Editor’s Note: Three days into the Six Day War, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban – speaking to the world from the United Nations – detailed how the surrounded, isolated Jewish state had gone from “serious danger to successful resistance.” He then proposed how the Middle East might go from war to peace. His description of the events of May-June 1967, and his prescription for Israel and the region, possess extraordinary relevance today.
I have just come from Jerusalem to tell the Security Council that Israel, by her independent effort and sacrifice, has passed from serious danger to successful resistance.
Two days ago her condition caused much concern across the humane and friendly world. Israel had reached a somber hour. Let me try to evoke the point at which our fortunes stood.
An army, greater than any force ever assembled in history in Sinai, had massed against Israel’s southern frontier. Egypt had dismissed the United Nations forces which symbolized the international interest in the maintenance of peace in our region. [Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel] Nasser had provocatively brought five infantry divisions and two armored divisions up to our very gates; 80,000 men and 900 tanks were poised to move.
A special striking force, comprising an armored division with at least 200 tanks, was concentrated against Eilat at the Negev’s southern tip. Here was a clear design to cut the southern Negev off from the main body of our state. For Egypt had openly proclaimed that Eilat did not form part of Israel and had predicted that Israel itself would soon expire. The proclamation was empty; the prediction now lies in ruin.
While the main brunt of the hostile threat was focused on the southern front, an alarming plan of encirclement was under way. With Egypt’s initiative and guidance, Israel was already being strangled in her maritime approaches to the whole eastern half of the world. For 16 years, she had been illicitly denied passage in the Suez Canal, despite this Security Council’s decision of 1 September 1951. And now the creative enterprise of 10 patient years, which had opened an international route across the Tiran Straits and the Gulf of Aqaba, had been suddenly and arbitrarily choked; Israel was and is breathing with only a single lung.
Jordan had been intimidated, against her better interest, into joining a defense pact. It is not a defense pace at all: it is an aggressive pact, of which I saw the consequences with my own eyes yesterday in the shells falling upon … Jerusalem. Every house and street in Jerusalem now came into the range of fire as a result of Jordan’s adherence to this pact; so also was the crowded and pathetically narrow coastal strip in which so much of Israel’s life and population is concentrated.
Iraqi troops reinforced Jordanian units in areas immediately facing vital and vulnerable Israeli communication centres. Expeditionary forces from Algeria and Kuwait had reached Egyptian territory. Nearly all the Egyptian forces which had been attempting the conquest of the Yemen had been transferred to the coming assault upon Israel. Syrian units, including artillery, overlooked the Israeli villages in the Jordan Valley. Terrorist groups came regularly into our territory to kill, plunder and explode; the most recent of them was five days ago.
There was peril for Israel wherever it looked. Her manpower had been hastily mobilized. Her economy and commerce were beating with feeble pulses. Her streets were dark and empty. There was an apocalyptic air of approaching peril. And Israel faced this danger alone.
We were buoyed up by an unforgettable surge of public sympathy across the world. The friendly governments expressed the rather ominous hope that Israel would manage to live, but the dominant theme of our condition was danger and solitude.
Now there could be no doubt about what was intended for us. With my very ears, I heard President Nasser’s speech on May 26. He said: “We intend to open a general assault against Israel. This will be total war. Our basic aim is the destruction of Israel.”
On June 2, the Egyptian Commander in Sinai, General Mortagi, published his order of the day, calling on his troops to wage a war of destruction against Israel. Here, then, was a systematic order, a proclaimed design at politicide, the murder of a state.
But as time went on, there was no doubt that our margin of general security was becoming smaller and smaller. Thus, on the morning of June 5, when Egyptian forces engaged us by air and land, bombarding the villages of Kissufim, Nahal-Oz and Tsur Ma’on, we knew that our limit of safety had been reached, and perhaps passed. In accordance with her inherent right of self-defense as formulated in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, Israel responded defensively in full strength. Never in the history of nations has armed force been used in a more righteous or compelling cause.
Even when engaged with Egyptian forces, we still hoped to contain the conflict. Egypt was overtly bent on our destruction, but we still hoped that others would not join the aggression. Prime Minister [Levi] Eshkol, who for weeks had carried the heavy burden of calculation and decision, published and conveyed a message to other neighboring states proclaiming:
“We shall not attack any country unless it opens war on us. Even now, when the mortars speak, we have not given up our quest for peace. We strive to repel all menace of terrorism and any danger of aggression to ensure our security and our legitimate rights.”
