What Are the Origins of the Middle East Crisis? (Continued)Archives
The following year, 1954, undistinguished elsewhere in the world, was a Middle Eastern watershed. That year, the Soviet Union, having supported Israel since its creation, having recognized and armed it, switched its allegiance to the other side. The USSR indeed had nothing more to gain from Zionism--the British empire was dying--and everything to gain in terms of placating the new, post-colonial governments, securing its vulnerable southern border, and threatening the West's oil supplies."Deserving of condemnation [is] . . . the State of Israel which from the first days of its existence began to threaten its neighbors," declared Communist party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, and further accused Israel of plotting with the imperialism to" crudely ravage the natural treasures of the region." Short of destroying Israel, the USSR endorsed all and every means of realizing"Arab rights in Palestine."
The cold war had come to the Middle East, and 1954 was also the year that the U.S. and Britain aspired to defend the region through an alliance of Northern Tier states (Iran, Turkey, Pakistan) and their Arab neighbors. Viewing the Arab-Israeli conflict as an obstacle to the bloc, Anglo-American planners sought to remove it with a secret peace initiative. Code-named Alpha, the plan was to coerce Israel into conceding large chunks of territory in return for an Arab pledge of nonbelligerency. The assumed key to the plan's success was Nasser, who was close to the Americans-the CIA had quietly assisted his coup-and who stood to gain substantially from his cooperation. Payment would include boatloads of American arms as well as Egypt's long-coveted land bridge across the Negev.
The physical link between Egypt and the East was looming even more prominently in Nasser's thinking. The officer who had risen to power on the promise of reforms at home now discovered the world beyond. He declared Egypt an Arab country, a country nonaligned in the Cold War, and began speaking of concentric spheres of interest-the Arab and Islamic worlds, Africa-at the core of which lay Egypt and at the center of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
His challenges set, Nasser lost no time in meeting them. He concluded an agreement for ending Britain's seventy-two-year occupation of the Canal Zone, then turned around and thwarted Britain's attempt to append Iraq to the Northern Tier-the so-called Baghdad Pact. Subtly at first, he adopted socialist ideas, blending them with both Arab and Egyptian nationalism. Islamic extremists consequently branded him a heretic and tried to take his life, but Nasser remained undeterred. Escaping from one assassination attempt, he reportedly exclaimed,"They can kill Nasser but another will take his place! The revolution will live on!"
The drama around him mounted, and yet Nasser had all but ignored the most poignant of Arab issues: Palestine. While maintaining the blockade and a moderate level of guerrilla activity, the Egyptian leader downplayed the conflict with Israel, keeping it-as diplomats liked to say-"in the icebox." But the"street" demanded more. The mere existence of the Jewish state was abhorrent to Arabs, a reminder of Palestine's plundering and a bridgehead for imperialism's return. More pressing on Nasser was the fact that not only did Israel exist, but that it asserted its existence militantly.
In reprisal for guerrilla attacks, special IDF units launched punishing raids across the border. In one such action alone, in the West Bank town of Qibya in October 1951, Israeli commandos led by Major Ariel Sharon blew up dozens of houses, killing sixty-nine civilians-inadvertently, he claimed. In northern Galilee, the Israelis drained the Hula swamp and cultivated the DZ's-all to the Syrians' chagrin. Nor was Nasser spared this activism. In the summer of 1954, the Israeli ship Bat Galim sailed into the Suez Canal, where its seizure by Egyptian authorities caused an international scandal. Finally, in an ill-conceived scheme to thwart Britain's evacuation from the Canal, Israeli agents attempted to foment chaos in Egypt by vandalizing public institutions. Eleven Egyptians, Jews, were arrested and charged with treason.
Outraged and humiliated, Nasser intensified his support for the Palestinian guerrillas. He refused to release Israel's boat or to pardon the arsonists, two of whom were eventually hanged; the rest were sentenced to prison. Also rejected was the Alpha plan, in spite of its territorial enticements. Ben-Gurion's response was quick and exacting: the largest retaliation against regular Arab troops since 1948. The Gaza raid, as it came to be called, on February 28, claimed the lives of fifty-one Egyptian soldiers and eight Israelis, and inaugurated the countdown to war.
