What price friendship?
WASHINGTON, D.C. - "I do not think that the governments of the area, as governments, are particularly hankering for large-scale military operations," U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The date was May 23, 1967 - the day Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, and just two weeks before the Six-Day War broke out. However, Rusk warned, those governments "are the victims of possible incidents and emotions, and the situations could move out of control." A week later, he told the same committee: "We have, on the one side, a Holy War psychology. We have, on the other side, an apocalyptic psychology." This was not a discussion about Iran in 2007.
Rusk asked the committee to keep the contents of the hearings classified, and it more than fulfilled his wishes. Indeed, 40 years passed until the transcripts of those meetings were made public, this week. The hundreds of pages tell the story of the committee's long encounters with the secretary of state, between the end of May and the middle of June '67, in which the preparations for, and developments and ramifications of, the Six-Day War were discussed. It is riveting material, albeit exhausting. Senators, then as now, are not known for their propensity to be sparing with their words.
The Foreign Relations Committee is the most respected of the Senate's panels, though not necessarily the most important (the committees that control the budgets are sometimes considered to have more power). The most outstanding element in the closed sessions of that period, says Donald Ritchie, the historian in charge of publishing the transcripts, is the cooling of the relations between Congress and the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, due to disillusionment with the Vietnam War. Today, in contrast to back then, most of the committee's hearings are open to the public, as stipulated by law. And today, too, there is coolness between Congress and the administration, as well as disillusionment - with a different war. However, the committee's deliberations today lack the frankness that was made possible by the closed-door policy of the earlier period.
Thus, the transcripts feature an amazing discussion about the sensitive issue of the political pressure that U.S. Jewry was exerting on the administration and Congress. On June 9, 1967, while Rusk was briefing the committee on the achievements of the Israel Defense Forces, the senators became involved in a strange, chance discussion about the tax relief available for donations to the Jewish community in Israel (see the article by Amir Oren on this page). The committee chairman, J. William Fulbright, revealed his feelings about the "Jewish lobby" in the hearing. It is impossible to imagine any similar show of emotions today - although even if the outward display has disappeared, the emotions have not necessarily done likewise. Members of Congress continue to harbor considerable anger toward the lobby.
Sen. Karl Mundt (Republican, South Dakota) was one of the most prominent supporters of the Cold War in Congress. His major achievement was the law that made possible the establishment of the Voice of America, the radio station that broadcast propaganda around the world. Mundt came to the hearing on the eve of the 1967 war determined to raise an issue that bothered most of his senatorial colleagues: How far was the United States committed to defending Israel if it were attacked? The majority of the U.S. forces were bogged down in Vietnam, and the senators were worried.
Mundt: "Do we have any moral, specific or legal commitment by treaty or any other device, administrative or legislative, which obligates us to go in alone if worst comes to worst?"
Rusk: "That is a matter of how this nation would respond to the policy declaration made by four presidents pointing to our interest in the security of the states of the Near East, both the Arab states and Israel, and we have said these things rather specifically about Israel."
Mundt: "Have we ever said if trouble breaks out and nobody else comes to the rescue, the United States will get up an expeditionary force and send them in alone?"
Rusk: "No, we have not."
Mundt: "Then the answer is negative."
Rusk: "We would take action within and outside the UN."
Mundt: "Which we certainly are prepared to do. This committee would be prepared to support [action] with the UN, or [action] with the British and the French, and a reasonable number of associate members of the UN. [But] what do we do if worst comes to worst? ... As I understand your answer, and I want to be sure I am right, we have not any moral, legal obligation to go on our own."
Rusk: "I am not sure ... I said we do not have a precise treaty commitment on this situation ... I would not be prepared this morning to say we do not have a moral obligation or we might not have other kinds of obligations in view of the role played in the establishment of Israel and the statement [of a commitment to Israel's security] made by four presidents. Those are things you will have to weigh."
It turns out that the doomsday atmosphere, whose impact on Israel was documented extensively, reached the cool walls of room No. S-116 in the Capitol building. Would Israel survive? Rusk was quite convinced of its strength, but the legislators' remarks show that they had doubts. "If Israel should fall, her [America's] entire interests in the Middle East would be jeopardized, wouldn't they, sir?" Sen. George Aiken (Republican, Vermont) asked Rusk. But no less than they feared for Israel's fate, the senators were disturbed by the possibility that the United States would assume sole responsibility for dealing with the danger.
Here is another lesson for those who tend to rely on an American umbrella with regard to present-day problems. In both the American right and left, people are pondering the price that the United States pays for supporting Israel, support that has been steadfast since the end of the 1960s.
In the hearings, the senators constantly looked for someone else to take responsibility for the burning issues. There was much talk, for example, about the United Nations in this connection. How can we help you, the senators asked the secretary of state, and he requested that they exert pressure in a very specific direction: "Emphasize the responsibilities of the United Nations for peacekeeping in this area, because [UN secretary general] U Thant may need some stiffening on this point." Rusk thought U Thant had acted rashly in agreeing to Nasser's request for the removal of the UN observers from the arena without delay and without debate.
The UN certainly hasn't changed much since then. The interesting question is how much the United States has changed.