NASSER AND HUSSEIN: COUNTDOWN TO WAR
Born in obscurity, Nasser was the beau idéal of the Arab statesman – a young officer wounded in the Israeli encirclement of 1948 and determined to restore Arab pride. He became the most popular Arab leader for centuries, yet he also ruled as a dictator, supported by the secret police. Known as El Rais – the Boss – across the Arab world, Nasser promulgated a socialist pan-Arabism that inspired his people to defy Western domination and Zionist victory and raised soaring hopes that their defeats could be avenged.
Nasser supported Palestinian raids against Israel, which responded with increasing violence. His leadership of the most powerful Arab nation, Egypt, alarmed Israel. In 1956, he challenged the vestiges of the Anglo-French empires by nationalizing the Suez Canal and backing the Algerian rebels against France. London and Paris, determined to destroy him, made a secret alliance with Ben-Gurion. The successful Israeli attack on Sinai, planned by Chief of Staff Dayan, provided the Anglo-French pretext to invade Egypt, ostensibly to separate the two neighbours. However, Britain and France lacked the power to sustain this last imperial adventure: the United States forced them to withdraw. Soon afterwards, King Hussein dismissed Glubb as commander of his army. Nineteen-fifty-six was the twilight of British Middle Eastern imperium and the dawn of American ascendancy.
Nasser targeted the two Hashemite kingdoms, where his pan-Arabist radicalism was increasingly popular on the streets and in the officer corps. In 1958, Hussein’s cousin and schoolfriend Faisal II of Iraq was murdered in a military coup. The family had been kings of the Arabs, Hejaz, Syria, Palestine, Iraq – and Hussein was now the last royal Hashemite. Nasser officially merged Egypt with Syria in the United Arab Republic, encircling Israel and dominating Jordan, but his UAR, which twice fell apart and was twice put together again, remained fragile.
‘Growing up in Jerusalem was like being in a fairy tale invaded by Detroit and modern armies, though its magical quality remained, and the dangers merely added to the mysteries,’ wrote Sari Nusseibeh. Gradually ‘Jerusalem recovered much of the life it had lost in 1948,’ again becoming the ‘world capital of pilgrimage’. In 1964, King Hussein regilded the lead of the Dome of the Rock that had been a dull grey for centuries in preparation for the pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI. The supreme pontiff was met by Prince Muhammad and Princess Firyal, who accompanied him into the city where he was welcomed by the governor Anwar Nusseibeh. But the pope had to cross the lines at the Mandelbaum Gate like everyone else. When he asked permission to pray in the Greek chapel of Calvary, the Orthodox patriarch ordered him to make the request in writing and then turned it down. ‘The pope’s visit’, wrote Sari Nusseibeh, ‘sparked a boom’: the Husseinis and Nusseibehs knocked down their elegant villas and built hideous hotels.
Yet King Hussein was now struggling for survival, crushed between radical Nasserite Egypt and Syria, between the Arabs and the Israelis, and between his own dynastic ambitions and the passionate bitterness of the Palestinians who felt he had betrayed them. As Nasser plotted to overthrow the king, Jerusalem and the West Bank repeatedly rioted against the Hashemites.
In 1959, Yasser Arafat, a veteran of the 1948 war,* founded a militant liberation movement called Fatah – Conquest. In 1964, Nasser held a summit in Cairo that created a United Arab Command for the coming war against Israel and founded the Palestine Liberation Organization under Ahmed al-Shuqayri. That May in Jerusalem, King Hussein reluctantly opened the Palestinian Congress, which launched the PLO. The following January, Arafat’s Fatah carried out a small raid into Israel from Jordan. It was a disaster and the only casualty was a Palestinian guerrilla shot dead by the Jordanians. But Fatah’s exploit caught the Arab imagination and marked the beginning of Arafat’s campaign to place the Palestinian cause at the centre of the global stage. The rise of the pistol-packing, khaki-clad, keffiyeh-wearing radicals of Fatah had eclipsed the haughty Families, discredited by the mufti and by 1948. In a sign of the times, Anwar Nusseibeh’s son Sari joined Fatah.
