June 1, 2017
This chronology omits the 1948 and 1956 wars and any mention of rising Arab-Israeli tensions from 1947 to May 1967. That context is essential for understanding the passionate dislike that Egypt and other Arab states and populations had for Israel before the June 1967 war, as well as the level of existential fear Israelis felt. Details about the context and about the war can be found in Ken Stein’s “The June 1967 War: How It Changed Jewish, Israeli, and Middle Eastern History,” eBook and print, 2017, israeled.org/june-1967-war.
May 12: The Soviet Union erroneously reports Israeli troops massing on the Syrian border. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol promises possible retaliation against cross-border attacks from Syria.
May 13: The Syrian Foreign Ministry issues a statement claiming that Israel has aggressive intentions toward Syria. Soviets repeat the same warning to Egyptians. On the question of Israeli troop movements, Secretary-General U Thant refers May 19 to allegations about troop movements and concentrations on the Israeli side of the Syrian border but concludes: “Reports from United Nations Troop Observers have confirmed the absence of troop concentrations and significant troop movements on both sides of the line.”
May 14: Egyptian troops begin moving into the Sinai. An Egyptian general visits Syria to survey the situation with Israel.
May 15: The U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) reports no sign of an Israeli military buildup in the north. The Egyptian general returns to Cairo and reports no sign of a buildup. Egypt puts its military on a state of alert.
May 16: The Egyptians request the removal of 3,400 U.N. Emergency Force troops from the Sinai, where they were placed after the 1956 war. U.S. intelligence sources deny any Israeli military buildup. Cairo Radio declares: “The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle that we have long awaited. The great hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.”
May 17: Thant says that, if the United Arab Republic demands it, he will have to order the withdrawal of U.N. forces because they are on sovereign Egyptian territory.
May 18: Egypt repeats its request for the complete withdrawal of an estimated 3,400 UNEF troops. Thant yields to the request.
May 19: The Egyptian High Command issues orders for the occupation of Sharm el-Sheikh, which controls access to the Gulf of Aqaba via the Strait of Tiran. UNEF troops leave Sinai.
May 20: UNEF withdraws from Sharm el-Sheikh, which leads to Israel’s southern port of Eilat. Syria Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad says, “Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse any aggression, but to initiate the act ourselves and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland of Palestine.”
May 21: UAR forces continue occupying Sharm el-Sheikh. The Supreme Executive Council in Cairo agrees that the Strait of Tiran should be closed to Israeli shipping. Cairo announces the mobilization of reserves, adding more than 100,000 men to Egypt’s armed forces, estimated at 200,000.
May 22: Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser says: “The Israeli flag shall not go through the Gulf of Aqaba. Our sovereignty over the entrance to the gulf cannot be disputed. If Israel wishes to threaten war, we tell her, ‘You are welcome.’ ” Eshkol calls for a mutual reduction of troops and tells Arab neighbors that Israel has no aggressive intentions.
May 23: Radio Cairo announces early in the morning that the Strait of Tiran has been closed to Israeli ships and other ships carrying strategic cargo to Israel. Eshkol announces that the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba constitutes an act of aggression against Israel. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson asserts that the United States is firmly committed to the territorial integrity of all nations in the area and considers the Strait of Tiran an international waterway. He calls the blockade “illegal.” Nasser says, “We knew that closing the Gulf of Aqaba meant war with Israel. … If war comes, it will be total, and the objective will be Israel’s destruction.”
May 24: New York Times correspondent James Reston writes, “In discipline, training, morale, equipment and general competence his (Nasser’s) army and the other Arab forces, without the direct assistance of the Soviet Union, are no match for the Israelis.” All UAR reserve forces are called up. Algeria and Tunisia announce support for any Egyptian action against Israel.
May 25: Egyptian, Russian, American, Israeli and U.N. officials take stock of the extraordinarily high military tension between Israel and Egypt. Several confer with respective allies on next steps. Lots of diplomatic talk and reassurances are given, but no effort is made to defuse the building confrontation between Israel and Egypt.
