Monday, December 28, 2015

Villa Moeller in Vienna: Solving a Historical Puzzle

Sometimes our work in the ISA doesn't concern national issues or peace treaties, but it is no less fascinating for that. Many requests to us for documents relate to land ownership and property transfers, which are of great importance to the people concerned. Here we tell how long forgotten files helped to solve a historical puzzle about a house owned by the state of Israel in Vienna.

At the beginning of October we were approached by Ms. Talya Lador-Fresher, who was about to take up her post as Israel's ambassador to Austria. She wanted information about the early years of Israel's relations with Austria, established on consular level in 1949 while the country was still under Allied occupation. For some reason she was particularly interested in the residence of the Israeli representative in Vienna. When we met, she explained that she had heard in the ministry that the house was given to the state by Hans Moeller, who owned it before it was confiscated by the Nazis.  Moeller belonged to a family of Jewish industrialists from Bohemia which founded the famous ATA textile firm near Haifa. He tried to get the building returned after the war, but the municipality of Vienna demanded a large sum in unpaid back taxes….In frustration, he decided to give the house to the state and let the Foreign Ministry deal with it. Talya was looking for proof of the story.

Hans Moeller in his office at ATA,  1962. Photograph:Wikipedia
One of the people who told her about the building was the ex-ambassador to Vienna, Mr. Yoel Sher, who used to work at the ISA. He told us that he had tried to find evidence here whether the Israeli government actually paid the taxes, but without success. This was another question we wanted to answer. 

Villa Moeller in Vienna. Photograph: Wikipedia
A quick check on the Internet revealed that the house, known as Villa Moeller, is well known in the history of architecture. It was designed by the important Modernist architect Adolf Loos in 1928, according to his theory of Raumplan. Loos said in 1930: "My architecture is not conceived in plans, but in spaces (cubes). I do not design floor plans, facades, sections. I design spaces. For me, there is no ground floor, first floor, etc. ... For me, there are only contiguous, continual spaces, rooms, anterooms, terraces, etc. Storeys merge and spaces relate to each other." The exterior, a white cubic façade, displays Loos' theory in his 1908 essay, "Ornament and Crime", in which he criticized decorated surfaces. He wanted to distinguish between the outside, where the view could be seen by the public eye, and the inside, the private spaces of those who lived there. In contrast to the simple exterior, the interior was decorated with comfortable furniture and marble and wood surfaces.
The interior of Villa Moeller today. Photograph: Talya Lador-Fresher
 From our experts on the Archives catalogue and on Foreign Ministry documents we learned that every embassy or legation abroad has a file on legal matters. Sure enough, in a file marked "State property abroad: Vienna"(MFA 1836/17) we found a note from December 1950 stating that the house was given to the state by Hans Moeller, the owner (at that time manager) of the ATA firm. The state had paid 45,000 schillings, a good deal of money at that time, to clear outstanding debts. So it seems that the back taxes were paid! According to another document, from September 1954,  the villa consists of 13 living rooms, with bathrooms, store rooms and balconies. The file also includes a copy of the Austrian land register. 

The house was in a poor state and needed extensive refitting. The first Israeli consul in Vienna was Dr. Kurt Daniel Lewin and, according to his successor, Arye Eshel, he saw his appointment as temporary and did little to deal with the problem. On his arrival , Eshel wrote a long letter to the Foreign Ministry (File MFA 2515/4) describing the situation. In his words, the building was a "magnificent shell with an interior which resembled a room in a  kibbutz hut". The large garden was a field of thistles, and the staff quarters had been occupied since 1945 by the family of a Viennese Communist  persecuted by the Nazis. Eshel warned that even after renovation upkeep of the house would be very expensive, and added wistfully that a furnished 4 room apartment would cost no more than 2,000 schillings per month, especially as the "future of the country and the city are lost in the mist." Despite the austerity in force in Israel in 1950, the Ministry decided on the renovations.
 The garden of Villa Moeller today. Photograph: Talya Lador-Fresher
Post war Vienna, which was divided into Soviet and Western zones, was a centre of espionage and intrigue. Alongside the more mundane subjects of restitution of Jewish property and commercial relations with Austria, the Israeli consulate also dealt with ties with Eastern Europe and efforts to help Jews from these countries get to Israel, sometimes using smugglers and black marketeers  reminiscent of  the characters in the famous film The Third Man, which was recently re-released.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Revealed and the Concealed: A Joint Exhibition with the Foreign Ministry

