Was Israel the aggressor in the Six-Day war?

Tuvia Brodie,

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Tuvia Brodie
Tuvia Brodie has a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh under the name Philip Brodie. He has worked for the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham College and American Express. He and his wife made aliyah in 2010. All of his children have followed. He believes in Israel's right to exist. He believes that the words of Tanach (the Jewish Bible) are meant for us. His blog address is http://tuviainil.blogspot.com He usually publishes 3-4 times a week on his blog and 1-3 times at Arutz Sheva. Please check the blog regularly for new posts.


This essay is a response to a reader comment to yesterday’s essay, “Israel, The Six-Day War, Rewriting History & Jew-Hate”. The reader asked why people—who were in a position to know what was going on before the six-day war—made certain statements about the war. The statements he quoted—with sources—were made between May 26, 1967 (some 10 days before the war began) and August 1982, some 15 years after the war. He quoted Menachem Begin, former Prime Minister of Israel who was a Minister Without Portfolio in the 1967 Levi Eshkol government; Meir Amit, Chief of Mossad in 1967; Yitzchak Rabin, the IDF Chief of Staff (COS) in 1967; Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister of Israel in 1967; Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense in 1967;  Major General Indar Jit Rikhye, Commander of the UN Emergency [peace-keeping] Force (UNEF) in the Sinai in 1967 ; and a published story about a conversation between Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban and US Secretary of Defense McNamara on May 26, 1967.

As you’ll see in a moment, these statements are not as damning as they’ve been made to appear (note: the emphasis you’ll see are all mine). Here are the statements:

-Begin: “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us”.

-Meir Amit: “Egypt was not ready for a war and Nasser did not want a war”.

-Rabin: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent into SINAI on 14 May would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.”

-Levi Eshkol: “The Egyptian layout in the Sinai and the general military build-up there testified to a military defensive Egyptian set-up south of Israel”.

McNamara: “Three separate intelligence groups had looked carefully into the matter [and] it was our best judgment that a UAR attack was not imminent”.

-The UN head-of-UNEF in the Sinai: a New York Times article written just before the war began stated that this Force Commander had toured the Egyptian front and “confirms that Egyptian troops were not poised for an offensive”.

-McNamara to Abba Eban before the war began: “Egyptian forces were not in an aggressive posture and that Israel was not opening itself to peril by not attacking immediately”.

-Abba Eban to McNamara in this same conversation: “according to Israeli intelligence, ‘an Egyptian and Syrian attack is imminent’.

According to those who revise the history of the six day war, these comments (except for the Abba Eban remarks) completely destroy the Israeli narrative that Israel faced annihilation in 1967, and had no other choice but to attack Egypt. The revisionists use such statements as these (above) to argue that Israel knew it was not threatened but attacked anyway because it wanted to conquer Arab land.

They’re wrong. These statements prove nothing.

Revisionists make much trouble for Israel by taking statements out of context. This includes the Menachem Begin comment (above). His statement appears to support the contention that Egypt in May 1967 was not acting aggressively when Israel attacked pre-emptively on June 5th. But if you look at the full text of that Begin speech, you’ll see that, after making this comment (above), he said something else: “This was a war of self-defense in the noblest [sense]” (Gabriel Glickman, “Rewriting the six-day war”, besacenter, June 7, 2017). Revisionists ignore that second statement. They cherry-pick the first statement to build a bogus anti-Israel case. That’s not history. It’s propaganda.

Begin’s statement about Egypt is revealing. It suggests a question no revisionist has asked: if Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai did not prove Nasser wanted to attack, what did they prove—or suggest? 

Levi Eshkol’s statement begins the answer to this question.  He says he saw defensive Egyptian positions in the Sinai. The inference revisionists take from this is that Israel had no reason to attack—because the Egyptian army wasn’t threatening anyone. But revisionists overlook what Begin’s statement suggests—that Nasser wasn’t planning an offensive war against Israel. He was planning a defensive ambush of Israel’s army (see below).

Revisionists haven’t considered this. They simply saw these statements and concluded what they were already predisposed to see—a greedy Israel hungry for conquest.

