Israel and World Politics
A peculiar combination of internal and external forces was necessary to set off the third Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. A most unstable equilibrium had, of course, existed in the area since the second war in 1956. But for all their suspicions and grievances, the two main antagonists, Egypt and Israel, had not resorted to force against each other for ten years. That a full-scale war should have erupted this year suggests that a new element had to be injected into the Middle East to upset the status quo. And this new element could only come from the outside.
The antagonisms and rivalries which led to this war resemble roads that crisscross in all directions. Some were more important than others but no single one of them could have brought about the conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict, deep as it was, had been held in leash for the most part since 1956 by other conflicting forces. Foremost among them were the conflicts among the Arab states themselves. They could not turn on Israel as long as they were spending so much substance and energy fighting among themselves. To the “revolutionary” Arab states, Egypt and Syria, victory over the “reactionary” Arab states, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, was a precondition for victory over Israel. Egyptian priorities seemed first to be Yemen, where its forces had been fighting for more than four years, and then Aden, which the British had promised to evacuate in 1968. On top of this, Egypt and Syria were busy competing for the leadership of the “revolutionary” Arab struggle. They were also divided on the strategy to be followed against Israel.
What we know as the Middle East, moreover, has more in it than Arabs and Jews. In addition to about two and a half million Jews and 60 million Arabs, it contains some 75 million non-Arab Moslems extending from Turkey to Iran. Until World War II, most of the area was essentially a British sphere of influence, with France entrenched in Syria and Lebanon only. France was eliminated by 1946. Britain quit Palestine in 1948, Iran in 1951, Sudan in 1953, Egypt in 1954-56, Jordan in 1957, and Iraq in 1958. As the British and French retreated, the United States and the Soviet Union moved in. The Truman Doctrine, for the containment of Communism, was promulgated in 1947 in response to Soviet pressure in three countries—two of them, Turkey and Iran, in the Middle East. The Truman administration unsuccessfully tried to organize a Middle East Defense Command, embracing the United States, United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and the Arab states, in 1951. Former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was more successful on a more limited scale by bringing together Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Great Britain in a defense arrangement known as the Baghdad Pact in 1955. The Soviet Union countered that same year with an arms deal with Egypt—the first great Soviet military and political breakthrough in the Arab world. By the end of the decade, the Chinese Communists had begun to assert themselves, especially in Iraq and Syria.
Thus there have been antagonisms and rivalries between Arabs and Israelis, Arabs and Arabs, Arab and non-Arab states, U.S. and USSR, Russian Communists and Chinese Communists. The battle of June 5 was not the result solely of differences between Arabs and Israelis, and it probably would not have broken out when it did if they had simply been left alone.
As in all such seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, the real casus belli is a struggle against history. And this history has been so encrusted with myths and legends that there can be little hope of progress toward reconciliation until some of them have been swept away.
One of the most potent legends is that Israel owes its very existence to “Western imperialism.” It is well to determine how much truth there is in this story, not only for its own sake, but because it offers a good starting-point for considering the curious course of Soviet policy.
It is true, of course, that the British government’s Balfour Declaration started Israel on the road to statehood in 1917. But a good many British governments and Foreign Secretaries came between that promissory note on the Promised Land, which cost Britain nothing, and the United Nations General Assembly vote in favor of partitioning Palestine on November 29, 1947. Ernest Bevin, then British Foreign Secretary, was so little sympathetic to the Jewish cause that he opened himself up to the charge of anti-Semitism. Britain, in fact, abstained in the vote on the crucial resolution, and did little or nothing to implement it.
If Israel owed its existence to any powers besides itself, they were the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The favorable UN vote would not have been possible without the support of the Soviet Union, which could have vetoed the measure in the Security Council. In fact, the Soviet representative, Andrei A. Gromyko, then Deputy Foreign Minister, defended the partition of Palestine and the establishment of an independent Jewish state with all the arguments that the Arabs then and later have refused to accept. For example, he linked the birth of Israel with the Jewish past in Palestine and with the extermination of millions of Jews in Europe. In the session of November 26, 1947, he said:
The representatives of the Arab States claim that the partition of Palestine would be an historic injustice. But this view of the case is unacceptable, if only because, after all, the Jewish people has been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history. Apart from that, we must not overlook—and the USSR delegation drew attention to this circumstance originally at the special session of the General Assembly—we must not overlook the position in which the Jewish people found themselves as a result of the recent world war. I shall not repeat what the USSR delegation said on this point at the special session of the General Assembly. However, it may not be remiss to remind my listeners again that, as a result of the war which was unleashed by Hitlerite Germany, the Jews, as a people, have suffered more than any other people.
No one exceeded Gromyko, once the Soviet leaders had made up their minds that a binational, Arab-Jewish state in Palestine was impossible, in the ardor with which he praised the decision to set up a Jewish state:
The solution of the Palestine problem based on a partition of Palestine into two separate states will be of profound historical significance, because this decision will meet the legitimate demands of the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of whom, as you know, are still without a country, without homes, having found temporary shelter only in special camps in some western European countries.
Yet, in the same speech, Gromyko made a prophetic gesture to gain the favor of the Arab states:
The USSR delegation is convinced that Arabs and Arab States will still, on more than one occasion, be looking towards Moscow and expecting the USSR to help them in the struggle for their lawful interests, in their efforts to cast off the last vestiges of foreign dependence.1
The first country to recognize Israel, on May 14, 1948, eleven minutes after the new state’s declaration of independence went into effect, was the United States. But the Soviet Union, the third, was not far behind four days later. The first diplomatic representatives to arrive in Tel Aviv one after the other in August 1948 were the American and the Soviet; they stayed at the same two-story hotel, which flew U.S. and USSR flags on its roof. The Israeli parliament on March 9, 1949 adopted a program of basic principles, one of which avowed “friendship with all freedom-loving states, in particular with the United States and the Soviet Union.” 2 For a while, it seemed that, diplomatically, the Messiah had come to bring the two great powers together again in the Holy Land. If the existence of the state of Israel was the original sin, the Soviets were as implicated in it as anyone else.
A glance at the first Arab-Israeli war yields some useful historical perspective.
The Arab guerrilla war broke out as soon as the UN voted for the partition plan on November 29, 1947. Then the regular armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded Palestine when the state of Israel was established on May 14, 1948. If arms were all that mattered, Israel should have been throttled at birth. Israel had only a small, underground defense force, the Haganah, with no artillery, tanks, or planes. The Arab armies were overwhelmingly stronger in numbers and equipment. At a particularly crucial moment, the Israelis managed to secure rifles, light machine-guns, and ammunition from Czechoslovakia.3 Once war had broken out in earnest, the UN did not know what to do. The United States wavered and suddenly switched from supporting the partition of Palestine to putting all of it under a temporary “trusteeship.” Ironically, the Soviet Union came out most firmly for going through with the original plan; Gromyko severely criticized the United States for holding back.4
As long as the Arab states thought they were winning, they ignored the UN, which vainly called on them to cease and desist. When the battle began to turn against them, they agreed to a one-month truce or cease-fire on June 11, 1948. But the pause gave the Syrians and Egyptians time to rest and regroup; they refused to renew the truce, took up arms again, and fought for another ten days—with the result that the Israelis captured almost half of Galilee in the north, which they would otherwise not have had. In mid-October, the Egyptians again broke the truce and renewed the fighting—with the result that the Israelis pushed them back and gained control of the Negev in the south, which they also might not have had. The fighting in the Sinai stopped on January 7, 1949, and armistice agreements were signed separately with Egypt on February 24, with Lebanon on March 23, with Jordan on April 3, and with Syria on July 20 of that year. Each of the Arab states tried to get the best bargain for itself, irrespective of the others. The procedure may be suggestive of the future.
In terms of the UN’s position, there is no doubt who the “aggressor” was. The Arab states’ resort to force was unmistakably a defiance of the UN resolution of November 29, 1947. Trygve Lie, then UN Secretary General, wrote in his memoirs: “The invasion of Palestine by the Arab States was the first armed aggression which the world had seen since the end of the War.”5 The “aggression” was halted by Israeli resistance, not by the UN, which stepped in only after the Arab states had lost their taste for fighting.
If the Arabs had accepted the UN plan of 1947, as the Jews did, Israel would have been a tiny, geographic monstrosity. The plan divided Palestine into seven parts, three Jewish and three Arab, each virtually disjointed, and a seventh, Jerusalem, which was to be “internationalized.” The largest Jewish part consisted of the Negev, then a wasteland. But this also meant that Eilat, at the southern tip of the Negev desert and at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, was allotted to Israel to give it an outlet through the Straits of Tiran to the Red Sea and the East. Thus, when Israel captured the Negev in the late 1948 fighting, it was able to occupy Eilat, which the UN had allotted to it in theory only.
Once the Arab leaders became more interested in saving their shattered armies than in destroying Israel, they were delighted to go back to the 1947 UN partition plan which they had previously denounced. But it was too late. The armistice negotiations, which earned Dr. Ralph Bunche, the UN mediator, his Nobel Peace Prize, were advanced lessons in Oriental haggling. In the end, all parties remained pretty much where they had been when the fighting stopped. For example, the Egyptians remained in the Gaza Strip, which they still held but which had never been Egyptian soil. The Jordanians held on to the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Old City in Jerusalem, neither of which had ever been part of Jordan. Though the armistice agreement provided for “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions,” such as the Wailing Wall and the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, Jordan refused to live up to it—and nothing was done. As for Israel, the 1949 armistice agreements left it about one-third larger in territory than it would have been under the 1947 UN partition plan. Each war has ended with the Arabs more than willing to go back to the status quo ante.
The Soviet Union did not object to the outcome of the first Arab-Israeli war. It did not insist on a return to the 1947 boundaries. It did not assail the Israelis as aggressors because they had beaten back the armies of five Arab states and had forced them to accept armistice boundaries. It must be emphasized that none of these states had a “right” to Palestine territory which had never been theirs; the UN partition plan of 1947 had envisaged a new Arab state which never came into being. The main territorial effect of the 1949 armistice agreements was the enlargement of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt in that order.6 In the present crisis, Arab leaders have talked much of going back to 1956, 1949, or 1947. Yet the differences between these three resulted from Arab-Israeli wars.
The UN’s function was limited in the main to providing a skillful mediator for the 1949 armistice negotiations. Once the armistices were signed and the Arab leaders had recovered their nerve, UN resolutions were heeded as much as the famous resolution of November 29, 1947 had been heeded. In violation of the Constantinople Convention of 1888, Egypt has never permitted an Israeli ship to pass through the Suez Canal.7 On September 1, 1951, and again on October 13, 1956, the Security Council called on Egypt to lift these restrictions. Neither resolution enabled a single Israeli ship to pass through the Canal. At the end of 1949, after the armistice agreement was signed, Egypt installed guns at Sharm el-Sheikh overlooking the Straits of Tiran to blockade the Israeli port of Eilat. To justify this hostile act, Egypt claimed that it was still in a state of “belligerency” with Israel, armistice or no armistice. By the time Israel attempted to take the issue to the Security Council in March 1954, the Soviets had adopted a new pro-Arab line, and a Soviet veto prevented the Council from doing anything about it.
I have touched on some aspects of the crucial 1947-49 period because so much of the present Arab-Israeli conflict goes back to it. To both Arabs and Israelis, their third war was a continuation of the first and second. If the issue were merely the blockade of Eilat or the status of the Gaza Strip or the treatment of Arab refugees or the prevention of terrorist raids, it would probably not be beyond the wit of Arabs and Israelis to resolve. But the one, fundamental issue has always been the existence of the state of Israel. Once this is put in question, no lesser, immediate, practical problem can be settled in good faith or, more often, even brought up for settlement. As we shall see, the third Arab-Israeli war was fought in order to return, or to prevent a return, to the status quo ante of the second, and if the Arabs had been successful, they would not and could not have stopped short of going back to the status quo ante of the first. It is only by knowing something about the first two wars that the third can be understood.
And yet, if there is one subject that must be ruled out as off-limits, it is Israel’s very existence. This is certainly true for all those powers which helped to bring Israel into existence or have recognized its right to exist. The contradiction in the Soviet position is that although it was most instrumental in bringing about the UN decision to partition Palestine in 1947-49 and cannot repudiate the right of Israel to live without repudiating its own past, it has nevertheless supported Arab states whose policies have been dedicated to just such a repudiation. There is a more fundamental reason, however, why nothing useful or hopeful can come out of questioning the very basis of Israel’s national existence. If the Arabs have a “right” to destroy Israel by force, Israel cannot be denied the “right” to use force to prevent its destruction. It is too late to expect the Israelis to give up without a struggle what they have earned and won. As soon as the casus belli becomes the existence of Israel, there is no right and no wrong; there is only force to determine whether Israel is going to live or die. The relationship of Israel to the Arab world can be discussed more or less rationally; whether there should be an Israel cannot.
From the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, it is possible to learn what conditions were necessary to bring on another conflict.
These conditions have, in the main, been five: (1) a rise in the level of Arab terrorist raids against Israel and Israeli military retaliation; (2) a significant imbalance in the level of arms available to both sides; (3) blockade of the Straits of Tiran to prevent shipping from the Israeli port of Eilat; (4) Arab military pacts and troop movements encircling Israel; and (5) a marked shift in the policies of the Communist and the Western powers vis-à-vis Israel and the Arab states. No one of these conditions may be determining, but when all come together, the danger of conflict clearly approaches the boiling point.
As early as 1951, it was clear that a cycle of Arab raids and Israeli reprisals had started. By 1955, both Egypt and Israel were officially committed to one or the other phase of the cycle. The question that concerns us here is not which side was guilty or innocent in individual incidents; the determination was generally too much even for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, set up in 1948-49 to investigate breaches of the armistice agreements. We can only view this problem as a symptom of approaching war.
Until 1955, no Arab government accepted responsibility for the attacks on Israeli life and property by small groups of Arab “infiltrators.” Israeli policy, on the other hand, made retaliatory or punitive actions a government decision and a military operation. This policy was based on the belief that these raids were a form of irregular warfare and that the Arab governments were responsible for their recurrence. Where, as in Lebanon, the government discouraged border incidents, they were few, and where, as in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria, the government encouraged or tolerated them, they were increasingly menacing. In any event, something changed in 1955. In August, it became known that Egypt was behind a campaign of sabotage and terrorism by groups known as “fedayeen.” 8 As more and more fedayeen incidents piled up, Israeli reprisals intensified, until small-scale battles were being waged.
In September 1955, the first Soviet-Egyptian arms deal was consummated, though it was at first publicly attributed to Czechoslovakia. Until then, both Israel and the Arab states had been dependent on Western arms. But these were in relatively short supply owing to a Tripartite Declaration by Britain, France, and the United States on May 25, 1950, barring an arms race in the area. Suddenly, Egypt’s new source of supply completely upset the existing balance. Egypt received tanks, artillery, fighter and bomber aircraft, and other weapons in such numbers that, materially, Israel was far outclassed.9 In 1956 as in 1967, Egypt lost the war not because it did not have the equipment but because it did not properly use what it had. Though the Tripartite Declaration had recognized that both Israel and the Arab states needed to maintain “a certain level of armed forces” to assure their self-defense, the United States and Great Britain refused to balance the Soviet arms shipments to Egypt with sales to Israel. Only France agreed to provide Israel with new arms, especially planes. A shipment of 200 French trucks arrived two days before the outbreak in 1956 and, according to Major-General Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Chief of Staff, “saved the situation.”10
Eilat, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Straits of Tiran, of which we heard so much in the days before the third Arab-Israeli war, were also prime factors in setting off the second. The Israelis never reconciled themselves to the Egyptian blockade of Eilat. They were prepared to deal with the illegal Suez blockade diplomatically, but Eilat was always something else. Former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion made the freedom of passage from Eilat to Asia and Africa one of his main planks in the 1955 electoral campaign in Israel. Soon afterward, in September of that year, Egypt broadened the Eilat blockade to apply not only to Israeli ships but to ships of any other nation bound for Eilat, and even forced the Israeli commercial airplanes en route to South Africa to stop flying over the Straits of Tiran. From the fall of 1955, Ben Gurion made known publicly and privately that Israel could not tolerate the blockade of Eilat indefinitely. In November 1955, in a statement of policy of his new government, he warned: “This one-sided war will have to stop, for it cannot remain one-sided forever.” As we now know, the two war aims which the Israeli government set for itself in 1956 were to break the blockade of Eilat and to eliminate the fedayeen bases in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert.11
T. E. Lawrence once said that “Arab unity is a madman’s notion.” If the Israelis could always count on this being true, they would have much less to worry about. Whenever the Arab countries show signs of uniting, the Israelis begin to worry because almost the only thing the Arabs can unite in favor of is against Israel. As someone has said, if Arab nationalists did not have Israel, they would have to invent it. When rivals, such as Syria and Egypt, and enemies, such as Jordan and Egypt, sign military pacts, they can mean only one thing—a two- or three-front war against Israel. An Egyptian-Syrian Mutual Defense Pact was signed on October 20, 1955, a similar Egyptian-Saudi Arabian military agreement seven days later, and Jordan adhered to them the following October.
