The war that cemented Israel’s place in the Middle East

The 1956 Sinai War was Israel’s first war as an established state, and followed eight years of hints at the possibility of peace. In the eyes of its Arab neighbors, the ’56 war aligned Israel with the former colonial powers, setting the stage for decades of hostility and war.

“The military attack on Egypt caused Israel unfathomable damage to its international status and security. The operation presented Israel to the entire world as an aggressor. It also presented Israel at the forefront of international colonialism in the Middle East.

The attack on Egypt blocked the road to peace with the Arab peoples with insurmountable stumbling blocks. Nobody now will conduct peace negotiations with Israel and no one will take seriously Israeli talk about readiness for peace.”

— Moshe Sneh, at the end of the 1956 Sinai War

It has been exactly 60 years since Israel’s 1956 Sinai War. Its standing as the most forgotten and under-considered conflict in the Israeli public consciousness belies the fact that it is one of the most important developments in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. It was the first war following that which accompanied Israel’s founding in 1948, but its dramatic implications remain largely undiscussed.

As Moshe Sneh pointed out, the war’s greatest consequence was the near-total destruction of what had, in the wake of the 1948 war, been a tentative readiness on the part of Arab countries to reach a peace agreement with Israel. In the years leading up to the Sinai War, various states made peace proposals relatively frequently, albeit under the table (and some of which remain unknown). But the conflict in 1956 put a stop to such proposals, and it would be almost 20 years after the end of the Sinai War before a peace deal was struck. The war also proved to be the last nail in the coffin for relations between Egypt and its ancient Jewish community.

Moshe Dayan reviews troops in Sharm el-Sheikh at the end of the 1956 war. (IDF Spokesperson)
Moshe Dayan reviews troops in Sharm el-Sheikh at the end of the 1956 war. (IDF Spokesperson)

Israel’s official version of events regarding the Sinai War is relatively straightforward: it came as the state was grappling not only with fedayeen infiltrating the country from Gaza (as well as from Jordan and Syria) and murdering Israeli citizens, but also a naval blockade in the Straits of Tiran and Suez Canal. On top of all this, Egypt had just signed a major weapons deal with Czechoslovakia that “undermined the balance of arms” in the region, according to the Israel Defense Forces’ official website. Therefore, the story goes, Israel had no choice but to launch a preemptive war.

The fedayeen did indeed murder Israeli civilians, just as the army murdered Arab civilians over the border. And yes, there was a partial naval blockade (although less severe than the one Israel has imposed on Gaza in recent years). However, in order to understand what really occurred in 1956, first of all we need to step back from the Israeli perspective and look at the events in their broader regional and international context.

Nasser’s friend in Israel

The 1950s saw the rise of two new superpowers, as well as the creation of a new regional order that brought the age of overt, old-world colonialism — particularly that of France and Britain — to an end. New countries, united by their opposition to colonialism, sprang up across Asia, Africa and the Middle East; these developments formed part of a wider battle between the two powers that had divided vast swathes of the world between them during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The question of Israel’s place in all of this was asked time and again in regional and global forums. On the one hand, it was a country founded by immigrants, most of them from European countries; it grew amidst a conflict with its Arab neighbors and was founded on the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of refugees who were prevented from returning — in defiance of a United Nations declaration.

On the other hand, it was an independent country rather than a colony belonging to a global power; like other states in the region, it had grown out of a battle with the British over local independence and during its early years did not enjoy close relations with the former powers.

British aircraft carriers involved in the 1956 Suez War, late 1956. (Royal Navy photographer)
British aircraft carriers involved in the 1956 Suez War, late 1956. (Royal Navy photographer)

Different forces across the Arab world — primarily on the Left — believed that an anti-imperialist partnership with Israel was possible. This was not a fringe belief: then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had, since the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, been trying to advance agreements with Israel via an array of different channels. One approach made to Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, for example, involved opening shipping routes to Israel and reducing the rate of violent incidents along the border between the two countries — provided Israel would support the evacuation of the British from the Suez Canal. This was intended as a first step towards strengthening ties.

Other approaches were facilitated by a friendship struck up during the 1948 war, between Nasser — an officer in the Egyptian army — and Yeruham Cohen, an aide to Yigal Allon. Their friendship endured after the fighting was over; following the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, which unseated the pro-British King Farouk, Nasser tried several times to invite Cohen to a meeting in Cairo or a neutral country. On hearing of Nasser’s proposals, then-editor of HaOlam HaZeh (“This World”) magazine, Uri Avneri, urged Cohen to meet the Egyptian president in the hope that a peace initiative was in the offing. However, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs forbade Cohen from traveling, and in so doing perhaps missed an opportunity to open a direct channel for negotiations.

There were other direct attempts. Throughout 1952-1953, Nasser tried to get his ambassador in Paris to contact the Israeli ambassador in the same city. Other Egyptian efforts were made via an Egyptian-born Israeli, Joe Golan, who worked on the Jewish Agency’s Arab desk. Golan operated as a one-man peace factory during the 1950s and ‘60s, but was blocked time and again by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Screwing the Algerians

Meanwhile, Israeli officials were already planning how to initiate the next war. In 1951, following the murder of King Abdullah of Jordan, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion tried to advance a plan to occupy the West Bank up to Jordan, as well as to collaborate with the British in order to conquer the Sinai. Even when the more moderate Sharett was serving as prime minister, the hawkish alliance of Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres continued to push for war with Egypt.

