|Sami Moubayed | Political analyst||Syria|
To understand the war of 1967 one must understand the personality of its “champion,” President Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt. Contrary to the image that stuck in people‚??s mind after 1956 and 1967, the man was not anti-Isareli all the way. Right after coming to power in 1952, he authorized secret talks between an Israeli diplomat and his press attache in Paris, Abdul-Rahman Sadeq. Nasser was willing to recognize the Israelis in exchange for their support to end the British presence in Egypt. He would grant them passage rights through the Suez Canal, he said, and use his considerable influence in the Arab World to elicit acceptance of the Jewish State, if they helped Egypt. The talks led to a temporary honeymoon‚??from afar and with no direct contact‚??between him and Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. Attacks by Palestinian fedayeen from Egyptian-controlled Gaza ceased during the early 1950s and so did the media campaign against Israel in the Egyptian press, both under Nasser‚??s orders. He could not stop attacks from Jordan, however, and at one point, Palestinians attacked Israel from there, to which the Israelis responded with the famed Qibya attack. This was followed by a raid in Gaza, led by Ariel Sharon, after Egypt executed Jewish spies on its territory, which brought down the talks altogether. The US got interested in Nasser, however, and regarded him as a sensible man who could be negotiated with. They devised the so-called Alpha Plan (the brainchild of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles), promising over $20 million USD in aid to Egypt, in exchange for peace with Israel. They believed that Nasser was more interested in developing Egypt than liberating Palestine. That plan also never materialized, and Nasser turned to the Soviet bloc instead, requesting arms after the Gaza raid proved how vulnerable his army was to the might of the Israelis. “Find weapons” he told his team “even from the devil himself.”
The remainder of the story is well-known. The US withdrew financing of the Aswan High Dam. Nasser bought arms from the Eastern Bloc, nationalized the Suez Canal in response, and as a result, Great Britain, France, and Israel declared war against him in October 1956. He gambled, and power politics of the Cold War prevented his political defeat, although his army was crushed militarily in the Suez War. He flirted with the Americans again in the early 1960s, but when realizing how strong US President Lyndon Johnson‚??s relationship was with Israel (after he promised to give enough arms to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to outnumber every individual Arab army by 3:1), Nasser turned completely to the Soviets. He welcomed Nikita Khrushchev to Cairo in 1964 (the first such senior visit by a senior Soviet leader) and gave up all hope regarding a rapprochement with the United States. Instead he began to invest in the Arab World and Moscow. In 1966, he signed a military alliance with Syria, initiated for both sides if either were to go to war. According to Foreign Minister Mahmud Riyad, Egypt had been forced into the mutual defense pact by the USSR. The pact had two objectives: (1) to reduce the chances of an attack on Syria by Israel and (2) to bring the Syrians under Nasser‚??s ‚??moderate‚?? influence, when compared to the radical leaders of Damascus. On April 7, 1967 a minor border incident escalated into a full-scale aerial battle over the Golan Heights, resulting in the loss of six Syrian MiG-21s to the Israeli air force and repeated air flights over Damascus. In a radio address Yitzhak Rabin threatened to march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government. In early May the Israeli cabinet authorized a limited strike against Syria and Rabin’s renewed demand for a large-scale strike to discredit or topple the Ba’ath regime was opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Border incidents multiplied, and numerous Arab leaders, both political and military, called for an end to Israeli attacks. Egypt accompanied these declarations with plans to re-militarize the Sinai. Syria shared these views, although it did not prepare for an immediate invasion. The USSR actively backed the military needs of the Arab World. It was later revealed that on May 13 that a Soviet intelligence report given Nasser‚??s Vice-President Anwar al-Sadat claimed that Israeli troops were massing along the Syrian border.
On the following day, Nasser demanded that UNEF, which had been stationed after the Suez War, be evacuate from Sinai, removing the international forces which had existed along the Egyptian-Israeli border since 1957. Nasser then began the re-militarization of the Sinai, and concentrated tanks and troops on the border with Israel. On May 23, 1967 Egypt closured the Straits of Tiran to all shipments bound for Israel, thus blockading the Israeli port of Eilat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. Also, Nasser stated, “Under no circumstances can we permit the Israeli flag to pass through the Gulf of Aqaba.” Israel considered the closure of the straits to be illegal. In the UN General Assembly immediately after the war, many nations argued that even if international law gave Israel the right of passage, Israel was not entitled to attack Egypt to assert it because the closure was not an “armed attack” as defined by article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, international law professor John Quigley argues that Israel would only be entitled to use such force as would be necessary to secure its right of passage.
