Thursday, June 07, 2007

Matt 24 Watch, 23: An Eloquent Plea by Abba Eban to the UN, June 6, 1967

Yesterday was the 63rd Anniversary of D Day, Normandy, 1944. It was also the 40th Anniversary of the eloquent plea by Abba Eban, Israel's Foreign Minister, before the UN the day after the Six-Day War began.

The speech should be a lot better known than it is, so here are some excerpts:

1] The situation:

Two days ago Israel's condition caused much concern across the humane and friendly world. Israel had reached a sombre hour. Let me try to evoke the point at which our fortunes stood.

An army, greater than any force ever assembled in history in Sinai, had massed against Israel's southern frontier. Egypt had dismissed the United Nations forces which symbolized the international interest in the maintenance of peace in our region. Nasser had provocatively brought five infantry divisions and two armoured divisions up to our very gates; 80,000 men and 900 tanks were poised to move.

A special striking force, comprising an armoured division with at least 200 tanks, was concentrated against Eilat at the Negev's southern tip. Here was a clear design to cut the southern Negev off from the main body of our State. For Egypt had openly proclaimed that Eilat did not form part of Israel and had predicted that Israel itself would soon expire. The proclamation was empty; the prediction now lies in ruin

2] The declared intent:

. . . there could be no doubt about what was intended for us. With my very ears I heard President Nasser's speech on 26 May. He said:

"We intend to open a general assault against Israel. This will be total war. Our basic aim will be to destroy Israel."

On 2 June, the Egyptian Commander in Sinai, General Mortagi, published his Order of the Day, calling on his troops to wage a war of 'destruction against Israel. Here, then, was a systematic, overt, proclaimed design at politicide, the murder of a State.

The policy, the arms, the men had all been brought together, and the State thus threatened with collective assault was itself the last sanctuary of a people which had seen six million of its sons exterminated by a more powerful dictator two decades before.

3] The trigger and the spreading of war across three fronts:

. . . as time went on, there was no doubt that our margin of general security was becoming smaller and smaller. Thus, on the morning of 5 June, when Egyptian forces engaged us by air and land, bombarding the villages of Kissufim, Nahal-Oz and Ein Hashelosha [cf. correctives and caveats below] we knew that our limit of safety had been reached, and perhaps passed. In accordance with its inherent right of self-defence as formulated in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, Israel responded defensively in full strength. Never in the history of nations has armed force been used in a more righteous or compelling cause . . . .

To the appeal of Prime Minister Eshkol to avoid any further extension of the conflict, Syria answered at 12.25 yesterday morning by bombing Megiddo from the air and bombing Degania at 12.40 with artillery fire and kibbutz Ein Hammifrats and Kurdani with long-range guns. But Jordan embarked on a much more total assault by artillery and aircraft along the entire front, with special emphasis on Jerusalem, to whose dangerous and noble ordeal yesterday I come to bear personal witness.

There has been bombing of houses; there has been a hit on the great new National Museum of Art; there has been a hit on the University and on Shaare Zedek, the first hospital ever to have been established outside the ancient walls. Is this not an act of vandalism that deserves the condemnation of all mankind? And in the Knesset building, whose construction had been movingly celebrated by the entire democratic world ten months ago, the Israel Cabinet and Parliament met under heavy gunfire, whose echoes mingled at the end of our meeting with Hatikvah, the anthem of hope.

Thus throughout the day and night of 5 June, the Jordan which we had expressly invited to abstain from needless slaughter became, to our surprise, and still remains, the most intense of all the belligerents; and death and injury, as so often in history, stalk Jerusalem's streets.

When the approaching Egyptian aircraft appeared on our radar screens, soon to be followed by artillery attacks on our villages near the Gaza Strip, I instructed Mr. Rafael to inform the Security Council, in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. I know that that involved arousing you, Mr. President, at a most uncongenial hour of the night, but we felt that the Security Council should be most urgently seized.

