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23 May 1967 – Nasser closes the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping

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.

The events over the last few days have confirmed to every Israeli the true intentions of Egypt and its President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

On 21 May Egyptian troops moved in to occupy Sharm el-Sheikh as the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) contingent, based in the Sinai, was ousted by President Nasser two days earlier – in contravention to the decade-long Egypt-Israel armistice agreement that has kept the quiet along the border.

Egypt did not immediately indicate whether this deployment would affect Israel’s shipping through the Straits of Tiran. But yesterday, a day before UN Secretary General U Thant is scheduled visit to Egypt, President Nasser addressed Egyptian pilots in Sinai (his first public appearance since the initial mobilisation) and announced the blockade of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli and Israel-bound shipping.

He said: “The Gulf of Aqaba constitutes our Egyptian territorial waters … under no circumstances will we allow the Israeli flag to pass through the Aqaba Gulf.”

When U Thant’s plane landed in Paris for refuelling on his way to Egypt yesterday, he was reportedly met with the news.

The vagueness of President Nasser’s statement leaves unanswered questions. For example, will only Egypt block passage of Israeli-flag vessels through the Straits or any vessel carrying strategic goods to Eilat? What does Egypt classify as strategic goods? What if Israeli-flag vessels are accompanied by a warship?

Why are these nuances important? The Straits provides the only maritime passage into the Gulf of Aqaba, at whose northern tip sits the Israeli port of Eilat. For the last 10 years, since the end of the 1956 Suez War, Israel has received the majority of its oil through the Straits, which has been vital for the growth of its economy.

As Joseph Sisco, the US Under Secretary of State for International Organisations, told reporters at a conference yesterday: “On the economic side, Israel depends on this route for most of its oil imports and for many exports to the markets of Africa and Asia it us trying to develop.”

The legality of blockading the Straits

As part of the settlement to the 1956 war, shipping in and out of Eilat was to pass freely through the Straits of Tiran. Despite this agreement, Egypt still disputes Israel’s right of passage. The Egyptians argue that the waters around the Straits fall within Egypt’s territorial waters, and therefore it has the right to suspend passage on security grounds, which it claimed at today’s emergency UN Security Council meeting.

Israel, on the other hand, argues that the waters fall into a category of expanse, namely, “straits,” and therefore under Article 16 (3) of the Convention of the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, ‘there shall be no suspension of the innocent passage of foreign ships through straits which are used for international navigation between one part of the high seas and another part of the high seas or the territorial sea of a foreign State” (emphasis added).

But debating the legality of the blockade is purely a futile exercise for Israel – there is more at stake here than academic curiosity. If Israel takes no action, her credibility would diminish considerably. The Arab states might interpret this as the opportunity carry out its threats to her existence, and the choices facing Israel now are not just a matter of risks and rewards. They are a matter of extinction or survival.

What comes next?

For the moment, the government of Israel maintains that the blockade constitutes a challenge of utmost gravity not only for Israel but also to the whole international community. But Israel’s leaders have remained silent on what they intend to do about it, suggesting that the government has been caught off guard and has yet to develop a strategy to deal with the current situation.

As Charles Douglas-Home wrote in The Times a few days ago: “Israel’s reaction to the reoccupation of Sharm el-Sheikh is crucial to the next round of the crisis.”

To my count, Israel has three options. First it can do nothing, but what Israeli leader can live with hostile actions of an adversary, and how can deterrence be maintained without a credible response?

Second, it can test Nasser’s threat by sending a cargo ship down the Straits. However, every Western state is already warning against this, and there is fear in Israel that if it starts a war, Israel will be left stranded by the international community for provoking Nasser.

And third, Israel can try to work with the international community to help reduce tension and ensure that the rights of free passage through the Straits are guaranteed and assured.

But, the international community has yet to provide any meaningful resolution to the brewing crisis. In fact, the response thus far, is inversed. US media are reporting that US Under Secretary Rostow told France’s Ambassador to the US, Charles Lucet, that all US efforts are trying to stop Israel from initiating a “hasty attack against Egypt”. And France’s Council of Ministers adopted a resolution declaring its support for this path to stopping Israel. Stopping Israel from doing what? Acting in self-defence against Egypt’s actions which are in violation of customary international law?

This inversion is another crisis for Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Acting against the current in international politics might mean Israel finds itself diplomatically isolated, and former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion has already voiced concerns about being dragged into another war without the support of a superpower.

Nasser, and the Egyptian military, has put itself in this untenable position. After linking the recent mobilisation of troops in the Sinai to deterrence against Israel for its reprisal attacks on the Syrian border against Palestinian militants, the only logical move for Nasser after occupying Sharm el-Sheikh was to not allow the passage of cargo that enhances Israel’s capacity to attack Syrian.

Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin’s words to the Defence Ministry’s Ministerial Committee are worthy of reading for every Western political leader trying to prevent another war: “It’s not just freedom of navigation that is hanging in the balance. Israel’s credibility, determination, and capacity to exercise her right of self-defence are all being put to the test.”

Samuel Nurding is Research Analyst at BICOM.