Robert Sid Ahmed,
INTERVIEW WITH ABBA EBAN (TEL AVIV, 13/5/97))
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. To start off, can you tell me what Israel meant to the Jews, why it was necessary to have a Jewish homeland?
ABBA EBAN: Our situation at the end of World War II was as follows: we were wallowing in the fearful anguish of the Holocaust; the visual effects of the Holocaust had an effect that went far beyond the mere statistical enumeration of the victims. Our promised homeland was being assailed by regional violence and by international alienation. The victorious powers, the three of them - the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union - showed no intention whatever, at first, of recognizing the Jews of Palestine as a political reality. There wasn't a single ray of light on the horizon. The Jewish representatives at the United Nations conference at San Francisco were humiliatingly seated in some distant balcony, looking down at the 50 member nations, none of which had made anything like the sacrifices demanded of the Jewish people by its own martyrdom. That was the situation. Two years later - two years later - the gates were opened; masses of our kinsmen were coming back to their national home. The war of survival had been won, and our flag was aloft in its own name and pride. And there has never been, I believe, in the history of any nation, a transformation of fortune as abrupt and as speedy and as providential as that which the Jewish people had in that period, during the first two years of its existence.
INT: Why was there Israeli-Arab hostility?
AE: I..I regard that, the hostility of the Arabs to Israel, as a deterministic inevitability in a way, because there was no way in which the Jews, after their trials and ordeals, could renounce the idea of Jewish statehood, and there was no way in which the Arabs could possibly accept the Israeli demand for statehood. In other words, this was not a tragedy of choice, it was a tragedy of compulsion. It was really a Greek tragedy in that sense, that what the Jews had to insist upon was something which the Arabs could not possibly accept.
INT: But the Soviet Union was among one of the first nations to recognize Israel. What was the significance of that?
AE: The Cold War was destined to have an overwhelmingly powerful effect on the Middle East. We're all familiar with the Soviet Union in its capacity as Israel's adversary. It was after all the Soviet Union which, from 1950 onward, supplied the arms, supplied the incitement, supplied the defamatory propaganda, closed the international agencies to any recourse or access for Israel. In other words, the Soviet Union is well known as Israel's adversary. I would even say that there was a time when the Soviet hostility was more dangerous to Israel than was the combined hostility of all the Arab states. After... before that, there was a honeymoon, in which the Soviet Union made a very cold calculation. For them, the important thing was how to shake loose from what they called "encirclement by the West". "Encirclement by the West" meant that there were British bases all over the area, in Sairanaika and in Havania airport in Iraq and in Egypt, the Canal; and the complex, in the mind... the obsession of the Soviet Union, was how to shake loose from that encirclement. For them, British bases were absolutely the same as American bases: in the Soviet U.. Britain is simply the area which is just as American as the United States is itself. So that was their first calculation. Therefore, get the British out of the area, get them out of the Negev especially, which is where the British policy rather wanted to take root. So... and that lasted a year or two, during which the Soviet Union spared absolutely no effort of conciliation and of friendship towards Israel. I used to go along to the Park Avenue address almost every night; they always made their meetings at midnight, and I couldn't understand why, until it dawned upon me that midnight in New York is 8 in the morning in Russia, in Moscow, and therefore their leaders could take counsel. Those who took attitudes without taking counsel with the Soviet Union, usually disappeared from the scene diplomatically with extraordinary speed. So that was the situation: two years of uninhibited assistance, and then a whole long, long night of exile, during which we were faced by the Soviet Union as our principal adversary.
INT: What a wonderful answer - thank you. And what formed the basis, in that case, of the Israeli friendship with America?
AE: Israeli friendship with the United States was... first of all, it was kind of an offshoot of Soviet hostility. Israel had a very strong interest in having the United States further established as the leading power center in the Middle East. There was also, of course, a fraternity of values, and we made a great deal of that - especially during my own embassy there - and there was a lot on which we could rest. After all, the United States, like Israel - although on a much larger scale - was a nation created by immigrants and by pioneers, by people for whom freedom was the central theme of their existence, and it was possible therefore to dig deep into this bedrock of common values in order to achieve this entrendre, this... really... this co-operative relationship with the United States. And in addition, of course, there was the fact that there is a very large community... in the United States itself there's a large Jewish community, which is a kind of a bridge in which Israeli values and American interests can be deemed to coincide.
INT: Very good - thank you. But the Americans weren't exclusively friendly with Israel in the Middle East during the Fifties and up to the mid-Sixties, and so on. Was their friendship with Egypt a challenge to Israel? Was there non-exclusivity? Was there an opportunity in the Cold War that Israel sought out?
AE: The United States is never exclusively friendly to anybody, and is not exclusively hostile to anybody. Whenever the United States faces a conflict, especially a conflict between democratic, freedom-loving countries, it tends to build bridges for its own policy in between the two antagonists; and therefore the United States will never give all of its friendship to anybody, but will also not give the whole of its hostility to anybody. And there were many years during which the United States, as it were, oscillated and fluctuated between these two concepts. "Yes, how can we support Israel, which is very deep-rooted in the American consciousness, without however totally alienating the Arab world? And how can we avoid alienating the Arab world but in a way that doesn't do harm to Israel?" And therefore, this kind of.. hybrid kind of approach to international conflict is, I believe, endemic to American attitudes.
