Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Yom Kippur War in Australian editorials and analysis

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In June, AIJAC took a look back at the coverage of the Six Day War of 1967 in two major Australian newspapers, the Age of Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald. Now, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, we open the archives once again to look at the coverage of that war in Australia, this time expanding the scope of our research to include the Australian, as well as touching upon the coverage of the Canberra Times, and the Melbourne Herald.

As a much longer war, there is more to take in, so the retrospective will be split into two parts. This blog will discuss the editorials and some of the in-house analysis of the period, while the second will revisit some of the on-the-spot coverage by the newspapers' foreign correspondents covering the war. Finally, similar to our blog from June, we'll conclude by weighing some of the key contextual facts of the Israeli-Arab conflict that were widely understood by journalists at the time but are largely absent from the narrative in the news today.

The war began at 2 p.m. on Saturday, October 6 along the borders with Egypt and Syria. As a result of the timing and the nature of Sunday papers in Australia at the time, there was little, if any, war coverage in the October 7 edition of Sunday papers around eastern Australia. However, all the papers made up for it with banner coverage beginning on Monday, October 8.
The Age ("War, but to what end"), SMH ("M. East aflame"), Herald ("New ‘rules' in Mid-East War?) and Australian ("The UN must stop the fighting now") each ran editorials on the war on October 8, while the Canberra Times ("Middle East Conflict") held off on making editorial comment until the following day.
All the editorials acknowledged that, from every indication, the Arab countries had attacked first. However, none of them condemned it, and some of the editorials appeared to be looking to rationalise it or even blamed Israel for ultimately provoking it.
The SMH's editorial illustrated this well.

Not only have the years since 1967 seen the rise of a war-mongering Palestinian movement, they have also seen the growing frustration of Egypt in a situation in which war was obviously perilous, "no peace, no war" imposed its own dangerous political and economic strains, and negotiation remained unattainable. Against this background of frustration, every Israeli strike against the Palestinians and every front-line flare-up had the potentiality of the spark near the powder-keg.

After concluding that Egypt had started the war, rather than condemn Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the paper merely questioned the soundness of the decision, given the assumption (universal, it should be said, among Australian journalists) that Israel would easily prevail after absorbing the initial blow.

In its editorial, the Age also asserted that Israel would not face an existential threat in this war even though outnumbered and outgunned, not only because of Israel's military prowess, but because "the United States is still pledged to protect the security of Israel."

Like the SMH, the Age also subtly sympathised with "Arab passions, frustrations and resentments," to be viewed in the light of "Israel's record of intransigence".

Unlike the SMH, the Age picked up on the fact that the attack was premeditated and also implicitly criticised its timing, having been launched on "Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar".

Ironically, however, after disagreeing with Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban, who said that the Arabs had interpreted the international atmosphere as one of "great indulgence to Arab violence," (a jab at Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky's decision on September 28 to give in to the demands of gun-wielding Palestinian kidnappers who struck an Austrian transit camp for fleeing Soviet Jews - widely regarded as the first capitulation to terrorism by a major government) the Age's editorial proceeded to indulge the Arab violence, validating Eban's statement!

The Age wrote:

Provided the war can be confined, it will not have been in vain if it precipitates fresh efforts to negotiate a settlement that restores Arab honor, guarantee's Israel's security and offers justice to the principal victims of the Middle East conflict, the dispossessed Palestinians.

Only the Australian and the Canberra Times reminded their readers of UN Security Council Resolution 242.
The Australian wrote how the resolution had been "passed in the wake of the last Middle East war, which, among other things, calls for the restoration of ‘territories' - it does not say which, or when - seized by Israel during that war."

Meanwhile, the Canberra Times referenced the resolution as part of three necessary revisions required of the Arabs attitude.

