June 7: The anniversary nobody remembers

A secret meeting 44 years ago could have changed the course of Middle Eastern history. But it never happened.

israeli palestinians waving gamal pictures and flags
Gamal Abdel Nasser was publicly bellicose towards Israel but privately beseeching the US to mediate peace [GALLO/GETTY]

In this part of the world, carrying tragic dates around in your head is kind of like breathing: you do it automatically, without thinking. This time of year, for Palestinians, June 5 marks the 44th anniversary of their occupation by Israel. June 6, in the evening, evokes the darkness when Ramallah fell, and finally people realised that the tanks rolling into town were not Iraqis sent to the aid of the local people: they belonged to the army of Israel.

June 7? That’s the morning Ramallah woke up to soldiers calling through bullhorns for the people to hang something white from the windows: unambiguous signs of surrender to the occupying forces. “I couldn’t find anything,” remembers Rima Tarazi, now 79, a pianist and composer whose family founded Bir Zeit University in the 1920s. So she attached her three-year-old nephew’s diaper to a broomstick and hung it from the balcony.

Just two days earlier, as the war broke out, Tarazi had confidently assured a worried neighbour, “Don’t worry, our day of victory is at hand.” Today, she laughs at the absurdity.

But buried beneath such memories of defeat and illusion for the Arabs in the Six Day War is the story of a momentous June 7 meeting that never happened. If it had, it just might have carved a different path for the Middle East.

All bark and no bite

June 7, 1967, was to be the day that the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser would dispatch his vice president, Zakariya Mohieddin, to Washington for secret meetings with US President Lyndon Johnson and members of his cabinet. The plans for this meeting are found in state department cables and other documents at the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. From those documents, it’s clear that, despite his bellicose statements for consumption by the Arab street (“We are prepared, our sons are prepared, our army is prepared, the entire Arab nation is prepared”), and despite his provocative blockade of the Straits of Tiran, the populist Nasser had been sending repeated messages to the US and the Soviet Union that he wanted to avoid war with Israel. Despite the months of build-up toward war – fuelled by the Palestinian dream to return to the homelands they lost in 1948; by the hunger in the Arab world to defeat Israel; and by Israeli citizens’ hair-trigger psychology, based on a palpable mortal fear of another Holocaust – Egyptian and at least some US officials seemed to share a hope war could be avoided.

Already US officials were sceptical of Israel’s claims that 100,000 Egyptian troops were poised along the border of the Sinai Peninsula. US and British intelligence agencies had concluded otherwise. The CIA, in a May 22 memorandum, declared Egyptian troop strength at 50,000 men, and characterised Nasser’s Sinai forces as “defensive in character”. National Security Agency chief Eugene Rostow called the Israeli estimates “highly disturbing”, and the CIA concluded that they were part of a “political gambit intended to influence the US”. Israel, according to this CIA assessment, wanted the United States to pressure Nasser into ending his blockade of the Straits, or alternately, for the US to send more military hardware to Israel or allow Israel to take matters into its own hands.

And so it would. Following a cabinet shake-up, Meir Amit, the Mossad [Israeli spy agency] director, embarked on a trip to Washington, where he would recall telling Defence Secretary Robert McNamara that “I, Meir Amit, am going to recommend that our government strike”. According to Amit, McNamara, preoccupied with Vietnam, asked him how long a war would last. “Seven days,” the Mossad director responded. US intelligence concurred with this assessment of Israel’s military superiority. As US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach would recall: “The intelligence was absolutely flat on the fact that the Israelis … could mop up the Arabs in no time at all.”

Nasser, in the meantime, was sending schizophrenic signals: publicly taunting Israel, while privately telling US and Soviet envoys that he wanted to avoid war. If he did, then why all the blustering? Nasser confidant Mohamed Heikel said the president’s rhetoric was meant to be a “strong warning, not a declaration of war”. But if the threats were meant to be a bluff for Arab consumption, under the circumstances, with an apocalyptic atmosphere in Israel, they amounted to “unheard-of foolishness”, according to former Israeli General Matti Peled.

The meeting that almost was

At 7:45am on Monday, June 5, Israel called Nasser’s bluff, as French-built Israeli bombers roared out of their bases, crossed Egyptian airspace, and destroyed Egypt’s entire air force on the ground, before similarly eliminating the air forces of Jordan and Syria. The Six Day War was essentially over in six hours. Soon, ordinary Israelis would be celebrating what, at the time, they considered a miracle of survival; Palestinians would come to terms with life under military rule, while slowly devising strategies to fight the occupation.

Had Israel not attacked on June 5, the June 7 meeting between LBJ and the Egyptian vice president would have remained on the White House’s agenda. Could that meeting have led to a cooling of tensions – something the US and Soviet Union had repeatedly advocated for? Of course, it’s impossible to say; by then it may have been too late.

But there’s one telling detail I unearthed in the LBJ archive in Austin. During the preparations for Mohieddin’s visit, Eugene Rostow wrote a memo suggesting that the US notify Israel of the “secret” meeting, since “my guess is that their intelligence will pick it up”. And indeed the US did notify Israel of the June 7 meeting, an apparent last-ditch effort by Nasser to avoid war.

But of course Mohieddin never made it to Washington. By the time of the scheduled meeting, it was already day three of the Six-Day War. The Israelis had captured Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank, and Arab forces were beating a humiliating retreat.

And so June 7 will be remembered here in Ramallah not for the meeting that never happened, but rather as the dawn of a 44-year occupation, and the day Rima Tarazi and her neighbours were looking for anything white they could hang in their windows.

Sandy Tolan is author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and associate professor at the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California. He blogs at ramallahcafe.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial policy of Al Jazeera.