Egypt and Israel
To the Editor:
In “How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East” [March], a critique of President Carter’s efforts to achieve peace in this turbulent area, Theodore Draper correctly relates post-Camp David difficulties to various aspects of the thirty years of conflict in the area. I can agree with the cogency of many of his observations, but not with some of his historical “facts.”
Reviewing the background of the June 1967 war, Mr. Draper concludes that the “war was deliberately provoked by Egypt with the open aim of extinguishing the Jewish state.”
As the American chargé d’affaires in Cairo at the time, I was privy to all military and political intelligence available in Washington and presumably in Jerusalem as well. Subsequently, I have studied the official records and, in particular, the publicly expressed views of the Israeli military commanders.
In quoting from Nasser’s May 26 speech, Mr. Draper omits the first operative phrase (although including it in his book, Israel and World Politics): If Israel embarks on an aggression against Syria and Egypt . . . the battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel . . .” (emphasis added)—quite a significant omission.
Since the morning of June 5 found the Egyptian air force on the ground; a noon appointment for the newly-designated American ambassador to present his credentials to Nasser; and the Egyptian Vice President packing his bags to fly to Washington, prepared to make the commitments to deescalate the crisis which had been extracted by two Johnson envoys—including an obligation not to take any military initiatives—it is difficult to believe that “. . . Nasser even correctly guessed the exact timing of the Israeli attack. . . .”
Whether he knew it was “inevitable” or overestimated the possibilities of a political solution, is still an unanswered question. Mohammed Heikal had no illusions, nor did the American embassy, which began evacuating dependents on May 25. But Washington was taken very much by surprise, relying on what was thought to be a May 26 Israeli commitment to refrain from any military action for two weeks.
With reference to the Egyptian military posture, it is well to remember that the bulk of its combat forces were bogged down in the Yemen civil war. Those in the Sinai were in defensive, not attack deployment. According to the February 29, 1968 Jerusalem Post, General Rabin is quoted as saying: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into the Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.” Generals Weizman, Bar-Lev, and Peled have made similar assessments. Very possibly, the Israeli government and population as a whole genuinely believed that “survival” was at stake, but most certainly the top military leaders and intelligence community had no such fears.
All of this and more, still of a highly classified nature, adds up to a consensus among Americans directly involved in the fateful days of May and June 1967 that Nasser had neither the military capability nor the intention of attacking Israel. He sought a political-diplomatic, not a military victory and, in the process, greatly miscalculated both Israeli capabilities and intentions.
The only significance today of an accurate reading of this period is that it helps explain Arab attitudes toward return of the “occupied territories,” as well as Sadat’s position on the “precedence”-of-treaties question. As a deterrent to some future massive Israeli preemptive strike east, he wishes freedom to fulfill his defense and other obligations to whatever Arab governments are involved. In reality, however, he would have neither the military capability, nor probably the will, to do so. The issue is more symbolic than real.
Later, in writing of the 1948 hostilities, Mr. Draper states: “. . . The Jordanians had invaded the West Bank in 1948 in defiance of the UN partition plan in order to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian Arab state. . . .” The fact of the matter is that the Palestinians in no way had the capability nor (at the time) the national aspirations essential for such a development. The 4,500-man Arab Legion entered the West Bank several weeks after Jewish para-military elements began pushing east of the UN partition lines. The British government, fearing these forces would occupy all of this area—an objective stated by Menachem Begin at the time and confirmed in his book, The Revolt—gave King Abdullah the green light to use the Legion to secure Arab control of the West Bank.
It is a pity that Mr. Draper’s engaging analysis contains these factual blemishes. There are enough deficiencies of judgment and lack of realism in the respective approaches to peace of Carter, Begin, and Sadat to support much of what Mr. Draper has to say. Arabs, Israelis, and most Americans perpetuate and cling to many myths regarding the 1948-79 period, but Mr. Draper should know better than to repeat some of them as the basis for a thesis which could just as well stand on its own.