The Palestinians were losing patience with Hussein. When Governor Nusseibeh refused a royal order, the king sacked him and appointed a Jordanian in his place. In September 1965, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Hussein secretly met the Israeli foreign minister, Golda Meir, who suggested that one day ‘we could put aside arms and create a monument in Jerusalem that would signify peace between us’.27
When Ben-Gurion retired as prime minister in 1963, his successor was the sixty-eight-year-old Levi Eshkol, born near Kiev, a bespectacled plodder whose chief achievement had been founding the Israeli water utility: he was no Ben-Gurion. In early 1967, Syrian attacks on northern Israel led to a dogfight in which the Syrian air force was decimated over Damascus. Syria backed more Palestinian raids into Israel.*
The Soviet Union warned Nasser – wrongly as it turned out – that Israel planned to attack Syria. It is still unclear why Moscow pushed this false intelligence and why Nasser chose to believe it when he had weeks to verify or disprove it. For all the strength of Egypt, his own charisma and the popularity of pan-Arabism, Nasser had been humiliated by Israeli reprisal raids and exposed by Syrian brinkmanship. He moved his troops into the peninsula to show that he would not tolerate an attack on Syria.
On 15 May, an anxious Eshkol and his chief of staff, General Rabin, met at the King David in Jerusalem before the Independence Day parade: how should they react to Nasser’s threats? The next day, Egypt asked the UN to remove its peacekeepers from Sinai. Nasser probably hoped to escalate the crisis while yet avoiding war. If so, his actions were either hopelessly clumsy or reckless. As the Arab leadership and the crowds on the street hailed the coming extermination of the Jewish state, Eshkol dithered nervously. A crisis of foreboding and existential fear swept over Israel, which had lost the initiative to Nasser. Surviving on coffee, chain-smoking seventy cigarettes a day, aware that the survival of Israel rested on his shoulders, General Rabin started to crack up.
RABIN: THE BREAKDOWN BEFORE BATTLE
Nasser called the odds as he convened his Cabinet and closely questioned his vice-president and military supremo, Field-Marshal Abdel-Hakim al-Amer, a deluded, drug-taking bon vivant, who remained the president’s oldest friend.
NASSER: ‘Now with our concentrations in Sinai the chances of war are 50–50. If we close the Strait of Tiran, war will be 100 per cent. Are the armed forces ready, Abdel Hakim (Amer)?’
AMER: ‘On my own head be it, Boss! Everything’s in tiptop shape.’
On 23 May, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, the seaway to Israel’s key port of Eilat. Syria mobilized for war. King Hussein reviewed his forces. Rabin and the generals advised Eshkol to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt or face annihilation. But Eshkol refused until he had exhausted all political options: his foreign minister Abba Eban carried out painstaking diplomacy to prevent war – or win support if it came. Yet Rabin was tormented by guilt that he had not done enough to save Israel: ‘I had the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that I had to carry everything on my own. I had sunk into a profound crisis. I had eaten almost nothing for almost nine days, hadn’t slept, was smoking nonstop and was physically exhausted.’
With its drifting prime minister, its chief of staff under sedation, its generals on the verge of mutiny and the nation itself in panic, there was nothing fake about Israel’s trauma. In Washington, President L. B. Johnson refused to back any Israeli strike; in Moscow, Premier Alexei Kosygin strongly advised Nasser to pull back from war. In Cairo, Field Marshal Amer, boasting that ‘This time we’ll be the ones to start the war,’ prepared to attack the Negev. Just in time, Nasser ordered Amer to hold back.
In Amman, King Hussein felt he had little choice but to join Nasser: if Egypt attacked, he had to support his Arab brother; otherwise, if Egypt lost, he would be regarded as a traitor. On 30 May, Hussein, wearing a field marshal’s uniform and packing a .357 Magnum, piloted his own plane to Cairo where he was met by Nasser. ‘Since your visit is a secret,’ said Nasser, towering over the diminutive king, ‘what would happen if we arrested you?’ ‘The possibility never crossed my mind,’ replied Hussein, who agreed to place his 56,000-strong army under the Egyptian General Riyad. ‘All the Arab armies now surround Israel,’ declared the king. Israel faced war on three fronts. On 28 May, Eshkol had given a rambling radio address that only intensified Israeli anxiety. In Jerusalem, bomb shelters were dug, air-raid drills practised. The Israelis feared annihilation, another Holocaust. Eban had exhausted diplomacy and the generals, the politicians and the public had lost confidence in Eshkol. He was forced to call in Israel’s most respected soldier.