Finally, the outcome of the war of 1956 was as much determined by shifts in the policies of the Communist and Western powers as by anything else. The Soviet-Egyptian arms deal the year before was undoubtedly the decisive move which emboldened Egypt to take steps more reckless than ever before and to drive Israel into a state of desperation. At the same time, for reasons of their own, Britain and France decided to settle accounts with Nasser’s Egypt. In July 1956, when the United States unexpectedly withdrew its offer to assist Egypt to construct the Aswan High Dam and Nasser struck back by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, the Anglo-French reaction was less tolerant than the American. For the British, it was an opportunity to get back into the Canal Zone, which they had just evacuated, and to reassert themselves in their old imperial domain. The French were as much interested in punishing Nasser for helping the Algerian rebels as in getting back control of the Canal. The Israelis considered the Anglo-French resentments a windfall, enabling them to overcome Egypt’s advantage in Soviet arms. Dayan says that it is doubtful whether Israel would have moved against Egypt on October 29, 1956, if it had not known that the British and French were planning an operation of their own two days later.12 The Russians had their hands full with their intervention in Hungary, which Soviet armed forces entered on November 1. The United States, having done more than its share to set all these moves going, surprised everyone by making common cause with the Soviets and by devoting itself more to getting Britain, France, and Israel out of Egypt than the Soviets out of Hungary.
For the Israelis, the “primary aim” of the campaign, according to Dayan, was the capture of the Egyptian fortress of Sharm el-Sheikh, commanding the Straits of Tiran and, therefore, the route to the Israeli port of Eilat. This was the last and hardest battle which the Israelis won on November 5. Dayan goes so far as to observe that the failure to take Sharm el-Sheikh would have meant, despite the other victories, loss of the entire campaign.13 How much this position meant to them was also shown by how tenaciously they held on to it. When the British and French were forced by U.S.-Soviet pressure to give up their drive to Suez, the Israelis did not follow suit. Ben Gurion refused to get out of Sinai without guarantees that the blockade of Eilat and the terrorist raids from the Gaza Strip would come to an end. It took four months, during which the Israelis held out alone, for these demands to be met. Neither Egypt nor the Soviet Union was able to force the Israelis out of Sharm el-Sheikh. The power which had most to do with the Israeli evacuation was the United States. On February 11, 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles presented to then Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban an aide-mémoire which stated:
With respect to the Gulf of Aqaba and access thereto—the United States believes that the Gulf comprehends international waters and that no nation has the right to prevent free and innocent passage in the Gulf and through the Straits giving access thereto.
Another passage in this memorandum reads:
In the absence of some overriding decision to the contrary, as by the International Court of Justice, the United States, on behalf of vessels of United States registry, is prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.14
The Soviet spokesman in the UN interpreted this commitment to mean that the United States was threatening to use force, if necessary, to make the Gulf of Aqaba an international waterway,15 and the U.S. representative, Henry Cabot Lodge, did not dispute him.
But Israel was in no mood to accept the strongest U.S. assurances. The Israelis demanded more than mere words and did not move until they received it. This took the form of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai boundary to prevent Egypt from closing the Straits of Tiran and to check terrorist raids from Egyptian-held territory. The Soviets fought bitterly against this solution of the problem.16 But President Nasser finally agreed, and the Egyptian spokesman at the UN seemed to accept the arrangement with good grace.17 Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir went along with it on March 1, and the following day President Eisenhower wrote to Premier Ben Gurion:
I know that this decision was not an easy one. I believe, however, that Israel will have no cause to regret having thus conformed to the strong sentiment of the world community as expressed in the various United Nations resolutions relating to withdrawal.
It has always been the view of this Government that after the withdrawal there should be a united effort by all of the nations to bring about conditions in the area more stable, more tranquil and more conducive to the general welfare than those which existed heretofore. Already the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions which presage such a better future. Hopes and expectations based thereon were voiced by your Foreign Minister and others. I believe that it is reasonable to entertain such hopes and expectations and I want you to know that the United States, as a friend of all the countries of the area and as a loyal member of the United Nations, will seek that such hopes prove not to be vain (my italics, T.D.).18
In diplomatic language, the United States seemed to be assuring Israel that it would not permit Eilat to be blockaded again or terrorist raids from Egyptian-held territory renewed. The combination of UNEF, U.S. assurances, and declarations by eleven other maritime nations, including Britain and France, upholding free passage of the Straits of Tiran, persuaded Israel to withdraw its forces from the Sinai peninsula and to give up the key position of Sharm el-Sheikh.19
In other respects, however, the second Arab-Israeli war ended indeterminately. By staying out, Egypt’s allies, Syria and Jordan, left open the question of what might have happened if they had stepped in. By getting in, Israel’s adventitious allies, Britain and France, left open the question of what might have happened if they had stayed out. Nasser was able to emerge from the conflict unscathed because the Anglo-French retreat left him in full possession of the Suez Canal, and he could claim that Israel would not have defeated him alone. He seemed for a time to have both the Soviet Union and the United States on his side, at least for the purpose of bringing the war to a close before he had suffered an irretrievable defeat. In these ways the second Arabi-Israeli war prepared the way for the third by giving the Arabs reason to believe, if they believed their own propaganda, that they could overwhelm Israel if they fought together and if Israel had to fight alone.
I have perhaps tried the patience of the reader anxious to get to 1967 by going over this apparently old ground. I have done so because I think that what happened in 1956 is most pertinent, even indispensable, for an understanding of 1967. The similarity of all the problems of 1956 and 1967 is, as we shall see, striking. When Americans and others learned that President Nasser had decided to get rid of UNEF and renew the blockade of Eilat, the nature and significance of these actions may not have been too clear. But the Israelis had been all through this before and had thought that they would never have to go through it again. It had meant war in 1956, and if Nasser wanted to do it again in 1967, it could only mean that he wanted to have another war.
From 1955 to the present, the one new, disturbing element in the Arab world has been the Soviet Union. All the other elements were present before that time and have receded as the Soviets have advanced.
Before World War II, the Soviet Union did very little to exert a direct influence in the Arab countries. Traditionally, Russia was primarily interested in Turkey and Iran, its Moslem but non-Arab neighbors. In 1940, Stalin’s Russia tried to establish a sphere of influence southward from Batum and Baku toward the Persian Gulf, a line of march which would have brought it next to two Arab countries, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But this effort was made in collusion with Nazi Germany, not through the Arab countries themselves.20 After the war, the most notable aspect of Soviet policy in the Arab area was, as we have seen, the backing of the UN’s partition plan in Palestine in 1947-49, one consequence of which was support for some kind of Jewish state. In 1950, Prime Minister Ben Gurion proposed to the Soviet Ambassador that his country should try to initiate peace talks between Egypt and Israel. Moscow never replied.21
The first grave break between Israel and the Soviet Union took place in 1953. It came soon after the Stalin regime, in its last stages of psychopathology, had accused a group of Soviet doctors, most of them Jews, of plotting to kill a number of Soviet military leaders. This “Doctors’ Plot” was linked, in Pravda of January 13, 1953, with a “Zionist espionage organization” and thereby given international connotations. Czechoslovakia had already staged the so-called Slansky trial, with strong anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist overtones, and a Czechoslovak communication of February 5, 1953 referred to “the effrontery and arrogance of the Israel Zionist agents in Czechoslovakia” and “the American warmongers and their Israeli and other stooges.” On February 9, 1953, a small bomb exploded in the garden of the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv. The Soviet government immediately charged Israel with responsibility for the deed and broke off diplomatic relations. They were renewed the following July, four months after Stalin’s death and after Israel had given assurances that it would not join any aggressive alliance against the Soviet Union. But the shift in Soviet policy soon proved to be more than a Stalinist aberration.
In Stalin’s last years, Soviet policy was less pro-Arab than anti-Israel. Ever since he had burned his fingers with Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920’s, Stalin had not taken kindly to “bourgeois nationalists,” in which category the leaders of the Egyptian revolution were first pigeonholed. The Soviets did not greet with enthusiasm the overthrow of the Farouk regime in 1952 by the military junta headed by General Mohammed Naguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, and they were still outwardly reserved when Nasser ousted the more conservative Naguib in 1954.
But Stalin’s successors were increasingly more flexible in this sphere, as in others, and their own inclinations happened to coincide with changes in Syria and Iraq as well as in Egypt. In 1954, the Syrian military dictatorship of Colonel Adib Shishakli was overthrown. The rising Syrian power was represented by the newly-formed Arab Socialist Renaissance party, better known as the Ba’ath party from the first word of its Arabic name (Ba’ath al-Arabi al-Ishtiraki). No one, least of all its own leaders, has ever been able to explain what the Ba’ath meant by “socialism,” but it was certainly second to none in its advocacy of Arab unity and nationalism. By 1957, the Ba’ath had gained the ascendancy over the Syrian military, and the Syrian Communists were considered the strongest single political force in the country. In 1958, the traditionalist regime of Nuri el-Said was overthrown in Iraq. The new military junta, headed by General Abdel Karim Kassim, also adopted a program based on Arab nationalism, Arab unity, and anti-Westernism. Like Egypt and Syria, Iraq turned to the Soviet Union for arms and economic aid. By the end of the decade, the Soviet investment and vested interest in these three countries had become a major factor in Middle Eastern diplomacy and strategy.
By turning the white man’s burden red, the Soviets did not make it any lighter to bear. They were dealing with extremely insecure regimes and unstable societies. The propaganda of the new Egypt, the new Syria, and the new Iraq was almost identical in the rhetoric of Arab unity, but that was as far as they were united. The Ba’athists and Nasserites, Kassim and Nasser, wanted unity on their own terms—that is to say, an Egyptian- or a Syrian- or an Iraqi-dominated unity. They made and unmade deals with their local Communist parties which were hard put to know whether the Nassers and the Kassims were an open door or a barrier to ultimate Communism. The merger of Egypt and Syria in 1958, out of which came the United Arab Republic, has been attributed to Nasser’s fear that the Syrian Communists were getting too strong. Both Egyptian and Syrian Communists were brutally repressed after the merger, and its breakup in 1961 was no cause for them to lament. Nasser managed to stay in power, but Kassim was overthrown in 1963, and Syria made a “Right” turn in 1961 and then, with the Ba’athist coup, a “Left” turn in 1963. After 1961, Nasser went to the “Left” in both domestic and foreign policy, in the first, through large-scale nationalization and in the second by declaring war on the Arab “reactionaries” in control of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other areas. To follow all the twists and turns, ups and downs of the various Arab regimes in the past ten years would be dizzying. It is enough to say, for our purposes, that the wild new Arabian horses have not been easy or inexpensive for the Soviets to ride. They have been able to stay on them largely by outbidding the West, from paying for the Aswan High Dam to providing a steady stream of cheap arms, rather than by exhibiting any particular wisdom or cunning.
It is a mistake, then, to imagine that these Arab states have simply lent themselves to Soviet purposes. To the extent that they have done so, it is not the most important part of the story. Instead, the Soviets have curried favor with the Arabs mainly by giving them the arms to do what they wanted to do. Soviet arms have always talked far more loudly and persuasively in this region than Communist propaganda. It was no accident, as the Soviets like to say, that their first historic breakthrough in Egypt took the form of an arms deal. A pro-Arab policy of this kind could not fail to prepare the way for a third Arab-Israeli war. It was not necessary for the Soviets to proclaim this war as their own aim; it was merely necessary for them to arm those Arab states which were proclaiming it as their war aim.
On April 17, 1963, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq signed an agreement in principle to federate as a single state, with its capital in Cairo. The agreement, among other things, pledged the projected United Arab Republic to a crusade for “liberating the Arab Nation from the peril of Zionism.” It was the first time, Prime Minister Ben Gurion noted in a parliamentary address in May, that the destruction of Israel had been set forth in a constitutional document providing for the unification of the three Arab states. The agreement proved not to be worth the paper it was written on because the Ba’athists in Syria and Iraq refused to accept Nasserite domination in the name of unity. Nevertheless, in one way or another, Arab unity efforts and anti-Israel war aims continued to feed each other.
In January 1964, Nasser convened the first Arab “summit conference” to deal with Syria’s demand for immediate military action against Israel. The Syrians demanded war to punish Israel for having completed a pipeline to carry water inland from the Jordan river according to a plan worked out ten years earlier by Eric Johnston on behalf of the Eisenhower administration. At this conference, Nasser took the position that the Arab states were not prepared to fight Israel immediately and had to prepare for the day by setting up a United Arab Command and a fighting organization of Palestine Arab refugees. A unified Arab command was nominally set up, commanded by an Egyptian, General Abdel Hakim Amer, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), headed by a Syrian, Ahmad Shukeiry, was authorized at the second Arab summit conference in September of that year. The PLO was based in the Gaza Strip and depended largely on Egyptian backing. Toward the end of the year, another organization of even more extremist tendencies, El Fatah, started to operate out of Syria. It began to drag Jordan, which was not anxious to provoke Israel on behalf of Syria and Egypt, into the melee by striking most often across the much longer, less easily defended Israel-Jordan frontier. At the second summit conference, the Arab states also voted to raise $43 million a year to stock arms for Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan exclusively for use against Israel.
Thus, the old cycle of raids and reprisals started again. This problem has always been most difficult for the Israelis to deal with. The Israelis could not ignore the terrorist tactics; yet they did not wish to emulate the Arabs and engage in transparently camouflaged terrorism of their own; instead, their reprisal policy was aimed at getting across the message that the Egyptian and Syrian governments were making undeclared and unofficial war on Israel through the PLO and El Fatah. Yet the Arab governments could refuse to accept responsibility for the terrorism, which their controlled press and radio acclaimed and encouraged, whereas Israel was unable, for reasons of policy, to disavow its reprisals. This disparity opened Israel to repeated censure in the UN, which took the position that Israel should rely on the UN’s Truce Supervision observers and Mixed Armistice Commissions for protection against the terrorists. In August 1963, the Israelis agreed to put the UN case to the test. When two Israeli farmers were ambushed and killed near the Syrian border, Israel went to the Security Council for redress or at least condemnation of the deed. On the basis of reports from the UN’s Truce Supervision Organization’s Chief of Staff, Britain and the United States introduced a resolution condemning the ambush and implying that Syria had been remiss in permitting it to occur. On September 3, the resolution obtained eight votes, one short of passage. The Soviet Union cast the decisive veto. After another armed Syrian-Israeli incident in November 1964, Britain and the United States introduced a resolution in the Security Council calling for restraint and cooperation by both sides. On December 21, it again obtained eight votes but once more ran into a Soviet veto—on the ground that even this evenhanded appeal was unfair to Syria.
By 1965, then, the outlines of a third Arab-Israeli war were clearly taking shape. If it did not break out that year, the primary cause was Arab disagreement as to how and when it should be waged. Syria, under militant Ba’athist leadership, was the most impatient. But the Syrians knew they were too small and weak to take on Israel alone, and their strategy, therefore, consisted in goading Egypt to attack Israel. Jordan was most reluctant to get drawn into an open conflict, for one reason because the Egyptians and Syrians had been vowing for years to get rid of King Hussein’s regime as well as Israel. The middle ground seemed occupied by Nasser’s Egypt. At a Palestine National Conference in. Cairo in May 1965, the Syrians complained bitterly that Egypt had not come to their aid when Israel had blown up some El Fatah bases. Nasser took the following line against his Arab critics:
They say “Drive out UNEF.” Suppose that we do, is it not essential that we have a plan? If Israeli aggression takes place against Syria, shall I attack Israel? Then Israel is the one which determines the battle for me. It hits a tractor or two to force me to move. Is this a wise way? We have to determine the battle.22
This was the ambidextrous, double-edged Nasserite policy that divided or confused both Arabs and Israelis. In principle he seemed to agree with the Arab extremists with whom his differences, on the surface, were limited to timing and tactics. Nevertheless, timing and tactics were most important to them, and on these he drew back from an immediate confrontation. Meanwhile, his relations with Israel appeared to be relatively tranquil, while the Syrian-Israeli border was exploding with violence. One school of Israeli thought argued that Nasser was merely biding his time; he was as dangerous and untrustworthy as any other Arab extremist. Another Israeli school considered that his actions were more important than his words; it believed that it might be possible, eventually, to come to terms with him.
In 1966, however, events in Syria, always the tinderbox, made Nasser’s balancing act more difficult. On February 23, the inevitable army coup ousted the more moderate wing of the Ba’athist party and put little-known Ba’athist extremists in power. The new government, headed by President Nureddin el-Attassi and Prime Minister Yusif Zuayin, issued a statement calling on all Arab revolutionary organizations “to face Zionism and imperialism and to liberate usurped parts of Palestine.” By “usurped,” Syrian nationalists meant that Palestine actually belonged to Syria, not to any other Arab nation in particular or to an Arab state in general.23 The new cabinet, for the first time in Syrian history, included two Communists, Samih Ateyyeh, as Minister of Communications, and Dr. Ahmed Murad, as Minister of Economy. In a speech to a Ba’ath party congress on March 10, Dr. el-Attassi designated “the liberation of Palestine” as the keystone of the revolution. He indicated that the new Syrian regime was not satisfied with waiting for the right time to attack Israel:
We believe that postponement of the liberation battle will increase the enemy’s chances of survival. Through its call for the liberation war, the revolution believes that the chances of [Arab] unity will increase. Unity will be forged in the flames of the liberation war, which will be a decisive factor in providing the psychological, political and military atmosphere.
