القوى العظمى والشرق الأوسط
كلمات مفتاحية: 
United States
1967 War
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The June War of 1967 and its consequences have confirmed the United States and Russia as the chief external factors determining the future in the Middle East, as they still are in world politics as a whole. Although China and Europe may be seen as growing influences in the area, and both might become more important for different reasons during the coming decade, their effect has remained marginal, since neither are yet capable of living up to the hopes of diplomatic or military support pinned upon them by different Arab elements which regard them as potential avenues of escape from dependence upon the Soviet Union and America.


For the Arabs, therefore, it has been vital to understand the nature and limits of American and Russian policy. In this they have not always been successful, even allowing for the degree to which the odds at the moment are against them and the difficulty sometimes of understanding rationally what Washington is up to.


1. SOVIET POLICY SINCE 1967 Let us look first at the Soviet position. President Sadat's decision to expel Soviet military experts from Egypt in July 1972 marked a turning of the tide of Soviet influence in the Arab world which had been rising, though with fluctuations, since Egypt's 1955 arms deal. The Russians as much as the Egyptians were responsible for limiting the tide, for it was at the Moscow summit meeting between Mr. Brezhnev and President Nixon in May 1972 that the Russians finally confirmed that they regarded their growing detente with the United States as more important to them than their military and political commitments to the Arabs and to Egypt in particular. [1] It was Russia's inability or unwillingness at the summit to promote Egypt's interests in a settlement with Israel, and - if we are to believe President Sadat - her subsequent refusal to honour military promises of advanced offensive weapons, that led Sadat to his expulsion of the advisers. [2] 


The Arab defeat in 1967, of course, had already changed Arab-Soviet relations significantly in several interrelated but sometimes conflicting ways.


The first effect of the war was greatly to increase Arab and especially Egyptian dependence on the Soviet Union for military supplies and for economic aid and diplomatic support. But while the dominant Arab feeling at first was gratitude for Soviet support at a time when the rest of the world was hostile or unsympathetic, there was also disappointment and disillusionment at the Soviet performance as an ally, whether as a partner in war or a procurer of peace. The war had shown the real limits of Soviet friendship, effective power and willingness to take risks, and these limits were to be confirmed in the following years of "no war, no peace."


Interpreting the Soviet policy, some Western diplomats believed that the Russians preferred to maintain this state of "no war, no peace" in the Middle East. It was felt that war with a certainty of Arab defeat unless the Russians intervened was too risky for them, while peace on the other hand would enable the Arabs to dispense with Soviet protection.


Against this, however, it must be observed that the stalemate itself always held grave dangers of escalation into war. Moreover, even in peace-time Egypt and Syria would need continued Russian military and economic aid. There was the fact, too, that in the existing situation, the economic burden and disruption caused by the state of "no war, no peace," including the closing of the Suez Canal, prevented the social and economic development of Egypt, which could be a politically influential demonstration of what Russia could do to help a leading Third World country.


While Russian public statements may occasionally seem ambiguous, their more private statements sometimes contain startling candour, as is the case with the remarks attributed to Soviet party officials in a recently published report of their mediation efforts with the divided Communist Party of Syria. [3] From these and other indications it is plain that the Russians not only do not want war, but that they do not want a continuation of the "no war, no peace" situation either. They desire the active pursuit of a political solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their view, a military solution for the Arabs is impossible for two reasons. First, the Egyptian and Syrian armies are in no condition to fight successfully against the Israeli forces. Secondly, an attempt to eliminate Israel, or in Arab terms to liberate Palestine completely, would mean a world war, presumably because the Arabs could be successful in this only with Soviet help and this in turn would inevitably bring in the United States on the other side.


As far as the Palestine resistance is concerned, the Russians see it as legitimate and justified so long as it is directed against Israeli military occupation, but unacceptable if it uses methods such as the hijacking of planes. But for the Russians the resistance programme of creating a unified Palestine state to replace Israel is out of court on both ideological and practical grounds. Russia recognizes Israel's existence as a fact, and one which cannot be changed by military means. The possibility of change lies not in the destruction of the Israeli state, but in a change in its character, through the replacement of the national by the class struggle. It is in this context that the Russians seem to advise the Palestinians to pursue their claim to self-determination.


