Israel: The 1967 War

We publish this article by Yossi Schwartz on the War of 1967 to provide some background information to the recent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

38 years ago "The Six-Day war" was launched by Israel. On the eve of the war, fifty left-wing bourgeois intellectuals around Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir declared that the actions of the state of Israel demonstrated to the world that it only wanted peace. These intellectuals parroted the Israeli lie after the war that Israel had to fight to save itself from destruction at the hands of the Arab states, acting on the advice and with the full support of the USSR. During Stalin’s lifetime, the same Sartre was busy covering up the crimes of the dictator. However, being a smart intellectual he was one of the first rats to abandon the sinking ship and to change his masters.

The official Israeli line is that Syria wanted to force Egypt to stand on its side while it provoked the Israeli state, and it was this that led Nasser to send two divisions to Sinai in the middle of May 1967. One thing led to another and two days later, Nasser, preparing for war, demanded the withdrawal of the UN observers (UNEF) that had been stationed in Gaza and Sharam-el-Sheikh since the end of 1956.The final straw, the casus belli, according to this version of events, was the closure of the Tiran Straits, a life line for Israel’s economic survival. This was followed by Nasser's declaration that Egypt would not allow ships carrying Israeli flags to reach Aqaba Bay. Everyone was reminded of when Israel had been forced to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula after 1956, and Ben Gurion had stated that Israel would have the freedom of navigation through the same Straits.

The statements made in Syria and Cairo gave credibility to the Israeli claim that the Arabs wanted to destroy it. In 1965 and 1966, Nasser's rhetoric became increasingly more aggressive: "We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand," he said on March 8, 1965. "We shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood"(Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) p. 616)

When the war began, Moshe Dayan, the new Minister of Defense told the Israeli soldiers: "We do not want to conquer, only to prevent the Arabs from conquering us. The Arabs are many and strong but we are a stubborn small nation ready to fight to save ourselves".

Israeli leaders spoke the truth - but only after the war

What the Israeli government and the official propaganda machine did not tell the public, but after the war admitted, was that Israel provoked Syria time and time again and decided to open a war with the knowledge that it would win within a few days.

Yitzak Rabin himself said after the war: "I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to The Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it."(Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Chief of Staff in 1967, in Le Monde, 2/28/68)

General Ezer Weitzman, the former Commander of the Air Force and late President of Israel stated that there was no threat of destruction from Israel’s neighbours, but that war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria was justified so that Israel could "exist according the scale, spirit, and quality she now embodies.'

Menachem Begin later stated 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." New York Times, August 21, 1982 and Noam Chomsky, "The Fateful Triangle."

Why war?

The question of the Tiran Straits was no more than a red herring. The Straits were inside the territorial waters of Egypt. Egypt and Israel were enemies, and no state would allow its enemies to pass through its territory.

Before the war, the Israeli government was divided. On one hand the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol and the National Religious Party (NRP)wanted to open the war. However, they only wanted war if the US would commit itself to aid Israel, or at least give the green light. On the other hand, and in particular, the Generals wanted to begin the war immediately. On the question of the Tiran Straits, the Israeli historian Tom Segev wrote that the leader of the NRP, Moshe Shapira was opposed to the war because of the Straits. Rabin tried to change his mind. “You explain to me,” he said to Rabin. “Until 1956 the Straits were closed. Did it threaten the existence of Israel? No it did not.” (Tom Segev, 1967, p. 261)

The immediate causes of friction between Israel and Syria were the result of disputes about fishing rights in Lake Tiberias, Israeli incursions into the demilitarized zone that had been established after the 1948 war, the guerrilla and terrorist attacks of Fatah, and the Israeli development of a water project involving the Jordan River. The long terms reasons were the Israeli decision to become the powerhouse of the region, to transform the growing class struggle into a chauvinist war and to expand its territory and control over cheap labour and markets.

