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OPINION

Suez crisis was a global turning point

John O'Neill

Sixty years have passed since the outbreak of what came to be known as the Suez Crisis. It was on Oct. 29, 1956, that Israel attacked Egypt and induced a global conflict with enduring consequences.

The war had at first appeared to be just another Arab-Israeli exchange of hostilities. But there was much more intrigue surrounding the conflict, as Great Britain and France intervened a week after the Israeli invasion.

The story actually dates to when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. This was in response to the United States canceling financial assistance to Egypt in construction of the Aswan Dam. Egypt needed the dam to irrigate the Nile Valley and Nasser intended for nationalization of the canal to collect shipping fees to replace financial assistance from the United States.

Great Britain and France, both reliant on the Suez Canal to access Asia and Africa, found the situation intolerable. In the fall of 1956, Prime Minister Guy Mollet of France courted Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to attack Egypt. Ben-Gurion needed little encouragement. Along with being a menace to the western powers, Nasser was also a constant threat to Israel, having encouraged border skirmishes and denying Israel shipping access to both the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran. Mollet then alerted Prime Minister Anthony Eden of Great Britain to the plot and the British needed no more encouragement than had the Israelis to participate.

The plan was for Israel to invade Egypt to create a pretext for Great Britain and France to intervene. Under the guise of peacekeeping, the British and the French were looking to regain control of the canal. One week after the Israeli invasion of Egypt, Great Britain and France intervened to separate the Egyptians and the Israelis.

Alas, the mission was ill-fated. That Israel was so cooperative made it obvious that the whole affair had been orchestrated. And the United States was never consulted, which in turn incurred the wrath of President Dwight Eisenhower (who was busy at home with his own re-election and busy abroad with the uprising in Hungary). Eden and Mollet could not have been more wrong when they figured the United States would simply view their intervention in the Arab-Israeli war as a fait accompli. The United States issued a joint declaration along with the Soviet Union for Great Britain, France, and Israel to evacuate Egypt.

For its part, Israel did not make out so bad. The U.S.-Soviet imposed edict restored Israel’s access to shipping through the Straits of Tiran. But Egypt became even more belligerent as Nasser was propelled to a position of unprecedented leadership throughout the Arab world for having humiliated the two western powers.

The British and French were humiliated, but the most important development was how the United States had then become the grand arbiter of the Middle East. But rather than lament this development, we are better to accept it as a reality and a role only the United States can fulfill.

John O’Neill is a writer based in Allen Park.