Wednesday,28 June, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Wednesday,28 June, 2017
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The US, Nasser and 1967

Meeting with the army commanders who would effect the October War victory during the War of Attrition

Readers may wonder why I am about to concentrate on Egypt's defeat in 1967 in this context. What is the point of homing in on that particular event and attributing blame to this party or that after all these years, they might ask. The fact is that the enemies of the 1952 Revolution and of Nasser, in particular, have always used that defeat, which tarnished Egypt's reputation and the accomplishments of Nasser's regime, as a handle to lash out at Nasserist policies and to present themselves as the alternative to the dictatorship that brought degradation to the Arabs and paved the way to the occupation of their land. These critics reserve a special vehemence for Nasser's "reckless" defiance of US might, in contrast to the "wisdom" that Anwar El-Sadat displayed when he engineered a 180 degree shift in Egypt's foreign policy orientation on the grounds that "Washington holds 99 per cent of the cards to a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict." In fact, that reorientation marked the beginning of the path to dependency and subordination to US interests at the expense of Egypt's and the Arabs' strategic interests.

Assem El-Dessouki, professor of modern history at Helwan University, holds that all US documents of the period confirm that the Lyndon Johnson administration, which succeeded the Kennedy administration, had decided to eliminate Nasser by asserting US hegemony over the Middle East. The plan, which was conceived a year before June 1967 war, made brilliant use of Israel to accomplish this end. In April 1966, Zionist influence in the White House had reached a new height with four key political appointments: Walter Rostow as national security advisor, his brother Eugene Rostow as assistant secretary of state, Arthur Goldberg as the US permanent envoy to the UN, and Richard Holmes as general-director of the CIA. In that same year, US aid to Israel increased to $1.1 billion, which was a considerable rise from $92 million the previous year. On 14 April, Washington informed Nasser that it had sold a package of military aircraft to Israel and asked him not to make an issue of this deal, because the package only consisted of 50 planes. Nasser summoned the US ambassador to Cairo at the time, Lucius Battle, to notify him that the deal could jeopardise Arab-US relations and that Johnson was mistaken if he thought that Egyptians would try to control their reactions because they needed wheat, because the Egyptians would tell the US that they did not want American wheat if that meant acquiescing to arms deals for Israel.

The US countdown to the demise of Nasser had officially begun. On 19 May 1966, at which time Egyptian forces were still engaged in Yemen, US intelligence submitted a report to Johnson stating that prolonging the war in Yemen would compound the economic difficulties in Egypt and facilitate toppling the regime. That same month, the US government refused to supply $150 million worth of food aid that it had previously committed to Egypt. Israel, meanwhile, received a third huge package of military aid.

On 16 June, the State Department delivered a memorandum to Johnson stating that the US government could not conclude an agreement to sell food to Egypt under the P L 480 programme, which releases US food surpluses for sale or donation for foreign assistance. The reasons it cited were Egypt's policy in Yemen, Cairo's hosting the Non-Aligned Movement conference, and Nasser's attacks against US policy in Vietnam. US humanitarian aid abroad could not have been more explicitly linked to the political outlooks of its intended beneficiaries.


El-Dessouki

On 14 July, Syrian and Israeli jet fighters clashed over a diversion project that was being constructed on the Jordan River. Aware that the US had just notched up its plan of military harassment, Nasser met with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was on his way back from the US, and told him that the Americans were bent on destroying Egypt and eliminating himself. Johnson's instructions to US intelligence agencies were to pursue an offensive policy, the Egyptian leader told the Pakistani foreign minister.

In early March 1967, Ambassador Battle made the US conditions for renewing US wheat exports to Egypt explicit. Cairo had to withdraw Egyptian forces from Yemen and end its support for the Aden (South Yemen) national independence movement, decommission a portion of its armed forces and stop manufacturing missiles, and support, or at least stop criticising, US policy in the Middle East. On 9 March, Nasser informed the US ambassador that Egypt was no longer interested in purchasing US wheat because of the degrading conditions and strings attached.

On 7 April, Israeli bombers and tanks entered Syria and bombarded strategic targets 70 kilometres inside Syrian territory. On 27 April, the Soviet Foreign Ministry issued a statement cautioning Israel against playing a "dangerous game". Worried by possible Soviet interference, the US moved its Sixth Fleet into the Mediterranean and the British Air Force began to assemble in Cyprus.

