How Eisenhower Forced Israel to
End Occupation After Sinai Crisis
When an American President Said No to Israel
By Donald Neff
It was 39 years ago, on March 16, 1957, that Israel withdrew under unrelenting United States pressure from all the territory it had occupied in the Sinai peninsula during its invasion of Egypt less than five months earlier. As Israeli forces pulled out, they ignored pleas from United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and displayed their contempt for US President Dwight D. Eisenhower's policy by systematically destroying all surfaced roads, railway tracks and telephone lines. All buildings in the tiny villages of Abu Ageila and El Quseima were destroyed, as were the military buildings around El Arish. /1
Israel's dogged insistence on keeping by military occupation parts of the Sinai had led to increasingly tense relations between Eisenhower and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. From the very beginning of what became known as the Suez crisis, Eisenhower had forcefully opposed the secret plot by Britain, France and Israel to invade Egypt. Against great political pressures, Ike had managed to stop the ill-considered invasion – but not before Israeli troops grabbed Egypt's Sinai peninsula in a lightning surprise attack starting October 29, 1956.
Britain and France followed Eisenhower's firm advice and quickly removed their troops from Egypt. But Israel insisted on retaining parts of the peninsula. Despite repeated U.S. urgings, Ben-Gurion refused to withdraw Israeli troops. In retaliation, Eisenhower joined with 75 other nations in the UN General Assembly in passing a resolution on February 2, 1957, "deploring" Israel's occupation. Only two nations opposed: France and Israel. /2
Still, Ben-Gurion refused to move his troops. On February 11, Eisenhower sent a forceful note to Ben-Gurion to withdraw. Again Ben-Gurion refused. At the same time, the influence of Israel's supporters became intense. The White House was besieged by efforts to halt its pressure on the Jewish state; 41 Republican and 75 Democratic congressmen signed a letter urging support for Israel. /3
In reaction to mounting pressures against his policy, Eisenhower on February 20 called a meeting of the congressional leadership to seek their support for his position. But the lawmakers, sensitive to the influence of the Israeli lobby, refused to help, causing Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to complain to a friend: "I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy [in the Middle East] not approved by the Jews." In other conversations around the same time, Dulles remarked on the /4
terrific control the Jews have over the news media and the barrage which the Jews have built up on congressmen ... I am very much concerned over the fact that the Jewish influence here is completely dominating the scene and making it almost impossible to get Congress to do anything they don't approve of. The Israeli Embassy is practically dictating to the Congress through influential Jewish people in the country.
Disgusted with Congress's timidity, Eisenhower boldly decided to take his case directly to the American people. He went on national television on the evening of February 20 and explained: /5
Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal? If we agreed that armed attack can properly achieve the purposes of the assailant, then I fear we will have turned back the clock of international order.
If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization and our best hope of establishing world order. The United Nations must not fall. I believe that in the interests of peace the United Nations has no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel to comply with the withdrawal resolutions.
Not Words Alone
Ike did not depend only on words. While he expressed his principled position in public, privately that same day he sent a stern message to Ben-Gurion warning of punitive actions if Israel did not withdraw. Eisenhower threatened that he would approve trade sanctions against Israel and might also cut off all private assistance to Israel, which amounted to $40 million in tax-deductible donations and $60 million annually in the purchase of bonds. /6 This combination of public diplomacy and private grit paid off. On February 27, Israel announced it accepted the U.S. position on withdrawal. /7
Although Zionists continue to criticize Eisenhower to this day, painting his policy as flawed and shortsighted, his actions in the Suez crisis represent one of the brightest, most principled victories of US diplomacy. Eisenhower had acted, as he later recalled, on the basis of his belief that "change based on principle is progress; constant change without principle becomes chaos." /8 In detailing his thinking, Ike wrote in his memoirs: /9
Some critics have said that the United States should have sided with the British and French in the Middle East, that it was fatuous to lean so heavily on the United Nations. If we had taken the advice, where would it have led us? Would we now be, with them, an occupying power in a seething Arab world? If so, I am sure we would regret it. During the campaign, some political figures kept talking of our failure to 'back Israel.' If the administration had been incapable of withstanding this kind of advice in an election year, could the United Nations thereafter have retained any influence whatsoever? This, I definitely doubt.
