Middle East

The U.S. Role

The United States played a prominent role in the United Nations in separating the combatants and ending the hostilities in 1956. As we noted in the previous chapter, this was hardly because the American administration was sympathetic to Nasser’s plight or to Arab nationalism. The Americans felt deeply embarrassed and compromised by their allies, Britain and France, who had acted without consulting them—and right on the eve of a presidential election at that. The American public expressed concern about upholding the principles of the UN Charter, and President Eisenhower displayed a sense of moral outrage that they had been violated. Although this stand scored points in the short run, subsequent U.S. actions tended to erode Arab goodwill. American refusal to supply medical help for the victims of allied bombing at Port Said, and the cessation of the CARE program in Egypt, which had provided free lunches to Egyptian schoolchildren, spoke louder than pious platitudes. Indeed, the United States adhered initially to a Western economic boycott of Egypt, refusing to sell surplus wheat and oil. In this way, the United States exhibited its continued friendship for its European allies and its disdain for Nasser. At the same time, this attitude enabled and encouraged the Soviet Union and its satellites to extend their influence. Economic and technical assistance on an increasingly large scale were evident after 1957, capped in Egypt by the Soviet agreement in October 1958 to help build the Aswan High Dam. The worth of Soviet arms to Egypt would eventually total about $2 billion. This compared to American economic and technical aid to Israel of about $850 million between 1949 and 1965.

Because Britain and France had been so completely discredited in the region, however, the United States found itself in the position of defending Western interests and resisting the expansion of Soviet influence in those countries that had not followed Nasser’s lead. The new instrument of American policy became the Eisenhower Doctrine, approved by Congress in March 1957. By its terms, the president was authorized to extend economic and military assistance, including troops, to any Middle Eastern nation that requested it against the threat of international communism. No Arab country, with the exception of Libya and Lebanon, was eager to embrace the doctrine. Zionism, not communism, was considered the enemy. Moreover, the United States was seen as attempting to weaken Arab unity by insisting that the Arab countries line up on one side or the other in the Cold War. Although the United States continued to maintain an important airbase at Dhahran (until 1961), and the Saudis were considered to be “allies,” the Saudi king did not endorse the Eisenhower Doctrine. Nor did King Hussein, even though the United States extended $10 million in financial assistance to Jordan when the king quashed a Nasser-supported Communist plot against the monarchy in 1957.

The one Arab country enthusiastic about the Eisenhower Doctrine was Lebanon, especially under its Christian president, Camille Chamoun. Chamoun despised Nasser and was disturbed about growing Egyptian and Soviet influence, especially in neighboring Syria. Closer adherence to the West through formal adherence to the Eisenhower Doctrine, however, seemed to violate the spirit of Lebanon’s “national pact,” through which a balance of interests had been maintained among Lebanon’s many religious and family groups. Moreover, Chamoun’s overt identification with Western interests alienated other Lebanese political leaders and a large part of the Muslim population whose sympathies were with Nasser and Arab nationalism. Chamoun attempted to secure a second term as president in violation of the constitution. Anti-Chamoun and pro-Nasserist groups in Lebanon, supplied with funds, weapons, and propaganda from the newly formed United Arab Republic, saw this as an opportunity to gain power, and this set off a brief civil war in 1958.

At the same time, in July 1958, in Iraq the pro-Western monarchy was overthrown. Fearing that a Communist takeover in the region was imminent, and worried about his own safety, Chamoun asked for American help. Largely because of the situation in Iraq, Eisenhower responded promptly. American troops landed on the beaches of Lebanon, as British troops rushed to the aid of King Hussein to stabilize his regime. Chamoun, who had helped precipitate the crisis by hinting that he would not give up the presidency, wisely left office in September at the end of his term. A more neutral government was formed in Lebanon, and the U.S. Marines departed, indicating, among other things, that the United States would not directly interfere with the Lebanese political process. The new Lebanese government repudiated the Eisenhower Doctrine, which left the next American administration with the task of reevaluating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

