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The Second War of Independence

By Michael B. Oren

Fifty years later, the lessons of the Suez War are only now becoming clear.


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Fifty years ago, at dawn on October 29, 1956, Israeli paratroopers under the command of Colonel Ariel Sharon dropped into the Mitla Pass deep in the Sinai Peninsula, twenty-five miles from the Suez Canal. The action was the first phase in a plan secretly forged by representatives of France, Britain, and Israel, triggered by Egypt’s nationalization of the canal three months before. According to the scheme, the paratroopers’ landing would provide a pretext for the French and British governments to order both Egypt and Israel to remove all of their forces from the canal area. The Europeans anticipated that Cairo would reject that ultimatum, thus allowing them to occupy the strategic waterway. Israel dutifully executed its part of the scheme, smashing the Egyptian army in four days and conquering all of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. The Anglo-French armada, however, was late in arriving, and soon withdrew under intense international pressure. The Suez War—known in Israel as the Sinai Campaign, or Operation Kadesh—was over within a week, but the battle over its interpretation was merely beginning.
Numerous books and articles have been written about the Suez Crisis, the first post-World War II crisis to pit nationalism against imperialism, and the West against the Communist bloc. Historians have long agreed that the invasion was an unrelieved catastrophe for Britain and France, precipitating their expulsion from the Middle East and their decline as great powers. By contrast, the first three decades after the crisis saw debate over Israel’s fortunes in the war, with some scholars asserting that Israel had benefited from the destruction of the Egyptian army, the opening of the Straits of Tiran, and the strategic alliance with France. Starting in the 1980s, however, a movement of self-styled New Historians, dedicated to debunking the alleged “myths” of Israeli history, depicted the Sinai Campaign as no less disastrous for the Jewish state. “Israel… paid a heavy political price for ganging up with the colonial powers against the emergent forces of Arab nationalism,” wrote Avi Shlaim of Oxford University. “Its actions could henceforth be used as proof… that it was a bridgehead of Western imperialism in the… Arab world.”
Twenty years later, Shlaim’s analysis of the 1956 war has become universally accepted in academia, and not only among revisionists. In a New York Times article marking the fiftieth anniversary of Suez, Boston University’s David Fromkin, author of the widely acclaimed study of the origins of the modern Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace (1989), similarly portrayed Israel’s victory as Pyrrhic. “Israel compromised itself through its partnership with European imperialism,” Fromkin alleged, echoing Shlaim. “The more Israel won on the battlefield, the further it got from achieving the peace that it sought.”

Michael B. Oren is Israel’s Ambassador to the . He was formerly a Distinguished Fellow at the in Jerusalem, an academic and research institute, and a contributing editor of AZURE.
 





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