Middle East: The Quickest War

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(7 of 10)

Nasser almost surely knew better. But he was desperate to find an excuse for the Arab debacle, and he probably hoped that by implicating the U.S. and Britain he might persuade Moscow to come to his rescue. He never had a chance. Russian ships monitoring the U.S. air movements in the Mediterranean knew from their own radar that no U.S. or British planes had been involved. The Russian ambassador in Cairo went to Nasser and bluntly told him so. With nothing more to lose, Nasser continued his big lie, triggering the breaking off of diplomatic relations by seven Arab nations with the U.S. and touching off demonstrations against U.S. and British embassies all over the Arab world.

Just how Nasser pressured Hussein into backing his phony air-attack ploy will surely become one of history's more curious footnotes. Israel monitored and tape-recorded a radio conversation between Nasser and Hussein on the second day of the war, and released the dialogue two days later. The voices were unmistakably those of Nasser and the King; neither bothered to deny it. A sampling of their talk:

Nasser: Hello—will we say the U.S. and England or just the U.S.?

Hussein: The U.S. and England.

Nasser: Does Britain have aircraft carriers?

Hussein: (Answer unintelligible.)

Nasser: By God, I say that I will make an announcement and you will make an announcement and we will see to it that the Syrians will make an announcement that American and British airplanes are taking part against us from aircraft carriers. We will stress the matter, and we will drive the point home.

Later, Hussein admitted that the "vast umbrella" over Jordan had been entirely Israeli. Nasser, however, stuck to his story to the end, insisting that "three times as many" planes as Israel possessed had engaged the Arab forces.

Disappointed Troopers. To the south of Israel, Nasser's soldiers were having considerably more trouble sticking to their guns. By Wednesday night, the third day of war, all Israel brimmed with the sense of victory. As Dayan's chief of staff, Major General Yitzhak Rabin, summed it up succinctly: "We have inflicted almost total destruction on the Egyptian army, delivered a crushing blow to the Jordanian army, captured most of the relevant parts of the Sinai Peninsula and the west bank of the Jordan, and we have destroyed almost totally the air forces of four countries." Eager young Israeli paratroopers prepared for a jump assault on Sharm el Sheikh, only to be advised that the Israeli navy had arrived first—and the Egyptians had fled. The disappointed troopers disembarked like tourists from planes that landed unopposed on the Egyptian airstrip.

Next day, as Israeli troops captured the west bank of the Suez Canal, Jordan broke ranks and accepted the U.N. cease-fire that Moscow had been desperately trying to arrange for three days to save the Arabs from total disaster. The Egyptians fought one final tank battle at Suez in a frantic attempt to open a retreat path for what was left of their 80,000-man ground force in Sinai; then they, too, agreed to the ceasefire. Syria joined the chorus only a few hours later.

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