So throughout 1955 the violence spiraled. Nasser went on the offensive against Israel with guerrilla operations and, politically, against the conservative Arab dynasties-the Hashemites of Jordan and Iraq, the Saudis-who opposed his intensifying radicalism. Then, in September, Nasser delivered a blow to Israel and Arab monarchs alike. Operating through Czech suppliers of Soviet arms, he purchased more tanks, guns and jets than those amassed by all the Middle East's armies combined. In one coup de théâtre, the USSR had leapfrogged the Northern Tier and landed at the crossroads of Asia and Africa, while Nasser soared to a status unprecedented in modern Arab history. Transcending the borders contrived by colonialism, Nasser now preached directly to Arab populations on the need for wahda and karama-unity and dignity-under his, and Egypt's, aegis.
Ben-Gurion observed Nasser's ascension with deepening anxiety. He had long prophesied the emergence of a strong and charismatic individual, another Ataturk, who could unite the Arab world for war. Suddenly that nightmare had materialized. It was only a matter of time, Ben-Gurion reasoned, before the Egyptian army absorbed its massive influx of arms and Nasser lost the excuse not to use them. His prediction proved accurate: the six months following the Czech arms deal witnessed large-scale border fighting, retaliations, and guerrilla attacks that took the lives of hundreds.
By the spring of 1956, Ben-Gurion had decided on the need for a conclusive showdown with Egypt. Together with protégés Moshe Dayan, the IDF chief of staff, and Defense Ministry director Shimon Peres, he conceived of an operation to defeat the Egyptian army and deflate Nasser's prestige. All Israel required was a Great Power to provide it with arms and protection from Soviet intervention. Having rebuffed Israel's repeated requests for a defense treaty, the United States was out of the question, as was Great Britain, which had threatened to bomb Israel in reaction to its raids into Jordan. But finally an alliance was formed with France, which was also at war with Arab nationalism-in Algeria-and which shared Israel's socialist ideals.
Ben-Gurion prepared for war but Nasser had another confrontation in mind. On July 23, just weeks after negotiating a treaty with Britain and France over the future of the Suez Canal, he unilaterally nationalized the waterway. Following Nasser's threats to Britain's allies in Jordan and Iraq, and to French rule in Algeria, the Europeans were ready to employ force in compelling Nasser to"disgorge" the Canal. But just as Israel needed Great Power backing for its own action against Egypt, so, too, did Britain and France require the support of a superpower, the United States.
The Eisenhower administration was hardly enamored of Nasser, given his nonalignment policies and his arms deals with the USSR. The latest American disappointment came in the first half of 1956 with the advent of Gamma, another secret initiative to purchase Egyptian nonbelligerency with a swath of Israeli land. President Eisenhower sent a personal emissary, Robert B. Anderson, a Texas oilman and former Treasury secretary, to mediate the deal. He found Ben-Gurion closed to territorial concessions but willing to meet Nasser anywhere, anytime. But Nasser first made light of the mission-Why risk talking with Israel for the sake of the Baghdad Pact? he asked-then refused to receive Anderson at all. Thereafter, Eisenhower approved another top-secret project-Omega-geared to toppling Nasser by all methods except assassination.
Washington indeed disliked Nasser, but it abhorred European colonialism even more. Though signatory with France and Britain to the 1950 Tripartite Declaration prohibiting any attempt to alter Middle East borders by force, the United States refused to regard the Canal's nationalization as such an attempt, or to sanction the use of force against Egypt. A succession of international initiatives followed, all aimed at resolving the crisis, all notable for their lack of teeth. Exasperated, the French finally turned to their Israeli allies, and convinced the British to do so as well. On September 24, in the Paris suburb of Sèvres, representatives from the three countries signed a top-secret protocol. Israeli forces would feign an assault on Suez, thus providing the Europeans with an excuse to occupy the Canal, ostensibly to protect it. In return, the Israelis would receive air and naval support as its forces destroyed Egypt's army in Sinai and opened the Straits of Tiran.
The second Arab-Israeli war, known in Israel as the Sinai Campaign, and among the Arabs as the Tripartite Aggression, began at dawn on October 29th. Israeli paratroopers landed in the Mitla Pass, twenty-four miles east of the Canal. With the pretext established, the Powers issued their ultimatum which the Egyptians, as expected, rebuffed. Dayan's armored columns, meanwhile, broke through the Egyptian lines in central and southern Sinai and rolled through Egyptian-occupied Gaza. General Muhammad 'Abd al-Hakim 'Amer, the Egyptian commander-in-chief, panicked and ordered his troops to retreat. Israel's victory was swift-too swift, in fact, for Britain and France. The Anglo-French armada dallied at sea, while French and British leaders wavered under international pressure. Not until November 4 did the invasion commence, by which time the Egyptians could claim they had never been driven from Sinai but had rather retreated tactically in order to defend their homes.
