Was Nasser bluffing in 1967?

On June 5, 1967, almost exactly forty years ago, Israeli planes destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground, both beginning and in essence ending the Six Day War in a few hours.

Most observers and historians have seen this attack as a justified response to acts of war by Nasser, and a legitimate preemption of a massive Arab attack on Israel.

Of course there are those who want to revise this conventional view and present it as an aggressive war of conquest by Israel against the Arabs. For example, I have a pamphlet prepared by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (unfortunately the version on their site is not readable) that claims that Nasser never intended to attack Israel, he did not expect the UN to remove its peacekeepers from the Sinai when he requested it (twice!), and his actions were a bluff. MPAC claims that Israel knew this and attacked anyway.

Let’s look at their argument more closely. MPAC says that there was “no comparison” between Israel’s armed forces and that of “any conceivable combination of Arab states”, and that Israel knew this. This is easy to say in hindsight, but was not thought to be true at the time, especially since the major advantages Israel had were in generalship, communications, and training:

At the time, it was believed that the Arab states had a decisive superiority in the number and quality of weapons, and a potential superiority in manpower, if all reserves were fielded. Prior to 1967, Israel had gotten almost no military aid from the United States. Egypt and Syria were equipped with large quantities of the latest Soviet military equipment. Israel’s main arms supplier was France. Israel had half as many aircraft as the Egyptians, and the Israeli aircraft were mostly old or of limited capacity…even the Super-Mirages were no match for the Mig-21 fighters acquired by Egypt from the USSR. The Arab states had over 300 MiG aircraft, of which about half were MiG-21.

On paper, the IDF had a large number of “tanks” matching or almost matching the arms of the Arab countries. However, while Syrians and Egyptians were equipped with late model Soviet heavy tanks, many of the Israeli “tanks” were in fact tiny French AMX anti-tank vehicles, and most of the heavy tanks were refurbished WWII Sherman tanks fitted with diesel engines and with 105 mm guns. Israel had also been allowed to purchase an unknown number of M-48 Patton tanks either from Germany or the US in 1965. It is known that the Germans had sold Israel 60 such tanks. In 1967 however, many of these tanks were being converted from gasoline to diesel engines. The Israeli government asked for 100 replacement tanks in May of 1967. However, these and all other arms requests were refused. [my emphasis] — Zionism-Israel.com

MPAC claims that prior to the war (they don’t give precise dates) Nasser “had only moved a few Egyptian divisions into Sinai, and they were deployed in a dug-in defensive posture well back from the border, not positioned to ‘jump off’ for attack”. Actually, by June 5th, there were

Seven to eight Egyptian division, two of them armoured, [a total of 100,000 men and 930 tanks] now deployed in Sinai: 200 tanks opposite Eilat, with the aim of cutting off the Southern Negev. Along Israel’s Eastern border: 60,000 Jordanian soldiers and 300 tanks. The Jordanian army placed under Egyptian command units, as well as Iraq forces which had entered its territory. On Israel’s Northern border with Syria, 50,000 Syrian soldiers dug in, fortified and protected by concrete and steel. Some 600 Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi planes ready. — Six Day War Timeline

We are supposed to believe that this was all a bluff, to “force a favorable diplomatic settlement with Israel that would have increased his stature in the Arab world”? Right.

Israel found herself facing this array of forces with little support from the US:

Israeli diplomats repeatedly implored U.S. President Johnson to make good on the US pledge to allow Israel freedom of navigation in the straits of Tiran [which Nasser had blockaded], or to support Israeli military action. The US, for its part, publicly insisted that it was working to assemble an international force that would open the straits, a “Regatta.” It developed that France and Britain were cool to the idea, and President Johnson found that the US congress was unwilling to back involvement in another military adventure, given the problems the US was facing in Vietnam. From Damascus, U.S. ambassador Smythe telegraphed that U.S. attempts to open the straits of Tiran would meet with opposition of the ‘monolithic Arab nation,’ that the attempt was “foredoomed,” and that Israel was an unviable client state, which did not merit US support. Oil interests including the Aramco company warned against US support for Israeli navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba. — Zionism-Israel.com

On May 26, the Israeli ambassador, Abba Eban, met with President Johnson. Eban wanted a commitment that the US would stand with Israel in the event of war and would force open the straits of Tiran. Thanks to the pro-Arab State Department, he did not get it. Israeli intelligence estimates indicated that Nasser intended to attack shortly (there is even speculation that an attack was planned for the next day, which Johnson prevented by communicating with the Soviet leadership via hot line later that night).

MPAC argues that “President Johnson told the Israeli ambassador that the US knew that Israel would win any war, regardless of who attacked first and that therefore there was no reason to abandon diplomacy. So why did Israel strike?”

Maybe because — even if they did think they would win either way, which is doubtful — they understood that their losses would be much greater if the Arabs were given the chance to strike first?

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One Response to “Was Nasser bluffing in 1967?”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is a very convincing rebuttal of what is yet another Arab propaganda effort to distort the facts of history, and construct an alternative reality. In fact the habit- of -mind which refuses to recognize ‘objective truth’ and always turn anything done or said into the political propaganda message one wants to get across is one reason the Middle- East conflict has been so intractable.