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At the End of the Sixth Day

Yair Even reveals the significant role Israel and Egypt each expected the USSR to play following the end of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Moshe Dayan

Dayan prepared for the Soviet army; Nasser prepared for an Israeli takeover of the Suez Canal

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war, often called the “Six-Day War,” has long been considered a decisive military victory for the small Jewish state over the coalition of four Arab countries that had threatened to destroy it.

Despite achieving a swift victory on the battlefield, Israel did not escape the challenges waiting in the aftermath. The future, as seen from Jerusalem, was not as bright as the victory in the battle fields might have made it seem. Clear signs of concern emerged about the harmful, even threatening, strategic ramifications of that victory. Perhaps the victory had been too crushing and would now force the Soviet Union to intervene, what Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Minister of Defense, described as “a serious Russian threat to use arms to expel us [Israel] by force” from territories Israel had seized during the war.[i]

On the other side, in Cairo, president Gamal Abdel Nasser feared that Israel, backed by its “imperialist” allies, would take the initiative in the aftermath of the war, cross the Suez Canal, Egypt’s symbol and a vital resource for its economy, and take it over to use as their own shipping lane. Nasser even stated that "If the Canal is crossed...he would have to step down" demanding – not for the first time – that the USSR immediately send military forces to protect Egypt’s skies from this threat.

It appears that immediately after the war both belligerent parties saw the Soviet Union as a critical actor, whose influence in the region only increased following the war. Their fears and hopes were closely tied to the Kremlin, whose misinformation played a major role in the build-up to the morning of June 5, 1967 and the start of the war.

Israel’s fears of the Soviet Union were expressed most profoundly by Minister of Defense, Dayan, who had stated his worry of a Soviet military intervention as Chief of the IDF’s General Staff a decade earlier. During the Six Day War these fears were a major factor in Dayan’s hesitation to order the IDF to remove the longstanding Syrian threat to Israel from the Golan Heights.

A few days after the war, the IDF general command staff gathered for a festive meeting to which Israel’s government ministers were invited. Dayan devoted his final words at this closed, important forum to the future, which he painted in dismal colors:

There is first of all … the crisis in which we find ourselves – and we are in a crisis – with the Russians … about Egypt and Syria [with whom Moscow has close ties]… not about the refugees…Jerusalem and the West Bank [where its influence is weak]. This is the crisis in which we find ourselves. About this crisis, which has evidence and … military linkage, I want to say something, perhaps harsh, but this is how I see things.

Dayan continued to share with the audience his strategic analysis, based on three principle assumptions.

First, Dayan believed “with complete faith” that Israel would stay in the territories it seized during the war, since signing a peace treaty was not practical. “I don’t see the long line of the great Arab leaders waiting to sign peace treaties with us,” he said, while making clear he was equally convinced that both the Arabs, and the Soviets, would not “swallow” nor “accept [Israel’s presence in these territories without making] … a serious effort to throw us out of there, just because of these six days of war.”

To this Dayan added another assumption that the Arab armies would not be able “to set out against us by themselves, let alone throw us out, in the near future [even if] they get another two hundred, four hundred MiGs, another six hundred or a thousand tanks.”

Having shared all that with the political and military leadership of Israel, Dayan concluded his strategic forecast:

 [So] if we intend to stay there [we do], [and since] the Russians don’t want us to stay there, and the Arabs aren’t capable of throwing us out of there, the Russians will have one of two choices: either to use their forces together with the Arabs, or to accept that we are staying there.

Dayan believed that the Soviets would choose to use their own forces, together with the Arabs. He did not hesitate to make it clear to his colleagues in the Government and to recommend to the senior military command to prepare themselves - both militarily and psychologically - for a confrontation with Soviet forces:

I don’t believe and think that it will pass without a serious Russian threat to use force against us. This is where I see the main danger – in [Russian military] intervention, in the ‘shock’ that is likely to occur in the country [due to that]… therefore I suggest that the IDF be truly prepared for this, both militarily and psychologically, be ready for the Russian threat that is coming not in words only, be ready for a Russian threat and their willingness to cooperate with Arab countries, in order to expel us by force.

Meanwhile in Cairo, just a week later and after the Soviet Union had replaced most of Egypt’s military equipment destroyed during the war, Nasser met with a high-ranking delegation from the German Democratic Republic (“East Germany”, GDR). It appears that Nasser revealed to them the full extent of his fears that Israel would continue the war and take over the Suez Canal. Nasser’s deep fear is shown not only by his explicit words, but by the number of times he repeated them to his guests, urging them to accept his requests, leaving upon them a “striking impression”.

“The imperialists” Nasser asserted, “have a plan to cross the canal and take over a strip of land 10 km wide on the western bank. The aim behind this is opening the canal. At night [Israeli] forces and armored columns, even tanks, come to the canal…the Israelis can now do anything and cross the Suez Canal” so he said, adding “there is now information that the Israelis want to cross the canal and therefore have already brought [even] bridge parts.”

Nasser insisted “the situation is very critical” emphasizing that only a day before he had sent a message to the Soviet leadership asking: “What will happen [what would they do] if the Israelis crossed the canal?” urging them, “there is no time for indecision. The main thing…Egypt needs [are] planes with Soviet pilots, to be called volunteers or some other name.”

In the end, both Dayan’s and Nasser’s fears would come to fruition. At the beginning of 1970, during the War of Attrition, the Soviet Union did send Egypt dozens of fighter pilots and thousands of air defense troops, who took command of Egypt’s airspace, just months before Nasser’s sudden death. Three years later, during the Yom Kippur War, Israel crossed the Suez Canal in the early hours of October 16, 1973.

These two wars were among the most tragic moments of the “seventh day” of the Six-Day War, but they also became important landmarks on the way to signing the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which Dayan and Nasser could not have imagined in 1967. This historic treaty was one of the finest hours of that “seventh day”, a day which continues to show the complexities involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the influence of great powers involvement in the region that continue to be all-too relevant even now, 50 years later.

These complexities still prevent this long “seventh day” from reaching its sunset, its promising ending.

[i] Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan’s speech at a meeting of the General Command Staff, 29.6.1967. State of Israel, Ministry of Defense, Israel Defense Forces Archives, 45/2008, file 25.

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Yair Even

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