America and Eisenhower emerged from the crisis with enhanced moral authority and prestige around the world. Noted Eisenhower's major biographer, Stephen E. Ambrose: "Eisenhower's insistence on the primacy of the UN, of treaty obligations, and of the rights of all nations gave the United States a standing in world opinion it had never before achieved." /10
'Champion of Right'
This became immediately clear to American diplomats. Ike's UN ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, telephoned the president and reported at one point during the crisis: "Never had there been such a tremendous acclaim for the president's policy. Absolutely spectacular." From Cairo, Ambassador Raymond Hare cabled: "The US has suddenly emerged as a real champion of right." /11 Added Ambrose: "The small nations of the world could hardly believe that the United States would support a Third World country, Egypt, in a struggle with colonial powers that were America's two staunchest allies, or that the United States would support Arabs against Israeli aggression. But it was true, and the small nations were full of admiration and delight. The introduction of the American [cease-fire] resolution to the UN was, indeed, one of the great moments in UN history." 12
Eisenhower's handling of the crisis was a high point of his presidency. It upheld the authority and moral stance of the United Nations and the ideals of the United States. As difficult and painful as his actions were to take against such traditional allies as Britain and France, Eisenhower nonetheless had spurned short-term political gain and instead acted out of principle.
A Far Different Story
It was a far different story when Israel lashed out again eleven years later [June 1967], this time occupying not only the Sinai but lands of Jordan and Syria. Lyndon B. Johnson was president, and he had neither Ike's international experience nor his political strength. Instead Johnson was a fervent supporter of Israel, acutely aware of its influence in domestic politics, and made the fateful mistake of not taking any action to oppose Israel's acquisition of territory by force in 1967.
This led directly to the 1973 war in which Egypt and Syria sought to regain their land. After that war, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, a critic of Ike's Suez policy, made another fateful mistake. He accepted Israel's "right" to use the territories it illegally held in occupation as bargaining chips for a number of conditions for withdrawal.
Before Kissinger was through, he had managed to give to Israel the largest transfer of US treasury, technology and diplomatic support ever voluntarily granted by one country to another. In return, Israel surrendered minor tracts of land but maintained its occupation over nearly two million Palestinians for two decades more.
This astonishing bargain reached its culmination on September 4, 1975, with the signing of the second Sinai disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel. /13 Beyond promises of aid to Israel at around a $2 billion annual level for each of the next five years, /14 Kissinger signed a sweeping series of secret understandings providing a broad array of pledges to Israel. One of these committed the United States to "make every effort to be fully responsive ... on an on-going and long-term basis to Israel's military equipment and other defense requirements, to its energy requirements and to its economic needs." The memorandum officially committed American support against threats by a "world power," meaning the Soviet Union.
In essence, Sinai II, as it became known, formally allied the United States with Israel and its occupation of Arab lands. As then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres observed at the time: "The ... agreement has delayed [an international peace conference in] Geneva, while ... assuring us arms, money, a coordinated policy with Washington and quiet in Sinai .... We gave up a little to get a lot." /15
Indeed, in return for all this Israel gave up only a few miles of desert territory in the Sinai that nearly every nation in the world believed it had no right to keep under military occupation. It retained all of Jordan's West Bank, all of Syria's Golan Heights and about half of Egypt's Sinai. But unlike Eisenhower, who did not pay a penny for Israel's 1957 withdrawal, Kissinger and President Gerald Ford paid a fortune, mainly because they had failed to stand by principle and instead favored Israel to gain partisan political advantage.
Consequences of Kissinger's Policy
Kissinger's policy was prohibitively costly to the United States. By making Israel the military superpower of the region, the Kissinger policy also led to tragic events. These included Israel's bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an action based on its new arrogance of power stemming from US-supplied weaponry. Even graver, however, was the fact that Israel was allowed by Washington to continue its occupation and settlement of Jordanian and Syrian land. This occurred during the same period that the United States became Israel's major patron and supporter starting in the 1970s under President Richard M. Nixon and Kissinger.
