6 days that changed Israel forever: The Middle East at war (Part 2)


The 1967 War happened more than 50 years ago, yet its legacy still reverberates throughout the world. Israelis were convinced they were facing another Holocaust. Instead, they achieved one of the most unlikely and legendary military victories in history. This miniseries explores the lead-up and legacy of the Six-Day War.

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Welcome to Part II of our three-part series on the Six-Day War! If you haven’t listened to Part I yet, this episode is going to be pretty confusing, so I’d recommend going back. But let’s kick off with a quick refresher:

Our last episode ended with Israel on the brink of a second Holocaust. As its southern border teemed with Egyptian troops, its northern border absorbed shell after shell from Syria. Radio Cairo was promising a bloodbath. And Jordan – who had once seemed to be Israel’s most reasonable adversary, not that that’s a particularly high bar – had reluctantly agreed to ally with Egypt should Israel attack.

An Israeli troop carrier on the east bank of the Suez Canal opposite Ismailia, Egypt, during the Six-Day War, June 22, 1967. (Photo: National Photo Collection of Israel/Wikipedia Commons)

And the Arab states were expecting Israel to attack. Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting Israel off from its only link to East African and Asian trade routes. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had warned that Israel considered this an act of war, and no one doubted that he meant it. After all, Israel had gone to war with Egypt over the Straits only 11 years before. But back then, the Brits and French were on Israel’s side. In May of 1967, though, not a single Western country wanted to get involved. 

So Israel alone stared down multiple Arab armies armed to the teeth with Soviet weapons. The view wasn’t pretty. It was so not-pretty, in fact, that after nine days of stressing and smoking and not eating, IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin succumbed to a full-on nervous breakdown. And still, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol waited, calling the Arab world’s bluff.

Until he decided to stop waiting. And what happened next, well, it changed everything.

Part Two: If One Comes to Kill You, Rise and Kill First

One of my favorite things about the Jewish people is our sense of humor. As the old saying goes, when life gives you intergenerational trauma, mine it for comedic value. (What, you’ve never heard that one? Weird.)

When you spend your entire history getting up close and personal with death, you eventually learn to laugh at him. The Jewish people had come all the way back to their ancestral homeland just to avoid him, and yet here he was again, broadcasting threats from Damascus and Cairo and casually polishing his scythe (great word, by the way, I try to work it in whenever I can, though I’m not actually sure what the difference is between a scythe and a sickle…) Anyway, as the Israelis dug graves and donated blood and debated evacuating their children to Europe, they did what Jews do best.

They cracked jokes at Death’s expense. 

Let’s all meet in the phone booth after the war, people joked grimly – the implication being that one phone booth would hold all the Israelis left after the bloodbath. Or Last one out of the country, don’t forget to turn off the lights. Implication being, time to jump ship. At least for the children. Someone should live to tell the tale of the short-lived third Jewish commonwealth.

This was a flinty, desperate kind of humor. The only kind left when the hangman loops the noose around your neck. But despite the talk, no one was leaving. In fact, Jews from around the world were pouring into the Jewish state, ready to do their part for the war effort. Others sent donations and supplies and messages of solidarity. All over the globe, the entire Jewish community proclaimed This is our war, too.

And it doesn’t matter if you were alive to remember this or if you, like me, were barely a twinkle in your parents’ eyes. Because you have lived this. October 7th, 2023 was the darkest day in Israeli history. By October 8th, Jews around the world were clamoring to get on the first flight to Tel Aviv. (In fact, between October 8th and December 2023, more than 2,600 people moved permanently to Israel.) But the parallels go even further. Because then, as now, most Israelis had very little faith in their government. 

All of Eshkol’s waiting had cost him the public’s trust. To make matters worse, he wasn’t just Israel’s Prime Minister. He was also, as we briefly mentioned in episode 1, its Minister of Defense. But he had the grace and wisdom to understand that he couldn’t lead his country into war when the public distrusted him so deeply. So even though it pained him, he appointed his own replacement to lead the defense ministry during its darkest hour. One candidate stood out as the obvious choice.