On 15 May, Israel celebrated the 19th anniversary of its creation by staging a military display in the Israeli sector of Jerusalem, rather than in the capital Tel Aviv. That day, Nasser ordered Egyptian forces to move towards the Suez Canal. Three days later, he asked the UN to withdraw its 3,000 strong international emergency force from Sinai and he began to consider a blockade to prevent Israeli ships and foreign ships carrying strategic goods to Israel from passing through the Gulf of Aqaba. As though coordinating with US and British designs to provoke Nasser, the Saudi and Jordanian press issued a spate of satirical commentaries on how Israeli ships were allowed to pass through the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba beneath the noses of the international emergency forces in Sinai.

In mid-May, in response to reports that Israel had begun to amass forces along the Syrian border, Nasser mobilised Egyptian forces in order to demonstrate solidarity with Syria in keeping with the Arab Mutual Defence Pact. On 22 May, before Egypt announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba, president Johnson instructed the Sixth Fleet and the Saratoga and America aircraft carriers to move to the eastern Mediterranean. He simultaneously issued a statement warning that the US considered the Gulf of Aqaba to be an international waterway and that any attempt to prevent Israeli navigation through this waterway would be illegitimate and constitute a threat to peace.

On 23 May, Johnson delivered two messages to Nasser via the US ambassador to Cairo, Richard Nolte. One was oral, the other written. The first was an emotionally worded plea stating that, "We must all not look back. Rather, we must all work to save the Middle East and the entire human community from a war that I believe no one wants. The major conflicts of our age must not be solved by illegitimate breaches of borders by arms and men." The written message took an altogether different tone: "The US government firmly opposes any aggression in the region of any sort, whether overt or covert, or undertaken by regular armies or other forces. This has been the policy of the US government under four presidents." To underline the messages, ambassador Charles Yust arrived in Cairo on the morning of 1 June 1967 to tell Egyptian officials that the US would oppose any party that began an armed aggression.

The following day, Nasser gave his answer. "History can not be forgotten," he said. "The root of the problem is the right of the people of Palestine to return to their land. The international family (the UN) is responsible for enabling the exercise of this right. Egypt has not only taken world peace as an aim. Towards the realisation of this aim, we play a constructive role on which there is no reason to amplify, so as to avoid self-glorification. Our forces have not and will not begin aggression. But we will defend ourselves against any aggression against us or against any Arab country with all the powers and energies we possess."

President Johnson's response was to sign an executive command ordering US air forces based in Ramstein Airbase in West Germany to undertake a reconnaissance operation of the Egyptian front using RF and C4 planes. Britain had just dispatched a shipment of arms and military equipment from the East London military air base. In addition, a large number of British "volunteers" had set off for Israel from Heathrow, the British Albion aircraft carrier was on its way to the Mediterranean, and 17 Falcon jets had flown from the Akrotiri air base in Cyprus to Israel 10 days before the war started.

Johnson, who had told Nasser that major disputes could not be resolved by illegitimate breaches of borders, overlooked the fact that his government did not issue a peep of censure against Israel's recent encroachment into Syria on 7 April and that previous US governments were equally silent in the face of the Israeli invasion of Gaza on 28 February 1955, in flagrant violation of the 1949 Rhodes truce agreement. Johnson also seemed to have forgotten the tripartite declaration issued by his government, the UK and France in May 1950 and which pledged to safeguard borders in the Middle East and to punish any party that attempted to breach these borders.

On 5 June, Israel attacked. In the Security Council, the US refused to condemn the Israeli aggression and it refused to approve the resolution calling on Israel to withdraw. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said at the time that he was not sure which side began the war. On 9 June, the US proposed a resolution calling for negotiations between the warring parties, brokered by a third party or the UN, which would aim to reach a disengagement agreement and then seek to establish a stable and lasting peace. The resolution did not obtain the support necessary to pass. In response, the US abstained in the Security Council vote, on 13 June, on a Soviet sponsored resolution to condemn Israel and call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces. It also opposed the Yugoslavian-Afro-Asian resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal. At the same time, it encouraged a number of Latin American countries in the US orbit to sponsor a resolution calling for a withdrawal of Israeli forces, an end of the state of war, and the creation of demilitarised zones. The resolution failed to pass as well. Not surprisingly, Washington opposed an Albanian-sponsored resolution, brought to a vote on 3 July, condemning Israel, and condemning the UK and the US for colluding in the Israeli aggression.


