Miscalculated Escalation: The 1967 War
   By Ali Ahmad

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war was one that arose out of miscalculated escalation; none of the relevant actors planned for the war nor wanted it to occur. The root causes of this war lie in threat perception and its relation to the relevant actors’ value systems. This note will first analyze the domain bearings of the belligerents to display their perceptual environment, and then utilize this information to consider the perceptions, misunderstandings, and cognitive processes that facilitated the 1967 war against the wishes of the parties involved.

Theoretical Issues- Decision making and patterns of perception. This article will primarily be concerned with prospect theory, but other models have been included as well.

Rational choice theory: maintains that decision-makers choose their options based on unbiased appraisals of what is in their best interests. Rational actors are primarily concerned with obtaining gains, and are risk-averse in relation to possible gains and the status-quo. This model works until one comes across a situation where an actor’s decisions fail to meet objective criteria regarding his ‘best interests;’ when they do not seem outwardly logical and fail to reflect a positive cost-benefit relationship in relation to gains.

Bounded-Rationality: attempts to answer questions of ‘less-rational’ actions by introducing ideas of misperception and cognitive processes into the equation. Decision-makers pick their ‘best’ option as determined by their own mental processes. Informational flaws and/or those of a perceptual nature limit objective judgment and therefore explain less rational actions. Actors can be ranked on a ‘rheostat of rationality;’ where rational choice and objective judgment remain related to gains and are dependent upon perception and cognitive integrity.

Prospect Theory: deals with actors operating from a domain of loss. Instead of acting to obtain gains as in RTC and BR, decision-makers operate to avoid losses. Decision-makers operating from a domain of loss rank a lower position on the rheostat of rationality, and are risk-acceptant in relation to loss. They will take risks to avoid a possible loss. Such individuals are more likely to fall subject to biases and cognitive failings, and the increased rate of such pathologies is related to the lower rating of rational decision-making ability.

The actors: What they perceived and why.

The Soviets: The inclusion of this group in a discussion of the 1967 war is due to their causal relationship in the escalation that led to the war. Although other powers such as the United States did play a role through arms proliferation issues, their role was limited and less central to the conflict then that of Soviet decision makers.
Soviet leaders acted out a desire to avoid the loss of newfound gains. Specifically, they valued a Syria that was sympathetic to Soviet influence. With the rise of Salah Jadid in 1966, the Syrian stance became increasingly hostile towards Israel. Border skirmishes and conflicts continued, and further antagonism was caused by Syrian support of Al-Fateh attacks from its territory. Soviet analysts feared that such policies could lead to a Syrian-Israeli war and feared that such an event would result in the destabilization of the Syrian regime. Therefore, they undertook measures to strengthen the relationship between Egypt and Syria. The goal of this maneuver was to simultaneously restrain Syrian militancy through increased connections with Egypt and provide a more credible threat to Israeli officials. This perspective was risk-acceptant given that such policies were likely to play on Israeli threat-perception, and demonstrates the concerns associated with operation from a domain of loss. Soviet actions played a significant role in the escalation that led to the 1967 conflict by supporting  Egyptian desires and facilitating actions that heightened Israeli fears.
The Egyptians: Although Syrian actions did lead to tension in the region, Egyptian actions played the primary role in the escalation that led to the 1967 war. Analysis reveals the effects of cognitive issues on decision-making and perception.

