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Israel’s attack on Egypt in June ’67 was not ‘preemptive’

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.

Israel's June 5, 1967 surprise attack on Egypt resulted in the obliteration of Egypt's air force while most of its planes were still on the ground.

Israel's June 5, 1967 surprise attack on Egypt resulted in the obliteration of Egypt's air force while most of its planes were still on the ground.

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 he sent to the Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. 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”.

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About the Author

Jeremy R. Hammond

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Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is on the contemporary U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
  • Dov Pollock

    The first problem with your supposition is with the Egyptian closing of the straits of Tiran. That is an act of war. The second problem is the ordering out of Sinai of the U.N. troops by Egypt. If Egypt feared an attack from Israel, it would be illogical to remove the U.N. troops, especially as such an act would be seen as an additional act of belligerency both by Israel and any objective third party. Then we have the war pact with Jordan and Syria, Egypt massing troops on the border with Israel, the mass anti-Israel government organized demonstrations in Egypt accompanied by Nasser’s declarations to obliterate Israel. It is also somewhat specious to claim in hindsight that the CIA assessments indicated that Israel could defend itself. It should be remembered that Israel was a country in its virtually non defensible pre June 4 1967 borders, being faced with imminent attack on several fronts. Not only Israelis but all supporters of Israel feared that Israel was on the brink of extinction. Israel even begged King of Hussein of Jordan to cease hostilities after the war with Egypt broke out in fear of not being able to maintain a second front. The pre-emptive strike by Israel came only after weeks of acts of belligerency and acts of war by Egypt combined with public declarations by Nasser that Israel was about to destroyed.

    • Adib Barsoum

      I agree with you on all counts. This article by Jeremy Hammond is uninformed nonsense.

      • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

        Kindly point out any error in fact or logic in the article. Thanks.

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      Bottom line: Israel knew Egypt was not going to attack and Israel fired the first shot.

  • JHY
  • Ludvikus

    In the presence of Hitler, only an idiot would not fire “the first shot.” OK, so Nasser wasn’t Hitler – but that’s only because he had no Cyclone-B. so he was forced to announce that he would drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea. But with your kind of analysis, irrespective of your facts, you would say that that does not mean they would necessarily drown, right. We should have waited until the dawning began, right? Everyone knows Israel fired the first shot – it was the correct thing to do.
    From the very beginning the position of the Arab and Muslim world was to maintain their Palestinian “brothers” as refugees in places like Gaza. And Gaza even didn’t belong to Egypt – it was Palestine. The policy of Egypt was to wait until it was strong enough to defeat Israel. But by your stupid rules, Israel should have waited until Egypt was strong enough to attack, right? Your disappointed that Israel didn’t loose – because it didn’t play by your rules of national, or genocidal, destruction, right?

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      Ludvikus, let me know when you are actually able to produce an argument to support your view.

  • badbear

    The person firing the first shot is always the aggressor and loses the moral high ground in a war. The defender’s response is always to a provocation. No one wins a war unless you consider the loss of human life a win. Real heroes hate and despise war. Only a warmonger could love it. The only winning move in this chess game is not to play.
    We should take the advice of great generals such as Washington, Butler and Eisenhower and mind our own business. General Smedley Butler, “The Fighting Quaker”, the most highly decorated U.S. Marine in history in his day was no pacifist. He adamantly opposed getting involved where we didn’t belong but if America was threatened, he was a tenacious bulldog defending his turf. That should be our policy. Not war for oil, contracts, land, power, politics, etc…

  • CustomersMan

    The fact that Israel was the aggressor means that all the land claimed is illegal and must be given back along with reparations and interest ASAP.

    And we’re still providing every ounce of fuel, delivered to Israel’s doorstep, free of charge.

    These backstabbing pricks should be cut-off at once. It can’t happen soon enough for me.

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      CustomersMan, that is incorrect. Whether Israel was the aggressor or not, its occupation of Palestinian land is illegal.

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  • Brasco

    A lot was going on before and during the 1967 War and we will never know what really happened and why it happened. From my reading two items come to light. The first is that the war was conducted to secure Israels nuclear weapons program and second the war could have easily ignited WWIII.

    Before the war Russian Mig25s were overflying the Negev nuclear research facility.

    During the war there was allegedly a Russian Echo class sub off of Israel’s coast waiting for orders to nuke Israel, the USN launched a nuclear armed strike towards Egypt that was recalled, and the Americans and Israelis together were executing something called Operation Cyanide that involved the USS Liberty.

    It took close to 50 years for the CIA to admit it’s part in bringing the Shah to power. Maybe in 2017 we will find out more about what was going on then.

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      I highly doubt the USSR had any such thing going on.

