From 1967 to 1973: The Arab-Israeli Wars
Every Arab-Israeli war has been haunted by the previous one. In the end, each of these wars-1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973—may be thought of as extended battles in a long war. For this reason, a fuller understanding of one can contribute much to a fuller understanding of all. We are still too close to the war of 1973 to know nearly enough about its derivation and ramifications, but we now know a great deal more about the war of 1967—a great deal that casts some light on the present war and that has not been dealt with satisfactorily in the existing literature on the subject.
The ostensible Arab casus belli of 1973 was the recovery of the “occupied territories” taken over by Israel in 1967. In 1967, an ostensible casus belli was a different kind of “occupied territory”—that held by the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) on the Egyptian-Israeli border in the Sinai region as a result of the war of 1956. Until 1967, “occupied territory” in the Arab view meant the land which actually made up the State of Israel. In effect, the very existence of Israel was regarded by the Arabs as an “aggression.” The Egyptian leader in 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, stated the proposition bluntly: “Israel's existence in itself is an aggression” (May 28, 1967).1 After 1967, Arab policy, or at least propaganda, shifted its ground; “occupied territory” came to mean the land won by Israel in 1967 and “aggression” the way the war came about. From war to war, the Arabs have sought to push back to the status quo ante in order to unravel the entire fabric of Arab-Israeli history. In 1973, they wanted to go back to 1967; in 1967, to 1956; and all the time to 1948, before the State of Israel was born. For this reason, the ostensible locus of the “occupied territory” has changed but its political significance or implication has not.
The term, “Israeli aggression,” as applied to the 1967 war, became a banner, a war cry, an incantation, without which an Arab politician could hardly make a speech or an Arab diplomat compose a UN resolution. This slogan seemed necessary to give the Arabs a sense of outraged innocence, moral superiority, and unrestricted claim on the rest of the world. If the Israelis were really guilty of an unprovoked aggression in 1967, who could rightfully deny the Arabs their cries for simple justice or even fiery revenge? In those two words, “Israeli aggression,” the Arabs put their entire moral and political case against Israel, as if the charge were self-evidently true; and, if true, nothing more needed to be said to condemn Israel before world public opinion.
How true is it? The answer should tell us much about one of the deepest manifestations of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It should also teach us something about the peculiar nature of political myths, especially how they arise after some wars to cover up the true reasons for defeat. This Arab myth is not the first of its kind; the German “stab-in-the-back” myth after World War I was very similar in purpose and fabrication. The legend of war guilt haunted Germany for years and contributed heavily to Hitler's victory in 1933. If the same legend lasts that long in the Arab world, the price may be equally high.
First, let us recall the main events leading up to the 1967 war. Memories have dimmed, and it is necessary to hold a few key dates in mind before we go on to inquire what the Arab leaders thought they were doing—and why.
In most accounts, the 1967 crisis began to come to a head on April 7, 1967, when Syrians and Israelis fought a one-day battle in the air and on the ground. It was the most violent flare-up since 1956. Nasser later claimed that this incident, followed by allegedly threatening anti-Syrian remarks by Israeli leaders, had precipitated his subsequent moves.
The first fatal military move came five weeks later, on May 14, with the massing of large-scale Egyptian troops in the Sinai region bordering Israel. This move was supposedly designed to relieve the purported Israeli pressure on Syria.
Two days later, on May 16, Egypt demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF)—which was actually no “force” at all. The UNEF was merely a conglomeration of no more than 3,400 men from seven countries, over half Indian and Yugoslav, of whom about 1,800 policed 295 miles along the Egypt-Israel border and the Gaza Strip. It merely served as a buffer between the two sides, to keep them apart by its presence, not to “enforce” the peace.
Later, a controversy arose whether Nasser had intended to demand the complete or only the partial withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission. If complete, the Egyptian takeover necessarily included the UN observation post at Sharm el-Sheikh, commanding the Straits of Tiran at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. Sharm el-Sheikh was a critical piece in this deadly game because, as long ago as 1957, the then Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, had warned Egypt not to “block our historic and legal passage into the Gulf of Aqaba” if it wished to avoid another war. For ten years, this warning—plus the understanding that the United States stood behind it—had kept open the passage through the Gulf of Aqaba.
Then, on May 22, Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran, thereby blockading the port of Eilat, Israel's only outlet to the Red Sea. This act was the immediate casus belli of the war.
The proximate, though of course not the deeper, causes of the war were, then, the unilateral expulsion of the UNEF and the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba. Both these moves assumed their overriding significance for Egypt and Israel because they represented a return to the 1956 war's status quo ante. As Nasser took pains to make clear, these actions were not ends in themselves; they were intended to begin the unraveling process. Or, as he put if. “If we were able to restore conditions to what they were before 1956, God will surely help and urge us to restore the situation to what it was in 1948” (May 29, 1967).
By May 22, then, Egypt had made its moves. The next two weeks were occupied with diplomatic maneuvers aimed at getting Egypt to reopen the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping or at deterring Israel from doing anything about it. When all such efforts failed, Israel struck on June 5. Its spectacular victory, ending in occupation of Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian territory, set the stage for the war of 1973.
The questions that arise and that have been dealt with most unsatisfactorily in the existing literature on the Arab-Israeli conflict are:
When did the Egyptians begin to think of making precisely those moves which led to the outbreak on June 5?
What were the calculations and motivations behind Egyptian policy in this period?
Who was chiefly responsible for the illusions and miscalculations which brought on the war?
In the light of what we now know, how meaningful is the legend of “Israeli aggression”?
If this legend has little to commend it historically, why has it persisted so tenaciously and what purpose has it served?
What are the larger implications of this experience for a better understanding of both the past and future of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
One of the main obstacles to an understanding of the 1967 war may be called the “Syrian myth.” It alleged that Nasser was impelled to expel the UN mission, take over Sharm el-Sheikh, and close the Straits of Tiran because the Israelis were going to invade Syria.
Nasser himself was the chief author of this story. He repeatedly sought to give the impression that he thought of taking these actions when he learned that Syria was endangered.
Here is how Nasser put it the first time:
On May .13 we received accurate information that Israel was concentrating on the Syrian border huge armed forces of about 11 to 13 brigades. These forces were divided into two fronts, one south of Tiberias and the other north of Tiberias.
The decision made by Israel at this time was to carry out an aggression against Syria on May 17. On May 14 we took measures, discussed this matter, and contacted our Syrian brothers (May 22, 1967).
Here is Nasser a second time:
The circumstances in which we requested the withdrawal of UNEF are also known to all of you. Syria was threatened. There was a plan to invade Syria (May 28, 1967).
And a third time after the war:
We all know how the Middle East crisis began in the first half of last May; there was an enemy plan to invade Syria . . (June 9, 1967).
A fourth time:
We all know that this crisis began with Israel's attempt to invade Syria (July 23, 1967).
And a fifth time:
We received information about the Israeli mobilization against Syria. That is why we sent forces into the Sinai to deter them (interview in Look, March 19, 1968).
This is the rationale for Nasser's actions that has found its way into book after book and article after article. The most imaginative version may be found in the biography of Nasser by Anthony Nutting, whose book might make a good text for a seminar on historical mythomania. Nutting claims that Israel deliberately lured Nasser into battle by means of calculated leaks and fictitious radio messages designed to convince the Russians, who in turn were to convince the Egyptians that a major Israeli assault on Syria was imminent. Thus Nasser's movement of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and his expulsion of the UN peacekeeping forces were all part of an “Israeli plan” or “trap.”2
The whole elaborate structure of the myth of “Israeli aggression” in 1967 was based, then, on two interrelated points: Israel's alleged threat to Syria in mid-May, after which Nasser first thought of his counter-moves in the Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba.
