Commentary Magazine


The Cost of Israel's Survival: Faith, Courage, and Taxes

The customs inspector at Idlewild looked at the gifts which I had brought along from South America.

“I am in transit,” I explained.

“In transit? Where to?”

“To Israel.”

The inspector looked at my passport and said sympathetically, “You have troubles there.”

I knew that this conversation would not solve Israel’s troubles, but I felt that it could solve those posed by the gifts. I answered in the affirmative.

The inspector leaned over the counter, and said as if in confidence, “This time you will have to go it alone.”

I could have answered that we had done so in 1948, but instead I said, “Do you think it’s fair?”

The inspector replied with a shrug, “You can’t drag the whole world into a war.” He said it with a certain regret, perhaps as one says c’est la vie. There was probably no lack of sympathy. He did not charge me any duty.

During my short stop-over in New York danger signals from the Middle East made daily headlines. After another border incident in which Jewish lives were lost, Gaza was shelled by Israeli artillery and there were over sixty dead. Retaliating against retaliation, Nasser sent his Fedayeen suicide squads into Israel and some people were killed almost in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. I wondered whether this was a moment to go, but my trip had already been announced. Only when driving to the airport did I hear over the radio the announcement that Khrushchev, before departing for London, had stated that the Soviet Union was ready to cooperate in a peaceful solution of the Palestine problem. That was the first good news in many months during which Israel had seemed besieged by its enemies and abandoned by its friends.

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A Thick white fog covered Lydda airport as the plane arrived in the early morning hours, and we were forced to circle for almost half an hour over Tel Aviv as it came to life under the morning sun. Looking down at the blocks of yellowish-white buildings that reached to the edge of the crystalline blue sea, one realized what a sitting duck this tangle of houses and streets could be for another sort of plane. Only a few days earlier, eight supersonic Mystères had arrived from France, the first fighters that Israel had got hold of that could cope with Egypt’s Ilyushin bombers. Looking down, one wondered how it had felt in the months gone by to be a resident of Tel Aviv and to read daily of the arrival of more bombers in Egypt.

As it turned out, we had arrived at the same time as peace. Peace à la Palestine, of course, which means one person killed near the Egyptian border, two fired at from across the Jordanian border, or just a bit of shooting without any casualties across the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. At Lydda Airport, boxed in by the Super-Constellations of the transoceanic companies, stood Dag Hammarskjold’s white two-motored plane, a dove that had not brought peace but found an olive branch upon landing. As I discovered later, everyone on the Israeli side who attended the meetings with the UN Secretary General was impressed by his intimate knowledge of the most minute details, his shrewdness, his quick grasp, and gift for negotiation, but hardly anybody gave him credit for the return of relative quiet. The general feeling was that the real responsibility for that was to be looked for in the change of Russian attitude expressed in Khrushchev’s statement, and Russia’s UN vote in favor of the Hammarskjold mission a few weeks before; and that the State Department, in taking the initiative for the Hammarskjold mission, had been moved more by the desire to keep Israel out of the headlines until after the November elections in the U. S. than by anything else.

Thus both the State Department and Hammarskjold cashed in on a rare conjunction of interests. The Soviet Union, busy with de-Stalinization and her attempts to weaken NATO through overtures to Britain and France, was not interested in a Middle East war. Egypt and her allies were not ready for it. Israel did not want it. And the idea itself of war horrified the West. Hammarskjold, in the Israeli view, managed to avert a war that wasn’t going to break out anyway—at least not yet. The Arabs took care to see that he should not try for anything more than that. The clashes on Israel’s borders immediately before his arrival, culminating in the Fedayeen raids, broke the armistice agreements so that the UN Secretary General might have the chance to restore them. But the basic differences were not brought any closer to solution. (There were border incidents during and after Hammarskjold’s visit; his concrete achievement was to inaugurate a period of less violence.)