The new Syrian regime also introduced a Chinese Communist inflection in its war propaganda. On May 23, Dr. el-Attassi scoffed at waging a conventional war against Israel and urged what he called a “people’s war of liberation,” Chinese Communist-style. In a speech to army units on Syria’s southwestern frontier with Israel, he declared:
We want a full-scale, popular war of liberation, not only to destroy the Zionist base in Palestine but also to destroy oil monopolies and imperialist and reactionary interests. We want a policy of scorched earth, and it is only through this policy that we can hope to build a new life for the Arab masses.
In addition to Israel, he attacked the “reactionary” Arab states, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. He told the soldiers;
You have grown tired of piling up arms. I realize how eager you are that we should start the battle. The time has come to use these arms for the purpose for which they were created.24
The Syrians were as good as their word. The year 1966 was the worst since 1956 for Arab terrorist raids and Israeli military reprisals. The UN Security Council spent a major part of its time that year on Syria-Israel and Jordan-Israel border incidents. One wrangle was especially revealing. Before midnight on October 7, demolition charges exploded underneath two buildings in the Romema quarter of Jerusalem, causing much damage and injuring four civilians. On October 8, a mine blew up an Israeli police car, killing four and wounding two. Radio Damascus broadcast “Communique No. 53 of the General Staff of the El Assefa,” the military branch of El Fatah, which read: “A force from Group 105 penetrated on October 8 into occupied Jerusalem and bombed two buildings. Two demolition charges exploded at 2345 hours and two others at 2400 hours,” an accurate description of the Romema incident. When Foreign Minister Eban, who was in New York at the time, complained on October 9 to Secretary General U Thant, Syrian Prime Minister Zuayin decided to hold a press conference in Damascus. On October 10, he served notice that Syria would never take measures to curb the new fedayeen. “We are not,” he said, “sentinels over Israel’s security and are not the leash that restrains the revolution of the displaced and persecuted Arab Palestinian people.” And he promised that Syria would “never retreat from the popular liberation war to recover Palestine.”25 Israel thereupon decided to take the cases to the Security Council.
The discussion at the UN was almost an exact replica of the one which took place seven months later on the eve of the third Arab-Israeli war. The most remarkable similarities were provided on October 14 by the Soviet Ambassador, Nikolai Federenko. One part of his speech was especially noteworthy:
Since the time when the Syrian people started to consolidate its independence and ensure its social progress, military tension has begun to build up on the borders of Syria, and we know that, of late, Israel has been concentrating large military forces on the Syrian border. In areas adjacent to Syria, military maneuvers are being staged. A large number of landing troops, equipped with artillery and mine-sweepers, have been thrown in. There has been a partial mobilization of reserves in Israel. In addition, there is information showing that an air attack is being prepared in Israel against neighboring Syrian territory in preparation for the intrusion of Israel forces deep in Syrian territory.26
The scare was so great that Secretary General Thant asked Lt. Gen. Odd Bull, Chief of Staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, to investigate. His report failed to bear out any of Federenko’s charges of Israeli plans and preparations to invade Syria. A mildly worded resolution was submitted by Argentina, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Uganda, and Nigeria which, among other things, called on Syria to take stronger measures to prevent further border incidents. It received ten votes in the Council. But it was killed by a Soviet veto, the first in two years and the first ever cast by the Soviets against a resolution proposed by African countries.
All through 1966, both the Soviet Union and Egypt drew closer to the Arab extremists, represented most uncompromisingly by the new Syrian regime. In April, Prime Minister Zuayin and a large Syrian delegation made a pilgrimage to Moscow and came back reporting a Soviet contribution of about $150,000,000 to finance a Euphrates River dam and power station.27 On July 8, Egypt and Syria signed a trade pact, the first agreement of this sort between them since the 1961 break. Late in July, an Iraqi delegation went to Moscow and returned boasting of a pledge of Soviet arms. And on November 4, Egypt and Syria signed a mutual defense agreement providing for a joint military command.
As late as November 24, 1966, almost three weeks after he had signed the Egypt-Syria military pact, President Gamal Abdel Nasser still said publicly that “the way back to Palestine is hard and long.”28 Only six months later, he seemed to think that it had become much easier and shorter.
Why? The answer holds the key to the third Arab-Israeli war.
The trouble, as usual, started on the Syria-Israel frontier. Here is a record of the violence that flared up in the first eleven days of January 1967, as recorded in an Arab factual source:
January 1: An Israeli spokesman in Tel Aviv said that three Israeli tractors near Haon village on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee came under fire from a Syrian post. The fire was returned.
January 2: A military spokesman in Damascus claimed that Syrian armed forces had destroyed three Israeli outposts to the north of the Sea of Galilee.
January 4: An Israeli spokesman said that two armed Syrians had fired several shots at Israeli farmers southeast of Ein Gev on the eastern shore of Galilee. Nobody was hurt in this exchange.
January 6: A Syrian army spokesman said that Syrian arms fire had destroyed an Israeli tractor north of the Sea of Galilee. At least one Israeli was killed or wounded as he was seen being removed from the tractor.
A later statement issued by the same spokesman said that Syrian armed forces had destroyed two Israeli outposts in a clash between both sides. The clash began, he said, when Israeli outposts shelled Arab farmers.
January 8: Syria claimed that its forces had demolished a number of Israeli military targets including an ammunition dump, after Israeli troops had opened fire on its hillside positions. A spokesman in Tel Aviv alleged that Syria had started the firing which continued for over three hours.
January 9: Firing broke out all along the frontier and lasted for about two hours. Syria admitted losing one machine gun and claimed to have destroyed one Israeli tank. The Israeli countercharge said two Syrian tanks were destroyed and another hit after Syrian positions had opened fire on a tractor.
January 10: An Israeli spokesman said that tanks and heavy mortars were used in a Syrian attack. He listed seven separate incidents of firing into Israel from the Syrian side of the border.
January 11: According to the Syrian spokesman, heavy tanks, weapons, tanks, and aircraft were used. The spokesman said: “Enemy gun batteries and tanks were silenced for good, an anti-tank gun was destroyed and a fuel dump burned out.” Israeli aircraft appeared but were forced back to base by Syrian jets, the spokesman said.29
There is, of course, no point in trying to assess the blame for these incidents. What is clear from both Syrian and Israeli versions is that a small-scale border war broke out early this year. There could be no doubt, by this time, that these attacks and counterattacks were deliberate, organized, and increasingly costly. On January 14, an explosion took place in a pump-house, damaging a wall in Dishon, a village in northern Israel. A few hours later, an anti-personnel mine went off at a football game in Dishon. A player set it off; one spectator was killed and two were wounded. Israeli army sources reported that both the explosives and the mine were East-European in origin, of the type used by the Syrian army.30
January was another month of futile Israeli-Syrian exchanges at the United Nations. To the Israeli demand that Syria should take steps to prevent these incursions, the Syrian Head of State, Dr. Nureddin el-Attassi, replied with the utmost candor. On February 8, he declared publicly that “we shall not act as protectors of Israel against Palestine commandos defending their homeland.” On February 22, he said: “It is the duty of all of us now, to move from defensive positions to offensive positions and enter the battle to liberate the usurped land. There is absolutely no scope for hesitation from now on and everyone must face the test and enter the battle to the end.” On March 8, he made a speech which was reported by an Arab news source as follows: “Dr. Attassi called on Palestine Arabs to follow the example of the Algerians in their fight against the French and model their methods on the North Vietnamese fighting the Americans. Palestine will not be returned to its people except by ‘an all-out war of liberation,’ he said. He praised the bravery of Palestine Arab commandos inside occupied Palestine (Israel). ‘Commando action in the occupied land will not cease,’ he said. The Syrian army, he said, ‘is ready to fight the decisive battle with Israel.’”31
For the Syrian government, then, the war against Israel had already started. It was being waged in the manner that Syria considered most advantageous. The old fedayeen tactics had been renamed the “people’s war of liberation” and had been given new dimensions as well as new significance. The new fedayeen were trained and equipped by the Syrian army, which was itself being trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. Though these actions started as “commando” raids, the main Syrian military forces were inevitably drawn into the fighting by Israeli retaliatory measures. Battles with tanks, anti-tank guns, and planes early in January could hardly be dismissed any longer as minor border “incidents.” The official Syrian radio broadcast the El Fatah communiqués as war bulletins.
Nevertheless, the Syrians were still far out. From their point of view, Egypt and especially Jordan were holding back. Nasser had always taken the position that the United Arab Command could not act unless the forces of one Arab country could pass through and fight in the territory of another. This was precisely what King Hussein of Jordan feared the most because the Egyptians and Syrians had been vowing for years to overthrow his “reactionary” regime. In January 1967, renewed pressure was brought on Hussein to permit other Arab military forces to move into Jordan. When he refused, Nasser assailed him mercilessly on February 22 as an American puppet, and Hussein retaliated by withdrawing his ambassador from Cairo. When the Arab Joint Defense Council met in Cairo on March 11, Jordan as well as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia refused to attend. As long as Hussein was actually more afraid of Egypt and of Syria than of Israel, the united Arab front which Nasser demanded as a precondition for an all-out war against Israel could not be realized. As late as March 1966, Nasser took the position that an attack on Israel from the south was not militarily possible; the Arab attack had to come from Syria and Jordan.32
To fight fire with fire, Hussein’s government began to twit Nasser about the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) which the Arab militants had always regarded as an Egyptian alibi to refrain from attacking Israel. Prime Minister Wasfi Tell of Jordan even accused Nasser of having in 1957 entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Ben Gurion to set up a buffer between Israel and Egypt. An American correspondent reported:
The whole question of UNEF has been brought up by Jordan in Arab defense councils, where Jordan has been under heavy pressure to admit foreign troops to defend the country against Israeli attacks.
Jordan responded by insisting that other Arab states also go on a war footing for the battle with Israel, and specifically asked Egypt to get rid of UNEF so that the Egyptian army—the biggest in the Arab world—can take part in the battle.
The Egyptian response has been that the UN force was symbolic (it numbers about 3000 men) and would have no effect whatsoever if it tried to stop Egyptian army movements.33
Hussein and his advisers undoubtedly considered this riposte a clever way of embarrassing the Egyptians. In the circumstances of early 1967, however, it rather played into the hands of the Syrians, his most intransigent Arab enemies, who were telling Nasser exactly the same thing, though their motives were undoubtedly different. Thus, from the Arab “Left” and “Right,” pressure was building up for Nasser to “go on a war footing for the battle with Israel.”
But again, the Soviets saw fit to contribute a major war scare to the sufficiently tense situation on the Syria-Israel frontier. The Soviet press, of course, wholly blamed Israel for the incidents. But it went further and, as in the previous October, invented a virtual Israeli mobilization to invade Syria. A report in Izvestia, the Soviet government organ, of February 3, 1967, ran: “War psychosis is mounting in the state of Israel. The country’s armed forces are being alerted. All leave has been cancelled and more reservists have been called up. Large armed forces have been concentrated on the northern border. The incidents on the Syrian-Israel frontier which began on the eve of the New Year, continue unabated.” Thus for the second time in less than four months, the Soviets were responsible for spreading an unfounded rumor, no doubt in the guise of intelligence reports, that could only serve to incite the Syrians and neighboring Arabs to stage a counter-mobilization and prepare for imminent war.
If internal Arab pressure was one factor in Nasser’s decision, the other was external pressure on his policy.
Ever since 1955, Egypt had become increasingly dependent on Soviet military and economic largesse. The Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe had provided Nasser with at least $1.5 billion in economic aid, and probably more than that in military assistance. In 1965, according to Nasser himself, the Soviets had saved Egypt from “inevitable famine” by diverting 300,000 tons of wheat to Alexandria. By the beginning of 1967, Nasser was desperately in need of food again. He could not get it from the United States, which for a year had been holding up an Egyptian request for $150 million of surplus food after Nasser had made a number of insulting anti-U.S. speeches. In January 1967, the Soviets again agreed to tide him over with 250,000 tons of wheat in the next three months. On February 22, Nasser made another inflammatory oratorical attack on the United States in which he threatened not to pay Egypt’s debts which amounted to over $1 billion of which almost half a billion belonged to the United States. In February, too, Egypt failed for the third successive month to make any payment to the International Monetary Fund to which it owed some $105 million lent in the past four years.
In these circumstances, the Soviet factor could not have failed to weigh heavily in Nasser’s calculations. On March 29, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko suddenly arrived in Cairo for a three-day visit. Very little is known about it except that it was arranged hurriedly. Whatever it signified, it came on the eve of the final crisis before the third Arab-Israeli war.
On April 7, the biggest Arab-Israeli battle since 1956 was fought over Syria. It precipitated all the events which led to the larger war almost exactly two months later.
The escalation of the fighting that day was typical; only the magnitude of the forces and the losses suffered were not. According to both Israeli and Syrian versions, Syrian guns emplaced in the hills overlooking the Israeli frontier settlements opened fire on an Israeli tractor plowing in the “demilitarized zone” that morning.34 Soon tanks and mortars went into action. By the end of the day, Israel reported shooting down six MIG-21’s of the Syrian air force with no losses of its own; Syria claimed that five Israeli Mirage jets and four Syrian MIGs had been shot down. Unfortunately for the Syrians, three of their planes crashed in Jordan, as a result of which these losses could be confirmed. The Jordanians were so unkind that they issued a report that the Syrian planes had been armed with dummy wooden rockets. The Damascus radio struck back: “The days of the treasonable regime in Jordan are numbered.”35
For the Syrians, the April 7 battle was no setback. It was a welcome occasion for heating up the “popular liberation war” against Israel. On April 8, the Syrian Minister of Information, Mahmoud Al-Zu’bi, declared that the clash “will be followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended.” The fighting, he said, “is not the first battle nor will it be the last.” He told reporters that there could be no permanent calm in the Arab areas adjacent to Israel “as long as there is Zionist occupation of Palestine.” The battle, he boasted, proved Syria’s superiority in land fighting, if not in the air, “since Israeli military outposts were destroyed and serious damage caused to four settlements.”36 On April 17, the Syrian Head of State, Dr. el-Attassi, celebrated the same battle as having been “very useful to us.” Syria, he said, “cannot but support Arab commandos” and “is prepared to wage the battle with all its resources, whatever the cost or sacrifices.” He inveighed against Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco because they were not revolutionary enough.37
For Nasser, April 7 was a dividing line. It forced him to face as never before the problem of implementing the Egypt-Syria mutual defense pact of the previous November. Syria, after all, claimed to have been attacked by Israel, and whether its losses were four or six planes, they were evidence of the seriousness of the struggle. This meant that he was obliged to come to the defense of Syria, wherever that might lead. The Jordanians, enjoying his dilemma, could not resist needling him. The leading Jordanian newspaper of April 8 demanded: “What has Cairo done in face of this flagrant air aggression on Damascus?”38 On April 10, Cairo sent its air commander, General Mohammed Sidky Mahmoud, to Damascus to confer for twelve days. On April 17, Egypt’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Sidky Soliman, came to Damascus for five days, the highest-ranking Egyptian official to visit Syria since the 1961 break. A communiqué on April 22 pledged both sides “to carry out joint plans under the joint defense agreement between them,” and to consider the “battle for the liberation of Palestine” the main cause around which the Arab masses should rally.39 On May 2, President Nasser felt it necessary to explain why Egyptian planes had not come to the rescue of the Syrians as a result of the April 7 clash. He attributed the failure to act to the limited range of Egypt’s fighter planes, a restriction which he said had been pointed out to the Syrians, who had assured him that they had enough fighters of their own.40
As for the Soviets, the onesided defeat of their MIG’s by French Mirages, which was generally credited, gave them a direct stake in the outcome of the April 7 battle. Every move that Syria and Egypt might subsequently make had to be paid for largely by the Soviets, and without Soviet materiel, the two Arab states could not contemplate making war. The Soviets had invested so heavily in Syria and Egypt, as well as in Iraq, that they could not stay out of this runaway crisis even if they had wanted to do so. And far from wanting to stay out, they clearly tried to get more and more deeply embroiled in it.
The next round of “commando” violence showed how far the Soviet leaders intended to go. On May 5, Israeli territory was shelled from Lebanon, and on May 8, a military vehicle was blown up five miles inside Israeli territory. These exploits by El Fatah demonstrated such technical proficiency that the Israeli government decided to issue a stern warning.