In Washington, the Arab–Israeli conflict continued to be placed within the context of basic American interests in the area. These included uninterrupted communication facilities and access to oil, the maintenance of general stability, and the protection of strategic interests against the threat of Soviet expansionism. In the Kennedy administration, however, a new approach to the Arab–Israeli conflict evolved, which John Badeau, Kennedy’s ambassador to Egypt, later called the “icebox” device: deal with those issues on which Middle Easterners and Americans can agree, and put the others in cold storage for the time being. One such issue was the Palestinian refugee problem, which the United States unsuccessfully took a stab at in the fall of 1961. Kennedy sent Dr. Joseph Johnson, president of the Carnegie Foundation, to consult the Israelis and Arabs about ways to deal with the situation. Johnson’s own plan was to offer the refugees, under the active supervision of the United Nations, the choice of return or compensation for settlement outside Israel. Johnson had no luck on his first or on a subsequent trip the next spring in moving the different parties from their respective positions. The Arabs continued to insist on the right of return of all refugees, the Israelis on recognition and direct negotiation of all outstanding issues, including that of the refugees.

The United States assured Israel that it upheld the principle of the territorial integrity of all countries in the region and would defend the Jewish state against aggression. There seemed during the Kennedy years, however, a somewhat greater appreciation of the dynamics and complexities of the Arab world. American policymakers began to realize that the achievement of American objectives did not require a specific form of political or economic system. Indeed, many believed that America could aid constructive change in Middle Eastern countries through nonmilitary aid and cultural exchange, to the mutual benefit of the Arabs and the United States. Economic and technical aid was therefore offered to Egypt, especially through Public Law 480, which enabled recipient countries to purchase surplus wheat and other commodities with local currency that remained in the country to generate development projects. In the early 1960s, for example, the United States supplied about $150 million a year in wheat surpluses, which was more than half the grain consumed in Egypt.

Meanwhile, quantities of Soviet arms were pouring into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Israel used Nasser’s involvement in the Yemen civil war, as well as his hiring of German technicians to help develop surface-to-surface missiles and jet fighters, as arguments to persuade the United States to sell Israel weapons directly for the first time. The Kennedy administration agreed to sell Israel Hawk ground-to-air missiles and tanks at the end of September 1962, and shipments of American arms went to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In this way, the United States attempted to maintain a balance between Israel and the Arabs, and between the “radical” Arab countries supplied by the Soviet Union and those supplied by the United States.

The administration of Lyndon Johnson continued the basic approach of an arms balance and upholding the territorial integrity of all Middle Eastern countries including Israel, but with a different style and far less consistency. The different style arose to some extent because of personal antipathy between Nasser and Johnson. Nasser took an almost instant dislike to the American president and mentioned in his letters how he was put off by photographs of Johnson showing reporters the scar from his recent gallbladder operation and with his feet up on his desk. Nasser also feared that the United States might move to oust him, as it had Mossadeq in Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. He suspected, too, that the United States had been involved in removing such leaders as Ahmed Ben Bella, Ahmed Sukarno, and Kwame Nkrumah. Johnson himself was not attuned to the sensibilities of foreign leaders, and he had little patience with Nasser. The conduct of American foreign relations in the Middle East was further complicated after 1964 by difficulties on the domestic scene and by the escalating war in Vietnam.

When the United States expressed its displeasure over Nasser’s aid to rebels in the Belgian Congo, Nasser told the United States at the end of 1964 to forget its aid and go drink seawater. With less surplus wheat available to dispose of anyway, American economic aid to Egypt was discontinued shortly thereafter, causing severe repercussions in the Egyptian economy. This seemed to end any hope of a rapprochement between the two countries and to signal that Egypt would not break out of the Soviet orbit. The Soviet Union greatly enhanced its role in the Middle East in the 1960s. Still, the United States believed that, by maintaining Israel’s military strength and aiding friendly Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, its basic goals—maintaining stability in the region and thus diminishing the prospect of an Arab–Israeli war that could lead to superpower confrontation—had been preserved.