It is true that, while they refused to supply Egypt with some offensive weapons, such as bombers, the Russians would not or could not stop Nasser from launching the war of attrition across the Suez Canal in 1969. And when the Israelis countered with a massive air offensive extending eventually to the outskirts of Cairo, the Russians became more deeply involved militarily than ever before. At Nasser's request they supplied not only the latest SAM 3 anti- aircraft missiles but also the latest jet fighters flown by Soviet pilots.


Yet while the Russians may have seen this increased presence as a strategic gain of Mediterranean bases, they must also have found the new commitment rather alarming. In any event it was only after a secret visit to Moscow in July 1970 that Nasser accepted an American-engineered cease-fire on the Canal, and the Rogers Plan for peace talks through the UN mediator Dr. Jarring. While the Russians held aloof from the American peace moves, they did nothing to disrupt them, and reacted with great caution to the international crisis which threatened to arise during the Jordan civil war in September 1970.


New uncertainties were brought into Soviet-Arab relations with the death of President Nasser, followed by the breakdown of the Rogers plan and the supply of new American arms to Israel, and the subsequent efforts by Nasser's successor, President Sadat, to break through the "no war, no peace" deadlock by a combination of pressure and appeasement.


Sadat pinned his main hope on American diplomacy to bring about a peace settlement, going to the limit of what the Egyptians saw as possible concessions to Israel and to the United States, short of actually surrendering any Egyptian territory. But if this failed, he counted on the Russians to supply him with the weapons needed to at least put effective military pressure on Israel to soften her terms, if not to win a new round of the war. He was bitterly disappointed on both counts.


The Israelis ignored Sadat's various peace offers and stuck to the line they had followed since 1967. They rejected any commitment to complete withdrawal in advance of direct negotiations. Indeed, they went further and in reply to Dr. Jarring they made it plain that they would never go back to the 1967 borders, and that as far as Egypt was concerned, they intended to hold on to Sharm al-Sheikh and a substantial slice of Sinai. This latter assertion was in direct contradiction to the first Rogers plan, which called for a return to the old international border between Egypt and Israel with only special security arrangements for Sharm al-Sheikh. But the Americans did not protest; instead they dropped the Rogers plan.


If Sadat got no encouragement from the United States, he was equally disillusioned by the Russians. President Podgorny had rushed out to Cairo in May 1971 to patch things up after Sadat's dismissal and arrest of Ali Sabry and other leading Nasserists. Sadat then helped to smooth things over by signing the new Soviet-Egyptian treaty of friendship. But part of the quid pro quo for the treaty was a Soviet promise of weapons required urgently by Sadat if he was to make good his promise that 1971 would be a "year of decision."


But the year ended, to Sadat's embarrassment, with neither decision, nor Russian arms, nor an American peace. The Americans had not only repudiated their own peace plans but had rewarded Egypt's compliance and Israel's inflexibility by promising another huge consignment of the latest weapons to Israel and, more ominous from the Arab point of view, the know-how to make modern weapons in Israeli factories.


Sadat got little response to his attempts to press the Russians for the promised arms. At first they were too busy arming India against Pakistan. Then they advised waiting until after the Moscow summit meeting in May 1972. Perhaps Nixon might be ready for a peace deal in the Middle East. But the Moscow talks and their communiqué showed clearly that the Russians had pushed the Middle East well down their list of priorities. Peace was not nearer, but the cease-fire was to continue, and the Russians were not going to jeopardize the rest of their detente with America by giving Sadat bombers with which to attack Israeli cities.


Yet in finally expelling the Russians, Sadat appeared to be abandoning one of his options, that of military action, while not necessarily assuring the success of the other, peace through negotiations aided by the United States. It is true that the removal of the Russians or a reduction of their presence and influence in Egypt had probably been one of the secret conditions of American peace-making since 1967. But the removal of the Russians was also one of the few cards Egypt held in her hand for bargaining with the United States and Israel over peace terms.




In any case, the Americans did not take up the new opportunity offered by Sadat's expulsion of the Soviet advisers. President Nixon, perhaps through his intense preoccupation with Vietnam, or the impending presidential elections, not to speak of the momentous new rapprochement with China, seemed ready to let Egypt go on stewing in her own juice, to put it crudely. He was not prepared to put any pressure on Israel to change her policy; on the contrary, there was a perceptible shift on the part of American policy away from the Security Council resolution and the Jarring mission towards support for direct negotiations between Egypt and Israel to settle new borders.


It has become a diplomatic commonplace that a peace settlement in the Middle East now depends on the United States because she alone can bring. to bear on Israel the pressure that is needed to achieve a compromise based on the formula of resolution 242 - Arab recognition of Israel, Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders except for minor changes, and international security guarantees.