This appraisal was fully backed up by the UN truce observers whose reports led Secretary General Thant to declare on May 11:
I must say, that in the last few days, the El Fatah type of incidents have increased, unfortunately. Those incidents have occurred in the vicinity of the Lebanese and Syrian lines and are very deplorable, especially because, by their very nature, they seem to indicate that the individuals who committed them have had more specialized training than has usually been evidenced in El Fatah incidents in the past. That type of activity is insidious, is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Armistice Agreements and menaces the peace of the area. All governments concerned have an obligation under the General Armistice Agreements, as well as under the Charter of the United Nations and in the interest of peace, to take every measure within their means to put an end to such activities.41
Apparently the full import of the crisis that gathered in May caught the Israeli government by surprise. In an interview in U. S. News & World Report of April 17, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had been asked whether he expected a full-scale war with Egypt, Syria, or Jordan. He incautiously replied that“I don’t think there will be full-scale war in the next few years—although we are, of course, preparing for such a possibility, and I say that openly to the world.”42 But on May 12, Eshkol spoke with less confidence in the future. Of attempts to commit sabotage on Israeli soil, he said: “There will be no immunity for any State which aids and abets such acts.” He noted that Syria seemed to have taken on itself to assume the leadership in the Arab struggle against Israel. But, he added, Syria’s forces were not great, and “not without reason is she looking for protection among larger countries.” Although this need not cause any alarm, he cautioned, “we shall go on manning our posts, ready for any possible deployment.” The following day, he again spoke on the same theme without appearing to think that a showdown was imminent:
The firm and persistent stand we have taken on behalf of our rights has strengthened the awareness among our neighbors that they will not be able to prevail against us in open combat. They recoil today from any frontal clash with Israel, and they postpone the date of such a confrontation to the remote future. Among the Arab rulers and their saboteur-minions, there are some who nowadays attempt to manifest their hostility to Israel in deeds, diligently in search of ways of attrition, subversion, and aggression against human lives. We have furnished proof that we shall not permit our borders to be opened to attack. We have proved that to their attempts to pick easy and exposed targets, we were able to respond at a place, time, and by a method of our own choosing. Thus, the saboteurs and their employers found out that they would not accomplish their aims this way. We do not recognize the limitations they endeavor to impose upon our acts of response. The Arab States and the nations of the world ought to know that any border which is tranquil from their side will also be quiet from our side. If they try to sow unrest on our border—unrest will come to theirs.43
I have cited the relevant portions of these two statements by Eshkol at some length because they—and particularly the first one of May 12—were later used by Nasser to justify his decision to move troops to the Israeli border and to renew the blockade of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. In a long and most revealing press conference in Cairo on May 28, Nasser said:
In its threats in the past few years, Israel has gone beyond every limit. The most recent thing was the Israeli Prime Minister’s threat to attack Syria and his war threats. Israel has been continuously threatening war. On May 12, this threat reached an extent that no one would accept. It was the duty of every Arab to respond to this threat. Therefore, I said that if Israel wanted to threaten war—which it actually did—then Israel is welcome.44
Soviet Premier Kosygin also referred in his UN speech of June 19 to Prime Minister Eshkol’s alleged threats:
The Premier of Israel made it clear that the armed attack on Syria in April was not the last step, and that Israel was itself going to choose the method and time for new actions of this kind.
The reader may judge for himself whether Eshkol was guilty of threatening to attack Syria or of threatening war in Nasser’s or Kosygin’s sense. Ironically, the Israeli Prime Minister had opened himself to some criticism for refusing to believe that a full-scale war was so imminent. If we recall the kind of threats against Israel made for months and even years by the highest Arab leaders, this purported Israeli threat against Syria hardly seems to be sufficient cause for setting off a third Arab-Israel war. In any event, one of the alleged motivations for the Egyptian actions was the Eshkol statement of May 12.
The other motivation directly implicated the Soviet Union. An Egyptian parliamentary delegation went to Moscow for the May Day celebration and stayed until May 14. In his speech of resignation on June 9, later withdrawn, Nasser claimed that Egypt and Syria had been persuaded that Israel planned to invade Syria. But, as if he felt these Arab sources might not be sufficiently convincing, he added:
Even our friends in the Soviet Union told the parliamentary delegation which was visiting Moscow early last month that there was a calculated intention [to invade Syria].45
An official Soviet version was given by Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin to the UN on June 19:
In those days, the Soviet Government, and I believe others too, began receiving information to the effect that the Israeli government had timed for the end of May a swift strike at Syria in order to crush it and then carry the fighting over into the territory of the United Arab Republic [Egypt].
These statements raise a fascinating question about the Soviets’ role in stirring up this conflict. In October 1966, as we have seen, Soviet Ambassador Federenko had rehearsed this very bit of intelligence and it had again made its appearance in the Soviet press in February 1967. Federenko had solemnly assured the UN that Israel had been “concentrating large military forces on the Syrian border,” that it had been staging military maneuvers in areas adjacent to Syria, that it had partially mobilized reserves, and that it was preparing “for the intrusion of Israeli forces deep into Syrian territory.” In an area as small as the Syrian-Israeli border, such activities could not have been concealed from the UN truce observers who reported no such things taking place. Now, seven months later, the Soviets were assuring their Egyptian friends of another Israeli plan to invade Syria.
This peculiar Soviet effort to inflame the Arabs had a peculiar background. After the battle of April 7, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Yakob Malik had called in the Israeli ambassador in Moscow, Katriel Katz, to accuse Israel of “aggression” and to threaten reprisals. On May 12, the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Arye Levavi, had invited the Soviet ambassador, Dimitri Chuvakhin, who had accused Israel of concentrating forces on the Syrian border, to visit the area to see for himself. Chuvakhin had refused the offer with the curt reply that his government’s information was good enough for him. Again on May 19, Eban tried to convince Chuvakhin. “I can state to you,” Eban said, “that there are no concentrations on the Syrian frontier, and the Egyptians should know this.” “On one occasion [May 29],” Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban told the UN on June 19, “the Soviet ambassador complained to my Prime Minister of heavy troop concentrations in the north of Israel. But when invited to join the Prime Minister that very moment in a visit to any part of Israel which he liked, the distinguished envoy brusquely refused.”
But the damage had already been done. Nasser has said that he received information on May 13 that “Israel was concentrating on the Syrian border huge armed forces of about eleven to thirteen armed brigades,” south and north of Lake Tiberias.46 For this reason, he claimed, the first Egyptian troops were sent to the Sinai border with Israel on the night of May 14. Six days later, Secretary General Thant reported:
There have been in the past few days persistent reports about troop movements and concentrations, particularly on the Israel side of the Syrian border. These have caused anxiety and at times excitement. The Government of Israel very recently has assured me that there are no unusual Israel troop concentrations or movements along the Syrian line, that there will be none and that no military action will be initiated by the armed forces of Israel unless action is first taken by the other side. Reports from UNTSO Observers have confirmed the absence of troop concentrations and significant troop movements on both sides of the line (my italics, T.D.).47
Israeli mobilizations, troop concentrations, and troop movements happen to be notoriously hard to conceal. A glance at the Syria-Israel border shows how short it is, barely fifty miles altogether. That UN truce observers should not have been able to see what the Soviets were telling the Egyptians and no doubt the Syrians about Israeli troops poised to invade Syria is one of the more seductive mysteries of the prewar buildup. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, it was, unfortunately, not the only one.
We have now come to the final or what may be called the Sharm el-Sheikh phase of the buildup.
As Secretary General Thant later told the story, the Commander of UNEF, Major General Rikhye, received a message from the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, General Mahmud Fawzi, at 10 P.M. (Gaza time) on May 16. It requested the immediate withdrawal of all UN troops from two places, El Sabha, a strategic point in Sinai at the northern end of the Egypt-Israel border, and Sharm el-Sheikh, the fortress controlling entrance into the Gulf of Aqaba. General Rikhye replied that he did not have the authority to order the withdrawal and was told that there might be clashes between Egyptian and UN troops that very night. While Secretary General Thant requested a clarification of the Egyptian request, Egyptian forces began on May 18 to take matters into their own hands. The observation posts at El Sabha and other points were occupied by Egyptian troops and two Egyptian artillery shells burst between two UN posts, one of them El Sabha. At noon (New York time) on May 18, the Secretary General received the official Egyptian request to withdraw all UN forces “as soon as possible” from Egyptian territory and the Gaza Strip. Mr. Thant expressed the intention of appealing to President Nasser for a reconsideration but was told not to do so or he would be sternly rebuffed. Two governments, undoubtedly India and Yugoslavia, which provided about half the troops for UNEF, took the position that they would comply with Egypt’s request and withdraw their troops whatever the UN decided to do. On the night of May 18, Secretary General Thant ordered the total withdrawal of UNEF as requested by Egypt.48 While U Thant was on his way to Egypt on May 22, Nasser, without waiting to see him, officially announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel and the consequent blockade of the port of Eilat.
Most of the controversy raised by these actions has concentrated on two questions. Was the Secretary General right or adroit in withdrawing UNEF so quickly? Was Egypt legally justified in closing the Straits of Tiran to Israel and blockading Eilat? For the time being, only the second concerns us.
I do not wish to enter into the legality of the move because it seems to me largely beside the point. If nothing else were at stake but the blockade of Eilat, it would still have been a serious blow to Israel, for Eilat in 1967 was not what it had been in 1956. Israel had put a decade of stupendous effort into building up the port, its only outlet to the south. A pipeline had been built to carry the oil of Iran from Eilat to Beersheba and then by truck to a refinery in Haifa. A large proportion of the mineral exports from the Dead Sea and the growing copper production of Timna went out from Eilat. The ambitious development plans for the Negev largely depended on using the port of Eilat. Israel might well have fought for Eilat but the point is that, after May 18, Eilat was merely a symptom that Israel had to fight for itself.
On May 18, Syria’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Ibrahim Makhous, gave the following interpretation of UNEF’s withdrawal to the Syrian news agency: “The withdrawal of the UN forces in this manner, which means ‘make way, our forces are on their way to the battle,’ proves that there is nothing that can stand in the way of the Arab revolution and that reaction’s attempt to raise doubts regarding the presence of these forces had boomeranged.”49
On May 20, Syria’s Defense Minister, General Hafiz el-Assad, told a Syrian newspaper that the Syrian air force had violated Israeli territory “dozens of times” in the past year. “The army, which has long been preparing itself for the battle and has its finger on the trigger, demands in one voice that the battle be expedited,” he said. “At present we are awaiting the signal from the political leadership. As a military man I feel that the time has come to wage the liberation battle. In my opinion it is necessary to adopt at least the minimum measures required to deal a disciplinary blow to Israel, which should restore its senses and bring it to its knees, humiliated and terrified to live in an atmosphere of awe and fear which will prevent it from contemplating another aggression.”50
On May 22, President Nasser delivered a radio address announcing the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba. In it he revealed for the first time what he had had in mind. First, he seemed preoccupied with explaining away the Egyptian defeat in 1956. He blamed it on the Anglo-French invasion which, he claimed, had prevented Egypt from fighting Israel. Then he boasted of his new Soviet planes: “At that time we had a few Ilyushin bombers. We had just acquired them to arm ourselves. Today we have many Ilyushins and others. There is a great difference between yesterday and today, between 1956 and 1967.” And so the time had come to demonstrate what Egypt, if it did not have to worry about Britain and France, could do to Israel. “Today we have a chance to prove the fact. We have, indeed, a chance to make the world see matters in their true perspective. We are now face to face with Israel.” Referring to Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol’s statement of May 12, he took up the alleged challenge: “The Jews threatened war. We tell them: You are welcome, we are ready for war.”51 On that same day, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol called for mutual withdrawal of Egyptian and Israeli troops from the border.
Thant reached Cairo on May 23 and stayed two days. As he has reported his conversations with the Egyptian President and Foreign Minister, the most important point made to him was a statement of their “general aim” in closing the Straits of Tiran to Israel. It had been done, they said, “for a return to the conditions prevailing prior to 1956.”52 As we shall see, this was not the only aim or purpose given by Nasser to explain why he had decided to take over Sharm el-Sheikh; it may be considered the minimum aim which could be stated to someone like the Secretary General.
The first public Soviet and American reactions came on May 23. The Soviet statement did not refer to Sharm el-Sheikh and the renewed blockade of Eilat at all. It merely reiterated the charge that Israeli statesmen had threatened to attack Syria and, therefore, the Arab states had acted to repel the expected “aggression.” It broadened the scope and implications of the crisis by contending that Israel’s actions had been directly and indirectly encouraged by “certain imperialist circles which seek to bring back colonial oppression to Arab lands.” In effect, it avoided all the concrete issues by giving general backing to the Arabs and making a general indictment of Israel.53 President Johnson’s statement of May 23 made two main points. The United States, he said, was “dismayed at the hurried withdrawal” of UNEF, an implied criticism of the Secretary General’s decision. The other recommitted the United States, at least formally, to the 1957 understanding opening the Straits of Tiran to Israel:
The United States considers the gulf [of Aqaba] to be an international waterway and feels that a blockade of Israeli shipping is illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace. The right of free, innocent passage of the international waterway is a vital interest of the international community.54
However, all this was not really pertinent to what Nasser thought he was doing. On May 26, he made a speech to the Central Council of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions. In it he said many things that would not have been fitting in conversations with the United Nations Secretary General. Most of this speech was devoted to explaining why he had waited so long to seek a showdown with Israel. Nasser explained:
We awaited the proper day when we would be fully prepared and confident that we would adopt strong measures if we were to enter the battle with Israel. I say nothing aimlessly. One day two years ago, I stood up to say that we have no plan to liberate Palestine and that revolutionary action is our only course to liberate Palestine. I spoke at the Arab summit conferences. The summit conferences were meant to prepare the Arab states to defend themselves. Recently we have felt strong enough that if we were to enter a battle with Israel, with God’s help we could triumph. On this basis, we decided to take actual steps.
Then he went on to explain why he had waited so long to get rid of UNEF:
A great deal has been said in the past about the UN Emergency Force. Many people blamed us for UNEF’s presence. We were not strong enough. Should we have listened to them or built and trained our army instead while UNEF still existed? I said once that we could tell UNEF to leave within half an hour. Once we were fully prepared we could ask UNEF to leave. And this is what has actually happened.
After this came the explanation for Sharm el-Sheikh:
The same thing happened with regard to Sharm el-Sheikh. We were also attacked on this score by some Arabs. Taking over Sharm el-Sheikh meant confrontation with Israel. Taking such action also meant that we were ready to enter war with Israel. It was not a separate operation. Therefore, we had to take this fact into consideration when moving to Sharm el-Sheikh. The present operation was mounted on this basis (my italics, T.D.).
And if it came to war, what was the final aim? Nasser answered:
The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel. I probably could not have said such things five or even three years ago. If I had said such things and had been unable to carry them out my words would have been empty and valueless. Today, some eleven years after 1956, I say such things because I am. confident. I know what we have here in Egypt and what Syria has. I also know that other states—Iraq, for instance, has sent its troops to Syria; Algeria will send troops; Kuwait will also send troops. They will send armored infantry units. This is Arab power.55
At a press conference in Cairo on May 28, Nasser reiterated for a non-Arab audience what the problem was not:
The problem all of us are experiencing now and are concerned about—all of us, statesmen, journalists, and the multitudes of peoples—is neither the problem of the Tiran Straits nor the withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force (UNEF). All those are side issues of a bigger and more serious problem—the problem of the aggression which has taken place and continues to take place on the Arab homeland of Palestine and the continuous threat posed by that aggression against all Arab countries. This is the original problem.
For the nature of this threat, Nasser again referred to Prime Minister Eshkol’s statement of May 12:
Israel has been continuously threatening war. On May 12 this threat reached an extent that no one would accept. It was the duty of every Arab to respond to this threat. Therefore I said that if Israel wanted to threaten war—which it actually did—then Israel is welcome.
Once more Nasser explained that his actions the week before had “restored the situation to what it was in 1956.” They were, he made clear, a challenge to Israel to capitulate or fight:
We have taken these measures to restore things to what they were before. Now we are waiting to see what Israel will do next. Should Israel provoke us or any other Arab country, such as Syria, we are all prepared to face it. If Israel chooses war, then, as I have said, it is welcome to it. . . .
Toward the end of the conference, Nasser gave a peculiar definition of Israeli “aggression”:
As I have said, Israel’s existence in itself is an aggression.56
Finally, on May 29, the same question of what the crisis was all about came up in a speech which Nasser made to members of the National Assembly who visited him:
The issue now at hand is not the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran or the withdrawal of UNEF, but the rights of the Palestinian people. It is the aggression which took place in Palestine in 1948 with the collaboration of Britain and the United States.
He went on:
The issue today is far more serious than they say. They want to confine the issue to the Straits of Tiran and the right of passage. We say: We demand the full rights of the Palestinian people. We say this out of our belief that Arab rights cannot be squandered because the Arabs throughout the world are demanding these Arab rights.57
In effect, Nasser had set up a situation in which, from his point of view, he could not lose. If the Israelis decided to capitulate to the new blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, it would set them back to the pre-1956 situation. They would be put in the position of acknowledging that they had fought the second Arab-Israeli war of 1956 in vain. They would surrender a decade of effort and treasure poured into the port of Eilat and the economic interests dependent on it. They would be forced to admit such military inferiority to the Arab states that they could only look forward to a future of waiting helplessly for the Arabs to make further demands. Nasser’s minimum aim, therefore, amounted to winning the prize of a war without firing a shot.