Today the Israeli Association for Diplomacy will award this year's Prize for Israeli Diplomacy to Mr. Shimon Peres, Israel's former president. To mark the occasion, the Israel State Archives is taking part in a joint exhibition called "The Revealed and the Concealed". The aim is to show the diplomatic activity "behind the scenes" of some of the big moments in Zionist and Israeli history. It starts with Theodore Herzl, who founded the Zionist movement but was an unsuccessful diplomat, and ends with more recent achievements of the Foreign Ministry, such as Israel's association with the OECD in 2010. It includes a selection of historical documents, mostly from our holdings, together with photographs, caricatures and other  visual material.

Today is also the anniversary of the dramatic vote on 29 November 1947, when the UN General Assembly decided to partition Palestine and to set up a Jewish and an Arab state.  The vote was close, and the representatives of the Jewish Agency  made tremendous efforts to mobilize every possible friend to influence the wavering UN member states. Here we present two documents on this subject which didn't make it into the exhibition.

Below Chaim Weizmann, who was ousted from the presidency of the World Zionist Organization in 1946 but still enjoyed great  prestige in the US, appeals to President Harry Truman to intervene 
personally to influence countries which planned to abstain. 
Telegram courtesy of Yad Chaim Weizmann, the Weizmann Archives, Rehovot

Among the countries mentioned was Ethiopia, whose emperor, Haile Selassie, had lived in Jerusalem after being
deposed by the Italians. Here we show a cable to Haile Selaissie from Lorna Wingate, the widow of Major Orde Wingate, a great friend of the Zionist movement, appealing in the name of her husband for Ethiopia's support. Wingate, a brilliant and innovative leader of special forces, led the Gideon Force of British, Sudanese and Ethiopian troops, including some members of the Haganah who had served with him in Palestine. Wingate helped to restore the Emperor to his throne in 1941, but was later killed in Burma. The cable is in File MFA 2206/9. 

.Orde Wingate (right) with Hailie Selassie and another officer in Ethiopia. Wikimedia

Lorna Wingate's appeal went unanswered and Ethiopia abstained in the vote on 29 November. But a majority of 33 nations voted in favour of the partition resolution, with 13 against and 10 abstentions. In December 1947, Moshe Shertok, the head of the Political Department of the Agency who had led the struggle at the UN, gave warm praise to the members of his team, who had worked together in harmony and with total devotion to the cause. "I saw many delegations of states [at Lake Success]" said Shertok, "large states and small, large delegations of large states which included several important members, experienced statesmen with a whole staff of advisers, with huge offices……I am sure not only that our delegation was not inferior to theirs, but that no other people had such a group of workers. "

The decision on 29 November paved the way for the establishment of the state of Israel on 15 May 1948. Shertok became the foreign minister and changed his name to Sharett, and many of his staff became the nucleus of Israel's Foreign Ministry. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Jubilee of the Israel Museum, 1965-2015

This week, the Israel State Archives and the Israel Museum released a joint publication (in Hebrew) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the museum, which was opened on May 11, 1965. The museum is Israel's national museum and holds one of the largest collections of art and archaeology in the world.

The publication includes 39 documents (three in English--4, 18, 26; one in French--18; the rest in Hebrew), and tells the story of the building of the museum with assistance from the U.S. government. (This was why it was called "the Israel Museum" rather than "the Jerusalem museum"; the U.S. opposed Israel's extension of its rule to Jerusalem.) The publication also describes the decision to build in the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood in Jerusalem, the process of building, and the inauguration of the museum.

In the first year after opening, the museum saw more than 570,000 visitors, out of a population of 2.5 million, in 1965.

