The Suez crisis was a crucial turning point in world history. It marked Britain’s demise as the pre-eminent Western power in the Middle East and the assumption of that role by the United States-a role the US continues to play to this day.
Egyptian President Gamal Nasser began buying arms from the Soviets, unleashed the fedayeen (terrorists) on Israel, and had blockaded the Straits of Tiran. He continued to take actions that rankled the Eisenhower administration, threatening to turn to the Soviet Union for funding of the Aswan Dam project and to extend diplomatic recognition to Communist China.
In January 1956, David Horowitz learned that UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold would visit both Cairo and Tel Aviv in efforts to ease tensions in the region. He was scheduled to meet with both Nasser and Ben-Gurion. David made a personal written appeal to the Secretary-General. In his letter to Hammarskjold, David stated, in part: “Since your flight to Cairo and Tel Aviv has been announced as a good will visit, you are in an excellent position to drive home the points you wish to raise with both President Nasser and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. They must meet if peace is to come in the Palestine Zone.”
David continued by suggesting: “When you see Nasser, you might mention that Egypt had played a vital role in Old Testament history as evidenced so wonderfully in the fascinating story of Joseph and his brethren who found refuge in Egypt under a kind and benevolent Pharaoh. For a period of 400 years the Hebrews lived and thrived with their cousins the Egyptians, until Providence ordained them to leave and become an independent nation under the leadership of Moses, whom Islam venerates as Nebi Musa.
When you see David Ben-Gurion, you might open the Bible and show him Isaiah chapter 19, verses 24-25, when prophecy of the future speaks of an Israel and an Egypt at peace and as constituting a blessing in the midst of the earth.”
Just before his departure to the Middle East, Hammarskjold expressed his thanks to David, remarking that he considered the counsel to be of great value and hoping that his own personal intervention might bring a measure of success.
Other attitudes were shifting politically. The new Socialist government of France, headed by Guy Mollet, had grown increasingly close to the new Israeli government, politically, diplomatically, and militarily. The alliance with France proved to be crucial for Israel in the years to come. The French became Israel’s primary source of arms for roughly a decade and provided the key elements that ultimately allowed Israel to develop a nuclear capability.
At the end of January, Former President Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and labor leader Walter Reuther issued a joint statement urging the US provision of defensive arms to Israel to help it protect itself from the introduction of Communist arms to Arab countries in the Middle East.
France immediately informed the US that Mystere jet fighters would be sent to Israel.
The US made it known it would not object to the sale of arms to Israel by France or Britain, but continued to defer action on Israel’s request for US arms.
On February 26, 1956, Cantor Aaron Horowitz, David Horowitz’s father, was hailed as the dean of American Cantors in an impressive tribute to his 60 years of service to Orthodox Judaism. The testimonial dinner event, sponsored by B’nai Jacob Synagogue, brought forth messages of tribute to Cantor Horowitz and his wife from regional, state and national personages.
Among the many tributes in messages were those of President Eisenhower, Governor George M. Leader and Herman Wouk, iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose works include “Caine Mutiny” and “Marjorie Morningstar.”
Mr. Wouk described the testimonial to Cantor Horowitz as a rare and splendid event. The author cited a traditional Hebrew concept that in each generation there are 36 unknowns whose spiritual ministrations enable the rest of the world to survive. Wouk concluded that Cantor Horowitz’s career might well place him in that category.
It was a most high tribute for Cantor Horowitz and a special time for a proud son.
In June 1956, Britain withdraws from Egypt, ending 74 years of military occupation and Golda Meir replaces Moshe Sharett as Foreign Minister in the Ben-Gurion government.
Following Britain’s withdrawal, Nasser responded by announcing that he was nationalizing the British-owned Suez Canal Company and would use toll revenues to finance the Aswan Dam Project. Britain regarded Nasser’s action as intolerable and began advocating a military intervention to reverse it. The US strongly opposed military action and pressed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
From Israel’s perspective, the continued blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba, combined with the increased fedayeen attacks and buildup of Arab arms, made the situation intolerable. David Ben-Gurion decided to launch a pre-emptive strike with the backing of the British and French governments.
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.
On October 29, 1956, Israel attacked Egypt. Operation Kadesh began with a paratroop drop near the Mitla Pass, about 30 miles from the Suez Canal.
The US government received no prior notice of the British-French-Israeli plan. Eisenhower was infuriated and immediately sent a message to David Ben-Gurion urging the withdrawal of forces. Ben-Gurion ignores the request. The US seeks a UN Security Council resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal. Britain and France veto the US resolution and address a joint ultimatum to Egypt and Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal area.
On October 31st, French and British warplanes destroy most of the Egyptian air force in raids on air bases near the Suez Canal. The Soviets inform Gamal Abdel Nasser they will not go to war over the Suez. Jordan and Syria reject his appeal for military support. He orders a withdrawal from Sinai to concentrate forces to repel the impending British and French invasion.
Given the pretext to continue fighting, the Israeli forces routed the Egyptians. The IDF armored corps swept across the desert, capturing virtually the entire Sinai by November 5th. That day, British and French paratroopers landed near Port Said and amphibious ships dropped commandos onshore. British troops captured Port Said and advanced to within 25 miles of Suez City before the British government agreed to a cease-fire.
Meanwhile back home, the Republican incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower defeats challenger Adlai E. Stevenson for another term as US President in a rematch of their contest 4 years earlier.
Israel’s failure to inform the US of its intentions, combined with ignoring American entreaties not to go to war, sparked tensions between the countries. Pressuring Israel to withdraw included a threat to discontinue all US aid, impose UN sanctions, and expel Israel from the United Nations.
Additional pressure from the Soviets, the US and the UN would force Britain, France, and Israel to end their attack on Egypt. Nasser’s regime was saved.
By the end of the fighting, Israel held the Gaza Strip and had advanced as far as Sharm al-Sheikh along the Red Sea. A total of 231 Israeli soldiers died in the fighting.
US pressure resulted in an Israeli withdrawal from the areas it conquered without obtaining any concessions from the Egyptians. This would sow the seeds for a later war with Egypt in 1967. The only thing Israel would gain for giving up all the territories it had won would be the US assurance that its shipping lanes would be kept open.
On December 23, the last British and French troops leave the Suez Canal region.
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s prestige at home and among Arabs was undamaged. In fact, his greatest influence and popularity was just beginning.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.
This post is the tenth in the series “Remembering David Horowitz.” For the complete archive see here.