Friday, August 12, 2016

108 - Excerpts from Extraordinary Cabinet Meeting, April 13, 1956

[The Cabinet meeting was opened by PM Ben-Gurion who first touched upon the Secretary-General’s visit and the White House statement regarding this visit, then said that he had convened this special meeting to discuss the recent upsurge of fedayeen activity, saying:]

            Last night was calm, and I’m not proposing that we do anything if they do not act. But I have a proposal in case they act tomorrow night, or next week, or any time. I think that a retaliation operation should be executed close to their action. The fedayeen are concentrated in a special camp near Gaza, by the sea, and the operation should be aimed against them. There are three hundred of them there. I would like the Cabinet to decide that, in case of a renewal of fedayeen activity, the Defense Minister would be authorized, following consultation with the Foreign Minister, to execute an operation against the fedayeen. [- - -] I don’t know whether all of you heard the Egyptian radio. An Egyptian minister made a despicable speech, sang a song to the glory of the fedayeen heroism. We must annihilate this force.

[Sharett spoke after Ben-Gurion. He reviewed the talks between the DG, SG and Burns, and with the Americans in Washington, then reported about arms purchases. The Americans had told the Italians that by no means whatsoever would they be allowed to sell F-86 jets to Israel; these jets belonged to NATO. Ben-Gurion noted that the first 6 Mystères had safely arrived. Sharett continued:]

            I would like to note that the story of the obtaining of the first Mystères started more than five months ago. The talk with [Edgar] Faure was at the end of October. Faure should be well remembered; it was he who made the decision. [- - -] As to the Canadian jets, we have no chance of receiving any unless the Canadians are allowed to do so by the Americans. [- - -] I would like to add that generally the Gaza matter made a bad impression abroad, but it has not resulted in censure.

[A long debate ensued regarding the fedayeen and a planned operation against them. At one point Ben-Gurion said: “War is approaching us in quick steps.” The last speaker was Moshe Sharett:]

            This discussion suffers from its hypothetical character, for in most of our past discussions we deliberated on the basis of clear, actual facts. Here we are deliberating about what has not happened yet, but about what only may happen, trying to assume what the  operation’s character and dimensions would be, etc.
            Second, the government has a certain policy regarding war, and I believe that this policy, honestly and most certainly, is to avoid initiating a war and pushing matters towards war insofar as this depends on us. But there is indeed a difference in how we perceive the danger of war, or the chances of its happening. Some see a war as factually inevitable, convinced that it must erupt sooner or later because of this or that cause. Others believe and think that war is not inevitable – all the arms race, preparations, information and secret information, etc., notwithstanding. And there are also very serious considerations for the other side to bring about war. I will by no means prophesy that war wouldn’t erupt. I say that we should behave as if it may erupt and make all necessary preparations. However, from the point of view of perspective, the fact of being sure that war is not inevitable, or being sure that it must erupt sooner or later, is bound to exert an influence [on one’s analysis].
            It should be clear to us that the proposal [by Defense Minister BG], if executed, can lead into war. Thus, when we are deliberating the subject of war, we cannot do it theoretically, abstractly. This is not something like the Gaza operation last year [on 28 February 1955] or the Khan Yunes operation half a year ago [August 31, 1955], or the Tabha [i.e., Kinneret] operation a few months ago [December 11, 1955]. There can be no comparison here, for the background has completely changed – the fact of the reserve call-up, the concentration of forces, the weapons – all these have created a fundamental change in the situation. It is impossible, we are no longer allowed, to rely on such  declarations and considerations that had sufficed for our taking action a year or half a year ago. There is a clear difference.
            We must take into consideration an almost certain possibility, not an absolute one, but a possibility, that this would lead to war, and deliberate with this in view. We can also say that if the situation is serious, we should not make it even more serious that it would lead to war. There is a place for such a position too; this must be taken into consideration.
            If there is a danger of war, a most serious question arises as to which side would be found to be the aggressor, and a most serious question would arise if it’s not clear who was the aggressor. Thus a situation may be created in which it would be convenient to say that it is not clear that Egypt was the aggressor. Such an eventuality may arise in the case of the war we are considering now.
            From the point of view of the damage we could suffer, not only that of a negative public opinion – although this too is a factor – but from the point of view of our chances of gaining support for our case, and a positive position by the Security Council and other international factors, we are faced with a problem. For with regard to everything that has happened until now – the shootings on our patrols, the shootings initiated by Nasser, and our retaliations – the investigation of who caused all this has not been completed. The Security Council is still awaiting Burns’ report. The UN has not yet said its word.
            Let’s take the matter of the well-known shelling of Gaza. There is already a UN position that in fact we were the first to shell. Indeed, we are claiming that they started shelling our settlements, and that the area there is so densely populated that it was impossible to respond to the Egyptian positions without hitting of civilians. But they can argue that it is a fact that it is we who started shelling concentrations of civilian population, and only then did they shell ours. And as to the shelling of Gaza, we  say that we did that in response to their shelling – we shelled a post which was situated in a populated area. However, this is not the whole truth. We have shelled the heart of the city of Gaza. I have inquired whether we can claim the our shells were stray shells. I was told that by no means can we claim that. This shelling was not a result of a bloodletting frenzy and a wish to kill people on our part; there is there [in the center of Gaza]  a regional office of the military command post, the center of Egyptian military intelligence, and according to our knowledge it has time and again directed feday’in activities. And most of the civilian casualties were hit around that post.
            There is another thing, too, which is characteristic of us. Last week I said [in the Cabinet meeting] that I am not disagreeing with the officer who gave the order to shell [Gaza]. There was a standing order, and there was also the considerations of that officer. However, it is no accident that the moment Ben-Gurion became aware of the shelling, he stopped it. Suppose an officer finds it necessary to open fire at a post which he knows is situated within a populated area. Then ten, twenty, twenty five shells are fired. But in this case they fired one hundred and twenty! And this is what’s characteristic: if firing is necessary, then let them have it big. There are times when this is right. Certainly in battle. But there are instances when it is not right. Clearly, such was the case of the shelling of Gaza, which resulted in dozens of people killed, that brought in its wake the fedayeen strikes. This was how things evolved. The fedayeen attack has, I suppose, infuriated the world. It was horrible. Naturally it infuriated us. But we have already gone through this kind of [exaggerated response] when we attacked Gaza because of the fedayeen shooting at an Israeli motorcycle rider with the aim of hitting the fedayeen base. The same is what happened in [our] Khan Yunes [operation in which 72 Egyptian soldiers and Palestinian irregulars were killed]. These were large-scale attacks, these were successful operations militarily, but the [fedayeen] strikes have not stopped.
            Let me say this to the Finance Minister:[n]