The publication includes photographs, architectural plans, a model of the building built by architects Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, and movie clips.

Here are some photographs from the opening of the museum, courtesy of the government press office's national photo collection:
P.M. Levy Eshkol speaking at the opening ceremony of the Israel National Museum in Jerusalem (David Ben Gurion can be seen seated in the center, on the right side of Eshkol) / Moshe Pridan 

Chairman of the acting board of governors of the Israel Museum Mr. Teddy Kollek speaking at the opening ceremony of the museum in Jerusalem / Moshe Pridan 
Mrs. Rachel Shazar, President Shazar's wife, cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Israel National Museum in Jerusalem. To her right, Mr. Teddy Kollek and Mr. Propes. / Moshe Pridan
Baron and Baroness (R) Edmond de Rothschild looking at a 5,000-year-old ornamental copper object from the Chaleolitic period found during the excavations of the Bar Kochba caves in the Judean desert / Moshe Pridan
Deputy Defense Minister Peres and his wife visiting the Israel National Museum after the opening ceremony / Moshe Pridan 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The 40th Anniversary of the UN Resolution Equating Zionism with Racism

Today, November 10, 2015, is the 40th anniversary of one of the United Nations' lowest points: United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, equating Zionism with racism. The resolution was one of the many efforts (and one of the successful ones) of the Arab world and the Eastern bloc to isolate Israel and have her expelled from international organizations such as the United Nations.

The resolution is also remembered for the powerful speech after the vote by Chaim Herzog (the Israeli Ambassador to the UN and later Israel's 6th president), equating it with the Kristallnacht pogrom – exactly 37 years before – and his famous act of tearing up the resolution.

Here a short movie clip on Herzog's speech:
And here is the text of the speech.

Three years ago, we published a post on the resolution, Israel's efforts to block it, and the country's reaction after it was passed.

In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 4686 "revoking" resolution 3379 and virtually annulling it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Yitzhak Navon, Israel's Fifth President 1921-2015

Yitzhak Navon, who was president of Israel between 1978 and 1983, passed away on Saturday and was buried in Jerusalem today. He had a long and varied career, starting as a junior diplomat in Montevideo, in Israel's first representation in Latin America, and later in Argentina. He served as the secretary of Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and then as the secretary of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
Yitzhak Navon with Israel's minister to Uruguay, Yaacov Zur,  and Mrs. Zur in Montevideo, October 1948.Photograph:  Hugo Mendelsohn, Goverment Press Office 

Yitzhak Navon and David Ben-Gurion reading the Bible, April 1956.
Photograph: Government Press Office

In 1963 Navon, then head of the Culture Unit in the Ministry of Education, headed the campaign to eradicate adult illiteracy in Israel, about which we wrote here.

Afterwards he followed Ben-Gurion into the Rafi party which later merged with the Labour Alignment. He became a Knesset member in 1965 and later served as deputy speaker of the Knesset. During his term as president the peace treaty with Egypt was signed, and he made an official visit to Egypt. During his stay, President Navon visited among other places, Sadat's birthplace at the village of Mit Abul Kum. In Cairo, at his request he addressed the members of the ruling National Democratic Party, as President Sadat had addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem.

President Navon and President Sadat in Mit Abul Kom, 29/10/1980
Photograph:Yaacov Saar, Government Press Office, 

 In his speech he expressed disappointment at the pace of the normalization process. "In times of war, we need a Supreme Command for War . In times of peace, we need a Supreme Command for Peace", to be made up of writers, teachers, scientists and psychologists to deepen and implant the hold of peace among the peoples of the two nations. President Navon  also spoke of the shared roots and aspirations of Jews and Muslims and of his grandfather who left Morocco for the Holy Land after a dream of the prophet Elijah, 

Navon ,who grew up in a distinguished Sepahrdi family in Jerusalem, spoke fluent Arabic which he had learned from his neighbours. He also wrote two popular musical plays in Ladino. He refused to serve a second term as president and returned to politics, serving as minister of education between 1984 and 1990.

