This year marks the half-century anniversary of the 1967 war against Israel that shattered Arab hopes for an immediate annihilation of the Jewish state. But Israel’s stunning military victory on the battlefield did not bring peace to that historically contested birthplace of the Abrahamic faiths. Snatching a diplomatic victory from the jaws of his ignominious defeat, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser proceeded to set the stage for the escalating international campaign against Israel that has emboldened Palestinian extremists ever since. This accomplishment, which Michael Sharnoff calls Nasser’s Peace, was testimony to the Egyptian leader’s skill in cynically manipulating every tool of statecraft.
Though Nasser has been amply studied, his reaction to the aftermath of his defeat by Israel has not been analyzed with the full care it deserves. In his timely new book, Sharnoff draws on recently declassified information from Soviet and American archives, revealing new details about diplomatic exchanges at the highest levels, which he compares with pronouncements by Nasser’s confidant and official spokesperson Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, editor-in-chief of the popular Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, that Nasser used in concert with other influence operations tactics. What emerges is the outline of a shrewd, cynical strategic communication operation, whose ultimate outcome was Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967.
Resolution 242 famously provided for negotiations regarding the political status of “occupied territories,” which was understood to denote the land that Israel had gained after pushing back the attacking Arab armies earlier that year. (Notably, no reference was made to those territories illegally occupied by Arab states after having expelled or killed all its Palestinian Jewish inhabitants in 1949.) The next step, in theory, was for members of the Arab world and Israel to engage in negotiations, with the expectation that Israel would concede territory in exchange for recognition of its right to exist.
Unsurprisingly, the vaguely worded resolution paved the way to the ensuing charade known euphemistically as “the peace process.” Blame for lack of progress in negotiations was routinely placed on Israel – specifically, on the existence of settlements which were deemed deemed illegal even when constructed on land within Israel’s pre-67 area and thus not subject to Resolution 242. Lost in the cacophony of hate-filled rhetoric was objective appreciation of history and law.
True, Resolution 242 had not been a complete victory for Nasser, who had intended to defeat Israel at the negotiating table, even as he never quite abandoned his dream of destroying it militarily. Yet Nasser did succeed in the end, as the resolution bought plenty of time to manipulate world opinion against Israel. His shrewdly orchestrated diplomatic effort, duplicitous in the extreme, was a tour de force.
That effort consisted of four distinct, seemingly contradictory but mutually reinforcing communication strategies, both public and private.
The first part involved postwar public declarations implying that Egypt would never, recognize Israel’s right to exist. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, he also disseminated the lie that Israel and not Egypt, had been the aggressor, and could never have prevailed without massive U.S. and British support. Not only did he permit Egyptian officials and the media to circulate stories of collusion, but frequently propagated the allegations himself, or had them conveyed through his mouthpiece, Heikal. Several Egyptian embassies, in Algeria and elsewhere, provided fabricated “evidence” of Israeli atrocities perpetrated during and after the war and screened movies on victims of napalm bombs. By the time Nasser finally retracted formally the myth of Western collusion in March 1968, the damage had been done.
Not that it made much difference to the Arab world, for which Israel’s illegitimacy was always a given, but it helped shape a consensus in the larger international community. The destruction of Israel, and not statehood for the Palestinians, was their – and Nasser’s – principal goal. It is therefore no accident that after 1967, Nasser consistently demanded that Israel had to return all the land it had occupied, and deliberately omitted references to Sinai and the Gaza Strip from the demand of “eliminating the consequences of aggression” to suggest that he was open to negotiation in at least some area. Sharnoff notes that “this broadens the explanation of [Nasser’s] goal as eliminating Israel” altogether.
Nasser’s second strategy consisted of private consultations with Western and Soviet leaders, characterized by “an Egypt-first approach centered on territorial concessions between Israel and Egypt, occasionally demanding the return of Jerusalem and the West Bank. The aim of this diplomacy – which involved telling the opposite things to Americans and to the Soviets – was “to explore what concessions he could acquire without having to recognize Israel and sign a peace treaty.” Among the most important revelations of this book is the bald-faced lying that characterized Nasser’s diplomacy, telling diametrically opposite things to the two superpowers he was courting like a rug salesman eyeing the better deal, with duplicity stunning even by the standards of this profession, whose only rival is the world’s first.