America's failure to act in this sense has bewildered her Arab friends and confirmed the hostility of her Arab enemies, at the same time causing anxiety among some of America's European allies.


What is America's real policy and the motives behind it? One theory, the one most widely held until recently in the Arab world, was that America was acting in extraordinary contradiction to her true national interests, which lie in the oil-producing Arab countries and in having a friendly Arab world. This aberration is attributed to the domestic political pressure of the Zionist lobby, aided by Zionist domination of the public information media, press, radio and television, which feed the American public a distorted view of the Arab world. Yet while these may be important factors in influencing American policy-making towards the Middle East, especially at presidential election times, I doubt whether they are the whole truth or even the decisive elements any longer. It seems more likely that the United States is acting the way it does because it sees this as being in its own interests, and that it supports and arms Israel for this reason as much as for reasons of sympathy or domestic politics.


The United States no doubt sees the Middle East primarily in terms of its relations with the Soviet Union throughout the world. Its aim in the Middle East as elsewhere is to avoid a military confrontation with Russia, while at the same time preventing the spread of Soviet influence. Among the Middle East states, there are Russia's allies, friends or clients and America's allies, friends or clients. The latter include Turkey and Iran and certain Arab states - and also Israel, largely I believe now because Israel has identified herself with America as an effective anti-Soviet ally and useful strategic asset. Although the United States might have preferred the 1967 war not to have taken place, she was interested in containing the influence of Nasserist Egypt. Consequently, in the aftermath of the war American policy was to seek a settlement which would preserve Israel's security but also keep Egypt's influence within her own boundaries, thus removing a possible Soviet-backed Egyptian threat to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The peace also had to be punitive to the Arabs to a certain degree, not only because they had lost the war, but also to show them that alliance with Russia did not pay. A basic principle of American policy was that the Arabs should not be able, with Soviet help, to settle the issue with Israel in their favour by force.


At the same time, if no definitive peace could be reached, the United States was looking for ways of containing the conflict, for several reasons. The first was the realization that its intensification could affect the rest of the Arab world and eventually America's Arab allies and oil interests. It could also accelerate the spread of Soviet political influence. These were the predominant American concerns up to 1970, when the war of attrition led to the increased Soviet military commitment to Egypt, and the Palestinian commando movement was at the peak of its influence inside Jordan. At this point American policy appeared to harden. Its first aim was to reduce the risk of war, which might lead to a confrontation with Russia. For this purpose it followed a three- pronged policy: it sought and achieved a local cease-fire along the Suez Canal; it sought an understanding with Russia; and it armed Israel more heavily than ever. The logic of the latter course, as explained publicly by President Nixon and privately by Dr. Kissinger, was as follows: the greatest danger to world peace lies in the Middle East where an Arab-Israeli war could drag the superpowers into confrontation. [4] The most important thing is to prevent an Arab-Israeli war breaking out. But who, asked Nixon, has an interest in starting such a war? Obviously, only the Arabs, because they want to get back what they have lost. The best way, then, to stop the Arabs starting a war is to make sure that Israel is so strong that the Arabs will be effectively deterred.


But the problem was that if Israel's superiority was ensured, what inducement would she have ever to give up any of the occupied territories in a peace settlement? Occasionally the United States has tried to use the rationing of supplies as a means of inducing Israel to make concessions. But on two occasions after the second Rogers Plan in 1970 and during Mrs. Golda Meir's visit to Washington early in 1973 - President Nixon has reversed this policy and regarded a promise of more arms as a necessary inducement to Israel to agree to a new peace initiative.


How does one explain American policy now? It is clear that Egypt and Jordan at least have chosen to seek a peace settlement through the United States, and Egypt has drastically reduced her links with the Soviet Union. This may be a recognition of the relative power situations of America and Russia, and of Israel and the Arab states. It may also reflect a swing towards the right internally in the Arab world, especially among the disillusioned middle class.


But the United States seems to remain indifferent to these Arab initiatives. There is talk of new studies of the Middle East in Washington, and some of the present confusion may have been due to the overriding question of settling the Vietnam war and dealings with Russia on other subjects.