His name was Moshe Dayan, and he was a legend. I don’t usually use words like “swashbuckling,” because I don’t write romance novels about pirates…. yet. But I hope you’ll forgive me just this once, because no other word fits as perfectly. Dayan was swashbuckling, all grit and swagger and controversy. And, maybe, just maybe I dressed up as him for Purim this year… Only a lucky few of you will get a picture of that…My wife picked it out. Don’t ask.

He was temperamental and insubordinate and often difficult to work with. He demanded strict obedience on the battlefield but was often disciplined by his superiors for flouting orders. He was arrogant and rude even by Israeli standards, which is impressive. And despite the iconic black patch over his left eye, he had no problem attracting women – much to the disgust of his first wife, who later wrote a book blasting her ex-husband’s, quote, “bad taste.” (Burn.) Again, strange costume for my wife to choose for me.

But whatever his personal flaws, Dayan inspired confidence. As a sabra, a native-born Israeli, he’d never known the pogroms and the helplessness of the Diaspora. He’d been fighting for his home since he was 14 years old. By 1967, he’d been a Haganah commander, a scout for the Allies during WWII, a commander in Israel’s War of Independence, a negotiator during post-war armistice talks, and IDF Chief of Staff during the Suez Crisis. Oh, and he was an experienced politician in league with Ben Gurion.

Of course, none of that meant Eshkol fully trusted Dayan. To make matters worse, Eshkol’s special adviser on defense, Yigal Yadin, had some, shall we say, personal beef with the one-eyed legend. Because Yadin wasn’t just a former IDF Chief of Staff. He was also Israel’s foremost archaeologist. And when Dayan wasn’t politicking or warring or wooing the ladies, he was digging up priceless antiquities from Israel’s archaeological sites to add to his personal collection, a habit that Yadin, shall we say, did not love. You can’t make this stuff up.

So Eshkol set some strict parameters for Dayan’s new role. He wasn’t allowed to call for an attack without the Prime Minister’s permission. Under no circumstances would he OK operations that hadn’t been previously approved. And there would be absolutely no bombing of Arab cities unless Israel had been bombed first.

But Dayan wasn’t fazed by these rules. He agreed immediately, and then went to visit the IDF generals, demanding they, quote, “Show me your plan – that is, if you’ve even got one. I’ve got mine.”

You gotta admire the chutzpah.

And Dayan’s war plan was sheer chutzpah, because it basically boiled down to CHARGE! Tiny, outmanned Israel needed the element of surprise. The more wrong-footed the Egyptians, the more effective the IDF could be. As he put it in a cabinet meeting: “God help us if they hit us first.”

Dayan may have been an avowed atheist, but for many Israeli and Diaspora Jews, “God help us” was more than just a figure of speech. The Americans and French were out. The Soviets were backing Egypt and Syria. God was the only major power who seemed remotely likely to help. But Dayan wasn’t nervous. At least, not outwardly. In cabinet meetings, he pressed his case passionately, joined by an ever-larger chorus of ministers. The diplomatic options had clearly been exhausted. If Israel wanted to survive, the IDF had to strike first. There could be no more waiting.

On June 4, 1967, the cabinet voted on whether or not to strike. 12 voted in favor, two against. It was done. The war would start the next day.

They called the plan Mivtza Moked. In English, Operation Focus.

Mivtza Moked may have been a surprise, but the plan was years in the making. Ezer Weizman, the IDF chief of operations and one-time commander of the Israeli Air Force, had drawn up the plans half a decade before, giving the Israeli pilots plenty of time to practice. They’d studied their routes. They’d practiced their formations. The IAF knew every position of the Egyptian jets – including the name, rank, and even voice of each pilot. Most importantly, they’d learned that it took the Egyptian air force eight hours to refuel and rearm its jets. Desperate for any advantage, the IAF learned to refuel and rearm in under eight minutes.

Like Steph Curry at the end of a game when Klay Thompson is hot, the plan started with a decoy. At 7:10am on June 5, 1967, the IAF sent sixteen planes on a routine patrol. Minutes later, the real fighters took off. Nearly 200 jets streaked south towards Egypt. To avoid Egyptian radar, their planes hovered only fifty feet above the ground. (For context, a commercial airliner flies between 31 and 42,000 feet.)

