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The suez crisis

Carleton University

Research Paper #1:

The Suez Crisis of 1956- The War From Differing Viewpoints

Submitted to Prof. J. Sigler

In Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for 47.323

Student: Neil Patrick Tubb (#226591)

Date: November 30, 1995.


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.

Annotated Bibliography

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 pro-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.

Source: Essay UK -

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