Letter from a Jewish child in Australia to President Navon
Israel State Archives

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Twentieth Anniversary of the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

Yitzhak Rabin, November 1994
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
Today is the anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on 4 November 1995. The fatal attack took place in Tel Aviv, at the end of a rally for peace and against violence, and afterwards a bloodstained copy of the peace anthem, "Shir HaShalom" was found in Rabin's jacket pocket.To mark the twentieth anniversary of this traumatic event in Israel's history, we present a list of publications from the ISA about Rabin. Most of them are in Hebrew and the list can be seen on our Hebrew blog.

Yitzhak Rabin served as the chief of general staff of the IDF during the Six Day War. In 2005 the ISA published the first part of a commemorative volume on his life, covering the period up to 1967. Afterwards Rabin served as the Israeli ambassador in Washington, as prime minister in 1974-1977, as defence minister and again as prime minister in 1992-1995. 

This blog includes several posts in English related to the early period of his career: two posts on the decision of the Israeli government to accept a US plan for a ceasefire with Egypt in 1970, when Rabin was ambassador in Washington, and two posts on one of his main achievements during his first term as prime minister, the Sinai II agreement with Egypt signed in September 1975.

 Military Escalation and a Presidential Decision : Israel Accepts the Plan,                                              Part II

The commmorative volume issued by the ISA

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

No Longer a Common Law Wife: Levi Eshkol Signs A Formal Memorandum of Understanding with the United States, 1965

On 25 October we will mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of Levi Eshkol, Israel's third prime minister . Levi Shkolnik, later Eshkol, was born in Oratavo, in Ukraine and came to Palestine in 1914. After serving as the minister of finance for many years, Eshkol became prime minister on 26 June 1963 and served until his death in 1969. Until 1967 he was also minister of defence. One of his most important achievements was the signing of a secret memorandum of understanding with the US on 10 March 1965. This agreement is considered the beginning of the strategic alliance so important to Israel's security and international status.

Levi Shkolnik in the 1920s, Israel State Archives

Here we presents a publication showing the background to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and the negotiations which led up to the signing (for the text see below, ISA A/7935). The publication includes 18 documents, some from our holdings specially declassified for the purpose, and some from the US archives, published in Volume XVIII of the Foreign Relations of the United States series on the Johnson Administration

You can see all the Hebrew documents on our Hebrew blog.


In Israel's early years the US gave it support and financial help but there was no alliance between them. The Administration wanted to keep good relations with the Arabs and at first Israel preferred neutrality between East and West in order to receive help from both Great Powers. In 1950 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to support the West in the Korean War, which enabled Israel to receive more economic aid and surplus outdated weapons. When the Soviets began to arm Egypt, the US preferred France to serve as Israel's main arms supplier.

Under the Kennedy Administration this began to change. Although the Americans made difficulties for Israel with their demands over the nuclear reactor in Dimona and the Palestinian refugee problem, in September 1962 they agreed to sell Israel advanced weapons defined as defensive – Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. One of the reasons for this decision was the Egyptian efforts to develop surface to surface missiles. In December 1962 Kennedy told Foreign Minister Golda Meir that the US had a "special relationship" with Israel like its relationship with Britain, but he refused to formalize this link. At most he agrred to repeat past US declarations and to declare that the US was committed to preserving the territorial integrity of all states in the Middle East, including Israel. The Administration feared that a formal alliance would damage its relations with moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and drive the Arabs into the arms of the USSR.

In June 1963 Ben-Gurion resigned and Eshkol replaced him. He managed to reduce the tension with the US over inspection of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.  One of the factors which persuaded the Americans was the realization that Egyptian President Nasser did not intend to accept their proposals for a compromise with Israel and that he was undermining Western interests in Yemen and Algeria. On 3 October 1963 Kennedy sent Eshkol a letter on the US stand, emphasizing its friendship for Israel and strong military presence in the Middle East but rejecting Ben-Gurion's proposal for a formal alliance (Document 1, ISA A-7939/3). Eshkol replied on 3 November that the Egyptian threat to Israel's crowded population centres obliged the US to help Israel acquire advanced weapons at a low price (Document 2, ISA A-7939/3).