Nasser at Egyptian air force headquarters says: “Our forces are now in Sinai, and we are fully mobilized both in Gaza and Sinai. The armed forces yesterday occupied Sharm el-Sheikh. What does this mean? It is affirmation of our rights and our sovereignty over the Gulf of Aqaba, which constitutes Egyptian territorial waters. Under no circumstances will we allow the Israeli flag to pass through the Gulf of Aqaba. The Jews threaten war. We tell them you are welcome; we are ready for war. Our armed forces and all our people are ready for war, but under no circumstances will we abandon any of our rights. This water is ours.”
May 26: Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban confers with Johnson in an effort to find out the extent of U.S. support of Israel for reopening the Strait of Tiran by force. Eban met with French President Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson before flying to the United States. Johnson reaffirms support for Israel but refuses to say the United States will do whatever is necessary to reopen the strait.
Nasser declares: “The problem today is not just Israel, but also those behind it. If Israel embarks on an aggression against Syria or Egypt, the battle against Israel will be a general one and not confined to one spot on the Syrian or Egyptian borders. … Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”
May 27: Soviet ambassadors in Cairo and Tel Aviv deliver a plea for restraint to Nasser and Eshkol in the early hours of the morning. The Israeli Cabinet meets and is evenly divided on whether to go to war.
May 28: Eshkol says the Cabinet has decided on “the continuation of political action in the world arena” so that “international factors could take effective measures to ensure free passage in the strait.” Israel maintains that the closure of the strait to Israeli shipping is equivalent to an act of aggression against Israel.
Nasser says the Arabs “will not accept any … coexistence with Israel. … Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel. … The war with Israel is in effect since 1948.”
May 29: Nasser tells the Egyptian National Assembly that Defense Minister Shams Badran has brought a message of support from Premier Alexei Kosygin in Moscow “that the Soviet Union stands with us in this battle and will not allow any country to interfere.” Algeria says it will send troops to join Arab forces, the Defense Ministry announces. … Nasser declares that a negotiated peace is “out of the question” until the Palestinian Arabs “return to their homelands.”
May 30: King Hussein of Jordan flies to Cairo and signs a mutual defense agreement in which their forces will coordinate with each other. The agreement, modeled on the EgyptianSyrian treaty, binds the parties to use all means at their disposal to repel an attack on either one. Jordan lets Iraqi troops enter its territory as part of forming a joint Arab command. At the signing ceremony, Nasser says, “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel … to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. … We have reached the stage of serious action and not of more declarations.”
Eban says the Israeli government will open the Strait of Tiran “alone if we must, with others if we can.” He adds, “Less than two weeks ago a change took place in the security balance in this region. The two most spectacular signs of this change were the illegal attempt to blockade the international passageway at the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba and the abnormal buildup of Egyptian troops on the Israeli frontier. The government and people of Israel intend to ensure that these two changes are rescinded, and in the shortest possible time.”
May 31: Iraq sends troops to Egypt and Jordan. Yemen, Kuwait, Morocco and Algeria promise the same. Iraqi President Abdul Rahman Aref says, “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear: to wipe Israel off the map.” Several members of the British Parliament lament the drift toward war and the removal of U.N. forces, “taking the fire brigade away just when fire was about to burst out,” Foreign Secretary George Brown says. Sir Alec Douglas-Home says the United Nations is the first casualty and “would need an immense effort, an almost superhuman effort, to restore the prestige of that organization.”
June 1: Nasser receives former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson and agrees to send his second vice president, Zakariya Muhieddin, to Washington to discuss ways to defuse the situation. Facing criticism of his “procrastination,” Eshkol broadens his coalition and names Moshe Dayan, still a war hero from the 1956 war, defense minister. Herut leader Menachem Begin and others are brought into a national unity government and given Cabinet rank without portfolios.
PLO Chairman Ahmed Shukairy, reconciled with Hussein, says in Amman that he expects war, that Jordan might start it and that the Arabs will win. “The Jews in Palestine will have to leave,” he says. “Any of the old Palestinian Jewish population who survive may stay, but it is my impression that none of them will survive.”
June 2: Nasser warns his senior officers that the Israelis will strike in a few days. His warning goes largely unheeded. The UAR newspaper Al-Ahram reports that the Suez Canal will be closed to all ships that try to break the blockade of Aqaba, and Egypt will view such attempts as “acts of aggression.” … The French government announces that it “is not committed in any way and on any subject” or on the side of “any of the states involved.” De Gaulle says his country’s policy toward the budding conflict is “positive neutrality.” In Tel Aviv, 12,000 volunteers, including schoolchildren, join in digging trenches and filling sandbags.