Yet it may also be that the present situation suits the United States fairly well. They have reached an understanding with Russia about the main danger of confrontation in the Middle East. It is quite clear that the Russians have no intention of intervening, directly at least, in Egypt, though a march on Damascus might sound an alarm bell in Moscow. Sadat has, in any case, already expelled the Russian pilots and military advisers from Egypt. Not having the local conventional military capacity to match American or NATO forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Russians would be forced, in a confrontation, to risk threatening a nuclear war. So long as the Canal cease-fire continues and Moscow withholds long-range offensive weapons from Egypt, peace seems fairly secure. The only other threat to the cease-fire was from the Palestinian guerrillas, and this has been removed by the American-backed operation of the Jordan army and by Israel's strikes against Lebanon and Syria. Further- more, America's main protégés in the Middle East Turkey, Iran and Israel -are by far the dominant military powers in the area. And through Israel's control of the Gulf of Aqaba, the United States is assured of an alternative strategic access to the Red Sea from the Mediterranean, whatever happens to the Suez Canal.




What incentive is there, therefore, for the United States to pressure Israel to change its position, as most Arabs hope and demand? The obvious weakness of the American policy lies in its possible effect on the Arab oil lands.


There has been much talk recently of the so-called energy crisis which might mean that within the next decade America would have to rely on Arab oil, and especially Saudi Arabia, for a third of its oil needs.


Parallel with this new dependence on oil will come the problem of the impact on the world money market of huge Arab oil revenues expected to reach something like $65 billion.


Some Arabs think that all they need to do is to sit back and wait for this day to arrive and then exert a powerful form of economic pressure on the West. To avoid the pitfalls of former oil boycotts which often did the Arabs more harm than the intended victims, a more sophisticated form of oil strategy has been envisaged. It was outlined in an article in al-Ahram by Mohammed Hassanein Heykal. There would be no question of a discriminatory cut-off of supplies. Arab producers would simply produce only enough oil to meet their own consumption, their own needs for development and their current expenses, including arms purchases. The rest of the oil would be left in the ground, a move to be justified for straightforward commercial and conservation reasons. For with a steadily rising demand and rising prices, the Arabs could count on the oil being worth more in the ground than if marketed immediately.


Nevertheless, whatever its form, an Arab use of the oil weapon could have the gravest international consequences. It could even mean a risk of world war in which the Arabs themselves would be engulfed. It would set back confidence and prospects of closer cooperation between the Arab world and Europe, which I believe will be a vital and necessary element in the future development of both Arabs and Europeans, who are natural cultural and economic partners, and within whose partnership I believe the Israeli-Arab conflict will one day be resolved.


What else can the Arabs do? In the short-term, a military solution to their problem, whether through orthodox military means or guerrilla action, seems out of the question, and is probably even more unlikely in the long run. For by the time the Arabs were able to modernize, unite and rearm effectively, the Israelis would have consolidated their positions in the occupied territories. Moreover, the more likely development is that over the years a sharper polarization would take place making military action more likely to produce a world war, and so a less probable eventuality. And there could well be a weapons stalemate, with each side acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and even a nuclear weapon on the Israeli side.


One possibility is for the Arabs to persuade the West Europeans, their chief oil clients, to put pressure on the United States to change its policies. This might be a more promising choice for the future, but it would take time for Europe to establish a common policy on a subject which easily arouses fierce public controversy for European governments. In particular, a European voice to which America will pay serious attention must include West Germany as well as France and Britain. It would also imply general Arab willingness to accept outside security guarantees of Israel's borders.


At first sight, if one compares the Middle East situation today with that, say, of fifteen years ago, it looks bleak and desperate whereas then it was full of hope.


The Israelis are now in control of the whole of former Palestine and of parts of Egypt and Syria as well. The Arab world is still divided and in the grip of the two superpowers, with both of whom it is disillusioned. The international conflict, together with slow social and economic development, has sharply polarized Arab politics into right and left.


But if one looks a bit closer, the outlook is not so dark, and indeed in some ways is very promising for the Arabs. First, there are now no colonial territories left in the Arab world: every Arab state has achieved independence and there are no foreign forces or bases on Arab territory. Thus one of the great aims of the Arab national movement has been achieved. Although both America and Russia have increased their influence, neither has built a new empire to replace that of the Europeans.


Although the drive for Arab unity has died down and begun to change its character, there is a more realistic understanding of the difficulties of purely political paper mergers and the advantages of more practical economic cooperation. For this reason the union between Egypt and Libya, for example, may prove practically beneficial to both countries. Some degree of planned economic development is under way in all Arab countries, including even the two Yemens which still have scarcely either administration or revenue. The tremendous growth of oil wealth opens up vast prospects for development and modernization. There is no shortage of Arab capital, and there is an expanding educated class with technological skills and a growing social awareness.