Jordan Spurns Peace
In accordance with this same policy of attempting to contain the conflict, I yesterday invited General [Odd] Bull, the Chairman of the Truce Supervision Organization, to inform the heads of the Jordanian state that Israel had no desire to expand the conflict beyond the unfortunate dimensions that it had already assumed and that if Israel were not attacked on the Jordan side, we would not attack and would act only in self-defense. It reached my ears that this message had been duly and faithfully conveyed and received…
To the appeal of Prime Minister Eshkol to avoid any further extension of the conflict, Syria answered … by bombing Megiddo from the air and bombing Deganya … with artillery fire and Kibbutz Ein Hammifrats and Koordani with long-range guns. But Jordan embarked on a much more total assault by artillery and aircraft along the entire front, with special emphasis on Jerusalem, to whose dangerous and noble ordeal yesterday I came to bear personal witness…
I should, however, be less than frank if I were to conceal the fact that the government and people of Israel have been disconcerted by some aspects of the United Nations’ role in this conflict. The sudden withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force was not accompanied, as it should have been, by due international consultations on the consequences of that withdrawal. Moreover, Israeli interests were affected; they were not adequately explored. No attempt was made, little time given, to help Israel surmount grave prejudice to her vital interests consequent on that withdrawal. … The peace of the world trembled, and thus the United Nations had somehow been put into a position of leaving Sinai safe for belligerency. …
We have lived through three dramatic weeks. Those weeks, I think, have brought into clear view the main elements of tension and also the chief promise of relaxed tension in the future. The first link in the chain was the series of sabotage acts emanating from Syria. But then there came a graver source of tension in mid-May, when abnormal troop concentrations were observed in the Sinai Peninsula.
We were puzzled in Israel by the relative lack of preoccupation on the part of friendly governments and international agencies with this intense concentration which found its reflection in precautionary concentrations on our side. My government proposed, I think at least two weeks ago, the concept of a parallel and reciprocal reduction of forces on both sides of the frontier. We elicited no response, and certainly no action.
‘Electric shock’ – closing Strait of Tiran
To these grave sources of tension – the sabotage and terrorist movement, emanating mostly from Syria, and the heavy troop concentrations accompanied by dire, apocalyptic threats in Sinai – there was added in the third week of May the most electric shock of all, namely the closure of the international waterway consisting of the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba. There was in this wanton act a quality of malice. For surely the closing of the Strait of Tiran gave no benefit whatever to Egypt except the perverse joy of inflicting injury on others. It was an anarchic act, because it showed a total disregard for the law of nations, the application of which in this specific case had not been challenged for 10 years. And it was, in the literal sense, an act of arrogance, because there are other nations in Asia and East Africa that trade with the port of Eilat, as they have every right to do, through the Strait of Tiran and across the Gulf of Aqaba…
Blockades have traditionally been regarded, in the pre-Charter parlance, as acts of war. To blockade, after all, is to attempt strangulation; and sovereign states are entitled not to have their trade strangled. To understand how the state of Israel felt, one has merely to look around this table and imagine, for example, a foreign power forcibly closing New York or Montreal, Boston or Marseille, Toulon or Copenhagen…. What would you do? How long would you wait? …
These acts taken together – the blockade, the dismissal of the United Nations Emergency Force, and the heavy concentration in Sinai – effectively disrupted the status quo that had ensured a relative stability on the Egyptian-Israeli frontier for 10 years. …
It is now the task of the governments concerned to elaborate the new conditions of their co-existence. I think that much of this work should be done directly by these governments themselves. Surely, after what has happened we must have better assurance than before, for Israel and for the Middle East, of peaceful co-existence. The question is whether there is any reason to believe that such a new era may yet come to pass.
If I am a little sanguine on this point, it is because of a conviction that men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Surely the other alternatives of war and belligerency have now been exhausted. And what has anybody gained from that? But in order that the new system of inter-State relationships may flourish in the Middle East, it is important that certain principles be applied above and beyond the cease-fire to which the Security Council has given its unanimous support.