Israel entered into an economic slow down in 1966. The slow down was obscured by elections later in that year. However, by 1967 it was very clear. The recession began in Israel’s large construction industry, and soon many business connected to this industry went bankrupt. There was a sharp decline in investment. Investment in construction fell by 30%, and in industry by 20%. This was followed by a sharp rise in prices and a lack of money in the hands of the working class and consumers.

In 1964, the amount of money Germany had agreed to pay to the state of Israel in compensation for the crimes of the Nazis was reduced. The Israeli government itself, which until 1966 had built many large-scale projects, stopped coming up with new ones. The government also denounced workers who demanded pay raises and praised a group of professors who agreed to accept lower wages.

The working class in Israel organized many strikes and large demonstrations in this period. At that time a common joke in Israel was: "The last one to leave please put out the lights". The rulers of Israel faced an explosion of the class struggle. To prevent the sharpening of the class struggle they used an ages old trick - they turned the class struggle into a war. In addition, they understood that winning this war would turn Israel into a major force and the most important strategic asset of the US in the region. It would also provide Israel with other benefits. The war would expand its borders and gain the ruling would gain new sources of cheap labor and new markets.

A genuine revolutionary workers’ state in Egypt would have turned to the Israeli working class and exposed the real aims of the Israeli government, explaining that it was plotting not only against the Arabs but against the Israeli working class itself. This however, was beyond the capacity of the petit bourgeois nationalists such as Nasser. In fact, Nasser’s propaganda turned out to be very useful for the Israeli government.

Alone in the war?

Israel wanted to go to war but not alone. Lyndon B. Johnson had already moved the US Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean. On May 23, while declaring an embargo on the shipment of arms to the area, Johnson secretly authorized the air shipment of important spare parts, ammunition, bomb fuses, and armored personnel carriers to Israel. (Cheryl A. Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest: A Critical Examination (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 113). The first major U.S. arms agreement with Israel was in 1966. It involved A-4 Skyhawk planes and Sherman tanks, and was worth more than all other U.S. arms supplied since 1948.

The Eshkol government tried to secure France’s support. On May 24, the Foreign Minister of Israel, Aba Eban arrived at the Elysee Palace and was received by President de Gaulle who told Eban: "Ne faites pas la guerre" (Do not go to war), and warned him not to shoot first. On that same day, at Number 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Harold Wilson invited Eban to attend a cabinet meeting. The reply of the British government was that it would act to open the Straits if there were agreement with other nations, but advised Israel not to act alone.

Eban’s next stop was Washington on May 27. He had a telegram with him from Prime Minister Eshkol informing the US government that the Arab states intended to attack Israel immediately. The information Dean Rusk had from US intelligence sources was that there were no signs that the Arab states wanted to launch an offensive. In the meeting with Johnson, the US President, who did not want to be involved in two wars at the same time in Vietnam and in the Middle East told Eban, “Israel should get the other maritime powers on its side. Any participation of the USA will need the approval of Congress. We do not believe that the Arabs are about to attack Israel, and if they do you will win within seven days. You are not in danger." After Eban left, Johnson turned to Walt Rostow and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and told them, "I have failed. They are going to go to war.”

In the report of his recent trips Eban told the Israeli cabinet that President Johnson had promised that the US would take all the necessary measures to open the Straits. This however, was not true. Prime Minister Eshkol even sent a letter of gratitude to Johnson for this promise. Washington replied that the US government had made no such promise. Eshkol hesitated. Even Ben Gurion advised him not to launch a war without the support of the imperialist powers.

"Ben Gurion thought that the crisis with Egypt was the result of the unbalanced actions of Eshkol. In November 1966, Eshekol ordered the attack on Samoa, a village in Jordan, in retaliation for the terrorists who entered Israel from this village. He was very critical of the escalation with Syria after Israel sent 80 warplanes that flew over Damascus." (Bar Zohar, Ben Gurion, p. 1588)

Gurion was even angry with General Rabin and shouted at him saying, "You have brought the state to a most dangerous situation, and you are to be blamed for it".