The Johnson Administration

On 22 November Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and Lyndon Johnson became president. Johnson's personal attitude to Israel was more positive. In his first letter to Eshkol in January 1964 he repeated Kennedy's stand on the use of the River Jordan waters, the refugee question and the US commitment to Israel, but did not mention Dimona. Eshkol replied, thanking him and expressing his hope to meet the president. Eshkol was in fact invited to visit the White House, and he arrived in June 1964 – the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister.

Eshkol and Johnson inspect an honour guard at the White House, 1 June 1964
Photograph: Moshe Pridan, Governmet Press Office

On 18 June  Eshkol reported to the government on his visit and spoke very warmly of Johnson: "You feel as if a friend is walking with you on a dark night, and you are not afraid, and neither is he afraid." The two discussed bilateral relations, including the supply of US tanks through West Germany (see Israel's Relations with the Federal Republic of Germany, 1961-1965) and building a nuclear reactor for water desalination. Eshkol described Johnson as "full of good will and concern" for Israel's security. Education Minister Zalman Aranne commented that it seemed that for the first time Israel's relations with the US had emerged from the status of a "diplomatic common law wife." (Document 4 in Hebrew). As a result of this talk Israel was able to buy US tanks through Germany, but Johnson refused to sell it planes. 

Crisis with  West Germany: A Turning Point in Relations with Germany – and with the US

At the beginning of 1965 the sale of US tanks to Israel by West Germany was revealed by the press and this led to a crisis. Up till then Israel and the Federal Republic did not have diplomatic relations, and Germany gave Israel economic aid under the Reparations Agreement of 1952. After the deal was exposed Egypt invited the East German leader Walter Ulbricht to Cairo. In reaction West Germany decided to stop selling arms to "areas of tension", including Israel, and to cancel the sale of tanks, but to establish full diplomatic relations (for the full story, see our publication).

As a result of this crisis two high level delegations from the US came to Israel to discuss security relations. The first arrived on 12 February 1965 and was headed by Robert Komer of the National Security Council (codenamed "Ahiassaf" in the Israeli documents), with Walworth Barbour, the US ambassador and his first secretary, Stephen Palmer. Before he left Komer sent a memorandum to the president discussing how to balance Israeli's demands for arms instead of the tanks from Germany with Jordanian demands, and how to prevent a violent reaction by Nasser. Komer's instructions, delivered on 10 February, were "to explain to the Government of Israel in full and friendly candor the reasons why we believe that limited and carefully spaced out US arms sales to Jordan are far better than the alternative of uncontrollable Soviet or UAR supply." The US was supporting Jordan solely because they saw this as an Israeli interest. They still preferred Israel to receive arms from Europe but recognized that US sales might become necessary.

Sitting on the Israeli side of the table were all the political and security top brass, among them Eshkol, Foreign Minister Meir, Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban, Deputy Defence Minister Shimon Peres , the Chief of Staff and senior officials. Each side presented its stand and at a lunch meeting in Golda's home on 12 February, the participants held a role playing game in which Golda played the Americans, Eban, the Arabs and Komer represented Israel! However no breakthrough was made. On 24 February a higher ranking delegation arrived headed by Averell Harriman, the ex-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, now a roving ambassador. With Harriman, a veteran Democrat elder statesman, were Komer, Earl Russell, a State Department official, and Barbour. Their aim was to formalize the US commitment to Israel's security. In return Israel would agree not to oppose arms sales to Jordan and an understanding would be reached on the nuclear issue. On the same day Rainer Barzel , one of the leaders of the Christian Democrat party in West Germany, met with Johnson and expressed satisfaction with the Harriman mission.