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After fifteen minutes on the road from Lydda to Jerusalem the taxi driver pointed at a cement factory. Less than a week before, the Fedayeen had dynamited its workers’ dining hall. The driver did not seem impressed, however, and since he wasn’t, his passengers weren’t either. It did not occur to anyone that the road might be dangerous. After all, the bombing had taken place six days ago and had already been swallowed up in Israel’s crowded past. “So what,” said the driver. “Nasser sent, he claims, three hundred Fedayeen across the border. A dozen Israelis, mostly civilians and children, were waylaid and killed. The Fedayeen paid the full price. Besides those we captured, we’ve just turned over to the Egyptians, at Kilometer 95, the coffins of eleven others. Was that a military success?”

In Jerusalem, people were busy preparing for the Zionist Congress, and nobody would have mentioned the Fedayeen any more if not for the fact that the tourist season was bad. The authorities had expected a record year, but the hotels, which had been booked up months in advance, had received a steady stream of cancellations from December on, and if not for the Congress they would have been empty. The Israelis’ comments on this situation were composed three-fourths of ill-disguised irony. There was hardly an Israeli who would not say with a sneer or a smile, “Things look more dangerous from abroad, eh?” As an ex-European who had lived in countries whose inhabitants had been less aware of the real danger in which they were living than people abroad had been, one had to suppress the impulse to say that people outside Israel might be less mistaken than those inside. But on second thought, one understood that the Israelis had to live with danger and could only do so by belittling it. What was the use of telling them that they might be wrong? Nobody thought of evacuating Jews from Israel! If they had learned to coexist with danger, all the better. A certain immunity had been built up in the course of twenty years of continuous trouble.

What is life like in a country where war might break out in two, three, or nine months? How does one live with headlines announcing the arms build-up in the Arab countries and the coordination of the Arab armies for combined “defensive” action against Israel; with editorials in the leading newspapers of neighboring countries asserting that only Israel’s disappearance can bring peace to the Middle East? What does it feel like to belong to a besieged country of 1,800,000 people without a single alliance, at best with some platonic friends, when reading about the visits of Soviet dignitaries to Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut, of Arab dignitaries to Moscow, about Tito’s visit to Cairo, or Nehru’s meeting with Nasser and Tito, or Nasser’s announced visits to Italy, Greece, and Russia?

There was the old-timer who shrugged it all off with a gesture meaning that there had always been troubles, and that we would probably get out of this one too, and have more later. There were new immigrants who, having undergone army indoctrination, repeated textbook slogans like “Kacha bonim artzenu”: that is how we build our land. There was a young immigrant from Uruguay who had arrived three years ago. “My country,” he told me, “is known as the quietest and most stable in South America, but it took the Uruguayans five wars to obtain that tranquility. Should one war suffice for Israel? There is, after all, a price for making history.”

But there was also the Tel Aviv mother who told me that there had been nights when she had gone to bed apprehensively. “Why don’t we move to a lower floor,” her nine-year-old daughter had asked her. “Ours is so close to the bombs.”

Or the Jerusalem businessman whom I complimented on his home during one of the many parties which are typical of Jerusalem life. “Yes, it’s a beautiful house,” he answered pensively, while he filled my brandy glass. “I thought of adding another story, but isn’t it absurd somehow to add another story and an air raid shelter at the same time?” He sipped his drink and added, after a pause, “Perhaps I will build later.” It was a party and I didn’t insist on finding out what later meant.

To an old boyhood friend I commented on the steady succession of border incidents. “Look,” he said, while we sipped coffee on a Mount Carmel terrace, below us the splendid panorama of Haifa, “there have been about three thousand casualties among both Arabs and Jews in border incidents since the conclusion of the armistices in 1949. That means roughly a yearly average of two hundred Jewish casualties. Every other day a Jew is wounded or killed because of the absence of peace. Compare this with the average number of casualties from our traffic accidents. What the Arabs take is perhaps 5 per cent of the toll of the Fords, Kaisers, Hillmans, and Chevrolets. Does it occur to anyone not to walk on the streets or not to use cars? After all, accidents generally happen to the other guy!”

