Arab-Israel Six Day War: Intelligence Memorandum Prepared by the Board of National Estimates of  the Central Intelligence Agency
May 26, 1967

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Arab-Israel Six Day War: Intelligence Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency
May 26, 1967

 

Introduction

This estimate of Israelis and Arab military capabilities was prepared just prior to the Six day war on May 26, 1967 by the United Stated Central Intelligence Agency, National Board of Estimates.

An alternative estimate or a censored version of this one was apparently prepared on the same day. That estimate has sometimes been cited as "proof" that Israel was not in any danger and that the US and Israel knew this to be the case.  Between 50,000 (US estimate) and 100,000 (Israeli estimate) Egyptian troops had been moved into Sinai by May 25. The US estimate of five divisions, given below, would be consistent with a force of about 75,000.  Israeli intelligence warnings on the same day as this estimate was delivered, had warned of an imminent Egyptian attack, while the US repeated cautioned Israel not to initiate a pre-emptive strike. Israel had dug 10,000 graves and prepared about 14,000 hospital beds for casualties in preparation for the war.

The report makes the following interesting estimate:

Israel could almost certainly attain air superiority over the Sinai Peninsula in 24 hours after taking the initiative or in two or three days if the UAR struck first. In the latter case, Israel might lose up to half of its air force. We estimate that armored striking forces could breach the UAR's double defense line in the Sinai within several days. Regrouping and resupplying would be required before the Israelis could initiate further attacks aimed at driving to the Suez Canal. Israel could contain any attacks by Syria or Jordan during this period.

Had Israel had lost half its air force, regrouping and resupply would have been possible only if there were not serious loss of pilots, since it would be impossible to retrain pilots in this period. Airport runways would not be serviceable and there would be no way to service the aircraft and refuel them. Presumably, during this period, Israeli cities and strategic installations, including the Dimona nuclear reactor, would be open to Egyptian attack and Israel would have little effective air defense capability. As the Egyptians would probably have bombed Israeli ports and Lod Airport, resupply would have been difficult. In the event they had hit the nuclear reactor, the strike might have spread a great deal of radiation, in which case there might have been little point to resupply.

In the event, Israel struck first. However there is no way of knowing for certain what would have been the result if the Egyptians had struck first.

A far different estimate was delivered by the CIA's national board of estimates on the same day, stating that Israel had lost this round by failing to attack, and would suffer heavy losses if it attacked now, and what is critical, that Israel would not undertake the war without adequate assurance of resupply:

5. The Israelis face dismaying choices. Surprised and shaken by Nasser's action, they failed to take the instant military counteraction which might have been most effective. If they attack now they will face far more formidable opposition than in the rapid campaign of 1956. We believe that they would still be able to drive the Egyptians away from the entrance to the Strait of Tiran, but it would certainly cost them heavy losses of men and materiel. We are not sure that they have sufficient stockpiles of ammunition and equipment for a war lasting more than three or four weeks, and it is possible that they would not embark upon a major campaign without prior assurances from the US of adequate resupply.

The U.S. chose to believe and act on the first estimate, apparently because it was intent on restraining Israel from attacking first regardless of possible costs to Israel. The important part of this estimate, in the cynical calculus of the US, was apparently the conclusion that Israel would not attack as long it was not assured of resupply. Therefore, the US may have believed they could be reasonably assured that Israel would not and could not attack without a positive "green light" from the United States.

Copyright

The introduction above is copyright 2007 by Ami Isseroff. The document below is in the public domain. Please cite the sources. Source of document: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/28054.htm


79. Memorandum From the Central Intelligence Agency's Board of National Estimates to Director of Central Intelligence Helms/1/

Washington, May 26, 1967.

/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II. Secret.

SUBJECT
The Middle Eastern Crisis

1. The first thing that calls for explanation in the present crisis is why Nasser chose at this moment to abandon his long-standing reluctance to risk military confrontation with Israel.

a. At the immediate moment Nasser was probably prompted to initiate these maneuvers by Israeli threats against Syria. He probably felt that he had to identify himself with Arab nationalist interests and that some action on his part would refurbish his image in the Arab world. These views, however, are probably insufficient to explain all the events that have occurred.

b. He probably had decided (though he stated the contrary not long ago) that his armed forces were improved to the point where they could successfully stand off an Israeli offensive, even though they might be unable to defeat Israel decisively. Accordingly, he may have felt that if he could get his army properly deployed in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere, the chances of war would be acceptable.

c. It is possible that the Soviets encouraged him in these views. We do not believe that the whole operation is a Soviet plan, or even that the Soviets urged him to his present course of action, but their attitude must have been sufficiently permissive so that he knew he could count on political and logistic support from them in the course of the crisis. The interests of the Soviet Union itself would obviously be served by successes for Nasser at the expense of Israel and the US.

d. The US preoccupation with Vietnam and the bad blood occasioned thereby between the US and the USSR, probably had some important influence on the nature of Nasser's decision as well as its timing.

e. There may have been some element of desperation in Nasser's attitude, arising from the parlous condition of the Egyptian economy, the worsening of relations with the US, a belief that some sort of US-Israeli plot against him existed, and perhaps a fatalistic conclusion that a showdown with Israel must come sooner or later, and might best be provoked before Israel acquired nuclear weapons.

f. He may also have concluded, from a tactical point of view, that he could gamble on US influence and perhaps some Israeli indecisiveness to prevent an Israeli offensive at the early and most vulnerable stages of his deployments.