DAYAN TAKES COMMAND
On 1 June, Moshe Dayan was sworn in as defence minister and Menachem Begin also joined the new National Government as minister without portfolio. Dayan, who always wore his trademark black eyepatch, was a disciple of Ben-Gurion and despised Eshkol, who privately nicknamed him Abu Jildi after a slippery one-eyed Arab bandit.
Wingate’s pupil, chief of staff during the Suez war and now an MP, Dayan was a contradiction – an archaeologist and looter of artefacts, an avenging wielder of military might and a believer in tolerant coexistence, a vanquisher of the Arabs and a lover of Arab culture. He was ‘supremely intelligent,’ recalls his friend Shimon Peres, ‘his mind was brilliant and he never said a foolish thing’. His fellow general Ariel Sharon thought Dayan ‘would wake up with a hundred ideas. Of them ninety-five were dangerous; three more were bad; the remaining two however were brilliant.’ He ‘depised most people’, recalled Sharon, ‘and took no pains to conceal it’. His critics called him ‘a partisan and adventurer’ and Dayan once admitted to Peres, ‘Remember one thing: I am unreliable.’
Dayan radiated the charisma of the new dashing Jew ‘not because he followed rules,’ says Peres, ‘but because he discarded them with ability and charm.’ A classmate described him as ‘a liar, a braggart, a schemer, and a prima donna and in spite of that, the object of deep admiration’. He was a loner without friends, an inscrutable showman and a priapic womanizer, which Ben-Gurion excused because Dayan was ‘cast from biblical material’ like King David – or Admiral Nelson: ‘You have to get used to it’, he told Dayan’s heartbroken wife, Ruth. ‘Great men’s private and public lives are often conducted on parallel planes that never meet.’
As Eban reported that America did not approve military action, but nor would it move to prevent it, Dayan showed his cool grasp of strategy. He stressed that Israel had to strike the Egyptians at once while avoiding any confrontation with Jordan. His Jerusalem commander Uzi Narkiss challenged him: what if Jordan attacked Mount Scopus? ‘In that case,’ replied Dayan drily, ‘bite your lip and hold the line!’
Nasser already believed he had won a bloodless victory but the Egyptians continued to plan their attack in Sinai. The Jordanians, backed by an Iraqi brigade, drew up Operation Tariq to encircle Jewish west Jerusalem. The Arab world, now fielding 500,000 men, 5,000 tanks and 900 planes, had never been so united. ‘Our basic aim will be the destruction of Israel,’ said Nasser. ‘Our goal’, explained President Aref of Iraq, ‘is to wipe Israel off the face of the map.’ The Israelis fielded 275,000 men, 1,100 tanks and 200 planes.
At 7.10 a.m. on 5 June, Israeli pilots surprised and wiped out the Egyptian air force. At 8.15, Dayan ordered the Israeli Defence Forces into Sinai. In Jerusalem, General Narkiss waited nervously, fearful that the Jordanians would take the vulnerable Mount Scopus and encircle the 197,000 Jews in west Jerusalem, but he was hoping that the Jordanians would make only a symbolic contribution to the Egyptian war. Just after 8 a.m., the air-raid sirens rang. The Dead Sea Scrolls were securely stored. Reservists were called up. Three times, Israel warned King Hussein, through the US State Department, the UN in Jerusalem and the British Foreign Office, that ‘Israel will not, repeat not, attack Jordan if Jordan maintains the quiet. But if Jordan opens hostilities, Israel will respond with all its might.’
‘Your Majesty, the Israeli offensive has begun in Egypt,’ King Hussein’s aide-de-camp informed him at 8.50 a.m. Telephoning headquarters, Hussein learned that Field Marshal Amer had smashed Israeli forces and was successfully counter-attacking. At 9 a.m., Hussein entered the headquarters to find that his Egyptian general Riyad had ordered attacks on Israeli targets and the seizure of Government House in south Jerusalem. Nasser called to confirm Egyptian victories and the destruction of the Israeli air force.