Operation Musketeer, the invasion's codename, was a consummate military success. The Egyptian army was shattered and three-quarters of the Canal reoccupied. Politically, though, the results were disastrous. Cold war and cultural differences disappeared as the world community united in condemning the attack, and under the dual threat of American sanctions and Soviet missiles, the French and the British buckled. Their troops ignominiously withdrew and their flags lowered forever over the Middle East.
The Israelis, by contrast, controlling all of Sinai, Gaza, and the Straits of Tiran, were not so quick to retreat. Though also subject to enormous pressures from the U.S. and Russia, Israel still enjoyed international sympathy as the victim of blockades and terrorism, and Ben-Gurion had strong support at home. While bending to demands to pull his troops from Sinai, he dug in his heels over guarantees for free passage through the Straits of Tiran and for protection against border raids. The Armistice, under which Egypt had exercised belligerency against Israel, was dead, he declared.
Four months of breakneck diplomacy would follow, during which Abba Eban, Israel's highly articulate ambassador to Washington and the UN, strove to secure his country's irreducible interests. But the role of rescuer fell not to Eban or to any other Israeli but to Canada's foreign minister, Lester"Mike" Pearson. Uniquely trusted by all parties involved-Arabs, Israelis, Europeans-Pearson came up with the notion of creating a multi-national United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to oversee the Anglo-French withdrawal from Egypt. He then applied that concept to Israeli forces in Sinai. The idea was to deploy UN troops from a consortium of countries along the Egyptian-Israeli border, in the Gaza Strip, and at Sharm al-Sheikh overlooking the Straits of Tiran. Nasser, predictably, resisted the idea, which struck him as a qualification of Egyptian sovereignty and a reward for Israeli aggression. Ben-Gurion, too, raised objections, noting that Nasser could evict the force whenever he saw fit.
The logjam was eventually broken by two"good faith" agreements-one between Nasser and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold and the other between Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Golda Meir, Israel's foreign minister. Hammarskjold promised Nasser that Egypt would have the right to remove UNEF, but only after the General Assembly had considered whether the peacekeepers had completed their mission. Dulles pledged that the U.S. would regard any Egyptian attempt to revive the Tiran blockade as an act of war to which Israel could respond in self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter. In such an event, Meir would undertake to inform the United States of Israel's intentions. Britain and France also acceded to this agreement, as did Canada and several other Western countries-Sweden, Belgium, Italy, and New Zealand. Several glitches ensued when Egyptian troops returned to Gaza and when Dulles reiterated his support for the Armistice, but by March 11, UNEF was in position and the last Israeli soldier left Sinai.
Through it all, the Arab-Israeli conflict remained an immutable fixture of Middle Eastern life. From a local dispute in the 1920s and '30s, it had expanded in the 1940s to engulf the region and then, in the '50s, the world. The context of inter-Arab and Great Power rivalry, of Israeli fears and bravado, and of abiding bitterness on both sides, had coalesced. If a new status quo had been created, it was one of inherent instability, a situation so combustible that the slightest spark could ignite it.
Cold Wars/Hot Wars
The 1956 war, strangely, had benefited both sides. Buoyed by Egyptian propaganda, Nasser claimed political and military victory in the war; that he had single-handedly defeated the imperialists, and mobilized world opinion against Israel, which had not dared take on Egypt alone. The Suez Canal, now restored to its inalienable owner, would make Egypt a regional, if not an international, superpower.
The Israelis believed that the war had brought them ten years of quiet at least, a solid decade of development. IDF arms had taught the West that Israel was an established fact and could not be divvied up piecemeal by the Powers. Gone were the Alphas and the Gammas. Instead there were close relations with a wide range of Asian and African countries, oil from Iran, and sophisticated jets-Ouragans, Mystères, and Mirages-from France.The French also helped construct what would become Israel's boldest and most controversial achievement in the security field: the nuclear reactor near the southern town of Dimona.