The few regional forces that might have prevented war quickly crumbled, and President Johnson’s proposal of an international maritime force to end the crisis was not well received. Nasser’s pan-Arabism had numerous supporters in Jordan (in spite of King Hussein, who felt it threatened his authority); and so, on May 30 Jordan signed a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, thereby joining the military alliance already in place between Egypt and Syria. On the other hand, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban later wrote in his autobiography that when he was told by U Thant of Nasser’s promise not to attack Israel he found this reassurance convincing as “…Nasser did not want war; he wanted victory without war”. Writing from Egypt on 4 June, 1967 New York Times journalist James Reston observed: “Cairo does not want war and it is certainly not ready for war.‚?Ě
Several days later Jordanian forces were given to the command of an Egyptian general Abdul Munim Riad. Israel called on Jordan‚??s King Hussein and asked him not to go to war. Hussein, however, was caught in a dilemma: allow Jordan to be dragged into war and face Israeli response, or remain neutral and risk full-scale revolution among his own people. Army Commander-in-Chief General Sharif Zaid Ben Shaker warned in a press conference at the end of May “If Jordan does not join the war a civil war will erupt in Jordan”.
In a speech before Israeli National Defense College, Menachem Begin stated that Israel was the one who made the decision to attack: “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” However, he reminded his audience of the wars where Arabs were the ones who made the final decision to attack. Each of them took a terrible toll in human lives in Israel, up to 1% of the total population in the War of Independence. In this instance, he felt pre-emption was justified, and therefore quickly added: “This was a war of self-defense in the noblest sense of the term.” The same discussion was occurring in reverse in Egypt. Nasser gained effective military control over the forces of Jordan on May 30th with an alliance, and already had an alliance in hand with Syria. At the same time, Nasser believed that the Israeli’s striking first would be disastrous for Israel’s standing in world opinion. Some of his commanders believed that Egypt was in no position to fight. A third of its troops were fighting a civil war in Yemen, while Egyptian military communication and supply lines were in bad shape.
The Israeli cabinet met on May 23 and decided to launch a pre-emptive strike if the Straits were not re-opened by 25 May. Following an approach from US undersecretary of state Eugene Rostow to allow time for a nonviolent solution Israel agreed to a delay of ten days to two weeks. On May 26, 1967 Foreign Minister of Israel Abba Eban landed in Washington with the goal of ascertaining from the American administration its position in the event of the outbreak of war. As soon as Eban arrived, he was given a cable from the Israeli government, and in it the false information that Israel had learned of an Egyptian and Syrian plan to launch a war of annihilation against Israel within the next 48 hours. Eban met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and finally with President Johnson. The Americans said their intelligence sources could not confirm what was written in the Israeli cable. Eban was not convinced that Nasser was either determined or even able to attack. He said that Israel was inflating the Egyptian threat and exaggerating their weakness in order to extract the support of the USA. Johnson sat around with his advisers and said, ‚??What if their intelligence sources are better than ours?‚?? Johnson talked to his counterpart in the Kremlin, Alexey Kosygin and said, ‚??We’ve heard from the Israelis, but we can’t confirm it, that your proxies in the Middle East, the Egyptians, plan to launch an attack against Israel in the next 48 hours. If you don’t want to start a global crisis, prevent them from doing that.‚?? At 2:30 AM on May 27 Soviet Ambassador to Egypt Dimitri Pojidaev knocked on Nasser’s door and read him a personal letter from Kosygin in which he said, ‚??We don’t want Egypt to be blamed for starting a war in the Middle East. If you launch that attack, we cannot support you.‚??
On May 30 Nasser agreed to send his vice-president, Zakkariya Muhieddin to Washington on June 7 to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was bitterly disappointed by Israel’s strike on June 5 as he had been certain he would have been able to find a diplomatic solution if the meeting had gone ahead. Within Israel’s political leadership, it was decided that if the US would not act, and if the UN could not act, then Israel would have to act. On June 1, Moshe Dayan was made defense minister. The confidence of Israel’s leaders was strong. In May 1967 the Egyptian army had a strength of around 150,000, but 70,000 troops were fighting in the civil war in Yemen. Jordan’s army had a total strength of 55,000, and Syria had 75,000 troops. The IDF had a total strength, including reserve, of 264,000. James Reston, writing in the New York Times on 23 May 1967 said: ‚??In discipline, training, morale, equipment and general competence his [Nasser’s] army and the other Arab forces, without the direct assistance of the Soviet Union, are no match for the Israelis… Even with 50,000 troops and the best of his generals and air force in Yemen, he has not been able to work his way in that small and primitive country.‚?Ě