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This was, of course, a highly subjective interpretation. Seen from tranquil Haifa, the lack of peace seemed no more than a “surcharge” of 5 per cent over accidental death. But in Nahal Oz, whose barley fields run straight to the Egyptian border, the situation was different. There one out of eleven settlers had been wounded at one time or another. “We play Russian roulette with Arab bullets,” a guard told me a few days after another guard had been killed and savagely mutilated by infiltrators who had come from the Gaza strip to harvest the barley the kibbutz had sown. “Generally, it’s enough to spot them and gallop in their direction to disperse them, but this time Egyptian soldiers were with them. They tore our shomer from his horse, dragged him across the border, and returned him to us a corpse. A day before or a day after, and I would have been that corpse.” He said it as would a worker describing the bad material he had to work with. After a while he took his gun and mounted his horse to make his rounds. His wife, busy with the baby, did not even look up. Strange lottery, thought the spectator, seeing the horse trotting southward.

The army took the Zionist Congress delegates on a trip to a newly established border settlement facing Nitzanim, which through the ages has been the scene of many battles, the last one in October 1955, when the Egyptians, after refusing to evacuate a demilitarized zone, suffered eighty casualties in a night attack by the Israelis. We went in a convoy of buses, each bus with an army colonel as guide and a female soldier as stewardess. In Beersheba, I presented a French Egyptologist in another bus to the woman soldier in charge of ours. “He has the advantage,” I said jokingly, “of having to deal with dead Egyptians only.” The girl smiled, and said with a gesture toward the south, “When we get through with them in a fight, those over there are usually dead Egyptians too.”

Our colonel, however, was less boisterous. As we rode through the Negev we met tanks, self-propelling cannons, jeeps, and other military vehicles. The scenery consisted only of sky, rocks, these vehicles, and young soldiers. The latter looked smart and healthy; they were deeply tanned and their teeth appeared very white by contrast. But it was pathetic to see what they were protecting—stones, rocks, and sand. Even shade had to be imported and could be found only alongside the tanks.

The Congress delegates, exhausted by days of speeches, looked admiringly at the young soldiers quietly standing guard in the desert. “There are no natural borders,” said the colonel. “There are only arbitrarily drawn lines. We have no choice but to sit on them.”

“What can conquer this spirit?” exclaimed a matronly American delegate.

There was an unexpected answer. “Arms,” the colonel said. “More and better arms.”

In the sudden quiet of the bus, all eyes turned toward him. He was surprised. He had not intended to make a speech. His reaction was only that of the soldier against euphoria.

On the way back we passed near the spot where David had slain Goliath. “A combination of courage and good luck,” said the colonel, moving to my side. “And David had the most modern armament of his day. Even with the best arms we would remain David. But the world has taken it into its head to build up Goliath.”

“Can you imagine a defeat?” I asked. I could not see his face in the dark bus as, after a silence, he said in a husky voice, “No.” And, as if feeling the contradiction, he went on, “Because I cannot imagine it doesn’t make it impossible. Thinking only in military terms, one could come to other conclusions, but—in military terms—we only had one chance in a thousand in 1948. Now our situation is infinitely better. Nasser has Russian planes, British tanks, Czech artillery, and Nazi instructors, but he hasn’t been able to import soldiers, and I don’t remember any war won by Arabs in the last thousand years. It’s one thing to win easy political victories over dying empires and another to fight a people that has no place to retreat to.”

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I received the same answer from a novelist in Safed’s artist quarter as we sat looking across from his patio at the minarets, cupolas, and cypresses. “I have faith,” he said. “You can’t live here without faith. This rebirth after two thousand years can’t be a joke of history. Perhaps the endemic mysticism of the place makes me talk like this. Ordinarily I don’t believe in miracles, but can you apply cold logic to Israel? A British White Paper practically put an end to Zionism in 1939. Rommel stood at our doorstep. Bevin tried to dig up our arms caches. When our war of liberation started we didn’t have one plane and only four pieces of artillery, good only for training. And here we are, starting our ninth year. Sometimes I worry about my daughter in the army, but it never occurs to me to worry about Israel’s survival. After all, we are not facing a monolithic enemy. Egypt and Iraq may fight tomorrow over Jordan. The West can change its policy, so can the Kremlin. We are the only stable element in this whole hoax.”