All this might best be described as a “cover story.” And, like other “cover stories” of the past few years, it came apart inadvertently, and in Egypt itself. A crucial portion of the real story has been available for over five years, but relatively little use has been made of it. What actually happened is still significant for its bearing on the present course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
When the 1967 war ended, Nasser did not accept full responsibility for the Egyptian defeat. Instead, he shifted the blame onto the Egyptian military leaders, who, of course, fully deserved his wrath. After his top military leader, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, committed suicide in September 1967, Nasser staged a trial in February the following year of numerous officers and the former Minister of Defense, Shams Badran, who were accused of plotting to overthrow his regime. Badran, the chief defendant, insisted on talking about how the war had come about, despite efforts by the court to restrict his testimony to the postwar plot. Badran's testimony has never been disputed, and without it, the genesis of the war cannot be fully understood.3
In December 1966, or January 1967, Badran related, he, Field Marshal Amer, and the Chief of Intelligence, Salah Nasr, made a trip to Pakistan. While they were there, the Defense Council of the Arab League met in Cairo.4 At this time, it is necessary to recall, the main Egyptian preoccupation was not Syria; it was Jordan. In the propaganda war then raging among the Arab nations, Egypt attacked Hussein as a reactionary monarch afraid to fight Israel, and Jordan retorted that Nasser was “hiding behind the skirts of UNEF” in order to avoid a confrontation. A Jordanian Prime Minister, Wasfi Tell, went so far as to charge that Nasser had made a secret agreement with Israel in 1957 to keep the UNEF in the Sinai area in order to give Egypt an alibi for staying out of the Palestine imbroglio. In this way, the UNEF was drawn into an internecine Arab struggle before the crisis of 1967 flared up.
So the idea occurred to the Field Marshal [Amer] that we ought to do something about it in order to forestall the campaign [of the reactionary Arab states]. So he said: Send a message to the President [Nasser], explaining our proposal—that we should remove the UNEF and occupy Sharm el-Sheikh, and that we have [army] units which are ready [for this purpose].
Nasser failed to reply because, Badran said, he was not yet convinced that the idea was a good one. Badran, however, pointed out to Amer that withdrawal of the UNEF from Sharm el-Sheikh would result in war. Amer replied that he wanted to occupy Sharm el-Sheikh only, without closing the Gulf of Aqaba, in order to deprive Egypt's enemies in the Arab world of a pretext for their hostile propaganda. Badran was skeptical. He thought that the anti-Egyptian propaganda would intensify if the Gulf were not closed and that Amer's proposal was merely “half a solution.”
Let us stop here for a moment. We are now at the origin of the idea that led to the moves which precipitated the 1967 war. In December 1966, Field Marshal Amer was not concerned with alleged Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border or purported Israeli threats to invade Syria. He was motivated by an internecine Arab struggle in which Israel was used by each side as a weapon of propaganda against the other. In effect, Amer had given birth to an idea whose time had not yet come—but it was not long in coming.
The “Syrian myth” was necessary to conceal the fact that the idea of expelling the UNEF and taking over Sharm el-Sheikh had been in the air in Egyptian ruling circles ever since December 1966. Nasser himself made what seemed to be puzzling, contradictory statements on how the takeover of Sharm el-Sheikh and the alleged Israeli threat to Syria were connected. On one occasion he denied that Egypt had had any thought of war before May 13, 1967, the day he had allegedly learned of the Israeli threat, because “we did not imagine that Israel would dare to attack any Arab country” (May 22, 1967). Four days later, he told a totally different story which tied in more closely with Badran's testimony. This time he said that he knew taking over Sharm el-Sheikh meant a general war with Israel. Then he added that he had been authorized “to implement it [the Sharm el-Sheikh plan] at the right time; and the right time came with Israel's threats against Syria” (May 26, 1967).
By the time Nasser made his second statement, he had closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, a step which had not been contemplated in Field Marshal Amer's original idea for the very reason that it was tantamount to bringing on a war with Israel. Nasser had taken over Amer's essential idea, but in a different form and for a different purpose. Sharm el-Sheikh now became symbolic of closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel instead of merely getting rid of the UNEF. And the purpose was no longer primarily to counter Jordanian propaganda; it was to challenge Israel to a direct confrontation.
Nasser later attributed his belief in an Israeli attack to Syrian and Soviet intelligence sources. Even if they were right, the attack, according to Nasser himself, should have taken place on May 17. When it did not, he presumably should have been satisfied that his military buildup in the Sinai had achieved its purpose. Nevertheless, it was after May 17 that Nasser made his most belligerent moves—occupation of Sharm el-Sheikh on the 18th and closure of the Straits of Tiran on the 22nd, Something happened during those days which hardened Nasser's resolve to transform Amer's original idea into a more far-reaching and complex scheme for taking on Israel.5
The inner story of what took place in Egypt's top command has not yet been fully told, and it still casts light on the fundamental considerations which have guided Egyptian policy.
So far, I have tried to get rid of an obstacle that stands in the way of understanding this Arab-Israeli conflict—the “Syrian cover story.” Now I have come to what I consider to be the most important and most fascinating aspect of the entire sequence of events. Again, the key to Egyptian strategy may be found in former Defense Minister Badran's testimony.
A tip-off to what really happened first came from Nasser's chief journalistic confidant and mouthpiece, Muhammad Hassanein Heykal, editor of al-Ahram, in a series of post-mortem articles in October 1967. Heykal admitted that the Egyptians had ostensibly achieved their objective when the Israelis did not attack Syria on May 17 and that the Egyptian forces in the Sinai should have fallen back to “defensive positions.” But he then let slip the reason why they failed to do so: “Some of us were dazzled by the spectacle of the force we moved into Sinai between May 15 and May 20” (al-Ahram,. October 22, 1967).
Nasser had previously hinted at the same mood: “We are ready today,” he had boasted (May 26, 1967). To visitors before the war, he had expressed confidence that his air force was more than a match for Israel's. He refused to listen to advisers who had warned him in advance that he was taking too great a risk.6
Badran told much more of the inside story. The Egyptian officers had been itching for a fight. Egyptian intelligence was confident that Egypt was superior in tanks, artillery, and air force. When Field Marshal Amer and Badran made a tour of inspection in the Sinai they were impressed by those “who were agitated and excited because they wanted to start operations.” After Nasser spoke at an Egyptian air base in the Sinai on May 22 without actually declaring war, the officers were so disappointed that Amer fell a rising tension between Nasser and the officers. To calm them, Amer told them privately: “Don't worry, boys, you'll fight.”
Meanwhile, a tactical dispute broke out in the Egyptian high command. The air force commander, General Sidqi Mahmud, wanted Egypt to strike first, a position with which Field Marshal Amer at first agreed. Nasser, who for his own reasons preferred to get the Israelis to make the first strike, soon won over the Field Marshal. The decisive reason for Nasser and Amer was that they thought an Egyptian first strike risked getting the United States into the war, while an Israeli first strike was calculated to keep the United States out. Badran related this exchange between Mahmud and Amer:
Sidqi Mahmud objected and said: “I cannot accept an abortive operation because, for my part, it will paralyze me [i.e., the air force].” So the Field Marshal asked him: “Would you like to mount the first strike and face America or prefer to receive the first strike and face Israel only?” Sidqi Mahmud said: “All right, I agree.” The Field Marshal asked him what the estimated losses would be. He [Mahmud] answered: “20 per cent.”
The Egyptian decision to forgo a first strike was a deliberate one. It was not based on any intention to avoid war because the Egyptians believed and knew that they had taken measures which made war inevitable. The Egyptians took a cold-blooded calculated risk because they were so sure of coming victory. This aspect of the Egyptian plan helps to explain why Nasser and Heykal tried so hard to goad the Israelis into making war.
“The Jews threaten war,” said Nasser. “We tell them: ‘You are welcome, we are ready for war’” (May 22, 1967). Six days later: “Today we are alone face to face with Israel, and if Israel wants war I would say it again, ‘welcome’” (May 28, 1967). The following day: “We are now ready to confront Israel” (May 29, 1967). Heykal left nothing to the imagination: “Let Israel begin! Let our second blow then be ready! Let it be a knock-out!” (al-Ahram, May 26, 1967).
At the time these words seemed like vain boasting. They were more. The Israeli strike was an integral part of the Egyptian war plan. Nasser closely calculated the risks of war, took those which were sure to bring the Israelis in, and—until it was too late—calmly watched as his plans unfolded.