But along with these pluses, there was also the downside to 1956. More than ever, the Israelis were convinced of their military prowess and their ability to stand up to the world. The Arabs possessed incontrovertible proof that the"Zionist entity"-"Israel" was too repugnant to pronounce-was an imperialist tool, aggressive but ideologically weak. If the second round had been more successful than the first, the third would prove triumphant, they believed. Nasser had only to wage it.
Fortunately for Israel, Nasser did not fall victim to the Arabs'"Suez syndrome" or to the lure of his own propaganda. He knew that the Egyptian army had been bested by the IDF, and that another war, however heralded, had to be delayed as long as possible, until the Arabs were strong. He cooperated with UNEF and kept only token forces in Sinai; Israeli ships passed unmolested through Tiran. For all Nasser's belligerent rhetoric, the Palestine issue was once again, firmly,"in the icebox."
Instead, Nasser thrust his energies into a yet more radical blend of Arab socialism and nationalism-Nasserism-and a series of single-party movements to animate the masses and jump-start Egypt's economy. Few of these efforts bore fruit. Desperate for success, Nasser edged toward a closer alliance with the USSR and escalated his conflict with the Middle East monarchies-what one scholar termed the Arab Cold War.
A savage succession of coups, assassinations, and bombings ensued, culminating in the Iraqi revolution of 1958 and the attempted overthrow of the Lebanese and Jordanian governments. The latter was averted only through Western military intervention as President Eisenhower, having ousted Britain and France, sought to fill that void with the doctrine that bore his name. From now on, the United States would defend any Middle Eastern country threatened by communism or its allies, the most obvious of which was Egypt.
Along with his setbacks of 1958, however, Nasser also registered a stunning achievement in Egypt's unification with Syria. There, the regime had also adopted an extreme socialist, pro-Soviet line, and the United Arab Republic, as the new entente was called, epitomized the radical Arab ideal. A year later, Nasser created an Entity in Gaza, a kind of government-in-exile which, though devoid of real authority, expressed his commitment to the Palestinian cause. His crowning accomplishment, however, came in 1960 with the Soviet-financed construction of the Aswan Dam,"the greatest engineering feat in the Middle East since the pyramids." The"street" was ecstatic. With the linking of the two halves of the Arab world, east and west, and the stranglehold around Israel tightened, expectations of a military effort to liberate Palestine rose. Nasser could not ignore them, especially when, in February 1960, Syria seemed threatened with war.
It started with an Israeli attempt to cultivate the DZ's along the northern border. Syrian troops fired on the tractors and IDF guns blasted at Syrian positions on the overlooking Golan Heights. As friction heated, the Soviets stepped in and informed Nasser that Israel was planning to invade Syria, and even supplied a date for the attack: February 22, UAR day. Nasser had received similar warnings in the past, but in view of the sharp pitch of Arab opinion, he chose this time to act. Two Egyptian divisions, including the crack 4th Armored, were rushed into Sinai. The commanders of UNEF were told to be ready to evacuate the peninsula within twenty-four hours, should hostilities erupt.
It was a splendid display of muscle flexing that caught Israel, with only thirty tanks in the south, completely off-guard. Frantically, the army mobilized while Israeli diplomats scurried to assure foreign governments against any warlike designs on either Syria or Egypt. Tensions remained ultra-high until the beginning of March when, just as quietly as they entered, the Egyptian troops slipped out of Sinai. Called Operation Retama, after the fragrant desert plant (Rotem, in Hebrew) by the IDF, the episode was a major trauma for Israel and no less a triumph for Nasser. Memories of it would still be fresh, and its lessons seemingly clear, in 1967.
But the Aswan Dam and Retama were merely exceptions in the otherwise rueful saga of the UAR. Under 'Abd al-Hakim 'Amer, whose administration of the joint government in Damascus was as inept as his generalship in 1956, the union began to unravel. Corruption and despotism reigned as unyielding state control was imposed on Syria's traditionally open economy. Syrian officers were also incensed, finding themselves outside the loops of power. In September 1961, a clique of these officers, among them Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad, staged a successful coup and declared Syria's departure from the union. 'Amer and his staff were ingloriously herded onto a plane and whisked back to Cairo. Their sole memento of the United Arab Republic was the name itself, which Egypt unilaterally retained.
