By Ben Macintyre
June 6, 2017
On June 5, 1967, Israel destroyed Egypt’s air force and attacked the planes of Syria and Jordan. Then Israeli forces advanced on Sinai, Jerusalem’s Old City, Suez and the Golan Heights. Six days later Israel had achieved a stunning victory over the encircling Arab armies, and the map of the Middle East was redrawn.
The Arab states immediately began looking for reasons to explain their defeat, and loudly claimed British and US troops; planes and aircraft carriers had taken part in the fighting on Israel’s side. Thus was born one of the oldest and most intractable conspiracy theories of modern times, one that has coloured Middle Eastern politics for half a century.
The Six Day War was only a day old when Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called King Hussein of Jordan on a crackling telephone line to cook up the fake news of Anglo-American military involvement. What they did not know was that two veteran officers of Israeli military intelligence were eavesdropping, using bugging equipment left over from World War II.
The conversation went as follows:
Hussein: Hello. I do not hear, the connection is the worst...
Nasser: How are you? Do you know that the US is participating alongside Israel in the war? Should we announce this? Should we say that the US and Britain (are participating), or only the US?
Hussein: The US and England.
Nasser: Does Britain have aircraft carriers?
Nasser: Good. King Hussein will make an announcement and I will make an announcement, and we will see to it that the Syrians make an announcement that American and British aeroplanes are taking part against us from aircraft carriers.
The taped conversation is proof that the accusation of Anglo-American collusion was a falsehood, yet it took root in the Arab world, with long-term consequences: the rise of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, the spread of terror tactics against the West, even Gaddafi’s coup in Libya, can all be linked back to the myth that Britain and America helped Israel to win the Six Day War.
Half a century later, it is surely time for Israel’s Arab neighbours to acknowledge that what British diplomats called “the big lie” was exactly that.
The war was still under way when Arab state-run media launched a co-ordinated propaganda campaign, reporting that British and US troops were fighting alongside the Israelis and British and American planes were attacking Egyptian positions from aircraft carriers. Radio Cairo reported that British bombers had taken part in airstrikes on Sinai. Radio Damascus claimed that 3000 British troops had arrived in Israel from Cyprus.
In a speech on June 9, Nasser insisted: “What is now established is that American and British aircraft carriers were off the shores of the enemy helping his war effort ... British aircraft raided, in broad daylight, positions on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts.”
The allegations of a “tripartite plot” were emphatically denied by the US and UK. Britain may earlier have supplied arms to Israel, but after the debacle of Suez in 1956 there was no appetite for another military collusion. Britain insisted there was “not a grain of truth” in the claims, pointing out that the only British aircraft carriers in the region were in Malta and Aden.
But the myth was too attractive, and too consoling, to be undermined by mere facts. It helped to explain and excuse the Arab military defeat, painted Israel as an imperialist stooge and played into an established narrative of Western aggression in the Middle East. Like most conspiracy theories, it was firmly embedded in wishful thinking; in the Arab world, it hardened into “fact”. The truth — that Israel had defeated three Arab states without Western military assistance — was too shameful to accept.
A telegram from the Foreign Office to Middle East posts noted that the Arab reaction was a function of mass psychology: “The Arabs’ reluctance to disbelieve all versions of the big lie springs in part from a need to believe that the Israelis could not have defeated them so thoroughly without outside assistance.”
The allegations of Anglo-American collusion with Israel were largely dismissed outside the Arab world. Nasser himself eventually retracted the claim, and within a month of the war King Hussein announced he was satisfied that “no American planes took part, or any British planes either”.
Yet the myth refused to die. Long after the war was over, it continued to be repeated as accepted truth, not just in the Arab media but in school textbooks. According to the Israeli historian Elie Podeh: “The repetition of this fabricated story in all history textbooks means that all Egyptian schoolchildren have been exposed to, and indoctrinated with, the collusion story.”
Half a century later the legacy of a lightning war continues to bedevil the Middle East. Israel tripled its territory in under a week, but the conflict over the conquest, and the subsequent occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has defined Israel’s politics and international relations ever since. Underpinning this is the long-running, persistent and untrue claim that Israel achieved victory with direct British and American military assistance.
Conspiracy theory, to which the Arab world is notoriously prone, is usually a reflection of political weakness and a shield against unpleasant reality. Formally repudiating the big lie on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War would be a clear sign of historical maturity on the part of Arab states, and perhaps a step towards peace.