Setting the Stage: the 1956 Suez Crisis
In July 1956, shortly after the last British soldier left newly independent Egypt, President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, taking control of a vital international trade waterway. PM Anthony Eden was outraged at the takeover and concerned for British trade interests. Eden allied with France, and together they found a pretext to return to the region – using Israel. Israel already had ample cause to declare war on Egypt: passage in the canal was closed to Israeli vessels, and Israel’s southern border suffered from repeated terrorist incursions. The plan was for the IDF to engage with the Egyptian military, at which point France and Britain would issue ceasefire ultimatums, providing legal grounds for them to “restore order” and retake the canal. On October 29th Israel filled its part in the bargain, conquering the entire Sinai Peninsula in one hundred hours. Israel also seized the Straights of Tiran, passage point from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba and gateway to Eilat. The British and French, however, were late to join due to logistical delays and miscommunication. When forces finally landed, there was already immense international pressure for them to withdraw. Israel was forced to give up all territory gained, but bargained for UNEF observers to protect its south and for a guarantee of free passage in the canal, vital to the Israeli economy. The Eisenhower administration agreed that the US will treat the closure of the Straits as an act of war. With those assurances, Israel pulled out of Sinai in March 1957, leaving Egypt with every inch of their original territory. Nasser emerged unscathed from this crisis, strengthening his position in the Arab world and laying the groundwork to the Six Day War a decade late.
The Military Threat
On May 14th, 1967, Egyptian troops totaling 100,000 began to move into Sinai, allegedly to protect their Syrian allies from Israeli threat. It was true that Israel and Syria were engaged in constant border skirmishes at the time, including one that escalated into an aerial battle in April. Northern Israel was being shelled by Syria and Israeli forces often retaliated, but at this point there was no move to launch an offensive, as later verified by the UN. In fact, Nasser’s move caught Israel by surprise in midst of celebrating its 19th independence day. It appears that Egypt was getting misinformation regarding Israeli troop movement from the Soviets, a foremost Arab ally at the time. In any case, the Egyptian movement of troops was accompanied by much boasting of military prowess, as well as taunts and threats that Egypt was ready for war in order to eradicate Israel. Syria, Jordan, and Iraq soon followed suit, mobilizing troops as well.
Withdrawal of UNEF forces
On May 16th, Nasser’s demand for the long-standing UNEF forces to leave Sinai was met with swift compliance by Secretary-General U Thant. Thant withdrew without even informing the general assembly first, let alone waiting for instructions. He explained his acquiescence in that the force was always meant to be a temporary solution, dependent on the consent of the host country. Considering the growing tensions and mobilized troops, it is laughable to suggest Nasser believed the region has stabilized enough to keep the peace without help. Egypt felt ready for confrontation and needed to clear the battleground of pesky peacekeepers and observers, who were nominally tasked with protecting either state from aggression.
Closure of the Straights of Tiran
Once UN forces withdraw and Nasser had full control of the Straights, it was a matter of time until passage would be denied to Israel. On May 22rd, 1967 Nasser announced the closure of the Straights of Tiran to Israeli trade in a boastful speech. The port of Eilat was effectively put under blockade, and trade with Asia was halted. This was a clear violation of the Suez crisis’s conclusion, as well as accepted international nautical law. It put the US particularly in a very uncomfortable position, as the Eisenhower administration’s assurances were now voided. While the US and many other nations condemned the closure of the Straights, no move was made to reopen them and no action was taken by the UN. Nasser himself acknowledged that this act was aimed at generating conflict, explaining that he waited a decade to retake the Gulf of Aqaba until Egypt’s military was clearly superior and capable of easily crushing the IDF.
Egypt initially justified its moves as a response to the perceived threat on Syria, as the states were bound in a Military agreement since November 1966. Jordan and Iraq joined Egypt only after the situation started escalating, planning to act together and attack Israel from every front. Jordan previously had a notoriously cool relationship with Egypt, making their alliance a shock to Israel. It has been suggested King Hussein caved to pan-Arab pressure, and perhaps nudged in Egypt’s direction by the Israeli retaliatory attack on Samu. Once the allied states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq mobilized their respective militaries, Israel was surrounded by 465,000 troop poised to attack.