Rabin, as is known, later had a nervous break down because he knew that Ben Gurion could have been right. However, some of the generals, including Ariel Sharon, who wanted to launch the war without delay, were planning a military coup to replace Eshkol, whose hesitation grew after he received a message from Kosygin, the President of the USSR, who urged him not to go to war. Clearly, the President of the Soviet Union was trying to prevent the war at the last minute, once it had become clear that Israel intended to go to war.

On May 30, Meir Amit, the head of Mosad, visited McNamara after a visit to the Chief of the CIA, Richard Helms. From Helms he learned that the US would not send an armada to open the Straits. He told McNamara the Secretary of Defense that "we want three things from you. One, that you refill our arsenal after the war. Two, that you help us in the United Nations. Three, that you isolate the Russians in the area." McNamara replied, "I hear you loud and clear." He then asked how long it would take Israel to defeat the Egyptians. Amit replied, "One week." Amit added, “I am going home and recommend that we open the war.” In his report to the President, McNamara told him that the Israelis were going to attack. No one was surprised, as everyone knew that he was in favor of Israel striking first.

This was the green light that the Israeli government had been waiting for. On June 5th, 1967 the war began. After the start of the war, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for Israel to return to its pre-war boundaries, and Johnson refused to criticize Israel for starting the war.

It is possible that the US was more involved in the war than it admitted. Stephen Green has written that pilots of the U.S. Air Force's 38th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flew RF-4Cs with the white Star of David and Israeli Air Force tail numbers painted on them over bombed air bases in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in order to take pictures for the Israelis. He contends that they flew 8 to 10 such missions a day during the course of the war. When the air power of Israel’s enemies were destroyed, the RF-4C missions were changed to tracking the movement of Arab troops so that the Israelis could bomb them the next morning. In the end none of these missions proved decisive in the war. However, the Arabs did accuse the United States of providing tactical air support, which apparently was untrue. In response, President Johnson declared publicly that the US had provided no assistance of any kind to Israel. (Stephen Green, Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with a Militant Israel (Brattleboro, Vt.: Amana Books, 1988), pp. 204-11. Green's principal source claims to have participated in the operation)

The miracle

The Israeli government claimed that a miracle happened. Like all kinds of such miracles, this one was fake. A strong and modern capitalist state on its way to becoming a regional imperialist power destroyed the weaker Arab armies within six days. Israel had already won the war on the first day when it destroyed the Egyptian Air Force.

Early in the morning of July 5, 200 Israeli jets attacked the Egyptian air fields in Sinai and destroyed the entire air force. Within three days the Israeli army had defeated the armies of Egypt and Jordan and had captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. The rest of the war was only a question how far and wide Israel would expand before international pressure forced them to halt their advance.

On June 8, Egypt, having lost the Sinai to Israel, accepted the UN-proposed cease-fire. Syria accepted it the following day, however Israel launched an additional offensive and conquered the Golan heights.

On June 8 another myth was created by the state of Israel and its friends. On that day, Israeli war planes and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, an intelligence gathering ship, while it was on a surveillance mission off the shores of El Arish, in the Sinai Peninsula. 34 Americans died and 171 were injured. Israel claimed that it mistook the Liberty for an enemy vessel. US governments have since backed up this story. In 1999, a National Security Agency report from 1981 was released claiming that, "the tragedy resulted not only from Israeli miscalculation but also from faulty U.S. communications practices." Since July 2003, this report has been available on the website of the National Security Website.

However, this "conclusion" has been disputed. In 1976, James Ennes, a survivor of the attack on the Liberty, argued in his book Assault on the Liberty that Israel was actually planning a surprise attack on Syria and was worried about the interference of the United States. The bombing of the Liberty was an attempt to disrupt the ability of the US to gather intelligence about the plan. This argument was presented in a History Channel production that aired in 2001 called “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty”. Another writer, James Bamford, in his 2000 book Body of Secrets, argued that Israel attacked the ship because it was worried that the Liberty would learn of the killing of hundreds of Egyptian POWs by the Israeli army that had taken place nearby. (Ret.) Admiral Thomas Moorer, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leader in the effort to expose the cover-ups of the attack, stated in a press conference on October 22, 2003 that Israel planned to sink the ship and then implicate Egypt, thereby pushing the U.S. to fight on the side of Israel.

