Red Light…Yellow Light…Green Light! (On the run-up to the Six-Day War)

The three-week period leading up to the Six-Day War, known here as “tkufat hahamtana” (translation: the waiting period) remains one of the most fascinating and debated periods in the diplomatic history of the State of Israel. The main focus of the debate revolves around the motives of the “players” involved – both direct (Israel and the surrounding Arab states) and indirect (the US and USSR). Did Nasser want war (defensive through provocation or offensive)? Why did Jordan align with Egypt during the hamtana? Was the USSR a restraining influence, or did it want to provoke a war against Israel, say to destroy Dimona (the Ginor-Remez thesis)? What were the Israeli intentions?

The question of the US stance on an Israeli first strike during this period even has its own metaphor – a traffic light (!).

  • According to the Red Light thesis, the US consistently and vocally opposed an Israeli first strike. Right up to the very last minute, the US warned Israel to “hold its fire” and wait for a diplomatic solution or for an international flotilla to mobilize and break the blockade on Eilat. This thesis is primarily endorsed by the American people involved in the crisis.
  • According to the Yellow Light thesis, advanced primarily by Prof. William Quandt, the US did indeed vocally object to a first strike by Israel at the beginning of the crisis. However, as things escalated and a diplomatic solution (as well as an international flotilla) seemed hopelessly out of reach, the US decided to become neutral. In other words, America would not support – but would not condemn – Israel for going out on its own.
  • According to the Green Light thesis, the US decided to give Israel approval for a first strike at some point in the crisis. This most extreme form of this thesis is of course the official Arab “Big Lie” conspiracy theory. This theory assumes that the US and Israel conspired from the outset to go to war against the Arab states. US planes ostensibly even participated in the destruction of the Arab air forces (!!!).

Recently, a Hebrew article in the prestigious journal Cathedra was placed online which supports a nuanced version of the Green-Light thesis. The article is based on a doctorate done under the direction of Prof. Michael J. Cohen, one of the pre-eminent diplomatic historians of the Middle East (and Professor emeritus of Bar-Ilan). Needless to say, it needs to be taken seriously.

The author, Dr. Orna Katz-Atar, agrees that in the beginning of the crisis, the US vocally opposed a first strike. She details carefully how the US did everything it could to stay its hand and prevent the Israeli cabinet from making ‘a disastrous decision’ to go to war. Two things changed this attitude:

1)      The announcement on May 30 of Jordan’s military pact with Nasser. This put Israel’s entire coastline, and its major industrial and population centers within easy range of hostile forces. In addition to Jordanian forces, Egyptian and Iraqi troops could now move to the West Bank and threaten Israel’s ‘soft underbelly’. This was to say nothing of the threat to pro-Western countries such as Jordan succumbing to Nasserist anti-US domination. Moderate Arab countries even endorsed the idea that Israel should teach Nasser a lesson (!).

2)      By May 30-31, all hope of breaking the blockade of Eilat by diplomacy or an international flotilla had completely fallen through. All attempts at UN mediation collapsed quickly and practically no-one was prepared to commit ships to the ‘international flotilla’.

Katz-Atar argues that the critical point came on June 1, when Meir Amit – then head of the Mossad – visited Washington, DC to figure out the American position on an Israeli first strike. While Amit received favorable responses from the senior members of the American intelligence community, the clincher came when he met with Secretary of Defense Robert Macnamara. There Macnamara made no attempt whatsoever to dissuade Amit even though he clearly said he will recommend a first strike. Johnson kept in touch with Macnamara during the interview yet made no attempt to tell him to dissuade Amit from recommending attack. Macnamara himself made enthusiastic comments during the meeting, even hugging Amit when he learned Moshe Dayan was appointed Defense Minister (even though he likely knew this meant war).

Although it was made clear to Amit by the deputy head of the CIA that America could never give an explicit OK to go on the attack, Johnson repeated his implicit approval in a message to Eshkol a few days later. In it, he specifically refers to ‘a full exchange of views with General Amit’ even though Johnson never actually met him. This, in addition to the lack of warning regarding a first strike, confirms in the author’s opinion that the US gave an implied green light to go on the attack.

I, for one, look forward to seeing the author’s article in English and the debate that will inevitably ensue. Should be interesting.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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2 Responses to Red Light…Yellow Light…Green Light! (On the run-up to the Six-Day War)

  1. It’s difficult to understand the word “allies” when there are such double standards placed for each of the allies involved. When America decides to go to war, do they have to consult their “allies” in order to get the OK before they attack or rather defend their homeland? I don’t think that they do.

    Even though it was truly “kind” of the American authorities to give Israel the green light to strike after such a hostile blockade was placed in the southern canal and the evacuation of the UN forces from the Sinai borders- which in my own opinion was a clear indication that they were preparing for some sort of provocation, and in international law, according to many experts was a declaration of war by itself- I still don’t see the reason for it. Would Israel have waited for them to change their mind? I’d like to think that they wouldn’t.

    It’s interesting also to see how diplomacy has been twisted to mean- Hide thy meaning. I believe America was understanding of the necessity of the Israeli army to act, but they couldn’t say that they supported it. Because they believe in diplomacy– or lying.

  2. Pingback: Them’s Fightin’ Words: LBJ and the Liberty Incident | QED

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