The US, Israel, and Egypt: Diplomacy in the Shadow of Attrition, 1967-70

The US, Israel, and Egypt: Diplomacy in the Shadow of Attrition, 1967-70
By Yehuda U. Blanga (London: Routledge, 2020), 269 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Sharnoff, Associate Professor, National Defense University, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, Washington, DC

Much scholarship has been devoted to the 1967 war and the 1973 war, two pivotal events in the annals of Middle Eastern history and politics. Yehuda U. Blanga’s new study, The US, Israel, and Egypt: Diplomacy in the Shadow of Attrition, 1967-70, seeks to fill a sorely needed gap during the War of Attrition, and explain and analyze diplomatic backchannels between Israel, the United States and Egypt. The author offers a balanced perspective relying almost entirely on primary sources, many of which include recently declassified American diplomatic and intelligence documents.

When explaining why Egypt faced greater isolation and pressure by the US after the 1967 war, Blanga observes that Egypt could not count on Washington to influence Israel to withdrawal from occupied territory like it had done in 1957. Among the reasons cited, the author includes 1) a rise in Nasser’s prestige as leader of the Arab world, 2) Soviet support for Egypt which contributed to its militarization and openness to entertain diplomacy, albeit on tough and uncompromising terms, 3) and a recognition by Nasser that the US was key to any comprehensive peace agreement (pp. 13-14).

However, the author omits or downplays two additional factors which encouraged Washington to reevaluate its Egypt policy and prevent a rush to restore bilateral relations, which Egypt had severed after the 1967 war. First, the “Big Lie” conspiracy propagated by Nasser [and King Hussein] which claimed that Israel’s military victory was a result of direct American and British military intervention. This myth of western collusion was an attempt to absolve Egypt and the Arabs of their humiliating defeat, and in the process, reinforced perceptions that the West sought to exploit and dominate the Arab states and use Israel as an outpost to advance Western interests. Although Hussein retracted the fabrication shortly after the war, Nasser did not formally repudiate the myth of Western collusion until March 1968.

Secondly, Nasser’s toleration of the “Big Lie” created an atmosphere of intense anti-American sentiment in Egypt and beyond. By June 10, more than 550 Americans had been evacuated after Egyptian mobs in Cairo rioted, and Nasser expelled Americans from Egypt. Washington considered retaliating by expelling Egyptian nationals from the US. Ultimately, the State Department advised against such a short-sighted policy, despite the fact that Egypt’s treatment of Americans was shameful and humiliating. These realities clearly influenced Washington’s cautious attitude toward Cairo, and should not be understated.

The author does a stellar job explaining just how far apart Egypt and Israel’s positions were after the 1967 war. Publicly, Nasser insisted that Israel withdrawal to the June 4 line as a precondition for a negotiated settlement. Nasser was not prepared to negotiate directly with Israel or recognize its existence formalized in a peace treaty with the Jewish State. Privately, however, Nasser hinted that Egypt could reach an agreement with Israel if it evacuated completely from Sinai and Gaza, and reached a just settlement of the refugee problem, a demand whose intentionally vague language ostensibly offered flexibility on the Palestinian question.

Israel insisted that direct talks with Egypt and the Arab countries were necessary to achieve peace. Jerusalem was not interested in indirect negotiations, pledges by the great powers, or returning to another armistice, which had failed to prevent the resumption of hostilities after the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars. These differences appeared too wide to bridge, despite mediation efforts from the UN, US, and the USSR, who drafted their own initiatives, but never could satisfy both parties’ expectations. Israel insisted withdrawal from some, but not all of the territories conquered during the war, could occur only after an agreement was reached. Therefore, in the absence of peace, war between Egypt and Israel would almost certainly be inevitable. As the author correctly observes, Nasser entertained diplomacy while rebuilding the armed forces in preparation for another war.

Blanga later notes that “Nasser pledged to continue the Egyptian effort until the occupied territories had been liberated and an independent Palestinian entity established” (p. 114). This new demand appears to deviate from previous diplomatic consultations which viewed the Palestinians primarily as a refugee community, not as a distinct nation worthy of autonomy or independence. Generally speaking, while Nasser claimed to represent the Palestinians, he, like King Hussein, viewed the Gaza Strip and West Bank as occupied Arab territories, not Palestinian territories.

Accordingly, this new demand for the Palestinians raises questions. Why did Nasser now feel the need to demand the establishment of an independent Palestinian entity? Which borders, precisely, would constitute the entity? If it is comprised of the West Bank and Gaza, why wasn’t it established while the territories were under Jordanian and Egyptian rule for nearly two decades (1949-1967)? Although the Arab states did not recognize Israel during this time, it is doubtful that they meant that a Palestinian entity should be created inside Israel, because that would have been unfeasible. By not challenging these assertions, the author seems to accept Nasser’s demand at face value. In this instance, a deeper explanation and analysis of the details and parameters of this Palestinian entity deserve greater scrutiny.

Everything considered, Blanga should be commended for his meticulous use of primary source material which enhances our understanding of the War of Attrition, a much neglected yet significant topic in Middle Eastern Studies. The nuance and objectivity he brings makes this one of the most comprehensive accounts of the War of Attrition and probably the finest work on the subject.