General Rabin does not think that Nasser wanted war

Source: Le Monde 290268

[Many thanks to Professor John Quigley for providing the copy of Le Monde used in verifying this quote]

While Gunnar Jarring, representative of the UN secretary general, is heading Wednesday to New York, Israeli officials are waiting for the reaction of the Arab countries concerning Abba Eban’s proposition to engage in negotiations in the presence of United Nations representatives.  

If U.A.R and Jordan give their approval, Mr. Jarring could start planning the “second step of his mission”. 

General Yitzhak Rabin, former Israeli chief of the general staff, interviewed by Eric Rouleau a few days ago, while he was in Paris, has manifested relative optimism, since he is assured that in his opinion president Nasser has enough prestige in order to sign peace.

General Yitzhak Rabin, at the age of 45, has started a new career, abandoning the khaki uniform that he wore for twenty seven years for the lounge suit of the diplomat. He has just started his new role as Israel’s ambassador in Washington.

Anyone who had the privilege to talk with the victor of the “six-day” war, figures out rapidly that the soldier is dubbed by a politician. He has known personally President Nasser in 1948, when he was only a simple commander, besieged in the pocket of Faluja.  He participated in the negotiation of armistice which happened in Rhodes in 1949. After the 1967 conflict, he has voiced opinions which were judged moderately non-conformist.

Three weeks before the “six-day“ war, in May 12 1967, he has affirmed in substance that Israel would be brought to overthrow the Syrian regime in order to put an end to Fedayeen raids. This position has reinforced the conviction of those who expected an attack against Syria. Two days after General Rabin’s statement, President Nasser moved troops into the Sinai.

Does he have the feeling of having contributed in the outbreak of the crisis which had lead to war? The former Israelis general-staff chief, with an impassive face, answered after a moment of thinking:

“I do not think so. It would be absurd to believe that president Nasser had moved his troops after reading my declarations. Besides, it was not the first time that I had made similar declarations. Already, in September 1966 I had a similar analysis. I declared that our attitude towards Damascus cannot be the same as the one toward Beruit and Amman. While Jordan and Lebanon struggled against terrorist like us, Syria…”

-Do you think that Nasser pretended to believe in your threats because he was looking to provoke war?

“I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions that he sent in Sinai on the 14th of May were not enough to launch an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.  This fact shows in my opinion that Nasser did not really believe that we were going to attack Syria. It was a bluff; he wanted to take the opportunity to show himself as the savior of Syria and thereby win the sympathy of the Arab world. We knew this strategy as he already used it in 1960, at the time of the Syrian-Egyptian union. Following a raid we executed in the demilitarized zone, he had concentrated some troops, thus making people believe that we were planning an attack. A month later, he withdrew them assuring the Syrians that he had succeeded in scaring us, but eight years ago, he did not ask for the withdrawal of the UN forces. This time, he felt the need to give more credibility to his bluff. Indeed, the Arab anti-Nasserien propaganda had pushed him to the limit by constantly accusing him of “hiding behind the international forces”.


The responsibility of U Thant

-Do you think that he had the intention to close the Aqaba gulf for the navigation of Israelis ships?

“In the beginning, he asked for the retrieval of the “peacekeepers” only from the portion of the borders from Rajah to Kuntilla, and he suggested the UN soldiers to be regrouped in Gaza and Charm-El-Cheikh (which commands the entrance of the Aqaba gulf). Unfortunately, Mr. Thant forced him to choose: keeping the international forces in all positions, or on the contrary, asking for the total and final retrieval of the forces. I even think that the UN secretary general has made this demand public even before it reached President Nasser. The latter in order to not lose his credibility, chose to trigger the Aqaba crisis.”

-Why did he do it since he did not want war and thus he knew that your army was superior to his army?

“This is where our logic does not match the Arab logic. The latter distinguish rarely between realities and dreams. Nasser was intoxicated by the outbreak of the popular enthusiasm in the Arab world, and with his own propaganda. He ended up believing that the Egyptian army was not defeated by Israel in 1956 but only by the Anglo-French intervention.  He has then built up a whole system of thinking, according to which Israel will not take the initiative of hostilities in 1967 since they could not count, like in 1956, on the support of foreign powers. Judging from the 7 divisions he sent to the Sinai, after the closure of Aqaba, he knew nonetheless that we will consider his gesture as a casus belli.”

– The partial blockade imposed on Aqaba did not constitute a matter of life or death for Israel which could be assured of supply by Haifa, as it was the case in 1956. Beside, President Nasser, you probably know it, was willing to make concessions especially concerning the passage of oil. Why did you launch hostilities only forty-eight hours before the arrival of Zakarya Mohyeddine to Washington, who was going there to precisely negotiate a settlement?

“The closure of the Aqaba gulf, itself, I repeat, was for us a casus belli. However, the war was fundamentally provoked by a set of local and international factors. The noxious role that the Soviet Union had played aggravated the passion and hatred spread in the region. “

-How do you explain the paralysis of the Egyptian high command in front of the Israelis offensive?

“It was not a paralysis, but incompetence. Despite, the improved weaponry they had at their disposal, and the training they received mostly in the Soviet Union, the officers were not up to the task. The Egyptian forces fought very well in the defensive position they were assigned to, but total confusion spread the instant they had to modify their tactical plans. It was also the case for the Syrian troops. Before the 5th of June, we had measured the incapacity of our opponents; however, I confess that I was not expecting such decisive results in such a short period of time, and a victory with such minimal costs.”

-And the future ?

“It is very hard to act like a prophet. But we can say that war, according to our logic, is excluded in a near future since the Arabs -unless they  are assisted by a foreign power- are not capable to ensure military advantages. At one time or another, they will have to accept the negotiation with us. This time, we need to end the evil from the root, which means concluding a durable peace.”

-By keeping the occupied territories in the June war?

“It is the task of the Israeli government to take a decision concerning that. For me, and it is a personal opinion, I do not think we should keep all the occupied territories. A negotiation after all, is a bargaining. Anyway, the Arabs need to understand that we cannot provoke wars without any consequences. This one as the preceding ones needs to cost them something. “

-Do you think that Israel can sustain for a long time the cost of occupation and the assaults of the Palestinian commandos at the same time?

“Certainly, the occupation constitutes for us a financial weight, limited though. We can assume it for ten or twenty more years. Concerning the Fedayin, it is easier to fight them inside a territory we control than in neighbor countries. Believe me; we can afford waiting for our opponent to finally decide to negotiate. In my opinion, Nasser is the first among heads of the Arab state who is capable to conclude peace.”

Interview by Eric Rouleau

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