June 3: Eshkol’s Cabinet, after hearing Mossad head Meir Amit’s report from Washington, decides to recommend war to the full government the next day. Libyan King Idris orders army units to take up positions with Egyptian forces near Israel. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gideon Rafael, presents a detailed outline of events leading to the war. Egypt has 210,000 troops ready for deployment, 100,000 of them with 930 tanks in the Sinai.
The CIA assessment is summarized with two formidable conclusions, “the rapidly growing belief in Israel that time is running out and that if Israel is not to suffer an ultimately fatal defeat, it must very soon either strike or obtain absolutely iron-clad security assurances from the West. The second aspect is the rise of a euphoric, band-wagon spirit among the Arab states, leading even moderate Arabs to believe that the time may in fact have come when the Arabs can close in on Israel with some hope of success. The Arabs are sniffing blood.”
Johnson presents two U.S. principles: “The first is that we support the territorial integrity and political independence of all of the countries of the Middle East. This principle has now been affirmed by four American presidents. The second is our defense of the basic interest of the entire world community in the freedom of the seas. As a leading maritime nation, we have a vital interest in upholding freedom of the seas, and the right of passage through a strait of an international character. … I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in writing to Arab ambassadors, warns, “The ‘Holy War’ psychology of the Arab world is matched by an apocalyptic psychology within Israel. Israel may make a decision that it must resort to force to protect its vital interests. In dealing with the issues involved, therefore, we must keep in mind the necessity for finding a solution with which Israel can be restrained.”
June 4: The Israeli Cabinet votes to go to war in response to the concentration of Arab forces on Israel’s borders, perhaps a bigger threat than the blockade on the Gulf of Aqaba. It is announced that Egypt’s Muhieddin will visit Washington and U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey will visit Cairo to defuse the crisis. Iraq joins the Egyptian-Jordanian defense pact. Algeria, Libya and Sudan report that they are preparing to send forces to Egypt; Kuwaiti troops are already in Egypt. A conference of 11 Arab oil-exporting countries opens in Damascus at Iraq’s initiative to consider prohibiting the sale of oil to countries that support Israel.
The Israeli Cabinet passes a secret resolution: “After hearing a report on the military and political situation from the prime minister, the foreign minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff and the head of military intelligence, the government ascertained that the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan are deployed for immediate multifront aggression, threatening the very existence of the state. The government resolves to take military action in order to liberate Israel from the stranglehold of aggression which is progressively being tightened around Israel. The government authorities — the prime minister and the defense minister — will confirm to the General Staff of the IDF the time for action. Members of the Cabinet will receive as soon as possible the information concerning the military operation to be carried out. The government charges the foreign minister with the task of exhausting all possibilities of political action in order to explain Israel’s stand and to obtain the support of the powers.”
Monday, June 5: Israelis pre-emptively strike 11 Egyptian airfields at 7:45 a.m., destroying the vast majority of Egyptian military aircraft (279) in four hours. (Israel destroys a total of 389 Arab planes and loses 19 in the first 48 hours of the war.) Syria replies with the immediate bombing of Israeli settlements on the northern border.
Israel’s entry into the West Bank is not a premeditated Israeli plan for territorial expansion. Instead, at 10:40 a.m., Dayan says in a message to the troops: “We have no aims of conquest. Our only aim is to frustrate the attempt of the Arab armies to conquer our country and to sever and crush the ring of blockade and aggression which has been created around us.” An hour later Eshkol broadcasts to the nation: “We shall not attack any state so long as it does not wage war against us. But anyone attacking us will meet with our full power of self-defense and our capacity to defeat his forces.” Israel gives assurances to Jordan that morning that there will be no attack if Jordan does not open hostilities. Nevertheless, Jordanian forces open fire on Jewish Jerusalem at 11:45 a.m. and expel the U.N. observers from their headquarters in the city, while towns and villages all along the armistice lines are shelled by Jordanian artillery and bombarded by Syrian and Iraqi planes.