Two obstacles stand in the way of a spectacular revival of the Arab countries: the first is divisions between the Arabs themselves, and the other the problem of Israel. Only the Arabs can solve the first. Can they also solve the second by themselves?


Personally I believe that they can and should, provided they make a clear distinction between what can be achieved by military or political means. I think it has to be recognized that there can be no military solution of the Arab- Israeli problem but, at the most, only military support for rational political objectives. This recognition of the limits of foreseeable military action has now been openly made by Egypt and Jordan and even in his own way by Colonel Qadhafi in his latest speeches. The dilemma of the Arabs is that a backward, weak and divided Arab world can never solve the Palestine question in its favour. But so long as the conflict with Israel exists it helps to keep the Arab world backward, weak and divided.


So it seems as if the Arabs have to establish clear priorities - either to struggle by a mixture of military means and oil strategy to secure a short-term change in the present territorial position; or to go for a long-term solution by concentrating on Arab development with the oil money, and building up a network of friends and allies round the world on the basis of positive cooperation rather than latent threats. The latter choice means either leaving the occupied territories as they are, or making the best bargain with Israel on frontiers that is to be got now. In this sense, time is not on the Arabs' side, for Israeli settlement in the occupied territories is expanding rapidly. It is arguable that it would be better for the Arabs to do what the Soviets did at the treaty of Brest Litovsk, to make a bad peace now for the sake of the future.


It is not my purpose or presumption to offer yet one more outsider's solution for the Palestine problem. But I would just add one more reflection inspired by a possibly dubious parallel with the situation in Europe, where the development of East-West detente and the progress of Western European union has been accompanied by acceptance for the time being of an unnatural division which, however, only an unthinkable war could change. I once lived for a time in a Palestine which was a mixed state of Arabs and Jews - or Moslems, Christians and Jews if you prefer it - and in fact it was one of the most attractive countries in the world: there was nothing humanly impossible in it, only the impossible clash of political identities. But I cannot now imagine in the foreseeable future a mixed Palestinian state replacing the state of Israel, any more than I can see a real reunification of the two German states in Europe. The first step, as is the case in Germany, has to be coexistence between two states, which means Israel on the one hand, and, on the other, what needs to be not merely the West Bank and Gaza but also the rest of Jordan. This does not mean that the ideal of a non-sectarian state of Palestinians and Israelis need be given up for ever. But it does mean recognizing that, like the European Community, it can come about only through consent, and by political persuasion and not military means. Perhaps what the Arabs and Palestinians need now is an Adenauer to consolidate their bargaining position and international prestige, and then a Brandt with his Ostpolitik to launch the operation of reunification through peaceful means, by lowering tension rather than increasing it. It is a hard path, especially for the Palestinians. But in the Middle East there are no longer any short cuts.


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Robert Stephens is Foreign Editor of the Observer and the author of Nasser, a Political Biography. He has frequently worked as a correspondent within the Middle East. 

This discussion is abstracted from a lecture given on March 16 at the Lebanese University, Beirut, at one of a series of three meetings sponsored by the Kamel Muruwwa Memorial Foundation on "The Middle East in World Politics" between March 16-20. The speakers at these meetings were Mr. Stephens, Igor Belyaev of Pravda, and Jean Lacouture. 

1 In most Arab eyes, relations between Russia and its allies or friends among the Arab states have usually appeared a marriage of convenience into which they were driven by the policies of the "Western Powers and Israel." But the Arabs still perhaps gave insufficient thought to the possibility that one day the arrangement, while convenient for the Arabs, might no longer be so convenient for the Russians. Just as it was partly Soviet-American cold war rivalry which had set the tide of Soviet influence in motion, so the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington caused it to begin to ebb. 

2 At the same time, in both Syria and Iraq the Russian position has remained relatively unchanged, perhaps even stronger, with Soviet experts remaining and the local Communist parties there operating legally and sharing in left-wing coalition governments.

3 Published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, II, I (Autumn 1972), pp. 187-212. 

4 In September 1970, though, Mr. Nixon seemed ready to risk such a confrontation even in an inter-Arab conflict when a few PLA tanks from Syria crossed the border into Jordan,because he saw it as one of Russia's allies attacking one of America's proteges.

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