Six days in June: Two reluctant leaders

“Israel wants to make it clear to the government of Egypt that it has no aggressive intentions whatsoever against any Arab state at all” – Levi Eshkol, May 15th 1967.

There were at least two leaders in the Middle East with little or no desire for war in mid-1967, and they just happened to be the men who were in charge of the main competing protagonists: Egypt and Israel.

Nasser had been largely manipulated into the position he found himself in, by a combination of rumour mongering from the Soviet Union and his own people’s desire for revenge against Israel.

In addition to internal pressures, Nasser was also feeling the strain from the wider Arab world as the nations of Algeria; Kuwait; Libya; Morocco; Pakistan; Sudan; and Tunisia called for war, alongside Syria; Jordan; Iraq; and Lebanon.

The anti-Semitic feeling at the time was perhaps best reflected by comments made by King Faysal bin Abdelaziz al Sud of Saudi Arabia, who called for “the extermination of Israel” and from the president of Iraq, Abdul Rahman Arif who said “the existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified…there will be practically no Jewish survivors”.

During this time, later to be known as ‘The Waiting Period’, Nasser walked a thin line between appearing bellicose in his public image and privately open to opportunities of resolving the growing tensions diplomatically behind closed doors.

Levi Eshkol, the Prime Minister of Israel and also Minister of Defence, was also reluctant for armed conflict.

He was old enough to have seen much bloodshed in his lifetime and had no wish to rush into an armed conflagration with the wider Arab world.

While members of the Knesset and the Israeli Defence Force clamoured for action from the ageing leader, Eshkol played for time in the hopes of both strengthening Israel’s hand diplomatically and possibly even avoiding conflict altogether.

As the days passed the urgency within the Israeli leadership grew and calls were made for a government to be formed of national unity. It was argued by people such as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, that any further delay would only give the Arab forces more time to prepare and plan for their ultimate stated desire: to crush Israel once and for all.

The passage towards war culminated in a national radio address from Eshkol, in which he was heard to stutter and hesitate due to some last minute corrections being made to his reading draft causing him confusion.

This was the last straw as far as the women of Israel were concerned, who together organised a stinging public rebuke of the current Minister of Defence and converged on the Knesset in their thousands, all demanding the immediate resignation of Eshkol and the accession of Moshe Dayan in his place.

Dayan was quickly given the Defence portfolio and the course for war was set.

The world watched on with a strange sense of bewildered concern and anticipation for what was considered to be the final showdown in the Middle East.

American strategists believed that if Israel were attacked first it would take the tiny nation 14 days to win through to an outright victory. If Israel were the attackers, these same strategists gave them 8 days.

As the weeks passed the tension slowly escalated, becoming almost unbearable.

A breaking point would soon be reached.

Where would the first hammer strike fall, and who would wield it?


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