First, they must demonstrate a willingness to abandon fantasy for reality, dreams of restoring injured Arab honour for an acceptance of responsibility. So far there seems to have been no real will on their part to negotiate sincerely for peace. Hence their unwavering refusal to meet Israeli leaders in direct talks, King Hussein of Jordan being the one exception. Israel has always asked for direct negotiations with the Arab leaders...
Second, the Arab States must give up the chimera that one day the Jewish State will go away. They must accept that Israel has a right to exist and that it was brought into existence by the very United Nations Organisation to which they complain bitterly about Israeli aggression. Having accepted this unavoidable fact, the next step is serious negotiation...
Third, the explicit provisions of Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, to which all parties are nominally committed, provides the only basis on which negotiations can begin. The clauses of the resolution must be taken together and not in isolation. They provide the best guidelines to follow with the aim of working out, not a loaded settlement backed by veiled threats, but "a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security".

After detailing a range of expectations imposed on both sides by the resolution, the editorial added:

These principles are not negotiable, but how they should be applied is a matter for compromise between the parties.

The Australian was joined by Melbourne's Herald in anticipating, from their very first editorial on the war, that the oil-producing countries in region would make good on a threat to use their oil as a tool of blackmail against Western support for Israel in the war.

This had been attempted before, following the Six Day War. While that embargo had fared poorly due to an oil glut at the time, in 1973 the US and Europe had been experiencing oil shortages. It should be added that Australia, which was for the most part self-sufficient in oil production in 1973, was not in the same boat as its European and American allies.

Every editorial on October 8 raised the issue of Russian and US backing of the Arabs and Israel, respectively, pondering the effect the war would have on détente between Washington and Moscow, and expressing concern that the war could eventually draw in the superpowers more directly and confrontationally.

If there had been worry among Australian pundits in 1967 that Israel might lose that war, Israel's stunning victory had made that possibility seem remote.

On October 8, the Canberra Times ran an editorial cartoon by Larry Pickering of a man exiting the United Nations saying "After much deliberation, we've decided that the Israelis are fully entitled to be 6/4 on." For the Melbourne Herald, the chosen cartoon was from Aubrey Collette. It depicted an Arab, covered from head to toe in bandages, riding a camel and charging headlong with a sword drawn and an arm gesturing back for support while he shouts "One more time!"

The Age's editorial cartoon, penned by Les Tanner, ran the following day. It showed the sphinx with the visage of Golda Meir, with two Egyptians standing at her feet. One says to the other, "Why is she smiling - it's not the sixth day".

Besides editorials, some Australian papers also featured first-day commentary from its own experts. Like the cartoonists, the Australian's foreign editor Robert Duffield also overestimated Israel's military position at the onset of the war, opening his analysis ("Egypt fights to prove a point") with the prediction that Israel would "push the Arab soldiers out" of the Golan and the Sinai "in the coming hours".

Duffield wrote that the key to the Arab strategy was to put to the test US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's assertion that the US would "defend Israel but not Israel's conquests".

The gauntlet has been cast before it. Will you dare to act against us, talk the Arabs, when we are fighting only in areas which, by the sense of the 1967 UN resolution, should be restored to us? If you do, do you really imagine we will continue in a situation of worldwide shortage to sell you our oil?
That is what it is about. Dr. Henry Kissinger, newly crowned US Secretary of State, and only by coincidence a Jew, faces his biggest test yet as the mastermind of American foreign policy.

Meanwhile, in his viewpoint ("Tragedy is: the war will solve nothing") the Age's veteran diplomatic and defence writer Creighton Burns commented that neither side will achieve a "final" victory out of the war. But he also made no effort to conceal who he thought held ultimate responsibility for the war - Israel.

Israel's refusal to consider the return of more than a few token square miles of captured Arab territory - especially its insistence that Arab Jerusalem, the strategic port of Sharm El Sheik on the west bank of the Gulf of Akaba and the Golan Heights overlooking Syria were strictly non-negotiable - effectively shut off any moderate Arab options.

Burns also apparently mischaracterised UNSC Resolution 242 as "defunct" as a result of what he called Israel's "refusal" to accept the formula for withdrawal.

It is not difficult to understand or even to sympathise with, Israel's refusal to accept the now defunct United Nations formula for an Israeli withdrawal, although at the time Israel's intransigence cost it much world support as expressed in United Nations votes.

In doing so, Burns turned the truth on its head, ignoring the fact that Israel had been pushing for withdrawal to secure and recognised borders in return for peace agreements with its neighbours since immediately after the Six Day War. 