The Soviet Role

Like the United States, the Soviet Union had its successes and failures in the Middle East. While the Soviet leaders would like to have seen the victory of communism in the area and were constantly reminded by the Chinese not to forget ideological imperatives, Soviet policy was of necessity based on realpolitik. Soviet goals included outflanking NATO, neutralizing the United States in the Middle East, and working to achieve preeminence in an area the Russians considered as almost their own backyard. After loosening their ties with socialist Israel in the 1950s and unequivocally adopting the Arab and Palestinian causes, the Soviets imitated the West in extending economic and military aid to their allies in the region. Under Nikita Khrushchev, between 1955 and 1959, the Soviets established a diplomatic presence in the area, made extensive arms deals, trained local armies, offered economic and technical assistance, and energetically supported anti-Western regimes.

The Soviet leap over the so-called northern tier, however, had brought it right into the tangled web of inter-Arab affairs and created unavoidable dilemmas, similar to those experienced by the United States. As America had discovered, the Soviet Union found it difficult to have its cake and eat it too. The events surrounding the Iraqi coup in 1958, when Abdul Karim Qasim came to power supported by local Communists, illustrated the problem. Moscow was delighted by the revolution in Iraq but alienated Nasser by its support of Qasim, who had very different ideas about Arab unity and who in fact put down a pro-Nasser movement in Iraq. (This climate had, of course, made it easier for the United States to effect its own rapprochement with Nasser in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) Within two years, however, Qasim had also rejected local Communist support and refused recognition to the Iraq Communist party. This was a bitter disappointment to the Soviets.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued economic and especially military aid to regimes that were anti-West, at a high cost to its own economy. Thus, the Russians pledged support to Egypt to help build the second stage of the Aswan High Dam at the same time that the United States was providing Egypt with the bulk of its grain; and the arms flow to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq continued, albeit with a temporary halt in Iraq when Qasim was toppled by a Baath coup in 1963 that purged local Communists. In the meantime, the stakes had also been raised. It was one thing to embarrass the West, but another to challenge it. The Soviets began to realize the danger of local outbreaks that could eventually spark a wider conflagration. Moreover, the Russians found themselves in the position of sometimes seeing arms they had supplied being used in ways over which they had little control or which involved their own warring clients (Nasser versus competitive regimes in Baghdad or Damascus, Baghdad versus the Kurds, etc.).

In particular, the Soviet Union was ambivalent about Nasser, applauding and supporting his actions when they hurt the West but being less sanguine when they threatened other Soviet clients. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets themselves decided that their ultimate ideological objectives might be reached by a continuation of aid and a policy of encouraging local Communists to work with the various governments in return for being left alone. This approach may or may not have encouraged the radicalization of the regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. However, as it became more apparent that circumstances for the achievement of both ideological and Cold War objectives were increasingly favorable, particularly in Syria after 1966, the Russians found themselves in the position of wanting and needing to preserve and extend their gains. The closer involvement in Middle East affairs, however, brought them right into the arena of the Arab–Israeli conflict, a fact illustrated dramatically in the events that precipitated the Six-Day War.

The Road to War

In 1958, Gamal Abdul Nasser was the leading figure in the Arab world. By 1961, however, Syria had seceded from the UAR, and Qasim’s regime in Iraq was forging its own destiny, which would continue to diverge from that of Egypt with successive military coups. Internally, as noted above, Egypt’s economy was in poor shape. Moreover, Nasser’s friends from the Bandung conference and in the third world, leaders like Nehru, Sukarno, Ben Bella, and others, were no longer in power.