David G. Nes
Owings Mills, Maryland
To the Editor:
Theodore Draper seems to join the roster of people, especially American Jews, who have selected Zbigniew Brzezinski as their pet bête noire in the Carter administration. However, I doubt that President Carter appointed Brzezinski National Security Adviser on the basis of his article, “Peace in an International Framework,” which appeared in the Summer 1975 issue of Foreign Policy, and which Mr. Draper discusses at some length. Mr. Brzezinski over the years has, of course, expressed his opinion on many foreign-policy issues and it would be unreasonable to assume that Mr. Carter agreed with him in every respect. Therefore, I conclude there is no proof that the President shares in toto the opinions expressed by Brzezinski in the summer of 1975. Furthermore, these opinions may have undergone a change since Brzezinski joined the White House—vide his remark, “bye-bye PLO.” It is equally reasonable to assume that Mr. Carter’s campaign oratory underwent changes once the President entered the White House and found himself up against an established and well-entrenched U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
It should also be made clear that what Mr. Draper characterizes as Brzezinski’s “oracular pronouncement” to the effect that United States support of Israel “cuts across American raisons d’état” is nothing but a restatement of State Department policy from the beginning of the establishment of the state of Israel; it is in no way an original Brzezinski idea or a sharp shift to the Arab side, as Mr. Draper states. I for one find it difficult to see any difference worth mentioning between Brzezinski and William P. Rogers or even John Foster Dulles. . . .
If you want an example par excellence of how not to make peace, you could recite the response of the Israeli government to Sadat’s dramatic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977. There was no reason to doubt Sadat’s sincerity in his search for peace, though it undoubtedly was motivated by necessity. . . . It is therefore surprising that the Israeli response to Sadat’s visit, which Mr, Draper considers generous, was in effect so half-hearted. . . .
Mr. Draper is correct in mentioning that Sadat in his speech before the Knesset reiterated all the standard Arab demands. This was to be expected from a shrewd negotiator who starts by listing his maximum position and at the same time wants to cover his flanks. Israel should have “struck while the iron was hot.” I am convinced this would have avoided much of the subsequent bickering.
The United States has experienced, tragically in Vietnam, that the longer the delay in making peace, the worse the terms. This may have been one of the reasons President Carter, perhaps clumsily at times, was so anxious to complete the peace negotations. We have seen the “peace” in Vietnam become worthless, and I greatly fear for the recently concluded peace in the Middle East. The essential ingredient of peace—mutual trust—which could have started growing as of November 1977, has been seriously damaged. . . .
Walter A. Sheldon
New York City
Theodore Draper writes:
David G. Nes has simply missed the main point. It is that Nasser deliberately set up a situation which he knew would lead to war. In his speech of June 9, 1967, Nasser said: “We realized that the possibility of an armed clash existed and accepted the risk.” In his speech of July 23, 1967, Nasser said that he had put the likelihood of war at the beginning of June 1967 at 100 per cent and expected Israel to attack on June 5, 1967. In his recent book, In Search of Identity, which I cited, Anwar Sadat confirms both of these points.
I explained in my article, and in one already a decade ago, why Nasser adopted this strategy. As he himself disclosed publicly on July 23, 1967, he wanted to force Israel to attack because he thought that an open Egyptian offensive would inevitably bring in the United States, and he wanted to forestall such an eventuality by making Israel do the attacking. That is why, as I put it, the “war was deliberately provoked by Egypt.”
Mr. Nes finds it difficult to believe that “Nasser even correctly guessed the exact timing of the Israeli attack.” The odd thing is that he seems to think it is difficult to believe me on this point. The reality is that he finds it difficult to believe Nasser and Sadat, the chief authorities for this statement, in a better position than Mr. Nes or myself to know just what had happened.
Mr. Nes’s other difficulties hinge on another simple point. The Egyptian plan and execution were filled with miscalculations. If Nasser and his generals had not overestimated Egyptian strength, they would never have dared to engage in such a risky enterprise. For example, much of Nasser’s army was then bogged down in Yemen. That does not mean he did not think he had enough left over to cope with Israel. On the contrary, we know from the trial of the Egyptian military leaders in February 1968 that General Sidqi Mahmud, the air-force commander, expected to lose only 20 per cent of his forces in the event of an expected Israeli attack. Instead, the entire Egyptian air force was caught on the ground on June 5, 1967. That debacle was caused by gross inefficiency piled on grave miscalculation. It does not at all mean what Mr. Nes wants it to mean—that Nasser did not have a war in mind. Nasser’s fiasco in Yemen was a factor—but in the sense that he was partly motivated by a desire to make up for it by succeeding against Israel.
