IN BIBLICAL TIMES the Golan plateau fell to the half-tribe of Manasseh—one of Joseph’s sons—but the Assyrian kings wrested it away, taking Manasseh’s descendants into captivity. The Golan Heights didn’t again return to Israeli possession until 1967 in the Six-Day War, also known as the Arab-Israeli War.
In a dramatic showdown, Israel decided to invade the Golan on Day 5 of the war, even as its diplomats at UN headquarters in New York engaged in all-night negotiations for a cease-fire.
In swift days of battle, the IDF had captured Gaza and portions of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and wrested East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. As Israel eyed its exposed northern border with Syria, the Soviet Union stepped in with the first shipment of weapons to Cairo, and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who headed Arab forces fighting Israel, rejected the UN Security Council’s cease-fire initiative.
While Syria protested Israeli encroachments on the Golan Heights, Israel declared the cease-fire effort nothing but a camouflage for a premeditated attack. Opening a third front in a war no one had expected Israel to win, however, was a dramatic escalation: It risked drawing a direct response from the Soviet Union in support of Arab nations. That, in turn, threatened to provoke the United States, which to that point had evaded aiding Israel.
Heedless of the UN negotiations in New York underway, IDF commanders threw eight brigades against Syrian defensives and launched paratroopers over the Golan just as Israel’s political leaders ordered them to stop. The orders, the commanders said, came too late.
While the Soviets threatened to send ground forces to Syria, and the United States warned Israel to halt, the IDF advance on the Golan already had begun. Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s minister of defense and soon-to-be head of state, gave his troops perhaps the most memorable order of the war, setting the course for the next half-century of Israeli-Arab enmity: “Strike the enemy’s settlements, turn them into dust, pave the Arab roads with the skulls of the Jews.”
But Assad’s military was weak, and he miscalculated. Convinced Israel would strike Damascus, he ordered three brigades to fall back from the Golan Heights to protect the capital just 30 miles away. Israeli paratroopers on the Golan Heights found abandoned tanks and deserted trenches as they crossed the plateau, and quickly seized control.
As Syrian forces massed at Damascus, its diplomats pressing for protection at a 4 a.m. emergency session of the UN Security Council, they were abandoned by both Egypt and the Soviet Union. At the same time, the United States ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet, heading west in the Mediterranean away from the Middle East, to turn back, a sublime but significant show of support for Israel.
In six days, a country barely two decades old with less than 3 million people had defeated three Arab armies, conquered remote heights plus Jerusalem’s Old City, and tripled its size. Israelis had moved in a week’s time, as author Yossi Klein Halevi noted, “from fears of a second holocaust to military mastery of the Middle East.”
Further, by Israeli forces stopping at the Golan, a Cold War confrontation was averted and the modern Middle East alignment was born—with Syria affirming the Soviet Union as its ally while the United States for the first time came to the direct aid of Israel, launching a relationship now the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for 50 years.