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  • richard braverman

    Jeremy, I, for one, am interested in the duplicitous role of the Johnson administration. From day one in office, Johnson did everything possible to change the direction of his predecessor and tilt American policy in a one-sided direction towards Israel. As the anti-Kennedy, he allowed (or ignored) the symbiotic relation between elements of the CIA and Mossad. He went out of his way to arm Israel to the teeth and, unlike JFK, he covertly supported Israel’s drive for nuclear weapons. Why Nasser would confide with this individual only confirms how far he was out of touch. As you have indicated the best source for proof of Israel’s premeditated expansionist policy in the Six Day War can be garnered from the hundreds of quotes from high Israeli officials who openly stated that it was a war of choice. Maybe they knew their friends in the Western press would never allow the myth to die. As the saying goes, if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
    ..
    PS> If Operation Cyanide existed it must have been justification for the murder of 34 US Sailors and the maiming of 174 others on that fateful day on 8 June 1967 by Israeli forces who probably either needed cover for their mass execution of Egyptian prisoners of war (POWs) or their coordinated (?) attempt to blame the Egyptians for the intended sinking of the vessel. As I said, the duplicity of the Johnson administration was and is astounding.

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      Richard, I happen to be researching U.S. policy following the June war and up to the passage of UN resolution 242. What is clear to me is that Johnson’s decision to renew arms sales to Israel was based on the considerations that a) business as usual should continue (military-industrial complex) and b) the USSR was arming Arab states hostile to Israel. The U.S. was also arming Arab states, but refused to renew arms sales to Jordan and other states Israel also viewed as hostile. In other words, it was perceived to be in the best interests of the U.S. (as defined by policymakers) to tilt towards Israel.

      I don’t know about covert support for Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Johnson’s duplicity and treachery with regard to Israel’s sinking of the USS Liberty is indeed astounding.

      • Richard Braverman

        Jeremy, as you are aware, Israel has, over the years, worked with many sympathetic actors in numerous western governments to steal nuclear materials to support her illicit weapons program. One of the most egregious incidents occured between 1957-1965 when over two hundred pouns (kilograms?) of material was stolen from a processing facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania. The bulk of that material was taken during the first two years of the Johnson Administration, which made no attempt to prosecute those involved. The theft was supported by far to many government officials who either as part of policy or loyalty to the Jewish state sought to ensure the delivery of weapons grade material. To show how relevent this material is today, arlen spector, in his last act in office, is currently attemtping to clear the name of Mr. A Shapiro who was point on the project some 45 years ago. ( see http://www.forbes.com/feeds/businesswire/2010/07/06/businesswire142042372.html)

  • Ed Ciaccio

    Jeremy, now that you bring it up, how do you see Israel’s attack on the U.S.S. Liberty fitting in with Israel’s attacks on Egypt and Syria?

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      Ed, I’m not sure I understand quite what you’re asking, but my response is that I think the most likely explanations for the attack are that Israel a) wanted to cover up massacres on the ground in Egypt and at the same time b) hoped the U.S. would think Egypt attacked the Liberty and come in on Israel’s side.

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  • aparatchik

    What was Nasser’s medium/long-term plan vis-a-vis Israel? Did the Israelis have no basis for suspecting his future belligerence against Israel? Why was Nasser so foolish as to block Israeli shipping and remove the UN peacekeepers?

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

      No, Israelis had no basis for suspecting Egypt would attack Israel — as per their own intelligence assessment and subsequent acknowledgments by Rabin, Begin, etc. As for Nasser’s foolishness, it was in no small part because when Israel had attacked Samu, Jordan prior to the June war, Egypt did nothing to come to Jordan’s aid. Jordan then accused Nasser of being spineless and such, so Nasser apparently felt he needed to do some things to save face.

      On the peacekeepers, it’s worth noting that Israel — had they actually felt threatened — could have accepted them on their side of the border. Yet they rejected them as they planned their own surprise attack against Egypt.

      • aparatchik

        So why did Israel attack Egypt?

        • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

          Land.

          • aparatchik

            Sinai? So why did Israel give it back without a fight?

          • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

            To get Egypt to give up on fighting for Palestinians’ rights in Gaza and the West Bank. The 1979 peace treaty removed Egypt from Israel’s equation.

          • aparatchik

            So why didn’t Israel just kick out the WB/Gaza Arabs in 67 if what they wanted was land? I heard that Dayan told them to stay and gave the Temple Mount to the Waqf. How does this fit with Israel wanting land?

          • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

            They did expel many Palestinians in ’67.

            I don’t understand your question. I think the question is more appropriately: In what way does Israeli policy since it’s inception not fit with desire for the land?

            I mean, how much proof does a person really need? You’ve got the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Arabs in ’48, the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory since ’67, the illegal colonization of the illegally occupied Palestinian territory, and so on.

            It’s like asking for proof that water is wet.

          • aparatchik

            The fact is that Israel did not expel all or even most of the Arabs in 67, when she clearly could have. Why not? Why did Dayan tell them to stay? If Israel was only interested in land then this action was totally illogical, no?

            In 48, Israel also showed that she wasn’t totally au fait with ethnic cleansing, as one fifth(?) of the arab population remained along with druze, bedouin, circassians, armenians and others. How many of the 700,000 arabs who left did so due to Israeli action and how many left of their own accord or under the orders of their leaders or as a result of miscalculated arab propaganda http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72Ata-hY9WQ is open to debate.