4] The UN's role and failure:

. . . the Government and people of Israel have been disconcerted by some aspects of the United Nations role in this conflict. The sudden withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force was not accompanied, as it should have been, by due international consultations on the consequences of that withdrawal. Moreover, Israel interests were affected; they were not adequately explored. No attempt was made, little time given, to help Israel to surmount grave prejudice to its vital interests consequent on that withdrawal. After all, a new confrontation of forces suddenly arose. It suddenly had to be met and at Sharm el-Sheikh at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, the Strait of Tiran, legality walked out and blockade walked in. The peace of the world trembled. And thus the United Nations had somehow been put into a position of leaving Sinai safe for belligerency.

It is not, I think, a question of sovereignty that is here involved. The United Nations has a right to ask that, when it assumes a function, the termination of that function shall not take place in conditions that would lead to anti-Charter situations. I do not raise this point in order to linger upon that which is past, but because of Israel's general attitude to the peace-keeping functions of this Organization. And I confess that my own attitude and those of my colleagues and of my fellow citizens to the peacekeeping functions of the United Nations have been traumatically affected by this experience . . . . People in our country and in many countries ask: What is the use of a United Nations presence if it is in effect an umbrella which is taken away as soon as it begins to rain?

5] Tiran:

. . . the closing of the Strait of Tiran gave no benefit whatever to Egypt except the perverse joy of inflicting injury on others. It was an anarchic act, because it showed a total disregard for the law of nations, the application of which in this specific case had not been challenged for ten years. And it was, in the literal sense, an act of arrogance, because there are other nations in Asia and East Africa, that trade with the Port of Eilat, as they have every right to do, through the Strait of Tiran and across the Gulf of Aqaba. Other sovereign States from Japan to Ethiopia, from Thailand to Uganda, from Cambodia to Madagascar, have a sovereign right to decide for themselves whether they wish or do not wish to trade with Israel. These countries are not colonies of Cairo. They can trade with Israel or not trade with Israel as they wish, and President Nasser is not the policeman of other African and Asian States.

Here then was a wanton intervention in the sovereign rights of other States in the eastern half of the world to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to establish trade relations with either or both of the two ports at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.

When we examine, then, the implications of this act, we have no cause to wonder that the international shock was great. There was another reason too for that shock. Blockades have traditionally been regarded, in the pre-Charter parlance, as acts of war. To blockade, after all, is to attempt strangulation; and sovereign States are entitled not to have their trade strangled. To understand how the State of Israel felt, one has merely to look around this table and imagine, for example, a foreign Power forcibly closing New York or Montreal, Boston or Marseille, Toulon or Copenhagen, Rio or Tokyo or Bombay harbour. How would your Governments react? What would you do? How long would you wait?

6] Israel's basic legitimacy:

. . . the situation to be constructed after the cease-fire must depend on certain principles. The first of these principles surely must be the acceptance of Israel's statehood and the total elimination of the fiction of its non-existence. It would seem to me that after 3,000 years the time has arrived to accept Israel's nationhood as a fact, for here is the only State in the international community which has the same territory, speaks the same language and upholds the same faith as it did 3,000 years ago.

And if, as everybody knows to be the fact, the universal conscience was in the last week or two most violently shaken at the prospect of danger to Israel, it was not only because there seemed to be a danger to a State, but also, I think, because the State was Israel, with all that this ancient name evokes, teaches, symbolizes and inspires. How grotesque would be an international community which found room for 122 sovereign units and which did not acknowledge the sovereignty of that people which had given nationhood its deepest significance and its most enduring grace . . . .

the central point remains the need to secure an authentic intellectual recognition by our neighbours of Israel's deep roots in the Middle Eastern reality. There is an intellectual tragedy in the failure of Arab leaders to come to grips, however reluctantly, with the depth and authenticity of Israel's roots in the life, the history, the spiritual experience and the culture of the Middle East.

