Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1991, Page 38

In the Public Prints

Who Wanted Peace? Who Wanted War? History Refutes Israel's US Image

By Sheldon L. Richman

"These are the myths and lies that Americans hear and read day after day," wrote New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal in June.

"Israel blocks peace. Israel will not negotiate with the Arabs or give an inch to Palestinians. " Those myths, Rosenthal wrote, distort several realities of Arab-Israeli relations:

"One is that Israel has been saying yes to peace talks with Arabs decade after decade—as Anwar El-Sadat proved, to Egypt's everlasting gain. Second reality: for all those decades every other Arab nation refused to make peace, refused to talk ....

In fact, it takes an enormous evasion of reality to believe this. Arab leaders have repeatedly tried to make peace. Even Egyptian President Sadat's famous effort in late 1977 was not his first. He made a significant peace overture in 1971 and was rebuffed. But neither was Sadat's earlier offer the first from Egypt. His predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser, made "a major effort for a settlement with Israel" in the spring of 1955. The words are those of Elmore Jackson, a Quaker representative to the United Nations, and the go-between in Nasser's initiative.

Jackson wrote about what could have been an historic breakthrough in his 1983 book, Middle East Mission: The Story of a Major Bid for Peace in the Time of Nasser and Ben-Gution. That little book alone refutes Rosenthal and anyone else who blindly chants, as though it were a mantra, that the Arabs have always wanted to destroy Israel.

In April 1955, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington and a friend of President Nasser's, Dr. Ahmed Hussein, asked the Quakers to inquire whether grounds for a settlement with Israel could be found. Jackson met with Egyptian officials first, then with Israelis, including then Prime Minister Moshe Sharett.

The Egyptians' terms included some repatriation of Palestinian refugees, compensation for those unwilling or unable to return, and boundary adjustments to link the Arab communities. Sharett's response was generally favorable, and each side regarded the other as serious. "Our meeting closed with his saying he would go anywhere to talk to President Nasser—even to Cairo," Jackson wrote. "He [Sharett] said, 'Nasser is a decent fellow who has the interest of his people genuinely at heart. "'In conversations with Nasser, Jackson learned that Egyptian leaders had conducted informal discussions with the Israeli government after Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion retired and Sharett succeeded him in 1953. But the discussions broke off when Ben-Gurion returned to the cabinet as defense minister and Israel resumed attacks against Palestinian guerrillas and Egyptian soldiers in the Gaza Strip. (Palestinian refugees would infiltrate Israel to retrieve crops and property as well as to exact vengeance for their dispossession.)

The biggest Israeli attack occurred Feb. 28, 1955, at the town of Gaza, ostensibly in retaliation for Egypt's hanging of two saboteurs in the 1954 Lavon affair, in which Israeli agents tried to sabotage Egyptian American relations by planting firebombs in US diplomatic installations in Cairo and Alexandria. (Israel denounced the Egyptian charges as fabrications, only to come clean six years later. The surviving agents ' released from Egyptian prisons, were welcomed as heroes in Israel.)

Confidence-Shaking Measures

Nasser's confidence in the possibility of a settlement was shaken by the Israeli escalation of violence. Back in Israel, Sharett and Ben-Gurion told Jackson that, because of the guerrilla attacks, they had ordered a massive strike against the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis. The order was canceled when Jackson warned that the attack would probably end the short-lived negotiations. Egypt accepted a cease-fire proposed by the UN Truce Supervision Organization, but Israel equivocated. A short time later, Ariel Sharon's Unit 101 went ahead with the attack on Khan Yunis. It struck an Egyptian police station and also terrorized a village. Thirty six people were killed, including civilians.

The following day, Sharett asked Jackson to fly to Cairo to tell Nasser that, although Israel had to retaliate for the guerrilla attack , it wanted to end the reciprocal violence. Ben-Gurion said he was willing to meet Nasser. Jackson returned to Cairo and was able to head off the mobilization Nasser had been contemplating in response to the attack.

Nasser said he would try to restrain the guerrillas, but that it was not always possible because of their decentralized command. (Documents later captured by Israel confirmed his attempts to quiet the border.) Jackson shuttled between Cairo and Jerusalem trying to arrange a prisoner exchange and promote a meeting between BenGurion and Nasser. Ben-Gurion was interested, but Nasser, though not dismissive, feared he could be embarrassed by an Israeli attack during the negotiations. The prospects for success faded in September 1955, when Nasser arranged to buy Soviet arms from Czechoslovakia.

"No Arab is saying now that we must destroy Israel."

According to Jackson, Nasser felt increasingly vulnerable to Israeli military might (warplanes routinely violated Egyptian airspace). He could not accept the conditions the Eisenhower administration insisted on attaching to an arms sale. At a press conference after the Czech deal, Nasser said: "Egypt has no aggressive intentions toward Israel. War is not an easy decision for anybody, especially for me."

No Arab is saying now that we must destroy Israel. The Arabs are asking only that refugees receive their natural right to life and their lost property, which was promised to them by United Nations resolutions seven years ago."

No, we are not aggressive. The threat is from the other side. I have said many times that I want to build up my country. Now I am obliged to give defense priority over development.

"It was the other way around before Ben-Gurion's vicious attack on Gaza February 28. . . . There was an arms race going on, but it was one-sided. Israel was running and we were standing still."

Nasser's feeling of vulnerability was no fantasy. A year later, in 1956, Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt. When the war broke out, Sharett, who by then was out of the cabinet, wrote in his diary, "We are the aggressors," Israel conquered the Sinai for the first time, but later gave it back under US pressure. Israel would conquer it again in 1967.

Nasser's successor, Sadat, would make his own bid for peace in 1971, only to have it rejected by Israel and the Nixon-Kissinger administration. It took another war to force Israel to take Sadat's bid for peace seriously.

Sheldon L. Richman is the senior editor at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.