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Why talking to physicists tells you what you can’t hear elsewhere
By Harry J. Lipkin
1. The June 1967 Six Day War
Several months before the outbreak of the war between Israel and Egypt I heard interesting facts at lunch after our regular Weizmann-Tel Aviv joint particle physics seminar. There had just been an air battle between Israel and Syria in which six Syrian planes had been shot down with no Israeli losses. But the Syrian media showed proudly a faked picture of an Israeli plane going down in flames. Our colleague Yuval Ne’eman noted that it is good for us when the Arabs cover up their defeats with fake victories. The fake victory tells them that they have no need to correct the defect that caused the loss. Yuval was a distinguished particle physicist who had previously been head of Israeli army intelligence.
In the 1956 Sinai War Israel had defeated the Egyptian army in a few days. A reasonable government would have fired the Egyptian Chief Staff, General Amer, and fixed what went wrong. But because the Americans and Soviets intervened and forced the French, British and Israelis out of Egypt, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had hailed this as a great Egyptian victory, and had left Amer in charge to lose the next war.
In a recent incident some Egyptian planes had unintentionally crossed the border and were forced to land in Israel. Yuval had been sent by the Israeli army to interrogate the pilots and asked them about their training. They were very proud of their ability and said that they did not need any more flying hours to improve it. But the numbers of their regular flying hours were much lower than the average number required for Israeli pilots.
Shortly after the Six Day War I saw a Pakistani physicist who told me that Pakistani intelligence was not at all surprised by Israel’s lightning victory. They did not expect that Israel would destroy all the planes on the ground. But if they had managed to get into the air it would have made no difference; they would have immediately been shot down by the superior Israeli Air Force.
He also told me that shortly afterwards a Russian delegation came to Pakistan trying to sell their MIG fighter planes. The Pakistanis asked why they should buy MIGs when the Israelis flying French Mirages destroyed the Egyptians and their MIGs? The Russians claimed that the victory was due to the inferiority of the Egyptian pilots. The Pakistanis showed them the names of four Soviet pilots who had been shot down in air battles against Israeli Mirages. This information was highly secret; you only hear about it by talking to physicists.
At another conference shortly after the war I met Eastern European physicists who had worked at the Soviet accelerator lab in Dubna. They were happy to tell me that the Soviets had had to change their missile defense of Moscow after the Israelis captured secret Soviet equipment from Egypt. I asked them how it happened that the Soviets were so surprised by the Israeli victory when the Pakistanis were not. They said that the top leadership does not hear directly about the situation but only through a chain of command. It is not politically correct to say that the degenerate capitalist Israelis are so much better than the progressive socialist Egyptians. So that at each stage in the chain there is a slight distortion of the facts which leads to the total surprise at the top.
2. Mideast peace talks and Lebanon
At a time when the media was full of the anger of the Arab world about Israel passing a law taking control of Jerusalem, an American physicist asked me over coffee at Fermilab whether this Jerusalem incident would destroy the peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Before I could answer, a visiting Arab physicist said “Of course not. Begin and Sadat are negotiating because peace is in the national interest of both sides. No one will sacrifice national interest because of this Jerusalem issue. Sadat will break off talks for two months to pay lip service. Then he will go back to business as usual.” The physicist was correct. He then told us that Western media do not understand anything. They talk about Israelis backing Rightist Christians in South Lebanon against Leftist Moslems and Palestinians. There is no left or right here. The leader of one of the “leftist parties” belongs to one of the richest landowning families in Lebanon and he inherited his position from his father.
The main issue in South Lebanon was that Palestinians setting up military camps to fight against Israel were displacing Shiite Moslems from their homes. These Moslems knew that they must fight to save their homes. Even if the Palestinians won and destroyed Israel, the Palestinians settled in Shiite homes would never leave. The Shiites joined with the Christians in the “South Lebanon Army” to throw the Palestinians out of Shiite homes. At that time the number of Shiite Moslems in this “Rightist Christian army” was roughly equal to the number of Christians. The Shiite Moslems were an underprivileged group in Lebanon which was dominated by Sunni Moslems. The Palestinians are Sunnis. The Shiites are now encouraged by the Khomeini revolution in Iran. This situation was bound to explode.
Unfortunately nobody listened to this and the disasters for Israel of two Lebanon wars would have been avoided had the leaders listened to the reality known to physicists instead of to their own pipe dreams and the media.
But the main problem according to the Arab physicist was that the West needed Mideast oil and could only pay for it with tanks. The Egyptian-Israeli peace was destroying the tank market, but the West had already ready found a replacement. In a few months war would break out between Iran and Iraq. Nothing in the media predicted this but the physicist was right. The war went on for eight years. Some time later an Iranian expatriate physicist in America told me that this crazy Iran-Iraq war was completely controlled by outside powers. Both sides were using ammunition, spare parts and other supplies which they needed to procure abroad. These were used at such a rapid rate that foreign suppliers could stop the war any time by turning off the pipeline. But the West was more interested in profits than peace.