“There is, of course, constant danger of war,” an associate of Ben Gurion’s said to me. “But there is a danger we dread still more—defeat without a fight. Frankly, we are more afraid of being pressured into concessions than of anything else. Though it’s true the Egyptians march more smartly now, in a fight, on land or in the air, they show the same weakness as before. In April they had the chance to answer our bombardment of Gaza with military action, but instead they sent their Fedayeen. So it’s still doubtful to what degree they can benefit from their modern arms. We know there is already a cemetery of Migs somewhere in Egypt; so far they have lost twelve in ‘encounters’ with themselves. And though their Migs and Ilyushins can outfly all our jets except the Mystères, Egyptian pilots, according to our intelligence, just won’t fly above a certain altitude.

“No, if the Arabs maintain the armistices it’s because they are convenient for them. Under their protection they raid our territory, and if we strike back they denounce us to the Security Council. And what luck they have had,” he continued. “No one has so many windfalls in such a short time. It is certainly not their doing that there is oil in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, or that the Suez Canal runs through Egypt. Eight Arab countries have been carved out of the Turkish empire without a single shot. And now they are cashing in on a worldwide anti-colonial movement to which they themselves have contributed very little. Ironically enough, it was we Jews in Palestine who taught the peoples of Asia how to get rid of foreign conquerors. India has fought, Indonesia has fought, but what price did the Arabs pay for their sovereignty? To conquer us they will need more than luck.”

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In Some quarters I found deep bitterness and gloom. “We made one mistake,” said a professor at the Hebrew University. “We thought a Jewish state would solve the problem of anti-Semitism, as it did, to a degree. In most countries of the free world it has become easier to be a Jew. But anti-Semitism still figures in our political difficulties. The whole Arab-Israeli mess might never have happened if Bevin hadn’t turned out to be a lowbrow anti-Semite. Nor is Russia’s attitude merely opportunistic. What could one expect of a country that was ruled by a psychopathic anti-Semite like Stalin? And Khrushchev is, after all, a Ukrainian, and in the Ukraine it’s endemic. Unfortunately,” the professor continued, “American policy isn’t free of it either.”

“Isn’t that stretching things?” I asked. “American policy may be selfish. It may even be anti-Israel, but does that make it anti-Semitic?”

“What do you call selfish?—to act according to one’s convenience? I accept that. In my honest opinion America’s present policy in the Middle East does not coincide with her real interests. A strong Israel does. I admit that an unbiased mind could come to a different conclusion. But a biased mind—an anti-Semitic one—couldn’t possibly come to a conclusion favorable to Israel. And I am afraid that American policy is the product of a biased mind.”

“Is that a scientific analysis?” I asked with some bewilderment.

“Are Freudian slips scientific enough for you?” retorted the professor. “Do you remember the strange explanation that Dulles gave a Senate committee about Saudi Arabia’s refusal to admit Jews among American army personnel? He said that Saudi Arabia was against Jews because Mohammed had been killed by a Jew. He later had to retract this, because the truth is that Mohammed died comfortably in bed. But no psychoanalyst would take Mr. Dulles’s mistake as merely that. It must have come from his deep subconscious, where for him Jews remain Christ-killers.

“I am convinced,” continued the professor, “that it takes bias to come to the conclusions to which American foreign policy has come. Take, for example, the argument that by providing arms to Israel the United States would push the Arabs still further into Moscow’s arms. Wouldn’t it have been easy, as soon as Nasser’s deal with Czechoslovakia became known, to state simply that American arms were available to both the Arabs and Israel? Is the half inch that the Arabs still might be pushed closer to Moscow worth endangering Israel’s survival? Even a superficial study of Britain’s relations with the Arabs proves that it does not pay to appease them. What makes Americans think that by using the same methods they will fare better? Do you really think Ibn Saud would have tried restricting the rights of American Jews if there had been greater determination to defend them? The Arabs threatened to boycott West Germany if she carried out her reparations agreement with Israel. Adenauer called their bluff and, as you know, Bonn’s trade with the Arabs is flourishing today.”

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Israel is so much a part of the West and so strongly linked with the United States through American Jewry that the United States could never really be unpopular here. But something strange is happening. There is no hatred for the Arabs: their enmity has come to be considered nature-given. There is no hatred for Soviet Russia: nobody except fellow-travelers expected anything from the Communists, the traditional foes of Zionism. There is hardly any hatred for the British: they left behind some good memories along with the bad ones and, after all, they have come a long way since Bevin. But the dismay at the government of the United States borders on resentment. From a “friend” they had expected more.