The period of"The Secession" (infisal) marked the downswing in the heretofore ascendant career of Abdel Nasser. Physically sick-he contracted diabetes that year-Nasser also suffered through a stormy relationship with Khrushchev, for whom the Egyptian was never quite radical enough. The country's economy was in free fall. The only illumination in this gloom came from the marked improvement in Egypt's relations with the United States, under the new administration of John F. Kennedy.
In contrast to the more confrontational Eisenhower, Kennedy believed that carrots would prove more effective than sticks in containing Soviet influence in the Middle East and keeping Nasser out of trouble. Using what one top Kennedy aide, Chester Bowles, called the"great unseen weapon," Washington offered Nasser semiannual shipments of wheat and other basic commodities, as an incentive"to forsake the microphone for the bulldozer." The policy worked for a time. Nasser appeared to withdraw from the farrago of inter-Arab politics and to focus more on domestic affairs. Though Egypt's support for militant liberation movements, particularly in Africa, and its championship of the nonaligned movement still irked the Americans, a door to dialogue had cracked open. Evidence of the change could be found in the warm correspondence between the two presidents ("differences will always remain between us," Nasser wrote, and Kennedy replied, quoting him,"but mutual understanding will keep those differences within limits not to be exceeded") and in expanding American aid, which, by 1962, was feeding 40 percent of Egypt's population.
But other events in 1962 sowed the seeds of disaster in the American-Egyptian détente, and in Nasser's fortunes generally. The problem was Yemen. The Imam of the remote southern Arabian country, Badr, was overthrown in September by a group of Free Officers under a General Abdallah al-Sallal. Badr fled to Riyadh, where he sought and secured Saudi backing for a counterinsurgency. Al-Sallal turned to Cairo.
Al-Sallal's appeal found Nasser still reeling from the UAR's dissolution and the collapse of his economic policies, and fearing for the loyalty of some of his senior army officers. The latter, by providing tactical support to al-Sallal's troops, presented Nasser with a fait accompli. He accepted it, though, deeming Yemen a good place for occupying the army's attention, as well as for drubbing his Saudi rivals and even for harassing Britain's colony in Aden. Khrushchev, eager to avenge his recent embarrassment in the Cuban missile crisis, also gave his blessing.
Thus began an entanglement so futile and fierce that the imminent Vietnam War could have easily been dubbed America's Yemen. Prisoners were routinely executed, bodies mutilated, entire villages wiped out. Egyptian forces bombed royalist depots in Saudi Arabia and, for the first time in the history of any Arab army, unleashed poison gas. Besides igniting the previously cold conflict between Arab"progressives" and"reactionaries," the war also soured the all-too-brief honeymoon between Egypt and the United States. In Nasser's intervention Kennedy perceived the beginnings of Soviet penetration of South Arabia, and through his special mediator, Elsworth Bunker, he hammered out an agreement whereby the Saudis stopped aiding Badr and Egypt withdrew its troops. But while Riyadh complied, Cairo broke faith, sending even larger forces to Yemen."A breakdown of disengagement . . . could not but lead to a situation in which the US and the UAR, instead of moving closer together, would drift further apart," Kennedy warned on October 19, just over a month before his assassination.
It seemed inconceivable that the Arabs' situation could have grown bleaker-and yet it did. The ruling regime in Iraq, whose relations with Egypt had hardly been cordial, fell violently in February 1963, when its leaders were shot by radicals of the Ba'th (Renaissance) party. Talk of a tripartite union-Egypt, Syria, and Iraq-resulted in the drafting of a joint constitution, but little else. A bloodbath ensued as Nasserist sympathizers were purged from the Iraqi army and then, as a result of an abortive coup in July, from the Syrian army as well. Hundreds were killed, executed, or caught in crossfires.
Such events, the deepening malaise of Egypt's foreign relations and of inter-Arab affairs in general, could not but gladden the Israelis. With the UAR disbanded and Nasser's army bogged down in Yemen, the danger of a third round of Arab-Israeli fighting seemed remote. Further assurance came from the momentous improvement in U.S-Israel relations inaugurated by Kennedy. Unlike the Republicans, who did not enjoy the support of most American Jews and had little affection for Israel, the new Democratic president owed much of his narrow electoral victory to Jewish votes and spoke warmly of the Jewish state."The United States has a special relationship with Israel comparable only to that which it has with Britain," he told Foreign Minister Meir;"I think it is quite clear that in the case of invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel." The commitment was concretized by the unprecedented sale of $75 million of U.S. weapons to Israel, a third of which was earmarked for Hawk ground-to-air missiles.