3. Learning from talking with Egyptians
In Cairo an Egyptian physicist told me that the people supported Sadat’s decision to make peace with Israel. They were fed up with war. But their Vietnam was not against Israel. In Nasser’s crazy Yemen war the Egyptian soldier had no idea what he was fighting for and there was an order of magnitude more casualties than in all the wars against Israel.
At that time the Arab League had boycotted Egypt because of the peace with Israel.
This will not last, he told me. Egypt is the natural leader of the Arab world. They will follow us. His prediction was confirmed during the Iran-Iraq war when the Arabs realized that Iran was a much greater danger to the Arabs than Israel. They restored Egypt to its former position. The Arab League refused to let Yasser Arafat speak about Palestine at their meeting because the Iranian threat was much more important.
The Egyptian physicist said that Lebanon was too weak to make peace with Israel and we should get out. Egypt could make peace because Egypt was the strongest power in the Arab world. Iraq was the second strongest and Saddam Hussein might be ready to make peace with Israel in return for support against Iran. But Israelis did not listen to this one.
4. Divisions in the Moslem World
Another Egyptian physicist in Cairo told me: “It was we, the Egyptians and the Jews, who brought civilization to the West when the Arabs were barbarians. It is a disgrace that we must kowtow to these Arabs now because they have oil.” He was proud of the fact that Cairo was the only city in the Arab world where a woman could walk alone at any hour of the day or night without being molested by anyone. He took my wife, Malka, and me for a walk through the Moslem quarter of Cairo late in the evening where we saw women walking alone. Another physicist said that he lived modestly even though he could earn fifteen times his Egyptian salary if he accepted an invitation to spend a semester in Kuwait. He did not want to leave his family and Kuwait was no place to take a woman.
But aren’t Egyptians also Arabs? This ambiguity is part of the reality which we need to understand. I saw this dichotomy between Islam and the heritage of the Pharaohs in a statue in the center of a traffic circle near the entrance to Cairo University. The inscription under the statue of a woman with her hand on a sphinx stated that this symbolizes the liberation of the Egyptian peasant woman and her reliance on her ancient heritage.
When I asked a Pakistani physicist about this issue, his answer was: “Of course. The Prophet taught us many things. But we had a well developed civilization long before when the Arabs were barbarians.” Can you imagine any Christian saying this about Jesus?
You never see such things in media reports with their generalizations about Islam. You learn by talking to physicists that Arabs and Moslems are all very different from one another and are much more involved in these differences than other issues. Most couldn’t care less about Israel.
After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York the media was full of general nonsense about Islamic extremism being the cause of the attack. Talking to two Moslem physicists, one from Turkey and one from Bangladesh, gave a very different analysis. The attack had nothing to do with Islam. It was part of a power struggle within the Arab world for control of oil. On CNN I had heard one Arab report which was never repeated. The reason for the attack was because the United States was supporting the King of Saudi Arabia in the same way that they had supported the Shah of Iran and both would go down the same way.
5. The 1982 Lebanon War
In 1981 when the media were full of how the Palestine problem was the main barrier to Mideast Peace, I heard a very different story from Lebanese physicists and published it in the Guardian and in the New York Times. Here is an excerpt:
“The real threat to Mideast peace might well be in Lebanon. More people had been killed in one year of Lebanese fighting than in over three decades of Arab-Israeli wars. Lebanon was under a brutal Syrian occupation actively massacring innocent people and not recognizing their rights to freedom and self determination. Time was rapidly running out in Lebanon. President Elias Sarkis’s term of office was ending and Lebanese law forbade his succeeding himself. New elections, needed to give Lebanon a legal government, were impossible under the Syrian occupation. The people were getting fed up. Some even thought that Lebanon would be better off as a Soviet satellite like Czechoslovakia if a deal with the Russians would get rid of the Syrians. If the West did not take the initiative to get the Syrians out of Lebanon, the Russians would. Then it would be too late.”
The action I suggested was based on what I had heard from physicists. It took place when the Israelis on a flimsy pretext invaded Lebanon. American Marines came into Beirut “to protect the Lebanese from the Israelis” and accidentally (?–draw your own conclusions) just in time to drive out the Syrians and make an election possible. I watched the events on TV at Fermilab with a Lebanese colleague who knew every street in Beirut. The operation had evidently been well planned beforehand. On the first day of the war the Israeli Air Force bombed to close the Beirut-Damascus highway at the precise point where the Americans later stopped the Israeli invasion.
This is the kind of information you only get from talking with physicists.
Harry Lipkin is one of the founders of the Physics Department at the Weizmann Institute. He received a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University in 1938, worked on microwave radar development during World War II, switched to experimental physics to get a PhD at Princeton, and then immigrated to Israel where he eventually became a phenomenologist.