This, then, is the first axiom. A much more conscious and uninhibited acceptance of Israel's statehood is an axiom requiring no demonstration, for there will never be a Middle East without an independent and sovereign State of Israel in its midst.

7] The basic pre-requisite for lasting peace:

When the Council discusses what is to happen after the cease-fire, we hear many formulas: back to 1956, back to 1948 - I understand our neighbours would wish to turn the clock back to 1947. The fact is, however, that most clocks move forward and not backward, and this, I think, should be the case with the clock of Middle Eastern peace - not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace.

The point was well made this evening by the representative of Argentina, who said: the cease-fire should be followed immediately by the most intensive efforts to bring about a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. In a similar sense, the representative of Canada warned us against merely reproducing the old positions of conflict, without attempting to settle the underlying issues of Arab-Israel co-existence. After all, many things in recent days have been mixed up with each other. Few things are what they were. And in order to create harmonious combinations of relationships, it is inevitable that the States should come together in negotiation.

8] Some key questions:

. . . world opinion, before whose tribunal this debate unrolls, can solve this question by posing certain problems to itself. Who was it that attempted to destroy a neighbouring State in 1948, Israel or its neighbours? Who now closes an international waterway to the port of a neighbouring State, Israel or the United Arab Republic? Does Israel refuse to negotiate a peace settlement with the Arab States, or do they refuse to do so with it? Who disrupted the 1957 pattern of stability, Israel or Egypt? Did troops of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait and Algeria surround Israel in this menacing confrontation, or has any distinguished representative seen some vast Israel colossus surrounding the area between Morocco and Kuwait?

9] Closing invitation:

Israel has in recent days proved its steadfastness and vigour. It is now willing to demonstrate its instinct for peace. Let us build a new system of relationships from the wreckage of the old. Let us discern across the darkness the vision of a better and a brighter dawn.

Now, of course there is a serious question on whether the three villages identified above were in fact attacked by Egypt, and/or whether Egyptian aircraft [and armour] were approaching Israel. (Indeed, there are claims that this was a fabricated, intentionally false and deceptive account.) Of course, it is easy to have confusions in a tense situation, but more to the point, the underlying and entirely reasonable basis for Israeli action was an existing causus belli, the closure of Tiran joined to the creation of a ring of steel, as well as the barely called off intended offensive of May 27/8, joined to the manifest failure of diplomatic efforts by June 3 - 4.

Further to this, it is reasonably clear that it was Israel which launched major offensive operations on June 5, 1967, though in a context in which the other parties had initiated acts of war -- closure of Tiran (with all that it implied, as in 1956) -- and encirclement with a declared intent of annihilation. Such fighting may well have been strategically defensive, but was definitely tactically offensive [i.e attacking]. Indeed, that is just what Nasser hoped to provoke by closing Tiran, declaring intent to annihilate Israel and slaughter many of its citizens, and then closing in with a ring of steel that plainly threatened to cut off Israel's oil lifeline -- his miscalculation was that the Israelis were much more effective in their response than he expected.

Having duly noted these caveats, corrections and observations on questionable actions by the Israelis -- who are finite, fallible, fallen and sometimes ill-willed just like the rest of us all, it is plain that the underlying core points and issues are valid.

In particular, we need to hear a serious response from those who view Israel as an illegitimate entity, as to what they have to say in response to Mr Eban's acid comment that:
"It would seem to me that after 3,000 years the time has arrived to accept Israel's nationhood as a fact, for here is the only State in the international community which has the same territory, speaks the same language and upholds the same faith as it did 3,000 years ago."
There is much food for thought in that . . . END


UPDATE, June 9:
Further key documentation through Walt Rostow's recollections and Michael Oren's summary of the diplomatic and military situation, thence how all of these affected the Israeli leadership in the run-up to war.