The dramatic increase of US aid while Israel violated official US policy against military occupation was a declaration to the world that where the Jewish state was concerned politics outweighed principle. These events led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Yigal Amir, the murderer, was one of the Jewish fanatics who emerged during the long occupation and were dedicated to retaining the occupied territories. Had Kissinger, like Ike, driven Israel off the occupied land, Amir's motive for the assassination would never have existed. The occupation would not have lasted nearly three decades and the extremist cult devoted to keeping the land that began growing strong in Israel in the 1970s would not have come into being.
As a final irony, Kissinger to this day is considered a great statesman for his Sinai agreement, while the Suez crisis and Ike's brave actions are barely remembered. David Halberstam did not even bother mentioning the 1956 crisis in his recent bestselling book The Fifties, dedicated to the major events of that decade. That is more than a sad commentary on the relative merits of the policies pursued by the two men. It is a stunning reminder of how strong Zionist influence is in the America media when it comes to molding perceptions of US policy in the Middle East.
Ambrose, Stephen E, Eisenhower: The President, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Burns, Lt. Gen. E. L. M., Between Arab and Israeli, New York: Ivan Obolensky, 1962.
Eisenhower, Dwight D., Waging Peace: 1956-61, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965.
Lilienthal, Alfred M., The Zionist Connection: What Price Peace?, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1978.
Love, Kenneth, Suez: The Twice-Fought War, New York: McGraw-Hill,1969.
Medzini, Meron, Israel's Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1974-1977 (vol. 3), Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1982.
Neff, Donald, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower takes America into the Middle East, New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1981, and, Brattleboro, Vt.: Amana Books, 1988.
Rubenberg, Cheryl A., Israel and the American National Interest: A Critical Examination, Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986.
Sheehan, Edward R. E., The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger: A Secret History of American Diplomacy in the Middle East, New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1976.
Tomeh,George J., United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Vol. 1, 1947-1974), Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1975.
United States Department of State, American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1957, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1961.
1. Burns, Between Arab and Israeli, p. 243.
2. Resolution 1124 (Xl). Text in 1bmeh, United Nations Resolutions on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Vol. 1, p. 39.
3. Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest, p. 78.
4. Transcripts of Dulles telephone conversations on Feb. 11,12 and 19,1957. Quoted in Neff, Warriors at Suez, p. 433.
5. Text is in US State Department, American Foreign Policy Current Documents, 1957, pp. 923-28. Also see Love, Suez, p. 666.
6. Neff, Warriors at Suez, pp. 433-35.
7. Dana Adams Schmidt, The New York Times, Feb. 28, 1957.
8. Eisenhower, Waging Peace, p. 13.
9. Eisenhower, Waging Peace, p. 99.
10. Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 361.
11. Neff, Warriors at Suez, p. 417.
12. Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 361.
13. Text of the agreement and of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and its secret addenda are in Medzini, Israel's Foreign Relations, Selected Documents, 1974-77 (Vol. 3), pp. 281-90. Also see Sheehan, The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger, Appendix Eight.
14. Over the next five years the State Department reported total aid to Israel equalled $1.742 billion in 1977, $1.792 billion in 1978, $4.790 billion in 1979, $1.786 billion in 1980 and $2.164 billion in 1981. See The New York Times, August 8, 1982.
15. Sheehan, The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger, p. 192. Peres refused to be identified in the article but the author was head of the Time bureau at the time and one of his reporters interviewed Peres for the quote.
From The Journal of Historical Review, March/April 1996 (Vol. 16, No. 2), pages 14-17.
About the Author
Donald Neff is author of the recently published Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Toward Palestine and Israel since 1945, as well as of the 1988 trilogy, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America Into the Middle East in 1956, Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days that Changed the Middle East, and Warriors Against Israel: America Comes to the Rescue. This article is reprinted from the February-March 1996 issue of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.