Was the 1967 war one of choice?

On the 40th anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War, it seems we are experiencing a deluge of revelations that challenge myths of the past. Recently declassified suggest that, contrary to the common narrative, Israel’s Six-Day War may not have been a war of necessity.

Little-noticed details in declassified documents from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, indicate that top officials in the Johnson administration — including Johnson’s most pro-Israeli Cabinet members — did not believe war between Israel and its neighbors was necessary or inevitable, at least until the final hour. In these documents, Israel emerges as a vastly superior military power, its opponents far weaker than the menacing threat Israel portrayed, and war itself something that Nasser, for all his saber-rattling, tried to avoid until the moment his air force went up in smoke. In particular, the diplomatic role of Nasser’s vice president, who was poised to travel to Washington in an effort to resolve the crisis, has received little attention from historians. The documents sharpen a recurring theme in the history of the Israeli-Arab wars, and especially of their telling in the West: From the war of 1948 to the 2007 conflict in Gaza, Israel is often miscast as the vulnerable David in a hostile sea of Arab Goliaths.

“You will whip the hell out of them,” Lyndon Johnson told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban during a visit to the White House on May 26, 1967. The president’s conclusions were based on multiple intelligence reports, including a CIA assessment that Israel “can maintain internal security, defend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts, launch limited attacks simultaneously on all fronts, or hold any of three fronts while mounting successfully a major offensive on the fourth.” As Nicholas Katzenbach, U.S. undersecretary of state at the time, recalled: “The intelligence was absolutely flat on the fact that the Israelis … could wipe out the Arabs in no time at all.”

As we witnessed during last year’s 35 day war with Lebanon, this script is all too familiar. Any notion that Israel is fighting for its very existence was shattered in 2006, and it now appears that this situation was either exaggerated in the past, if not entirely fabricated.

But privately Nasser was sending strong signals he would not go to war. On May 31, he met with an American emissary, former Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson, assuring him that Egypt would not “begin any fight.” Two days later, Nasser told a British M.P., Christopher Mayhew, that Egypt had “no intention of attacking Israel.” The same day he met again with Anderson, agreeing to dispatch his vice president, Zakariya Mohieddin, to Washington, in an apparent last-ditch attempt to avoid war. (Anderson and Johnson had also spoken of a visit to Cairo by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.)