Fighting rages from Syria to the Sinai and along the Jordanian border. Cairo Radio reports that places in the UAR have been bombed. The Egyptian government says Arab land forces have repulsed invading Israeli armor on the Gaza Strip and in the Sinai. Israel claims major victories in the Sinai and Gaza, saying troops have taken al-’Arish and Khan Yunis. The Israeli government also reports that planes have decimated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces.
A two-day meeting of the oil ministers of all Arab oil-producing states ends in Baghdad after agreeing to three resolutions: that oil supplies will be suspended to any state that “agrees or supports an aggression” against any Arab state; that any such aggression would mean that properties of that country’s companies and nationals would be subject to war resolutions; and that all Arab states should hold an emergency meeting to implement the war regulations. The Egyptian armed forces supreme command charges that American and British planes provide fighter cover over Israel during raids by Israeli aircraft.
The Johnson administration has done little to fend off war, and the president wants to be careful what the administration says now that war has broken out. But when asked by a reporter if the administration intends to reaffirm its neutrality, State Department spokesman Robert McCloskey says, “Indeed I would; I would be happy to. We have tried to steer an even-handed course through this. Our position is neutral in thought, word and deed.” Joseph Califano, a special assistant to the president, frets that the remarks are “killing us with the Jews in this country.” Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) ridicules the remarks, saying: “What’s neutral? I call it ‘snootral’ — when you stick up your snoot at both sides.”
Tuesday, June 6: Israeli troops sweep around the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem and reach Mount Scopus. Eshkol appeals to the Soviet Union to help secure peace “based on the independence and territorial integrity of all nations.” In the south, Israeli forces clear Abu Aweigila, advance deep into the Sinai and occupy Gaza. Israel takes further Jordanian strongpoints in and around Jerusalem and captures Ramallah, Jenin, Tulkarm and Kalkilya on the West Bank. The Soviet Union demands that Israel “immediately and unconditionally” halt military operations and asks that the United Nations condemn the Israeli aggression. Egypt charges that U.S.-British air cover has been provided to Israel, explaining why Israel has flown so many more sorties than seems possible based of the number of Israeli aircraft. Rather than take an hour to turn a plane around and refurbish it with armaments and fuel, Israel accomplishes the task in 20 minutes, giving the appearance that its air force is triple its size. Egypt severs diplomatic relations with the United States, not to be resumed until after the October 1973 war.
Wednesday, June 7: Israel claims victory and full occupation of the Sinai Desert. Israeli troops are reported at Sharm el-Sheikh and Isma’iliyyah. Troops also report capturing Jericho and Nablus. Israel declares that the Strait of Tiran is an international waterway. Israelis pray at the Western Wall for the first time since 1948. When Dayan visits the Old City of Jerusalem, he says, “We have unified Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to depart from it again.” Eshkol meets with the heads of all religious communities and assures them that no harm will befall the holy places. The chief rabbis will be in control of the Western Wall and the heads of the Muslim and Christian communities of their holy places. Johnson promises U.S. efforts to transform the Middle East with a lasting Arab-Israeli settlement and announces a special task force led by McGeorge Bundy to draft a peace plan.
Thursday, June 8: Israel claims complete control of all approaches from Sinai to the Suez Canal and says its forces are carrying out “the total destruction of the Egyptian forces in the Sinai.” Egypt accepts a cease-fire in Sinai. Damascus Radio says Syria will continue to fight until the flag of the Palestinian Arabs “flies in the skies of Tel Aviv.” Israeli torpedo boats and planes attack and sink a U.S. communications ship, the USS Liberty, off the Sinai coast. Israel apologizes for the blunder, which kills dozens of U.S. sailors and wounds more than 75 others. A cease-fire is declared on the Jordan-Israel front. Israeli forces are transferred from the central front to the north, where aircraft, artillery, armor and infantry break through the Syrian positions on the Golan Heights, from which Israeli villages in the valley below have repeatedly been harassed and shelled. For a preliminary CIA assessment of the Israeli attack on the Liberty, see history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v19/d284.
Friday, June 9: U.N. The Security Council adopts a resolution that says Israel and Syria have accepted the demand for a cease-fire and demands that “hostilities should cease forthwith.”
