The American who saved Israel (and Jordan)

Richard Nixon (when he graduated Duke Law – years before his presidency)

Russ Braley was foreign correspondent of the New York Daily News for over twenty years. (He was also a friend of my parents.) After he retired he wrote a book called “Bad News – The Foreign Policy of the New York Times” published by Regnery in 1984. It was not a big success, but I am reading it now, and it makes a persuasive case that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a man of half-measures, and in contrast that his successor, Nixon, whose presidency ended in scandal, saved the country of Jordan, and later Israel as well. The book is full of interesting material on the Vietnam war, and the Watergate scandal, and so forth, but for this post, I’ll concentrate on Nixon as a savior – not the usual picture we have of him.

Jordan’s population in 1970 was roughly half Bedouin and half Palestinian. Until 1968, Hussein’s army had helped PLO guerrilla raiders into Israel, but Israeli reprisals persuaded Hussein that it was in his interest to restrain the raids. The PLO revolutionaries were developing a state within a state in Jordan, setting up roadblocks and extorting money, careening through the cities in battered black Mercedes sedans, with their weapons, bent on mysterious urgent business.

In February 1970, Hussein attempted to bring the guerrillas under control and banned the carrying of weapons in public. In retaliation, guerillas attacked his motorcade. He escaped death that time, so they ambushed him about 4 months later, but he escaped by leaping from his car to return fire while his bodyguard was killed. Hussein’s officers, angry at the ambushes and skirmishing, demanded that he bring the PLO under control. As fighting escalated, guerillas seized half of Amman, and held westerners hostage. There was a ceasefire, and Hussein agreed to investigate the guerrilla’s grievances.

Dr. George Habash was the leader of one guerrilla group, and his recruits included founding members of the West German Red Army (Baader-Meinhof gang) and the Venezuelan Communist Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez (Carlos). Also training with Habash’s Popular Front were members of the Japanese Red Army and the Uruguayan Tupamaros.
Then there was another assassination attempt on Hussein. Fighting broke out and a Transworld Airlines 707 was hijacked to a desert landing strip near Amman.
Nor was Yasser Arafat taking the repeated Habash coups lying down; he planned, with Syrian help, to seize a part of Jordan for himself.
While Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir, was visiting Washington 250 Syrian tanks, their markings painted over with PLA (Palestine Liberation Army) insignia, rolled across the border into north Jordan. Nixon pressed Meir to alert Israel’s Defense force and be prepared to join the U.S. Sixth Fleet and other units of American troops to rescue Hussein.
Israel’s leaders did not particularly want to rescue Hussein. A sizeable minority in Israel even believed that Jordan, a Palestinian state ruled by an alien, British-imposed monarch, might be as well off if the PLO took it over. Moreover Hussein did not seem to want peace with Israel. But Meir gave in, and Nixon moved the American sixth fleet toward the fighting, and notified the Soviets of his intention to intervene, if necessary.
A New York Times editorial warned against intervention, which turned out to be bad advice (as usual in Braley’s telling).
So what happened? Russ Braley says this:

Jordanians, including Palestinians, had stood by Hussein, but that would not have saved him from a full Syrian assault aided by the 12,000 Iraqi troops. One person had saved Hussein’s crown, Nixon. Not Kissinger, who was unsure what the war was about; not the reluctant Golda Meir; not Egypt’s ruler – Nasser – who railed against Hussein’s attempt to “liquidate the Palestinian Resistance”…but there were no cheers for the feat in the American media. Nixon had “almost gotten the United States into another war.”

A few years later, President Nixon saved Israel. Russ Braley writes that the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel at 2 p.m. on October 6, Yom Kippur… represented “masterful planning.”


[Egyptian President] Sadat had no intention of sending his army across the Sinai to Israel…Israel would be left to Syria. Sadat’s plan was to seize the length of the Suez Canal and penetrate into the Sinai no more than 12 miles. That would keep his troops and armor under the umbrella of the batteries of SAM-2, SAM-3 and SAM-6 missiles strung along the canal…If the Israeli air force attacked and was destroyed by the missiles, then Sadat’s army would advance under cover of Egypt’s husbanded air force. The strategy partly succeeded…

Braley describes the battles and strategy concisely. Then he says:

Israel’s fate became enmeshed with the political warfare in Washington over Watergate as well as with pro-Arab factions in both the State and Defense Departments. The beleaguered Nixon was in retreat before the Hydra-headed Watergate charges…Nixon admired the Israelis, resented their distrust of him and resented more the enmity of many of their American Jewish backers, and took an unsentimental view of the crisis. He did not want the Arabs crushed, throwing them further into the arms of the Soviets. He did not want either side to win, but rather to reach an equilibrium, “even an equilibrium of exhaustion”…In both the State and Defense Department, warnings were sounded of Arab oil power, and talk centered on keeping any aid covert.”

Meir was sending extremely anxious messages to Nixon, and Nixon responded by ordering Kissinger to replace Israeli military equipment losses on a one-for-one basis, telling Kissinger to work out the logistics. It was a response well beyond the hopes of Israelis. At that point, the Defense department was delivering nothing to Israel except for ammunition on El-Al planes, and this while Soviet Antonov-22 transports loaded with munitions flew to Egypt, and Soviet ships unloaded weapons in Syrian harbors.
The West Europeans did not help. In fact, they refused landing rights for U.S. Air Force C-130 planes, and German Chancellor Willy Brandt informed the United States that NATO supplies stocked in West Germany could not be transferred legally out of the NATO area. Portugal blocked the Azores islands from permitting U.S. planes, until Nixon sent the Portuguese government a stiff note. On day four of the war, Nixon ordered Kissinger and Schlesinger to get the supplies to Israel “on anything that flies.”

Chaim Herzog, who was the president of Israel, later wrote:

Paradoxically enough the courageous and unequivocal American stand in favor of Israel gave the United States a standing in the Arab world such as it had not known before, and showed the countries of Western Europe in their craven and abject surrender to the Arab sheikhs to be the weak, leaderless and divided community they are.

When the chips were down, President Nixon came through. His predecessor JFK did not always come through, according to the book – but that’s for another post.

Sources:

Bad News: The Foreign Policy of the New York Times – Russ Braley

There is an interview of Russ Braley on YouTube by Bill Buckley on the show “Firing Line” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXbEAI4MGLA )

Russ Braley

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