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The Suez Crisis Of 1956: The War From Differing Viewpoints Essay, Research Paper
The Suez Crisis of 1956: The War From Differing Viewpoints
Research Paper #1:
Submitted to Prof. J. Sigler
In Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for 47.323
Student: Neil Patrick Tubb (#226591)
Among the most important foundations in the continuing Arab-Israeli
conflict was the seeds that were sown in the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai
Campaign, or the Suez Crisis. Whatever the operation is referred to as, its
consequences involving both relations internal to the Middle East and with the
world are impossible to ignore. Looked at simply as an objective event in
history, one could note several key outcomes of the war. It marked the
beginning of the end of British and French colonial leadership in the region,
and the start of an increasingly high American and Soviet involvement. The war
also proved to the Arab nations of the area that the Israeli military machine
was not one to be taken lightly, a lesson which would be forgotten and retaught
in the 1967 “Six Day War”. The positive impact that the United Nations would
have on ending the conflict, through Canada’s idea of creating a UN peacekeeping
force to help enforce the ceasefire, was another important outcome.
This paper, however, will not have the goal of examining these specific
events in relation to the war, nor will it try to determine which factors were
most significant. My aim will be to gain a more complete understanding of the
effect of the crisis by reviewing key events of the war from two different
perspectives: the Israeli and the Arab points of view, plus the experiences of
the European powers as well. Through a brief comparison of both the coverage of
the War by the differing authors and the varying interpretations seen throughout
my study, I will be best able to make an informed evaluation on how the event
was, and is today, seen in the political and historical forum.
Comparison of Coverage
The war, which was begun on October 29, 1956 when the Israelis moved
their units into the Sinai peninsula, has had its origins traced back to many
historical events. Which is the most important of these is a point of contention
for the authors I have studied. There does seem to be for all parties involved
a consensus that the ascent to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser to President of Eqypt
in 1956 , and his move to nationalize the Suez Canal as the main precipitating
factor in setting off the conflict. Why Nasser did this, however, is where
my various sources diverge.
Quite predictably, sources used from the Egyptian or Arab viewpoint
usually pointed to the fact that Nasser was finally freeing a Third World
country from the clinging grip of colonial Europe, where Britain and France
continued to control much of the Egyptian economy. There is most likely no
doubt that Nasser did nationalize the Suez Canal for partly political motives,
and as the already crowned leader of “Pan-Arabism”, it seemed that he was
showing the world that he was ready to let his deeds match his words. Political
decisions are rarely one dimensional, and my Arab sources also indicated other
reasons for the move- more of which later.
It was with this backdrop that all the parties involved began to examine
their options. Of their motivations and aims, I will refer to in the next
section, and on the point of basic facts of the conflict my sources are quite
complementary. It is a matter of history that Israel began the conflict by
their phased invasion across into the Sinai on October 29, 1956, and agreed to a
withdrawal on November 6. None of my readings from either side of this
particularly high political fence try to dispute this. Even that the war was
incredibly lopsided and anti-climatic- like it seems so many of these wars were-
is not contended by my Arab authors. This surprised me somewhat- as I read from
some of the top Egyptian political men of the time and their interpretation of
events. One such former diplomat dispelled any historical illusions which may
have been created over time by saying in his memoirs, “(The fact was), Egypt had
not won a military victory in 1956″ Two days after the Israeli invasion, the
Anglo-French troops entered the Suez Canal zone and started operation MUSKATEER
in order to re-secure control of the area under their joint command. These
invasions were followed by a barrage of international criticism, the most
telling of which came from the two superpowers, the United States and the USSR.
The weight of this pressure soon became too much to bear for the tripatriate
alliance, and Israel withdrew on November 6, followed on November 14 by the
British and French.
Comparison of Interpretations
It is much more interesting, in the study of a conflict such as the Suez
Crisis situation of 1956, to examine how each side interpreted the events, in
hindsight, rather than just seeing how the events were reported- especially for
such a world wide event. First, a look at the different motivations of the
leaders- beginning with why Nasser had nationalized the canal in the first place.
The idea that it was to punish the West (meaning mainly the Americans and the
British) for their withdrawal of financial support for Nasser’s Answan Dam
project- that the Canal needed to be put under Egyptian control so as to help
raise revenues for the Dam project was strongly echoed in the Arab works.
Apparently, the move was in part a reprisal to the moves of John Foster Dulles,
who was the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, and who had been behind the
decision to revoke the funding for the project as a way of punishing Nasser for
his “…independent posture”.
Whatever Nasser had in mind when he nationalized the Canal, both Israeli
and Western sources did not see it as a move by an independent country to try
and solve its internal economic difficulties or to help bring the Arab peoples
together. The Israelis, for their part, saw it as the culmination of a
consistent effort by the Arab world to rid the Middle East of Israel- that this
was a natural continuation of events such as the closure of the Tiran Gulf to
Jewish shipping, and armed “fedayeen” raids taking place across the border from
Egyptian- controlled Gaza. Israeli leadership was apparently convinced that
the Arabs wanted full-scale war with them to make up for losses in the 1948 War
of Independence- but all Israel wanted was peace and thus only wanted enough
conflict that would be to their strategic advantage. Israel had been trying to
progress, but with such moves by the radical Nasser who was the leader of Pan-
Arabism (which had the destruction of the Jewish State as one of its underlying
directives) and “Friend of the USSR” in the area (Nasser had received weapons
shipments from the USSR via Czechsolvakia in 1955) , it looked as if further war
would be inevitable.