When he first sent Egyptian troops into Sinai on May 14, Nasser said that he had estimated the possibility of war at only 20 per cent. On May 22, when he decided to close the Gulf of Aqaba, Nasser changed it to 50 per cent. A few days later, he raised the figure to 80 per cent (July 23, 1967). And on May 28, after the return of Badran from Moscow, where he had gone to confer with the Soviet leaders a last time before the showdown, Badran testified that Nasser had put the chances of war at 100 per cent. Yet a day later, Nasser proclaimed: “Preparations have already been made. We are now ready to confront Israel” (May 29, 1967). The fatalism of the Egyptians on the outbreak of war was, by their own admission, complete a week before it broke out.
Moreover, Nasser even claimed to have known the date of the Israeli attack. He later declared that he had told a meeting of the Egyptian high command on June 2 that “I expect the aggression would take place on June 5 and that the first blow would be directed against our air force” (July 23, 1967). According to Badran's tantalizing testimony on this point, Nasser's source of information was American. We also know from the memoirs of the then Jordanian Prime Minister, Sa'd Jum'ah, that Hussein told Nasser on May 30 that he had had information from numerous sources, some of them foreign, that Israel was going to attack the Egyptian airfields by surprise on June 5 or 6.7
In short, Nasser's war plan called for goading the Israelis to attack first. He was totally mobilized and prepared. He knew the date. Curiously, Nasser was telling the truth when he assured an American journalist after the war: “It was not at all in our plans to attack Israel. I promise you, we had no plans for this” (Arnaud de Borchgrave, Newsweek, February 10, 1969). He also told a French correspondent that he “did not want to begin a war in 1967” (Eric Rouleau, Le Monde, February 19, 1970). What he failed to say and by that time was anxious to conceal was that it was in his plans for Israel to attack, that he wanted it to appear that Israel had started the war, and that he had done exactly what he knew was necessary to achieve this objective.
Nasser's biographers have found it exceedingly awkward to face this inconvenient fact. Anthony Nutting portrays a Nasser so mindless of what he was doing that he could bring himself to believe that the Israelis would not fight a war alone and that, after Egyptian troops advanced to the Israeli frontier, “the matter would end there.” The truth is that Nasser's entire strategy was calculated on making the Israelis fight alone, and that he repeatedly told his colleagues in the week before the war that the matter would not end there. Jean Lacouture has so little understanding of his subject that he assures his readers that Nasser “expected that Israel would passively submit to the Tiran blockade.”8 The evidence is overwhelming that Nasser understood how much the Israelis could take “passively” far better than that. Robert Stephens, a British journalist, blithely considers it “unlikely” that Nasser “was simply concerned to lure Israel into a first strike so that he could overwhelm her.”9 This is exactly what Nasser himself intimated more than once, what one as close to him as Heykal unquestionably implied before the war, and what Nasser's Defense Minister, Shams Badran, who was certainly in a position to know, spelled out in the most circumstantial detail after the war.
Even 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, seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He recently offered the opinion that “Nasser thought there would be someone to pull the Arabs and Israelis apart—before a military debacle could befall him but after a political victory had restored his waning image. Certainly he knew he could not win” (New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1973). If, as we know from Nasser and Badran, Nasser told his generals that war was 80 per cent and then 100 per cent certain at a time when “he knew he could not win,” he was a monster of irresponsibility and deceitfulness. Nasser was actually a man who had always calculated his chances carefully and had previously abstained from forcing a showdown with the Israelis because, as he had put it in 1965, he wanted the Arabs to be fully prepared in order “to determine the battle.” If he decided to determine the battle in 1967, it was because he thought the Arabs were sufficiently prepared. There is more truth in the idea that Nasser would have wanted someone to save him before suffering a military debacle, but this is not the same thing as saying that he expected to suffer a military debacle. If this is what Mr. Battle still thinks in 1973, one shudders at the advice he was giving in 1967.
Before turning to the implications of 1967 for 1973, it remains to inquire into the motivation of Nasser's war policy as a clue to that of his successor.
On the Arab side, 1956 haunted 1967. The lesson of 1956, for Nasser, was that Egypt had been saved and his reputation enhanced because Egypt had appeared to be the victim of an Israeli-French-British attack. The Suez adventure was Britain's last gasp as a great power willing or able to make its influence felt in the Middle East or elsewhere, and by 1967, French policy toward Israel had turned from collaboration to hostility. There remained only the United States for Nasser to worry about—when he was not worrying about Israel.
The isolation of Israel, then, was a precondition for Nasser in 1967. He could not bring himself to believe that Egypt had much to fear from Israel alone. He read the events of 1956 as meaning that Israel could not hope to win unless backed by at least one great power. He thought that he could count on either an Egyptian victory in a one-to-one war or an Israeli backdown that would be the equivalent of an Egyptian victory without war. In effect, his objective was the fruits of war, with or without war. Isolating the battlefield was the key to his strategy in 1967, and for this grand maneuver to succeed, everything seemed to depend on how he handled the United States.
Nasser decided to forgo a first strike solely in order to isolate Israel. An Egyptian first strike, he thought, vastly increased the danger of U.S. intervention; an Israeli first strike vastly decreased it. His motivation, then, had nothing to do with avoiding a war with Israel; it was solely guided by his best judgment of how to win it.
Significantly, Nasser's first impulse after he knew that he had lost the war was to blame active U.S. intervention for his defeat. In his desperately ludicrous telephone conversation with Hussein on June 6, the second day of the battle when he already knew some of the bad news but not all of it, it was Nasser who had the idea of putting out a phony story about imaginary attacks from American and British aircraft carriers. It took him almost a year to withdraw this alibi for the Egyptian debacle (in the interview in Look, March 19, 1968). This legend was more than a purely arbitrary, senseless canard; it betrayed in a distorted fashion what had long been in his mind as the necessary precondition for an Israeli victory.
Nasser, in fact, succeeded in achieving the isolation of the Middle East battleground. To this extent, his strategy was not badly designed. If it failed in the end, the fault was elsewhere.
In order to encourage an Israeli first strike, Nasser had to believe in the decisive superiority of his own armed forces. They had to be able to take a first strike with minimal losses and hit back with crushing effect. For this reason, it was so vital for Field Marshal Amer to get the Egyptian air force commander's estimate of Egyptian losses in the opening Israeli attack. When Sidqi Mahmud answered “20 per cent,” the necessary relationship of forces for a successful Egyptian counterattack against an isolated Israel appeared to be satisfied. Heykal had made known the Egyptian strategy before the war: “As of now, we must expect the enemy to deal us the first blow in the battle. But as we wait for the first blow, we should try to minimize its effect as much as possible. The second blow will then follow. But we will deal this blow to the enemy in retaliation and deterrence. It will be the most effective blow we can possibly deal” (al-Ahram, May 26, 1967). Six days before the war, the then Jordanian Prime Minister who accompanied King Hussein to Cairo heard Field Marshal Amer saying that the fight against Israel would last only a few days and “be a picnic.” This highly placed Jordanian source summed up the fate of the two aspects of Nasser's strategy as follows: “Nasser was deceived by Egyptian intelligence regarding the Israeli power and Israel's real aims. He also had the illusion that he had won the diplomatic campaign against the United States and Britain.”10 In his post-mortem speech after the war, Nasser implicitly admitted that the military side of the war had been miscalculated: “Here we should acknowledge with complete honesty and complete dignity that the military fight did not proceed the way we expected or desired” (July 23, 1967). And at his trial, former Defense Minister Badran testified that, if all had gone as planned and Egypt had lost only the 20 per cent that it had expected, “there was no one [in the Egyptian air force] who believed that the Jews would have any capability left to mount an operation against us,” owing to the vaunted superiority of the Egyptian air force and the excellence of the Egyptian war plan. Indeed, Badran still would not concede that Israel alone had beaten Egypt. He attributed Israel's victory to the Americans who had allegedly given the Israelis the benefit of American aerial reconnaissance, down to “every nail in every [Egyptian] airplane.”
Unlike President Kennedy, who had assumed full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, Nasser unloaded all the blame on his generals. To one American correspondent he complained: “What helped the Israelis the last time was not so much their cleverness, but the conceit and con-placency of our generals. They felt Israel would never attack. They even overestimated their own strength. And because of that, they failed to take elementary precautions” (Newsweek, February 10, 1969). In another interview, he forgave himself: “I was not handling military matters before the 1967 war” (Time, May 16, 1969).