Yet, U.S.-Israel relations were hardly friction-free. The Kennedy administration, no less than Eisenhower's, objected to Israel's retaliation policy, its attempts to divert the Jordan River, and its resistance to repatriating Palestinian refugees. Most galling for Kennedy, a committed nonproliferationist, was Israel's nuclear program. Israel's production of fissionable material, he feared, might prompt the Arabs to install Soviet missiles on their territory, or even to launch a preemptive strike. Nasser had already cited Israel's supposed capability as a pretext for initiating his own missile-making effort, one that employed German and ex-Nazi scientists rather than Russians. Israel's repeated pledges that nothing untoward was transpiring at Dimona, and that it would"not be the first [country] to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East," failed to appease the president. He insisted on semi-annual inspections of the reactor, threatened to review all of America's security commitments to Israel if Ben-Gurion refused to cooperate, and proffered the Hawks in the hope that he would. But Ben-Gurion argued that Israel's nuclear projects were its own sovereign business, its best guarantee against a second Holocaust. The Hawks were deployed around Dimona.
But for all his mettle, his rigid jaw, and defiant corona of hair, Ben-Gurion was no longer the dynamo of 1948 and 1956. In spite of its improving relations with America, its alliance with France and ties with Africa and Asia, Israel increasingly seemed to Ben-Gurion less a regional power than a ghetto, isolated and exposed."The UAR is getting stronger and stronger thanks to Soviet arms," he told French President Charles de Gaulle in 1961,"Nasser believes that in another year or two he can launch a lightning attack, destroy our airfields and bomb our cities." When, in the July Revolution celebrations of 1962, Nasser paraded his new missiles through the streets of Cairo-"they can hit any target south of Beirut," he boasted-the prime minister nearly panicked, then nearly panicked again the following May, when Egypt, Syria and Iraq pledged to join forces to liberate Palestine."We alone are threatened each day with destruction," he now warned America's ambassador in Tel Aviv,"Nasser is clamoring for war with Israel, and if he achieves a nuclear capability, we're done for." The fact that the missiles were little more than V-1 rockets,"a costly failure and . . . not operational for several years at least," according to U.S. intelligence sources, and that the new Arab alliance was a sham, had little impact on him. Urgently, he pressed for a deal with the French Marcel Dassault corporation for the completion of surface-to surface missiles several years hence, in 1966 or 1967.
Not that Israel was without causes for concern, a country surrounded by 639 miles of hostile borders and some thirty Arab divisions. Potentially, Egypt could again blockade Israel's shipping through the Straits of Tiran, and Syria, in control of the Jordan River's origins, could shut off its water supply. The Arabs' combined outlay on arms-some $938 million annually-was nearly twice that of Israel in spite of a fivefold increase in its defense budget. Though"only" 189 civilians had been killed by hostile fire between 1957 and 1967, down from 486 during the years 1949 to 1956, the danger of ambushes and bombings was constant.
Israelis never forgot any of this, yet for many of them the early 1960s was not a time of overriding fear but rather of relative security, even prosperity. The country, its population trebled to 2.9 million, enjoyed an annual growth rate of 10 percent, equaled only by Japan, and the fifth highest proportion of university graduates to population in the world. The arts flourished, and the press was active and free. And while prejudice and discrimination, particularly against the new North African immigrants, were rife, there persisted an all-embracing sense of national purpose, a uniquely Israeli élan. Basically conservative-the Beatles were barred from performing in the country, ostensibly on security grounds but really to shield Israel's youth-the society was grappling with new ideas, an incipient materialism, and the emergence of a new generation of leaders, all with considerable confidence.
