By Samuel Nurding
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War BICOM is taking you back in time with a selection of policy briefings as if they were written 50 years ago to the day. BICOM is tweeting British newspaper reports from 1967 @BritainIsrael and live tweeting Lt. Yael Dayan’s war diary @YaelDayan67 – daughter of the then Israel Defence Minister Moshe Dayan – who fought in the Sinai campaign.
Israel is reeling following yesterday’s report by UN Security General U Thant which notifies his acquiescence to Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad’s request to remove the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) stationed in the Sinai Peninsula.
According to U Thant’s report, at 12:00 yesterday he received a letter from Riad which said Egypt had “decided to terminate the presence of the United Nationals Emergency Force from the territory of the United Arab Republic and Gaza Strip”. Riad failed to mention the reasoning behind Egypt’s decision, or whether the termination was temporary or permanent, but recent events are providing an alarming picture for Israel and the Middle East.
Firstly, the evacuation order came only four days after Egyptian President Nasser began moving four brigades into the Sinai and massing near the Israeli border.
Second, on 17 May Syrian forces were deployed in the Golan Heights.
And third, Egyptian planes were reportedly seen entering Israeli airspace on 17 May and flying over the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Egypt is yet to confirm or deny the allegations.
Taken together, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and the Israeli population at large, has every reason to be concerned. In fact, U Thant’s report states as much: “The Governments concerned, and the United Nations, are now confronted with a brutally realistic and dangerous situation.”
Israel and Western leaders seemingly don’t see eye to eye regarding the gravitas of the situation at hand. Yesterday, the Daily Mail quoted Eshkol as stressing the “dangerous significance” of the Egyptian military build-up and withdrawal of UNEF. However, the Daily Telegraph quotes Britain’s Ambassador in Israel, Michael Hadow, telling the UK government that “Nasser’s new posture posed no real threat;” Walworth Barbour, US Ambassador to Israel, reportedly told Israeli officials that the withdrawal did not affect the “fundamental military situation;” and Jacques Rouz, France’s ambassador in Cairo, told his Foreign Minister that UNEF removal did not mean that the Egyptian leadership was embarking on “an adventure”.
Why is the military build-up and UNEF termination significant?
The significance of the build-up of Egyptian military units in the Sinai and the withdrawal of UNEF is extremely destabilising to the relation between Israel and Egypt. The Sinai has remained demilitarised since the end of the Suez War in 1956. As a result of an agreement between Israel and Egypt, at the time, peace-keeping forces were placed along the border and have been credited by most analysts for the decade of tranquillity that has endured. The international forces were a key component in Israel’s agreement to withdraw from territory it captured in 1956.
However, UNEF was the only buffer between two countries still technically at war; one of which publically calls for the destruction of the other. Now, there is little preventing an Egyptian strike against Israel with a potentially devastating blow, except perhaps a preventive strike by Israel, which may now be discussed in all seriousness by the Israeli cabinet.
The international community’s lack of response to, or at least an attempt to negotiate with, Egypt’s diktak is also of great significance. U Thant left no room for debate at the Advisory Committee meeting yesterday, despite several of its members, including Canada, Brazil and Denmark, voicing disappointment with the Secretary General’s submission. Had the Advisory Committee been unanimously opposed to the withdrawal of UNEF, it could have compelled U Thant to bring the issue before the General Assembly and possibly prevented it from happening.
Moreover, the UN’s acquiescence severely undermines Israel’s trust in the international community’s ability to prevent conflict in the region. As part of the agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1956, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought assurance that the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in Sinai couldn’t be withdrawn just due to the sole demand of the Egyptians; that the Straits of Tiran wouldn’t be blockaded again; and that Israeli ships would have access to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Israeli port at Eilat. This assurance has been severely broken.
The Daily Mail quotes the US as pledging full support for “any UN action required to help keep the peace” in the Middle East. Yet it is baffling that the US, which in 1957 under President Dwight Eisenhower pledged to “assure that Israel would, for the future, enjoy its rights under the Armistice and under international law,” has stood by whilst Nasser unilaterally kicks-out the UNEF forces. But with it being bogged down in Vietnam, its questionable how much the US can actually do.
Nasser is undoubtedly emboldened by the ease in which he has been able to remove UNEF from the Sinai. As George Brown, the British Foreign Secretary, said: “It really makes a mockery of the peace-keeping work of the UN if, as soon as tension rises, the UN is told to leave.”
In Nasser’s mind there is nothing stopping him from blocking the Straits of Tiran again, improving his image of leader of the Arab world in the process.
The UN Security Council’s recent record speaks for itself. On 15 May the Council was unable to act in any positive way to ease the tensions long the Israeli-Syrian border. And earlier today, Canada and Denmark requested that the Security Council meet to discuss the alarming situation concerning UNEF’s departure from the Middle East, though the appeal was denied by the Soviet Union and Bulgaria.
At the moment Nasser and his military general have remained silent on the Straits. With U Thant’s visit to Cairo scheduled for 23 May, there remains hope in the West that reason will prevail and a settlement will be negotiated. Israelis are not so optimistic. If Nasser does attempt to close the Straits, Israel will face the same situation that forced her into war in 1956. It was casus belli then and it will not doubt be regarded as a casus belli again.
However, Israel is facing a much more dangerous and untenable situation than in 1956. Syria’s cross-border attacks in the north are becoming more persistent; Fatah’s sabotage attacks are becoming more devastating to the Israeli economy; France, Israel’s closet international ally during the 1950s, is now firmly in the Arab camp; and the international community has shown its lack of capacity to implement so-called guarantees. There is a strong sense among the Israeli public that if Israel lost a war, she would not, unlike the opposition, live to fight another.
Samuel Nurding is Research Analyst at BICOM.