Forty Years Ago Today Sgt Pepper Taught the Band to Play
Michael Carroll reviews the role of the United Nations leading up to the Six Day War in 1967. (Error spotted by commenters) In an article in the Middle East Review of International Affairs (hat tip: MIG) he describes the failure of United Nations Peacekeepers to maintain a buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces along their troubled border. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was deployed to the Middle East in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in 1956.
Originally intended to be a short-term "emergency" force, UNEF quickly fell into a comfortable routine patrolling along the international frontier and Gaza Strip. Despite complaints in New York about the expense of peacekeeping, it was clear that UNEF 's presence was a deterrent to further hostilities, and for most politicians and diplomats, this uneasy peace was clearly preferable to an open war in the Middle East. After ten and a half years, UNEF had become a well- recognized fixture in the Egyptian desert.
It is important to remember that the world in 1965 was practically another planet. The United Nations was a serious player in international relations. UN flagged forces, albeit mostly American, had turned back an invasion of South Korea in 1950. And the UNEF had actually helped keep the Arabs and Israelis from engaging in open war for10 years. The United States was not nearly so dominant in 1965 as it is in 2005. The Soviet Union was still regarded as a superpower, providing the weaponry and ideology that fueled Arab nationalism. America was tied down in Vietnam with little in reserve to spare for a major commitment to the Middle East and, in the eyes of many, already in irreversible decline.
One other striking difference of that era was the confidence, perhaps even overconfidence of Arab nations in the power of their national armies. Armed with the Soviet made weaponry, numerically superior to the Israelis, the Arab street of the day had little doubt that they would drive the Jews into the sea once hostilities began. One Egyptian commander told a UN officer "I will see you for lunch at the best restaurant in Tel Aviv in a few days."
In January 1964 the Arab League officially declared its desire to achieve "the final liquidation of Israel." The problem was UNEF. For the Arab armies to triumphantly fulfill their historical mission it was necessary to get the United Nations, then a body taken seriously, out of the line of fire. (Thirty years later, neither the Serbs nor the Muslim Kosovars would show the slightest respect for the United Nations. Peacekeepers would be trussed to lamposts. UN armories would be looted.) Gamal Abdel Nasser simply decided to tell the UN to clear out.
The message to withdraw UNEF was first conveyed to the commander of UNEF, Major General Indar Jit Rikhye, on May 16, 1967. The UAR Liaison Officer, Brigadier General Ibrahim Sharkawy, called Rikhye in the afternoon to inform him that a special envoy would be arriving with an important message for the UNEF commander.
The message was a demand for UNEF to leave the buffer zone. Amazingly by today's standards, the UN held firm. "The courier, expecting immediate compliance on the part of UNEF, was sorely disappointed when General Rikhye merely noted the contents of the letter, and informed his visitors that he would pass the message on to Secretary-General U Thant. Rikhye would have to await orders from New York." This simple act of decisiveness took the Egyptians aback and forced them to take their case to New York. Unfortunately Secretary General U Thant chose this moment to begin the long journey down the slippery slope. U Thant believed that the UN could not maintain itself on the Egyptian border without the permission of the host country and recommended a gradual withdrawal. But -- and here is the time warp factor again -- Canada believed it was necessary to defy Nasser in order to preserve the buffer -- and peace in the Middle East. Although some that the question be put to the Security Council. But U Thant was adamant and Canada was outvoted. The withdrawal began.
In the meantime, Egypt's preparations were advancing apace. It blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. Nasser characterized this act as "an affirmation of our rights and our sovereignty over the Gulf of Aqaba. This is in our territorial waters and we shall never permit a ship flying Israeli colours to pass through this Gulf." Seeing that war was in the offing, Israel sent its own diplomats around the capitals of Europe to see what their attitude would be if Israel warred against Egypt.
Unwilling to await the results of U Thant's discussions in Cairo, the Israeli Cabinet dispatched Abba Eban on a whirlwind tour of Paris, London, and Washington to gauge international support for Israel. Thoroughly disappointed with the reception from President Charles DeGaulle, Eban fared better in London where he at least felt he had, "crossed…into the twentieth century." Eban inferred a much higher degree of sympathy for Israel in Britain and was impressed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson's resolve to work collectively on the international stage to oppose Nasser's closure of the Straits of Tiran. In terms of a diplomatic solution, Israel was pinning its hopes on Britain and the United States to bring about a peaceful resolution. President Johnson took a strong stand against Nasser's closure of the Straits of Tiran. The limiting factor, however, was that any action to be undertaken in the Middle East needed the full support of Congress which, after having written a blank check for Vietnam, was understandably reticent. ...
As Eban flew back to Tel Aviv, Nasser was speaking to a group of Arab trade unionists, predicting that "the battle against Israel will be a general one…and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel. " Confident of the Arabs numerical and qualitative superiority over the IDF, Nasser felt he had little to fear from a war with Israel ...
UNEF deliberately slow the process of withdrawal in an effort to delay the outbreak of conflict, but events had gone too far. On June 5, 1967 the Israelis annihilated the Arab air forces on the ground and then proceeded to destroy the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria while seizing the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai, creating the map of the Middle East as we know it today. Viewed against the backdrop of 1965, the world forty years later is a strange place. Since then the Arab world found, then squandered, the oil fields beneath them. Israel would become overwhelmingly dominant in conventional force. The mantle of Arab nationalism would shift its basis from a quasi-Marxism to Islamism. The Soviet Union would collapse. America would bestride the world. But Israel itself would change, withdrawing from Gaza, destroying the very homes of its citizens who had settled there. And no longer would Arabs anchor their claim to the lost territories, their claim to Israel itself, on the strength of arms but upon the rights of the defrauded. The gallant invitation to lunch in the best restaurant in Tel Aviv would give way to a permanent hand held out to the European Union and the UN social welfare agencies.
Carroll suggests that the decline of the United Nations peacekeeping as a serious international force may have begun with UNEF's abandonment of its mission; that UNEF began a withdrawal which has never stopped. Perhaps it is fairer to say that the passage of years magnified all the tendencies present even then. It is hard to recognize in this historical portraits the Canada, America and the UN of today. But if that brings on a sense of nostalgia or loss, it should also evoke the spirit of opportunity. One thing is certain: 2045 will differ from today by as wide a margin as the present from the eve of the Six Day War.