Much of that confidence was grounded in the IDF, an army that had burgeoned to 25 brigades, 175 jets, and nearly 1,000 battle tanks. The latter, armed with an improved 105-mm gun, provided the"mailed fist" that would break through Arab lines and secure an early victory before Israel's vulnerable cities could be devastated. The air force was also geared to delivering a"knock-out punch" to Egypt, with the understanding that with Egypt neutralized, other Arab armies would crumble. But the IDF was more than a mere fighting force; it was an ethos. Undergirding it were deeply held notions of volunteerism, of officers leading their men into battle (with the cry Aharai!-"After me!"), and social responsibility. With women required to serve eighteen months of regular duty, and men at least two years, followed by weeks of annual reserve training through age fifty-two, Israeli civilians were more like permanent soldiers on temporary leave. Highly informal-saluting and marching were rare-the IDF placed its emphasis on speed, improvisation, and a flexibility of command in which even junior officers could make on-the-spot, far-reaching decisions. The assumption was always that Israel would have no choice but to fight yet another war of survival, a war in which the enemy would, in spite of the IDF's growth, grossly outnumber it.
Political confidence and military might combined in June 1963, when Israelis felt sufficiently sanguine to let Ben-Gurion, the father of their country, resign. The immediate cause was the never-ending scandal surrounding the 1954 sabotage operation in Egypt and the question of who ordered it, a former minister or elements in the security establishment. Ben-Gurion insisted on setting up an independent legal board to investigate the charges, as opposed to the internal governmental panel that had already exonerated the minister, and staked his office on it. He lost. The majority of his Mapai (Israel Workers' Party) colleagues sided with the panel, and Ben-Gurion quit in protest. Such a changing of the guard-for that was really what lay behind the controversy, the desire of political parvenus such as Golda Meir and Yigal Allon, to advance-could not have been possible in truly perilous times. Nor would the state have been entrusted to the person chosen to replace its founder, an aging technocrat by the name of Eshkol.
They could not have been less alike, Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. Colorless, seemingly artless as well, Eshkol, the former minister of agriculture and finance, knew much about finance and farming but little of matters of state. Few politicians expected him to hold out for long, assuming that Ben-Gurion would someday return. Eshkol, himself, at first described his post as" caretaker prime minister." But when it came to Israel's relations with the Arab world, their perspectives were almost indistinguishable. Eshkol also believed that the Arabs wanted war and that Israel was at once militarily invincible and mortally vulnerable-what he called (characteristically, in Yiddish) Shimshon der nebechdikker-Samson the nerd. Thus, within a single month in 1963, the new prime minister could tell an IDF airborne unit that"Perhaps the time will come when you, the paratroopers, will determine Israel's borders. Our neighbors should not delude themselves that weakness prevents us from spilling blood," and then turn around at the War College and warn,"The danger we face is one of complete destruction."
The Context Redux
Paradoxically, Israel owed some measure of its success to the Arabs, to their hostility that helped galvanize an otherwise factious society. Yet that same hostility also united the Arabs in visceral ways that their leaders were eager to harness. Thus, the proposed union of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq was presented first and foremost as a coalition against Israel because, for all their ideological affinity, there was no other issue on which all three could agree. Egypt portrayed its intervention in Yemen as a"step in the process of getting rid of Zionism," while the Jordan-Saudi (Ta'if) pact opposing that intervention signified"a front against Jewish aggression."
But Palestine was a current that pulled in antithetical directions, joining but also splintering the Arab world as its leaders marshaled the cause against their rivals. With the stillbirth of the tripartite union in 1963, for example, Syrian dictator General Hafiz Amin accused Nasser of"going soft" on Israel and"selling out Palestine for a few bushels of American wheat." Nasser countered by assailing Syria for"stabbing Egypt in the back" and trying to drag the Arabs into war before they were unified. Wasfi al-Tall, Jordan's perennial Prime Minister, joined with his archenemies in Damascus and excoriated Nasser's failure to fight Israel, his willingness to"hide behind UNEF's skirts." The continuing plight of a million Palestinian refugees, together with Israel's assertive foreign and defense policies, ensured that the conflict would continue to serve as an agent for unity and discord.
By the beginning of 1964, the current seemed to swing away from divisiveness and back to cooperation. The pretext was Israel's plans to channel Galilee water to the Negev. Irrigated, the Arabs feared, the desert would support an additional three million Jewish immigrants and strengthen Israel's grip on Palestine. The Syrians would capitalize on that fear in their own competition with Nasser. Citing the Algerians' recent victory over France-a victory that owed much to Nasser's support-they called for a"people's war" to destroy the Zionist plot. Jordan and Saudi Arabia weighed in on the side of Damascus, and suddenly Egypt found itself isolated, the strongest Arab state but seemingly unwilling to act.