INT: Absolutely excellent. Could you give me your assessment of Nasser, your opinion of Nasser, and the growth of Arab nationalism? How did that challenge Israel?
AE: When Nasser first came to power in Egypt, many Israelis were optimistic. After all, Israel had no love whatever of the previous regime under King Farouk - not only the dissolute habits that he had, but it was he, after all... under his influence that Egypt made war against Israel. Without the Egyptian leadership of wars, there probably would never have been a war between Israel and the Arab world. Egypt is the only country which led five Arab wars against Israel. But then it became obvious to us that Nasser was putting all his investment really on the Arab side, on the side of Muslim fundamentalism, on the side of Egyptian nationalism, very fiercely and virulently implemented, and on the side of the expulsion of the West. When it became evident that these were his objectives, it was not difficult for Israel to make alliances - first of all, extraordinarily, with the Western powers, with Britain and with France; that's the basis of the Sinai-Suez expedition. But it was clear from that point onward that Nasser had a militant quality which shut him off entirely froany prospect of conciliation with us, although there were soundings and gropings towards some kind relationship with Nasser throughout the whole period of his rule.
INT: And what threats was he issuing against Israel?
AE: The threat of Nasserism to Israel was nothing less than a threat of Israel's destruction. And although Arab propagandists have always denied this, I myself listened to a speech by Nasser on the... I think the 28th of May, 1967, in which he said: "Our objective is, first of all, to cancel the results of the Suez-Sinai war" - that meant to stop allowing our.. ships to go through the Canal - "But then let me say that I intend also to abolish the results of the 1948 war," which means the existence of Israel is optional.. and something to be stopped, eliminated.
INT: So why did Israel plan a preemptive strike?
AE: The only way in which Israel could resist this Nasserist threat was being the first to strike. If you look at the map, then Israel does not have any capacity of withdrawal...
INT: So why did Israel plan a preemptive strike?
AE: There is no way for Israel to win a war except by striking first. All you have to do is to look at the map, and you'll see that we don't have sort of large spaces into which we can retire for the purpose of restoring our positions. So that was the logic of the Six-Day War, and to some extent also of the Yom Kippur War as well, although then, in the Yom Kippur War, there was no preemptive strike at all.
INT: Was America's support vital to Israel? Can you tell me about your visit to Washington in May and your conversation with President Johnson? What did you ask him, and how did he reply?
AE: I made what turned out to be a very crucial visit to the United States; also to France and to the United Kingdom. In the month of May, ahead of the Six-Day War, the objective was to examine whether the powers were willing to carry out what had been their commitment to support Israel if we were blockaded again by the stoppage of our traffic in the Gulf of Aqaba and in the Suez Canal. And when it was obvious that that was going to be the Arab attitude, we could see that there was a casus belli in every sense of the word. Now, in France I received a douche of cold water from President de Gaulle. I hardly had time to sit down, let alone to exchange any pleasantries, before he bellowed at me, "Ne faites pas la guerre!" - "Don't make war," or in any case, "Don't be the first to make war." And he then said, "My solution is this: it's important that the four great powers should get together" - "Il faut que les quatre se concertent." When I said that to President Johnson, who asked me what President de Gaulle had said to me, he said, rather irritably, "What did he mean by 'the four great powers'? Who the hell are the other two?" So that was the reaction of the United States to the idea that there were four great powers. In Britain, surprisingly... I expected a colder response, but the response was very warm, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave me a very gossip-ridden account of how his ministers had voted that morning, saying he... I would be astonished if he [sic] knew how people voted: that my friend Crossman was actually against us, and that his friend George Brown was for us. But it was quite clear that their attitude would be totally dependent upon whether they were with or without American cover; and therefore everything now depended on President Johnson. He expressed to me a sense of his own impotence, that I never heard either before or since from an American leader. He said that he was actually confined, contained and frustrated by the Vietnam War. He said, "Without the Congress, I am nothing but a 6-foot-4 Texan. And unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out..." what was then his policy of forcing the straits with American power. That could have been done: the United States only had to send one ship through, and I believe that Nasser could have capitulated. He was not able to do that, and he kept talking about the limitations of his own power in words which almost made me compassionate towards him. And he then said, in a kind of Delphic oratory [sic] sort of mood: "Israel will not be alone unless it decides to be alone." And we in Israel started trying to solve that particular acronym so far as we could. It didn't seem to me very much; but there was a period when he really thought of forcing the straits, then a period in which he recognized his own limitations; and a third, a sense of intense relief when Israel solved the problem itself, not only by surviving but by winning the war. And when I went back after the war had been won, he didn't even try to conceal his relief at what had happened. He said, "Of course, our generals always said that you would win the war in any case, either in seven days if you had the first strike, or in 12 days if the Egyptians had the first strike." But Johnson went on, "My generals are always right about other people's wars."