For Britain, who each shared a fifty percent stake in the Suez Canal
Company, that Nasser had nationalized, this move constituted “…the destruction
of Great Britain as a first-class power and its reduction similar to that of
Holland.” For the other colonial power involved in the region, France, the
situation was less important in the way of lost finances than in the political
effects it was to have one of its last colonial possessions in the Africa.
Algeria was in the midst of an independence battle with its French oppressors,
and it was President Nasser who was apparently giving much encouragement to the
movement. The loss of the canal would likely put a final nail in the coffin of
French colonial efforts in this important area of the world. Both powers also
made comparisons between Nasser and Hitler, making the point that such naked
aggression cannot ever again be left unchallenged after the lessons of World War
Two. On one occasion, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, Harold
MacMillan, made reference to this, stating that, “(N)o one wanted to see another
Munich.” Although I can see that these two states worried about their
influence in this very economically significant region, I find a little
difficult to justify military intervention. Whereas at least Israel could
entertain the idea of using force as a self preservation security option, for
Britain and France their position was on very shaky international legal ground.
Another line division among my sources was what exactly the Israelis’
intentions were upon entering the conflict, or indeed on initiating it when no
other formal attack had been launched upon them. My Arab sources take the
stance that Israel’s attack was one that continued their apparent long history
of expansionism in the area. David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister at
the time, was to have even said that he considered the Sinai peninsula to be
part of Israel that would inevitably be absorbed into the Jewish State. This
line of thinking would logically follow that Israel, ever the territorial
opportunist, simply used the crisis of the day as a smokescreen in order to
achieve its oppressive goals.
The Israeli position is very different in answering why they invaded-
they always see themselves as the waiting victim in a sea of dangerous Arab
states that crave their inevitable downfall. One Israeli source stated that
although almost all world opinion disagreed, the real reason for the October 29
strike was not collusion with the Europeans, neither was it expansionist dreams
that fuelled the attack. It was launched in anticipation of a coming Arab
strike which events had been pointing to ever since the 1948 War came to a close.
One Major General Chaim Herzog of the Israeli military concurred with this
view, saying that Israel in fact had three distinct aims in the attack: One, the
remove the Egyptian threat in Sinai; Two, to destroy the framework of the
fedayeen rebels; Three, to secure freedom of navigation through the Straits of
Tiran for Israeli vessels. That the opinions of the Arab and Israeli authors
on why Israel invaded are in such contrast is another illustration of one of the
central problems in this conflict- neither side is prepared to examine the
others perception of the situation.
In looking at the outcomes of this conflict, an interesting study is to
examine how each side thought they fared in the aftermath. I believe this
exercise to be especially relevant to this war in that the results were seen
more on a political level for better or worse, for the three main actors. For
the Anglo-French pact, rather especially Britain, the Suez Crisis looked as if
it was one that should have been avoided. A historical account of the affair
notes that even as the United Nations and the United States had effectively
ended the conflict and were in the midst of sending UNEF troops to the area,
Prime Minister Eden was still filled with vigour for his hopeless cause, and
ready to destroy his domestic economy in the name of British prestige. Other
sources agreed that the invasion and attempt to take the Canal zone over by
force had been a disaster, one stating that it had been an “abysmal failure” ,
another stating that it confirmed that British and French could not operate
anything without superpower (read US) approval.
One area of agreement throughout my sources was in the view that Egypt,
who was apparently beaten in a humiliating fashion on the combat front in the
war of 1956, had achieved a very significant political victory. Under the
skillful handling of Nasser, the event was not just (another) military defeat,
but a brave stand taken against the colonial powers that small but mighty Egypt
had emerged virtually unscathed. One Arab source spoke as if Nasser understood
the situation as helpless in the beginning due to massive foreign intervention-
that at once on October 29 the Israeli-European collusion was obvious. Nasser
even refused the offered help from Syria and Jordan in order to “spare them” .
This idea that Nasser turned down Arab help was contrary to some Israeli reports
that refer to this lack of assistance as a reason for another Egyptian defeat at
Jewish hands- again pointing to Nasser’s mastermind of the situation. In
general, most of the Israeli sources admitted that Nasser had turned the defeat
into a victory, writing that despite the intervention of both the Israelis and
the massive British and French power, Nasser remained in power and his prestige
as leader of the Arab world grew.