 The US is Trying to Buy a New Cadillac for Ten Bucks: Johnson's Decision to Settle with Israel

The talks with Harriman opened on 25 February and on 28 February Golda Meir told the government that a historic change had taken place: for the first time the US had agreed to become Israel’s main arms supplier (Document 9 in Hebrew). However other accounts describe disagreements, and on 1 March the talks were on the verge of failure (Document 10 in Hebrew). The Americans emphasized the urgency of their answer to Jordan and their fear of its defection to the Soviet-Egyptian camp. If there was no agreement they would abandon Hussein, but Israel would not receive arms either. Due to unwelcome publicity  Harriman left for East Asia, and Komer replaced him. 
Nasser and Hussein at the Arab summit in 1964
Photograph: Wikipedia
On 2 March Golda reported to the government on the problem issues, including US opposition to the introduction of bomber aircraft into the Middle East (Document 11 in Hebrew). On 5 March Barbour reported to Johnson and to Secretary of State Dean Rusk that Eshkol had refused the latest proposal. They had insisted on a counter-proposal and thought he was "shaken". On the same day, the Foreign Ministry recalled Ambassador Avraham Harman in Washington to Jerusalem immediately due to dramatic developments. On 6 March Komer wrote to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy that only a deal including bombers and tanks would persuade Israel to agree to arms for Jordan. The negotiations had undermined the US bargaining position, and Israel was waiting for a better offer. But it had genuine security concerns, and as Barbour said, the US "was trying [to] buy [a] new Cadillac for ten bucks." Washington decided to leave the difficult issues of the Jordan waters and the nuclear reactor for a later date, and to settle with Israel. According to Mordecai Gazit, the Israeli minister in Washington, this was Johnson’s decision, and he had approved all the moves in the negotiations.

On 10 March, a day after the signing of a secret draft agreement with Germany, Israel and the US signed the MOU. It included a commitment by the US to Israel’s security and Israel’s commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The US announced its intention to sell tanks to Jordan and King Hussein’s promise to deploy them on the east bank of the Jordan. The US would sell tanks and fighter planes to Israel on easy terms. It was signed by Eshkol, Komer and Barbour. According to a report by Harriman he was pleased with the results of the talks but warned that the water issue was likely to lead to a clash. He recommended the president not to agree to Eshkol’s request to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Afterwards Eshkol and Johnson exchanged letters.
An Israel Air Force Skyhawk
Photograph: Oren Rozen, Wikipedia

As a result of the MOU Israel obtained modern weapons, especially tanks which made possible its victory in 1967. It also received Skyhawk planes, which arrived later but played an important part in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Without Malice and Without Hypocrisy": Israel's Reaction to the Death of Egyptian President Gamal Abd el-Nasser, 28 September 1970

45 years ago next week, at 21:50 on the evening of September 28, the voice of Vice-President Anwar Sadat told listeners to Cairo Radio of the death of President Nasser. Nasser died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Cairo, after mediating a ceasefire at the "Black September" crisis in Jordan in a summit attended by both King Hussein and Yasser Arafat. He was only 52, and the news stunned the people of Egypt and the entire Arab world. The journalist Mohamed Heikal, who was with him when he died, described the shock and disbelief of his colleagues and the people of Cairo who poured out of their homes and made their way to the broadcasting station to find out if the news was true. Millions flocked to the city for his funeral, which took place on 1 October, and turned into a mass demonstration of support for Nasser during which the authorities lost control of the crowds (see video clip).

Nasser's funeral procession, 1 October 1970
Photograph: Wikimedia
A State Department report the day before described the crowds which had gathered at Nasser’s house and in the streets as being in a state of public mourning. The armed forces, according to the press, had been placed on alert, although the government was apparently preoccupied with the immediate problems of the succession and preparations for the funeral. A long list of world leaders were expected to attend. The report noted that "although most Israelis have long held that Nasser’s departure from scene would be a boon to Israel, there is some ambivalence in initial reaction. While stressing Nasser’s hostility to Israel, many newspapers and individuals recognize he was a powerful stabilizing force whose passing opens the prospect of greater instability and uncertainty." (See Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), volume 24,no. 333).