Israeli forces penetrate six to eight miles into Syria. A cease-fire is declared on the Egyptian-Israeli front. Nasser announces the Arab defeat on television, blames it on Israel’s foreign allies and says he intends to resign. “Accurate calculations were made of the enemy’s strength and showed us that our armed forces, at the level of equipment and training which they had reached, were capable of repelling the enemy and deterring him,” Nasser says. “We realized that the possibility of an armed clash existed and accepted the risk. … In the morning of last Monday, 5 June, the enemy struck. If we say now it was a stronger blow than we had expected, we must say at the same time, and with complete certainty, that it was bigger than the potential at its disposal. It became very clear from the first moment that there were other powers behind the enemy.” He says the United States and Britain were settling their accounts with the Arab national movement by helping the Jews, just as Britain had in 1956.
Nasser later retracts his resignation.
Saturday, June 10: The Israeli government offers to pay compensation for the deaths and damage in the attack on the USS Liberty. The Soviet Union breaks off diplomatic relations with Israel, as do Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. With the Soviet Union fearing a massive Egyptian loss, the risk of “a grave catastrophe” is compounded for the Soviets by Israel’s continued gains in the Golan Heights while fighting the Syrians. So vexed is Kosygin that he uses the hotline between Moscow and Washington to tell Johnson: “A very crucial moment has now arrived which forces us, if military actions are not stopped in the next few hours, to adopt an independence decision. We are ready to do this. However, these actions may bring us into a clash, which will lead to a grave catastrophe. Obviously, in the world there are powers to whom this would be advantageous. We propose that you demand from Israel that it unconditionally cease military action in the next few hours. On our part, we will do the same. We propose to warn Israel that, if this is not fulfilled, necessary actions will be taken, including military.”
Johnson tells Kosygin that the United States will press Israel for a cease-fire, and he orders the 6th Fleet, then 300 miles off the Syrian coast, to head east to within 50 miles of the coast. Johnson, in his memoir, notes that the effect of the U.S. move was to temper future Soviet actions.
Israel declares victory over Syria and says it will not return to the 1949 armistice lines. Soviet U.N. representative Nikolai Federenko launches a vigorous effort to have Israel return to the pre-June lines. The Syrians agree to a cease-fire but continue to shell Israeli villages, so Israeli forces attack and occupy the whole of the Golan Heights as far as Kuneitra, less than 40 miles from Damascus. The cease-fire goes into force on the northern sector at 4:30 p.m. GMT, bringing the war to an end.
June 11: Cairo Radio announces that “the UAR will not rest until Israel evacuates the land she now occupies.” A cease-fire is declared on the Syrian-Israeli front. Nasser replaces 11 top army commanders. Reston writes, “The Israelis are now very popular in Washington. They had the courage of our convictions and they won the war we opposed.” Another Times writer, C.L. Sulzberger, writes, “The United States can claim no credit for Israel’s swift victory but the fact of that victory was strategic benefit to us, although our role was confined to waffling. Despite ourselves, American prestige has risen.” The State Department makes it clear to the Israeli government that West Bank residents should not flee their homes and that Israel should do all it can to stem any flow to the East Bank. Israel tells U.S. Ambassador Wally Barbour that it has no intention to urge such flight.
Sources: Michael Brecher, “Decisions in Crisis Israel and 1973,” University of California Press, 1980, pp. 91-170; 253-288; the Shiloah Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, Middle East Record 1967, Israel Universities Press, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, 1971; Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, “Arab-Israeli War- 1964-1968, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1967-Pre and Post War Diplomacy,” Volume XIX,history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v19; Michael B. Oren, “Six Days of War June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” Ballantine Books, 2003; Robert David Johnson, “Lyndon Johnson and Israel: The Secret Presidential Recordings,” the S. Daniel Abraham Center for International and Regional Studies at Tel Aviv University, July 2008, www.tau.ac.il/humanities/abraham/publications/johnson_israel.pdf; The Middle East Journal chronology sections in Volume 21, Nos. 3 and 4 and Winter 1968, Volume 22, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring 1969; Nadav Safran, “From War to War: The Arab-Israel Confrontation 1948-1967,” New York, Pegasus, 1969; Nadav Safran, “Israel the Embattled Ally,” Cambridge, 1978, pp. 382-475; Near East Report, Volume 11, Nos. 11 and 12; “Timeline,” Center for Israel Education, israeled.org/resources/timeline.