What revisionists overlook is the fact that “it was common knowledge in 1967 that the Arab wartime strategy was predicated on Israel’s taking the first shot” (besacenter, ibid). This approach to war with Israel suggests that Nasser didn’t need an offensive lay-out in the Sinai to go to war because his plan was to defeat Israel with defense, not offense. As Glickman puts it, “Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was confident that his forces could take on and outperform the IDF, and his mouthpiece at the Egyptian daily al-Ahram, Muhammad Heikal, openly taunted Israel in widely publicized editorials” (Glickman, ibid).

Revisionists also forget that Nasser closed the Suez Canal in 1956. They forget that Israel attacked Egypt over that closing. They fail to see how, for Nasser, Suez influenced the decision to close the Straits of Tiran.

Nasser understood Israel’s position over open waterways. It needed open waterways to survive. If Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, Israel would attack, just as it had 11 years earlier over Suez.

Israel would attack because the closing of the Straits was an act of war. Arabs argued it wasn’t, but no Western Power accepted that. Nasser’s closure of the Straits was a legal ‘green light’ for war. It meant Israel was no aggressor. It had the right to fight to keep a major port at Eilat open.

Yes, Nasser had lost the 1956 war. But some of his units performed admirably. He could learn from this performance how to turn an Israeli attack into a trap.

Because of this experience in 1956, it’s entirely reasonable that Nasser’s plan to defeat Israel was to lure the Jewish state to rush into the Sinai on the offensive. If Israel was consistent, it would indeed attack when the Straits were closed, just as it had attacked in 1956. In such a scenario, those pre-set defensive positions in the Sinai could trap and crush the Israeli army.

-This same conclusion applies to Rabin’s observation: that the Egyptian divisions in the Sinai weren’t offensive. If the ‘let’s-provoke-Israel-to-attack-and-defeat-it-with-defense’ was Nasser’s strategy, then Rabin’s comment is neutral. It proves nothing about Israel being land-hungry.  As for Rabin concluding that the defensive nature of Egyptian forces meant Nasser did not want war, well, Rabin did preface that comment with, ‘I do not believe’. This phrase is a disclaimer. It suggests the speaker knows he could be wrong. To ignore this disclaimer in order to suggest that Rabin knew for certain Nasser meant not to attack is disingenuous at best.

-Regarding Mossad Chief Meir Amit’s confidence about Nasser not wanting (or being ready for) war, please remember that this is the same Meir Amit who visited Washington DC and, on June 1, 1967, told McNamara, “I'm personally going to recommend that we take action, because there's no way out” (“124. Memorandum for the Record: Subject--Conversation between Major General Meir Amit and Secretary McNamara—late afternoon, 1 June 1967”, Foreign relations of the United States, 1964-1968, volume XIX, Arab-Israeli crisis and war, 1967, office of the Historian, historystategov).

To what does the phrase, ‘no way out’ refer? It does not refer to some planned Israeli conquest of Arab land. It refers to other comments Amit made in that same conversation: Israel’s mobilization was hurting Israel’s economy (It was strangling the economy); and, Israel could not long sustain its mobilization (ibid).

Nasser—and the Jordanians and Syrians—were putting Israel in an untenable situation. If Israel waited for diplomacy to help it, its economy could collapse. If Israel waited to be attacked, it could be crushed. Either way, waiting was dangerous. Israel had no way out of that danger but to attack.

-McNamara’s supposed confidence that Nasser wasn’t going to war wasn’t so confident. He said it was his best judgment about the matter. The clear inference is, he knew he could be wrong. That’s not a ‘smoking gun’ case that Nasser had no intent to attack. If anything, it was a ‘smoking gun’ that McNamara knew he was guessing.

-The chief of the UN Emergency Force reported that he had toured the Egyptian positions and they were not offensive in nature. Well, if Nasser’s plan was to defeat an attacking Israeli army with that defensive set-up, this observation would be accurate. Such a report proves nothing about Nasser’s intent.

Revisionists aren’t honest. They take statements out of context. They assume those statements mean that Israel was the aggressor looking for more land. They look at the Egyptian set-up in the Sinai. They assume that Nasser had no belligerent intent.

They build an anti-Israel case on assumptions and on statements taken out of context. That’s not historical analysis. It’s more like gossipmongers who take snippets of conversations and make damning assumptions to concoct malicious tales.