Suez Crisis of 1956: role of Britain, France and the United States, the USSR, Israel and the UNO

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Timeline of key dates:

  • 1952, July 23rd: Egypt's monarchy was overthrown by the Free Officers.
  • 1954, October: Nasser replaces Mohammed Naguib as President and leader of Egypt.
  • 1955: Nasser refuses to join the Baghdad Pact and negotiates the Czech arms deal.
  • 1955, February 28: Israel launches the Gaza Raid as a result of an Egyptian intelligence-gathering squad entering Israel and killing an Israeli cyclist. The raid killed 38 Egyptian soldiers.
  • 1955: Closing of the Straits of Tiran.
  • 1956, 26th July: Nationalization of the Suez Canal.
  • 1956, October 30: Israeli troops reach the canal and Britain and France issues ultimatum for both to withdraw their forces.

Key causes of the war:

Long Term:
  • Failure to conclude a peace agreement after the 1948 war: the defeat in the war left the Arab states instable and domestic challenges to the leadership which made peace initiatives difficult to realise. Arab states might have lost the war but had not been defeated to such an extent that they were "forced" to make peace at all costs. Similarly Israel were not ready to make territorial concessions for peace. Though Israel was initially hopeful about Nasser's rise to power ("Much of their optimism centered around one man, Gamal Abdel Nasser.. he had participated in the cease-fire talks with Israel in 1949 and had expressed a desire to resolve the conflict"- Oren), these hopes for a peaceful solution collapsed amid the growing suspicion and tension caused by the events outline below.
  • "Second Round Thinking"- Arab wishes for redeeming the Palestinians and seeking revenge on Israel. As Benny Morris has stated, "Even before the ink on the armistice agreements was dry, there arose in the Arab capitals a clamour for an avenging second round".Israel too saw a second round as a way to establish a more defensible border as well as achieve territorial expansion.
  • Tensions towards a second conflict between Israel and Egypt were increased by continuous border skirmishes between Palestinian fedayeen raids based in the Gaza strip and retaliation attacks from the Israeli army - key example: Gaza raid (1955) launched by Israel and killing 38 Egyptian soldiers in response to the death of an Israeli, described by Egypt as "an action of unprovoked aggression carried out with deliberate brutality."

Short Term:
  • Czech Arms deal 1955 - Israeli hopes for peace as a result of the change of government gave away to distrust, decreasingly bad relations and finally war. Set in motion Israeli deliberations on a pre-emptive war as it saw Egypt mobilizing and receiving modern weapons from the USSR. Egypt turned to the USSR only after the US had refused to supply Nasser with arms. Changed the regional balance in the eyes of Israel to a much less favourable one- the deal provided Egypt with 300 tanks, 200 MiG 15 jets etc. Israel pleaded to France for help and in return recieved 40 tanks, 84 airplanes and 120 light tanks. This sparked Israeli considerations of a pre-emptive strike: as Ben Gurion stated, "If they really get MiGs- I will be for bombing them!" Moshe Dayan, a key figure in the Israeli military and also in favour of a pre-emptive strike, defended Israeli policy afterwards as follows: "if the Arab states .... had not pursued a policy of increasing enmity towards her, Israel would not have resorted to arms."
  • Nationalisation of the Suez Canal, 26th of July, 1956 - Nasser needed the nationalisation to fund the Aswan Dam project (crucial to his personal pride and legitimacy), after the US World Bank had withdrawn a huge loan made to Nasser as punishment for the Czech Arms deal. This made French-Egyptian collision almost inevitable as there had been previous clashes over the Algerian war (France considered Egypt to be the main support for Algerian nationalists fighting for independence from France). France however was no longer alone but joined by Britain and France and resulted in a tripartite alliance. The Suez Canal was Britain's main trade route for oil etc. and the Czech arms deal was seen as a sign that Egypt was coming increasingly under Soviet influence. Britain and France refused to recognize Egypt's sovereignity over the canal.
  • Sevres protocol, 24th October 1956 - secret meeting held in France between British, French and Israeli figures, which came up with the plan to get rid of Nasser: Israel would seize the canal, Britain and France would ask both sides to withdraw, and then when Egypt fails to do so Britain and France would intervene to protect the canal. The plan has been described as "ill-conceived both in organisation and purpose" (Fraser).