Johnson

On 19 June, Johnson issued a statement blaming Egypt for the war and stating that the US would not pressure Israel to withdraw as long as peace did not exist. The US president then listed five principles that had to be met in order to realise peace: the recognition of the right of each state in the region to a national life, a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, freedom of passage through the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba, an end to the Middle East arms race, and respect for all countries' political independence and territorial integrity.

After five months of deliberations in the Security Council and considerable arm-twisting and muscle flexing, Resolution 242 was passed on 22 November 1967. The famous resolution contained Johnson's five principles plus the call for Israeli forces to withdraw from the territories it had occupied in the war. Drafted primarily by Lord Caradon, Resolution 242 was not based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter in accordance with which resolutions are binding and can be enforced by sanctions, including the use of armed force.

The lead up to and aftermath of the June 1967 war demonstrate, perhaps more than any other event in modern history, the lengths to which the US will go to fight any political power, especially in the Third World, that strives for true independence and -- equally if not more importantly -- "threatens" Israel by defending Palestinian rights. This attitude has not changed from 1948 to the present. President Barack Obama made that perfectly clear in his address from Cairo University in June 2009: "America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable." Note, he said "bond", not relationship. He went on to say that denying the fact of the holocaust was "baseless, ignorant and hateful", and that violence and killing were a "dead end". But did Obama condemn the brutal Israeli assault against Gaza that year? Not likely, because he believes in "Israel's right to defend itself".

At Cairo University he also said that war and aggression would not succeed. In other words, anyone who contemplated that route would face another 5 June. Perhaps that is why he chose the eve of the anniversary of the Israeli attack against Egypt in 1967 as the day to deliver his address to the Islamic world. I doubt that the choice of that particular day was a pure coincidence. I also wonder how many spectators noticed how often he used his index finger to drive home a word of caution. Or was it because we were "free in our country" that we were "generous with our guests", to borrow a famous phrase by the early 20th century Egyptian nationalist Mustafa Kamel.

Nasser and his ambitions as an Egyptian and Arab nationalist leader represented a major obstacle to Washington's drive to secure its interests in this region and perhaps elsewhere in the world. From the moment Nasser refused to sign up with the Middle East Defence Organisation proposed to him by US secretary of state Dean Acheson in the spring of 1953 he was a marked man. It helped little that when Acheson told Nasser that the purpose of the organisation was to protect the Middle East from the communist peril, Nasser responded that the real threat to the Middle East came from Israel. On 31 August 1954 Nasser told an American newspaper that Arab countries could not enter into a Middle East defence project with the West. However, the following year, the US succeeded in bringing Iraq on board in a similar project, known as the Baghdad Pact. Nasser fought that pact for the next three years until Baghdad eventually withdrew from it following the Iraqi revolution of July 1958.

In 1955, Nasser rejected an American arms deal because one of the conditions was that he would have to accept an American military mission in Egypt. It was too reminiscent of the British contingent in the Egyptian army. But when he turned to the Soviets and concluded an arms deal in September 1955 the US warned that, "Egypt was playing with fire." When the World Bank offered to fund the High Dam on the condition that Egypt agrees to allow a financial commission to review the Egyptian budget, Nasser rejected this offer as well. The condition harked back to the debt fund in the era of Khedive Ismail that led to an increase in direct foreign intervention in Egypt.

Nasser remained determined to fight for and maintain Egypt's full independence. When President Eisenhower unveiled his Doctrine for the Middle East on 5 January 1957, Nasser countered with the Non-Aligned Movement of nations that "committed not to subordinating themselves to international blocs". On 12 November 1964 he said: "There are countries that enter alliances and receive some assistance, but they have no say in international affairs and they have no choice but to obey orders."

Nasser steadfastly refused to allow foreign aid to become a weapon to bend his people into submission. He did not care for such titles as "wise man of the nation". Rather he embodied the famous ancient Arabic verse that goes:

"Feed me not the water of life with degradation
Let me drink the bitter colocynth with pride.
The water of life with degradation is damnation.
Hell with pride is a finer station to abide."

Was Nasser wrong to prefer pride and dignity over humiliation and degradation? More immediately, are Washington and the Muslim Brothers preparing to reap the harvest of the antagonism to the Nasserist regime and the 1952 Revolution, the 65th anniversary of which takes place next July? Are they about to cash in on the long campaign of distortion that was waged against the accomplishments of that revolution that crashed on the shoals of defeat in June 1967? One thing for sure, the forthcoming days and weeks will be revealing.

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