Middle East: The Quickest War

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In the flush of a victory that surprised even Dayan and his officers ("I thought it would take a day or two longer," Chief-of-Staff Rabin said laconically), the Israelis are clearly not yet sure what to do with their spoils. Indeed, they hardly had time to count the full cost of their victory—or of the Arab defeat. Casualty figures, as yet, are fragmentary, but the few days of desert warfare may well have accounted for more dead than a whole year's fighting in Viet Nam. And historians will be a long time calculating the price in Arab morale, to say nothing of Russia's tremendous loss of face as it stood helplessly by, watching its expensive Middle Eastern adventure being ground to dust by the advancing Israelis. Among the major Israeli spoils were several captured Russian SAM missiles.

What seems certain now is that, for the moment at least, Israel is the absolute master of the Middle East; it need take orders from no one, and can dictate its own terms in the vacuum of big-power inaction, U.N. fecklessness, and Arab impotence.

How did Israel manage to win so big so quickly? Much of the answer can be found in the almost incredible lack of Arab planning, coordination and communications. Despite their swift defeat in 1956, this time the Arabs seemed to expect a long, leisurely war of attrition. Though two squadrons of Algerian MIG-21s arrived, they were a fatal 24 hours too late because Egyptian commanders had failed to instruct them which airbase to head for. In retrospect, it might have been even worse if they had arrived in time for the Israeli raids. Five planeloads of Moroccan troops actually got to Cairo, but five others were grounded in Libya because Egypt had not given them clearance to enter Egyptian airspace. More than 100 truckloads of Algerian troops crossed southern Tunisia on the way to the Sinai front, which crumbled long before they arrived. Tunisian troops ready to move for Nasser were never asked for by Cairo.

The Third Temple. Though the destruction of Arab airpower played the largest part in turning the battle, the Arabs' field performance was nothing to write home about. Their Russian-trained officer corps was a disaster; it fought far better with words than with weapons. Of all the Arab troops, only the Jordanians handled themselves ably and well—and paid for it with what Hussein called "tremendous losses" that included as many as 15,000 dead. Lebanon fired not a shot at Israeli ground forces during the entire war; as they manned their border positions, its soldiers played a backgammon-like game called tricktrack and watched the Syrians and Israelis trade shellfire. Breastbeating to the contrary, Syrian ground forces made no significant move to relieve the pressure on Jordan and Egypt. Few Arab pilots had a chance to show their skills; and those that did came out second best. The Israelis shot down 50 Arab fighters while losing only three. Arab field communications were so bad that Egypt was soon reduced to sending messages to its men in Sinai via Radio Cairo. Arab commanders lost two-way contact with whole units.

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