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Academic Perspective: Revisiting Nasser and Palestine after the 1967 War

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While Palestinians mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser continues to be depicted in academic discourse and in Arab historiography as a champion of the Palestine cause. Prior to the 1967 War, Nasser did aggressively promote Palestinian rights and advocate Israel’s destruction in his speeches, interviews and state-run media.

After the war, however, Nasser gradually de-emphasized Palestine and abandoned efforts to reverse Israel’s independence in 1948 which he and the Palestinians referred to as al-nakba (“the disaster”) and focused instead on regaining Arab territory lost in 1967, which he called al-naksa (“the setback”).

Recently declassified Soviet documents reveal that in New York on June 22, 1967, Nasser’s Counselor for Foreign Affairs Mahmoud Fawzi told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that Egypt’s primary concern was securing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all the territories it conquered during the war, including the Old City of Jerusalem. Curiously, Fawzi did not mention the fate of the West Bank – whether it should return to Jordan, become linked somehow to Israel, or emerge as an autonomous Palestinian entity.

During a meeting in Cairo with Czechoslovak Politburo Secretary Vladimir Koucki on June 28, Nasser said that he “did not want to speak about the solution of Palestinian question, but only about the liberation of Arab lands.”

Nasser’s post-war policy radically shifted from advocating Israel’s liquidation and the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Israel to an Egypt first approach, which emphasized liberating territories previously under Egyptian rule. A CIA cable observed that while Egypt would “demand unconditional return of the Sinai,” it gave “no indication of what it might consider a suitable disposition of the Gaza Strip,” and that Nasser wanted “to have a large voice in the Gaza through puppets in the various Palestine refugee organizations.”

On July 11, Nasser completely disregarded the fate of the Palestinians and told Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Jacob Malik that Egypt could accept any political solution with Israel as long as Israeli vessels would not sail through the Suez Canal.

The three infamous “no’s” issued on September 1 at the Arab League Summit in Khartoum – “no peace with Israel,” “no recognition of Israel,” and “no negotiation with Israel,” were widely perceived by Israel as further proof that the Arabs were not interested in peace.

However, a secret State Department cable described Khartoum as a victory for Arab moderates, and noted that Nasser had joined the moderate camp along with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Nasser allegedly admitted some, not all, of his errors and he told his colleagues that they should first seek peaceful means to recover their territories by exploring a political settlement with Israel. Nasser and Jordanian King Hussein also censured PLO leader Ahmad Shukeiry for his bombastic anti-Israel rhetoric and demanded a freeze on fedayeen attacks.

Another example of Nasser’s indifference to Palestine was illustrated in a secret State Department memo on September 8 in which Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad praised a Yugoslavian peace proposal for having the potential to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, while ignoring the fate of the Palestinians.

Another secret State Department telegram on October 4 revealed that after Secretary of State Dean Rusk raised if Palestinians were given the choice to return to Israel or receive compensation, PLO leader Ahmad Shukeiry would threaten to cut Palestinian throats unless all agreed to return, Foreign Minister Riad boasted that Egypt “could remove Shukeiry.”

After meeting with Nasser in October 1967, Sir Dingle Foot, a former Solicitor General and British MP, said that his primary conditions for a settlement with Israel stipulated that Israel withdraw its forces from Egyptian territory. The fate of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Golan was omitted from Nasser’s conditions for peace, further underscoring Egyptian unilateralism and abandonment of the Palestine cause.

An intelligence report on October 19 assessed that although Nasser had a history of switching priorities in times of trouble “to satisfy his immense ego,” his decision to extricate Egypt from the Palestine cause was not “entirely voluntary.” Nasser faced real opposition from his Vice President and a new class of Egyptian officers disillusioned with Nasser’s pan-Arab adventurism. One Egyptian official chided Arab radicals for their impractical policies: “Look where we got by trying to help those sonsofbitches back in June. We want nothing more to do with their so-called peoples’ war.”

During another meeting with former US Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson on November 3, Nasser’s comments sharply contrasted with previous declarations calling for Israel’s destruction and the unconditional return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

When Anderson conveyed his doubts that Israel could ever agree to resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel, Nasser appeared ready to negotiate: “All right, then, let us settle with them by agreeing to pay them compensation.” Anderson pressed Nasser on the issue of offering economic aid instead of resettlement and Nasser said that if resettlement was not an option, compensation would be acceptable.

By proposing compensation instead of resettlement, Nasser was signaling that Palestinians living in Arab states should be assimilated, effectively terminating calls for Israel’s liquidation, the liberation of Palestine, and a Palestinian right of return.

Therefore, a closer study of Nasser’s Palestine policy after the 1967 War challenges his historical legacy as champion of Palestinian rights and calls for greater introspection and more honest debate in academic discourse.

(Michael Sharnoff is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle East Studies at King’s College, London. He can be reached at: michael.sharnoff@kcl.ac.uk)