Mr. Nes thinks he is telling us something new and important by maintaining that “Nasser had neither the military capability nor the intention of attacking Israel.” The word “attacking” needs emphasis here. It was of the essence of Nasser’s strategy that Israel should be goaded into attacking Egypt. He himself said so. The offensive that Nasser wanted unleashed was by Israel because his generals assured him—and he wanted to believe—that the losses would be too small to influence the final outcome. It is absurd to convert miscalculations into proof of innocence.
Mr. Nes, moreover, seems to have changed his mind about some of these things. In an interview which appeared in the Baltimore Sun of June 13, 1967, and which got him into trouble with the State Department, Mr. Nes stated that he had been convinced as far back as January 1967, six months before the war, that Nasser had been planning a major confrontation with Israel and the West. He complained bitterly that his superiors in Washington had considered him an alarmist. So, right after the June 1967 war, Mr. Nes wanted to take credit for having foreseen it, or at least its likelihood. Now, twelve years later, he wants us to believe that Nasser sought no more than “a political-diplomatic, not a military victory.” There is only one flaw in this reasoning—Nasser knew that he could not get a political-diplomatic victory without a military success.
I am singularly unimpressed by Mr. Nes’s diplomatic credentials. All the military and political intelligence available in Washington was not enough to save Washington, as Mr. Nes himself now tells us, from having been “taken very much by surprise.” In fact, Mr. Nes’s superior in Cairo, then Ambassador Richard H. Nolte, denied that Mr. Nes had been as clairvoyant as he later claimed to have been. Nolte also admitted in the New York Times of September 12, 1967, that Egypt’s challenge to Israel caught “all of us by surprise.” So much for what the military and political intelligence available in Washington was worth.
Mr. Nes informs us that there is a consensus among the Americans directly involved in the fateful days of May and June 1967. That should not be surprising. The same line was pushed by Lucius D. Battle, the U.S. Ambassador in Cairo until early in 1967 and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs during the war crisis (New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1973). This consensus flies in the face of all the hard evidence, including Nasser’s own testimony, confirmed by Sadat. This consensus tells more about the Americans directly involved in the fateful days of May and June 1967 than about the events of those days.
Mr. Nes’s version of the Jordanian seizure of the West Bank in 1948 is equally untrustworthy. The fact remains that the Jews accepted the partition plan, which provided for an independent Palestinian Arab state, and the Arabs did not. Did the British government also give the forces of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq the green light to grab as much Palestinian territory as they could? Inter-Arab rivalries were then as now the Palestinian Arabs’ boon and curse. The reference to Menachem Begin in 1948 is a red herring; he was not then in a position to determine Israeli policy; the partition plan would never have been accepted if it had been up to him.
As for Walter A. Sheldon, I can assure him that Zbigniew Brzezinski is not my “pet bête noire in the Carter administration.” All that I sought to point out was that the Carter administration’s Middle East policy, culminating in the Soviet-American statement of October 1, 1977, was remarkably similar to the recommendations in Brzezinski’s 1975 article. Presumably Brzezinski had something to do with this striking coincidence. After the beginning of 1978, I made no reference to Brzezinski because he stopped writing articles to which his ideas and influence could easily be traced.
As for Brzezinski’s “bye-bye PLO” remark, even if we should take it seriously, it was, unfortunately, premature. On March 23 last, President Carter practically invited the PLO to say the right words in order for the United States to start working directly with it. More recently, the PLO’s chief propagandist has been given extraordinary permission to tour the United States. “Bye-bye” has given way to “hello-hello.” Perhaps Mr. Sheldon should try to find out whether Brzezinski has been opposed to the latest American overtures to the PLO.
In any case, I said nothing as devastating about Brzezinski as is Mr. Sheldon’s defense of him. I wonder whether Brzezinski will appreciate the recommendation that there is no difference worth mentioning between him and William P. Rogers or even John Foster Dulles.