At the same press conference, Capt. Ward Boston, a retired Navy lawyer and counsel to the Court of Inquiry in the Navy's investigation into the case released a statement, in which he declared: "I am outraged at the efforts of the apologists for Israel in this country to claim that this attack was a case of 'mistaken identity." Boston also said that officials in the White House at that time had ordered investigators to conclude "that the attack was a case of 'mistaken identity'".

Boston also said that he was told by Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who served as president of the Court of Inquiry, that he had been forced to find that the attack was unintentional.

Was it at all possible that Israel attacked an American ship? The history of Israel shows that it was possible. In 1954 Israel carried out terrorist attacks on Egyptian, British, and American institutes. In Israel it is called "the bad business" or the “Lavon Affair” (Lavon was the Minister of Defense at the time). The idea was to create a conflict between Egypt and the US. The group responsible was caught after a small explosive exploded in the pocket of one its members while trying to carry out a bombing mission in a cinema.

Israel and its supporters presented the war as a great event and a monumental achievement. Once again David had defeated Goliath. In reality, it was a reactionary war on the part of the Israeli rulers with the blessing of US imperialism. It derailed the class struggle in Israel and strengthened the most reactionary sections of Israeli society. It created the reactionary Gush Emunim, the fanatical settlers’ movement. It would also bring Begin's right wing government to power in 1977 and would later on usher in Sharon the butcher.

On the Egyptian side, the war would bring down Nasserism and replace it with the reactionary regime of Sadat, who was followed by Mubarak. These regimes turned Egypt into a bastion of reaction in the region.

For the Palestinians the war meant the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This was to prove a vicious and bloody trap for both the Israeli and Palestinian people, the main victims of the 40-year cycle of violence and bloodshed.

The Six-Day War would also open the road to the 1973 war (the Yom Kippur War) and further the control of US imperialism over the region. The laws of dialectics teach us that every reactionary period, such as the one we have known in this region for many years, eventually creates a movement in the opposite. This can be clearly seen today with the US occupation of Iraq. The occupation of Iraq will lead to the defeat of US imperialism, and in the long run open the road to the social transformation of the entire region. The imperialists and the rulers of Israel, as well as those in Egypt and other regimes are beginning to face this new movement with the growing instability in the region. This becomes all the more clear with the growing defeats of the US in Iraq. The US wants its Arab allies to send troops to assist in the war against the anti-imperialist fighters in Iraq. This would only increase the hatred of the Arab masses toward these capitalist governments.

Israel has never been so divided. Most Israelis are alienated from the corrupt state apparatus. Most are tired of the endless cycle of bloodshed. The class struggle is emerging again in Israel as the workers begin to struggle for better wages and living conditions. For many years the Israeli ruling class has relied on the nationalist sentiments of the working class, but this consciousness, or rather this lack of class-consciousness, which is an obstacle in the path of the class struggle, is only a temporary phenomenon. In the past, Israel was a golden cage for the Israelis, whose average yearly earnings were approximately US$ 18,000. However, those days are gone. One million Israelis now live under the poverty line. The cage remains but the gold paint has been washed off for all Israelis to see. This change in living and working conditions will force the Israeli working class down the road of struggle.

To divert the class struggle the rulers of Israel may attempt in the coming years to open a new war – possibly with Syria. It is very easy to start a war, but the outcome of a war in the region under the existing circumstances may have different results than in 1967.

The war of 1967 clearly shows that a solution to the problems in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East in general will not be found through the actions of the imperialists or through war. The 1967 war laid the foundations for the Yom Kippur War and for the 40-year cycle of violence that has plagued the region. Each new conflict stirs future conflicts. The only solution lies in the class struggle. As the Israeli workers go down this road, they will discover that they face the same enemy the Palestinians do – imperialism and capitalism. The achievement of their goals, the creation of a society of peace and prosperity, will be found in the united struggle of the Israeli and Palestinian working class and poor for liberation from imperialism and capitalism.

June 2005