They flew in utter silence. Using the radio would tip off the enemy and destroy the entire plan. Every pilot was keenly aware that this could be his last flight. That if he suffered a mechanical glitch before reaching the target, he would have to deal with it alone, crashing into the sea or the desert rather than radioing for help. And that cut both ways. Pilots weren’t allowed to warn each other if they saw a threat. As hard as it would be, they’d have to abandon their fellow fighters to an enemy rather than risk using the radio. Because if anyone tipped off the Egyptians, well, the Jordanians and the Syrians were contractually obligated to show up. But the IAF had allotted only twelve jets to fight those guys off. The entire war hinged on the planes now racing towards the Egyptian air force.

At Israeli Air Force HQ, generals and ministers waited in tense silence. They’d gambled almost their entire air force on this surprise attack. They knew the pilots were prepared to give their lives for Israel. But that didn’t make it any easier to condemn even one pilot to death by dogfight, or anti-aircraft missile, or crash. You don’t send your entire air force into enemy skies without coming up with a Plan B. Rabin had one, of course, but it was terrifying, involving commandos parachuting into Egyptian airfields at night. But the best kind of backup plan is the one you don’t have to use. Within three hours, no one was thinking about parachuting into the Egyptian airfields. There were no more airfields to parachute into.

Because the pilots didn’t just achieve the objective. They smashed it. 

It’s hard to say who was more surprised. The Israeli top brass, waiting anxiously for an update from the field, or the Egyptians, who were about to suffer their most devastating humiliation since Moses led their entire workforce through the Red Sea.

The Egyptians weren’t dummies. They were prepared for an Israeli attack. But they’d assumed it would come at dawn. It was now after 8:15am, Egypt time, and no Israeli jets had shown up. (Nerd corner alert: Did you know that Egypt and Israel are in different time zones? I didn’t either.) So the Egyptian pilots headed to breakfast. Even more embarrassingly, the Egyptian defense minister went to bed, making it clear that he was not to be disturbed. The metaphor writes itself, am I right?

He may have been literally sleeping on the job, but at least one Arab nation wasn’t. Jordan had some of the most sophisticated radar facilities in the Middle East, and they watched the Israeli attack unfold with alarm. The planes were flying low, but they were densely clustered. This was no routine patrol. This was war.

Frantic, the Jordanians cabled the Egyptians with the code word for war. With increasing desperation, they repeated the Arabic word for “grape” over the frequency. EINAB! EINAB! (EHY-knob) You gotta feel bad for the poor Jordanian officer, trying fruitlessly (pun intended!) to warn his allies that almost 200 fighter jets were heading straight for the Egyptian air bases by screaming GRAPE!!!! GRAPE!!!!! Not that it mattered. The Egyptians had changed the decoding frequency literally one day before, without bothering to inform the Jordanians, which kind of makes you wonder the whole point of a code system in the first place. The two countries may have been temporary allies, but that didn’t mean they were actually capable of working together.

So, with the combo of intelligence, practice, desperation, and maybe divine intervention, the Israeli planes made their way to Egypt. Four at a time, IAF jets dove towards the Egyptian planes. And then, to use a military term, they bombed the heck out of them.

First they destroyed the runways, so that no plane could get back in the air. Then they went for the bombers that threatened Israeli cities. Then the fighter jets that could have given the IAF a fight in the sky. Then the infrastructure: radar facilities, air traffic control, missile warehouses, batteries. Each bomb left a crater roughly 15 feet wide and over 3 feet deep. The Egyptian planes that hadn’t been totaled wouldn’t take off for months.

Egyptian pilots could do nothing but watch their tiny Jewish neighbor destroy the Middle East’s most formidable airforce without breaking a sweat. By the time someone wised up and started deploying Egypt’s anti-aircraft weapons, it was too late. 70% of Egypt’s 420 combat aircraft were up in smoke. A third of their pilots were dead. And thirteen of their 18 air bases were completely out of commission.

Top to bottom, the operation took less than two hours. And at the end, in the words of IAF Commander Motti Hod: “the Egyptian air force… ceased to exist.” Operation Focus had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

But in the streets of Cairo, no one had any idea that their airforce was more or less gone. The Egyptian public knew only that their army was deploying its anti-aircraft weapons against the Israelis. Shouts of “Down with Israel! We will win!” rang through the air. The government kept up the ruse, reporting that the Egyptian air force had taken down more than a hundred Israeli planes in an ambitious counter strike. But whoever was making up these numbers was getting a little too ambitious. Nasser was listening, and he knew his enemy well enough to realize that someone was fantasizing.