As leading Israelis see it, the temporary relaxation of tension was due to Britain’s energetic warning to Khrushchev that she would intervene in the event of war in Palestine. Khrushchev’s statement, later, to an Egyptian journalist that an Arab-Israeli clash would trigger World War III was undoubtedly a reaction to this. Though the Israelis do not flatter themselves into believing that the British move was prompted by pro-Israel feeling, they point out that America not only condemned Israel to remain hamstrung in the face of the Arab build-up, but did not even make a cautionary statement like Britain’s. Some seasoned observers counter that it is not American policy to commit itself in advance; that America entered both world wars and the Korean war without previous warning, and that in an Arab-Israel war she would intervene with or without previous statements. But the Israelis do not want to be rescued after war has broken out. They don’t want a war at all, and feel that of all the great powers the United States has done the least to prevent one.

The Dulles formula—that though the United States would not sell jet fighters and heavy equipment to Israel, she would not object to having Israel obtain them from other NATO countries—may have eased some of the pressure on the State Department, but it did not bring a single jet to Israel that she would not have gotten otherwise. The first dozen Mystères shipped here were contracted for many months before the Czech arms deal, and it can be safely assumed that the French would have sold the second dozen without help from Dulles. French officials, both in Tel Aviv and in Paris, complained that the publicity given by American news agencies to real and imaginary French-Israel jet transactions make it impossible for France to continue deliveries unless America joins in. Negotiations with Canada came to nothing, though the Canadians made it known that they would gladly contribute to redressing what they considered an imbalance in the Middle East, but only in combination with other Western powers. The futility of American policy was underscored by a statement in a leading Cairo paper that for Egypt it is equally reprehensible whether the United States herself supplied Israel with jets or permitted other NATO powers to do so.

In the words of an Israeli diplomat, the State Department’s advice to Israel has been, “Go to Paris (or to Ottawa), knock on the door three times, ask for Fifi, and say, ‘John sent me.’” But Fifi wants more proof of John’s interest than his calling card. Luckily for Dulles, a combination of factors appears to be preventing the Arab-Israel situation from exploding before the November elections, and thus the short-range goal of American Middle East policy will be achieved.

“There is no single person more responsible for the present arms imbalance than Dulles,” said a right-wing Knesset deputy. “I see him in my dreams as our grave-digger.”

“There is only one thing standing between us and surrender,” another Israeli official said to me, “and that is our determination to resist any attempt at intimidation, since compromise would be senseless as long as the Arabs plan our annihilation. Our strength lies precisely here—that we cannot afford to make concessions. If it is true that the world nowadays cannot afford a war anywhere, our determination may prove to be our salvation. Our only ally is old General ‘Ein Brera’—no alternative.”

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I spoke with a fisherman from Ein Gev who, night after night as he sets his course northeast on the Sea of Galilee, exposes himself to Syrian gunfire. Taking advantage of the fact that fish is dag in Hebrew, he punned, “We cannot call a Hammarskjold for each dag,” and he added with a smile in which there wasn’t a trace of sadness, “Where is it written that you have to live to seventy?”

There are, however, some who think it desirable to reach that age, and emigration from Israel, which has always gone on at the rate of one emigrant for twelve immigrants, increased substantially during the months in which Israel seemed helplessly exposed to air bombardment. (In the first four months of 1956, 2,288 emigrated, compared with 1,188 during the same period last year.)

Only the arrival of the first dozen French supersonic jet fighters brought reassurance to the inhabitants of Tel Aviv, who affectionately nicknamed France’s ambassador Pierre Gilbert “Mystère” Gilbert. He was already the most popular diplomat in Israel because he had mastered the language well enough to make speeches in an almost Sharett-like Hebrew.