2. The movement of UAR troops seems to have gone smoothly and expertly. Yet there must have been in this as in other crises a large element of accident in the actual course of events. For example, Nasser probably did not expect such a speedy departure of UN forces from Sharm el Sheikh, giving him opportunity for a quick seizure of the position and an announced closing of the Strait. He has thus far managed the crisis, from his point of view, with great skill and success.

3. Clearly Nasser has won the first round. It is possible that he may seek a military show-down with Israel, designed to settle the whole problem once and for all. This seems to us highly unlikely. We still do not believe that Nasser considers his forces (together with those of other Arab states) capable of carrying such a campaign to a successful conclusion. And in our opinion they are not so capable. Moreover we believe that the Soviets would almost certainly advise Nasser against a military effort of this magnitude, perhaps with strong insistence.

4. The most likely course seems to be for Nasser to hold to his present winnings as long as he can, and in as full measure as he can. As of the moment he has vastly enhanced his own prestige in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, diminished the standing of Israel and, at least for the moment, administered a serious setback to the US. Moreover, by simply standing where he is he places the Israelis in an extremely difficult position. He keeps the crisis at high pitch, and as long as this continues the Israelis must remain mobilized. This they cannot do for long without adverse effects upon their economy.

5. The Israelis face dismaying choices. Surprised and shaken by Nasser's action, they failed to take the instant military counteraction which might have been most effective. If they attack now they will face far more formidable opposition than in the rapid campaign of 1956. We believe that they would still be able to drive the Egyptians away from the entrance to the Strait of Tiran, but it would certainly cost them heavy losses of men and materiel. We are not sure that they have sufficient stockpiles of ammunition and equipment for a war lasting more than three or four weeks, and it is possible that they would not embark upon a major campaign without prior assurances from the US of adequate resupply.

6. But the alternative for the Israelis is perilous. To acquiesce in the permanent closing of the Strait of Tiran would constitute an economic and political setback from which no early recovery would be foreseeable. The Israelis would expect, correctly we believe, that the Arabs over the long run would be encouraged to undertake new and still more dangerous harassments. We are inclined to believe that unless the US and other major powers take whatever steps are necessary to reopen the Strait, the Israelis will feel compelled to go to war.

7. In this event they might choose to begin hostilities by attacking Syria and wait for the Egyptians to respond. If the Egyptians did not, Nasser would lose much of what he has gained. If they did, they would lose the advantage of their defensive positions.

8. The Soviets are unlikely to take vigorous steps to calm down the crisis so long as it continues to produce deleterious effects upon Israel (and the US) and advantages for Nasser. Nevertheless they may be apprehensive about the future course of events. They may not have known in advance about the closing of the Strait. We do not believe that they desire a Middle Eastern war or that they have planned with Nasser the destruction of Israel at this juncture. They will probably oppose by diplomatic and propagandistic means any efforts by the US and the Western Powers to open the Strait. But, if we assume an attempt by the Western Powers to open the Strait by military force, we do not think that the Soviets would use their own armed forces in opposition.

9. One almost certain objective of the Soviets is to see the US more firmly and publicly identified with Israel. This would have the obvious effect of making the entire Arab world--including in an ambivalent way even the more conservative states--convinced that the US is irrevocably committed to their common enemy. It would further weaken the US position in the area, threaten US oil interests, and strengthen the Soviet position as friend and protector of all Arabs against their imperialist foes. This Soviet aim has already been realized in considerable degree. Moreover the Soviets must be glad to see US attention diverted from Vietnam, but it does not seem likely that they think the Middle Eastern crisis will appreciably affect US military capabilities or intentions in Southeast Asia.

10. One important question is what the Soviets would do if the Israelis attacked the UAR and waged a successful campaign. Such an event would be a grave setback for Nasser and, by extension, for the USSR itself. Nevertheless we do not believe that the Soviets would intervene in the conflict with their own combat forces. They could, of course, use their bomber and missile forces against Israel, but they would be very unlikely to do so, though they might threaten it. They do not have the capability of introducing lesser kinds of forces (ground troops, or volunteers) in this area with sufficient speed to be decisive, and we do not think they would try to do so. They would be cautious about the risk of armed confrontation with US forces. And they would probably count upon the political intervention of great powers, including themselves, to stop the fighting before Nasser had suffered too much damage.

11. The position of other Arab countries than the UAR is, at this stage of crisis, ancillary and comparatively unimportant. Conceivably Syria might touch off larger hostilities by attacking Israel in force, but we believe that both Nasser and the USSR would be opposed to such action. If war broke out Syrian forces would engage, other Arab states would send help, but it would not matter very much. The crisis in its present acute intensity is essentially one between Israel and the UAR, the US and the UAR, and (to a more moderate degree) between the US and the USSR. The course of events will depend upon the action and reactions of these powers.

For the Board of National Estimates:

Sherman Kent
Chairman

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