Robert Sid Ahmed,
INT: That's wonderful. Just to take you back to the beginning of the war: it's one of the most dramatic victories ever. What was Israel's sort of opening gambit? Can you tell me what happened on that first day?
AE: The opening gambit of Israel in the Six-Day War was really the closing gambit as well. The fact is that, although our tank forces don't like this to be said, the war was really won on the first morning, when the entire Egyptian air force was wiped out in a few hours. It was wiped out lastly... Sorry. The Egyptian air force was wiped out largely because they showed no sense of their vulnerability; they left their aircraft, almost inviting attack, on the ground, made no effort at concealment in deep hangars; and within a few hours I myself felt that the anguish, the torment of it - there was a real anguish and a real torment that had gripped the Israeli public, the fear that a great doom was moving towards us - that was assuaged and alleviated almost entirely by the first air strike. And I think when it came to thank General Weizmann and General Hod, who were the authors of that enormously successful air strike, we understood that they really had decided the issue, (Slight overlap) really within a few hours.
INT: What preparations had been made in Israel for war?
AE: Israel was given the chance of preparation, because the Egyptians moved first of all across the Suez Canal; from the Suez Canal they branched out into most of the wide open spaces of Sinai, and they approached us gradually and steadily and steadily for quite a long time, several days in fact, and therefore Israel knew that this tide of aggression was moving towards us, and that gave time for psychological preparation, the understanding in Israel that there was no escape from confronting this slowly creeping aggression. Moreover, Nasser himself made the aggression plain by the very act of announcing, I believe on the 28th of May, or a bit later, that he was going to close the straits, and he knew that for Israel the idea of being enclosed - strangled, as it were - in all our maritime approaches, that was going to be a casus belli, and therefore we did have a preparatory stage. It didn't make the anguish any less, but the country was geared, like a coil spring, ready to jump suddenly into action.
INT: Wonderful. At one point during the war, the Americans were asked by, or threatened by, the Russians, to get Israel to stop, to force Israel to come to a cease-fire. Did you feel threatened by the American approach to Israel, and was it necessary?
AE: The American approach to Israel...?
INT: To stop the war, to enforce a cease-fire?
AE: During the Six-Day War there was no time, and the Americans really believed that they had the capacity to stop the war. In fact, it was fairly evident from the very beginning that since Israel was going to win the war anyway, the United States ought to adjust itself to that possibility, and they did so, as I've said, in a spirit of relief. Later, when the Yom War broke out, then it really became a question of how far Israel could move its armies without incurring American displeasure.
INT: So let's talk a little bit about the resultsof the Six-Day War. Why were the occupied territories important to Israel?
AE: When we found ourselves with an area of jurisdiction extending all the way from the Golan Heights to the Suez Canal, most Israelis felt that we were sitting pretty. We had large areas, we had a capacity of negotiation that we'd never had before; for the first time, Israel had assets which it could either confer or withhold, and unless you have that capacity you're not a very effective negotiator. That was the first feeling. There was also the feeling of the liberation of a land, the access to areas which had been shut off for several decades, and there was some inspiration, especially in the reuniting of the city of Jerusalem. But as the years went on, it became evident to me and to many of my colleagues that in fact the territories were a burden and not an asset. First of all, we wouldn't have the military power to govern an area as large as that, and this was proved in the Yom Kippur War: Israel did not have enough military force to spread all of it out in such a way as would prevent any eruption into that enlarged area. The other point was that we were governing hundreds of thousands of Arabs against their will, and we were therefore in the full torment of the kind of quasi-colonial situation: a restive, rebellious population which didn't feel that it had any obligation whatever to accept Israeli jurisdiction as permanent, and that meant that we had to have detention centers, it meant that we had to go through all the punitive and repressive procedures involved in governing a nation against its will, and this was ceasing to happen all over the world and in general the world was liberating itself from coercive jurisdictions. And therefore, by the time we reached the Yom Kippur War, it was generally understood that we were not getting any real benefits from our large territorial space.
INT: Very good indeed. What was the impact of the Six-Day War on Israeli-American relationships, and how did that relationship become cemented?
