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Behind the Headlines Sinai; 1956 and 1975

The ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun finds dramatic affirmation in the duplication of events marking Israel’s scheduled second pullback in the Sinai in a new interim accord with Egypt and the pullback under United States pressure in 1956.

Then, as now, Israel faces heavy pressure from a President of the United States to yield the security gains won by force of arms from a bellicose Egypt. Then as now, debate raged among Israel’s leaders–then led by Israel’s architect David Ben Gurion–on the security hazards of yielding to U.S. pressure; then, as now, Israelis took to the streets in occasionally violent demonstrations against that pressure.

Israel, in 1956, had been under steady and murderous hit-and-run attacks from terrorists operating from bases in the Sinai, with the open support of Egypt’s President Nasser, who had closed the Straits of Tiran by use of the Egyptian base at Sharm el-Sheikh, thus denying transit of ships to the new Israeli port of Eilat.

Britain at that time was anxious to regain the foothold in the Suez Canal area it had recently lost. France, deeply involved in the Algerian revolution was eager to punish Egypt for its aid to the Algerian insurgents. Out of such differing motivations came a joint British-French attack on Egypt, which Israel joined, sweeping to the east bank of the canal.

HEAVY PRESSURE ON ISRAEL

Prompted by the Soviet Union, then as now the “protector” of the Arabs, and by an embittered U.S., the United Nations swiftly adopted a resolution on Nov. 2, 1956 demanding an immediate withdrawal. Dag Hammarskjold, the UN Secretary General, rejected an Israeli offer for a cease-fire On Nov. 5, Soviet President Bulganin sent a threatening letter, declaring the USSR was moving to act to put an end to the war and to restrain “the aggressors.”

President Eisenhower sent a similar letter to Israel, demanding withdrawal, a letter slightly more polite than that of Bulganin but containing a warning that Israel should avoid an inflexible stand which concerned the whole and which would undermine “the friendly cooperation” between the U.S. and Israel.

When the Soviet threat was made public, the Eisenhower Administration panicked. A senior State Department official (Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was confined to bed) told an Israeli envoy in Washington that the world was on the edge of a major war, that Israel’s refusal to yield the entire Sinai in accordance with UN decisions endangered world peace, and could result in “grave consequences,” such as discontinuance of U.S. governmental and private aid to Israel, sanctions by the UN Security Council and possibly even the caster of Israel from the UN.

Israel faced an unbending UN and a rift with the U.S., which was too much to bear, Israel could not chance losing the friendship of the U.S. and Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, so informed Dulles when she met him in Dallas late in December. The UN and U.S. pressures on Israel mounted. Eisenhower sent a series of letters to Ben Gurion.

Israel, yielding to the huge squeeze, said it would pull out of the Sinai, except for the Gaza Strip, which had been a nest for terrorists striking at Israeli settlements, and Sharm el-Sheikh. The U.S. response was a step-up in pressure. Dulles met with American Jewish leaders and, it was reported, had tears in his eyes as he explained the “consequences” of Israel’s “obduracy.”

SQUEEZE PLAYS AND COMPROMISES

On Jan. 4, 1957, Ben Gurion announced that Israel would not return to the pre-1956 lines and would not yield the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh. The Herut Party and the General Zionists expressed satisfaction over that stand. As U.S. pressure mounted, a meeting was held in Ben Gurion’s Tel Aviv home at which it was decided that Israel would not give up the vital security interests represented by its hold on Gaza and the Sharm el-Sheikh area. The nation backed that decision.

In February, the Jews of Israel staged huge demonstrations in scores of cities and settlements, the largest in Tel Aviv, in support of the government’s stand. Yigal Allon, the present Foreign Minister, was one of the speakers against the intense pressure from the Eisenhower Administration and from Hammarskjold. The demonstration in Haifa was the stormiest; Herut youth distributed leaflets charging that Allon favored withdrawal from Gaza.

Eisenhower met with Senate leaders on imposition of sanctions against Israel, as Israel hunted for a formula to protect its security. Finally, the French drafted a proposal to give Israel assurances that the Tiran Straits would be maintained as an international waterway and that the Gaza Strip would not be permitted to become again a springboard for the murderous fedayeen raids into Israel.

At that point, Israeli leaders indicated readiness for final withdrawal. Herut leader Menachem Beigin, then in Washington, cabled Ben Gurion: “You have declared we will not withdraw from Gaza and Sharm el-Sheik, Keep your word.”

HOPES PINNED ON U.S. DECLARATION

But the Ben Gurion government placed its hopes in the U.S. declaration that it considered that Tiran Straits an international waterway, that the U.S. would bring oil to Eilat in American tankers, and in Eisenhower’s promise in a March 2 letter to Ben Gurion that Israel “will have no reason to regret this decision” for total withdrawal.

There followed stormy debates in the Knesset and a huge Herut demonstration in Jerusalem, prompting police to send in reinforcements. The Labor Party and its allies countered by dispatching kibbutzniks and other supporters of the government to the scene. No incidents took place, however, as foes of withdrawal marched the streets of Israel’s major cities. The political struggle following the Sinai campaign lasted four months–from early November 1956 to early March 1957. Those months were exhausting and fraught with anxiety for a nation only 12 years old.

The parallels between 1956 and 1975 can be carried too far. President Ford has never talked about imposing sanctions during the pressure campaign to bring Israel acceptance of a second withdrawal in the Sinai, nor has the Ford Administration demanded Israel’s total withdrawal. Allon, who opposed withdrawal in 1956, now favors withdrawal, though a much more limited one. Beigin has been totally consistent. He opposed withdrawal then and opposes any withdrawal now.

Ben Gurion said in 1957 “If we had not accepted the American demand, we might have lost our source of supplies for our defense forces”–a theme familiar in August, 1975; Ben Gurion also declared, “I am proud of the civic courage that our government revealed in adopting this unpopular decision, yet a wise, helpful and correct one”–also a familiar theme in August, 1975.

Israelis have not forgotten that after 1956, the Tiran Straits were closed again, Gaza became a nest of terrorists again and Israel had to go to war again in 1967. The demonstrations against the Ford-Kissinger pressures have, therefore, been more hectic than those of 1956. In addition, the Soviet Union, which in 1956 still had diplomatic relations with Israel, is apparently a foe of the Jewish State.

The Israelis feel they have reason to fear that in accordance with the ancient wisdom, history may once again repeat itself, despite the U.S. assurances in support of the second Sinai withdrawal.

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