When an enemy's “aggression” and “first strike” become part of one's own war plan, something strange and ominous has obviously happened to the meaning of these terms. Even in 1973, when the Israelis were clearly the victims of an Arab first strike, the Arabs and their Soviet backers persisted in a bizarre propaganda campaign against “Israeli aggression.” Is what has happened in the Middle East a portent of what may come else-where? Has “aggression” virtually lost its meaning in the circumstances of modern warfare? Does it have any relationship to the “first strike” any longer?
At minimum, the Arab propaganda about the “Israeli aggression” in 1967, let alone that in 1973, deserves to be rejected with derision and contempt. If ever a war was willfully and knowingly provoked, it was the 1967 war. In this respect, the two wars are different only in form, not in substance. The Egyptians decided to give the first strike to Israel in 1967 and to take it for themselves in 1973 for exactly the same reason—they thought it was best for them. In so doing, they have set precedents of such gravity and peril, not least to themselves, that the whole problem of war and peace in the entire world may never be the same again.
In a number of other ways, the wars of 1967 and 1973 seem to be as closely related as were the wars of 1956 and 1967.
It is almost as if the Arabs asked themselves in 1973 what the Israelis had done in 1967 and had then decided to do likewise. The Arabs obviously concluded that it had been a mistake to make the Israelis deliver the first strike in 1967. They were going to do it themselves in 1973. The Arabs were surprised by the sheer weight and intensity of the opening Israeli attack in 1967. They were going to start off with an equally massive movement of men and materiel in 1973. The Arabs were impressed by their failure to wage a simultaneous, multi-front war in 1967, enabling Israel to deal with Egypt first and turn on Syria and Jordan afterward. They were going to synchronize major offensives from Egypt and Syria, holding Jordanian and other Arab forces in reserve, in 1973.
Jordan's role in 1967 has been widely misunderstood, and a similar misunderstanding in 1973 is less excusable. It was generally thought that Hussein had waited until the last minute to make up his mind about getting into the 1967 war and that he did so only after he was convinced that Egypt was sure to win.
We now know from Hussein himself that this was not the case.
Two books on Hussein have appeared, with his blessings, since the 1967 war. The first, published originally in French in 1968, is largely made up of Hussein's own words. The second, by an English writer, published in 1972, was also written with Hussein's cooperation. Both tell more or less the same story of how Hussein got into the war.11
As soon as Nasser announced the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba on May 22, 1967, Hussein decided that war was inevitable. In the next two days he made his decision: to get into it. On May 26, Hussein called in the Egyptian ambassador in Amman and asked him to arrange a meeting with Nasser. The latter accepted Hussein's overture on May 29; Hussein flew to Cairo the following day; a reconciliation took place between the former enemies; Nasser assured Hussein that his forces were superior to the Israelis'. Hussein later insisted: “Nasser never appealed to us. We were the ones who appealed to him.”
That Hussein was totally unprepared to play the role of an effective Egyptian ally does not change the political significance of his behavior, especially for the United States which has consistently supported him. In the event of an Arab-Israeli war, Hussein is sure to take Jordan into it, whatever the state of his preparedness. If he ends up on the losing side, he is equally sure to come to Washington for another handout. He behaved in 1973 exactly the same way that he had behaved in 1967. Hussein went to Cairo on September 10 of this year; he released hundreds of political prisoners, including Palestinians who had tried to overthrow him, on September 18; and war broke out on October 6. When this one is all over, we may expect to be told how he knew everything in advance and had made up his mind long before anyone had guessed what he was up to.
As for the other Arab countries, the 1973 war was far better coordinated and prepared than that of 1967. When Nasser arranged to have the 1967 conflict, he still had about 50,000 troops in Yemen, where he was virtually fighting a war against King Faisal's Saudi Arabia, which was supporting the Yemeni royalists. In 1973, Egypt had lost so much ground in the internecine Arab struggle for power that it no longer posed a threat to Saudi Arabia and, indeed, was happy to accept Faisal's advice as well as his money. Nasser went into the 1967 war with barely more than a rickety military alliance with Syria to which Jordan even more dubiously attached itself. Sadat went into the 1973 war after mobilizing the entire Arab world for military, financial, and diplomatic support.
Nevertheless, the inter-Arab aspect of every Arab-Israeli war should not be neglected or underrated. The Arab world is far from being a unity; the ancient as well as modern rivalries and grudges persist behind the façade of solidarity. Nasser once aspired to leadership of the entire Arab world, and he used such causes as the Yemen civil war and the anti-Israeli jihad to serve his ends. Every war that Egypt fights against Israel weakens her in relation to the other Arab powers. In any case, Egypt cannot have it both ways. Saudi Arabia's Faisal is paying Egypt not only to fight Israel but also to spend Egyptian energies that might be—and have been—directed against him. For Faisal, it is tails I win and heads you lose.
Arab propaganda in 1973 also seems to have learned something from 1967. In the previous war, the candor of the Arab spokesmen, who either threatened to turn the clock back to 1948 in the manner of Nasser or promised to leave no Israeli survivors alive in the raw language of Ahmed Shukairy, then head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, clearly backfired. This time, the Arabs decided to be more restrained in their declared demands and to use more evasive formulas such as restoring “the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.” In 1967, candor came before the war; in 1973, it was put off until the end of the war—assuming that the Arabs would then be in a position to be candid about what “the legitimate rights of the Palestinians” are.
As for Israel, its successful surprise attack in 1967 ironically contributed to the success of the Arab surprise attack in 1973. The Israeli intelligence and preparedness failure in this war was, at least in good part, a product of the same kind of underestimation of the enemy that proved so costly to the Egyptians in the previous war. The initial Israeli setback had its deeper roots in the changed social conditions in Israel after 1967, the widespread disdain for the Arab ability to wage a coordinated, modern war, and a pervasive sense of satisfaction with the post-1967 status quo. General Hubris seems to have changed sides. Nasser's complaint about Egyptian “conceit and complacency” may be just as close to the truth in its Hebrew translation—except that the Israelis had enough back-up leadership and reserve stamina to turn the tide of battle.
In his news conference on October 12 of this year, six days after the present war started, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a strange and disturbing statement. Of the Soviet role, he said: “If you compare their conduct in this crisis to their conduct in 1967, one has to say that Soviet behavior has been less provocative, less incendiary, and less geared to military threats, than in the previous crisis.”
This statement has gone into my “Duke-of-Wellington file,” so called from the Duke's reply to someone who had greeted him as Mr. Smith: “If you can believe that, Sir, you can believe anything.”
In 1967, the Soviet leaders were certainly provocative and incendiary, but they were also more confused and constrained by more limited military capabilities. They peddled the still unexplained story about Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border which helped to give Nasser the thought of putting into effect Field Marshal Amer's six-months'-old idea of chasing out the UN forces and taking over Sharm el-Sheikh. Subsequently, the Soviet commitment to Egypt and Syria was twofold. Without Soviet war materiel and training programs, the Arabs could not have contemplated going to war. But there was another essential function which the Soviets promised to perform. As explained by Nasser to Jordanian Prime Minister Sa'd Jum'ah, “the contact between our people and the Soviet leaders has assured us that they will come quickly to our support in the event of U.S. intervention.”12 Thus Nasser took out an additional insurance policy with the Soviet Union against the United States. Overconfident of the success of Arab arms, he was more interested in keeping the United States out of the battlefield than in bringing the Soviet Union in.
Yet the Soviet Union pursued a policy of limited liability, to the disappointment of Nasser when his plans went awry. He later blamed the Soviets as well as the United States for misleading him about their ability to hold Israel back (July 23, 1967). Another deep grievance was their failure to fly in more planes on an emergency basis or provide the Egyptian forces with air cover as soon as the extent of the Egyptian losses was known. Acording to Nutting, Nasser told his former Vice President, Abdel Latif Boghdady, that the Soviets “had been frozen into immobility by their fear of a confrontation with America.”13 In any event, the Soviets did not attempt to keep the Egyptian army going with a large- or small-scale resupply operation in 1967.
This, too, changed in 1973. The Soviets were again in on the war at the start, but experience had taught the Arabs to keep them in, at least for the purpose of resupply, during the war. The Soviet role was far more provocative, far more incendiary, far more geared to military action in 1973 than it had been in 1967. There was nothing in 1967 comparable to at least two Soviet actions in 1973—the huge, prompt resupply effort for Egypt and Syria, and the démarches to Iraq, Algeria, and other Arab countries urging them to get into the fight against Israel with the express admonition that the advanced Soviet equipment had been given to them for this very purpose. If only for these reasons, Kissinger's excessive solicitude for Soviet sensibilities may or may not have been good diplomacy but it was certainly bad history.