Let me then say here that Israel welcomes the appeal for the cease-fire as formulated in this resolution. But I must point out that the implementation depends on the absolute and sincere acceptance and co-operation of the other parties, which, in our view, are responsible for the present situation.
I have said that the situation to be constructed after the cease-fire must depend on certain principles. The first of these principles surely must be the acceptance of Israel’s statehood and the total elimination of the fiction of its non-existence. It would seem to me that after 3,000 years the time has arrived to accept Israel’s nationhood as a fact, for here is the only state in the international community which has the same territory, speaks the same language and upholds the same faith as it did 3,000 years ago.
And if, as everybody knows to be the fact, the universal conscience was in the last week or two most violently shaken at the prospect of danger to Israel, it was not only because there seemed to be a danger to a state, but also, I think, because the state was Israel, with all that this ancient name evokes, teaches, symbolizes and inspires. How grotesque would be an international community which found room for 122 sovereign units and which did not acknowledge the sovereignty of that people which had given nationhood its deepest significance and its most enduring grace.
No wonder, then, that when danger threatened we could hear a roar of indignation sweep across the world, that men in progressive movements and members of the scientific and humanistic cultures joined together in sounding an alarm bell about an issue that vitally affected the human conscience. And no wonder, correspondingly, that a deep and universal sense of satisfaction and relief has accompanied the news of Israel’s gallant and successful resistance.
But the central point remains the need to secure an authentic intellectual recognition by our neighbors of Israel’s deep roots in the Middle Eastern reality. There is an intellectual tragedy in the failure of Arab leaders to come to grips, however reluctantly, with the depth and authenticity of Israel’s roots in the life, the history, the spiritual experience and the culture of the Middle East.
This, then, is the first axiom. A much more conscious and uninhibited acceptance of Israel’s statehood is an axiom requiring no demonstration, for there will never be a Middle East without an independent and sovereign state of Israel in its midst.
Forward to Peace
When the Council discusses what is to happen after the cease-fire, we hear many formulas: back to 1956, back to 1948 – I understand our neighbors would wish to turn the clock back to 1947. The fact is, however, that most clocks move forward and not backward, and this, I think, should be the case with the clock of Middle Eastern peace – not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace. …
There are not two categories of states. The United Arab Republic [Egypt], Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon – not one of these has a single ounce or milligram of statehood which does not adhere in equal measures to Israel itself.
It is important that states outside our region apply a balanced attitude, that they do not exploit temporary tensions and divergences in the issues of global conflict, that they do not seek to win gains by inflaming fleeting passions, and that they strive to make a balanced distribution of their friendship amongst the states of the Middle East. Now whether all the speeches of all the Great Powers this evening meet this criterion, everybody, of course, can judge for himself. [Eban here rebukes the Soviet Union for its “most vehement and one-sided denunciation of Israel.”]
But surely world opinion, before whose tribunal this debate unrolls, can solve this question by posing certain problems to itself. Who was it that attempted to destroy a neighboring state in 1948, Israel or its neighbors? Who now closes an international waterway to the port of a neighboring State, Israel or the United Arab Republic? Does Israel refuse to negotiate a peace settlement with the Arab States, or do they refuse to do so with it? Who disrupted the 1957 pattern of stability, Israel or Egypt? Did troops of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait and Algeria surround Israel in this menacing confrontation, or has any distinguished representative seen some vast Israel colossus surrounding the area between Morocco and Kuwait? …
I would say in conclusion that these are, of course, still grave times. And yet they may perhaps have a fortunate issue. This could be the case if those who for some reason decided so violently, three weeks ago, to disrupt the status quo would ask themselves what the results and benefits have been. As he looks around him at the arena of battle, at the wreckage of planes and tanks, at the collapse of intoxicated hopes, might not an Egyptian ruler ponder whether anything was achieved by that disruption? What has it brought but strife, conflict with other powerful interests, and the stern criticism of progressive men throughout the world?
I think that Israel has in recent days proved its steadfastness and vigor. It is now willing to demonstrate its instinct for peace. Let us build a new system of relationships from the wreckage of the old. Let us discern across the darkness the vision of a better and a brighter dawn.
Abba Eban (1915-2002) served as Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1966 to 1974.