The Path of Diplomacy
Israel waited with baited breath three tense weeks before entering the war, while Nasser’s threats and taunts increase by the day. The government of Israel, headed by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and foreign Minister Abba Eban, attempted every possible path of diplomatic intervention that may avert an increasingly inescapable war.
Not only have UN forces withdrawn their protection in acquiescence to Nasser, the UN security council refused to take Israel’s concerns seriously. An emergency Security Council meeting insisted upon by Canada and Denmark ended with no clear conclusion, its necessity repeatedly questioned and mocked by participant members. U Thant did make a report regarding the withdrawal of UN forces and expressed “concern.” No actions were taken as a result.
Washington and Operation Red Sea Regatta
On May 25th foreign minister Abba Eban visited Washington. His original goal was to remind Americans of their 1956 promises. As Nasser continued to threaten Israel’s annihilation, Eban’s goal changed. He was now hoping to have Johnson pledge defense of Israel’s security, including military action in case things go wrong. He had one question: what does the US practically intent to do when Israel is attacked? Officials in Washington (including the chief of staff and minister of defense) expressed disbelief that Egypt is actually planning an offensive, claiming their intelligence gathering does not support that. As for the US going to war for Israel, Eban was told, that would require congressional approval, which is not likely to be obtained. When Johnson met with Eban he cautioned Israel to practice restraint, as he was working for a peaceful solution.
On May 28th, Eban’s reported the US position to Israel’s cabinet. Wishing to allow every chance for peaceful resolution, Eban recommended waiting three weeks, giving Johnson time to work on “The British Plan.” At this point Johnson still hoped to defuse the situation with an international flotilla through the canal to break the blockade, suggested by Britain and known as Operation Red Sea Regatta. However, the operation failed to gain traction. Commitment to it floundered at the prospect of war with an Arab nation and subsequent cutoff of oil supplies. Without sufficient international participants, the plan never came close to actualization. Even as the plan stalled, Washington repeatedly promised they were making progress and cautioned against Israel opening hostilities.
On May 31st, Israel was finally notified that the plan was not viable – after waiting patiently as the Arabic military stranglehold closed in and vital supplies began turning scarce with continued blockade. Even at this point, with no allies seemingly prepared to act for Israel, Eshkol refused to go to war against international opinion, refusing to “thumb out noses” at potential allies.
In a last ditch effort to avoid war, Eban made one more round of international meetings. His efforts in France, Israel’s former confederate from the Suez Crisis days, merely resulted in a strongly worded statement, warning that whoever opens hostilities cannot expect their support. France did not acknowledge any acts of aggression on Nasser’s part.
At the Cabinet meeting on June 4th, Israel stood alone as efforts to get the United Nations, United States, or anyone else in the world community to offer protection failed. The next morning, Israel’s air force rose into the air.
Vastly outnumbered and faced with enemies at every front, Israel’s military decided to attempt a carefully planned surprise attack. At 7:14 exactly, the morning of June 5th, every plane in the Israeli air force took off save for twelve airplanes were left to defend Israel’s airspace. Flying into Egyptian airspace under the radar, Israel’s planes pulled off the most successful air strike in military history. The attack was planned to coincide with breakfast time for the Egyptian pilots. Consequently, the planes were all unmanned, smoldering and in pieces before their crews could get them off the ground. Three hundred Egyptian planes were destroyed within two hours. The battle was won before it was fought.
Having decimated the Egyptian force, Israel’s pilots refueled and turned to Jordan and Syria, who have already attacked Israel under false assurances from Nasser that the war was going well for Egypt. All in all, Israel annihilated or severely damaged every enemy air force in a single day.
It is difficult to overstate the impact this strike had on the war’s progress. With Israel dominating the aerial space, Israeli citizens were not under a relentless enemy blitz .The air force was able to provide unimpeded coverage and support to the ground force, overall saving an untold amount of lives.
Article by Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the US
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On the Suez Crisis
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On the Suez Crisis
On the Six Day War
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On the Suez Crisis
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