In assessing the opinions and biases I found in the readings for this
paper, I find that it is most pertinent to again examine the opposing
perspectives of the two factions. Both of the warring sides in this dispute,
in my view, see themselves as the victim: The Israelis of a region-wide Arab
plot to destroy them and their state and the Arabs of a Jewish/Western
conspiracy to deny both them and especially their Palestian Brothers and Sisters
what is rightfully theirs- the land of Palestine. This alone is bad enough, but
the problem is compounded by the fact that neither side is at all willing, at
least up until now, to try and view the situation from the others point of view-
they are too busy trying to undermine what they perceive as the others motives
with both diplomatic wrangling and military manouvers.
My reading done on the Suez Crisis of 1956 support this perspective.
For example, when discussing why Israel would invade in the War, Herzog simply
stated that the events of the years since the 1949 armistice along with
Nasser’s rhetoric led the Israeli government to the logical decision that a
defensive strike had to be launched in order to save the nation. Riad, on the
same topic, calmly wrote that it was part of Israel’s plan to reach out and
envelop more territory into their grasp- practically an imperial move.
One has to take into account, with the authors that I have studied, that
they are very biased on one side of the debate or the other- many were involved
directly with the governments at the time of the crisis and thus must support
the policies which perhaps they helped form. I would have to admit that the
interpretations I found most believable were probably found in Western (British)
historical accounts of the crisis- the book by Lucas seemed most willing to
spread around blame for the debacle of 1956, especially on the door of 10
Downing Street itself. The Jewish and Arab authors did not display this
strength of character for the most part, however a few exceptions can be noted.
An Egyptian example is found in the book by Fahmy, who readily admitted that it
was not any feat by Nasser or his army that gave a victory of sorts to his
country- it was the workers of the Suez Canal who in the years following the
crisis showed the world that they could successfully and profitably run the
waterway without European help or control. I believe that the writers from this
turbulent region were under considerably more stress to support their country’s
record in the crisis than a Western author may have been in a comparable account,
and this I did take into consideration in completing my assignment. The Crisis
of 1956 does not figure that prominently in either Jewish or Arab texts or
writings on the time since 1945- perhaps it was overshadowed by the 1948, 1967
and 1973 Wars- or perhaps it was the European involvement that takes away from
it being another true chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whatever the
interpretation, this was indeed an significant event both in the history of this
region, and for the world, and it seems as if more time is needed before we can
truly begin to examine it from a neutral perspective.
As stated in my paper, I decided upon commencing my task to seek out the most
biased of authors from both sides in the Arab-Israeli debate, which provided
reference to the 1956 Suez Crisis. This was for the most part the norm for this
essay, with the exception of the one more European text I used to offer me a
sense of how the crisis was handled from the Western side. For this I used W.
Scott Lucas’ “Divided We Stand: Britain, the US and the Suez Crisis” (1991).
While Lucas wrote mainly from the British perspective, his text was helpful to
me in gaining a general understanding of how the crisis was played out through a
series of carefully broken down events. Having thus gained a rudimentary
understanding of the crisis, I then sought out some biased sources from both
sides of the Suez. After looking in vain for articles on the topic, I found
that my best bet lied in the combination of memoirs of noted politicians of the
time from the region, and from the writings of a few noted academics, both
Egyptian and Israeli. For Arab sources, I began by going to the source, using
the memoirs of both Anwar el-Sadat, the person who followed Nasser as President
of Egypt in 1967, in his book “In Search of Identity” (1977). I also used the
works of another couple of famous Egyptian politicians, in “The Struggle for
Peace in the Middle East” by Mahmouud Riad, and “Negotiating for Peace in the
Middle East”, by Ismail Fahmy. Both Riad, who served as an international
diplomat under Nasser, and Fahmy, who was Sadat’s Foreign Minister for so many
years, had vivid and detailed memories of the crisis. Add to this list the book
by the famous Arab military man Anouar Abdel -Malak’s “Egypt: Military Society”
(1968), a book that helped give me a better idea of how the Egyptian army forces
viewed and dealt with the crisis.
Finally, the jewish authors I sought out were from an equally varied
number of sources, again using politicans, military men and academics. To help
in a general rounding of the Israeli view of the crisis, I used Yitzak Shamir’s
autobiography (Shamir, Yitzhak; “Summing Up”; London; Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Press; 1994.), a man who was to play an integral role in the Arab-Israeli
conflict as the Prime Minister of Israel in the 1980s. My search for an Israeli
military perspective was quite arduous, but finally settled on the work of Chaim
Herzog in “The Arab-Israeli Wars” (1982). As Herzog was a major-general in the
crisis of 1956, he not only provided me with detailed information of the
invasion itself, but of the various meanings and causes behind it. In trying to
find Jewish academic sources, I soon found myself in further difficulties,
getting to the point of looking for, if you will excuse me, “jewish-sounding”
names- as I was unable at first to find any that I could definitely discern were
pr -Israeli. I eventually settled on the works of Itamar Rabinovich’s “Seven
Wars and One Peace Treaty” (1991), and M.E. Yapp’s “The Near East Since the
First World War” (1991). While Rabinovich was based in Tel Aviv and had
stronger pro-Israeli views, Yapp, who was a professor in London, England, who’s
ideas were a little more moderate and yet, at least in this author’s perspective,
seemed to lean quite distinctly towards the Jewish State’s cause.
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