NOTE: Earlier in the debate, Minister Eshkol had said: “If a bus is ambushed and nobody is killed, only one passenger is slightly injured, wouldn’t we be justified in seeing this a renewal of the whole thing? I say, if the fedayeen attacks are renewed, then the action which cannot be avoided must be executed.”

Theoretically he is right. If a bus is being ambushed it doesn’t matter whether twenty passengers are killed, or only one is injured for, in any case, in terms of the security account, it means that our security has been undermined. But what can you do if the world is impressed differently by each of these instances? As far as the world is concerned, it is one thing if there are many casualties, and a different thing if there are few. When I am speaking of impressions created abroad [by our retaliations] my colleagues take me sharply to account. But I am not talking here in terms of feelings but in terms of facts, and it is the world’s impression which makes it possible for us to receive arms as well as many other things on which our security depends, including financial aid.
            I also believe that our military thinking in this realm of retaliations has become a victim of routine and of a tendency towards large-scale operations. I am not rejecting large-scale operations. There were, among the operations I had approved, some large-scale ones. But I believe that we should have been more varied in choosing among different types of military action. I am quite astonished – there is a paradox here – at the fact that the most venerated [among our soldiers] is the ablest irregular fighter. I am happy that our fighters can function as good regular soldiers, but their esprit is still that of the irregular. I have my own explanation for this phenomenon, but since it is subjective I will not offer my judgement here, but only point out the fact that our military somehow have became stuck in this kind of large-scale operation and are rejecting any other method. I think that objective military logic doesn’t approve the exclusive opting for this method while avoiding any other, thereby creating the impression that in every case of our executing easy retaliation, even when taking action is justified, the result is that we are enlarging the bloodbath and not diminishing it, as if we are doing that for our enjoyment.
            I would like to say something about the proposed operation. As proposed, it would be decided by the Defense Minister after “consulting with the Foreign Minister,” but clearly the [final] decision would lie with the Defense Minister. I am not rejecting the logic of this proposal, especially when the Defense Minister is also the Prime Minister. On their way to the fedayeen camp they [our forces] might hit civilians, they might have to conquer some military posts. Possibly the path to the target would not easy, not empty. Approaching the target might involve fighting. One can believe that this fighting would be limited, but things can evolve by far otherwise. We know that the Strip is densely covered by the Egyptian army. We know this from our [intelligence] reports. Indeed, on this basis we have been protesting to the UN and the powers that the concentration of the Egyptian army inside the Gaza Strip is three times larger than they are allowed to station there [under terms of the Armistice Agreement]. It is therefore possible that widespread and serious fighting might ensue, presumably with many casualties on their side and perhaps on our side too, dictating a need to bring in reinforcements, etc.
            This would open up [for us] a big campaign in the international arena, I have no doubt about it. And it would be directly emanating from our initiative. True, I am aware that in the meantime we could experience a bloody night somewhere, perhaps in Tel Aviv, perhaps even in Haifa, creating an unbearable a situation after which we would not be able calm down unless we executed something strong.
            However, we have to consider at this juncture yet another matter, which is Hammarskjöld’s mission. I will not delve here into fears and suspicions regarding this visit. We feel ourselves completely free to say firmly to him whatever is on our mind, and he will not be able to force us to do anything. But while some colleagues here exaggeratedly see him as a monster, as a nightmarish figure, I am afraid that they are underestimating his authority and moral standing in the world. The whole world may possibly be naive, but the UN is still a prestigious institution, and he, as  its Secretary-General, epitomizes this institution and as a result he wields heavy weight in world public opinion, especially in those countries on which we are depending and with whom we are connected. His visit is an unusual step – he was sent on this mission by the Security Council for the purpose of checking into the situation here. He is expected to come up with something which would prevent the eruption of war –  this is how his mission is seen by the world. Possibly we have no faith in his abilities, and see no justification for his international authority. Ben-Gurion said so to Eisenhower, and I have said so to foreign ambassadors here with whom I have conversed; our representatives have said so in the various capitals. But this doesn’t at all diminish the importance and weight of his mission as seen by world public opinion.
