Israel's Coup That Never Was

by Danny Stoker

History is littered with revolutions, coups, and uprisings. While we remember those that succeed, those that don’t are often quickly forgotten and left in the recesses of the national consciousness. Americans celebrate the Boston Tea Party, but few remember the Whiskey or Shay’s Rebellion. Rebellion and Insurrection can tell us much about history, even when those rebellions never quite materialize. A few weeks back, Mike and I did a show on the events leading up to the 1967 War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Shortly after the show one of our listeners contacted me about one aspect of the 1967 War that we had missed. 

In the weeks leading up to the war, Israel’s generals pressed for a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, some even considered a military coup as means of securing a pre-emptive strike, before planning to hand power back over to a civilian government. In 2004, former general and then PM Ariel Sharon, admitted that he considered a military coup in order to ensure that the military carry out its strike. The thought came into Sharon’s mind during a May 28th meeting between Israel's General Staff and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government. In his book on the 1967 war, Tom Segev details the tension in the meeting.

“The meeting was tough; rage was in the air. Eshkol found himself facing fierce, confrontational General Staff, worked up to the point of hysteria and particularly rude. Some of the officers were threatening, claiming that the state’s existence was in danger. Eshkol put them in their place, but was evidently deeply shaken.”

According to Segev’s telling, the General Staff viewed Eshkol’s reluctance to launch a strike against Egypt's military forces in the Sinai as a potential disaster. While Eshkol’s staff was being urged by the international community to exercise restraint in relation to the growing tension, the General Staff thought that the situation made Israel appear weak and this would encourage future Arab aggression. During the cabinet meeting, Sharon called out the Eshkol government saying, “Today we have ourselves chopped off the IDF’s deterrence capability. We have chopped up our main weapon - the fear of us” he added, “Inaction shows powerlessness. We’re making ourselves look like an empty vessel, a desperate state . . . Your (Eshkol) hesitation will cost us thousands of lives.”

The crux of the General Staff’s argument for war lay in casualties. If Israel struck first, they could minimize casualties while defeating their enemy, but if they waited for Egyptian or Syrian aggression it would cost them thousands of lives. Already at an extreme numerical deficit to their enemy, preserving their fighting force was among the most important imperatives. They also argued that continued delays would lead to the loss of trust of their soldiers and a potential insurrection among the enlisted soldiers if they were to suffer a set-back. These feelings pushed many of the generals to brink of revolt. Segev described the atmosphere of the meeting as having “A whiff of mutiny, almost a military coup.”

Israel’s General Staff at the time was made up of hawkish generals, who viewed the current circumstances as a chance to demonstrate to their hostile neighbors their military’s superiority and finish what they had started in 1956. Segev described them as follows:

The Generals were in their forties, family men, but they clung to the Israeli culture of youth; they were like adolescent boys or bulls in rut. They believed in force and they wanted war. War was destiny. Almost twenty years had passed since the army had won glory in the War of Independence, and ten years since the victory in the Sinai. They had limited range and vision and they believed that war was what Israel needed at that moment.”

Roughly a week after their meeting with the Prime Minister, Israel’s General Staff got the war they wanted, when Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt's armed forces capturing the Sinai before turning their attention the West Bank and the Golan Heights in a lightening offensive. After six days of fighting, Israel stood in possession of the Gaza Strip, Sinai, West Bank and Golan Heights changing the borders of the Middle East one more time. Israel’s coup that never happened gives us more insight into the internal political pressures within Israel as the international community called of restraint.