What has become known as the six day war, or the 1967 Arab Israeli war began tomorrow, June 5th, 40 years ago, 1967.
The strategic importance of this war cannot be overstated for our world today.
Like many other things, we have very short memories and so, most don’t remember the alliances or the state of the world at that time.
Over the next week I will try and give some background, the history of the war itself, and what it has meant in the middle east and rest of the world, where, perhaps, the effects of the Israeli victory had even more resonance than in Israel and the middle east.
It was, effectively, the beginning of the end of the cold war, and the beginning of the ascendancy of NATO.
It was also the end (for now) of what was known as Pan-Arabism.
The significance of Pan-Arabism was that it was a secular Arab alliance. Emphasis on secular.
In 1967, and the years before, most of the Arab states were quite different than they are today. The leaders at that time, the fathers of todays King Hussein of Jordan, President Bashir Assad in Syria, the royal family in Saudi Arabia, and of course, Gamel Nasser in Egypt led secular states that were principally Muslim in composition, rather than ruling with the threat of Muslim radicalism over their shoulders. (Nasser had made “peace” with the Muslim Brotherhood, an uneasy peace).
Pan-Arabism was the creation of Nasser who envisioned himself as the leader of the Arab world. And in 1967, it appeared that he was.
Nasser had achieved stunning victories, both politically, and as a result of non-military, military action (the threat of, and the movement of troops without combat).
Most directly, was his nationalization of the Suez canal in 1951-6. Prior to this time, the canal, the key to trade in the area and the gateway between east and west, was in the hands of the British.
After the Nasser led coup over King Farouk, he began expressing the need for the Arab world to band together. Much of this was initially viewed as unrealistic, politically, religiously and militarily. The tribal, religious and secular disputes were ancient and constant.
Nasser unilaterally declared that the canal was Egypt’s. And a war began.
Most forget the war of 1956, principally because it was such a stunning political victory for Nasser, and because it did not greatly involve the new nation of Israel, only 8 years old at the time, but rather the world’s economies, and militarily the US and Britain.
Egypt’s action was quickly put down militarily and Nasser “agreed” to accept UN control of the canal.
So what looked like a military and political defeat for Nasser, was in actuality a total victory.
The British imperialists, in the eyes of the Arabs, had been removed and a “non-aligned” force that could easily be controlled by Egypt, both actually, and militarily (there was no UN military presence in any real way) took it’s place.
The peace keeping force, proposed by Canada (Lester B. Pearson,Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this), was the first UN peacekeeping force in history.
The proposal was put forth largely because the alliance between Britain, the US, Israel and France threatened to destroy Egypt. The US had no desire to be in a war in the area, and in fact, had been working feverishly to bring Egypt into it’s sphere (more below).
The US financial pressure on Britain was the final straw to convince them to withdraw (this had actually been going on since Nasser’s repudiation of the Suez treaty in 1951; declaration of intent to nationalize in 1954
This changed the Arab world’s perception of Nasser and it was really at this time that he became a larger than life figure in Egypt and the Arab world.
The facts on the ground were that the Egyptians now collected the passage fees for the canal, and for all intents and purposes controlled access into and out of the Mediterranean and from Europe to Asia.
It was a stunning political victory for Nasser that gave the Arab world hope that they might soon fully complete the unshackling of residue of the British and French colonial period.
From that time, to 1967, Nasser frequently puffed his chest and made veiled threats about closing the canal, and certainly about not allowing Israeli access.
Finally, on May 16th, 1967, Nasser had his representative give the UN general a letter stating that the Egyptian Army had to be ready to fight Israel and as such, the UN forces should be withdrawn.
The letter was handed to the Secretary General, U Thant, who began feverish negotiations to stop the Egyptians. This failed, first by Yugoslavia and India withdrawing their troops from the force for fear of action against Egypt, and then when Nasser ordered that the UNEF (the name of the peacekeeping force) troops not be allowed into their camps.
On May 19th, the UNEF commander was given the order to withdraw.
Immediately, Nasser began the re-militarization of the Sinai. Moving tank brigades and large numbers of troops across the Sinai desert and poised on the Israeli border.
On May 22nd, Nasser announced the closing of the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli passage. The straits are the entrance to the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Eilat, Israeli’s main port and only Southern access,principally for oil tankers. (If you go to Eilat today, you will see equal parts the “Las Vegas” of Israel, and oil and transport docks).
The real reason behind Nasser’s move was simple.
During the negotiations in 1956, when Israel really had no involvement other than to preserve it’s rights to navigate through the Straits and the Sinai Canal, it stated clearly that access to the straits were a “casus belli”, or a cause of war in international legal terms.
Whether Nasser actually intended to stop ships intended for Israel or not is not clear, but his “tweaking” of the Israelis is clear.
Nasser was acting on his own experience. The last time he had done this, he had won control of the Suez. His claims on Tiran, that it was in Egyptian waters was undoubtedly with the same ultimate intent.
What is important here is that international law generally holds a blockade as an armed act of war.
What was also going on at this time was Nasser’s maneuvering with regard to the United States and The Soviet Union.
In the 1960’s, obviously, the cold war was in full bloom. Not long after the 1956 crisis, the Soviets began to seriously increase their attempts to export their authority beyond the scope of Eastern Europe. They were incubating client states in South and Central America and of course actively seeking alliances in the Middle East.
There were two principal reasons for this (a good lesson on Soviet history and the invasion of Afghanistan). Throughout Russian history has been the quest for a warm water port. The second, was of course, the constant striving against the US at this time.
More on the US later on the section on Israel, but what must be remembered here is that, contrary to today’s memory, the US was NOT, I repeat, NOT a big player at this time in the region.
There was no real active alliance with Israel (it occurred AFTER the war) and so Nasser was playing the two super powers off of each other.
Ultimately, the decision was made to align with the Soviets. Of course, the Americans telling Nasser they did not trust him after his repeated violations of the various Suez agreements also played into it.
So, the Egyptian army was armed with MIG’s and of greatest concern to the Israeli’s 30 Tu-16 medium range bombers. The total air capacity was 450 planes.
This was by far the largest and newest of the Arab air forces all Soviet equipment and new.
The Egyptian consisted of approximately 160,000 regulars, many of whom were battle tested from intervention in the civil war in Yemen in which Egypt had interceded.
It also consisted of 950 tanks, 1,100 APCs and more than 1,000 artillery pieces.
At this point, Nasser had put more than 100,000 of these forces in the Sinai, near the Israeli border. (at the same time Jordan had approx. 55,000 regulars, Syria 75,000. In the Israel section I will discuss the Israeli forces).
His intent was clear.
The Soviets were not confident in Egypt’s capability (in fact, they had not had success even in Yemen). As such, they demanded of Nasser that he allow Soviet generals to command his troops.
Of course he refused. This will become critical in the last 2 days of the war in regard to the US.
What is critical, was the view throughout the Arab world at the time of their relative strength relative to Israel, who was using used military equipment FROM FRANCE (not the US as is the case today).
Finally, at the end of May, two critical things happened. Jordan handed over control of it’s armies to an Egyptian general and Nasser, in a speech declared “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel … to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not of more declarations.”
The region was now poised for war.
Next up: Israel.