Of particular significance in the former are the following excerpts:

Editorial note at no. 150: At 5:09 a.m. on June 5, 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk telephoned President Johnson. He read a draft message to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, saying that he thought it was better to send a message of this sort without waiting until the question of responsibility for the war was clarified. The President agreed. (See Document 157.) Johnson asked Rusk whether it seemed to him "reasonably sure that these tanks kicked it?" A reference to an Israeli report indicates that a UAR armored force had initiated the fighting. Noting that the fighting occurred initially over Egypt, Rusk said it was "a little hard to sort out", but they had intelligence that five Egyptian airfields in the Sinai were not operational. He added that he would put more weight on the Israeli claim that there had been a large number of Egyptian aircraft headed for Israel from the sea, but he thought it was too early to say. He continued, "My instincts tell me that the Israelis probably kicked this off, but I just don't know yet. And I don't think we ought to make a preliminary judgment on that because it's just hard to say." Johnson asked if the Israelis were saying the Egyptians "kicked it off." Rusk replied that each side was claiming publicly that the other started it but that no direct message had been received from Eshkol or Eban. He thought the Israeli claim of a tank advance looked "just a little thin on the surface" but he thought they would soon have more information. He stated that the Department had asked U.S. representative on the NATO Council Harlan Cleveland to keep a group of permanent members available for consultation, and he noted that the Security Council would meet and would probably call on both sides for an immediate cease-fire. He repeated, "My guess is the Israelis kicked this off." He suggested that they might want to arrange a meeting of the Congressional leadership to bring them up to date on the situation. Johnson agreed, and the conversation concluded. (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of a telephone conversation between Johnson and Rusk, June 5, 1967, 5:09 a.m., Tape F67.11, Side B, PNO 1) According to the Johnson Library, the dictabelt, with a June 7 note stating that it might have been made the previous day, was found with post-Presidential material. The date and time were taken from the President's Daily Diary. (Ibid.)

Note at 152: At 6:15 a.m. on June 5, 1967, Walt Rostow telephoned President Johnson and read to him a draft Presidential statement Rusk sent to the White House, expressing distress at the outbreak of fighting in the Middle East, noting that each side had accused the other of aggression, stating that the facts were not clear, and calling on all parties to support the UN Security Council in bringing about an immediate cease-fire. Rostow said he had read the statement to McNamara, who approved. The President agreed that the statement was all right. Rostow said that the evidence on who had started the fighting was not definitive, but that there was an interesting report from Cairo of indications of unusual activities in the UAR forces before the first Israeli strike at 9 a.m. Cairo time, including a report that a large number of pilots in uniform had been seen at the Cairo airport at 4:30 a.m. Rostow commented that this was "not much but it's something, the only evidence that this is a UAR put-up job." He added that McNamara was inclined to feel the same way because of the reports, and because he thought a UAR public announcement of the plan to send UAR Vice President Mohieddin to visit the United States would be a "good cover." Rostow reported that Foreign Minister Eban said the Israelis had been attacked and he then gave orders to counter-attack. Rostow said that according to Eban, the Israelis were drafting a message to Johnson that would state Israel had no intention of taking advantage of the situation to enlarge its territory and hoped that peace could be restored within its present boundaries and that the conflict could be localized; in this regard, the message would ask U.S. help in restraining any Soviet initiative.

CIA Memo at 169: SUBJECT The Arab-Israeli War: Who Fired the First Shot

1. An analysis of presently available information suggests that Israel fired the first shots today. The Israelis, however, claim they were responding to a movement by Egyptian air and armored forces "toward" Israel which they interpreted as an attack. Cairo says flatly that Israel attacked Egypt.

2. The Egyptian army's foreign liaison officer informed the US Defense Attaché in Cairo that Israel started raiding the Suez Canal Zone and El-Arish Airfield in northeastern Sinai at 9 a.m. Cairo time (2 a.m. EDT). An announcement on the Israeli army radio service at 9:05 Cairo time (2:05 EDT) said the Israeli army was clashing with an Egyptian armored force "moving toward Israel." An Israeli army spokesman later announced that the Egyptians had "opened an air and land attack." He said Egyptian armored forces moved at dawn "toward" southern Israel and that Israeli forces "went out to meet them." He also said that Egyptian jet aircraft were seen on radar "coming toward the country's shores," and that a similar air movement was occurring along the Sinai border. Air clashes developed, he added, when Israeli planes flew to meet them.

