During his long rule over Egypt, from the early 1950s until his death in 1970, Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the most influential figures in the Arab world. The leading proponent of “pan-Arabism,” he spoke often of the need to destroy the Jewish state, and engaged in three wars against it, the second of which—the Six-Day War of 1967—ended in catastrophic defeat. While he remains very popular among Palestinians, Michael Sharnoff writes, his engagement with their concerns appears to have been wholly opportunistic:
Nasser’s endorsement of the Palestinian cause was not particularly motivated by concern for Palestinian national rights, for pan-Arabism viewed the Palestinians not as a distinct nation deserving a state of its own, but as an integral part of the prospective unified Arab state. [In 1956], Nasser told a Western journalist, “The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are. . . . Can you imagine yet another nation on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean!”
Whatever his true sentiments about the Palestinians, Nasser was keenly aware that winning the pan-Arab mantle required escalating his anti-Israel rhetoric and policies as this ideology rejected the existence of a Jewish state on what it considered a part of the “pan-Arab patrimony.”
In yet other instances, Nasser’s propaganda contained straightforward anti-Jewish bigotry. In 1965, for example, the Egyptian information department circulated an anti-Semitic tract in Africa titled, “Israel, The Enemy of Africa,” which vilified Judaism and denigrated Jews as “cheats, thieves, and murderers.” . . . For its part, the journal of the Egyptian military described freemasons as a secret Jewish society seeking to eliminate Christianity by “luring young Christians into the arms of Jewesses and into moral ruin.”
No less importantly, in 1964, Nasser created, with Soviet assistance, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and appointed the Lebanese-born Ahmad Shukeiri, a former Syrian and Saudi ambassador to the UN, as its chairman. On the face of it, this was a bold move to promote the Palestinian national cause; in fact, it was a shrewd ploy to give the Egyptian president full control of this cause, as Yasir Arafat’s rival Fatah organization, established a few years earlier, quickly pointed out.
By 1969, a year before Nasser’s death, Arafat would take over the PLO. As for Nasser, Sharnoff notes that he engaged in a number of negotiations where he appeared willing to abandon the Palestinians in exchange for territory.