At 9.30, the sombre king told his people: ‘The hour of revenge has come.’
5–7 JUNE 1967: HUSSEIN, DAYAN AND RABIN
At 11.15 a.m., Jordanian artillery launched a 6,000-shell barrage against Jewish Jerusalem, hitting the Knesset and the prime minister’s house as well as the Hadassah Hospital and the Church of Dormition on Mount Zion. Following Dayan’s orders, the Israelis responded only with small arms. At 11.30, Dayan ordered a strike against the Jordanian air force. Watching from the roof his palace with his eldest son, the future King Abdullah II, Hussein saw his planes destroyed.
In Jerusalem, Israel offered a ceasefire but the Jordanians were not interested. The muezzin loudspeakers on the Dome of the Rock cried, ‘Take up your weapons and take back your country stolen by the Jews.’ At 12.45, the Jordanians occupied Government House: it happened to be the UN headquarters but it dominated Jerusalem. Dayan immediately ordered it to be stormed, and it fell after four hours’ fighting. To the north, Israeli mortars and artillery fired on the Jordanians.
Dayan revered Jerusalem, but he understood that its political complexities could threaten Israel’s very existence. When the Israeli Cabinet debated whether to attack the Old City or simply silence the Jordanian guns, Dayan argued against the conquest, anxious about the responsibilities of governing the Temple Mount, but he was overruled. He delayed any action until Sinai was conquered.
‘That night was hell,’ wrote Hussein. ‘It was clear as day. The sky and earth glowed with the light of rockets and the explosions of bombs pouring from Israeli planes.’ At 2.10 a.m. on 6 June, Israeli paratroopers mustered in three squads, encouraged by General Narkiss to ‘atone for the sin of ’48’ when he himself had fought for the city. The first squad crossed no-man’s-land towards Mandelbaum Gate to take Ammunition Hill – where Allenby had stored his arsenal – in a fierce battle in which seventy-one Jordanians and thirty-five Israelis were killed. The paratroopers advanced swiftly through Sheikh Jarrah past the American Colony towards the Rockefeller Museum, which fell at 7.27.
The king still held the commanding Augusta Victoria Hospital between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, and he desperately tried to save the Old City by offering a ceasefire, but it was too late. Nasser called to tell Hussein that they should claim that the US and Britain had defeated the Arabs, not just Israel on its own.
Hussein sped in a jeep down into the Jordan Valley, where he encountered his troops retreating from the north. Within the Old City, the Jordanians, who had had their headquarters in the Armenian Monastery since 1948, posted fifty men at each of the gates and waited. The Israelis planned to capture the Augusta Victoria, but their Sherman tanks took a wrong turn down into the Kidron Valley and were fiercely attacked from the Lions’ Gate, losing five men and four tanks close to the Garden of Gethsemane. The Israelis sheltered in the sunken courtyard of the Virgin’s Tomb. The Old City was still not surrounded.
Dayan joined Narkiss on Mount Scopus overlooking the Old City: ‘What a divine view!’ said Dayan, but he refused to allow any attack. However, at dawn on 7 June, the UN Security Council prepared to order a ceasefire. Menachem Begin called Eshkol to encourage an urgent assault on the Old City. Dayan was suddenly in danger of running out of time. In the War Room, he ordered Rabin to take ‘the most difficult and coveted target of the war’.
First the Israelis bombarded the Augusta Victoria ridge, using napalm; the Jordanians fled. Then Israeli paratroopers took the Mount of Olives and moved down towards the Garden of Gethsemane. ‘We occupy the heights overlooking the Old City,’ the paratroop commander Colonel Motta Gur told his men. ‘In a little while we will enter it. The ancient city of Jerusalem which for generations we have dreamed of and striven for – we’ll be the first to enter it. The Jewish nation is awaiting our victory. Be proud. Good luck!’