Let us now go back and try to reconstruct, in its main lines, how the Soviet Union was implicated in the Arab decision to go to war again.
Nasser at first needed a breathing spell and hoped against hope to retrieve his fortunes through the United Nations and joint U.S.-USSR pressure on Israel. In March 1969, he launched what he called a “war of attrition” against Israel; it cost him dearly and he called it off in July. By the end of 1969, his frustration could no longer be contained. On November 6, he made a speech in which he for the first time talked of using force again “to open our own road to what we want, over a sea of blood and under a horizon of fire.”
At this time, however, Nasser had not yet made a new deal with the Soviets, and without it he was helpless to convert his words into deeds. This dilemma sent him to Moscow from June 29 to July 17, 1970, one of his longest stays in the Russian capital, when he succeeded in getting the Soviets to install the first SAM-3 missiles near the Suez Canal, though the Soviets still insisted on training Egyptians to use them. Soon afterward, Nasser accepted the so-called Rogers Plan, named after the former U.S. Secretary of State, providing for an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire for ninety days to set the stage for intensive peace negotiations. In effect, Nasser was preparing to move either way, though his faith in the Rogers Plan must have been minimal.
A cease-fire agreement was signed on August 7, 1970. It prohibited military build-ups or offensive action within a zone at least 32 miles wide on each side of the canal. The United States and the Soviet Union were co-signatories, and an American spokesman defined the understanding in unmistakable terms:
The depth of the cease-fire was described as sufficient to assure Israel that neither Egypt nor the Soviet Union would expand military positions—especially the Soviet SAM-2 and SAM-3 anti-aircraft missile sites—into the 32-mile belt along the canal during the truce.
The informed sources said that the Soviet Union had given the United States a “categorical commitment” to abide by the requirement not to build up positions in this zone during the truce. This enabled President Nixon to give Israel firm assurances on this point.14
This categorical commitment and these firm assurances were worthless as soon as they were made. Even such kindly chroniclers of Nasser as Jean Lacouture and Anthony Nutting admit that the missiles were installed in violation of the August 7 cease-fire.15 We now know that the U.S. government knew all about the violations and failed to live up to its assurances. Senator Henry M. Jackson has revealed that he tried to persuade Kissinger, then the President's national-security adviser, to recognize that “the accumulated result could do irreparable harm to Israel's security” and to insist on the removal of the missiles.16 His efforts were fruitless.
Nasser died in September 1970. It was the end of the Arab-Israeli postwar Phase 1.
Nasser's successor, Anwar el-Sadat, also needed a breathing spell before he was ready to go to Moscow.
Sadat permitted the cease-fire to last until March 1971. Then came the following timetable:
March 1-2: Sadat in Moscow.
March 7: Sadat ends the cease-fire.
March 20: A special “War Preparation Committee” headed by Sadat orders nationwide measures to mobilize the national resources for the eventuality of war (al-Ahram, March 21, 1971).
March 22: Abdel Mohsen Abul-Nur, Secretary General of the Arab Socialist Union, Egypt's only political organization, declares at a rally at Aswan that “the only way for us now is a military solution” and “our armed forces are now ready to force him [Israel] to withdraw” (New York Times, March 25, 1971).
March 24: The New York Times correspondent in Cairo, Raymond H. Anderson, writes: “A new wave of weapons and military equipment deliveries from the Soviet Union has reached the United Arab Republic in the last few weeks, according to reliable Western sources, coinciding with stepped up, widely publicized measures by the Egyptian leadership to prepare the country for war” (ibid.).
The fullest and bluntest expression of Egyptian thinking came, as usual, from Muhammad Hassanein Heykal on March 26. In an article entitled “The Inevitable War,” he wrote that “this war will be long, fierce, and complicated, but there is no alternative.” As if the Egyptians were merely trying to improve on their 1967 strategy, he concluded: “While the stage is prepared by political means, the Egyptian military forces are ready to start war against Israel—a war which is inevitable, as I have already said. It is inevitable against Israel, but it is avoidable against any other factor [in the situation] except for Israel.”
In an interview later that same year, Heykal incautiously acknowledged that Egypt was after far more than the post-1967 “occupied territories.” Speaking to an Arab publication, he said: “It's not enough to return to the borders of 1967. Adjustments are needed which it is unlikely that Israel will make.” As Nasser's literary heir, he also stated: “He [Nasser] wanted the Arab world, and the whole world, to realize that a peaceful settlement was impossible, so that it would no longer be a subject for discussion. As a result, the Arab world will organize itself and prepare for a long struggle on many fronts.”17
After these bold words, the Egyptian leadership hesitated for a few months owing to more diplomatic maneuvering. By the beginning of last year, however, the original decision to go to war was reaffirmed, as Sadat disclosed in a speech on January 13, 1972:
We have reached the conclusion that the battle has been forced upon us. We took this decision in 1971, but a little fog descended upon us and we had to find our way all over again.
On January 25, 1972, he reiterated:
We must be prepared for battle since we have adopted the view that the problem can only be solved by force,18
After this, the only open questions were the preparation, the timing, and the tactics. There is reason to believe that the final, operational decision did not come until last summer, but the political decision goes as far back as two years ago. Unlike Nasser, Sadat did not intend to telegraph the blow. Since he was determined to strike first, there was no need for a complicated escalation of threats and stratagems to get the Israelis to do anything. In fact, the less the Israelis did, the better. Having made their decision, the Egyptians were faced with many complex problems vis-à-vis the Soviets, the other Arab countries, and the non-Arab world, especially the United States. Without going into the details here, it is enough for our purpose to note how long ago the fundamental Arab decision was made and how closely it followed another mission to Moscow.
Whenever Arab statements are cited, the question of Arab “rhetoric” arises. Should it be taken seriously or are Arabs peculiarly addicted to hyperbolic bombast? Whenever an Arab spokesman says something particularly provocative or outrageous, there is always someone who says that “they never really mean it.” One writer has maintained that the Israeli case has been more “believable” because of Arab “irrationality” and that Arab leaders invariably tell Arab audiences merely “what they wish to hear.”19 I have even heard the foreign minister of an Arab country instruct a group of Americans that Arabs are allergic to Western rationalism and that, if Westerners wish to deal with Arabs, they must adopt the seemingly irrational Arab mode of thinking. Former Ambassador Battle has related that one of the first things Muhammad Hassanein Heykal told him was: “Don't try to understand us. We don't understand ourselves.”20 But in that case, why should anyone try?
Whatever one may think about Arab rhetoric and rationality, Arab politicians who know the West perfectly well are not above taking advantage of what may well be nothing more than a patronizing or apologetic attitude on the part of some Westerners. It enables them to operate on the basis of a political double-bookkeeping system—one version for their own people and the same words but in a bowdlerized version for the West. I am inclined to agree with an acute Israeli student of Arab ideas and attitudes, Dr. Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli army intelligence and now a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Harkabi has this to say about the difference between private and public utterances in the West and in Arab countries: “If in the United States a private statement is an indication of real intentions, the reverse seems to be true, very often, in Arab countries, where public proclamations are more significant than soft words whispered to foreign journalists. Even if the masses cannot impose their will on their leaders by democratic processes, the importance of the public declarations lies in the fact that they create commitments and arouse expectations that the leadership will practice what it preaches.”21
Certainly, both Israelis and Westerners would have been better advised and more nearly forewarned if they had taken Arab public proclamations and declarations quite literally since at least 1971. Too many Westerners treat the Arabs as if they were irresponsible, irrational, petulant children who go into a tantrum every time they do not get what they want. Even if some Arabs invite it, this Western attitude does no one any good, least of all the Arabs whom it encourages to indulge in irresponsible histrionics.
