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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

"I do not think Nasser wanted war"


A commentator quotes Israel General Rabin as saying, "I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to the Sinai on 14 May [1967] would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it."

According to the anonymous commentator, and numerous web sites, this quote proves that Israel sought war in 1967. However, it does no such thing. The crucial point is the date: May 14, several weeks before the June 5 beginning of the 1967 War. The quote linked to by my commentator omits the date, as do many, but not all, of the web pages I found touting this quote.

Many things happened between May 14 and June 5. Egypt ordered the UN peacekeepers to leave, Egypt blockaded Israel's Red Sea Port. Egypt moved another 5 divisions to the Israeli Border, 100,000 troops in all. Egyptian dictator Nasser threatened Israel with genocide. Indeed, every provocation I mentioned in my previous post happened after May 14.

Even without more context, it's fairly clear what Rabin is saying here. He's saying that Nasser may not have initially wanted war, but eventually found himself in a situation where he couldn't back down without losing face. He may have hoped that the UN peacekeepers would refuse to leave. He may have been goaded by the Soviets, who falsely told him that Israel was planning to attack Syria. The histories I've read say that the war was probably a miscalculation on Nasser's part, but certainly do not suggest that the war was provoked by Israel.

Here's some context that I found on a discussion board. I don't know if it's an accurate transcription of the interview with Rabin, but it seems credible to me.


Source is Le Monde, 29 February 1968. The interview begins on page 1 and continues on page 4.

THE ISRAELI-ARAB CONFLICT

General Rabin does not think that Nasser wanted war


... Q. Do you think that Nasser pretended to believe in your threats because he was seeking to provoke war?


A. I do not think that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent to the Sinai, on May 14, would not have been sufficient to start an offensive against Israel. He knew it, and we knew it. This fact shows, in my view, that Nasser did not really believe that we were going to attack Syria. He was bluffing; he wanted to present himself, at low cost, as the savior of Syria and to thus gain broad sympathy in the Arab world. We were familiar with this strategem since he had already used it in 1960.... But, eight years ago, he had not demanded the withdrawal of the UN forces. This time, he felt the need to give more credibility to his bluff. Indeed, the propaganda of the anti-Nasser Arab states had pushed him by constantly accusing him of "hiding behind the international forces".


Q. Did he intend, in your view, to close the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping?


A. Initially, he demanded the withdrawal of the "blue helmets" only from the portion of the borders from Rafah to [illegible], and he suggested that the UN soldiers be regrouped in Gaza and Sharm-el-Sheikh (which commands the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba). Unhappily, Mr. Thant obliged him to choose: keep the international forces in all their positions or, on the contrary, demand their total and definitive withdrawal. I believe that the UN General Secretary even made this requirement public before it had reached President Nasser. Nasser, in order not to lose face, chose to start the crisis of Aqaba.


Q. Why did he do this if he did not want war and if he knew, in addition, that your army was superior to his?


A. This is where our logic does not correspond to that of the Arabs. The latter rarely make the distinction between realities and desires. Nasser was intoxicated by the explosion of popular enthusiasm in the Arab world, as well as by his own propaganda. He finally believed that the Egyptian army was not defeated in 1956 by Israel, but only by the French-English intervention. He constructed an entire system of thought, according to which Israel would not initiate hostilities in 1967 because it could not count, as in 1956, on the support of foreign powers. However, judging by the seven divisions which he sent to Sinai after the closure of Aqaba, he knew that we would consider his gesture to be a casus belli.

Here is the original in French

LE CONFLIT ISRAELO-ARABE

Le generale Rabin ne pense pas que Nasser voulait la guerre


... Q. Penser-vous que Nasser a fait semblait de croire a vos menaces parce qu'il cherchait a provoquer la guerre?


A. Je ne pense pas que Nasser voulait la guerre. Les deux divisions qu'il envoya dans le Sinai, le 14 mai, n'aurient pas suffi pour declencher une offensive contre Israel. Il le savait, et nous le savions. Ce fait demontre, a mon sens, que Nasser ne croyait pas vraiment que nous allions attaquer la Syrie. Il bluffait; il voulait se presenter, a bon prix, comme le sauveur de la Syrie et se gagner ainsi de larges sympathies dans le monde arabe. Nous connaissons le stratageme puis qu'il l'avait deja utilise en 1960.... Mais, il y a huit ans, il n'avait pas demande le retrait des forces de l'O.N.U. Cette fois-ci, il a eprouve le besoin de donner plus de credibilite a son bluff. En effet, la propagande des Etats arabes antinasseriens l'avait pousse a bout en l'accusant constamment de "se refugier derriere les forces internationales".


Q. Avait-il, selon vous, l'intention de fermer le golfe d'Akaba a la navigation des bateaux israeliens?


A. Au debut, il avait demande le retrait des "casques bleues" seulement de la portion des frantieres allant de Rafah a [illegible], et il suggerait que les soldats a l'O.N.U. soient regroupes a Gaza et a Charm-El-Cheikh (qui commande l'entree du golfe d'Akaba). Malheureusement, M. Thant l'a oblige a choisir: maintenir les forces internationales sur tous ses positions ou, au contraire, demander leur retrait total et definitif. Je crois meme que le secretaire general de l'O.N.U. a rendu publique cette exigence avant meme qu'elle ne parvienne au president Nasser. Celui-ci, pour ne pas perdre la face, a choisi de declencher la crise d'Akaba.


Q. Pourquoi l'a-t-il fait puis qu'il ne voulait pas la guerre et qu'il savait,
de surcroit, que votre armee etait superieure a la sienne?


A. C'est la ou notre logique ne correspond pas a celle des Arabes. Ces derniers font rarement la distinction entre les realities et les reves. Nasser a ete intoxique par la flambee d'enthousiasme populaire dans le monde arabe, ainsi que par sa propre propagande. Il a fini par croire que l'armee egyptienne n'a pas battue en 1956 par Israel, mais uniquement par l'intervention franco-anglaise. Il a alors edifie tout un systeme de pensee, selon lequel Israel ne prendrait l'initiative des hostilities en 1967 puisqu'il ne pouvait compter, comme en 1956, sur le soutien de puissances etrangeres. A en juger par les sept divisions qu'il envoya dans le Sinai, apres le fermiture d'Akaba, il savait pourtant que nous considererions son geste comme un casus belli.

 
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