Middle East: A Man to Anger Nasser

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There is probably nothing else in the world as unpredictable as an Arab mob. Even so, it was astonishing to see the thousands swarming in the streets of Tunis last week for a demonstration against Arabdom's would-be leader, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser—and, in effect, for Israel.

It all began with some remarks by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, who often says out loud what most sophisticated Arabs say only in private. Returning home from a Middle Eastern tour in which he visited the Jordanian refugee camps near Jericho, where 71,000 Palestinian Arabs have languished for 17 years, Bourguiba declared that it was obviously impossible to erase Israel from the map by force and that therefore it made sense to accept its presence. He proposed that the long-festering refugee problem be settled on the basis of the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which would require Israel's surrender of about a third of its territory.

Taking Wing. The West applauded Bourguiba's effort to begin an Arab-Israeli dialogue, but Israel's Arab neighbors responded with a bellow of rage. Two months ago, Bourguiba had infuriated Middle East Arabs by rallying North Africa to reject Nasser's campaign against West Germany. Now Bourguiba's Arab critics were angrier than ever. Government radios, from Baghdad to Cairo, blasted Bourguiba as a traitor, a madman "who should be locked in an asylum," and as a Judas "who should be immediately executed." Mobs blossomed in the streets of half a dozen Arab capitals. In Cairo, 20,000 students charged across the Nile bridge to Gezira Island and tried to burn down the Tunisian embassy. In Jerusalem, Bourguiba Street was hastily renamed by Jordanian authorities. In Baghdad, even resident Tunisian students joined the anti-Bourguiba demonstrations.

Not to be outdone, Bourguiba's government had arranged for some 10,000 to hit the streets in Tunis. Tossing the "madman" epithet right back at Cairo, the mob paraded with banners reading "Palestinians recognize in Bourguiba their real defender" and "A firing squad for Nasser!", then broke through police lines to stone the Iraqi embassy and smash down the door at the Egyptian. Ambassadors took wing like homing pigeons. Egypt huffily ordered its envoy out of Tunisia, and in a single day Tunisian diplomats to Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad arrived back in Tunis.

Broken Egg. The Israelis tried hard not to gloat. Bourguiba's plan was no more acceptable to them than it was to the diehard Arabs, for Israel rejects any meaningful territorial concessions and is unwilling to take back masses of Arab refugees who might become a fifth column. Deputy Premier Abba Eban scornfully referred to the U.N. partition plan as a "broken egg" that could not be put back together again.

At week's end Bourguiba sent off a 2,000-word letter to Nasser proposing a personal meeting. "We are in agreement on the heart of the problem," he wrote confidently. The only divergence was "about the course of action." Few observers expected either a meeting or any action.