Arab World. He succeeded in halting the introduction of any Western-oriented security alliance such as the Baghdad Pact. However, he suffered a decline in his image during the first half of the 1960s after the failed union with Syria and the problematic war in Yemen. His opponents were not confined to traditionalists or “reactionaries as he called them, but included the progressive axis in Syria and Iraq which sought to overbid him in appealing to popular aspirations. He was even accused of failing in the core

67 Michael Bennet, Confronting the Costs of War: Military Power, State and Society in Egypt and Israel

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) pp. 93-100; Heikal, The Explosion, pp.388-394.

68 Estimates of war ranged between $415 and $690 million over five years 1962-1967, with an average of $100

million yearly. Jessie Ferris, Nasser’s Gamble: How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the

Decline of Egyptian Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) pp. 195-199.


A term that was coined by Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir and his Rivals 1958-70, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).


task of confronting Israel by „hiding‟ behind the UN Emergency Forces in Sinai which had been stationed there since the 1956 war.

Internationally, Egypt‟s position was exceeding its true capacities and this led to real confrontations with the US over the war in Yemen, the Soviet role in the region and events in the Republic of Congo. Eisenhower‟s doctrine had sought to use economic and arms aid to receptive Arab states, and military intervention to protect regional territorial integrity with the explicit logic of preventing the USSR‟s encroachment in the region; but implicitly it carried antipathy towards Nasser‟s Egypt.70 This reached the point of planning to subvert Nasser politically and physically if it proved necessary.71 After a short break under Kennedy, US policy under Johnson became even more antagonistic in tone and action towards what was perceived as Egyptian regional encroachment. Hence the idea of “unleashing Israel” to undermine Nasser‟s regional status was born in some circles close to Johnson.72

In Israel, the developmental and economic parameters were remarkably good in

spite of the economic depression which began in 1966. The 1956 War was viewed as a military victory which encouraged the self-confidence of the new state. Although Israel had to relinquish all the territory she occupied in Sinai, in return, she received the opportunity of free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba which was guaranteed by the US after the war.

A new “Jewish identity” which stressed the importance of militarism came to predominate in Israeli society.73 State institutions were developed and the economic growth rate reached 10% per year from 1957 to 1965. The disparity between Israel

70 Salim Yaqub, Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East (Chapel Hill NC:

The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

71 Look for example at Michael Oren’s accounts on plans alpha and gamma in, Six Days of War: June 1967 and

the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp.8-10.

72 Heikal, The Explosion, p.361, William Quant, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab Israeli Conflict

Since 1967 (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005) pp.40-48.


Martin van Creveld, The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defence Forces, (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2002) p. 137.


and the Arab states accelerated; the per capita income ratio of Egypt and Israel was 1:3 in 1951 and 1:7 in 1966. GNP showed a similar divide. While the 1951 GNP ratio between Egypt and Israel was 4:1; the gap had shrunk to 1.6:1 by 1966.74 Israel‟s industrial infrastructure increased nine-fold between 1953 and 1967 and the industrial sector‟s share of exports rose from 61% to 81%.75

Politically, Mapai was the major political party and was predominant in many social, bureaucratic and economic spheres. David Ben-Gurion left office in 1963, either due to personal reasons as he claimed or to intra-party and governmental strife as others suggested.76 Then, the postponed aftershocks of the Lavon scandal and its effect on Israeli-Egyptian relations between 1954 and 1965 divided the Mapai, and Ben- Gurion created an opposition party, Rafi. Levi Eshkol, an uncharismatic man lacking military knowledge but expert in organisation and finance and, according to Ben- Gurion holding a nationalist “non-sectarian” ideology took over the Mapai party. The Israeli military expanded its influence on political decision-making in the absence of Ben-Gurion, although he still maintained informal relations with the army. Internationally, Israel‟s relations with France cooled with the re-emergence of de Gaulle. However, although relations with the US improved with Kennedy, they had a robust push under Johnson with his clearly pro-Israeli attitude and staff. This attitude was fuelled also by the US conflict with Nasserite Egypt. Improved relations with Western Germany resulted in it extending and expanding reparations payments by more than 10 times, and to the Bonn government channelling many of the weapon systems (mainly M-48 tanks) which the US could not provide to Israel directly due to regional calculations.77

74 Creveld, The Sword and the Olive, p. 137. 75

Michael Barnett, Confronting the Costs of War: Military Power, State and Society in Egypt and Israel

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) p.177.