After he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 and the Anglo-French attempt to topple him failed, Nasser became  an anti-colonial hero in the eyes of  the Arab world and many of the developing countries (the "Third World"). However, in the 1960s Egypt became embroiled in an unsuccessful war in Yemen and was defeated in the Six Day War of 1967. Because of his threats to destroy Israel, many Israelis saw him as a latter-day Hitler. In 1969, Nasser started the War of Attrition on the Suez Canal. Shortly before his death, he agreed to the caesefire plan of US Secretary of State William Rogers, about which we wrote here in August. 

Here we present a collection of documents in Hebrew, including two specially declassified government meetings, on the reaction to Nasser's death in the territories occupied in 1967 and among the Arab citizens of Israel and the question of succession in Egypt (see our Hebrew blog). We also describe the reaction of Israel's president Zalman Shazar, whose words of sympathy for the feelings of the Arab citizens aroused public protest, but also expressions of support.
Golda Meir and Zalman Shazar,  March 1969
Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office

The Government Meetings on 29 September and 4 October:  Israel Should React "Without Malice or Hypocrisy" (Files A55/5, A55/6)

At the beginning of the meeting on 29 September, Army Intelligence Chief Aharon Yariv surveyed the situation in Egypt (this section has not been declassified). Afterwards, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan put the death of Nasser in the context of the ceasefire with Egypt and the crisis in Jordan. The dramatic changes in Egypt and Jordan might encourage Israel to adopt an attitude of "wait and see", but Dayan felt that it should take the initiative to ensure that the ceasefire would continue.

The ministers, already worried about the effect of "Black September" on the territories, focused on reaction there and among the Arab citizens of Israel. Minister of Police Shlomo Hillel noted the disturbances in East Jerusalem, where all the shops had been closed down and roads were blocked. However the demonstrations were dispersed without difficulty by the police. He described the public in the West Bank and Gaza as a "flock without anyone to turn to," with genuine feelings of shock and grief. There were also some minor incidents among the Israeli Arabs. Hillel was concerned about the day of Nasser's funeral, which coincided with the Jewish New Year, and possible incidents near the Western Wall.

Some of the ministers were willing to allow Arabs from the territories and Israel to go to Cairo for the funeral. Prime Minister Golda Meir favoured allowing expressions of mourning so long as they did not lead to violence, and Minister of Communications and Transport Shimon Peres said the government should show generosity. Golda reported that President Zalman Shazar wanted to make a radio statement on Nasser's death. Tourism Minister Moshe Kol said there was no reason for generosity towards Nasser: his policies were a failure and, while driving out the British and the French, he had let in the Russians. Nasser could have been a great leader but had wasted his efforts on trying to destroy Israel. However, a new ruler in Egypt might take a different line, and Kol agreed with Dayan that Israel should take the initiative. Several ministers favoured an official statement by Shazar or Golda, but Interior Minister Yosef Burg said they should approach the question "without malice and without hypocrisy." Surely the Jewish community of Shushan would not have sent a telegram of sympathy to the family of Haman (who had plotted to destroy the Jews). 

In the end, the government agreed with Golda that neither they nor Shazar should issue any announcement. On 1 October, speaking at Kibbutz Revivim, Golda said that Nasser had not brought any achievements to his people, only war, and she had never understood the claim of the Americans that Egypt could have had a worse leader.

On 4 October, Hillel and Dayan again reported on Arab reactions to the government meeting (along with a long list of other items). Hillel said that he had approved a request by the Chamber of Commerce in East Jerusalem to organize prayers and a procession on the day of the funeral, after they had promised to prevent all political demonstrations. To his surprise, they had kept their word. The Communists in Nazareth had also organized a procession which was preceded by a violent demonstration, arrests and a warning to the organizers. In Acre (a mixed town with tension between Jews and Arabs) there was a violent incident. According to Dayan, there were processions in most West Bank towns which he saw as a demonstration of strength and independence by the Palestinians.