            Jordan on the other hand did an excellent job of ethnically cleansing Judea, Samaria and east Jerusalem of Jews.

            The fact that Israel could give back a piece of territory the size of Sinai with its potential mineral resources for a promise of peace (that might well die with Mubarak) also suggests to me that real estate isn’t Israel’s #1 priority.

          • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com Jeremy R. Hammond

            If the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Arabs does not constitute evidence to you that the Zionists were interested in taking the land for themselves, I don’t know what facts could possibly convince you, aparatchik.

            As for the claim that Arabs left “under the orders of their leaders”, this is old Zionist propaganda, for which there is no evidence. The video you provide only discusses the false claim that rapes had occurred. It was the massacre itself, by Zionist terrorists, that frightened many Arabs into fleeing their homes. Many others were forced from their homes.

            “Focusing primarily on Plan D (Dalet , in Hebrew), conceived on March 10, 1948, Pappe demonstrates how ethnic cleansing was not a circumstance of war, but rather a deliberate goal of combat for early Israeli military units organized by David Ben-Gurion, whom Pappe labels the “architect of ethnic cleansing.” The forced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians between 1948 and 1949, Pappe argues, was part of a long-standing Zionist plan to manufacture an ethnically pure Jewish state. Framing his argument with accepted international and U.N. definitions of ethnic cleansing, Pappe follows with an excruciatingly detailed account of Israeli military involvement in the demolition and depopulation of hundreds of villages, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants.”

            http://www.amazon.com/Ethnic-Cleansing-Palestine-Ilan-Pappe/dp/1851684670

            The author is Israeli, BTW.

            Your claim that the West Bank and East Jerusalem was “ethnically cleansed” by Jordan is nonsense. Funny you should deny the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Arabs from what became Israel while also making this claim. I can’t help but wonder if you have a prejudice…

            Israel did not withdraw from the Sinai for peace. Israel withdrew from the Sinai to remove Egypt from the equation, so it could more freely continue to occupy and illegally colonize the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

          • Ram

            Jeremy. The cleansing of E Jerusalem of Jews and the destruction of their many Synagogues is a fact, yet you dispute it. However, that is not what debunks your article. The very mention of Ilan Pappe seals your fate!! If the blocking of the Straits of Tiran, along with all the other actions of Syria, Jordan and Egypt do not amount to a serious threat and, logically, an act of war, I class you as definitely being on the wrong side of Israel.

          • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com/ Jeremy R. Hammond

            …yet you dispute it.

            I’ve neither to interest nor the desire to respond to strawman arguments. You are welcome to address what I’ve actually written.

            I don’t know what “being on the wrong side of Israel” means, but the fact remains that the 1967 war began on the morning of June 5 when Israel launched an attack on Egypt (not vice versa) despite its own intelligence assessing that Nasser had no interest in war.

          • rtk

            Neither do I have the desire to prolong a discussion with a man who remains intent on focusing on technicalities rather than realities.

          • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com/ Jeremy R. Hammond

            “technicalities”? ROFLMAO!

  • http://www.facebook.com/righthand48 Robert Hand

    Great article. Of course its true.
    Isn’t treachery and duplicity the hallmarks of Pollard&Co?! Next they’ll claim that Vanunu was wrong too and they’ve no nuclear weapons. Maybe that they didn’t deliberately attack the USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 170 innocent US servicemen.
    They are deficient in the loyalty gene, never having had any use of it. There are signs now that they’ll soon bring down their Samson temple, the Knesset, home of “democracy for Jews”. Innocent, truthful Zionists? Double Oxymoron!

  • scott

    I saw David Robarge’s speech on C-Span and searched and searched, asked the State dept for transcripts all to no avail. I’m glad to find this account. I found this account while searching for the State Dept. memos I read at that time (what 3-4 yrs ago) where in all of Johnson’s cabinet knew Israel was the aggressor. Funny, now I can’t find those State Dept. memos anymore. But was delighted to find this and David Robarge finally quoted.

    I didn’t read your article, I know the up shot. Did you address that the war was initiated to preempt Johnson from meeting with Nasser’s #2? The other telling fact in this war was the Israeli shooting of the life rafts of the Liberty–there is no excuse for that even if they thought that dirty Egyptians were in those dingies.

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  • buddy

    Not to mention of course Israel’s invasion of Sinia in 1956 in collusion with UK and France prior to 1967 sneak attack.
    The later would provide Nuclear technology aid that Israel would turn into WMD.
    Sabbotage operations against UK and US targets in Egypt using recruitted Egyptian Jews(a folly for Egypt’s Jews) during mid fifties would also constitute an act of war. See operation Susannah,(The Lavon Affair).
    Captured Israel spy, Wolfgang Lotz was infiltrated into Egypt in early 60′s,posing as rich German horsebreeder plotted strike targets for Israel;s coming attack on Egypt in 1967.

    • http://www.jeremyrhammond.com/ Jeremy R. Hammond

      Indeed!

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