Ever since the so-called Soviet-Amercan détente was consecrated in Moscow by President Nixon in May 1972, the ambience of détente has been inextricably linked with the latest phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Americans were admittedly caught off guard by the outbreak of the 1973 war. They were “burned”—to use Treasury Secretary Schultz's elegant phrase—as much in the Middle East as in the celebrated “grain deal.” We still do not know whether the Russians were able to get such a favorable deal simply because they were so much smarter than the Americans or whether the latter were unusually complaisant owing to a bureaucratic understanding that détente means keeping the Russians happy by giving them more or less what they want, at least in the economic sphere. The American rationale has seemed to be: give now, get paid later.
This bad American habit of going from cold to hot in Soviet-American relations did not start with Mr. Nixon. The pattern was set by so vastly different a President as Franklin D. Roosevelt. If a Roosevelt and a Nixon can lurch from one extreme to another in this highly inflammable area, something is deeply wrong.
When Roosevelt decided to recognize the Soviet regime in 1933, his hopes were high. Soon disappointed, he lost interest and Soviet-American relations in the 1930's settled down to a low level of economic exchange and diplomatic intercourse. With the Soviet attack on Finland in 1939, however, Roosevelt went into his most extreme anti-Soviet phase. He privately expressed disgust at “this dreadful rape of Finland.” He told Ambassador Joseph C. Grew in Tokyo that “people are asking why anyone should have anything to do with the present Soviet leaders because their idea of civilization and human happiness is so totally different from ours.” He stated publicly in February 1940 that “the Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the facts knows, is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.”
Yet, after Russia entered the war the following year, his attitude changed miraculously, though nothing had changed in Russia's internal setup. By September 1941, he tried to convince Pope Pius XII that freedom of religion in Russia was a real possibility. He advised newsmen to read the article in the Soviet Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience, as if the reality could be found there. He boasted that he “got along fine” with Stalin. He told both Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles and Cardinal Spellman that the difference between the United States and Soviet Russia was going to be reduced from a ratio of 0 to 100 to one of 40 to 60.22
Those who choose to remember only Roosevelt's wartime attitude toward Russia have over simplified him. A President who could change so drastically from the anti-Soviet 1939-mid-1941 period to the pro-Soviet late-1941-1944 period could easily change back again. Yet the disturbing fact remains that Roosevelt could not conduct a policy of wartime cooperation with Russia without sowing illusions about the Soviet regime.
A somewhat similar phenomenon has accompanied the Nixon policy of détente. Nixon, like Roosevelt, has made his Soviet policy a personal one. Roosevelt imagined that he alone was capable of dealing cozily with Stalin and that he alone could cajole concessions out of “Uncle Joe,” as Stalin was endearingly called. Now we have Mr. Nixon telling us, at his news conference on October 26, that “it's because he [Brezhnev] and I know each other and it's because we have had this personal contact that notes exchanged in that way result in a settlement rather than a confrontation.” Oddly, this personal contact did not prevent a confrontation from erupting before it resulted in a “settlement,” as ill-timed and ill-defined as any in recent years, extorted under the menace of unilateral Soviet military action. The two most persuasive “notes” that Mr. Nixon communicated to Mr. Brezhnev were unwritten and unsent—the first on October 13, when Mr. Nixon decided to start the resupply effort to Israel, and the second on October 25, when he took what were delicately called “certain precautionary measures” of a military nature. If there is one area in our foreign policy which should be essentially impersonal, it is that dealing with the Communist powers, Communist China as well as Soviet Russia. Roosevelt's personal diplomacy with Stalin was one of his costliest aberrations. There is much less excuse for Nixon and Kissinger to repeat it with Brezhnev and Chou En-lai.
But this is only part of the trouble. One of the most delusory documents in American diplomatic history was signed on May 29, 1972, by Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America, and Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee CPSU. It was grandiosely entitled, “Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” As a compendium of illusions and effusions, it reminds one of the “Atlantic Charter” of 1941, which Kissinger had the misfortune to recall nostalgically earlier this year. The second and third “basic principles” of the charter of détente are particularly pertinent to the Arab-Israeli war:
Second. The USA and the USSR attach major importance to preventing the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations. Therefore, they will do their utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. They will always exercise restraint in their mutual relations, and will be prepared to negotiate and settle differences by peaceful means. Discussions and negotiations on outstanding issues will be conducted in a spirit of reciprocity, mutual accommodation, and mutual benefit.
Both sides recognize that efforts to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly, are inconsistent with these objectives. The prerequisites for maintaining and strengthening peaceful relations between the USA and the USSR are the recognition of the security interests of the Parties based on the principles of equality and the renunciation of the use or threat of force.
Third. The USA and the USSR have a special responsibility, as do other countries which are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to do everything in their power so that conflicts or situations will not arise which would serve to increase international tensions. Accordingly, they will seek to promote conditions in which all countries will live in peace and security and will not be subject to outside interference in their internal affairs. (Emphasis added.)
What has all this to do with the Arab-Israeli war of 1973? The answer is that the main Soviet effort to prepare the Egyptian and Syrian armies for war took place after this declaration of principles was signed. I do not mean to oversimplify Arab-Soviet relations over the years. They have had their ups and downs; Sadat brought in hordes of Soviet “advisers” and technicians in 1971 and sent most of them out in 1972. Yet the two sides managed to patch up whatever differences they may have had, and Soviet planes, tanks, missiles, and the myriad of other war materiel poured in to enable the Arab armies to take the offensive. The upshot seems to be that the Soviets have invested in their Arab proxies too heavily since 1955 to let go so easily; whatever their difficulties and rebuffs may have been, the Soviets have not permitted them to stand in the way of a long-term policy which has now persisted for eighteen years despite upheavals in the Soviet leadership.
After Mr. Nixon and Comrade Brezhnev signed their names to these beautiful sentiments, détente became the chief political capital of the Nixon administration. The more the President was forced to wallow in the Watergate and associated ignominies, the harder Mr. Nixon tried to sell the blessings of dé it was almost only thing he could sell, and he repeatedly tried to change the subject from Watergate to déente.
In Washington, it became almost indecent to say anything nasty or naughty about the two great Communist powers. They order this matter better in China. On August 24 of this year, Premier Chou En-lai delivered a report to the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Communist party in which, détente or no déente, he referred scathingly to both the United States and the Soviet Union. They were “contending for hegemony,” “are in a sorry plight indeed,” “want to devour China, but find it too tough even to bite,” and—this for U.S. imperialism alone—it has “started to go downhill” and “has openly admitted that it is increasingly on the decline.” If such a speech were made by President Nixon or Secretary Kissinger about China, their whole “structure of peace” would seem to come tumbling down, and Washington would quake with rumors of the return of hot, cold, or lukewarm war.
The trouble, of course, is not déente. It is the illusions that détente has fostered or that have been fostered in the name of déente. Unfortunately, détente with illusions is worse than no détente at all; one-sided détente is worse than no détente at all. While Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger were basking in the warmth of déente, the Russians were heating up a war in the Middle East. While a new academic doctrine was developing that the Soviet Union had become a conservative, status-quo power that abjured risks and renounced upsetting the existing balance of forces, the Soviet Union was preparing to take incalculable risks to upset the precarious balance in one of the most sensitive areas in the world. It the President and Secretary of State had not developed a case of unwonted bashfulness on the subject of Soviet Russia, they might have asked some embarrassing questions about how the USSR had lived up to the “Basic Principles.”
Had the USSR tried to prevent “the development of situations [in the Middle East] capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations”? Did the USSR do its utmost “to avoid” this military confrontation? Was the approaching war in the Middle East ever discussed with the United States “in a spirit of reciprocity, mutual accommodation, and mutual benefit”? Had the USSR sought “to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other [U.S.], directly or indirectly”? Did the USSR do everything in its power “so that conflicts and situations [in the Middle East] will not arise which would serve to increase international tensions”? Accordingly, did the USSR “seek to promote conditions [in the Middle East] in which all countries [including Israel] will live in peace and security and will not be subject to outside interference [viz., Russian tanks, planes, and missiles] in their internal affairs”?