In an attempt to provoke the Egyptians into escalating their response, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan plotted a deterioration in Israel-Egypt border clashes involving “infiltrators” and “reprisal raids.” In an attempt to maintain the threat from the fedayeen, Dayan even oversaw the staged arrest of two Israeli soldiers dressed as Arabs pretending to be infiltrators — as reported recently by Amir Oren in Haaretz. (Hebrew)

Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion, with Moshe Dayan, at an Independence Day celebration in 1955. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)
Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion, with Moshe Dayan, at an Independence Day celebration in 1955. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

The attempt to push Egypt into war failed. However, it did succeed at fraying Nasser’s temper; after an Israeli attack on Gaza in February 1955 that claimed the lives of 38 Egyptian soldiers, the Egyptian president announced in an interview that his hopes for a peace deal with Israel had been dashed by the assault. The incident had also drove to buy arms from Czechoslovakia —  the same arms deal that Israel had used as a pretext for launching its 1956 attack. Nonetheless, until the end of September 1956 — a month before Israel embarked on the Sinai War — Radio Cairo continued to broadcast calls for peace between the two countries.

At the same time, then-Defense Ministry Director-General Shimon Peres worked on the diplomatic front, building up relations with the French, obtaining from them a modern “textile factory” (read: nuclear reactor) in Dimona and, following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, pressing for a joint operation by Israel, France and Britain to occupy the Sinai. Aside from the issue of the canal, Peres also diagnosed France’s concern over Nasser’s support for the National Liberation Front, which was trying to expel the French from Algeria and gain independence. Peres offered to collaborate with France in order to topple Nasser and deal a lethal blow to the rise of the anti-colonial movement in the Middle East and North Africa.

Hovering in the background was the so-called “Lavon Affair,” the 1954 Israeli false flag operation that recruited Egyptian Jews to attack Western targets in Cairo. As in most Arab countries, Jews in Egypt suffered greatly from the tensions and wars between the Zionist movement (and later on the State of Israel) and the Palestinians, as well as neighboring countries. Nonetheless, while many escaped, most Jews stayed in Egypt even after 1948; the 1952 revolution, perhaps surprisingly, heralded an improvement in relations between the Egyptian government and its Jewish citizens. But following the Lavon Affair, and after that the Sinai War, Nasser changed his stance towards Egypt’s Jews and started placing restrictions on them. This led to the mass departure of Jews from Egypt; within years, the ancient community vanished entirely.

So much for peace initiatives

And then came the war. In a pre-planned, coordinated attack, Israel struck Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula with French support from the rear. At the same time, the British and the French fought to regain control over their prize colonial property: the Suez Canal. Within eight days, Israel managed to occupy the entire peninsula up to the canal. The lives of 177 Israeli soldiers and around 3,000 Egyptian soldiers were lost in the process, and according to several reports some of the Egyptian dead were prisoners of war who were executed by the IDF. In the wake of the war, Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the “Third Kingdom of Israel” and the return to Mount Sinai. Meanwhile, the army had already begun to establish the first civilian settlements in the Sinai, precursors to those that would sprout in the area following the 1967 Six-Day War.

Prisoners of war in 1956 (Moshe Pridan/GPO)
Prisoners of war in 1956 (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

The “Third Kingdom of Israel” did not last long. The United States and the Soviet Union told Britain, France and Israel that they had to withdraw and give up the Suez Canal and the Sinai, and that the Israeli border would be redrawn exactly where it had been since the end of the 1948 war.

Israel’s main achievement in the 1956 war was deterrence. In the window between the Sinai and Six-Day Wars, the country enjoyed relative security and saw few attacks on its borders. But it also brought a historic low in terms of peace proposals. Nasser’s Egypt, along with other Arab countries, had up until the war been feeling out potential peace agreements with Israel, seeing in the young state a viable partner in the region’s nascent anti-imperialist movement. The events of 1956 buried such prospects once and for all. Israel began to be identified as a collaborator with the West (initially Britain and France, and later the U.S.) against the rest of the region, and moreover as a superpower seeking territorial expansion for its own sake.

It is impossible to guess what might have happened had Israel responded to the overtures of Nasser and others between 1949 and 1956. It is impossible to know if they would have led to an actual agreement or what it would have entailed. There is no way to determine how the region might have looked or what the fate of Egyptian Jews would have been, were it not for the reprisal raids, the Lavon Affair, the alliance with France and Britain, and the occupation of the Sinai. There is also no need to disregard the official version of events regarding the war, above all the actions of the fedayeen against Israeli citizens. There are countless other factors that influenced historical processes since the war, not least the issue of Palestinian refugees, the military regime (imposed on Palestinians inside Israel until 1966, and on those in the territories from 1967), and land expropriation.

Yet as the first war since the founding of the state, the Sinai War sent a clear message to Egypt and the rest of the region about which side of the global battle Israel had chosen. It is the message that Israel has continued to broadcast ever since.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser signing the treaty for the evacuation of British troops from Egypt, October 19, 1956.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser signing the treaty for the evacuation of British troops from Egypt, October 19, 1956.


Author’s note: A large part of this post is based on the 2011 book Israeli Rejectionism by Zalman Amit and Dafna Levit, published by Pluto, to which I contributed research. Other sources for this post include Michael Bar Zohar’s biography of David Ben-Gurion, Motti Golani’s book Wars Don’t Happen By Themselves, Avi Shalim’s The Iron Wall, Joe Golan’s memoir Pages from a Diary, an interview I conducted with Uri Avneri about Yeruham Cohen, and more.

The quote by Moshe Sneh at the start of this piece is from a Knesset transcript. As I could not find a copy of the original text, I took the English translation from Israeli Rejectionism.

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call, and was translated to English by Natasha Roth.