In acting towards the 1967 conflict, Egyptian officials acted primarily out of a domain of loss. Utilizing prospect theory as the theoretical support, one can understand Egyptian actions as being risk-acceptant to protect or restore a desired status-quo and subject to cognitive issues that hampered objective perception. A primary Egyptian goal involved the preservation and revitalization of the declining position of Egypt and Nasser as the leaders of the Arab world. Such feelings were the basis for heated Egyptian rhetoric that called for the destruction of Israel and Arab unity. Although such remarks initially served Egyptian goals, Nasser was eventually forced to legitimize his claim to the Arab leadership. When Soviet officials encouraged the signing of a Syrian-Egyptian joint defense pact, Egyptian desires were concerned with utilizing the agreement as a means to strengthen their position as the leader of the Arab world. Nasser’s primary concern was his position in the Arab world, not fighting Israel. As such concerns laid the foundation for the 1967 war; Nasser undertook policies that allowed the escalation of Arab-Israeli tensions to cement his position within the Arab world. Cognitive beliefs played upon this position, improving perceptions regarding a war with Israel and provided support for the individual measures that led to the conflict.
During the 1960’s, Egypt was in the grip of severe economic decline. A victory in the battle against Zionism would quiet the regime’s critics and circumvent public displeasure. These feelings served as the basis for motivated biases which facilitated Egyptian actions.  Motivated biases are cognitive pathologies were decision makers desirous of a certain outcome or situation perceive reality to support their wishes; they see what they want to see. To motivate Egypt to live up to its end of the Syrian-Egyptian defense pact, Soviet leaders informed the Egyptians of supposed Israeli troop movements along the Israel-Syrian border. Nasser likely knew this information was false, but used this information as a cause for action. Egypt removed U.N. observers from the Sinai, mobilized their armed forces, and closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Such actions were inherently risky and were certain to increase the risk of war with Israel. Egyptian officials lessened their perceptions of risk by believing that the Soviet Union would support any Egyptian actions. As the Soviets had provided the information facilitating Egyptian actions, Nasser believed they would therefore support his risky moves, thereby lessening the risk to Egypt and increasing expectations of a successful outcome.

Nasser was placed in a position that required escalation against Israel to legitimize his claim on Arab leadership. Cognitive concerns such as motivated biases lessened the perceived risk of such maneuvers. This combination served to guide Egyptian decision making and allowed the policies that led to the 1967 war.

The Israelis: During the time between the 1956 and 1967 wars, Israel saw dramatic advancement of its economy, international relations, and security. For Israeli officials, the conflict of 1967 involved the culmination of a pattern of high threat-perception. A desire to avoid serious damage to the Israeli state motivated decision makers and led to the initiation of armed Arab-Israeli hostilities in  June of 1967.

Israeli decision makers perceived and acted towards the 1967 conflict through a domain of loss. Their behavior can be characterized as risk-acceptance to avoid a joint Arab attack that Israeli planners felt the state could not survive. Certain Israeli leaders referred to the idea as a preemptive "counterstrike," the implication being that Israel should attack first because it would not be able to survive an initial assault. At first, Israeli decision makers were hesitant to seriously consider unilateral action against their neighbors, but as the conditions escalated and the pressures of their position compounded, a preemptive strike became accepted as necessary measure.

Although anti-Israel rhetoric had been emanating from the Arab countries for many years, the conditions proceeding the 1967 conflict fostered an increased level of threat-perception from such remarks. Specifically, following the signing of the Egyptian-Syrian defense pact in November of 1966, anti-Israeli statements began to encourage and play upon an Israeli unmotivated bias regarding the likelihood of Arab attack. Unmotivated biases are cognitive pathologies where an actor sees what he expects to see; perception becomes framed by held beliefs. Syria, with its support of al-Fateh guerrillas and own attacks had become understood as a direct security threat to Israel; it was expected to act aggressively. With the signing of the pact, such expectations transferred to Egypt, and  Nasser’s hostile expressions only strengthened  this perception. Egyptian actions were perceived as following through with the rhetoric, with such incidents as the closing of Gulf of Aqaba to playing directly upon Israeli fears. As threat-perception increased, the possibility of an Arab attack became increasingly likely in the Israeli mindset. Once Jordan also signed a similar agreement with Egypt, it too became perceived as a direct security threat. This process of escalating threat-perception rendered the possibility of Arab attack as highly likely event with disastrous consequences, justifying and necessitating an initial use of force to Israeli officials.

In addition, internal pressures from continued mobilization of the Israeli citizen-army played a role in threat-perception. Whereas the Arab countries could maintain a prolonged period of military readiness, the nature of Israel’s armed forces caused a lengthy mobilization to enact considerable economic and societal strain. Desires to return to a "normal" state of military and social affairs fueled a motivated bias that increased the threat-perceptions of Israeli decision makers. An Israeli first strike would halt this destructive societal pattern, therefore Israeli officials perceived a sense of urgency to act not only first, but quickly. Threat-perception was the primary factor in the 1967 conflict. Arab actions played upon Israeli fears; such concerns were heightened by cognitive processes. As the perceived possibility of loss due to an Arab attack increased, the amount of risk that could be undertaken to avoid it also increased, eventually allowing for an armed response. This cycle of escalating threat and even more rapidly escalating perception led to the Israeli military strike and the conflict of 1967.