A little remembered incident during the Six Day War 40 years ago has had a significant impact on the course of Middle Eastern politics ever since, the former Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, believes.
Mr Fischer was delivering an address on Australia-Thailand trade to the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs when he digressed to a subject he admits fascinates him and which he has had time to research since retiring from Parliament in 2001.
He said that in June, 1967, with the short war between Israel and the Arab states still raging, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan persuaded his colleagues to capture the Golan Heights from Syria. However, with Israeli forces already at the Suez Canal and in command of the West Bank, there was a danger the war would end before this could be accomplished
“They needed a distraction and some breathing space,” he said. “So Israel decided to attack the USS Liberty, an American intelligence-gathering ship in international waters 100 kilometres north of Alexandria.
“For an hour and a quarter they mounted the attack, holing the ship on one side and killing some 34 American sailors.”
The incident has been officially declared an accident and as former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said “stuff happens in war”. However, there have been reports ever since, including interviews with participants on both sides, that Israel was well aware it was attacking a US naval vessel.
The question remains why no assistance was given the Liberty by other American ships in the area. Mr Fischer says planes were launched from a nearby aircraft carrier but recalled while they were in the air on the express orders of the Pentagon and American President Lyndon Johnson.
“And so a weird moment in the history of the United States - it did not go to rescue its own. That is not Tim Fischer gilding the lily; it is now an agreed part of the record relating to the USS Liberty.”
From that moment on Israeli foreign policy “became a whole lot more robust … It took the Golan Heights on days five and six of the war and it still has the Golan to this day,” he says.
“In the years since, every time peace got near, Israel managed to finesse a slight stepping back from delivering that peace. It did not hurt that [Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman] Yasser Arafat had as much commitment to ongoing warfare, but even so, Israel never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity when it came to advancing a peaceful settlement in the Middle East.”
Mr Fischer said the USS Liberty incident was a clear demonstration to the Israeli hawks that they could, as a last resort, defy the US and get away with it. “It was from that time that Israel began to build its own atomic bomb,” he said.
“I do not believe the blame lies so much with Israel which was fighting a very busy war and desperately needed the Golan Heights. The real blame is with the White House and the Pentagon which to this day has never given the USS Liberty survivors a full and fair dinkum account of what happened.”
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.