But Nasser did not really expect the Israelis to capitulate. He recognized, as he stated openly on March 26, that his move at Sharm el-Sheikh was “not a separate operation” but was more likely to bring about “a general war with Israel.” Throughout May, the Egyptian and Syrian leaders gave every indication of deliberately trying to provoke Israel into a general war. As Nasser put it on May 28, “Now we are waiting to see what Israel will do next,” and “if Israel chooses war, then, as I have said, it is welcome to it.” And if Israel chose war, he was confident that the Arabs would accomplish their maximum aim—to set Israel back to the pre-1948 situation, that is, before there was a state of Israel.
In view of the outcome of the war, it may be hard for some to imagine that Nasser deliberately set up a situation in which he considered the Israelis practically forced to attack. It may be difficult to believe that he could have so fantastically miscalculated the balance of power on both sides. But if politicians and generals did not make mistakes, there would never be any losers in wars. The evidence is overwhelming that Israel acted exactly as Nasser expected and wanted it to act. The only question is why he expected and wanted it.
Part of the answer lies in what the Arabs, especially the Egyptians, thought they had learned from the wars of 1948 and 1956. In the first, a number of Arab states had started out fighting together, but the Egyptians had borne the brunt of the final phase and considered themselves betrayed by the others. The lesson seemed to be that Egypt had to reform itself and depend on its own resources. In the second, Egypt had fought alone, despite pacts with Syria and Saudi Arabia which it had never put into effect. The lesson seemed to be that Arab unity was necessary to defeat Israel. Beyond this, the Egyptians also convinced themselves that they could have handled Israel alone if they had not been forced to use their best forces against Britain and France. Thus Arab unity plus an isolated Israel came to be the foolproof formula for victory in the third war.
Of the several prewar studies made of Arab-Israeli military capabilities, one is especially noteworthy because it comes from an Arab source. Some of the author’s conclusions undoubtedly help us to get an insight into the thinking that led to Egypt’s prewar policy. After examining the advantages and disadvantages offered by Israel’s geographical position, the author observes: “Above all, the advantages accruing from Israel’s compactness apply only when she is fighting on a single front at any one time—which she managed to do even in 1948 when engaging four Arab armies. The geographic fact that the Arabs surround Israel on three sides would be turned into a crushing military advantage once Arab military operations against Israel are conducted according to a single, coordinated plan.” Then the study makes a very significant connection between Israel’s manpower problem and the length of the war. The 250,000 men and women whom Israel could probably mobilize, it notes, would immobilize the entire economy, for which approximately half that number is needed, if the war went on for even a few days. His verdict is that “any war with Israel that lasts for over a week and which calls for more than 100,000 Israelis being mobilized would, by that fact and apart from the military outcome, do very extensive if not permanent damage to the economic life of Israel.” In the air, this writer thought that Egypt had all the advantage. He was especially impressed by the heavy TU-16 bombers and medium IL-28 bombers which the Soviets had given Egypt. “Israel suffers from lack of territory which means that an Egyptian bomber based in Sinai would be over Israel within minutes of taking-off,” he pointed out. “The opposite case does not apply to Egypt and Israeli bombers since these planes would have to cross the whole of Sinai and/or the Delta area before being within striking distance of Egypt’s industrial centers.” After making a survey of each of six Arab states which might possibly be involved in such a war, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, the study came to this final conclusion: “The only chance that the Arabs have of beating Israel in the field is through a properly unified and coordinated military action in which narrow nationalistic interests must give way to a sincere feeling of unity.”58
The emphasis in this analysis was, then, on Arab unity, Israeli isolation, and the inability of Israel to fight a “long” war (more than a week!). If the first two conditions could be achieved, the outlook for the Arabs seemed most promising. For the Israelis, the same factors operated; Arab unification and their own isolation meant the approach of war, and to save themselves they had to fight at all costs the shortest possible war (less than a week!).
By the end of May, Arab unity seemed to be an accomplished fact. On May 24, Iraq decided to send land and sea forces to Syria and Egypt. To get to Egypt, however, Iraqi troops had to go through Jordan. That same day, King Hussein of Jordan decided to cast in his lot with what seemed to be an irresistible movement. He announced that he had granted Iraqi and Saudi Arabian forces permission to enter Jordan and that he had sent a representative to Cairo. On May 25, Dr. el-Attassi, the fire-eating Syrian head of state, told members of the Central Council of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions: “Today we are living in a prelude to war.” He added: “The time of the battle you have long awaited has come.” 59 On May 30, King Hussein and President Nasser signed a Jordan-Egypt mutual defense pact which completed the Arab encirclement of Israel. Hussein, no doubt, was under pressure to join the Arab coalition or see his country invaded by Iraqi and other Arab forces anyway, an eventuality which would have doomed his regime one way or the other. Jordan, which had ordered the Syrian ambassador out of the country on May 23 as a result of a border incident, resumed full diplomatic relations with Syria on June 1. Iraqi and Kuwaiti troops arrived in Egypt on May 31. Iraqi President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Abderrahman Arif, told air force officers on June 1: “Brethren and sons, this is the day of the battle to avenge your martyred brethren who fell in 1948. It is the day to wash away the stigma. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.”60 On the same day, Ahmed Shukeiry, the chieftain of the Palestine Liberation Organization, gave an interview in the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem. Asked whether the PLO or the Jordanian army would fire the first shot against Israel, he replied:
Why not? This is likely. It is most likely and possible that the Jordanian army will begin the battle and march to liberate the country—our country.
Asked what would happen to native-born Israelis if the Arab attack succeeded, he answered:
Those who survive will remain in Palestine. I estimate that none of them will survive.61
There was hardly ever a war in which it was more inconsequential which side struck the first blow. By the end of May, both sides were fully mobilized. Nasser had sent the bulk of his forces to the Sinai border with Israel, an effort so arduous and costly that it would have been well-nigh ruinous to both morale and equipment if he did not use them. The Israelis could not maintain a full-scale mobilization without straining themselves to the breaking point, war or no war. One rumor had it that the Israelis were going to attack Syria on May 15. Another rumor had reached the Israelis that the Egyptians were going to attack them on May 25. From this point on, the slightest incident could have triggered the war because each side knew the other was ready to go into full battle, and the Israelis, from the point of view of both geography and manpower, were in the worst position of all to wait to see whether it was just another incident or the opening shot of the expected war.
Nevertheless, while the Arabs could do something about their own unity, they could not by themselves do much about isolating Israel, the second key condition for victory in their war planning. To make sure that the lesson which they thought they had learned from 1956 would be carried out, they had to count on the Soviet Union. The Arabs were too sure and too proud of themselves to demand Soviet assistance in the form of Soviet armed forces in the coming war. It was enough that the Soviets had provided them with what seemed overwhelming superiority in military equipment for their numerically superior manpower. But the Soviets had to perform one more indispensable service for them—to give them a guarantee against any Western intervention on the side of Israel, as had happened in 1956.
This additional assistance to the Arab cause the Soviets were able and willing to contribute. The first indication of what the Arabs expected from the Soviets in this respect came in a press conference on May 21 in Cairo held by the uninhibited Shukeiry of the PLO. The question and answer went as follows:
Q. Do you think that the Soviet Union will intervene to stop the fighting or do you think it might take either side?
A. I think it will not take part in the fighting in terms of supporting the Arab forces, but in terms of supporting the Arab position like trying by all means to avoid any U.S. military intervention. This by itself is a great service to the cause of peace. I believe the efforts of the Soviet Union will be directed in one direction—that is, the localization of the war in the Middle East and to prevent the United States from any military involvement.62
Four days later, President Nasser decided to make sure. On May 25, he sent his War Minister, Shamseddin Badran, to Moscow. Badran returned on May 28, and the following day Nasser told publicly what he had accomplished.
Badran relayed to me a message from Premier Kosygin saying that the Soviet Union stands with us in this battle and will not allow any country to intervene, so that the state of affairs prevailing before 1956 may be restored.63
Later, in his resignation speech of June 9, Nasser added one more detail relating to the Soviets’ role in the pre-war crisis. On May 25, the Israeli government received information that Nasser was about to order a surprise attack on Israel.64 This news was taken so seriously that Foreign Minister Eban, who had just arrived in Washington, urgently asked President Johnson to advance their scheduled meeting later that day by two hours. Evidently the Soviets had received the same information concerning Nasser’s intentions.65 For Nasser revealed that a message was handed on May 26 from President Johnson to the Egyptian ambassador in Washington “asking us for restraint and not to be the first to open fire. Otherwise we would face serious consequences.” And a few hours later, at 3:30 a.m., the Soviet ambassador in Cairo came to see Nasser and “told me that the Soviet Government strongly requested we should not be the first to open fire.”66 We have so far only Nasser’s version of these events. Nasser implied that the only reason he did not fire the first shot was that the U.S. and the USSR had asked him not to do so. In any case, the Soviet commitment did not depend on who fired the first shot; the Egyptians and Israelis were fully mobilized and presumably prepared for any eventuality; Nasser continued as if it did not matter who struck the first blow, and he fully expected Israel to be provoked into it; the fatal mistake was not in waiting, if Egypt did wait, but in failing to be on the alert, especially in its military airfields, at a time when the slightest incident could have touched off the “general war with Israel.”
From this it may be gathered that Kosygin had committed the Soviet Union two things: Soviet intervention on the side of the Arabs if any other power intervened on the side of Israel, and a restoration of the pre-1956 rather than the pre-1948 situation.67 There is no reason to believe that the Soviets committed themselves to intervene unilaterally or that the Arabs asked them to do so. The Arabs were too confident of winning without direct Soviet intervention as long as the Soviets could give them a guarantee against intervention by the United States or any other Western power. This does not mean that the Arabs set themselves merely the restoration of the 1956 situation. In his speech on May 29, Nasser said:
Now, eleven years after 1956, we are restoring things to what they were in 1956. This is from the material aspect. In my opinion this material aspect is but a small part, whereas the spiritual aspect is the great side of the issue. The spiritual aspect involves the renaissance of the Arab nation, the revival of the Palestine question, and the restoration of confidence to every Arab and to every Palestinian. This is on the basis that if we were able to restore conditions to what they were in 1956, God will surely help and urge us to restore the situation to what it was in 1948.68
At this stage, during the ten days before the outbreak, Nasser had reason to worry about what might happen in the United Nations, just as Israel had reason to worry after its victory. On the evening of May 23, Canada and Denmark requested an immediate meeting of the Security Council to deal with the Middle Eastern crisis. After the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba, the full dimensions of the emergency were clearly visible. Indeed, four days earlier, on May 19, Secretary General U Thant had already advised the Council that “the current situation in the Near East is more disturbing, indeed, I say more menacing, than at any time since the fall of 1956.”69 The Canadian-Danish request was supported by U.S. Ambassador Arthur J. Goldberg who offered to join with the Soviet Union, Britain, and France “in a common effort to restore and maintain peace in the Middle East.”70
But the Soviet Union was already running interference for the Arab states, and Egypt in particular, to prevent any “intervention” by outside powers in the consummation of the Arab plan. Therefore, Soviet Ambassador Federenko barred the way on May 24 to permit the Security Council even to take up the subject. The reason he gave shows to what extreme lengths the Soviet leaders were willing to go to give the Arabs a free hand. “Having heard the statements of representatives of the Western powers,” Federenko said loftily, “we are even more convinced that certain forces are artificially heating up the climate for reasons that have nothing to do with a true concern for peace and security in the Near East” (my italics, T.D.). He brusquely rejected the proposal that the Soviet Union should take part in consultations.71
The Security Council met again on May 29 to discuss the by now inescapable Middle East crisis. On this occasion, the Egyptian spokesman, Ambassador Mohammed Awad el-Kony, explained in brutally frank terms why Egypt had been justified in closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel:
The continued violations and the numerous premeditated acts of aggression in all dimensions against the Arabs, which culminated in the cowardly attack on Sinai in 1956, clearly means that a state of overt war has been existing. Hence my Government has the legitimate right, in accordance with international law, to impose restrictions on navigation in the Straits of Tiran with respect to shipping to the enemy (my italics, T.D.).72
This candid rationale for Egypt’s actions meant, if it meant anything, that overt war had already broken out in the Middle East and, indeed, had been going on ever since 1956. But if Ambassador el-Kony was right—and he was merely repeating assertions that had been made for years in Cairo and Damascus—anything the Israelis did after May 29 was also justified. If the Egyptians and the Israelis were already in a state of “overt war” on that date, it is hard to see how the Israelis could be charged with an “aggression” which started the war a week later. The logic used by the Egyptians for closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel contained a built-in justification for any military action that the Israelis might take in retaliation. Yet the Egyptian case against Israel seemed to be based on the flagrant contradiction that Egypt could close the Gulf of Aqaba because it was in a state of war with Israel but Israel could not strike back because it was not in a state of war with Egypt. One never ceases to wonder at the human predilection for having one’s cake and eating it too,
As late as May 29, however, Ambassador Federenko still accused Ambassador Goldberg of attempting “to dramatize the situation,” as if anything could have been more dramatic than the Egyptian declaration, made only a few hours earlier, that “a state of overt war” existed in the Middle East. Federenko, however, was not above dramatizing the situation in his own way. A “dangerous aggravation of tensions” existed in that part of the world, he declared, but there was only one “real culprit”—Israel. His solution was extraordinarily uncomplicated. All that was necessary was for the Western powers, who were allegedly using Israel to restore their former colonial rule, should “simply call to order” their Israeli “friends and allies.”73
On May 31, Ambassador Federenko took a different tack. He defended the Arab cause mainly by attacking a mythical U.S. “naval blockade” of Cuba, which he seemed to equate with the Egyptian blockade of Israel.74 And on June 3, at the last meeting of the Security Council before the outbreak of hostilities, he contented himself for the most part with again complaining about Cuba and by attacking U.S. policy in Vietnam.75 Thus Soviet strategy in the UN consisted of preventing serious discussion of the issue first by belittling its gravity and then by talking of other things.
When the UN might have done something about preventing the war, the Soviets did everything in their power to reduce the organization to impotence and bring it into disrepute. When the lightning Israeli victory proved that the Soviets had not done enough for the Arabs merely by forcing Israel to fight alone, they attempted to turn the UN into an anti-Israeli coalition to restore the very status quo ante for which the Arab states had waged the war. It is questionable which Soviet tactic has done the UN more lasting damage.
None of the great, not-so-great, and no-longer-so-great powers distinguished itself in this war crisis.
For the United States, the third Arab-Israeli war was the final stage of bankruptcy of a Middle Eastern policy that went back to the Baghdad Pact of 1955. This association of Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, which the United States did not join but with which it maintained an intimate liaison, was undoubtedly the most dubious and rickety of John Foster Dulles’s diplomatic brain children. Each of its members was less interested in any of the others than in pleasing the United States in order to get on the high priority list for American arms. The only Arab member was Iraq which was then challenging Egypt for leadership in the Arab world. As a result, Egypt under Nasser took, umbrage and considered the pact a threat to its own pretensions and ambitions. For once, Egypt and Israel agreed on something—neither had any use for the pact. When Britain tried to get Jordan into it, the opposition was so great that two Jordanian governments fell in one week and King Hussein had to get rid of Sir John B. Glubb (better known as Glubb Pasha, Chief of the Jordanian General Staff), terminate the Anglo-Jordanian treaty, and cancel British rights to bases in Jordan. When the Iraqi strong man, Nuri el-Said, was assassinated in 1958, Iraq was quickly knocked out of the pact which had to be reorganized the following year as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) without any Arab membership at all. As John C. Campbell dryly noted, CENTO remained “a rather artificial combination of three Middle Eastern states which have few natural ties with each other,”76 a condition which surely made this alliance one of the most unnatural on record. In addition, it might be added, it contained the one Western power that had been the most longstanding bête noire of Arab nationalism. Of the three remaining Middle Eastern states, over $4 billion of U.S. aid did not prevent Pakistan from turning to the Soviet Union in 1965, and a somewhat less astronomical handout did not prevent Iran from accepting $286 million of economic aid from the USSR in 1966 and signing a $100 million military aid agreement with the USSR in January 1967.
As ironies of history go, one of the most delectable is the fact that John Foster Dulles found some of his most successful, if unauthorized, disciples—in Moscow. Once the Soviets decided to compete actively with the United States for influence in the so-called underdeveloped or developing countries, they did not have to exhibit any marked originality; it largely sufficed for them to take over and adapt for their own uses the instrumentalities of foreign policy which Dulles did not invent but which he elevated in importance to a degree that only the United States could afford—economic aid and military assistance. The United States could hardly complain if the Soviet Union, using the former’s own methods, outbid it in selected countries. The Soviet footholds in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were not for the most part gained by using the local Communist parties (the Syrian party became an important factor only in 1966), but by making direct state-to-state economic and military deals with whichever amenable government happened to be in power. In making these deals, however, the Soviets did have one advantage. The United States could not or would not adopt a hard, gross anti-Israeli line to please the Arabs; all it could do was try to maintain friendly relations with both sides. The closer the Soviets got to the Arabs, the more virulently anti-Israel they became. To listen to Soviet spokesmen in the United Nations, the Arabs could do no wrong and the Israelis no right; there has never been a Soviet word of protest against the fedayeen, the Palestine Liberation Organization, or El Fatah raids on Israeli territory; there has never been anything for the Soviets but Israeli “aggression” and “provocation.”