The third strategy involved using the Egyptian media to project Nasser as a relentlessly anti-Western, anti-Israeli, pan-Arab hero. Nasser’s aim was to gain more diplomatic leverage during private party talks. By using the media to routinely question or deny Israel’s existence, writes Sharnoff, “Nasser sought to project moderation to his Western and Soviet hosts when he privately repudiated these assertions.”
Finally, the fourth strategy involved diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and other political venues, which he thought would avoid violating the Arab League’s principles of no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations with Israel. If deliberations failed to produce results favorable for Egypt, Nasser planned to shift the blame to the international community: he had his bases covered.
From the outset, Nasser had displayed almost total disinterest in establishing a Palestinian state: “Nasser commonly deemphasized a distinct Palestinian identity by addressing them as ‘Arabs of Palestine’ or even more broadly as ‘the people of Palestine.’” How little he cared for them is demonstrated by Nasser’s continuation of his predecessor’s policy of Egyptian control over Gaza, home to more than a quarter of a million Palestinians. Under Nasser’s rule, these hapless people “were denied Egyptian citizenship and were harshly ruled by a string of Egyptian governors, who severely restricted their freedom of movement and expression.” On March 29, 1955, Nasser stressed to a crowd in Gaza the broader concept of Arab nationalism at the expense of Palestinian nationalism: “We will never forget the conspiracies hatched to eliminate Arab nationalism in Palestine.” Their well-being was subsumed to Nasser’s pan-Arab designs. They were being held hostage.
Yet he blamed British colonial policies and aggression for their suffering. On November 28, 1955, Nasser proclaimed that those policies had “left the Arab people of Palestine at the mercy of the Zionist armed gangs.” Nasser insisted that “justice for the Palestinians” could only occur after Israel’s destruction, proclaiming to the world that Egypt defended their “rights,” even as he was making their lives miserable under his rule.
And so instead of being absorbed by their fellow Arabs, the Muslims born in Palestine were being weaponized, used to advance Nasser’s ambitions as leader of the Arab world and indeed beyond. At an international peace conference for developing nations held in Bandung, Indonesia, on April 15, 1955, for example, Nasser portrayed the Palestinians as victims of injustice, part of the general Afro-Asian struggle against imperialism and colonialism.
It was at that conference that Nasser was catapulted upon the world stage. Writes Shadoff: “The policies and goals espoused at Bandung inspired the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement six years later.” The plight of the Palestinians would prove invaluable to Nasser’s strategy as he prepared for war against Israel. But in order to go beyond the rhetoric and turn them into effective instruments to be wielded as needed, he first had to organize and control them.
He started by creating the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) at the first Arab League Summit in Cairo, which Nasser organized in January 1964. There, he handpicked Ahmad Shukeiri, a former Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations, as the PLO’s first chairman. The job was accomplished within just a few month: “Nasser’s vision of creating a Palestinian entity under his control was realized during the first session of the Palestinian Council in East Jerusalem between May 28, 1964 and June 2, 1964.” It was at that session that the Council adopted the infamous PLO Covenant, which condemned the partition of Palestine as illegal, and also claimed that the United Nations had approved liberating Palestine as a “defensive” act.
But as transpired during negotiations with Washington after his defeat in the Six Day War, Nasser was interested primarily in the PLO’s commitment to the destruction of Israel rather than in establishing an independent Palestinian state. Desperately seeking to convince the United States. to pressure Israel into retreating from all the territories it had captured in that war, at one point he proposed a settlement that would involve a resolution of the “Palestinian problem” by compensating refugees rather than resettling them. “This exposed the fact that in spite of decades of pro-Palestinian propaganda,” concludes Sharnoff, “Nasser would sacrifice their cause for an Egypt-first policy.”
To be sure, Nasser was ultimately unable to retrieve the land he had lost in the war, and his country suffered terrible economic hardship resulting from decline in tourism and oil revenues, and insufficient wheat shipments. Yet in one respect, his campaign against Israel was successful, as his intransigence over the matter of its security set the parameters for the protracted violence that has hurt everyone involved. This thoughtful, measured book shows that Nasser’s “peace” was a travesty. As the new administration considers moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, it is time to set the record straight.
Juliana Geran Pilon, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.