But no one was answering his calls. Like the rest of his citizens, the Egyptian president had no idea that the country he’d vowed to destroy had just turned his fighter jets into scrap metal.

Meanwhile, Israeli ground troops were breaking through Gaza and into the Sinai. Their instructions, per their general, were simple: “Everyone attacks, everyone penetrates, without looking sideways or back.” The Israeli forces suffered heavy losses – over 100 dead and 200 wounded – but by 10pm, they were firmly entrenched in the Sinai, leaving more than 2,000 dead or wounded Egyptian soldiers in their wake. They shelled Egyptian defenses relentlessly; as one Egyptian POW later put it, “It was like watching a snake of fire uncoiling.”

For all its grandstanding, the Egyptian army just wasn’t prepared to meet the IDF. As Egyptian Air Force Brigadier General Tahsin Zaki later put it, quote, “Israel spent years preparing for this war, whereas we prepared for parades.” Listen, I’m a big parade guy, but that lack of preparation cost them dearly. Just days after the start of the war, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula were in Israeli hands, a blue and white flag fluttering over the sands of the Sinai.

But I want to pause here for a second, to remind us of something that is so easy to forget. A reflection I owe in large part to reading The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six Day War. These are the testimonies of real people, grappling with the cost of victory. They remind us that no matter which flag they fight under, every casualty represents a person, as real and human as you or me. These soldiers were people with parents and siblings and friends. Some had kids and spouses. All had inner lives and hopes and dreams beyond the battlefield. So I want to take a second to read part of a letter that Israelis found in the wreckage of El Arish, written to an Egyptian soldier by his wife, Saida Ahmed Salah. Quote:

I love you for your dear presence as a sick man longs for health, as a student craves success, as the plants long for water, as a baby desires its mother’s tender embrace… My husband and my eternally beloved, beloved of my heart, when will I see you, my darling, light of my eyes and breath of my soul? 

I don’t know what happened to Saida’s husband. Whether he lived. Whether he would find himself on the front lines of the Yom Kippur War, six years in the future. Whether they grew old together surrounded by grandkids. What matters is that he and his wife – and all the soldiers on the battlefields – were people, many of whom inherited a conflict they neither started nor wanted. And that’s the great tragedy of war, in the end: the people you fight often exactly like you. They’re people with families.

And that includes the 400,000 Palestinians living in Gaza who were now under Israeli control. Many were refugees from the 1948 war, who had been living in squalid refugee camps for 19 years, dreaming of going home, refusing to believe that home was gone.

Instead, the Israelis had come to them. And over the coming months, as a makeshift series of curfews and searches hardened into the infrastructure of occupation, the Palestinians would experience an awakening. The Arab world had failed them. If they wanted to keep the dream of Palestine alive, they’d have to do it themselves. And this is so so so important – so stay tuned, we’ll get into it in part 3.

In the meantime, the soldiers who entered Gaza as representatives of, as one put it, quote, “a conquering army,” recounted that far from being a triumph, it was, quote, “a lousy feeling.” “We haven’t been trained for this,” he remembers saying to his commander. Those heady six days were all about survival. The Jewish state hadn’t expected or planned to become an occupying power. 

But that’s a story for the next episode. For now, we’ve still got to contend with Syria and Jordan. Remember that they all had a pact – once one of us is at war, all of us are at war. But I wonder if they would have honored their pact if they knew that Egypt’s air force had been destroyed in a matter of hours. What would have happened, if they’d preemptively thrown up their hands? Said, hey, actually, never mind? 

We’ll never know. Because in those first few hours of the war, they were getting their info from Egypt, and they truly believed the fiction that Egypt had repelled an Israeli attack and was now making short work of Israeli cities. It was time to descend on the spoils.

Israel had planned for chaos to the north and south. But it had gambled on the Jordanians, leaving only 71 Israeli soldiers to guard the two-mile border between Jewish Jerusalem in the West and Jordanian Jerusalem in the East. 