At 9.45 a.m., the Israeli Sherman tanks fired at the Lions’ Gate, smashing the bus that was blocking it, and blew open the doors. Under raking Jordanian fire, the Israelis charged the gate.28 The paratroopers broke into the Via Dolorosa, and Colonel Gur led a group on to the Temple Mount. ‘There you are on a half-track after 2 days of fighting with shots still filling the air, and suddenly you enter this wide open space that everyone has seen before in pictures,’ wrote intelligence officer Arik Akhmon, ‘and though I’m not religious, I don’t think there was a man who wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion. Something special had happened.’ There was a skirmish with Jordanian troops before Gur announced over the radio: ‘The Temple Mount is in our hands!’
Meanwhile on Mount Zion, a company of the Jerusalem Brigade burst through a portal in the Zion Gate into the Armenian Quarter, hurtling down the steep hill into the Jewish Quarter, just as soldiers of the same unit broke through the Dung Gate. All headed for the Wall. Back on the Temple Mount, Gur and his paratroopers did not know how to reach it, but an old Arab showed them the Maghrebi Gate and all three companies converged simultaneously on the holy place. Holding his shofar and a Torah, the bearded Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief chaplain of the Israeli Army, strode to the Wall and began to recite the Kaddish mourning prayer as the soldiers prayed, wept, applauded, danced and some sang the city’s new anthem ‘Jerusalem of Gold’.
At 2.30 p.m., Dayan, flanked by Rabin and Narkiss, entered the city, passing ‘smouldering tanks’, and walking through ‘alleys totally deserted, an eerie silence broken by sniper fire. I remembered my childhood,’ said Rabin, and reported feeling ‘sheer excitement as we got closer’ to the Kotel. As they proceeded across the Temple Mount, Dayan saw an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock and ‘I ordered it removed immediately.’ Rabin was ‘breathless’ as he watched the ‘tangle of rugged battle-weary men, eyes moist with tears’, but ‘it was no time for weeping – a moment of redemption, of hope’.
Rabbi Goren wanted to accelerate the messianic era by dynamiting the mosques on the Temple Mount, but General Narkiss replied: ‘Stop it!’
‘You’ll enter the history books,’ said Rabbi Goren.
‘I’ve already recorded my name in the history of Jerusalem,’ answered Narkiss.
‘This was the peak of my life,’ recalled Rabin. ‘For years I had secretly harboured the dream that I might play a role in restoring the Western Wall to the Jewish people. Now that dream had come true and suddenly I wondered why I of all men should be privileged.’ Rabin was granted the honour of naming the war: always modest and dignified, gruff and laconic, he chose the simplest name: the Six Day War. Nasser had another name for it – al-Naksa, the Reversal.
Dayan wrote a note on a piece of the paper – it read ‘May peace descend on the whole house of Israel’ – which he placed between Herod’s ashlars. He then declared, ‘We’ve reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part it again.’ But Dayan – always the Israeli who most respected, and was most respected by, the Arabs, who called him Abu Musa (son of Moses) – continued, ‘To our Arab neighbours, Israel extends the hand of peace and to all peoples of all faiths, we guarantee full freedom of worship. We’ve not come to conquer the holy places of others but to live with others in harmony.’ As he left he plucked ‘some wild cyclamen of a delicate pink mauve sprouting between the Wall and the Maghrebi Gate’ to give to his long-suffering wife.
Dayan thought hard about Jerusalem and created his own policy. Ten days later, he returned to al-Aqsa where, sitting in his socks with the sheikh of the Haram and the ulema, he explained that Jerusalem now belonged to Israel but the Waqf would control the Temple Mount. Even though, after 2,000 years, Jews could now finally visit the Har ha-Bayit, he ruled that they were forbidden to pray there. Dayan’s statesmanlike decision stands today.
President Nasser resigned temporarily but never relinquished power and even forgave his friend Field Marshal Amer. But the latter planned a coup d’état and, after his arrest, died mysteriously in prison. Nasser insisted that ‘Al-Quds can never be relinquished,’ but he never recovered from the defeat, dying of a heart attack three years later. King Hussein later admitted that 5–10 June ‘were the worst days of my life’. He had lost half his territory – and the prize of Jerusalem. Privately, he wept for al-Quds: ‘I cannot accept that Jerusalem is lost in my time.’29