3. Israeli Foreign Minister Eban told Ambassador Barbour that Egyptian ground forces began the fighting by shelling Israeli border villages. An official Israeli report passed to the US Embassy, however, said Egypt's 4th armored division plus a mobile task force had teamed up "with the apparent intention" of striking across southern Israel toward Jordan. The report said Israel armored forces had moved to engage the Egyptian armor, and that Israel had attacked Egyptian airfields.

4. [9 lines of source text not declassified]

It is therefore clear that "Who fired the first shot?" was uncertain at the time, with the general weight of informed judgement leaning to: the Israelis. However, it is not at all impossible that the Israeli complaints about shelling of villages, movement of armoured units and of Egyptian aircraft are without objective foundation, and even moreso, it is plain that such perceptions may have been a part of the fog of war, which leads to actions under confusion, want of accurate information and stress that look very different in the cool distance of history.

In any case, it is clear that surrounding Israel with a ring of steel and cutting the straights of Tiran, then making blood-curdling declarations of intent to annihilate were acts that quite properly provoked strong -- and for the Arabs, unanticipatedly successful -- Israeli action in self-defence.

So, Oren's point is well-made:

On May 21 Eshkol told his cabinet, “I believe the Egyptians plan to stop Israeli shipping or bomb the atomic reactor in Dimona. A general attack is liable to follow.” Rabin, similarly glum, warned that “it will be a hard war.... There will be many casualties,” and recommended that Israel take the minimal step of calling up more reserves, while continuing to pursue its diplomatic options to the end.35 Heeding this advice, Eshkol addressed the Knesset the next day on the need for “reciprocal respect for the sovereignty, integrity and international rights” of all Middle East nations.36 Again, Eshkol used the opportunity to attempt to defuse the crisis. He purposely stopped short of condemning Egypt’s buildup in Sinai and later, secretly, sent U Thant another message for Nasser, urging him to refrain from any action in Tiran.37 Such conciliatory gestures by Israeli leaders, designed to mollify the Egyptians and entice them into mediation, had the opposite effect: Nasser took them as signs of weakness. Emboldened by Israel’s failure to respond forcibly to UNEF’s ouster, and dazzled by the praise being heaped on him throughout the Arab world, he took the step that would vastly increase the chances of armed conflict. On May 22, while U Thant was en route to Cairo, Nasser visited one of his air bases in the Sinai. Telling a rapt assembly of fighter pilots that “the Jews threaten war and we say ahlan wa-sahlan (welcome),” he announced a renewal of the Tiran blockade.38

Nasser’s decision to close the Straits was a defining moment in the crisis. By the late 1960s, the port town of Eilat on the Red Sea had become a vital factor in Israel’s economy as a center for commerce and shipping, the terminus for imports of Iranian oil and other essential goods, and for exports of Israeli products to Africa, Asia and beyond. More than the financial blow it dealt Israel, however, the blocking of Israel’s access to the Red Sea was an immense political victory for Nasser: It was an overt act of war, one that bolstered his popularity in the Arab world, and thus his ability to wage an actual armed conflict. Until then the Israeli government had been willing to live with the expulsion of UNEF and even with the Egyptian army’s buildup in the Sinai, but now the stakes had changed dramatically. No longer a matter of a potential military clash along Israel’s southern border, the threat had become, as Chief of Staff Rabin observed, “a question of ‘to be or not to be.’”39 . . .

States facing existential threats react strongly. And, for good reason.

So, whatever the sins of Israel are in the matter, the underlying justice of what they did in 1967 -- in defence of their literal existence -- is plain.

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