Nasser had determined after 1956 that he would not become involved in a major confrontation with Israel unless he could win; that is, unless he was fully prepared militarily and the international circumstances were right. He recognized Israel’s growing economic and military strength and the international support Israel enjoyed in the West and among many of the developing nations. Because of Arab unpreparedness and Israel’s policy of retaliation, Nasser did not lend support for Syrian efforts to halt Israel’s water-diversion scheme. Nor did he react, despite Jordanian taunts, to Israel’s attack against as-Samu, except to insist to King Hussein that responsibility for repulsing Israel reprisal raids rested with the individual countries. Nasser retreated to this position again in April 1967, when, after several months of violent incidents in the north, an air battle erupted between Israel and Syria in which Israel violated Syrian airspace, shot down six MiGs, and buzzed Damascus. Nasser remained aloof.

To the Russians, however, it seemed absolutely crucial to prod the Egyptians into living up to the commitment implied in the joint defense pact. The unstable Jadid regime in Syria had raised the stakes in the north without much apparent success and had embarked on a course that promised the counterproductive effect of massive Israeli retaliation. The achievement of Soviet objectives in Syria seemed to be in jeopardy. Only by the device of Nasser restraining Jadid and/or causing Israel to pause before retaliating for Syrian raids, because of the possibility of Egyptian action in the south, could some Soviet control be exerted over this situation. In early May 1967, therefore, the Russians passed on to the Egyptians information about heavy Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border and an Israeli contingency plan for an attack on Syria.

The Soviets, and probably Nasser himself, knew that information about massive Israeli troop concentrations was false. Indeed, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), U.S. intelligence, and Egyptian observers on the spot failed to detect any Israeli moves. Nasser, however, decided to become involved and to take some action for several reasons. He was convinced that the United States was trying to get at him indirectly by urging Israel to hit Syria, but he believed the Russians would now stand behind him whatever action he took. Nasser had a false estimation of Egyptian strength based on the great amount of military hardware he had amassed. His poor economic situation called for some outlet for the frustration that had been building among the Egyptian people. And he certainly hoped that assuming an active role against Israel would quiet his critics and restore his position of leadership in the Arab world.

Thus, on May 14, 1967, Cairo announced that Egyptian armed forces were in a state of maximum alert, and combat units crossed the Suez into Sinai. On May 16, Egypt requested the UNEF to be concentrated in the Gaza Strip; and on May 18, the Egyptian foreign minister demanded that UN Secretary General U Thant recall all troops of the UNEF stationed in the Gaza Strip and on UAR soil. This was a step Nasser had every legal right to take, but instead of procrastinating in order to defuse the growing crisis, U Thant complied almost immediately. Egyptian troops and tanks began to rumble across the Sinai and to take over UN positions. Syria also began to mobilize, as did Jordan and Iraq. On May 22, with Egyptian troops at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser announced the closing of the Strait of Tiran and thus the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli vessels or any vessels carrying goods to Israel. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol replied the next day that Israel would consider any interference with freedom of shipping as an act of aggression against Israel. Bellicose speeches continued to emanate from Cairo, however, and during the next week, Nasser on several occasions stated that Palestine must be liberated and Israel destroyed.

As the crisis escalated, the Security Council met in emergency session, but its discussions were fruitless and hampered by the Soviet veto. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Paris, London, and the United States, as the Western countries groped for some way to defuse the situation. Although President Johnson publicly denounced Nasser’s closing of the waterway and promised that the United States would try to get other maritime nations to join in testing the blockade, the American Aide Memoire of 1957 was obviously a worthless scrap of paper. Privately, Johnson warned Israel against a preemptive strike, and Israeli moderates hesitated to act unilaterally. Nasser appeared to have Israel in a bind; the prolonged general mobilization in Israel was beginning to have a dire psychological as well as economic effect. To the Arabs, what had perhaps started as some limited action began to take on the possibility of a potentially successful military operation, as Nasser, believing he had the support of the Russians, went to the brink. On May 30, 1967, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Egypt to sign a defense pact with Egypt. He agreed to allow Iraqi troops to enter Jordanian territory in the event of hostilities and to place his troops under Egyptian military authority. PLO leader Shuqayri, although no friend of Hussein, was present at the signing ceremony and flew back to Jordan with the king.