This wasn’t completely unreasonable. The Israelis knew that King Hussein had basically been strong-armed by Nasser into this defense pact. (Nerd corner alert: Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban even alluded to Nasser’s bullying of Hussein in a speech to the UN Security Council on June 6th – which is, by the way, in my very humble opinion, one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. Here’s what he said:

Jordan had been intimidated, against its better interest, into joining a defense pact. It is not a defense pact at all: it is an aggressive pact, of which I saw the consequences with my own eyes yesterday in the shells falling upon institutions of health and culture in the City of Jerusalem…

Can you imagine being called out like that in front of the entire UN Security Council by your enemy’s most eloquent spokesperson? Like, way to make Hussein look like a middle-schooler being pushed around.)

But Eban wasn’t actually trying to shame Hussein. The Israelis had done everything they could to appeal to his pragmatism, sending American, British, and UN intermediaries to pass him a message along the lines of “Be cool. Don’t attack us and we won’t attack you.

Sure, it would have been nice to unite the two sides of Jerusalem, the historic heart of the Jewish people, under Israeli control. It would have been even nicer to have some measure of security against the constant attacks from East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But on June 5th, 1967, Israel had one goal and one goal only: survive. They were so serious about keeping the peace that the soldiers stationed along the border removed the bullets from their guns so that a stray bullet wouldn’t accidentally start a war.

But Hussein had no such compunctions. This was his chance to finally get some respect from Nasser. When he announced over the radio that “the hour of revenge had come,” he meant it. At 11:15AM on June 5, as the IAF was demolishing Egypt’s air force, Jordan began shelling Jewish Jerusalem. To make things worse, the Jordanian offensive inspired Syria to get in on the action. Soon, Syrian, Jordanian, and even Iraqi planes began bombing Israeli villages and kibbutzim.

But the IAF wasn’t going to take that lying down. After destroying Egypt’s planes, Israeli pilots chased away the Syrians, and then turned their attention towards the Jordanian airfields. King Hussein and his two sons watched in horror from their yard as the IAF decimated the Jordanian air force in under two hours. And when they were done, Israeli jets flew over the West Bank, picking off tank after Jordanian tank.

By noon on that first day, Jordan had received word that Egypt’s claim to victory was nothing more than a fantasy. The UN military envoy had strongly encouraged his Jordanian counterpart to accept a ceasefire. But the Jordanians wouldn’t hear of it. From al-Aqsa, they broadcast the call: “Take back your country stolen by the Jews!”

I’ll say this for the Jordanians: they tried. They really did. But after hours of fierce hand-to-hand combat, the IDF forced the Jordanian army to retreat to the hills of Bethlehem. South Jerusalem was now in Israeli hands. If they pushed, they could even retake the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem.

But could is one thing. Should is another. That night, the Israeli cabinet met to discuss the difference. Prime Minister Eshkol was – understandably – wary of the massive political and diplomatic headache that taking the rest of Jerusalem would surely cause. The Old City was sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. If the Israelis tried to seize it, and damaged any of the Holy Places in the process, Muslims and Christians all over the world would be up in arms. Plus, ownership of Jerusalem was controversial. What if the international community began pressuring Israel to give up the city to UN administration? Why risk soldiers’ lives for something they’d give up away?

But for plenty of others, including opposition leader and one of my personal heroes Menachem Begin, the answer was clear. This was it. A Jewish state without Jerusalem was like a body without a heart. No Jew had touched the stones of the Kotel in nearly two decades. How could Israel deprive its people of this chance?

Moshe Dayan wouldn’t have called himself a religious man. He was profoundly secular.  Still, this was a guy whose passion for the land of Israel ran so hot that he illicitly dug up archaeological sites, collecting ancient, tangible proof of the connection between Jews and their land. As the first day of the war wound down, he pressed Eshkol to let him take the Old City. But as usual, Eshkol advised Dayan to wait. As the IDF and the Jordanian army duked it out in the narrow alleys of East Jerusalem, diplomats and politicians were waging their own battle (more on that in the next episode). Two days into the war, they managed to get Israel and Jordan to agree to the idea of a ceasefire. But once the UN Security Council voted to make it official, Israel would lose its chance to unify Jerusalem.