The United States has given over $1 billion to Egypt and over one-half billion dollars to Jordan in aid in the past two decades. Jordan, in addition, has been fully armed by the United States; it possessed twice as many U.S. tanks as Israel had in the recent war.77 Egypt has been a lost cause for years and hopelessly lost since 1965. But the case of Jordan demonstrates far more flagrantly the failure of U.S. policy in this area. Jordan was armed supposedly to make it capable of resisting the inroads of its Arab antagonists, Egypt and Syria. It cannot be said that this calculation was altogether wrongheaded. But in the payoff, the arms given to Jordan might just as well have been added to the Soviet arms given to Egypt and Syria. The policy failed when it was needed the most.
In the days immediately before the outbreak of the third Arab-Israeli war, the United States was, therefore, caught with almost no leverage on the Arab side. The confusion and indecision in Washington were immense, even if some of the difficulties were understandable. One obstacle was that U.S. officials were at first not quite sure what the U.S. commitment to Israel was. I was authoritatively told in Washington that former President Eisenhower was called, after Nasser officially closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel on May 22, and asked just what the U.S. commitment made by him in 1957 was. He answered forthrightly that he considered it a “commitment of honor” for the United States to live up to his assurance to former Prime Minister Ben Gurion that the Straits would be kept open. As a result, President Johnson issued his statement of principle the following day affirming that the United States judged the blockade of Israeli shipping to be “illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace.” But how to break through the blockade was something else.
The first modality was another piece of paper—a declaration signed by as many maritime powers as possible along the lines of President Johnson’s statement but containing an implicit warning that the signatories were prepared to exercise the rights of “free and innocent passage.” At the same time, but far more mutedly, plans were gingerly being worked out for a collective maritime flotilla—soon dubbed the “Red Sea Regatta”—to provide a naval escort for ships through the Straits of Tiran, if Egypt did not heed the declaration. This contingency planning, in the Pentagon, was British and American, without any great enthusiasm on either side.78 The United States had the 50-ship Sixth Fleet with its two aircraft carriers, America and Saratoga, and a third carrier, Intrepid, and the British had about half a dozen ships in the area, but two British aircraft carriers, Victorious and Hermes, were about 1000 miles away in the vicinity of Aden. First, however, President Johnson and the State Department worked on the maritime declaration which was relatively cheap since it needed words rather than action. When Israeli Foreign Minister Eban came to Washington on May 25, he was urged to prevail on the Israeli government to trust in the proposed action of the “maritime powers” and meanwhile to use the utmost restraint. “We were at first asked to wait two days,” Prime Minister Eshkol later recalled. “Then we sent Abba Eban to the United States—and were asked to wait a further fortnight. They told us that forty to fifty maritime powers would sign a guarantee for free passage through the Tiran Strait.”79 Actually, no more than fifteen to twenty powers ever indicated that they might sign the declaration in principle, and only the Netherlands and Australia seemed prepared to back the United States and Great Britain in any possible implementation.
In Cairo, meanwhile, the U.S. embassy was a diplomatic shambles. For three months before the May crisis, the ambassadorial post in the Egyptian capital had been vacant. No U.S. official in all that time had talked to President Nasser. The new U.S. ambassador, Richard H. Nolte, a respected student of Islamic jurisprudence and culture but without diplomatic experience and with an excessive deference for Arab sensibilities, did not arrive at his post until May 21, on the eve of Nasser’s closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel. When Nolte was asked at the airport what he thought of the approaching crisis, he replied, according to one version, “What crisis?”, and according to another: “There is no crisis in the Middle East. This thing will not amount to much.”80 This was too much for David G. Nes, who had been Deputy Chief of Mission in Cairo in the absence of an ambassador. Nes later took the extraordinary step for a career diplomat of making public his alarm and dismay at the way the Egyptian buildup had been handled. Nes revealed that he had been convinced as far back as January 1967 that Nasser had been planning a major confrontation with Israel and the West. Apparently unable to get through to his superiors in Washington, Nes wrote a letter in the first week of January to Senator J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging that a top professional diplomat or a well-known business executive close to President Johnson be appointed as ambassador in Cairo inasmuch as the incumbent, Lucius Battle, was scheduled to leave the post in March. When Mr. Nes protested to Mr. Nolte that his remarks at the airport had greatly underestimated the seriousness of the situation, the latter reportedly replied that Washington thought Mr. Nes was being an alarmist.81 The imbroglio in the embassy was so demoralizing that the State Department sent its adviser on the Middle East, Charles W. Yost, to Cairo to calm the troubled diplomatic waters. President Johnson chose the former Secretary of the Navy in the Eisenhower administration, Robert B. Anderson, as his personal envoy to Nasser.
In the UN, Ambassador Goldberg tried to spell out a key phrase in Secretary General Thant’s report of May 27. Thant had urged “all the parties concerned to exercise special restraint, to forgo belligerence and to avoid all other actions which could increase tension, to allow the Council to deal with the underlying causes of the present crisis and to seek solutions.” In his statement on May 29, Mr. Goldberg paid special attention to the words, “forgo belligerence.” He said: “We believe, from the context of the situation, that with respect to the particularly sensitive area of Aqaba, forgoing belligerence must mean forgoing any blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba during the breathing-spell requested by the Secretary General, and permitting free and innocent passage of all nations and all flags through the Straits of Tiran to continue as it has during the last ten years.”82 It was a good try, but the Egyptian spokesman, Ambassador el-Kony, made short work of it by arguing, among other things, that the three Arab states bordering the Gulf—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—were already “in a state of war with Israel” and, therefore, had the right “to ban the vessels of an enemy.”83 The double standard operated throughout: Egypt was at war with Israel but Israel had no right to be at war with Egypt.
In any event, the negotiations for the maritime powers’ declaration dragged on, and the planning for a flotilla to escort ships through the Straits in some indeterminate contingency became more and more remote. President Johnson maintained the position that somehow or other the Israelis were going to get through the Straits, if they waited long enough. But there was a marked difference between what correspondents heard at the White House and the State Department, and at the Pentagon. The men at the first two were preoccupied with the problem of playing for time, but if diplomatic time ran out, the men at the third were in no mood to force a military showdown. The latter were haunted by the prospect of a “second Vietnam” in the Middle East for which they were totally unprepared. Moreover, the administration was making no effort to prepare American public opinion for such a dire eventuality. Even at the White House and the State Department, those who supported Israel’s right to freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran in principle could hardly bring themselves to contemplate what might be necessary to enforce this right in practice.84 A high State Department official threw up his hands in despair at what might have happened if the Intrepid had been sent, as someone once suggested, through the Straits.
President Johnson’s resort was to keep both sides talking as long as possible in search of a “compromise” solution. For this purpose, it was announced on June 4, the day before the outbreak, that he had invited President Nasser to send Vice President Zakaria Mohieddin to Washington, and had arranged to send Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to Cairo. Nasser agreed for reasons of his own. Despite his more belligerent utterances, he was not altogether averse to having his way in the Gulf of Aqaba without firing a shot, thereby enabling him to claim in the Arab world that he had taken from the Israelis the equivalent of what the latter had had to gain by fighting a war. Nasser was not unwilling to permit the great powers to “prevent war,” in his sense, as long as he did not permit the Israelis to get back into the Gulf of Aqaba. For this reason, as he agreed to send Mohieddin to Washington, on June 4 he also told the so-called maritime powers what price they would have to pay for doing business with him: “We shall consider any declaration by them as a transgression of our sovereignty. It would be considered a preliminary to an act of war.”85
The trouble with all this diplomatic byplay from the Israeli point of view was that it had become largely irrelevant. For Israel was faced with two problems, and Washington wished to concern itself with only one. The two were the blockade of Eilat and the Egyptian military buildup on the Sinai border. By the beginning of June, the buildup was so great, and the Israeli strain of counter-mobilization so intense, that the question of the Gulf of Aqaba had taken second place in the Israelis’ calculation of the danger before them. There was no telling when the proposed maritime powers’ declaration might be signed, now that President Johnson had decided to bargain with Egyptian Vice President Mohieddin, and at best it would be a piece of paper. The possibility that any action might follow from it had become dimmer and dimmer. The one thing that no one was talking or thinking of doing anything about was the overwhelming military pressure that the Arab states had developed on the Israeli borders. On June 4, Iraq officially joined the Egypt-Syria-Jordan military pact. From near and far, Arab military units were hastening toward the Israeli frontiers. As the acute Washington correspondent of the London Times had already observed: “At the State Department it was emphasized that the naval planning was concerned only with securing passage for international shipping through the Strait of Tiran to the Gulf of Aqaba. There was no question of intervention in a possible land war.”86 By the first days of June, the land war and not the Gulf of Aqaba was preeminent in Israeli worrying and decision-making.
When the war did break out on June 5, the worst Israeli apprehensions of U.S. immobility seemed justified by the statement later that same day by the State Department’s press officer, Robert McCloskey, that “our position is neutral in thought, word, and deed.” I have been assured, oh the highest authority, that this remark was an inadvertence never intended to represent U.S. policy. 87 The White House press secretary, George Christian, soon made known that McCloskey’s faux pas had not been cleared with the White House. Secretary of State Rusk tried to “clarify” the matter by saying that the United States was “non-belligerent” but hardly “indifferent,” which hardly needed saying. Whatever the circumstances of Mr. McCloskey’s indiscretion, the United States could simultaneously be “neutral in thought, word, and deed,” “non-belligerent,” and not “indifferent.” In any case, the handling of this incident was scarcely reassuring to the embattled Israelis,
The worst victim of one’s propaganda is often oneself. For months, Nasser had been telling his own people and the Arab world that Israel was merely a creation and a puppet of “Western imperialism.” On May 26, Nasser said: “What is Israel? Israel today is the United States. The United States is the chief defender of Israel. As for Britain, I consider it America’s lackey.”88 On May 29, he declared: “We are not facing Israel, but those behind it. We are facing the West, which created Israel.”89 If Nasser actually believed this, it led him to think that he was safe so long as he did not have to worry about the United States or the West, thanks to the Soviet Union’s good offices, or that the Israelis could not move without U.S. permission.90 In fact, the Israelis knew that they had to fight alone and that there was very little the United States would or possibly could do to help them. The last thing the Israelis wanted was to have the United States intervene à la Vietnam and make Israel into a “second Vietnam.”
This brings us to the relationship between the third Arab-Israeli war and the Vietnam war, a subject on which there has been more than the usual quota of misunderstanding and nonsense by some who should know better. A statement, which appeared as an advertisement in the New York Times of June 7, 1967, called on President Johnson “to act now with courage and conviction, with nerve and firmness of intent, to maintain free passage in those waters [of the Gulf of Aqaba]—and so to safeguard the integrity, security, and survival of Israel and its people, and to uphold our own honor.”91 There was nothing in this statement to which the Johnson administration had not already pledged itself. It did not mention the Vietnam or any war. Some who signed it were critics of U.S. policy on Vietnam, some were not. But it moved Professor John P. Roche, a Special Consultant in the White House, to play the role of court jester and suggest that the statement should have been signed “Doves for war,” a much-quoted phrase by which he evidently meant “Vietnam doves for Israeli war.” William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote a column on the statement which he also tied up with the Vietnam war and which so bemused him that he gave it credit for putting “most of the critics of our policy in Vietnam on the run.”
The issue this raises far transcends the statement which occasioned it. The implication of the Roche-Buckley line is that Vietnam “doves” must be dovish everywhere or, conversely, Israeli “hawks” must be hawkish everywhere. Indeed, one does not have to do very much thinking any more. One merely has to take a position on Vietnam, dovish or hawkish, and every problem in every country in every region of the world automatically falls into place. On principle, one must be all hawk or all dove in U.S. foreign policy, and there is only one touchstone to determine which one it is—Vietnam. This principle is obviously inherent in the Roche-Buckley tie-up of Vietnam and Israel, and the only thing that could conceivably make it possible for a position on one to determine a position on the other.
I cannot imagine a more dangerous and pernicious doctrine. This is not evidence of contradiction on the part of critics of the Vietnam war; it is rather evidence of obsession on the part of its proponents. The cost of the Vietnam war has been high enough, but if it is to become the one, determining factor in U.S. foreign policy halfway across the globe, in totally different circumstances, the result must be war everywhere or paralysis everywhere. There is no inherent reason why one cannot criticize the abuse of power in Vietnam and the abdication of power elsewhere. Indeed, the real problem is on the other foot: our overinvestment and overindulgence of power in Vietnam has made it in short supply for use elsewhere. As the Vietnam war drags on, a “second Vietnam” has become the nightmare of U.S. policy makers and military planners. There is, then, reason to be concerned that abuse of power in one place may well lead to abdication of power in another, more important place. Soviet policy may be taking this into account, even if we cannot yet face it.
In any case, even if the Roche-Buckley principle is accepted, the Vietnam “hawks” cannot have it both ways. After all, they happen to be in control of our government, and nothing could be more ironic than the fact that they had to be urged on by Vietnam doves to be hawkish in Israel. Some hawks were, no doubt, hawkish on both issues, but the outstanding phenomenon in Washington was the dovishness on Israel by the Vietnam hawks, especially in the hawk headquarters, the Pentagon. If consistency were all that mattered, one would imagine that it was more important for those in power than for those not in power to be consistent. Yet, curiously, the grim joke was “doves for war,” not “hawks for peace.”
Actually, U.S. intervention on the Vietnam model in the Arab-Israeli struggle was never a realistic alternative, if only because Israel would not have permitted itself to become another South Vietnam. The defense of South Vietnam has caused such havoc in South Vietnam that the example has frightened our potential allies at least as much as it has deterred any present enemies. The crisis in the Middle East should again have shown how limited the application of Vietnam tactics may be in the rest of the world; it reinforces one of the main criticisms of our Vietnam policy—that it has claimed to influence events elsewhere far more than it can ever do. Yet, President Eisenhower undeniably assumed an obligation to Israel when his administration persuaded Israel to withdraw from Sharm el-Sheikh in 1957 in return for an explicit U.S. assurance that Israel would “have no cause to regret” giving up this hard-won vantage point. Subsequently, according to Prime Minister Eshkol, U.S. officials told Israel it did not need U.S. arms because it could rely on the U.S. Sixth Fleet.92 Fortunately for both Israel and the United States, the Israelis never took these assurances too seriously and always counted on having to do their own fighting. Nevertheless, there was a problem of unmistakable U.S. commitments. I have been one of those who have criticized the Johnson administration for distorting and exaggerating our past commitments to South Vietnam. But this does not mean that we do not have any real commitments anywhere; here again the worst thing that can possibly happen to our foreign policy is to shape it, commitments and all, completely in the image of our Vietnam policy. The problem of living up to our commitments to Israel was primarily one for the Johnson administration, not for the critics of its Vietnam policy. It is a measure of the difficulty of that problem that neither the administration nor its critics created it and neither would have found an easy solution for it. But some of the men around the President would have been better advised to resist the cheap temptation to use the Israeli crisis to discredit their Vietnam critics; it would have been healthier for all concerned to stand together where possible and not let their other disagreements always come between them. Since Vietnam, our far-flung commitments have become an extremely difficult and embarrassing question; a review of those commitments has been long overdue; it will never be faced if all that matters, everywhere, is what one thinks about our policy in Vietnam.
The real problem of U.S.-Israeli relations is not what the United States could have done once the war started, but what the United States should have done before the war and what it should do afterward. U.S. military equipment made up a very minor part of Israeli arms in the recent war because the United States had pursued a policy of restricting arms sales to Israel. The Israelis did not have a single U.S. bomber or fighter; the delivery of U.S. Skyhawk fighter planes, to balance Lockheed F-104’s previously made available to Jordan, was not expected until next year. The Israeli air force was French, most of its tanks were British, and its small arms were produced at home. It was the influx of Soviet arms on the Arab side and the increasing difficulty with which Israel could match it in the West that encouraged Nasser and contributed to this war. If quantity of arms had been the decisive factor, the Israelis would have been in grave trouble.93 The problem has arisen again with the renewed influx of Soviet arms to Egypt and Syria. In view of the Arab propaganda about Jewish influence in the United States, one wonders whether any non-Jewish state in Israel’s position, faced with enemies armed by the Soviet Union and enjoying the full support of Soviet propaganda and diplomacy, would have found it so difficult to buy arms in this country. This is the real problem of the past and future, not “doves for war” by the United States on behalf of Israel.
One issue was, in my view, blown up by Israel and to a lesser extent by the United States and other countries far beyond what it merited. It concerned the removal of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from Sharm el-Sheikh and the Egypt-Israel border.
