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.

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