On Day 3, with just hours before the expected UN vote, Israeli forces stood at the gates of the Old City. As Jordanian troops kept firing, Dayan warned Eshkol that it was now or never. The IDF was in a race against time to secure the Jewish holy places from which they’d been barred for so long. If the IDF succeeded, Jews would rule the entirety of their ancient capital for the first time in nearly two thousand years. Did Eshkol really want to be the Prime Minister who took that away from the Jewish people?

He didn’t. Eshkol okayed the operation, with strict instructions not to touch the Muslim or Christian holy sites. The commander of the Paratroop Brigade, Motte Gur, had been waiting for this moment for days. Maybe for a lifetime. He’d fumed as the higher-ups deliberated, even entertaining the idea of going in anyway, without government approval.As he put it: “By obeying my orders not to enter the Old City, would I not reap sorrow for generations and shame on the IDF which was arrayed just outside its walls?”

But Gur had no reason to worry about his legacy. Because at a quarter to ten in the morning on June 7, 1967, Israeli tanks blasted through the Lion’s Gate – one of the Old City’s seven ancient entrances. (Nerd corner alert: technically, eight gates surround the Old City, but one – which Jews call The Gate of Mercy, Sha’ar HaRahamim – is sealed. In Jewish tradition, this is the gate through which the Messiah will enter Jerusalem.) 

But as the 55th Paratroop Brigade made their way through the narrow, ancient streets of the Old City, flags of surrender waving from the windows, they had to face a sobering fact. They had no idea where they were going. No Jew had set foot in the Old City for 19 years. Gur had to ask a passerby for directions to the Kotel, the Western Wall that is all that is left of the Second Temple. Can you imagine that? Asking the enemy for directions to your holiest site, while a handful of snipers try to pick you off? 

They made it there safely. By 10AM, Gur and his men were standing on the Temple Mount. And amid the laughter and singing and yelling and hugging – and the occasional Jordanian bullet – Gur sent out a message.. No Jew who was alive that day will ever forget those three iconic, emotional words. [insert audio] Har Habayit Beyadeinu. The Temple Mount is in our hands. For the first time since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the Temple Mount was once again under Jewish control. 

The Israeli poet and songwriter Haim Hefer later wrote a poem about this moment. He called it The Paratroopers are Crying. It’s beautiful, and we’ve put a link in the show notes if you want to check it out. But it’s the last stanza that so perfectly expresses the mingled joy and disbelief of this moment.

“How is it that paratroopers cry? / How is it that they touch the wall with great emotion? / How is it that from crying they move to singing? / Perhaps because these boys of 19, born at the same time as the state / Carry on their shoulders – 2000 years.”

Within hours, Israel’s most important people flocked to the Wall. Dayan stuck a note between its stones. And because I am a huge nerd, I found a Jerusalem Post article from June 8th, 1967, where Dayan declared “This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to our holy places, never to part from it again.” And Rabin? He watched secular soldiers dance with haredi Jews. Begin made plans to resettle the Jewish quarter.

Dayan continued: “To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour – and with added emphasis at this hour – our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow-citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights.” But the country was still at war. Despite the joy and disbelief of this moment, soldiers were still fighting – and dying – for a future free from constant threat. Not to get corny about it, but at this moment Israel was building the future that I would be born into. So even as their comrades were praying and dancing and crying at the Kotel, IDF units were fighting fiercely for the Biblical cities of Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and Nablus, aka Shchem, all of which fell to IDF forces with minimal resistance. By Day 4, Israel held all of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

But the victory was marred by a tragic accident.

As we’ll discuss at length next week, world powers had been closely monitoring the situation in the Middle East. Remember, we’re in the midst of the Cold War. Any skirmish had the potential to go nuclear if the US and USSR got involved. And in a region as strategically important as the Middle East, both superpowers were very involved. The USSR had armed Syria and Egypt. The US was keeping some of its fleets close by in the event of an escalation.

No one expected an attack on a US ship. Certainly not from Israel.