Still, Nasser would not be outmaneuvered. He responded with a dramatic idea: a summit meeting of all the Arab states."Palestine supersedes all differences of opinion," Egypt's president declared,"For the sake of Palestine, we are ready to meet with all those with whom we have disagreements."
Behind this bombast lay Nasser's reluctance to cede Syria the initiative on Palestine, and behind that, his need to avert a war from which Egypt would be unable to abstain or emerge victorious. He explained as much in a speech in Port Said a week before the summit:
We cannot use force today because our circumstances will not allow us; be patient with us, the battle of Palestine can continue and the battle of the Jordan is part of the battle of Palestine. For I would lead you to disaster if I were to proclaim that I would fight at a time when I was unable to do so. I would not lead my country to disaster and would not gamble with its destiny.
Avoiding war and saving face were motives enough to convene the summit, yet Nasser had an even stronger incentive: the need to get out of Yemen. From a small contingent in 1962, Egyptian forces in Yemen had swelled to over 50,000, severely straining an economy already on the brink. 'Amer and his coterie may have been growing rich on the war, but it had cost the country some $9.2 billion-about $.5 million for every Egyptian village-and thousands of casualties. Withdrawal, however, required negotiating an agreement with the Saudis, as well as with other hated"reactionaries"-a price that a war-weary Nasser was finally willing to pay.
The largest gathering of Arab leaders since the Palestine war convened in Cairo on January 14, 1964. Over the next three days, Nasser would bully his way to achieving most of his goals, controlling the loose-cannon revolutionaries and coopting the conservative monarchies. But it cost him. A $17.5 million Arab League plan was approved for diverting the Jordan at its sources-the Banias and Hatzbani rivers-and so drastically reduce the quantity and quality of Israel's water. Then, assuming that the Israelis would not watch passively while their country dried up, the conference also created a United Arab Command, both to protect the project and to prepare for an offensive campaign. With a ten-year $345 million budget, the UAC was charged with standardizing Arab arms and providing military aid to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Plans were made for bolstering Lebanon's defense with Syrian troops and Jordan's with Iraqis, and for placing Iraq's fine air force at the UAC's service. Conditions were laid down for waging war: secrecy, unity, and total military preparedness.
The summit, hailed as"the first in the history of the Arab peoples to be agreed upon by all the Arab leaders," spelled victory for Nasser. The UAC was placed under direct Egyptian authority, with General 'Ali 'Ali 'Amer as its commander, and as its chief of staff, General 'Abd al-Mun'im Riyad. Egypt had taken the initiative in the armed struggle against Israel but the showdown was to be delayed for two and a half years at least, until the UAC became operational, in 1967. With the Arab world now mobilized yet firmly under Nasser's control, his motto for the conference-"Unity of Action"-appeared to have been actualized.
But the summit did not find an exit from the Yemen quagmire, nor did it palliate the Syrians. No sooner had Hafiz Amin returned home when his regime reiterated that"what we have to do is push the whole Arab people into entering the battle with all means . . ." and again accused Egypt of hiding behind UNEF's skirts. The UAC was the means and Syria was anxious to exploit it. In his search for Arab unity and deferral of any conflict with Israel, Nasser had unwittingly created a framework for dissent and accelerated the momentum toward war.
These facts gradually dawned on Nasser over the course of two subsequent summits, in Alexandria that September and in Casablanca, Morocco, one year later. The delegates approved the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization under Ahmad al-Shuqayri, a stout and voluble lawyer widely seen as Nasser's stooge, and a Palestine Liberation Army to deploy along Israel's borders. More substantively, the UAC budget was expanded by nearly $600 million and plans were drafted for"the elimination of the Israeli aggression" sometime in 1967. Arab leaders agreed to cease interfering in one another's internal affairs, and to concentrate on Palestine's redemption, the paramount goal.
But inter-Arab cooperation again remained largely on paper. Jordan opposed the stationing of PLA units on the West Bank or Iraqi and Saudi troops on any part of its territory. Lebanon was also loath to host foreign forces, and Iraq to lend its planes to the UAC. None of the Western-oriented armies wanted to standardize their arsenals with Soviet arms, and nobody wanted to take orders from Egyptian generals. Except in Egypt, Shuqayri was universally despised and the PLO in constant arrears, as the Arab states uniformly defaulted on their pledges.
And these were only the beginning of Nasser's headaches. ...
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