Two days after the June 1967 war, Levy Eshkol, Labour Prime minister of Israel declared: “Israel’s very existence was hanging by a thread. But the Arab leaders’ hopes of annihilating us have been annihilated.”1 This thesis—that there was a danger that Israel and its people might disappear—was at the origin of the “preventive war” which the Jewish State had just waged against its Arab neighbours. Once Israel’s initial claim that the Egyptians attacked first had gone up in smoke, the thesis of an “existential threat” became Israel’s constant political and diplomatic argument to justify its attack.
And yet, five years later, a series of Israeli generals had vigorously and publicly denounced that claim. The first shot was fired by former assistant chief of staff, Ezer Weitzman: “The hypothesis of extermination was never envisaged in any serious meeting.” (Haaretz, 29 March 1972) Thus spoke a man who was to become president of Israel. Four days later, it was Chaim Herzog’s turn to speak out. He was a former chief of military intelligence and also a future president. “There was no danger of annihilation. The Israeli general staff never thought there was” (Maariv, 4 April 1972). And finally the Chief of the General Staff himself, general Haim Bar-Lev, successor in that position to Yitzhak Rabin, hammered the message home: “We were not threatened with genocide on the eve of the Six-Day War, and no such possibility ever occurred to us.” (Ibid.)
General Matti Peled, Chief Logistics Officer was to sum up in radical terms the opinion of these generals:” To claim that the Egyptian troops massed at the border could in any way threaten the existence of Israel is not only an insult to the intelligence of any person capable of analysing this type of situation, but above all an insult to the Israeli army.” And he added: ”All that talk about the huge danger we were in (. . .) was never taken into account when we were doing our calculations before the fighting began.”2 When the generals say “we” or “our calculations,” they are, of course, referring to the members of the general staff.
It is true that these declarations date from 1972, at a time when the Israeli army was so elated over its 1967 victory that it thought itself invincible. These generals may to some extent have been putting a gloss on the atmosphere that prevailed five years earlier. They failed, for example, to point out that Rabin had feared there might be “tens of thousands”3 Israeli casualties in the event of war. The fact remains that what they said was basically true. Prior to June 1967, nearly every Israeli general displayed nearly absolute confidence in their forthcoming victory. And they were not alone. In the opinion of John Hadden, chief of the CIA office in Tel Aviv, if Israel went to war with its neighbours, it would win “in six to ten days, he was quite sure of it,”4 writes historian Tom Segev. The CIA had informed Washington, which certainly played an important role in the green light president Lindon Johnson finally gave Israel, after long displaying the greatest reluctance to condone a “preventive war.”
“Extend Israel’s Borders”
The reason why Israel’s generals were so sure of themselves is the subject of a whole chapter of The Six—Day War (Yale University Press (2017), a recent book by Israeli historian Guy Laron. In 1972, when the generals revealed their true motives for going to war, general Mordechaï Hod—whose forces had annihilated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian aviation in little more than an hour on 5 June 1967—declared: “for sixteen years, we had been planning what took place in those first 80 minutes. We lived with that plan, we ate with it, we slept with it. We never stopped improving it.”5 It is this minute preparation and its motivation which Laron reveals in his book. The title of the chapter he devotes to it unambiguous; “Expanding Israel’s borders”.6
In thirteen dense pages, the historian describes in detail how, almost immediately after the 1948 war, the Israeli general staff prepared in minute detail how Israel would expand its frontiers. When he came to power in 1963, premier Levy Eshkol met with the Chief of the General Staff, Tsvi Tsour, who explained to him that the country’s military strength most be reinforced so that in the unavoidable war to come with its neighbours, Israel “would be able to conquer Sinai, the West Bank and Southern Lebanon.7 His deputy Yitzhak Rabin confirmed this and Ezer Weizman, in command of the airforce, expressed it even more haughtily: ‘security-wise the IDF has to expand [Israel’s] borders, whether it fits the government’s approach or not’ The same Weizman, associated with the Herout Party, historical advocate of The Great Israel, suggested the government ‘would have to think seriously about launching a preventive war’ in the next five years! Another general, Teshayahou Gavish, warns that if Hussein, King of Jordan, were overthrown, Israel should immediately seize the West Bank.