The main charges against Secretary General U Thant’s order on the night of May 18 for the withdrawal of UNEF in response to the official Egyptian request a few hours earlier were made by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban at the UN General Assembly on June 19. He complained that U Thant’s action had been “disastrously swift” and that the Secretary General should have made a greater effort to play for time. “What is the use of a fire brigade,” Eban asked dramatically, “which vanishes from the scene as soon as the first smoke and flames appear?”
This controversy will undoubtedly provide international legal authorities with seminar material for years to come. Ordinary mortals may enter this arena only at their own peril. The problem, nevertheless, cannot be entirely avoided because it raises the question of how the war came about and because the answer may help to determine the future usefulness of the UN.
Some things seem reasonably clear. UNEF was set up in November 1956 “to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities.” At that time, it was clearly understood that the force was only to be “of a temporary nature.” But how temporary? The answer to this seemed to depend on who was to decide when it had fulfilled its mission. Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary General, foresaw that there could be heated dispute on this point. He recognized that UNEF could come into Egypt only with Egypt’s consent. But what was necessary to get it out? He resisted the idea that the Egyptians alone could decide when to get rid of UNEF. In lengthy negotiations with the Egyptians, especially one seven-hour session with President Nasser on November 17, he arrived at a rather tricky formula, namely, that the force would leave whenever it had “completed its task.” In an aide-memoire of November 20, Egypt promised that it would be guided by “good faith” in relation to UNEF. But who was to decide when the “task” was completed? According to Hammarskjold, in a private memorandum which he wrote about eight-and-a-half months later, he understood “good faith” to mean—and he thought the Egyptians had tacitly agreed—that the Egyptians and the General Assembly would have to agree on the completion of the task.94
But this private memorandum of August 5, 1957 was never entered into the official records or even files of the United Nations. Egypt never agreed publicly and, on at least one occasion, disagreed publicly with Hammarskjold’s version, holding that it alone was entitled to decide the fate of UNEF on its territory. Interestingly, the Egyptian Foreign Minister also resorted to the “fire brigade” analogy by saying on November 27, 1956, that “no one here or elsewhere can reasonably or fairly say that a fire brigade, after putting out a fire, would be entitled or expected to claim the right of deciding not to leave the house.” At this time, it should be remembered, the “task” of the “fire brigade” was still defined as solely to “secure and supervise” the cessation of hostilities.
Subsequently, in February 1957, UNEF was given the additional functions of serving as a buffer and deterring infiltration at the Egypt-Israel armistice line and at Sharm el-Sheikh. It is questionable whether the “good faith” commitment of November 20, 1956, applied to the additional functions three months later. Moreover, Hammarskjold’s understanding, whatever it was, implied that there was a task of a “temporary nature” that could be completed in a relatively short time, certainly months rather than years. The buffer and deterrent functions, which were added later, could go on indefinitely and did, indeed, go on for over ten years, a length of time never envisioned in 1957. In his report of June 27, 1967, on the withdrawal of UNEF, Secretary General Thant made what was, for me, a most convincing formal case.
So much for the legalities. Here again, they really made very little difference. Whatever Thant might have done to stall in New York, Nasser was making the real decisions in Egypt. UNEF consisted of only 3,400 men from seven countries, of whom no more than 1,800 were available for policing a line of 295 miles along the Egypt-Israel border and the Gaza Strip. All of 32 men were stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh, the main neuralgic point. India and Yugoslavia, which contributed over half the total force, informed the Secretary General that they were withdrawing their men whatever he decided to do. At most, UNEF was a purely symbolic presence. It had no authority to “enforce” the peace—in other words to fight, except as a last resort in self-defense. It was totally dependent on Egyptian good will for its logistical support. Israel had from the first refused to permit it to be stationed on the Israeli side of the border and, therefore, it could not be moved from the Egyptian side.
By the night of May 18, U Thant did not have to “withdraw” the force; he could merely recognize that it had already been, for all practical purposes, withdrawn. The Egyptian troops had simply shunted the UNEF units aside. As the Secretary General later reported: “Early on 18 May the UNEF sentries proceeding to man the normal observation post at El Sabha in Sinai were prevented from entering the post and from remaining in the area by United Arab Republic soldiers. The sentries were then forced to withdraw. They did not resist by use of force since they had no mandate to do so.” Egyptian officers gave the Yugoslav detachment at Sharm el-Sheikh fifteen minutes to reply to a demand for an Egyptian takeover of the UNEF camp. As the Secretary General’s report put it, “the effectiveness of UNEF in the light of the movement of United Arab Republic troops up to the line and into Sharm el-Sheikh, had already vanished before the request for withdrawal was received.”
What, then, could stalling tactics at the UN by the Secretary General have achieved? They could possibly have put Egypt temporarily on the defensive in purely legalistic terms, assuming that the legalities were not on their side. They could not have prevented the Egyptian takeover of UNEF posts in the Sinai or at Sharm el-Sheikh. This takeover was accomplished by overwhelming superior forces on the spot, not by legalistic maneuvering in New York. Mr. Thant might have ordered resistance to the Egyptian diplomatic delegation at the UN but he could not order resistance to the Egyptian troops, tanks, and guns in the desert. The reports from the field on May 18 were such that the truly pressing, realistic problem was how to prevent bloody incidents between the virtually defenseless UNEF and the on-rushing Egyptian forces and even to forestall the unseemly disintegration of the UNEF units. It should also be remembered that Mr. Thant held out for two days after he received the first Egyptian notification on May 16, and that war did not break out immediately after the order for withdrawal on May 18. Eighteen days intervened between May 18 and June 5, and it would have mattered very little in that period with respect to the efforts to prevent the war whether UNEF had still occupied their observation posts or not. UNEF could not get out overnight anyway; the first units did not leave until May 29.
Foreign Minister Eban’s analogy between UNEF and a “fire brigade” may have been effective oratorically but it unwittingly betrayed what was wrong with his reasoning. In no sense was UNEF comparable to a fire brigade; or it was, at most, a “symbolic” one. The “smoke and flames” which this “fire brigade” was supposed to fight were made up of overwhelmingly superior Egyptian armed forces. UNEF had the alternative of “vanishing” or fighting fire with fire, of resisting physically. In practice, UNEF was so outnumbered and outclassed that it mattered little whether it stayed or left, except perhaps to establish a legal point. The melancholy fact is that the basis for UNEF’s operation throughout its existence was, as the Secretary General’s report of June 27 put it, “essentially fragile.” It was, in a sense, a “fire brigade” as long as there was no fire; it was a “fire brigade” merely to signal by its forced withdrawal that a fire was coming; but it was not a “fire brigade” which the international community had set up with the authority, the numbers, and the equipment to put out a real fire.
Whose fault was that? Surely not that of UNEF or the Secretary General or the “United Nations.” It is time to put a stop to the sanctimonious swindle the individual states which make up the United Nations have been perpetrating. The founders of the United Nations set it up in such a way that it has only the collective authority and force that its members, especially the great powers, and more particularly only two of them, the United States and the Soviet Union, permit it to have. The great-power veto in the Security Council prevents even a two-thirds majority in that body from getting anything through. The Security Council was immobilized by the Soviet Union between May 23 and June 5 despite the most urgent pleas by the Secretary General. But when his worst fears materialized, it was said that the United Nations or the Secretary General had “failed.” That there was failure—tragic, ominous, and perhaps unnecessary failure—there can be no doubt. That the responsibility for the failure must be fixed on the individual states, there can also be no doubt. The United Nations does not live a life of its own; it does only what they permit or empower it to do; if it fails, they have directed and doomed it to fail. The worst of it is that the United Nations has become an alibi, a stratagem, a scapegoat, for deflecting attention from where the real evil hides—in the sovereign states. These states are not equally culpable in all cases, but where there may be guilt, it should at least be looked for in the right place—among them.
Finally, the campaign against U Thant was as tactically unsound as it was legally and realistically unjustified. One well-known columnist even used the phrase, “U Thant’s war.” This and other grotesqueries only had the effect of letting off the real culprits too easily. It may be called “Nasser’s war” or perhaps “Nasser’s and Kosygin’s war,” but to call it “U Thant’s war” makes it appear as if U Thant had the power to prevent, let alone to start it. To some extent, the campaign against U Thant was based on a misapprehension of what UNEF could do in the circumstances of May 18, but some of those in high places who took part in the campaign should have known better. Instead of putting the blame squarely where it belonged, on the Egyptian leaders who ordered their troops to take over UNEF’s posts in the hot desert before U Thant even ordered the force’s official withdrawal, and on those powers, including the Soviet Union, India, Yugoslavia and others, which took Egypt’s side in the UN, the anti-Thant camarilla pursued a vendetta of long standing, some of it based on his repugnance for the Vietnam war. It would be absurd to go to the opposite extreme and suggest that the Secretary General or the UN covered themselves with glory. They were reduced to impotence, and the cause of world community has suffered immeasurably. But they were as much victims of the real ringleaders and wirepullers of this war as the miserable fellaheen in uniform whose bodies rotted in the burning sands.
The United Nations is subject to periodic, built-in seizures of paralysis because it is primarily a place where the member-states pursue their individual self-interest. In order for the peacemaking or peacekeeping function to work reasonably well, one of two conditions is necessary. either the self-interest of the great powers must happen to coincide or the issue must happen to bypass their self-interest. The first condition has always been the sine qua non of United Nations usefulness, but the second has become increasingly rare of fulfillment. The more obvious reason for the latter state of affairs is the growing competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for the support—or to deny the other the support—of the “underdeveloped” part of the world and particularly of the nations founded since the last war. The new nationalism of the new nations is sometimes about all that holds them together, and the only virtue they have to sell. As a result, no nationalism is as obsessive and singleminded as the latest one. The great powers which seek to use them must do so through playing on a species of primitive self-interest that is far more difficult to control than that of the old-style client-states or the new variety of satellite-states. The Soviet Union, for example, wooed Nasser’s Egypt more by serving Egypt’s nationalistic interests than by getting Egypt to serve its own. But Egypt is neither an old-fashioned client-state nor a new-fangled satellite. It is rather a new-style “give-me” nationalism; Gamal Abdel Nasser has been one of the world’s great practitioners of the new golden rule that it is better—for the great powers—to give than to receive. The United States has, of course, practiced handout diplomacy for the longest time and on the most lavish scale. It is, however, one of the less publicized aspects of the “affluent society” which the Soviet Union has of late attempted to crash.
But there is another, related reason why the great powers have exacerbated the nationalistic ambitions of the newer and smaller states. For a number of years, students of war have concerned themselves with the problem of small or big, local or general, guerrilla or conventional, nuclear or non-nuclear conflicts. This preoccupation was partially dictated by the obviously catastrophic character of the big, general, conventional, nuclear war. In order to avoid destroying themselves as well as their enemies, the great powers began to take an inordinate interest in small, local, irregular and non-nuclear conflicts. In theory, the latter seemed infinitely preferable because they could be “controlled,” and a great deal of thought and ingenuity have been expended on the techniques and mechanisms for controlling them. But, increasingly, even this type of war has become too dangerous because of the reluctance of a great power to take a limited setback if it can give itself a second chance by escalating the struggle. This has typically happened to the United States in Vietnam. A new type of war, therefore, has been creeping up on us that is relatively small, local, non-nuclear but hopefully more controllable. It may be called the “war by proxy.”
Wars by proxy are not new, and no one power has had a monopoly of them. The United States tried to wage a war by proxy in Cuba in April 1961 with a pitifully small Cuban exile force. Before 1966, when the United States began to take over the main fighting from the South Vietnamese, the Vietnam war was largely a war by proxy, especially in the U.S. view which then conceived of the real antagonists as being the United States and Communist China. But the third Arab-Israeli war was preeminently the Soviet Union’s version of a war by proxy. The great Soviet Union was above regarding Israel as worthy of its unfriendly attention. To justify the expenditure of three billion dollars or more of economic and military assistance to the Arab states, a more deserving foe was needed. For this reason, Soviet propaganda and diplomacy were so insistent that Israel was merely an instrument of the “imperialist powers” or that they were behind Israel, so that by striking at Israel, the Arab states backed by the Soviet Union were really striking at “world imperialism.” In his speech to the General Assembly on June 19, Premier Kosygin went out of his way to emphasize that “the events that took place recently in the Middle East in connection with the armed conflict between Israel and the Arab states should be considered precisely in the context of the general international situation.” Later he helpfully provided the context by charging that the United States and Great Britain were “promoting” Israeli “aggression”—one of the more polite formulas of Soviet displeasure. The Arabs, as we have seen, had also taken the line that they were really fighting the “imperialist” West, though it is hard to know whether they really believed it or thought they were pleasing their Soviet benefactors.
In any event, this war by proxy showed how difficult and treacherous the new genre is. The nationalistic interests of both Israel and Egypt made it impossible for any of the great powers to “control” them. The Egyptians did not ask the Soviet Union for permission to reoccupy Sharm el-Sheikh and close the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel, and the Israelis did not ask the United States for permission to fight in order to reopen it. The war by proxy may be the safest species of small, local conflicts, but it is hardly safe. By not implicating the armed forces of a great power directly, it does enable that power to extricate itself more gracefully than would otherwise be possible. President Kennedy wisely insisted on having this escape-hatch in Cuba in 1961, and the Soviets could have it now in the Middle East. But the war by proxy still remains the most dangerous game of armed conflict the great powers are playing today. It requires far more attention than it has received. If the Soviet Union does not learn from our mistakes and seeks in the future to escalate its gamble in the Middle East to win for itself a second chance, the next round will be far more dangerous and costly to players and spectators alike.
1 United Nations, General Assembly, November 26, 1947, pp. 1360-61.
2 Walter Eytan, The First Ten Years (Simon & Schuster, 1958), pp. 10-12, 138-39.
3 Moshe Pearlman, Ben Gurion Looks Back (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965), pp. 140-41.
4 United Nations, Security Council, March 30, 1948, pp. 248-50.
5 Trygve Lie, In the Cause of Peace (Macmillan, 1954), p. 174. Lie confirms that the Soviet Union was “more steadfast” than the United States in support of partition (p. 164). Of private consultations in March 1948, in which the U.S., USSR, France, and China, took part, Lie writes: “Only the Soviet Union seems to be seriously intent upon implementing partition; the United States clearly was not” (p. 169).
6 One of the oddities in the present heated discussion over whether Israel has the “right” to keep the West Bank of the Jordan, including the Jordanian section of Jerusalem, is the tacit assumption that Jordan has a better “right” to this territory. The West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem were occupied by the troops of Transjordan, as the country was then known, during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. King Abdullah of Transjordan refused to give up this territory despite the opposition of the other Arab states which wanted to form an Arab “Government of All-Palestine,” with its headquarters at Gaza, then occupied by Egypt. But Abdullah had the best “Arab” army at that time, British-trained and commanded, and refused to give up the spoils of war. As a result, Transjordan increased its territory by 2,165 square miles and trebled its population because the East Bank, to which it had been formerly restricted, was over four-fifths desert. The new name, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, was adopted on April 26, 1949 (Raphael Patai, The Kingdom of Jordan [Princeton University Press, 1958], pp. 8-10, 48). Abdullah, grandfather of the present King Hussein, was the only Arab ruler who wanted to make peace with Israel, for which he was assassinated by fanatical Arab “nationalists” in 1951. The West Bank of the Jordan became Jordanian in 1948 solely by virtue of military occupation; it is hard to see why it could not be taken away from Jordan for the same reason.
7 Article I of this Convention, which governs the conduct of the Canal, provides that it “shall always be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag” (my italics, T. D.). Article XI directs that even measures taken for “the defense of Egypt” should not “interfere with the free use of the Canal.” Thus this is not an issue which depends on whether Egypt still considers itself at war with Israel.
8 Lt. Gen. E. L. M. Burns, the Canadian head of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization, by no means uncritical of Israeli policy, wrote: “I felt that what Egyptians were doing in sending these men, whom they dignified with the name of fedayeen or commandos, into another country with the mission to attack men, women, and children indiscriminately, was a war crime It was essentially of the same character, though less in degree, as the offenses for which the Nazi leaders had been tried in Nürnberg, to cite the most recent examples” (Between Arab and Israeli, Ivan Obolensky, 1963, p. 88).
9 An authoritative source says that in 1955-56 Egypt received about 150 MIG-15 and MIG-17 jet fighters, 40 IL-28 tactical jet bombers, several hundred tanks, and several submarines and destroyers. Major-General Moshe Dayan estimates that the Soviet arms deal gave Egypt an approximately four-to-one advantage in tanks and planes (Diary of the Sinai Campaign [Schocken ed., 1967], p. 4).
10 Dayan, op. cit., p. 68.
11 Pearlman, op. cit., p. 147.
12 Dayan, op. cit., p. 3.
13 Ibid., p. 192.
14 Department of State Bulletin, March 11, 1957, p. 393.
15 Sobolev (USSR), United Nations, General Assembly, March 4, 1957, p. 1298
16 Kuznetsov (USSR), United Nations, General Assembly, February 2, 1957, pp. 1077-78, and Sobolev, March 4, 1957, p. 1297.