            It would be highly detrimental for us if it could be claimed that we have undermined his mission. I believe that, if a military retaliation is carried out during his being here, his mission would be cancelled. It would be the end of his undertaking. We would not be able to prove that, had he continued his mission, he would have failed. I do believe that he will fail, that he will not bring us any salvation. But if things go wrong and war erupts, he would immediately activate the Security Council. This would be the most uncomfortable opening I could imagine for starting a war,  following the Council’s  final attempt [to find a solution here]. The Jews – it would be said – have succumbed to their impulses; they have forced the issue, thereby undermining the SG's mission.
            This is not to say that the world would say that our action was not justified militarily; that it would not say that Israel acted in response, and caused a serious situation. The world would say that experience has proved that such [strong retaliatory] action doesn’t  bring about a solution. One could say to us: “Well, your emotions demanded this action, but where is your wisdom? Were you unaware that an important mission has been undertaken with the aim of solving these problems?” They would be doubting our wisdom. They would be saying: “We do believe that you have strong emotions, but don’t you understand that this is arousing the whole world? Where is your aptitude for statesmanship?"
           The background I have described is no more despairing than it was a week ago, nor is it less despairing. However, there are things which do not stay still. It is clear to me that by this [proposed IDF action] we would stop the process [of arms acquisition] in France as well, who knows for how long. For when I noted that the delivery of the Mystères takes five months, it could take less. Not all delays were caused by the United States. It is also possible that the process of delivering the Mystères will be discontinued.
            I would therefore like to say that in my opinion – I intentionally spoke last; it is not a simple matter to clash with Ben-Gurion and thereby influence other colleagues; I did not want to influence other colleagues – in my opinion, inasmuch as it is an extreme one in a certain sense, we must restrain ourselves as long as Hammarskjöld is on his mission, and if some terrible [terrorist] incident occurs we shall announce that – in spite of its seriousness and in spite of our power to retaliate with all our might – we have not acted because we decided to avoid being responsible for undermining the Secretary-General’s hopes to succeed in his mission. Let us enable him to complete his task. However, our acting this way would be possible only if Ben-Gurion too holds this opinion. It is unthinkable that this [my proposal] would be accepted by a majority of one [as indeed happened several times in the past when Sharett’s vote decided such issues] in view of the present public atmosphere. (Ben-Gurion: My opinion differs from yours.) I am only expressing my opinion. It would be possible [to restrain ourselves] only if Ben-Gurion holds such an opinion, for as far as the public is concerned this requires the backing of such authority as only Ben-Gurion wields today. Since I am aware in advance that he does not accept this opinion, it follows that this is not to be. Nevertheless, I have stated my opinion.
            Let me mention a factual point regarding the four planes.[n]

NOTE: The previous day, April 12, four Egyptian planes flew over the Negev; one was shot down by the Israeli Air Force.

I immediately added this incident to my letter [probably to Burns], which had already been finished, stating that this was a clear act of aggressive Egyptian behavior. However, when I wrote this I was not really sure regarding the meaning of this flight. Obviously, we are constantly flying over their territory and, as far as I know, they do the same over ours. It is certainly unclear to me whether they intended to provoke anything by this action. I am certainly not critical of our shooting down one of their planes, but when we do our internal accounting among ourselves, when we follow Nasser’s actions and tend to interpret this action as a renewal of activity by the Egypt army, I don’t think that we can attach a specific intention to this flight of their four planes.

[Ben-Gurion took the floor right after Sharett, answering various contentions the ministers had expressed during the discussion, and explained why a small-scale operation in the Gaza Strip was impossible. The meeting ended with the following vote:]

It was decided:
a) By 6 votes against 5: To reject the proposal of delaying the taking of a decision [to retaliate] until after Mr. Hammarskjöld’s visit.
b) By 7 votes to 2: To authorize the Defense Minister, after consultation with the Foreign Minister, to implement all necessary steps against the feda’yun forces if they renew their actions inside the country.