The arrival of arms—and quite a bit has arrived over the last months besides the supersonic jets—shifted some of the worries from Defense Minister Ben Gurion to Finance Minister Eshkol. Israel’s citizens, whose economic lot seemed on the upgrade a year ago, now have to finance the construction of air-raid shelters costing thirty million dollars; and a new defense tax, which has come to supplant the voluntary contributions of last October, not only increases the income tax but puts a levy on the use of telephones, radio, gas, electricity, refrigerators, automobiles, and the consumption of wine, beer, non-alcoholic drinks, alcohol, cigarettes, and tobacco. The current joke is that of the Gentile tourist who wanted to visit the Wailing Wall. “Take me,” he said to the guide, “to the place where all the Jews go to cry.” The guide took him to the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

On the several recent occasions in the past year when Israel seemed at the brink of war, partial or total mobilization was necessary. The latter means that up to two hundred thousand persons suddenly have to leave their jobs, with all that implies for the national economy. The Arab boycott, the blockade of the Suez Canal,1 and the burden of defense expenditures have had their impact on Israel’s industrial expansion, all the more since most of the arms have to be imported without benefiting the nation’s industry. Haifa’s Industrial Fair last April showed the amazing number of items that Israel’s industry can produce, but with Israel cut off as she is from her natural markets, a great deal of her industrial exportation has a highly artificial character.

Finland and Turkey have been, until recently, Israel’s best customers, but an expert explained this in the following way: “Do you know the story of the dog that was offered for sale at the price of $100,000 in a newspaper ad? Well, someone read the advertisement and went over to see the dog just because he was curious. He found a handsome canine, but there was nothing extraordinary about it. ‘Why $100,000?’ he asked. ‘That’s my price,’ answered the owner. The ad appeared for a week, and then stopped. Curious again, our man dropped in and found the dog gone.—‘Yes, sir, it’s sold,’—‘For how much?’ asked the man.—‘For $100,000.’—‘Do you mean that someone actually laid down $100,000 for the dog?’—‘No,’ answered the owner, ‘I got two cats in exchange worth $50,000 each.’ That, more or less,” concluded the expert, “is how we trade with Finland and Turkey.”

The only bit of financial luck Israel has had in the last year was its oil strike, which in the next fiscal year should save her one million dollars in foreign currency, and even more in the future.

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“We have never been lucky in our timing,” a veteran Zionist said to me. “When we got the Balfour Declaration, Russian Jewry was already cut off from emigration. When Palestine’s doors were open, the Jews didn’t want to come. When Europe’s Jewry wanted to come, the British shut the doors. We got our state after the extermination of those whose immigration we needed most, and we got it at a moment when Asians and Africans, who under normal circumstances would sympathize with us, now align themselves with our enemies because of a common hatred of the West.”

Under the circumstances, the optimism with which new buildings, new settlements, new factories spring up everywhere in Israel is, even for the most hard-boiled, a stirring expression of persistent courage, as is also the faith which brings, even at the height of its difficulties, thousands of immigrants to Israel’s shores. Most of the immigrants are refugees from Arab nationalism. Most of them go straight to new border settlements to face—Arab nationalism again. But now they have a chance to defend themselves.

Only as one returns abroad and reads, again, of Shepilov’s visit to Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut, of the formidable display of arms at Cairo’s liberation parade, of the repetitious threats of Arab statesmen, of the outright comical statement of Selwyn Lloyd that Israel is still ahead of the Arabs in armament, and of the hints that it has become a “solid part of American policy” not to sell arms to Israel even if it means that Israel won’t get them anywhere else—reading all this, one wonders if that custom official at Idlewild was not more honest than all the diplomats together and if there is a place in the repertory of Jewish history for a happy ending.

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Footnotes

1In France and in England there have been statements in Parliament and the press that the West’s moral position in the present Suez crisis would be stronger had it reacted effectively against Egypt’s stoppage of Israeli vessels. Britain’s official attitude is that there is no link between Suez and the Palestine question, and government spokesmen in Parliament continue to defend their no-arms-for-Israel policy. Neither has there been any noticeable change in American policy. Though fed up with Nasser, the U. S. has so far acted to restrain the more belligerent British and French. Meanwhile the Palestine question has been put on ice for the duration of the crisis. Should Nasser be set back, Israel would of course benefit. But should he emerge victorious, he may conclude that the West would muster no more strength to defend Israel against Egyptian attack than to prevent seizure of the Canal.

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