Myths & Facts Online
The Road to Suez
“Arab governments were prepared to accept
Israel after the Suez War.
Arab governments were prepared to accept Israel after the 1948 war.
In the fall of 1948, the UN Security Council called on Israel and the Arab states to negotiate armistice agreements. Thanks to UN mediator Ralph Bunche's insistence on direct bilateral talks between Israel and each Arab state, armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were concluded by the summer of 1949. Iraq, which had also fought against Israel, refused to follow suit.
Meanwhile, on December 11, 1948, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the parties to negotiate peace and creating a Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC), which consisted of the United States, France and Turkey. All Arab delegations voted against it.
After 1949, the Arabs insisted that Israel accept the borders in the 1947 partition resolution and repatriate the Palestinian refugees before they would negotiate an end to the war they had initiated. This was a novel approach that they would use after subsequent defeats: the doctrine of the limited-liability war. Under this theory, aggressors may reject a compromise settlement and gamble on war to win everything in the comfortable knowledge that, even if they fail, they may insist on reinstating the status quo ante.
Israel's military strike in 1956 was unprovoked.
Egypt had maintained its state of belligerency with Israel after the armistice agreement was signed. The first manifestation of this was the closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping. On August 9, 1949, the UN Mixed Armistice Commission upheld Israel's complaint that Egypt was illegally blocking the canal. UN negotiator Ralph Bunche declared: "There should be free movement for legitimate shipping and no vestiges of the wartime blockade should be allowed to remain, as they are inconsistent with both the letter and the spirit of the armistice agreements."1
On September 1, 1951, the Security Council ordered Egypt to open the Canal to Israeli shipping. Egypt refused to comply.
The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Muhammad Salah al-Din, said early in 1954:
In 1955, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser began to import arms from the Soviet Bloc to build his arsenal for the confrontation with Israel. In the short-term, however, he employed a new tactic to prosecute Egypt's war with Israel. He announced it on August 31, 1955:
These "heroes" were Arab terrorists, or fedayeen, trained and equipped by Egyptian Intelligence to engage in hostile action on the border, and to infiltrate Israel to commit acts of sabotage and murder. The fedayeen operated mainly from bases in Jordan, so that Jordan would bear the brunt of Israel's retaliation, which inevitably followed. The terrorist attacks violated the armistice agreement provision that prohibited the initiation of hostilities by paramilitary forces; nevertheless, it was Israel that was condemned by the UN Security Council for its counterattacks.
The escalation continued with the Egyptian blockade of Israel's shipping lane in the Straits of Tiran, and Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956. On October 14, Nasser made clear his intent:
Less than two weeks later, on October 25, Egypt signed a tripartite agreement with Syria and Jordan placing Nasser in command of all three armies.
The continued blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, combined with the increased fedayeen attacks and the bellicosity of recent Arab statements, prompted Israel, with the backing of Britain and France, to attack Egypt on October 29, 1956. The Israeli attack on Egypt was successful, with Israeli forces capturing the Gaza Strip, much of the Sinai and Sharm al-Sheikh. A total of 231 soldiers died in the fighting.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Abba Eban explained the provocations to the Security Council on October 30:
One reason these raids were so intolerable for Israel was that the country had chosen to create a relatively small standing army and to rely primarily on reserves in the event of war. This meant that Israel had a small force to fight in an emergency, that threats provoking the mobilization of reserves could virtually paralyze the country, and that an enemy's initial thrust would have to be withstood long enough to complete the mobilization.
Israel had no reason to attack Egypt; it went to war to advance the imperialist interests of France and Great Britain.
Eisenhower had successfully persuaded the British and French not to attack Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. When the agreement on the Canal's use proved reliable over the succeeding weeks, it became increasingly difficult to justify military action. Still, the French and British desperately wanted to put Nasser in his place and recapture their strategic asset.
The French had grown increasingly close to the new Israeli government, politically, diplomatically and militarily. In fact over the next two decades, the French would be Israel's principal arms supplier. The British attitude toward Israel had hardly changed from the mandatory period. Residual bitterness over the nearly three decade long battle fought with the Zionists, combined with the ongoing alliance with Jordan, discouraged any shift in policy.
The French concluded, however, that they could use Israel's fear of Egyptian aggression, and the continuing blockade, as a pretext for their own strike against Nasser. The British couldn't pass up the chance to join in.
The three nations subsequently agreed on a plan whereby Israel would land paratroopers near the Canal and send its armor across the Sinai desert. The British and French would then call for both sides to withdraw from the canal zone, fully expecting the Egyptians to refuse. At that point, British and French troops would be deployed to "protect" the canal.
From Israel's perspective, the continued blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba, combined with the increased fedayeen attacks, and the bellicosity of recent Arab statements, made the situation intolerable. Rather than continue to fight a war of attrition with the terrorists and wait for Nasser and his allies to build their forces up sufficiently to wage a new war, Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion decided to launch a preemptive strike. The backing of the British and French, he thought, would give him cover against the opposition of the United States. He was wrong.6
The United States* blind support for Israel was apparent during the Suez War.
President Dwight Eisenhower was upset by the fact that Israel, France and Great Britain had secretly planned the campaign to evict Egypt from the Suez Canal. Israel's failure to inform the United States of its intentions, combined with ignoring American entreaties not to go to war, sparked tensions between the countries. The United States subsequently joined the Soviet Union (ironically, just after the Soviets invaded Hungary) in a campaign to force Israel to withdraw. This included a threat to discontinue all U.S. assistance, UN sanctions and expulsion from the UN (see exchanges between Ben-Gurion and Eisenhower).
U.S. pressure resulted in an Israeli withdrawal from the areas it conquered without obtaining any concessions from the Egyptians. This sowed the seeds of the 1967 war.
One reason Israel did give in to Eisenhower was the assurance he gave to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Before evacuating Sharm al-Sheikh, the strategic point guarding the Straits of Tiran, Israel elicited a promise that the United States would maintain the freedom of navigation in the waterway.7 In addition, Washington sponsored a UN resolution creating the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to supervise the territories vacated by the Israeli forces.
The war temporarily ended the activities of the fedayeen; however, they were renewed a few years by a loosely knit group of terrorist organizations that became know as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
1Eliezer Ereli," The Bat Galim
Case Before the Security Council," Middle Eastern Affairs,
(April 1955), pp. 108-9.
Maps courtesy of The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997-2005, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente.
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