Forty Five years ago this month, in 1967, Arab states were soundly defeated by Israel in a war that was unlike other wars in terms of its lopsided military and political balance between the combatants, and in terms of its results.
The Arab states lost in a span of six days the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the strategic Golan Heights, a total land mass of roughly 67000 square mile. Jordan lost half of its population in the West Bank that produced 40% of its total economic output.
The Israelis won the war through their air superiority and through their effective military and political leadership, a winning recipe that still stands today.
On June 5th between 7:15 AM and 9:00 AM Israeli bombers destroyed the entire Egyptian air force and airports, effectively wining the entire war within 2 hours. Despite this defeat, Egyptian military leaders and media lied and deceived the Arab nations into thinking that they were actually wining.
One lie that stood out in particular was when the Egyptian army chief of Staff Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer telephoned Egyptian General Abdel Menem Riyad, who commanded the Jordanian army ordering him to enter the war through the West Bank.
Riyad, acting on his commander orders in Cairo, needlessly moved his outnumbered and outgunned Jordanian forces to attack Israeli positions around Jerusalem. In another fatal error, he moved the best Jordanian armored brigades; the 40th and the 60th south to Jericho to link up with the supposedly advancing Egyptian army that he thought would cut Israel In half and reach the West Bank from Sinai.
In the first day, Arab states lost a total of 452 aircrafts that included 318 Egyptians, 61 Syrian, the entire Jordanian air force of 24 aircrafts, 29 Iraqi and 1 Lebanese. Israel lost only 46 aircrafts. Israeli air force mastered the skies throughout the war, while Arab armies fought the war without air cover.
The road to defeat started when Arab leaders made several strategic and fatal errors that enabled Israel to deal them that humiliating defeat.
In the 50s and 60s, the decades that preceded the war, the Arab World was at war with itself over Arab nationalism, Arab unity, and republicanism vs. Monarchy. This despite Arab leaders knew for a decade, after the 1956 war, that a war with Israel was inevitable. Yet they made no preparations for it, in fact they were caught up by surprise the day the war started.
One of the major strategic errors committed by Arab leaders was their threatening verbal wars against each other. Media wars, coups and counter coups had a long lasting negative impact on relations between Arab states and hindered their economic and military development, while Israel was making huge advances in its military and economy.
In addition, Arab media outlets and journalists were equally responsible for that defeat because they acted as an extension of the regimes and as their official apologists. They did so by putting the interests of the ruling family or ruling party over and above the interest of the state.
The intra-Arab wars were thus fueled by unscrupulous and unprofessional journalists on the airwaves and in newspapers in Arab capitals. The lack of free and independent Arab media and journalists suited the Arab dictators and was a key factor in the 1967 defeat.
A decade earlier, Egyptian president Jamal Abdel Nasser, set his eyes on changing the Arab World through the “Arab Unity” among dictatorial and reactionary regimes. This union was supposed to bond diverse and largely incompetent and corrupt regimes, whose real intentions were to dominate other countries as opposed of empowering the citizens through economic development and political rights.
Nasser’s main propaganda machine was his Radio station, the Voice of the Arabs that wreaked havoc in the Arab World by creating a perception of powerful Egyptian invincibility against Israel and against his Arab enemies. This all-powerful image fooled ordinary Arabs into thinking that the” liberation of Palestine” was a mere walk in the park. It also fooled other Arab leaders into believing just that.
Historic documents later revealed that Nasser never in fact had any plans to attack Israel during those years and the Egyptian army had only defensive plan code-named “Khair” that aimed to draw the Israelis into Sinai and attack them there.
In addition, the Egyptian leadership was so oblivious to the imminent disaster that they never actually made any training plans for “Khair” or even informed their divisional commanders of it.
Adding insult to injury was the Egyptian Chief of Staff Abdel-Hakim Amer who led the Egyptian army to battle had no real military experience and was known to be a corrupt, drunk and incompetent individual who in just two years moved up from Major to Field Marshal.
On Jordanian front, King Hussein, ever since he assumed the throne in 1953, was engaged in a non-stop war to save his throne and his impoverished kingdom. First, there were the Israelis who eyed the West Bank since 1948, then the Iraqi Hashemites, and later the Baathists who looked down on his Kingdom treating him as a poor runt. Then there was Nasser who wanted to overthrow the King and replace him with nationalists and Baathist Jordanian officers, who were plotting a coup against him since the 1950s.
Being surrounded by more powerful enemies and less than reliable allies in West and in Israel, a weakened King Hussein reasoned that it was in the best interest of his throne to stay in touch with his Arab enemies and secretly with his Israeli enemies. His secret contacts with Israel started in 1963 in the house of his Jewish family doctor in London, Dr. Emmanuel Herbert, could have saved the West Bank, had he listened to his western backers or to the assurances of the Israelis to stay out of the war.
Even though the Israelis would have occupied the West Bank in case Jordan falls apart, their major target at the time was Egypt. For King Hussein, his options were to either take the plunge by entering the war and lose the West Bank, or stay out of the war and lose his throne to his nationalist and Baathist Jordanian army officers.
The king then signed a mutual defense treaty with Egypt that gave the Egyptian officers overall command of the Jordanian army. As a result of this, Jordan found itself at war by a decision made by Egyptian military leaders in Amman and Cairo even well before the King knew about it.
Adding to these mistakes, was the inherent weakness of Jordanian wartime political and military leadership. The army chief was General Habis al Majali, a conventional officer, but was not known to be an aggressive or strong military leader. The deputy chief of staff Sharif Nasser Bin Jamil, the King’s uncle, had no real military experience and was corrupt and drugs smuggler. His advice to the King during national crises had always been to flee Jordan to save himself and his family.
Prime Minister Sa’ad Juma was also a weak politician who did not offer strong advice to the King against the alignment with Nasser. Only a prime minister with the stature and power of Wasfi al Tal could have made a strong stand before the king against such an alliance.
Overall, the Jordanian army, without an air support, put up a strong and brave fight against the Israeli army, before the general retreat order was issued. It was also the most effective Arab force in the war as it was the case in 1948 war despite its political and military shortcomings.
On the Syrian front, the battle for the Golan Heights was dismal. The Syrian army defending the heights was demoralized and did not mount an active defense of the heights.
This was because Hafiz Al Assad; then the defense minister, knowing of the Jordanian and Egyptian army defeats, ordered the army to retreat. He then announced the fall of Quneitera, the capital of the heights four hours before its actual fall to the advancing Israeli army. Hafiz al Assad, the man responsible for the defeat, was later promoted to a prime minister and two years later became the president of Syria for life.
Ali Younes is a writer and journalist based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @clearali.