The British press can display a dubious sense of priorities when it comes to marking important anniversaries. Far more attention has been paid lately to how The Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is 50 years old than to how Harold Wilson’s government assisted Israel’s capture of Arab territories in 1967.
The assistance was both practical and diplomatic.
In March 1965, Levi Eshkol, then Israel’s prime minister, visited London to meet Wilson, his British counterpart, and other political figures.
Eshkol enquired if Britain would be willing to sell a large consignment of Centurion tanks. Denis Healey, Britain’s defense secretary at the time, proved receptive. “I see no reason to think that we shall not be able to meet your needs,” Healey told him.
The Centurion was the main British battle tank for around two decades following the Second World War and Israel had already placed orders for it before Eshkol’s trip.
By July 1965, Britain supplied Israel with more than 180 such tanks. Another 150 were transported between that month and May 1967.
They were not the only weapons that Britain gave Israel. Just one week before Eshkol’s government made a surprise attack against Egypt on 5 June 1967, a ship brimming with machine guns, tank shells and armored vehicles sailed to present-day Israel from the English port of Felixstowe. It was among a series of secret weapons deliveries.
The Centurions were heavily used by Israel as it seized Arab territories.
The British embassy in Tel Aviv was pleased with that fact. It noted how Israeli military commanders were “particularly handsome in their praise” of the Centurion. The tank “apparently did far more than was ever expected of it,” according to an embassy memo.
Harold Wilson also gave advice to Israel on the circumstances under which attacking its neighbors would be deemed acceptable.
His book The Chariot of Israel refers to a letter that he sent Eshkol ahead of the war. The letter, Wilson explained, backed the US argument that Eshkol should only order military action against Egypt if its leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, blocked Israeli ships from the Straits of Tiran, the narrow Red Sea waterway that all ships must pass to reach the Israeli port of Eilat. “If we are to give you the international support we wish, it must be based on your undoubted [shipping] rights,” Wilson wrote.
Nasser had long been perceived as hostile to Western interests. In 1956, Britain and France had persuaded Israel to invade Egypt over Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. While doing so, the Israelis committed massacres in Gaza that have been airbrushed by many historians.
Under a decision taken by Nasser in May 1967, oil tankers passing through the Straits of Tiran were required to submit documents saying that they were not destined for Israeli ports. The decision was taken amid an Arab League boycott of Israel.
Natural and proper?
Nasser did not present any existential threat to Israel. According to US intelligence assessments, Egypt’s military deployments in the Sinai were defensive and Israel would have no trouble defeating the combined armies of neighboring Arab states. That has even been acknowledged by the notoriously hawkish Menachem Begin when he was Israel’s prime minister in the early 1980s.
There was no proof in 1967 that Nasser was about to attack Israel, Begin declared 15 years later. “We must be honest with ourselves,” Begin said. “We decided to attack him [Nasser].”
As the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has documented, Israeli leaders had harbored a desire, and prepared plans, to conquer the remainder of Palestine that they had not seized in 1948. They only sought the appropriate pretext.
Begin himself called the 1967 conflict a war of “choice.”
Harold Wilson was enamored of Zionism, Israel’s state ideology.
The Chariot of Israel attributes his admiration for Zionism to what he learned about biblical prophecy during his childhood. The admiration was so intense that Wilson has ignored the victims of the Zionist project. His chapter on the 1967 war omits any mention of the 400,000 Palestinians displaced when Israel invaded Gaza and the West Bank that year.
Wilson’s government officially backed UN Security Council resolution 242, which urged Israel to relinquish the territories it seized in 1967. Yet in 1972, Wilson (then an opposition leader) said “it is utterly unreal to talk of withdrawal.”
“Israel’s reaction is natural and proper in refusing to accept the Palestinians as a nation,” he added. “It is not recognized as a nation by the world.”
There was something both contradictory and consistent about Wilson’s stance. Through the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain promised to help establish a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. The idea that indigenous Palestinians could belong to a nation was not entertained.
Britain had backed a racist colonization project in 1917. The war of June 1967 was a continuation of that project. Once again, it was enabled by Britain.