But the USS Liberty was only 13 nautical miles from the Sinai Coast, in a lane that the Egyptians had closed, even to neutral ships. And though the war was winding to a close, coastal Israeli cities were still massively vulnerable to a naval attack. So the IAF circled, keeping a close eye on all the ships studding the coastline as the navy prepared for an Egyptian attack by sea. But through a series of tragic miscommunications, both the Israeli navy and the air force identified the USS Liberty as an enemy ship. They sent two jets to neutralize the threat. The Liberty was on fire before the Israelis realized that no one was firing back. “Friendly fire” is such a stupid phrase. There’s nothing friendly about it. Bullets are still bullets no matter who wields them. Israel’s profuse apologies and $12 million of compensation were hardly comforting to the families of the 34 Americans who lost their lives, or the 171 who were wounded. The only silver lining was that the Israelis hadn’t fired on a Soviet ship. That kind of mistake could have led to nuclear war.

By the way, this is a side note, but it’s important. Among the legacies of the USS Liberty is the lively conspiracy theory that the attack was deliberate. Some very credible sources like Al-Jazeera claim that Israel planned to blame the attack on Egypt so that the US would be forced to join the war. But – I want to say this kindly – that is frankly ridiculous, especially because Egypt agreed to a cease-fire that day. It was an accident. A tragic, horrible, stupid accident – one of the sour notes in a series of victories.

There was only one front left.

The Syrians had spent the past few days shelling the daylights out of the farms of the Galilee. So when the Syrians offered a ceasefire on Day 5 of the war, Israel considered it. But the Israelis up north, who had been suffering under Syrian fire for years, were sick of the constant threat. They were sitting ducks in the low country. If they were ever going to have real security, they’d have to take the literal high ground of the Golan Heights.

So the head of the Northern Command sent an officer – who just so happened to be a personal friend of Dayan – to implore the higher-ups not to accept a ceasefire.

Rabin and Eshkol weren’t convinced. Sure, they felt bad for the Israelis up north. But they’d already unexpectedly gained Gaza, the Sinai, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. If they went for the Golan, they’d look greedy – as though the war were a land grab rather than a genuine attempt to secure the borders. Plus, the Israelis were at a serious disadvantage. They’d have to climb 2,000 feet over rocky terrain lousy with Syrian fortifications and mines and barbed wire and bunkers. So the IDF Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister gave their answer: sorry, Northerners. You’ll have to hope that Syria respects the ceasefire.

But that wasn’t good enough for Moshe Dayan. 

Remember when I mentioned that Eshkol had made his Defense Minister agree to get approval for major decisions? Yeah, Eshkol knew who he was dealing with. But Dayan broke his promise. To be fair, he wasn’t being defiant for funsies. He knew that the Syrians were barely holding on in the Golan. Nasser was even urging them to formally accept the ceasefire before Israel wrested the Golan away. If there were ever a perfect moment to strike, this was it. So without clearing it with his bosses, Dayan gave the order. Give them hell.

But the Syrian soldiers waiting in the bunkers were spoiling for a fight. Egypt had been trounced. Jordan was humiliated. This was Syria’s chance to even the score. And, to their credit, the Syrian soldiers put up a stiff resistance that cost Israel dozens upon dozens of soldiers. But the IDF hadn’t come this far or lost this many men just to turn back now. All through the next day, the Israelis pressed forward, forcing the Syrian soldiers into full retreat. At least, those who hadn’t literally been chained to their posts, and yes, that’s a real and horrifying fact I learned from Michael Oren. Syrian soldiers and civilians alike streamed out of the Golan, leaving only Druze and Circassian minority communities to greet the IDF. (Link in the show notes to our episode on the Druze.)

The Golan Heights were in Israeli hands, just as a UN-brokered ceasefire was about to go into effect. The war was over. And far from being annihilated, the Israelis had somehow won. A week ago, the state had what Abba Eban termed “Auschwitz borders,” seemingly impossible to defend. Within six days, Israel had grown to four times its original size. Even the most secular Israelis thought they’d witnessed a miracle. Nothing would ever be the same. Not for Israel. Not for the US or the USSR. Not for the Arab world. Not for the Palestinians. Not for the global Jewish community.  The map had been redrawn. Chess board upended. And every single player was looking around, wondering, what now?

But you’ll have to wait til next week to find out.

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