How many times have I taught the causes and effects or written about Israel’s June 1967 war? Hundreds of times in 40 years.
For years, I used the premise that once Egypt put massive amounts of troops in Sinai and blockaded the Straits of Tiran at the entry to the Gulf of Aqaba and to Israel’s southern port of Eilat, Israel saw both actions as provocations for war.
Israel mobilized its citizen army, particularly after Arab leadership promised to eliminate the Jewish state. Israel launched a pre-emptive attack on Egypt’s air fields on the morning of June 5, 1967.
Israel wiped out Egypt’s air force in four hours and sped across Sinai to the Suez Canal in three days.
Until Arab leaders were emotionally driven to join Nasser’s war of liberation led by Egypt, Israel did not want to go to war against either Jordan or Syria. Israel did not have any predetermined intention to take the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.
In preparing a Center for Israel Education learning curriculum for adults and students to be ready for use in March, “The 1967 June War: How It Changed Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern History,” I looked at Arab sources not previously read about the war.
Specifically, I read Mohamad el-Gamasy’s memoir. El-Gamasy was part of the Egyptian military command at the time of the 1967 war and was the Egyptian chief of staff in the 1973 October war.
What was learned? El-Gamasy was brutal in criticizing the Egyptian military’s unpreparedness; he was scathing in blame heaped on Nasser for Egypt’s losses in the war.
“Egypt was not at the time prepared for the war,” he wrote. “Our call-up system was deficient, we had a shortage of officers and trained army, our air force lacked trained fighter pilots … fewer than the number of planes available, and there was a power struggle at the top between President Nasser and Abdul Hakim Amer, the vice president.”
Amer and Nasser let their personal squabbles and political aspirations take Egypt into war, ignoring the army’s dramatic shortcomings. Egypt dragged the rest of the Middle East into a war for which it was not prepared, a war that led to Israel’s control over Sinai, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, a war that led to Israel’s administration and occupation of the West Bank.
What if Jordan had stayed out of the June war instead of being sucked into Nasser’s political vortex?
El-Gamasy held the Egyptian political and military leadership accountable for the devastating Arab losses in the June war. Days before the war started, Nasser told a group of army officers, “We knew that closing the Gulf of Aqaba meant war with Israel.”
What is certain from El-Gamasy’s memoir, and from other sources, is that Nasser did not understand the massive consequences of a war with Israel. In terms of territory, when Nasser lost sovereign Egyptian Sinai, Sadat decided six years later that he needed it back by means of the October war and American-led diplomacy.
Indirectly, Nasser’s 1967 war led to Sadat’s peace with Israel.
When Jordan lost the West Bank, it unfolded into an unfinished and highly controversial settlement issue that no one contemplated at the end of May 1967. The war also led to a whole new set of diplomatic terms: “two-state solution,” “withdrawal from territories,” “unilateralism,” “land for peace,” “negotiations between the parties,” and many others.
Ken Stein, an Emory professor of modern Israeli history, is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org) and leads Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.