Israel‚??s first and most important move was attack on the Egyptian Air Force. It was the largest and most modern of the Arab Air Forces with 450 combat airplanes built by the USSR. On June 5, 1967 at 7:45 am Israeli planes took off and headed towards Egypt. Egyptian defenses were very weak, and the airfields were not equipped with machines able to defend Egypt when war broke out. The Israeli attack was more successful for Israel than anybody had imagined. More than 300 airplanes from the Egyptian Army were destroyed on the ground, and 350 combat planes. Israel lost 19 planes only. The Israelis employed a mixed attack strategy; bombing and strafing runs against the planes themselves, and tarmac-shredding penetration bombs dropped on the runways that rendered them unusable, leaving any undamaged planes unable to take off and therefore helpless targets for later Israeli waves. The attack was more successful than expected, catching the Egyptians by surprise, the attack destroying virtually all of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground with few Israeli casualties. As a result of the great defeat for the Arabs, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. To explain the defeat to the Arab masses, Abd al-Nasser said that Israel was not fighting on its own, but with the help of the United States and Great Britain. In a famous speech, he said: ‚??What is now established is that American and British aircraft carriers were off the shores of the enemy helping in its war effort. Also, British aircraft raided, in broad daylight, positions of the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, in addition to operations by a number of American aircraft on some of our positions. Indeed, it can be said without exaggeration that the enemy was operating with an air force three times stronger than its normal force.‚?Ě This statements were repeated by the Egyptian journalist Mohammad Hasanayn Haykal in the mass circulation daily al-Ahram and on Nasser‚??s radio station The Voice of the Arabs (Sawt al-Arab). Both London and Washington strongly denounced these accusations saying that they were false. The truth is that with or without the Americans and British, Israel was able to defeat three Arab countries, resulting in the death of 7,000 Jordanians, 2,500 Syrians, 10,000 Egyptians (1,500 officers), and another 20,000 wounded. Overall, Israel‚??s territory grew by 3% and over one million Arabs came under the rule of Tel Aviv. There were one million people in the West Bank (300,000 of them went to Jordan). Israel‚??s depth grew by 300 kilometers in the south, 60 kilometers in east, and 20 kilometers in the north. All of this territory was used by Israel in fightin the war of 1973. President Nasser accepted blame for the defeat on June 9, 1967 but millions of Egyptians came out to the streets, asking him to stay in power and lead them to victory. Even King Hussein of Jordan, who hated Nasser, said: ‚??Only Abd al-Nasser got us into this and only Abd al-Nasser cane get us out.‚?Ě Nasser stayed in power, but was from here on a very weak man. He launched a War of Attrition against Israel but this did not last long because he died on September 28, 1970 and was replaced by his Vice-President Anwar al-Sadat.
On June 19 1967, the National Unity Government [of Israel] voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a peace agreements. The Golan would have to be demilitarized and special arrangement would be negotiated for the Straits of Tiran. The government also resolved to open negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan regarding the Eastern border. The Israeli decision was to be conveyed to the Arab nations by the United States. Soon, however, Israel decided that it was too strong to negotiate with the Arabs and postponed the matter of peace with the Arabs. Later, the Khartoum Arab Summit resolved that there would be “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.” The June 19 cabinet decision did not include the Gaza Strip and left open the possibility of Israel permanently acquiring parts of the West Bank. On June 25-27, Israel incorporated East Jerusalem together with areas of the West Bank to the north and south into Jerusalem’s new municipal boundaries. The 1967 War also laid the foundation for future problems in the region – as on 22 November, 1967 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242 the “land for peace” formula, which called for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied” in 1967 in return for “the termination of all claims or states of belligerency.”
Was there anything positive about 1967? Perhaps there was. Perhaps we needed it to realize how weak, un-organized, and vulnerable we really were. Perhaps Nasser needed it understand his weaknesses‚??and limits‚??and mend his ways. By the time he learned from his mistakes, becoming a real statesman after the war, rather than a gambling and ambitious office, it was too late, both for him and the Arabs. The war ended in 1967 and he died in 1970. Perhaps the war was needed to bring us back to reality and make us realize how weak‚??and unimpressive‚??we actually were as Arabs. The only positive thing about it was that the war was a rude awakening for the Palestinians. After the war it was clear that the Arabs would not liberate Palestine, as they had so often promised since 1948. Nor would Gamal Abdul-Nasser. Nor would their local leaders, like the Beirut-based Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini (who had launched a revolt back in 1936), or veteran statesman Ahmad al-Shuqayri. Palestine after 1967 became for the Palestinians only. The Arabs could not even liberate‚??or keep‚??their own lands from 1967 onwards. It was true that Palestne had been ‚??forgotten‚?? by the Arabs in the 1950s and its leadership was almost non-existent. Then came 1967 and it produced leaders like Yasser Arafat, Ahmad Jibril, George Habash, and Wadih Haddad, the first generation of the Palestinian resistance fighters. They forced the world to recognize them‚??and their cause‚??and proved to the entire universe that contrary to what Golda Meir said after the war of 1967, that the Palestinians ‚??do not exist‚?Ě they actually did. They were there. They were in pain. And they were seeking revenge. That and only that is the positive outcome of 1967.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. His articles frequently appear in The Washington Post, Asia Times, Gulf News, Al-Ahram and other newspapers.