On 8 October, the Foreign Ministry issued a summary of events between 24 September and 8 October, much of it devoted to reaction to Nasser's death in Egypt, the Arab world and Israel. It included a special supplement on Anwar Sadat, who was chosen by the ruling party, the Arab Socialist Union, as its candidate for president on 5 October. The document, which contained some factual errors, portrayed Sadat as deeply loyal to Nasser, "the button on Nasser's jacket," but also noted that some thought him an opportunist. He was described as having "a low intellectual capacity, narrow minded and lacking in independent political ideas". It claimed that Sadat smoked hashish and had two wives, he was a "hawk' on Israel and a right winger in his social views (See file A7062/5).
Nasser and the speaker of the National Assembly Anwar Sadat, 1964
Photograph: Wikimedia
Most observers, inside and outside Egypt, underestimated Sadat and saw him as a stop-gap candidate. For example Henry Kissinger's report to President Nixon "Why Sadat?" explained that “as a member of Nasser’s original revolutionary group, and because Nasser named him Vice President in December 1969, Sadat brings an aura of legitimacy and continuity to the succession and to the presidency. He lacks, however, Nasser’s charisma and as a perennial figurehead in the government ... he also lacks widespread respect and authority. Sadat’s greatest claim to leadership would seem to rest on his extreme nationalism, his long record of loyal, if unspectacular service to Nasser and to the apparent fact that he is acceptable to both pro-Soviet and more moderate factions. (See FRUS Vol. 24, editorial note, pp. 554-555)

Shazar's Intervention

Shazar had shown himself in the past as a humanist sensitive to the feelings of others, even ideological opponents or enemies. He wanted to show respect to the grief of the Israeli Arabs but the government had stopped him. On 20 October 1970, Shazar held the traditional reception during the Succot (Tabernacles) holiday in his Succah at the president's residence. He made a statement to a group of leaders of the Arab community which was also broadcast by Israel Radio:

"I don't know if I will be very popular if I say this: I cannot forget that a short while ago there was a very great loss in the Arab world and the Muslim world, which caused a great deal of grief to a large number of people. If I knew that my sympathy in their grief would be accepted by the Egyptian people and the Arab people with understanding, and would not be seen as something hypocritical, I would have expressed my sympathy on the day of the funeral."

Many Israelis protested against Shazar's words, among them citizens who wrote letters to the president (See File PRES 170/7). Elan Frank, then a boy of 14 ,who later became a helicopter pilot in the IAF and a producer of documentary films, was one of them. He compared Shazar's words to a statement by the Allies that they sympathized with the loss of the German people after the suicide of Hitler. Hagai Ginsburg from the religious kibbutz Kvutzat Yavne wrote of his pain at the action of the president, who had not sent him a letter of sympathy when his brother Azariah was killed by a mine in the Golan Heights in August 1970. (We thank Elan Frank and Hagai Ginsburg for permission to use their letters.)

Caricaturist "Dosh" in the Jerusalem Post newspaper showed an Arab delegation coming to the President's Office to mark the end of the period of mourning for Nasser.
Courtesy of Michael Gardosh
In Israel, the president is largely a ceremonial figure who has few official responsibilities.  The journalist Yoel Marcus argued in an article in Ha'aretz newspaper on 26 October that Shazar had exceeded his authority as defined in the "Basic Law: The Presidency." Over 4,000 Israelis had died in the wars between Egypt and Israel under Nasser's rule, and Shazar should not have expressed himself on the subject without advance permission from the government. Professor Meir Plessner, who taught Oriental Studies at the Hebrew University, sent a letter to the editor of Ha'aretz with a copy to Shazar, justifying the president and defending his right to act beyond the letter of the law.

Controversial journalist and Knesset member Uri Avnery also went out of his way to praise Shazar for his stand and regretted not supporting him for a second term as president in 1968. Avnery wrote in his HaOlam Hazeh magazine on 28 October that Shazar did not praise Nasser, but showed "understanding of the feelings of the other side, of the masses of a people which is still in a state of war with us at this moment."

In January 1971, the Israel Information Centre published a booklet on Nasser, which included an interview with Professor Shimon Shamir (later Israeli ambassador in Cairo). Shamir argued that Nasserism as a movement had reached the end of the road. Nasser's espousal of Arab nationalism and Third World activism had brought only failure to Egypt.