In early June 1967, Israel won the swiftest and the most spectacular military victory of its entire war-filled history. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan quickly branded it the “Six-Day War” in a conscious allusion to the six days of the Creation in the book of Genesis. With a few exceptions, Israelis regard this war as a defensive war, a morally justified war, and a war of no-choice, a war imposed on them by their predatory Arab foes. In the Arab world, this war is viewed as a wilful act of aggression with a secret agenda of territorial expansion. The widely held view is that during the summer of 1967 Israel was ready for war, well prepared, and only waiting for an opportunity to launch it. Many Egyptians go further and claim that Israel laid a trap for Gamal Abdel Nasser and that Nasser fell into it. Jordanians believe that there was a trap and consider it part of an Israeli strategy to draw the neighbouring Arab states into a war for which they were not prepared. The notion that Israel was constantly planning and plotting to capture the West Bank is central to the Jordanian understanding of the origins of the war. In a speech on 25 January 1967, King Hussein declared that “the enemy's present objective is the West Bank; after that it will be the East Bank and after that they will expand throughout the Arab homeland to achieve their aims and ambitions.” This view of Israel's conduct in 1967 is entirely consistent with the predominant Arab perception of themselves as the innocent victims and of Israel as an inherently aggressive and expansionist state, an outpost of Western imperialism. The reality is more complex on both sides of the equation.
The purpose of this chapter is to reexamine the Arab claims of a premeditated war plot in the light of the evidence that is now available. Why did Israel launch a surprise attack on 5 June 1967? What were its war aims? Did they include territorial expansion at the expense of its neighbours? Was this a defensive or an offensive war? Was it a war of choice or a war of no-choice? These are some of the main questions to be explored here. Fortunately, the primary sources available regarding Israel's conduct in 1967 are extraordinarily rich. Israel emulated Britain's thirty-year rule for the review and declassification of official documents and applied it in an admirably liberal fashion. The primary sources regarding the June War that have been declassified include the verbatim records of Cabinet meetings; the papers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the verbatim records of the meetings of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) General Staff, the papers of the Chief of Staff, and the minutes of countless consultative meetings involving military and civilian officials. Whatever one might think of Israel's policy towards the Arabs, it is very much to its credit that it allows researchers such remarkably free access to its internal records.