A history of appeasing aggression

Israel must not forget that it cannot allow its well being to be decided by others and it cannot trust international peace guarantees.

IDF trains on Golan Heights 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF trains on Golan Heights 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Forty years ago, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Israel was attacked by the armies of Syria and Egypt, both preoccupied nowadays with killing their own people. The protocol of a British cabinet meeting held on October 13, 1973, discussing the American proposal for a cease-fire resolution, teaches us that when Israel faces acute danger, it can and should rely only on itself.
BRITIAN’S POST-MANDATE policy toward Israel had gone through changes, depending on its varying interests and on the relative dominance of the Foreign Office and Defense Ministry. Since its involvement in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Britain was no longer a dominant power in the Middle East, but still had vested interests in the region such as oil, arms sales and free passage through the Suez Canal.
At the time of the Yom Kippur War, Conservative party leader Edward Heath was prime minister in Britain, however the British policy of avoiding public association with Israel was implemented by Heath’s predecessor, Harold Wilson of the Labor party. Thus, one should not attribute British policy in 1973 solely to an anti-Israeli agenda on the part of the Conservatives. Furthermore, on the vote for an arms embargo on the Middle East, which would clearly hurt Israel, 15 Labor MPs voted with the Conservatives in favor, while 17 Conservative MPs voted against their own party’s decision.
At the time the cabinet meeting in question took place, Israel was on the defensive. It had barely managed to force the Syrians back to the armistice line, while its counterattack against the Egyptians failed.
All members of the cabinet discussing the American proposal for a UK-sponsored cease-fire resolution saw the current situation as a great challenge for Israel. Two main scenarios were offered, one in which Israel won the war in spite of everything, and the second in which the Arabs continued their successes and were able to stabilize the situation. The foreign secretary was of the opinion that Israel would eventually “crush the Arabs,” a prospect the prime minister said he was beginning to doubt.
In the first scenario, namely a successful Israeli counterattack, the threat as far as the cabinet saw it was the implementation of the Arab Oil Weapon.
The military assessments were that it all depended on the Syrian front – if Israel managed to beat the Syrians and get reinforcements from the Americans, it could drive back the Egyptians. The undersecretary asserted that “it would be irresponsible of the Americans to pour in reinforcements to allow the Israelis to drive back the Egyptians.” At the same time it was said that the British “could not tell the Russians not to re-supply the Arabs.”
One must remember that in addition to Egypt and Syria, other Arab countries such as Iraq and Libya that were involved in the war also received arms from Britain’s ally, France. Hence, if it had been up to the British government, the Israelis would be fighting two armies backed by other Arab armies and supplied by great powers, while Israel remained on its own.
The only danger the British saw in an Israeli defeat, on the other hand, seemed to be what they called the “Zionist pressure to do something and rescue Israel.” One cannot avoid hearing the voice of classical anti-Semitism in the claim that powerful Jewish, or Zionist, pressure might push others, non-Jews, to fight the Jews’ war. For other speakers the “Jewish Lobby” was the sole factor that presented a problem with regard to giving in to Arab aggression.
WHAT OUTCOME was the British cabinet hoping for? The following approach might have derived from the aftermath of the Six Day War, when the humiliated Arab leaders blamed Britain for conspiring with Israel to achieve such a clear victory. Permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs Sir Denis Greenhill said that the plain fact was that “a handsome victory by the Israelis might be a disaster.”
The prime minister said that he absolutely agreed.
An NOP poll conducted in Britain on the day of the meeting – October 13 – showed that 47 percent of the British who favored one of the sides supported Israel, whereas only 5 percent supported the Arabs. Thus, support of Israel wasn’t limited to British Jews or to a “Zionist lobby” but rather represented a widespread moral stance.
Compare this with the editorial in the London Times on the second day of the 1967 Six Day War, which stated the following: “There are no circumstances in which a total Arab victory could be allowed without the Western powers being forced to intervene.... It needs no saying that such action to defend Israel would go against Britain’s commercial and political interests, but it would have to be undertaken because no decent man could accept the second massacre of the Jewish nation in one lifetime.”
It is common knowledge that among the considerations influencing foreign policy are commercial and political interests, as the Times noted. The British cabinet session proves that in 1973, as far as the British leadership was concerned, the moral stance was not a consideration at all; even Arab aggression was mentioned only as a factor that would expose British policy to be one of appeasement. It was not rejected as being morally wrong. The fact that Egypt and Syria ganged up to attack Israel on its holiest day was not even mentioned.
In light of the Syria chemical weapons deal and the continuing threat from Iran, Israel must not forget that it cannot allow its wellbeing to be decided by others and it cannot trust international peace guarantees, especially not from those who in Israel’s time of greatest need showed themselves to be concerned only with their own short-term interests – and thus chose appeasement in the face of acknowledged Arab aggression.
The writer is a PhD student in history at the Hebrew University.