Eshkol was surprised, “but the generals were merely reiterating concepts that had already been formed in the 1950s,” Laron explains. And with multiple examples. For fifteen years, all the general staff circles had been taught that the national borders as agreed upon in 1949 with the Arab armies were “unbearable”. As early as 1950, the planning department of the army had therefore taken on the task of establishing different, safer borders. Three “geographical barriers” were targeted: the River Jordan facing the country of that name, the Golan Heights facing Syria and the river Litani in Southern Lebanon. These three barriers were seen by the military to constitute, as they put it, “Israel’s living strategic space”. A document dated 1953 adds Sinai to the list, in order to provide Israel . . . with oil and mineral ore.
In 1955, one year before the Suez operation conducted with the French and the British8, chief of staff Moshe Dayan explained that Israel would have no difficulty finding a pretext for attacking Egypt. “We should be ready to conquer the Gaza Strip, the demilitarised zones [on the border with Egypt and Syria] and the Tiran Straits. . . And we should think of a triple-stage plan. In the second stage we will reach the Suez Canal ; in the third we will reach Cairo. Whether we will implement all three stages or just one of them depends on how the war objectives would be defined. . . . As to Jordan, there is a two-stage plan : the first is to reach the Hebron line. The second is to take the rest of the territory up to the Jordan River.”
And finally he added: “Lebanon is last on our priority list, but we can reach up to the Litani. In Syria, one line may reach up to the Golan heights, and the other goes up to Damascus.” In 1960, Yitzhak Rabin, now a general, wrote a detailed memorandum on how the army should be developed in order to conquer new territory in the next war. In April 1963, when there was rioting in Jordan, minister of Agriculture Moshe Dayan, and deputy minister of defence Shimon Peres, told Premier David Ben Gourion that if the Hashemite King were overthrown, it “would supply Israel with a pretext to conquer the West Bank.”
A Long Time in the Making
That mentality, which involved taking new territory to extent the country’s borders and above all “finish the job” left undone by the 1948 war, in particular by seizing Gaza and the West Bank, did not only consist in plans for military conquest. These were associated with a political preparation for the aftermath of these conquests, showing that Israel, even after a war supposed to be strictly “defensive,” had no intention of surrendering its benefits. Thus, four years before the ‘preventive’ war of June 1967, the Military Advocate General, Meir Shamgar (future President of the Supreme Court from 1983 to 1995) was ordered to start drawing up a code of law to be applied by Israel in the event of the conquest of new territories. As early as 1963, officer cadets and reserve officers of the Israeli army were given courses on military jurisdiction in conquered territory, Laron informs us. In December 1963, the Chief of Staff appointed General Herzog head of a special unit which was to prepare for the occupation of the West Bank.9 From then on, Laron writes, the Institute of Military Studies taught courses in the military administration of the population of conquered territories, and a booklet dealing with this was printed for officers in charge of such activity: “Many copies of these booklets were printed and they became part of a kit that all the judges and prosecutors were to receive when the occupation commenced.”
And yet before June 1967, the idea of extending the borders seems to have been confined in Israel to two clearly identified political movements. On the one hand, to the nationalist right, which clung to its dream of the Great Israel, “on both banks of the Jordan,” and on the other the territorial activists of a Labour Party movement called Ahdout Ha Avoda (Labour Unity), which had never accepted the partition of Palestine. Even taken together, these two movements remained a minority.