As a telegram dated June 16, 1967 from the US Department of State to the US Ebmassy in Tel Aviv read, recounting a conversation between Israeli Ambassador to the US Avraham Harman and US Secretary of State Dean Rusk just days after the Six Day War:

Harman said ... [Israel] would not settle for 1957-type arrangement [of total withdrawal in exchange for security "guarantees" but no peace]. Israel now feels it has earned a real peace.

On the other hand, it was the Arab countries which had held steadfast to the three noes of the Arab League's Khartoum Declaration of September 1967, which called for "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it."

(A situation which prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban to famously later reflect, "I think that this is the first war in history that on the morrow the victors sued for peace and the vanquished called for unconditional surrender.")

Resolution 242 was only "defunct" for as long as no Arab country was prepared to make peace with Israel. As the 1978 Camp David Accords showed, once Egypt was prepared to agree on a framework for a peace agreement, Israel was prepared to withdraw from the Sinai.

But Burns wasn't finished blaming Israel.

Israel's refusal to compromise on the 26,000 square miles of former Arab territory it now holds, like its inability to find some means of compensating the Palestinian Arabs displaced in 1948, now seems part of the inevitability of the present war.

Burns did not feel the need to offer any evidence for his assertion that Israel had been refusing to compromise over the territory it captured in 1967. It is likely Burns had in mind Israel's difficulties with US Secretary of State William P. Rogers peace plan of December 1969 ("the Rogers Plan"), though the Israeli cabinet did endorse a variant of that plan in June 1970 and was continuing to make diplomatic overtures towards interim agreements right up until the 1973 war.

As Joseph Sisco, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs under US President Nixon at the time of the Rogers plan, would later say:

Why did the Rogers plan fail? I see four main reasons.
First and foremost was obviously the Soviet-American rivalry. Mutual trust was lacking. On the whole, with some exceptions, the Soviets were not incautious. They did not want a confrontation any more than we did. They were sometimes active and helpful in containing violence at certain junctures when they thought it could lead to a confrontation, but they were never helpful in terms of negotiating peace.
Second, in retrospect, the far-reaching substantive proposals we made in the Rogers plan, although limited to the Sinai, leaving the Palestinian issue untouched, were premature and just too far reaching at the time. Neither Egypt nor Israel was ready for it. The mistrust was deep. [then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser wanted to get the territories back. Israel resisted withdrawal without full peace...
Third, the operational assumption of the United States of the test of Soviet intentions proved faulty. Each side was expected to deliver his client, and as I indicated, our strategy was to get Egypt's okay first and then put it to the Israelis formally. The Soviets gave Nasser a veto. They would not endorse anything he would not accept.
Fourth was the matter of US policy. It was not as cohesive between the White House and State as is essential in such a major undertaking.

(Source: Joseph Sisco in Richard Bordeaux Parker's "The October War: A retrospective", 2001.)

Futhermore, the Palestinians were not looking for "some means of compensating" for their refugees. The Palestine Liberation Organisation of 1973 was committed in its charter towards the destruction of Israel and the return of all Palestinian refugees and their progeny in its wake.

ON OCTOBER 10, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a forgettable editorial ("Running out of steam") which did little more than criticise the apparent Egyptian plan of trying to hold a small piece of the Sinai as "doomed folly" since it would "remain so vulnerable" and the Syrian hopes of taking the Golan Heights back as "going up in flames".

On the same day, the Melbourne Herald ("Mid-East test for US-Russia pact") raised again the issue of whether the USSR would be drawn into the war due to the fighting, especially following the deaths of some Russians as a result of an Israeli Air Force bombing of targets in Damascus.
The paper also voiced concern over Israel's difficulty in overcoming the Egyptian offensive.

Despite Egyptian claims of "modest" objectives, the Israelis may feel forced to unleash punches - perhaps even nuclear ones - that they have been pulling. They may not concede Egyptian control of the Canal under attack. They do not, of course, feel safe under any international "guarantees".

On October 15, it was the Australian's turn ("Big powers must stop the carnage") to look at worst case scenarios should Israel fail to get the upper hand in the Sinai.