No such questions have been raised, at least publicly, about a document only a year and a half old. President Nixon was so far from realizing how close the Soviet-backed Arabs were to war that he decided to blame both sides indiscriminately and to disclaim being pro-Israel or pro-Arab only a month before the outbreak of hostilities. This “evenhandedness,” as it was called, might have made sense if General Secretary Brezhnev had come out with more or less the same thing. In the circumstances, it was an invitation for the Russians and Arabs to catch the American leaders unawares. After the outbreak, Kissinger still thought it necessary to compare Soviet behavior in 1973 favorably with Soviet behavior in 1967 and to characterize the former as not yet “irresponsible,” as if he were waiting for the Russians themselves to attack Israel before entertaining the thought that they might have gone too far. It took him a little while to realize that it was pointless to make excuses for Russian responsibility. When Kissinger rushed off to Moscow at the behest of General Secretary Brezhnev, he could not fail to give the impression that the Russians could turn the war on and off as they pleased. They may even be blaming him for having unwittingly misled them about the price the United States was willing to pay for the privilege of participating in a détente with them.
Secretary Kissinger might usefully reread some of Professor Kissinger's old writings, especially an article on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Eleven years ago, President Kennedy was also caught by surprise and then reacted strongly. Now President Nixon has told us that the 1973 Soviet-American confrontation was the worst since the missile crisis. In the earlier case, Kissinger was not satisfied with mere self-congratulation. He asked some deeper questions, which might also be asked now. He admonished that “even this success does not free us from the need to understand how we arrived at the point where such a dramatic and risky action was necessary.” He wanted to know “what tempted the Soviets into so rash, so foolhardy an adventure”? Or, as he also put it, “with the stakes so high, what made the Soviets believe that they could get away with it?”
Part of the answer, Kissinger indicated, pointed in the direction of U.S. policy before the missile crisis. “Over the past decade,” he suggested, “Khrushchev may well have become convinced that the United States would never run risks to protect its interests, either because it did not understand its interests or because it did not have the appropriate doctrine for using its power.”23 A similar line of thought might well be pursued now. What was there about previous U.S. policy that had given Khrushchev's successors the idea that they could take such an exorbitant risk in the Middle East and expect to get away with it? Soviet moves of such gravity are not taken in a vacuum; they reflect, among other things, a perception of U.S. policy. Was the policy of déente, as publicized and practiced before October 1973, an “appropriate doctrine” for warning off the Soviet Union from “so rash, so foolhardy an adventure”? We were once instructed by Professor Kissinger that “the test of statesmanship is the adequacy of its evaluation before the event” (emphasis in original).24By this test, his statesmanship in this instance was somewhat less than adequate.
If, as the usually sober and trustworthy International Institute for Strategic Studies in London estimates, the Egyptians had as many as 1,000 Soviet “advisers and instructors,” the Syrians 3,000, and the Iraqis 1,500, and the Egyptian army closely followed Russian tactical procedures, on top of the fact that the immense accumulation of war materiel was entirely Soviet, the Soviet Union was up to its neck in this war. Some people like to make a distinction between whether the Soviets encouraged the Arabs to go to war and whether they merely acquiesced in it. The practical difference is negligible. The Soviets encouraged it by acquiescing, and they would have discouraged it by refusing to acquiesce. They have, at minimum, a veto power over any Arab action on this scale. If they choose not to exercise it, they might as well push the button to let it go on. In fact, the vast and expensive effort the Russians must have made to render this war possible required a major decision on the part of the Soviet leadership many months ago. By its very nature, that decision entailed secrecy and deception, made all the more necessary because it was in flagrant violation of both the letter and spirit of that charter of détente solemnly signed in May 1972 at the insistence of the Russians.
The starting point for any reconsideration of U.S. policy in the coming months is that the Soviets prepared this war under cover of the déente. It was the 1973 edition of the Soviet-Arab strategy for isolating Israel and the Middle East battleground. In the division of labor between the Arabs and the Soviets, the former are supposed to do the fighting and the latter to run diplomatic and other interference. If this is still not enough to insure an Arab victory, the Soviets are then expected to blow the whistle, call off the game, strong-arm the Security Council, and, in the event of an imminent Syrian-Egyptian military collapse, stave it off by all possible means, even to the extent of threatening to take over the war from its Arab proxies. A détente which permits the Soviets to play such a double game is doomed to end in disillusionment and recrimination.
In his news conference on October 26 President Nixon tried to answer criticism of the détente by arguing that “without that détente we might have had a major conflict in the Middle East. With détente we avoied.” it this is a most peculiar interpretation of what déentes are for. In Mr. Nixon's view, a détente can apparently take us to the very brink of a major conflict, as if that were not the business of a détente to avert. But if the major conflict is avoided by a last-minute display of precautionary power, credit for the allegedly happy ending should go to the détente. The awkward fact is that the dénouement of October 22-25 was the result of the oldest of old-fashioned power plays on both sides. It this is what détente signifies, the word has become meaningless and we might as well trade it in for something less pretentious and disarming. When President Kennedy faced up to Khrushchev in 1962, he did not find it necessary to pretend that it had anything to do with something like détente.
The Israelis have reason to be grateful to the United States for the aid which they received when they needed it most. After a week of bureaucratic wavering and division, President Nixon acted with forcefulness and decision. For the future, however, the policy before October 13 is more alarming than the policy after that date is encouraging. If U.S. policy is going to be based on deals with Soviet Russia, it will have to find a way to stop the Russians from underwriting Arab wars instead of stopping wars that do not go according to the Russian-Arab plan. If détente is helpless before the first and operates only in the second fashion, it will be dishonored the same way another perfectly good word, “appeasement,” was dishonored before World War II.
Judging from Brezhnev's speech to the World Peace Congress in Moscow on October 26, the task of salvaging détente from the wreckage of this war will not be easy. Listening to Brezhnev, one might imagine that nothing worth mentioning had happened in the Middle East before October 22, the day the Security Council voted the first cease-fire. Here was the leader of a great nuclear power, which had aided and abetted a reckless, perfidious aggression against Israel on Yom Kippur, unctuously accusing Israel of “perfidiously” violating Security Council decisions, continuing “aggressive action” against Egypt, and exhibiting “the recklessness of the peace-violators.” One would have given much to hear someone at this “peace” congress ask Mr. Brezhnev why he waited until the Egyptian army was on the verge of collapse before he bethought himself to denounce the violation of peace in the Middle East. Or to inquire how a nation which as a result of World War II had acquired 272,500 square miles of territory with a population of 24,168,000—a territory as large as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq combined, with a population two-and-a-half times as large—could without shame tell any other nation that “acquiring territories through means of war” was impermissible.25
The 1973 war has also had far more serious international repercussions than the previous one, not least in the United Nations. Rarely, perhaps never, has the world organization been so crudely used to provide a fig-leaf for naked great power. Fig-leaves, to be sure, have their uses or they would not have been invented. It was undoubtedly better for the UN to furnish a small-power cease-fire force than to have direct Soviet and American armed intervention in the area. That Sadat begged for the latter showed that, in desperation, he had become more interested in bringing the Soviets in than in keeping the Americans out. Nevertheless, the convenience of the UN's role is small consolation for the damage that was done to the organization and that it did to itself. Its members, if they have any consciences left, will long have to account for the fact that they did nothing to restore peace when Israel was in danger but hurriedly passed one “peace resolution” after another, with hardly any time to know what they were doing, as soon as Egypt was in danger. This war may well be to the United Nations what the Italo-Ethiopian war was to the League of Nations.
From war to war, the essential Arab strategy has become increasingly clear. Gimmicks will not make it go away, and UN resolutions have mainly served to exacerbate it.
The essence of that strategy was put in five words by former President Nasser to Eric Rouleau: “Time works in our favor” (Le Monde, February 19, 1970). This idea, giving impetus to every successive war, has been the leitmotif of Arab and Soviet propaganda for a long time.
The result is that the Arab countries want to end as well as to start wars in their own way. As we have seen, it has pleased them to give and also to take the first strike. As soon as they get into trouble, however, they expect someone else—the Soviet Union, with or without the United States, the United Nations, the oil-consuming nations—to get them out of it. The manufacture of myths about why they lost—Israel was the “aggressor,” the United States intervened in some unfair fashion, the Soviet Union did not do enough-becomes a national passion. After the 1948 war, the young Egyptian officers, of whom Nasser was representative, blamed a corrupt regime. After the 1956 war, Nasser blamed Britain and France. After 1967, he blamed the United States, his generals, his allies.