17 Fawzi (Egypt), United Nations, General Assembly, March 8, 1957, pp. 1325-26.
18 Public Papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957 (Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office), p. 166.
19 The eleven were Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
20 On November 26, 1940, the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count Friedrich Werner Von der Schulenberg, wired Berlin on Soviet conditions for a Soviet-German treaty: “In accordance with the foregoing, the draft of the protocol concerning the delimitation of the spheres of influence as outlined by the Reich Foreign Minister [Ribben-trop] would have to be amended so as to stipulate the focal point of the aspirations of the Soviet Union south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf.” A year earlier, on November 23, 1939, Hitler told his Chiefs of Staff that “Russia strives to strengthen her influence on the Balkan peninsula and aims towards the Persian Gulf. But those are also aims of our own foreign policy.” This Nazi-Soviet conflict of interest in the Middle East was one, but by no means the most important, of the divergences which brought about the Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941.
21 Pearlman, op. cit., p. 157
22 Mideast Mirror (Beirut, Lebanon), March 5, 1965, p. 5.
23 This view was openly expressed in the UN by the Syrian Ambassador, Dr. George J. Tomeh, on October 17, 1966, as a reason why Syria could not commit any aggression against Israel: “We as Syrians consider Palestine to be, and to have been, historically, geographically, and from every point of view, a part of Syria. It was only colonial rule and imperialist intrigues that divided Syria into so many States. When we speak of Palestine we feel we are speaking about part of our own country” (United Nations, Security Council, Provisional Verbatim Record, October 17, 1966, p. 61). This claim, of course, put Syria as much in conflict with Jordan as wih Israel.
24 The first citation is from the Near East Report (Washington, D. C.), May 31, 1966, p. 42; the second from Mideast Mirror, May 28, 1966, p. 2.
25 This version appeared in Mideast Mirror, October 15, 1966, p. 3. Eban cited a somewhat different and fuller version of Zuayin's remarks: “We are not guardians of Israel's safety. We are not resigned to holding back the revolution of the Palestine people. Under no circumstances shall we do so. We shall set the entire area afire, and any Israeli movement will result in a final grave for Israel.” Eban also cited a public statement on these incidents by the Syrian Chief of Staff, General Sweidani, on October 11: “These activities which are now being carried out are legal activities, and it is not our duty to stop them but to encourage and strengthen them. We are constantly ready to act inside Jordan and inside Israel in order to defend our people and its honor. We will mobilize volunteers and we will give them arms” (United Nations, Security Council, Provisional Verbatim Record, October 14, 1966, p. 13).
26 Ibid., p. 62.
27 This project demonstrates how “unpolitical” and “without strings” Soviet aid programs can be. The Soviets first promised to help Syria build this dam in 1957, but the Syrian-Egyptian merger the following year dulled the Soviets' enthusiasm and led to a withdrawal of the offer to finance the dam on the ground that it was not technically feasible. In 1959, West Germany took over the project, but it withdrew after the breakup of the Syrian-Egyptian merger in 1961. The West Germans signed another agreement in January 1963, but it was called off after the Ba'athists seized power two months later. The Left-Ba'athist coup of February 1966 brought back the Soviets who suddenly discovered that the project was technically feasible after all.
28 Mideast Mirror, November 26, 1966, p. 7.
29 Ibid., January 7, 1967, p. 7, and January 14, 1967, p. 2. I have used the original language as nearly as possible. The dates indicate when the alleged incidents took place.
30 Ibid., January 21, 1967, p. 2.
31 Ibid., February 11, 1967, p. 2; February 25, 1967, p. 6, and March 11, 1967, p. 4.
33 In an interview with the publication Al Hawadis (Beirut, Lebanon) of March 26, 1966, Nasser said: “We could annihilate Israel in twelve days were the Arabs to form a united front. Any attack on Israel from the south is not possible from a military point of view. Israel can be attacked only from the territory of Jordan and Syria. But conditions in Jordan and Syria have to be in order so that we in Egypt can be sure we will not be stabbed in the back as in 1948” (quoted in Near East Report, April 5,1966, p. 26).
34 Joe Alex Morris, Jr. (Beirut, Lebanon), Washington Post, January 8, 1967.
34 New York Times, April 8, 1967.
35 Mideast Mirror, April 15, 1967.
37 Ibid., April 22, 1967.
38 Ibid., April 15, 1967.
39 Ibid., April 29, 1967.
40 Ibid., May 6, 1967.
41 United Nations, Press conference, May 11, 1967 (Press Release, SG/SM/708, p. 13).
42 There are other indications that the Israeli government did not anticipate the seriousness of the crisis. At a luncheon of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on January 24, 1967, Foreign Minister Eban said that Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt “do not wish to become directly involved in hostility with us” (Weekly News Bulletin, Government Press Office, January 24-30, 1967, p. 6). In an annual review in the Israeli parliament on February 14, 1967, Eban said that “Arab feuding and internal complications preoccupy the Arab leaders at this moment more than does planning of the fight against Israel” (Ibid., February 14-20, 1967, p. 2). These statements may very well have been true at the time; if so, they would indicate that the May 1967 crisis developed at a pace which in a sense caught everyone by surprise. But they hardly suggest that Israel was putting into effect a long-prepared plan.
43 I have used official Israeli translations of the May 12 and 13 statements.
44 From monitored radio broadcasts. Nasser had made the same point in his previous speech of May 22.
45 This is from the Reuters translation in the New York Times, June 10, 1967. There is a slightly different version of the same passage in a monitored radio broadcast: “Add to this fact [of Syrian and Egyptian information] that our friends in the Soviet Union warned the parliamentary delegation which was on a visit to Moscow at the beginning of last month that there was a premeditated plan against Syria.”
45 Speech of May 22, 1967, text in New York Times, May 26, 1967.
47 Text in the New York Times, May 21, 1967, p. 2.
48 This account is based on the Report of the Secretary General on the Withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force, June 27, 1967.
49 From monitored radio broadcasts.
51 Text in the New York Times, May 26, 1967.
52 Report of the Secretary-General of May 26, 1967.
53 Text in the New York Times, May 24, 1967 (read into the record of the Security Council, May 24, 1967, pp. 26-30). Yet the Soviet statement may have gone too far and may give the Soviets future trouble even if the apparent commitment was general. It said: “But let no one have any doubts about the fact that should anyone try to unleash aggression in the Near East, he would be met not only with the united strength of Arab countries, but also with strong opposition to aggression from the Soviet Union and all peaceloving states.” And it concluded: “With due account taken of the situation, the Soviet Union is doing and will continue to do everything in its power to prevent a violation of peace and security in the Near East and safeguard the legitimate rights of the peoples.” But none of this was spelled out concretely.
54 Text in the New York Times, May 24, 1967.
55 From a monitored radio broadcast.
58 Ahmad Samih Khalidi, “An Appraisal of the Arab-Israel Military Balance,” Middle East Forum (Beirut), Vol. 42, No. 3, 1966, pp. 55-65.
59 From monitored radio broadcasts.
64 This version appeared in the New York Times, May 30, 1967. The version in the monitored radio broadcasts is: “When I met with Shamseddin Badran yesterday he handed me a message from Soviet Premier Kosygin saying that the USSR supports us in this battle and will not allow any power to intervene until matters were restored to what they were in 1956.”
64 Subsequently, on June 12, Prime Minister Eshkol called attention to a “secret operation order” issued on May 27 by the Egyptian air force commander to his air force “to be prepared for a sudden attack on Israel.” This operational order, signed by Major General Jalal Ibrahim Ziz, Chief of Staff, Eastern Air Command, was captured by an Israeli unit at El-Arish in the Sinai during the fighting. It gave specific instructions to five air brigades on their targets in Israel but left the time open “in conformity with conditions as they develop.” This and other captured Egyptian plans show that the Egyptians were poised to go, and the massive bombing of Israel airfields and radar centers might have come at any moment.
65 “Pourquoi Moscou a lâché Nasser,” Le nouvel Observateur (Paris), June 14-20, 1967, p. 16. This article purports to be a version of the events given by “a high Soviet official” to an anonymous correspondent in Moscow. Unlike most such planted stories, however, it tends for the most part to be consistent with what we know from other sources and rings true. On this point, this article states that President Johnson and Premier Kosygin coordinated these efforts to restrain Nasser as a result of messages exchanged between them.
66 Text of Nasser's statement in New York Times, June 10, 1967 (from Reuters).
67 The sequence of events, as given by the “high Soviet Official” to Le nouvel Observateur, op. cit., is as follows: Soviet intelligence evaluated as very serious reports of an Israeli plan to stage a deep raid in Syria on May 15 and eventually to push as far as Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government. Nasser massed his troops on the Sinai border, to discourage Israel from launching such an attack on Syria, with full Soviet approval. But Nasser informed the Soviets of the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba only after he had decided on it, and they warned him that he was taking the risk of unleashing “unpredictable reactions.” When U Thant quickly agreed to withdraw the UN forces, however, Nasser's confidence in being able to handle the situation seemed justified. “From that date,” the account goes on, “we warned Nasser, however, that we would commit ourselves only to neutralizing the United States, that is, we would respond by an escalation equal to any escalation on the part of Washington—and that our support would not go beyond this.”
68 This is the monitored radio broadcast version. The last sentence appeared in the New York Times of April 30, 1967, as follows: “Now that we have the situation as it was before 1956, Allah will certainly help us to restore the status quo of before 1948.”
69 United Nations, Security Council, Document S/7896, p. 5.
70 Ibid., Provisional Verbatim Record, May 24, 1967 (S/PV. 1342), p. 11.
71 Ibid., pp. 21 and 51.
72 Ibid., May 29, 1967 (S/PV. 1343), pp. 36-37.
73 Ibid., pp. 87-102 and 121-122.
74 Ibid., May 31, 1967 (S/PV. 1345), pp. 56-60 and 71-75. Federenko seems to have confused the refusal of the United States to trade with Cuba with a “naval blockade” of Cuba. Even Western powers, such as Britain and France, trade freely with Cuba. The only semblance of a U.S. blockade was imposed during the “missile crisis” of October 1962 for about a week and that was limited to offensive military equipment involving a nuclear threat.
75 Ibid., June 3, 1967 (S/PV. 1346), pp. 67-75 and 106-115.
76 John C. Campbell, Defense of the Middle East (Harper, 1960), p. 242.
77 In January 1967, King Hussein of Jordan said that his army had 55,000 men compared with 4,000 in 1948; his defense budget was $56 million; his army included 11 infantry brigades and 300 modern tanks, including 250 new Patton T-48's from the U.S.; his air force would soon have five fighter squadrons (New York Times, January 26, 1967). He did not say how much all this had cost the United States.
78 This phase was reported more fully in the British than in the U.S. press. In his press conference in Washington on June 2, Prime Minister Wilson refused to answer a question about what Britain in concert with other nations might do if Egypt refused to open the Gulf of Aqaba. But, in the House of Commons on May 31, Foreign Secretary George Brown had already indicated that stronger measures were being contemplated than the maritime powers' declaration: “But we must face the fact that action in the United Nations, or declarations made by nations outside the United Nations, may not be enough to secure the right of innocent passage to which we and all maritime nations attach such importance. It goes without saying that we certainly hope that they will. I trust that it also goes without saying that we will use every diplomatic effort to see that they do. But we would be failing our duty if we were not now consulting with others concerned about the situation that will arise if these initiatives were to fail” (The Times, London, June 1, 1967). The London Times's Washington correspondent, Louis Heren, reported on May 25: “The Americans are thinking in terms of a massive task force, while Britain believes that the job can be done with two or three destroyers.” On May 29, the London Times's Washington correspondent added: “Anglo-American contingency planning for the naval escort of ships through the Straits of Tiran is still going forward but clearly Mr. Johnson had decided against an early forcing of the passage.” British sources do not seem to bear out the contention in the New York Times of June 12: “Britain had agreed to join the United States in a statement denouncing the blockade but she is said to have balked at committing herself to a show of force if nothing else worked.”
79 New York Times, June 10, 1967.
80 Thomas T. Fenton, the Baltimore Sun, June 15, 1967; Bernard Gwertzman, Washington Star, June 15, 1967.
81 Nes's story appeared in an interview with Thomas T. Fenton in the Baltimore Sun of June 13, 1967. A State Department spokesman, Carl Bartch, did not deny any of Nes's assertions but protested that “any inference that the United States regarded the situation in the Middle East as anything other than very grave is erroneous” (Ibid., June 14, 1967). The “explanation” for Mr. Nolte's unguarded remarks at the airport seems to be that he thought he was speaking off-the-record, which hardly explains the substance of what he said.
82 United Nations, Security Council, Provisional Verbatim Record, May 29, 1967 (S/PV. 1343), p. 16.
83 Ibid., p. 31.
84 What officials in the White House and the State Department were saying to editors and correspondents privately may be gathered from the experiences of one knowledgeable editor, Myron Kolatch, the New Leader, June 5, 1967, pp. 3-5.
85 The Times (London), June 5,1967.
86 Ibid., May 26, 1967.
87 The story, as I was told it, is a classic of diplomatic nightmares. Leading officials were called to the State Department in the middle of the night on June 5. A message soon came in to the effect that five Egyptian airfields had been knocked out. This led to speculation on the part of junior officials that Egypt might not live up to Nasser's boasts. A senior official, at about 3 A.M., jokingly admonished them to remember that “we are neutral in thought, word, and deed.” The same official later briefed Mr. McCloskey for the State Department's press conference that afternoon without using these words, and they did not appear in Mr. McCloskey's opening statement. But in response to a question about the possibility of U.S. intervention, Mr. McCloskey remembered the words he had heard at about 3 A.M. and used them in his reply. Still, it would appear that the White House and State Department found it so hard to recover from this incredible goof because they were confronted with a most awkward question: If the United States was not “neutral,” what was it?
88 From monitored radio broadcasts.
89 This version appeared in The Times (London), June 5, 1967. The monitored radio broadcasts give the passage as follows: “We are confronting Israel, and the West as well—the West which created Israel and which despised us, the Arabs, and which ignored us before and after 1948.”
90 This point was made by the “high Soviet official” in Le nouvel Observateur, op. cit.: “He [Nasser] has partially been the victim of his own propaganda to the effect that the government of Tel Aviv is only a simple pawn of Washington, and that he could not see that this pawn could give proof of a certain amount of autonomy.” But the high Soviet official neglected to mention that the government of Moscow was guilty of exactly the same kind of simple-minded propaganda which might have helped Nasser to deceive himself.
91 This statement was signed by 54 persons, including myself. Such statements are basically expressions of sympathy, especially when they are as general as this one.
92 This point was discussed by Eshkol a month before the outbreak of the war. Asked what help he would expect from the United States and possibly Britain and France, he replied: “Surely, we expect such help—but we would rely primarily on our own army. I wouldn't want American mothers crying about the blood of their sons being shed here. But I would surely expect such help, especially if I take into consideration all the solemn promises that have been made to Israel. We get these promises when we ask the United States for arms and are told: ‘Don't spend your money. We are here. The Sixth Fleet is here.’ My reply to this advice is that the Sixth Fleet might not be available fast enough for one reason or another, so Israel must be strong on its own. This is why we spend so much money on arms proportionately to our population” (U.S. News & World Report, April 17, 1967, p. 76). Curiously, the same magazine later distorted a reference to its own interview. In its issue of June 19, 1967, it stated: “Israeli Premier Levi Eshkol said in an interview April 11, 1967, that the U.S. Sixth Fleet would support Israel. Arab newspapers around the world headlined his statement. Despite denials of U.S. officials, Arab leaders assumed this was a firm commitment.” As may be seen from the wording of the interview itself, Eshkol said that U.S. officials had implied the Sixth Fleet would support Israel, and he had been most dubious.
93 An Israeli story, related by Terence Prittie of the Guardian (England), may cast some light on the recent Israeli victory. It seems that the Polish emigré leader, General Sikorsky, met a rabbi during the dark days of World War II and asked him how it might be won. “By one of two ways,” the rabbi answered, “by a miracle or by a natural way.” The general asked: “What would be the natural way?” Answered the rabbi: “To win it by a miracle.” The general: “And what, then, would be the miracle?” The rabbi: “To win it in a natural way” (Israel: Miracle in the Desert, Praeger, 1967, p. 10).
94 The text of Hammarskjold's private memorandum of August 5, 1957, was published in the New York Times of June 19, 1967. That Hammarskjold knew he was skating on thin legal ice is shown by his self-revelation that “I was guided by the consideration that Egypt constitutionally had an undisputed right to request the withdrawal of the troops, even if initial consent had been given, but that, on the other hand, it should be possible on the basis of my own stand as finally tacitly accepted, to force them into an agreement in which they limited their freedom of action as to withdrawal dependent upon the completion of the task—a question which, in the UN, obviously would have to be submitted to interpretation by the General Assembly.” That Hammarskjold could really “force” anything on the Egyptians with a “tacit” agreement is more than doubtful. At most, his private memorandum suggests a “gentlemen's agreement”—but one of the gentlemen died prematurely and of the other it might be said that when men decide to go to war, they cease being gentlemen.