Outline of course of the war - what happened?

  • 29th October, 1956 - Israeli troops launch this attack; the next day they reached the canal.
  • 30th October - Britain and France issued their ultimatum as planned, Nasser refused this (as hoped).
  • 31st October - for two days Britain and France bombs Egyptian airfields and destroys economic targets in Egypt as well as the Egyptian airforce.
  • Britain and France forced to halt their military operation as a result of US pressure based on John Foster Dulles' beliefs that a full-scale war would result in Soviet intervention in the Middle East, their oil interests demanding an 'even-handed' policy towards both Arabs and Israelis, and Eisenhower's election campaign on a peace platform (he could not afford to be dragged into a war while claiming to stand for peace! "Tell them goddam it, we are going to apply sanctions, we are going to the United Nations, we are going to do everything we can to stop this thing"- President Eisenhower.)
  • 2nd November - the UN General Assembly approved a US-sponsored resolution for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all forces from Egyptian territory. Israel, under severe pressure from US was forced to accept and Britain and France agreed shortly after, with Britain having been forced by severe financial pressure from the US to end the campaign.

Major consequences of Suez:

  • Nasser was praised as the only Arab leader able to challenge the West and expel British, French as well as Israeli troops from Egyptian territory, establishing Egypt's claim to lead the Arab world.
  • Nasser was able to hold on the the canal and also nationalize the remaining British and French holdings, providing funds for the Aswan Dam project and the modernization of Egypt.
  • He also acquired an international army, UNEF, to protect Egypt from Israeli invasions and policies.
  • Israel was granted freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba, providing Israel with a Red Sea port.
  • Israel's military reputation was further enhanced, after the ease and speed with which they had conquered the Sinai peninsula. As regional superpower, it is possible to argue that this military performance was so awesome that it contributed to the lack of a further conflict before 1967, granting Israel time to focus on nation - and state-building.
  • British and French were considered to be the losers- they failed to depose Nasser, who kept hold of the Suez canal, and Eden was forced to resign. Furthermore, this defeat symbolised the loss of their colonial power in Egypt, and US and Soviet Union were able to step into this vacuum and emerged as the two 'new' dominant foreign powers in the Middle East. Suez thus brought the Cold War into the Middle Eastern conflict, though there have been debates about how far the Cold War was imposed from the outside or imported by leaders in the Middle East for their own ends.

Historiography - different interpretations of this topic?

Czech Arms Deal as instigator or Israel's longer-term security concerns?
  • Debate amongst historians as to what extent Israeli's policy leading up to Suez was only reactive? Conventional view sees Israeli policy and the Sinai Campaign as a result of the influx of Soviet arms and the blockade of the Straits of Tiran - i.e. that Israel was forced into the war by Nasser. This view has been challanged by historians such as Motti Golani who claims that "on the contrary, the arms deal temporarily blocked Israel's efforts to launch a war" - i.e. that hawks in the Israeli administration had long been planning war as part of a broader interventionist policy based on pre-emptive action as a way of increasing security. Moshe Dayan, a key figure in the Israeli military and also in favour of a pre-emptive strike, defended Israeli policy afterwards as follows: "if the Arab states .... had not pursued a policy of increasing enmity towards her, Israel would not have resorted to arms."

Most historians agree that Suez represented the end of the British Empire ('Suez became the symbol of the end of imperial destiny" - P. Vial). However, there are different views as to how far British prime minister Eden's policies regarding Suez were foolishly dangerous or justified given the circumstances. Those critical of Eden argue that Suez was a reckless policy that could have led to World War Three if the USA had not intervened. However, a revisionist view has emerged that judges Eden's policies to have been justified: Nasser was a threat to British interests and Eden was therefore brave to attempt to remove Nasser with a policy that would have worked had it not been for the US refusal to support it.

Possible Question 4 formulations

To what extent was Israel's action only reactive?
To what extent is Egypt to blame for the start of the war? (Israel to blame?)
To what extent did Egypt emerge as the winner at the end of the Suez Crisis?


Schulze, pp. 22 - 31. external image 51hg-fXlLbL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_.jpg