Sixty years ago, I was home after school, sitting in our living room on New York’s Central Park West, reading a history of Rome and listening to Dvorak’s splendid cello concerto when the announcer on WQXR broke in to announced, “Israeli armored forces are thrusting deep into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.”
So began the 1956 Arab-Israeli Suez war, a conflict that is now all but forgotten though it was a major historic turning point for all concerned.
Algeria has risen up against French colonial rule. A ferocious guerilla war was raging. The Socialist government in Paris was too arrogant to admit that anyone could revolt against the glories of French rule. Instead, Paris blamed the revolt on machinations by Egypt’s nationalist strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In fact, Egypt’s role was minor.
Great Britain believed its last remaining colonies and protectorates in the Mideast – Iraq, Kuwait, the emirates, Oman, Libya, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia – were being threatened by a rising tide of Arab nationalism inspired by Egypt’s fiery Nasser.
The new state of Israel worried that Nasser might indeed unite the Arabs and champion the recently expelled Palestinians.
France’s Socialists led by Guy Mollet took the lead in plotting with Britain and Israel to seize the Suez Canal, which Nasser had nationalized in July 1956, overthrow Nasser and impose joint Franco-British rule on Egypt.
A secret plan called for an Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula and a phony Franco-British ultimatum to Egypt that was designed to be rejected. Then the British and French would attack Egypt, march on Cairo, and depose Nasser. Israel would occupy Sinai and parts of the Suez Canal.
The British and French imperialists never asked themselves how they planned to garrison populous Egypt when they could not control much less populous Algeria. Guy Mollet and British PM Anthony Eden were both steeped in the colonial era: they could not understand that the world had changed. Nor that Britain and France were no longer major military or economic powers.
Meanwhile, France secretly supplied Israel with large quantities of modern arms and nuclear weapons technology that laid the basis of Israel’s current large nuclear arsenal, estimated at 100-200 warheads.
A vicious, British-led propaganda attack was launched against Nasser, calling him ‘Hitler on the Nile’ and a threat to mankind. We would hear similar propaganda against subsequent Mideast enemies of the western powers: Khadaffi, Saddam, Ahmadinejad, bin Laden.
In the event, the tripartite attack on Egypt proved a monumental fiasco. Paris and London didn’t know what to do after their troops seized the Canal. The bombastic Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, threatened to launch nuclear-armed missiles at London and Paris if they didn’t stop their invasion. Only Israel could claim military success against the feeble Egyptian Army – but even that was short-lived.
A national uprising in Hungary against Soviet rule had erupted on 23 Oct 1956. London and Paris chose to invade Egypt as the world was seeing horrifying pictures of Soviet tanks crushing Hungarian freedom-fighters.
Even worse, US President Dwight Eisenhower was outraged that his nation had not been consulted by the British and French about the planned invasion. The normally unflappable Ike warned London and Paris that he would wreck their currencies if they didn’t withdraw from Egypt at once.
The deeply humiliated British and French pulled out of Egypt with their tails between their legs as the Arabs hooted derision at their former masters. Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet were show up as the fools that they were. Their political careers ended in ignominy.
Israel, their accomplice, wasn’t as quick to retreat from Sinai, which it had long coveted. After a lot of foot-dragging, Israel reluctantly withdrew from Sinai after Eisenhower ordered it to get out…or else. This was the last time a US president was able to give orders to Israel.
After 1956, a powerful US pro-Israel lobby was created to ensure that Israel dominated Congress, the media, and US Mideast policy.
Israel turned its future strategic attention from Sinai to the Jordanian-ruled West Bank. The Suez invasion made Nasser into a hero to the entire Arab and Third World. America ranked right behind as the Arabs saw the US as a liberator from colonialism.
But America would later suffer its own Suez-style fiasco and humiliation under George W. Bush when he invaded Iraq. In the Mideast, lessons are seldom learned, or quickly forgotten.