By Jack May
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.
At a meeting of the cabinet earlier this afternoon, the government agreed to try three more weeks of diplomacy to resolve the maritime dispute with Egypt, following Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar’s decision to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Based on reports from those anxiously waiting in the halls outside of the cabinet meeting room, it appears that a raucous debate ensued, and the decision was not unanimous.
During the meeting, IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin urged cabinet ministers to strike now, arguing that in three weeks it would be even more difficult to attack the Egyptian army. In a heated exchange, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reproached Rabin, asking if he was willing to disobey the US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wish for Israel “not to take pre-emptive action”. Eshkol pre-empted Rabin’s response: “Even if you say ‘yes’, I am not interested in listening!”
The cabinet’s decision to delay hostilities follows a flurry of meetings between Foreign Minister Abba Eban and foreign leaders in London, Paris and Washington. On the 24 May Eban met British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who agreed that the Egyptian blockade of the Straits “must not be allowed to triumph; Britain would join with others in an effort to open the Straits”. Upon returning to his hotel that evening, Eban noted that “the British radio and television… were full of sympathy for Israel, but they had a distinctly funereal air”. In Paris, Eban received a clear warning from French President Charles De Gaulle against going to war under any circumstances.
The decisive factor in the cabinet’s decision to pursue all diplomatic options short of war appears to have come from Washington. Eban initially left for the US on instructions from the Prime Minister to urge President Johnson to order American vessels to accompany Israeli ships through the Straits. Yet, Egypt’s increasingly aggressive behaviour and rhetoric – demonstrated earlier this week by the mobilisation of an armoured division in the Sinai – have prompted a change in the government’s strategic approach to the maritime conflict with Egypt, towards seeking an imminent guarantee from the US government assuring Israel’s security. As Prime Minister Eshkol stated, “the problem [is] no longer the closure of the straits but the very existence of Israel”.
The lack of unanimity in the cabinet earlier this afternoon is in part in response to Eban’s failure to receive such a guarantee from President Johnson, following their meeting on Friday evening. During that meeting, Israel came away with less than it had hoped for, in light the gravity of the situation back home. President Johnson appeared open to the international flotilla option to break Egypt’s blockade of the Straits, but stressed that he would first have to exhaust all diplomatic options through the UN prior to seeking congressional approval.
Upon his return to Israel yesterday, Eban relayed the message that a diplomatic solution was possible if the Israeli government was willing to wait. Failing to receive a more robust security guarantee from the Americans, the Prime Minister reportedly adjourned the cabinet meeting earlier this afternoon, with the cabinet opting to delay military action in favour of first exhausting all diplomatic options. According to reports from those present, Eshkol claimed that he “would not want to antagonise the American president”.
Eban was not the only foreign official to seek assurances from the international community this week. While Eban was meeting with his foreign leaders in Europe and the US, Egyptian Minister of War Shams Badhran held talks in Moscow with Soviet foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Chairman of the Council of Ministers Alexei Kosygin. The Soviets sent a letter to President Johnson requesting that the US restrain Israel.
With the international community largely in agreement that steps should be taken to avoid another all-out war in the region, following his meeting with Eban, the US president sent a letter to Israel on behalf of the US government, warning the Israelis “not to take pre-emptive action,” whilst simultaneously communicating that the Canadians and Dutch have agreed to participate in an international flotilla to reopen the Straits of Tiran.
These developments have evidently compelled the government to extend the waiting period and to strive to exhaust all diplomatic options short of war, evident by the cabinet’s decision earlier today. Yet, while the government lowers the volume on talk of an imminent war, it remains unclear what will come of the international flotilla option. Despite assurances from the US and Eban that the former is serious about finding a diplomatic solution to the blockade of the Straits, Britain and the US negotiators reached an impasse last Thursday, as each side hoped the other would supply the majority of the vessels and take responsibility for recruiting other actors.
Despite ambiguous assurances from the international community, the military is against the decision to delay military action. In addition to Rabin’s efforts to convince the cabinet to forego another waiting period, given the build-up of Egyptian forces in the Sinai and Nasser’s violent rallying cries to the Egyptian public, in an article in this morning’s Haaretz, Zeev Schiff, (widely regarded as the General Staff’s mouthpiece), equated Nasser with Hitler and Israel’s predicament with the Holocaust, arguing that excessive wallowing in the diplomatic mud was harmful to the national interest. The Prime Minister is meeting the General Staff later this evening, and despite the cabinet’s decision, it is expected that they will likely reiterate their position that Israel must strike sooner rather than later.
The Prime Minister is also expected to address the Israeli public later this evening at 20:30 on The Voice of Israel, to explain the cabinet’s decision. In the meantime, not long after the cabinet met this afternoon, Nasser announced at a press conference in Egypt, that “we will not accept any… coexistence with Israel”.
Jack May is research and communications intern at BICOM.