In order to make every defeat inconclusive, it is necessary to act as if the defeat did not really take place. Other countries have, after all, fought wars and lost. But when has a country sought to dictate the terms of peace negotiations to the victor? The answer is that the Arabs are not yet interested in a peace and they consider themselves to be the ultimate victors. In immediate defeat, they yet feel it necessary to act as if they were going to have the last word. For this reason, the Arabs have always been interested in a cease-fire, whatever it may be called, not in a definitive peace. A cease-fire implies that a battle has been lost; a peace might imply that a war has been lost. The language which Arabs use to convey their intent should not deceive us. Its form is psychological, but its content is political. It would be “humiliating,” we hear interminably, to negotiate with Israel while Arab land is still occupied by the Israeli army. If the Arabs have to be spared all humiliation, it would be necessary to undo far more than the 1967 war; that kind of psychological therapy would go right back to the equally disastrous and humiliating 1948 war. Among themselves the Arabs consider the very existence of Israel to be their real “humiliation”; the surrender of the post-1967 occupied territories in advance of negotiation would only be a start toward relieving Arab humiliation on the installment plan. To negotiate on the basis of only one side's psychological propensity is obviously an absurd and futile exercise.
These tactics flow from the Arab assumption that “time works in our favor.” It sometimes takes the form of boasting that the Arabs can afford to have a war every few years, and Israel cannot. Or that Israel can only fight a short war, and a long one is sure to favor the Arabs. The trouble with such theories is that, even if there is some truth in them, there is rarely a military problem, providing it is sufficiently clear, for which there is absolutely no answer. The French, for example, were convinced that the Germans could not break through the Maginot Line in World War II. Whether or not the French were right, the Germans disappointed them by going through Holland and Belgium, thereby outflanking the Maginot Line. The history of warfare is full of such “challenges and responses.” The idea that the Arabs can have as many wars as they please may well be their mental Maginot Line. It gives the Israelis the moral and psychological advantage of always fighting what may be the last war, while the Arabs need not go to the bitter end because there is still another and better war in the offing. The most serious flaw in the theory, however, is something else. It inevitably escalates the level of every war. From 1948 to 1973, each Arab-Israeli war has increased in scope and costliness. The Israelis cannot tolerate an infinite series of wars; the Arabs have started every war at a greater disadvantage than the last one. The whole theory of time working inevitably and inexorably in favor of the Arabs is a formula for the most destructive war yet.
If the 1973 war is not the last Arab-Israeli conflict, the next one is sure to be worse. If Soviet-American-UN diplomacy can come up with nothing better than a retreaded version of all the gimmicks that failed in the past—the UNEF in another guise, the slippery UN resolution of November 22, 1967, indirect “negotiations,” ambiguous formulas and face-saving evasions—the result will again be a cease-fire rather than a peace.
And if it is to be a cease-fire in all but name? Arab strategy in 1967 and 1973 has virtually made meaningless the terms “aggression” and “first strike.” It is too much to expect any Israeli government and high command to take chances next time. The lesson of 1967 for Egypt was that Israel should not have the first strike, and the lesson of 1973 for Israel is that Egypt should not have the first strike. From now on, the finger will always be on the trigger. Let us pray that the lesson for both sides is that they must reconcile themselves to each other's existence, to the realities that have been brought about by a unique and singular set of circumstances, to the realization that the entire fabric of Arab-Israeli history cannot be unraveled.
1 The full text of Nasser's statements during the 1967 crisis period is given in the appendices to my book, Israel and World Politics. These translations, made in Washington at the time, have been checked with the Arabic original and some minor revisions have been made here. The dates in parentheses are the dates of delivery.
2 Anthony Nutting, Nasser, Dutton, 1972, pp. 397-98.
3 Badran testified on February 24, 1968, and a verbatim report appeared in the Cairo paper, al-Ahram, the next day. The testimony came too late for my book, Israel and World Politics. In the literature on the subject, only Nadav Safran seems to have used it beyond a mere reference, and he was barely able to insert four last-minute footnotes based on the testimony as his book, From War to War, went to press.
4 The visit to Pakistan actually took place December 5-12, 1966, and the meeting of the Arab League's Supreme Council occurred December 7-11, 1966.
5 According to a UPI report from Cairo of February 24, 1968, Badran testified that the Egyptian Chief of Stag, General Muhammad Fawzi, had been sent to Syria on May 14, 1967, to check on the Syrian and Soviet reports of Israeli forces massing on the Syrian border. Fawzi found that the reports were unfounded and said that the Soviets “must have been having hallucinations.” The same version of this portion of Badran's testimony appears in Safran's book (pp. 274-75) and in the Middle East Record, 1967 (p. 191), both of which attribute it to al-Ahram of February 25, 1968. A search of the paper of that date in the copy at the Library of Congress has failed to locate and verify this passage. Conceivably, it may have appeared in a different edition of the same date and was eliminated from the Library of Congress's edition. If it should be confirmed, it would show even more emphatically that everything the Egyptians did after May 14 had nothing to do with the ostensible Israeli provocation of Syria.
6 Nutting, op. cit., p. 409.
7 Sa'd Jum'ah, al-Mu'amara wa ma'rakat al-masir (“The Conspiracy and the Battle of Destiny”), in Arabic (Beirut), 1968, p. 176.
8 Nasser, Knopf, 1973, p. 301.
9 Nasser, Allen Lane (London), 1971, p. 482.
10 Jum'ah, op. cit., pp. 171-72.
11 Vick Vance and Pierre Lauer, Hussein de Jardanie: Ma “Guerre” avec Israel, Albin Michel (Paris), 1968; Peter Snow, Hussein, Barrie & Jenkins (London), 1972.
12 Sa'd Jum'ah, Mujtama' al-Karahiyah (“The Society of Hatred”), in Arabic (Beirut), 1972, pp. 127-28.
13 Nutting, op. cit., p. 419.
14 New York Times, August 8, 1970.
15 “The demon which impels certain rulers always to seek a little more gain or ‘profit’ incited the Soviet-Egyptians, after the cease-fire of August 7, to place their missile launching sites nearer the canal. These were the famous SAM-3's, obtained by Nasser six months earlier from Moscow” (Jean Lacouture, op. cit., p. 341). “. . . The Egyptians were unable to install all the missiles within the time limit and so were obliged, to the accompaniment of loud protests from the Israelis, to commit a technical breach of the cease-fire by moving the late arrivals onto appointed sites after the August 7 deadline” (Nutting, op. cit., p. 450).
16 New York Times, October 17, 1973.
17 Journal of Palestine Studies (Beirut), Autumn 1971, p. 19.
On July 14, 1972 Heykal denounced the widespread visits of Arabs to Israel—150,000 a month that summer—by arguing: “Israel wants to deprive the Arabs of their chief weapon, which is their nonacceptance of Israel . . . it is a method of disarming the Arab rejection of Israel. . . .”
18 Ibid., Spring 1972, for the text of both speeches.
19 Hisham Sharabi, Palestine and Israel, Pegasus, 1969, pp. 125-26.
20 ew York Times Magazine, October 21, 1973.
21 Y. Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel, Israel Universities Press (Jerusalem), 1972, p. 390.
22 The above two paragraphs are based on: Robert A. Divine, Roosevelt and World War II, Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, p. 77; F.D.R. His Personal Letters, 1928-1945, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1950, Vol. II, pp. 961, 1204-05; The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Macmillan, Vol. IX, p. 93; Vol: X, pp. 401-02; Vol. XII, p, 558; Sumner Welles, Where Are We Heading?, Harper, 1946, p. 37; Robert I. Gannon, The Cardinal Spellman Story, Doubleday, 1962, p. 224.
23 Henry A. Kissinger, “Reflections on Cuba,” the Reporter, November 22, 1962, pp. 21-2.
24 The Necessity for Choice, Harper, 1961, p. 3.
25 As a result of World War II, the Soviet Union acquired the following territories and population, some of which had been former conquests of the Czarist Empire, which the Bolsheviks had disavowed in 1917, and some of which had never belonged to Russia at all:
|Eastern Poland||68,000||10 ”|
|Bessarabia and Bukovina||19,000||3.7 ”|
|East Prussia||3,500||0.4 ”|
|West Karelia||16,000||0.5 ”|
|Tannu Tuva||64,000||0.06 ”|
|Southern Sakhalin||14,000||0.4 ”|
|Kurile Islands||4,000||0.004 ”|