Zaky Shalom, Ben-Gurion’s Political Struggles, 1963-1967: A Lion in Winter (London: Routledge, 2006) pp. 16- 19.


Ami Gluska, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War: Government, Armed Forces and Defence


After the 1956 War, the southern front was calm with the deployment of UNEF. Israel had the right of free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba to its only port in the Red Sea at Eilat. This right was endorsed by a formal US-British-French understanding in 1957.

Sinai was practically devoid of large-scale Egyptian military forces, in part because of tacit recognition of pacification, and also because of the Egyptian involvement in Yemeni affairs since 1962. This norm was breached only in 1960 during what was known as the ‟Rotem crisis‟, and this had a grave effect later on Nasser‟s strategy in 1967. With a similar heating up of the guerrilla attacks on the Syrian front in 1960, at the time Syria was in union with Egypt, the IDF undertook a partial mobilization with explicit threats against Syria. Nasser, who was the leader of the United Republic, had to respond. One division was ordered in complete secrecy to move to Sinai and Israel responded by reducing the tension.78

Guerrilla operations persisted on the Syrian and Jordanian borders during the 1960s. They should not have had a great impact on Israeli security due to the low human and economic losses inflicted, but Israel perceived them as a direct blow to its ability to deter Arab attacks. This perception was linked to IDF activism and a low threshold for retaliations on a disproportionate scale. The tension was only worsened by Nasser‟s gross miscalculation and the situation escalated to open war in 1967.

The mounting tension in the region was aggravated by the Arab Cold War and the wider international confrontation between Egypt and the US. Israel was caught in the propaganda of the Progressive Arab Front against those it characterised as reactionaries. There was an intentional escalation of guerrilla warfare by the Syrian pro-Soviet regimes to outbid Nasser who was keeping his front silent.

78 Uri Bar-Joseph, “Rotem: The Forgotten Crisis on the Road to the 1967 War”, Journal of Contemporary


Two other matters contributed to the escalation: the war for water which invited confrontation between Israel and its neighbours, and the efforts to establish a united Arab military command which irritated Israel, although they ultimately failed. Israel launched a major project to transfer the water of the Jordan River to the Negev and aimed to drain the Haula Lake for the use of fertilized land. As a result, the first Arab Summit in October 1964 took a decision to undertake multi-stationed projects in order to divert the Jordan River and to establish logistical and utility projects in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Forecasting an Israeli military response, the summit decided to establish a United Military Command which aimed initially to strengthen the defences of the three states to withstand the expected Israeli retaliatory actions. However, the UMC turned out to be useless and a victim of inter-Arab rivalries. The formal report of its command (headed by Egyptian General Ali Ali Amer) stated clearly the failure of its mission.79 Nevertheless, it contributed to a rising tension in Israel‟s perception of its own security.

Over 1956, 1966, and 1967, Israel‟s eastern and northern borders experienced military exchanges ranging from guerrillas or special operations to tanks and artillery battles and, less frequently, aerial exchanges. Two episodes had devastating results in increasing animosity and pushed all states‟ calculations to a more belligerent status. The first was Samau in the West Bank in November 1966 where a Jordanian battalion was ambushed in an Israeli trap with military and civilian losses. Samau attracted international condemnation of Israel, especially from the US whose ally, Jordan, had been attacked. The incident was used by Arabs to condemn Jordan as it had consistently refused the deployment of Iraqi or Saudi forces on its territory to avoid being forced into a war with Israel, and also as a defensive condemnation of Egypt by Jordan, and Egypt by Syria as Nasser kept hiding behind the deployment of UNEF in Sinai as an excuse for not taking action.



The second incident was when the IAF ambushed Syrian jets and downed six of them on the April 1967.80 In April and May, direct threats to subvert the regime in Damascus were common in Israeli propaganda.

In 1967, the roots of the conflict in the Middle East reached a critical state: Nasser‟s image as a “hero” obliged him to bear the responsibility to act. The Arab Cold War represented a means and a result for the strife with the US. The Israeli issue was used by Nasser‟s regime and the nationalist regimes in Syria and Iraq to outbid each another in threats and promises to act. The borders and small water wars increased the tension. Finally, this critical situation was exacerbated by Israel‟ explicit threats against the Syrian regime, the credibility of which was raised by Soviet false alarms about IDF deployments at the Syrian border.

In document Strategic logic and ability: revisiting the Arab-Israeli wars (Page 123-130)