As for the Israeli governments of the period, dominated by the Labour Party, they were traditionally split between “hawks” and “doves”. In this context, Premier David Ben Gourion acted as an arbitrator and though a hawk himself, he was a pragmatist. On the other hand, what Laron reveals is that the idea of “recovering” by force the Palestinian territories which had not been conquered in 1948 and more generally of extending Israel’s borders was constantly present in the minds of the general staff between 1948 and 1967.10 Moreover, it is interesting to note that in the General Staff, the Ahdout HaAvoda fraction was traditionally overrepresented. Among themselves, Israeli generals jokingly called the elder Zionist politicians “The Jews,” a term meant to symbolise the congenital “weakness” of those who still had the fearful mentality of the diaspora. In return, these politicians referred to the young generals as “the Prussians” . . .
“A Very Israeli Putsch”. . .
Of course, the “planning” department of a general staff is meant to meet all possible situations, from the most obvious to the most unlikely. But the constancy of Israeil plans of conquest, their logic and their permanent improvement—the fact, for example, that the arrangements to evacuate the populations of the West Bank and the Golan Heights (buses and trucks) were instantly available in June 1967—shows without a doubt that, as General Hod put it, “the General Staff had lived, eaten and slept for two decades with this plan” to extend the borders and “never stopped improving it.” It was undoubtedly with this plan in mind that Israeli generals on every side, especially after 23 May 1967 when Egypt closed the Tiran Straits, a casus belli in the Israeli view, put increasing pressure on the government and the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, to authorise a preventive war.
This pressure, during the twelve days that preceded the war, has now been amply documented. The General Staff, led by Rabin, is adamant: if Israel fails to react, its “deterrence capacity ”11 will suffer irremediable damage. Confident of victory, General Ariel Sharon proclaimed that the government could not afford pass up an “historic opportunity” to enlarge the country. General Yigal Allon, a member of the cabinet and leader of Ahdout Havoda, offered to “invent a pretext” to attack.
Eshkol was reluctant, wanted to make sure the USA would support this move, General Weizman publicly berated him at a luncheon on June 1st: “Eshkol! Give the order to start the war! (. . .) We have a powerful army that are only waiting for your orders. Give us the order go fight and we will win!” General Hod struck the decisive blow: the quicker we act, the lighter will be our losses, he assured the premier. On June 2, Eskol surrendered to what Laron calls “a very Israeli putsch.”
Menaheim Begin, leader of the ultra-traditionalists, joined the cabinet. As did Moshe Dayan, the most enthusiastic advocate of immediate war. Straight away, he declared: “In two days we will be at the [Suez] Canal.” In four days, the generals were also in Jerusalem and on the Jordan, in six they were on the Golan heights. Soon, a photo appeared in newspapers the world over: Dayan, in uniform, and Rabin, together with general Uzi Narkiss, entering the Old Arab City of Jerusalem. “It was the Generals’ war, and they had won it” Guy Laron concludes.12 And they were rewarded: from 1966 to 1970, the share of the defence budget measured against the Israeli GNP was multiplied by 4, from 6.4% to 24.7%.
1Quoted by Amnon Kapeliouk, « Israël était-il réellement menacé d’extermination ? », Le Monde, 3 June 1972.
2Amnon Kapeliouk, op. cit.
3Conversation with the minister of the religious Zionist party Zerah Warhaftig in Tom Segev, 1967, Denoël, 2007; p. 320.
4Ibid. p. 285.
5Haaretz, 29 March 1972.
6Guy Laron, op. cit. p. 105-117. All the following quotations are drawn from these pages.
7In 1967 (p. 200) Segev points out that Tsour had suggested that these conquests should be undertaken “if the occasion arose”.
8Israel, the United Kingdom and France had agreed to recover by force the Suez Canal nationalised by the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and possibly overthrow his regime. The operation was a fiasco.
9In 1967, Herzog was the first military governor of the West Bank.
10Laron believes more generally that the 1967 war, in Israel and in the Arab countries, was imposed by the military on the civilian power structure.
11The quotations in this paragraph are all taken from Tom Segev, op. cit. p. 273-373.
12op. cit. p. 296