Rabin and Clinton

The second in my series on accurate scholarship, we are looking at a quote from Yitshak Rabin. Again, it is a well known quote within the debates surrounding the 1967 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.

The citation given is “Le Monde, 29th February, 1968”. Again, the quote is accurate and genuine. I’ve added the entire article here.

To Add a little more context around the quote, there are two main topics covered in the article. The first being that in Rabin’s view, Nasser was an unwilling participant in the war. His actions were designed to save face, or as Rabin put it, “to take the opportunity to show himself as the savior of Syria and thereby win the sympathy of the Arab world”. He was under fierce criticism for appearing to be hiding behind the international forces.

The second, arguably more interesting point relates to the culpability of the United Nations in helping start the conflict. As the interviewer suggests, Nasser asked the UN to redeploy its peace keeping force into Gaza and Charm-El-Cheikh, which would have left the UN in control of the entrance to the Aqaba Gulf. UN Secretary General U Thant refused, insisting that either the troops remained where they were or they are removed entirely. As he was on a face saving exercise, Nasser chose the latter.

This meant that Nasser was now reluctantly in control of the Aqaba Gulf. To not lose face again, he announces the closure of the Gulf to Israeli flagged vessels. To show the thinking of the time, the interviewer notes that “[t]he 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.” Rabin responds in a manner consistent with other Israeli leaders in saying that the closure represented, in their view, a casus belli.

This misjudgement by U Thant is covered in detail by Indar Jit Rikhye, who was the military adviser to the United Nations Secretary General at the time of the crisis, in his book “The Sinai Blunder: Withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force Leading to the Six-Day War of June 1967.” We now know a few important facts about the “closure”:

  1. Israel made virtually no use of the Straits, which were traversed by less than 5% of Israeli shipping.
  2. The primary commodity brought in through Eilat was oil, of which Israel had ample stockpiles, and which could easily have been rerouted via Haifa (as noted by the interviewer)
  3. The closure applied only to Israeli flagged vessels. An Israeli flagged vessel hadn’t used the Straits in two years.
  4. The closure never actually happened, it’s a myth. The U.A.R navy searched a few vessels in the first couple of days, after which any notion of a blockade was abandoned.

Indar Jit Rikhye’s detailed account of the event neatly punctures the myth of the “closure” of the Straits of Tiran being a casus belli. And the Le Monde article reinforces the notion that there was simply no perceived threat from Nasser’s bluff in the Sinai.

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