The situation was extremely difficult for Israel. There were Arab armies poised on all its borders; mobilization was taking a toll economically, as normal life came to a standstill, and politically, there was a crisis situation, as Eshkol’s government seemed incapable of making a decision about what course of action to take. All armies have contingency plans, and as early as 1964 Israel had worked out such a plan for an attack against Egypt if necessary. Israel had on several occasions threatened reprisals against Syria and undoubtedly had various alternatives on the drawing board. Given Israel’s borders, the idea of the preemptive strike (or what some Israeli military leaders like Yigal Allon called the “preemptive counterstrike”) had come to be accepted, since Israel within its present borders was not in a position to absorb a first blow and survive. Because of Israel’s policies of massive retaliation and offensive warfare as the best defense, some historians and writers see all the Arab–Israeli wars as the result of Israeli aggressiveness and expansionism, which they attribute to an inherent dynamic and master plan of Zionism. In their view, while Nasser may have shown antipathy to Israel, and with good reason, he was not a warmonger—in contrast to Ben-Gurion and a coterie of younger Israeli “hawks” who had been planning another strike against Nasser for a decade.

Other historians argue that despite the existence of military contingency plans, there is no evidence that Israel would have launched a full-scale war against Egypt had Nasser not taken the provocative actions he did. They contend, on the contrary, that the failure of Israel to retaliate for the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba—a retaliation that was expected among both the Arabs and the superpowers—and the hesitation and indecisiveness evident in Israel as diplomatic solutions were floated fed Nasser’s megalomania and encouraged King Hussein of Jordan to put aside past differences and climb on the bandwagon. They maintain that no matter how pragmatic Nasser could be, the defeat of 1948 and the drubbing of 1956 had only nourished Arab hatred of Israel and the desire for revenge. In any event, the Egyptian–Jordanian defense pact seems to have galvanized the Israelis, who put together a government of national unity (which included Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition for all the years since statehood), in which Moshe Dayan was named minister of defense.

With Dayan in the cabinet, and with the Israeli belief that the existence of the entire nation was indeed in jeopardy, it was almost a certainty that Israel would strike the first blow. According to apologists for Israel, this is precisely what Nasser wanted. Were he to initiate hostilities, the issue would not be about shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba but about the continued existence of the Jewish state, which the United States was pledged to uphold. In this view, Nasser believed that Israel, in striking a first blow, would be diplomatically isolated, especially from the United States, and that the Americans would hesitate to intervene on Israel’s side. Wiser leaders than Eshkol and Nasser, however, might have averted conflict.

The Six-Day War broke out on the morning of June 5, 1967, as Israeli planes destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground. Details of the war itself have been told in countless books and will not be repeated here, but the importance of air power and the cohesiveness of Israel’s citizen army should be mentioned as significant factors in Israel’s success. The outcome was even more dramatic, since the Arabs seemed to be superior in almost every weapons category. After the initial Israeli air strike, Israeli ground troops defeated the Egyptian army, seizing the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula. In a still-disputed incident on June 8, the Israelis attacked an American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty, sailing off the Egyptian coast. Thirty-four sailors were killed and 164 wounded. Some writers insist that this was a deliberate and premeditated attack; Israel continues to maintain that the attack on the Liberty was a case of mistaken identity and an accident. Israel apologized and later paid $3 million in reparations for the families of the victims to the U.S. government, which accepted Israel’s explanation and apology.

Israel asked King Hussein to stay out of the war and assured him it would not attack him first. Hussein, however, was badly misled by the Egyptians, who intimated that they were being successful against Israel on the southern front. Jordanian guns began to fire from across the borders in Jerusalem while Jordanian troops seized the UN headquarters in no-man’s land. This was indeed the excuse the Israelis needed to take the Old City of Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. Israel then turned toward Syria, which had been attacking Israel’s northern settlements by air and with artillery. Although the United Nations called for a cease-fire, the Israelis did not stop until they had captured the Golan Heights in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By June 10, 1967, six days later, the war was over.