Israel’s ministers had a lot on their minds when they woke, 45 years ago, on June 5, 1967. Jerusalem’s Old City, however, was not even a passing thought.
The day before, at the regular Sunday Cabinet meeting, they had approved the launching of a pre-emptive air strike against Egypt within 24 hours — “To do to them what they want to do to us,” as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan put it. Jordan had figured in the discussion only tangentially, as Dayan had explained that all efforts would be made to keep it out of the war.
Yet 48 hours after the first shot was fired in Jerusalem, the Israeli flag would be flying over the Old City despite the previous absence of intent and despite the grave apprehensions of a number of ministers.
How did that dramatic change, one that is today at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, come about so offhandedly?
The short answer? Unintended consequences.
The shorter answer: Things happen.
A few days before the war, Dayan had surveyed the Jordanian lines with the front commander, the Israeli general Uzi Narkiss, and said that the upcoming war would be focused entirely on Egypt. “You must avoid any action that would entangle us with Jordan,” Dayan told him.
With the bulk of Israel’s army poised on Egypt’s border, the last thing Israel wanted was the opening of another front. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein via the United Nations as the Israeli planes were returning from destroying the Egyptian air force in the first hours of the war: We will not attack you if you don’t attack us. Narkiss’s troops had orders to respond to Jordanian fire with restraint and to avoid escalation.
In signing a defense pact with Egypt, however, Hussein had handed over command of his army to an Egyptian general, Abdel Moneim Riad, whose intention was to escalate as much as possible. To draw off Israeli forces from the Sinai, he ordered a Jordanian tank brigade to threaten Beersheba from the West Bank. To protect the tank route, Jordanian troops occupied U.N. headquarters in Jerusalem, which abutted the road, and moved several hundred yards into Israeli territory. Despite this incursion, which was driven back, and the fact that Jordanian artillery was pounding the heart of Israeli Jerusalem, Israel agreed to a renewed U.N. request for a cease-fire. Jordan refused.
What finally ended Israeli restraint was an announcement on Cairo Radio that Jordanian troops had captured Mount Scopus, an Israeli enclave behind Jordanian lines. Since 1948, Israel had maintained a garrison of 120 troops on the mount, rotated in U.N.-protected convoys. No attack had in fact been launched on Scopus, but Israel saw the broadcast as a clear statement of intent. A paratroop brigade commanded by Mordechai Gur, a colonel, was dispatched to Jerusalem with orders to break through to Scopus.