AE: Israel's relations with the United States developed positively during most of that period. First of all, we had the advantage that there were American presidents, especially President Nixon, for whom the criterion of judgment was "Are these people for or against the Soviet Union?" and therefore, Israel's very blatant and visible anti-Sovietism was of great assistance, and may have even been the basis of President Nixon's unexpected support of the Israeli cause. The other effects, however, were, as I've said, negative, because we were alienated from the rest of the international community, which had developed a bias, a very strong prejudice against what I've called coercive jurisdictions, and who never believed that the territories had any except a tactical advantage. Israelis also were divided into two schools of thought, one of which thought perhaps we could keep all of these territories forever; the other one thought, no, we won't be able to keep them forever, but they are a useful bargaining counter for Israel to use in a negotiation. I belonged to what I call the tactical rather than the territorial approach, but.. we were split down the middle on this, and we never really reached a point of stabilization until the Oslo agreement, until the peace process, which accepted the doctrine of withdrawal, brought us down to earth, back to our senses.
INT: Wonderful. Could you tell me about the American resupply of Israel, and the way in which it was a move which polarized relationships in the Middle East?
AE: The United States faced very difficult ordeals halfway through the Yom Kippur War...
INT: I'm sorry - I'm referring to the supply of the Phantoms at the end of '68, December '68. Sorry to interrupt you... We'll move on later... We're just going to wait for something to go overhead. Sorry to interrupt you.
(B/g talk. Cut.)
INT: So could you tell me about the American resupply of Israel in December '68 and the impact that had on the polarization of relationships in the Middle East?
AE: The American-Israeli alliance was really consolidated during the Six-Day War. The United States reached the conclusion that it was rather dangerous to leave Israel, as it were, to stew in its own juice - all kinds of unexpected eruptions of Israeli initiative would take place - and therefore the American-Israeli relationship ought to be institutionalized, it ought to be formalized. It must, of course, depend upon a maintenance of the balance of power, which was Henry Kissinger's, of course, major obsession; and therefore there was never any problem after 1967 in obtaining a basic American rearmament of Israel, and that created the kind of power which enabled us to survive in the larger ordeal of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Phantom aircraft that President Nixon authorized were very crucial psychologically for keeping us under some kind of restraint, and giving the United States the major say in its military relationship with Israel.
INT: Wonderful. In the inter-war period, during the war of attrition, you heard that there were Soviet pilots manning the planes. Can you tell me what your reaction to that was, and what you thought that might mean in terms of an Israeli-Soviet confrontation?
AE: There was a very delicate moment when I suddenly heard, on my way to a visit to our coastal area, that Soviet pilots had been diagnosed very clearly as participating in the Egyptian raids and in the counter-attacks by the Egyptians against our own artillery bombardments; and that's the very grave moment. And the United States believed, however, that these pilots were training pilots and that their major objective was to see that Soviet arms would not be wasted on incompetent pilots, and therefore this panic, as it were, subsided very quickly. It was only later, during the Yom Kippur War, that the idea of Soviet intervention became really very vivid in our consciousness. The sequence was this: first, Israel, proudly brandishing its power, was sending its aircraft over Cairo and creating these booms, these reminders of Israeli presence. Nasser responded by a sense of panic; off he went to Mr. Brezhnev and said that "I'm being humiliated by the Jews. They create a sense of total vulnerability even of our major cities. You have to stop... you, the Soviet Union, to stop that, by supplying me with effective anti-aircraft armaments." Reluctantly, I believe...
(Interruption - wait for something else to go over. Cut.)
INT: So, just to resume, to take up your answer, can you tell me about the request - they were going to have to request anti-aircraft armaments?
AE: Egypt reached the conclusion that they must have anti-aircraft equipment from the Soviet Union in order to prevent Israel from doing exactly what it liked with the Egyptian air space. The third thing was that Brezhnev, I believe reluctantly, acceded to that request - reluctantly because it was never the policy of the Soviet Union to intrude itself into areas which it had previously regarded as American areas of influence. But that, of course, made the Yom Kippur War possible, and to that extent some of us, in our own domestic discussions, believed that it was a mistake to provoke a process which led to the Soviet entry in such a blatant way into the power balance in the Middle East.