As the Egyptians begin to destroy Israel's Bar Lev defence line in the Sinai. Israel's forces march on Damascus. Their original object was probably to hold Syrian territory at the time of a ceasefire in order to balance Egyptian occupation of the Sinai. But, in the face of unprecedented Arab military unity, Israel may well feel it necessary to take Damascus as a pawn.

The death and suffering this would cause the one million inhabitants of Damascus is horror enough, but for Israel there are further spectres, for the Arabs have three cards they could play. One is the total, rather than symbolic, commitment of [troops from across the Arab world]. The second is... a threat to cut off oil supplies unless America retreats from its traditional support for Israel. And the third is Libya's Colonel Khaddafy... within hours his French-supplied planes could be bombing Haifa or Tel Aviv.

The Australian's editorial was the first to address the issue of Russia rearming Egypt and Syria and the US' subsequent rearming of Israel, but it would be followed by the Canberra Times ("An ominous build-up", 17/10) and - in three separate editorials - the Sydney Morning Herald ("The patrons", 17/10) and ("Towards sanity", 23/10) and ("Sinews of war", 25/10).

Out of all those editorials, only the Canberra Times acknowledged the crucial moral difference that the US only rearmed Israel after Russia had resupplied the Arabs.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union's intervention by supplying arms to the Arabs must be condemned. The Americans at least have the excuse that they in turn decided to supply Israel to give the Israelis an even chance.

All the other papers blamed both sides equally.

On October 22, the Sydney Morning Herald ran yet another editorial on the war, this time on the Arab oil embargo ("The oil weapon"), which had fully mobilised two days earlier. In it, the paper warned the Arabs that such a boycott might not be as effective as they hoped and it could hurt them through possible retaliatory trade sanctions and the freezing of bank accounts.

Finally, as the war wound down, the Australian ("After the war, plenty of talk", 23/10) and the Canberra Times ("Short-lived ceasefire", 24/10) raised the issue of UN Resolution 242 once more in terms of how to move towards a post-war peace.

Wrote the Australian:

This resolution, a compromise laboriously framed by Britain in the wake of the 1967 war, is most noteworthy for what Israel's Mr Eban calls its "constructive ambiguity."
It calls for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the 1967 conflict, but it does not say which territories, nor when they should be vacated. It also calls for the respect and acknowledgement of the territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries.
In the years since 1967, each side has interpreted that resolution in terms of the clause which does not apply to itself. Thus Israel has claimed it must hold the occupied lands because it has received no guarantee that its original boundaries are secure and recognised and the Arabs say they can give no such guarantee until their lands have been restored to them.
These viewpoints are not really so far apart, but the "constructive ambiguity" of Resolution 242 has failed to harmonise them and it failed to prevent the 1973 Middle East war. Nevertheless 242 is the best framework available to the two sides in a new attempt to settle their differences.
There is some reason to hope that, within this framework, they might this time approach the task with more sincerity of purpose and compromise.

The Canberra Times reiterated the importance that UNSC Resolution 242 must be taken together - that peace be negotiated together with withdrawal, i.e. a land for peace formula. It also went on to discuss the Palestinian refugee issue as mentioned in the resolution. While nobody could dispute that the Palestinian issue was peripheral to the war - to the point of being nearly invisible - several editorials did refer to it in passing. This editorial, however, went further, and discussed the issue as it stood in 1973 with considerable nuance.

The most difficult issue the warring parties will have to resolve if ever they do talk is "a just settlement of the refugee problem"; that is, the Palestinian issue.
The issue has changed substantially over the years so that now there are several classes of Palestinians, including "professional Palestinians" who depend for their existence on the perpetuation of the conflict, and a number of different solutions proposed ranging from a separate Palestinian Arab state to the liquidation of Israel. It is evident that any settlement worked out without the direct participation by representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation will be short-lived. It would seem too that an independent and factual investigation of the Palestinian issue, including the reports that it has been used by some Arab countries for political purposes, has become an urgent necessity.

Interestingly, only the Age ("Dangers in the Middle East, 16/10) and the Canberra Times (17/10) commented at all on Australia's Whitlam Government's highly contentious decision to remain neutral during the fighting. However, this belongs to a realm of discussion that will be explored in the second half of this blog post.

Ahron Shapiro

 

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