INT: Could you tell me how Israel felt about the Soviet build-up in the Middle East?
AE: During the Yom Kippur War, we became very conscious that the...
INT: Sorry to interrupt you again - I'm just referring to the inter-war period, when Soviet weaponry comes back into the Middle East. Were you aware of it, really, is my question, and what was your response?
AE: We were, of course, aware of the fact that the Soviet Union was escalating the arms race. Almost every year, instead of MiG 19 it was MiG 21 and MiG 23 - on wentthe MiGs escalating. This forced Israel into exorbitant expenditure for its own air defenses. This led to a certain tension in our relations with the United States, which used to say to us that "Israel never seems to be satisfied with anything that we, America, does for them." But in fact it was the build-uof Soviet power that created the inevitable explosion in the year 1973 - inevitable because we could not possibly continue to keep pace with the escalating arms race.
INT: Wonderful. You've brought me to the Yom Kippur War. Let's talk through the Yom Kippur War in detail, in that case, or break it up into segments. First of all, can you tell me about your reaction to the news of the attack - were you alarmed? And what was the significance of it falling on Yom Kippur - was it an added outrage?
AE: The first bombardments of Israel in the Yom Kippur War took place on Yom Kippur; but I found, in my relationships with other countries, which were frequent, especially in the United Nations, that nobody was very impressed with the fact that they had chosen that particular day. I couldn't find any nation, even Canadians, Australians and Scandinavians, in a legendary way kind of tied to the support of Israel, who thought it was unnatural that if they were going to make war, they would make it in conditions congenial to their own success. (Coughs) Therefore, we dropped the emphasis on the sanctity of that day. But the war itself, of course, created a sense of vulnerability that Israel had never known before. Hundreds of tanks were destroyed on one special day: f-five hundred tanks on one day, 50 airplanes on another, and we faced such a serious depletion of our military resources as to give the entire country a sense both of anguish, torment and fear, real fear. Therefore, it could only be corrected by an assurance of American replenishment; and this reached us very quickly indeed. I don't accept the theory that the United States delayed in order to put screws upon us. There was no delay whatever. On a Tuesday morning, I was telling the United States that we would win the war by Friday. On the Wednesday it became evident that this was not going to be the case. On Thursday, the United States played around with the idea of supplying aircraft on the basis of charters. This fell through under President Nixon's very firm disapproval, and he said, "It can only be American aircraft. We must send everything that will fly," and this was largely because he saw the Soviet Union as the major element of provocation in that issue. And later, of course, the Soviet Union had to be made to feel that it was stretching its relations with the United States much too far. This is when the Soviet Union said to the United States: "We've got to stop the Israeli advance. We prefer to do it you and we together, but if not together, then we are prepared to do it alone." At that point, President Nixon really went into a kind of crisis mode, and he included in the American fleet movements what he called a "nuclear element", in the hope - which turned out to be a justified hope - that this would deter the Soviet Union from believing that the Middle East was simply a local, regional squabble.
INT: That's a wonderful answer. May I take you back, to break down the war in little details, because it's just that I'd like to look at this in a detailed fashion in the film. Could you tell me, for me, initially whether Israel thought that they would be defeated, and then when they realized that actually the military situation was becoming critical, and what their response was - how they went back to the United States to say, "Now we really need a little more of your help"?
AE: There came a time in the Yom Kippur War when Israel had to have a sense that if it was to spend its own resources, its aircraft and its tanks, in a rather prodigal way, they must have the absolute assurance of replenishment. That was the importance of the American airlift. That airlift eventually took such dimensions as to dwarf even the Berlin airlift, which had always been the central temperature-inspecting idea of the policy of the great powers. And therefore, here we were in the condition where, without the sense of replenishment, our own army would be very parsimonious in the use of existing weapons. This meant that we would be in danger of being overwhelmed. After all, the Egyptians had penetrated deeply into Sinai. We had responded by penetrating more deeply into their area. And the idea of a possible great power confrontation arose, I think, during October 1973, in a way that it had never arisen before.