Palestine, pragmatism and the lessons of 1956

  • Themes: Geopolitics, History, Israel

None of the 1956 initiatives for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict were successful. Recalling those efforts is not intended as a counsel of despair, but as a reminder of the importance of continuing to try, however intractable the problem may appear.

A United Nations vehicle passing Israeli troops near Quantara on the east bank of the Suez Canal. A U.N. observer was posted on either side of the canal to supervise the cease-fire between Israel and Egypt.
A United Nations vehicle passing Israeli troops near Quantara on the east bank of the Suez Canal. A U.N. observer was posted on either side of the canal to supervise the cease-fire between Israel and Egypt. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The dispute between the Arab States and Israel constitutes the greatest of all the dangers to the Middle East’ (Evelyn Shuckburgh, 19 January 1956)

Although some commentators on current events in the Middle East have made reference to the international crisis precipitated in July 1956 by the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, little attention has been drawn to the extent to which Palestine – the focus of Arab-Israeli conflict – was at the heart of it. Relations between Arab nations and the state of Israel (then less than ten years old), the exercise of authority in Gaza, and the future of Palestinian refugees were pressing questions in 1956, as they remain in 2023. International as well as regional efforts to reach some kind of settlement were key to the evolution of events that year, not just in the Middle East, but in a global context as well. The situation is different today: in 1956 Egypt was Arab disruptor-in-chief, the Soviet Union regarded as the shadowy sponsor in the wings; since then, wars have been fought in 1967 and 1973 and, more recently, the configuration of politics and personalities in Arab states has changed significantly. Yet there are continuities, and some of the factors involved in the 1956 search for a Palestine settlement, including the motivation of different parties, may be useful to recall.

Throughout 1956, multiple initiatives in pursuit of a settlement that would defuse the Arab-Israeli conflict, address the problem of Arab refugees, and promote regional stability were announced and pursued (overtly and covertly) by a wide range of players, even at the height of the Suez Crisis. A fundamental tenet of Anglo-American policy in the Middle East was that such a settlement was key both to regional hegemony and commercial (oil) security, as well as contesting the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East. Though there were tensions between the US and UK governments on a number of regional issues, such as policy towards Saudi Arabia and, later, the response to Nasser’s actions regarding the Suez Canal, the need for a Palestine settlement was one they could agree on. In a context of frequent border clashes between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, both the US and UK were concerned at the risk of being drawn into a wider conflict, involving the Soviet Union. This was also a concern of the French government, worried about the impact of Arab nationalism in Algeria.

Anglo-American initiatives on Palestine were pursued through various channels individually and jointly, through diplomatic representations in regional capitals, and in the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld spent a good deal of his time on this issue in 1956, travelling to the region as well as engaging in intensive diplomacy in New York. The British put more effort into UN diplomacy on this issue than the Americans, who were less patient of multilateral process and preferred to drive policy themselves; they were also unwilling to admit the French to Anglo-US counsels. Throughout 1956, elements of the US administration (White House, State Department, CIA and others) pursued multiple initiatives through a series of ‘missions’ to the Middle East, not all of which were disclosed to the British. (It was, after all, a presidential election year, which always has a major impact on US attitudes towards foreign policy issues.) Most American initiatives ran up against Israeli obduracy and/or Soviet-fuelled Arab intransigence, and none had any real success. The British, pursuing the idea of a settlement through their own traditional regional links, fared no better. Nevertheless, Anglo-American involvement in talks and negotiations, including the drafting of UN resolutions on Palestine, continued even during the chaos arising from Israeli, French and British military operations against Egypt from late October onwards. Security Council resolutions did, it is true, usually fall foul of a Soviet veto, while the larger General Assembly, then as now, could prove a more unpredictable body vulnerable to intensive lobbying. Arab nations such as Syria and Yemen were often obstructive on principle, while Soviet control over the voting of Eastern Bloc countries played a part, too.

The Russians found the Palestine issue very useful. Calling for a peaceful settlement, and offering their services as an honest broker, had reputational advantages (Sir Roger Makins, British Ambassador in Washington, commented in April 1956 that the Soviets liked to ‘start brush fires’ in the Middle East and then claim credit for putting them out). A Joint Intelligence Committee report of 21 March 1956 stated that, if the Arab-Israeli dispute should flare into war, the Russians were ‘bound to gain from the ensuing chaos’; they were deliberately backing the Arabs, but were ready to change tack if it suited them, and had indicated that they would be prepared to supply arms to Israel through a third country. Turmoil in the Middle East also offered a useful opportunity to criticise Western policies more generally. In the UN, Soviet and Eastern Bloc representatives asserted that a major reason for regional instability was the presence of Western armaments and the perpetuation of ‘colonialist’ attitudes. The latter argument played well in the wider non-aligned world: in January 1956, Foreign Office official Roger Allen observed that Asian and ‘uncommitted’ countries tended to feel that the Russians and Chinese understood them better than did the Europeans, a feeling both communist regimes encouraged.

For the USSR and China, each with an interest in tilting the global balance of influence to the east, the search for a settlement in Palestine could be exploited to undermine perceived Western dominance of the international system, as well as distracting attention from their own activities. This was particularly true for the Soviet regime, facing political unrest in the eastern bloc following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in February 1956. Western eyes were focused helpfully on the Middle East during riots in Poland in the summer of 1956, as well as the Hungarian uprising in late October. In early November, the UK delegation to the UN found itself simultaneously promoting a Security Council resolution demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary while defending itself against a Soviet resolution demanding the withdrawal of Anglo-French forces from Egypt. The opportunity to accuse the West of hypocrisy was not one to be passed up lightly.

A trio of Arab nations – Egypt, Iraq and Jordan – also put forward proposals for Palestine during 1956. All professed their commitment to a settlement in the interests of justice and peace, but regional and national politics played a part. In early June the Americans shared with the British information that Egyptian officials had been ordered to draw up plans for an independent Palestinian republic in the Gaza Strip, possibly because Nasser realised ‘the political power of the refugees in the Middle East’ and hoped, by setting up a government in Gaza, to attract the support of refugees in other Arab nations, thereby securing a Palestine ‘tied to and supported by Egypt’. The US and UK were doubtful that Egypt was a reliable mediator in the wider Arab-Israeli dispute. The scheme did not progress and, in early July, the Egyptian government promoted the idea of an Arab conference, including Palestine, that might follow on from the efforts of the UN Secretary-General. This proposal met a cautiously encouraging response from London and Washington (though Prime Minister Anthony Eden feared a trap). It died a death after the Americans withdrew the offer of funding for the High Aswan Dam in mid-July.

The Iraqi initiative came at the end of August 1956, when the Suez crisis was well under way. British documentation suggests the Iraqis were feeling rather left out and wanted to offer their own solutions to boost the regime’s reputation and popularity. Prime Minister Nuri Pasha complained that the Palestine issue was being exploited by both Nasser and the communists, but made it clear the West must ‘sort out’ Nasser first before any Iraqi proposals could go ahead. The underlying motivation for his approach seemed to be a desire to demonstrate the success of his personal diplomacy. Jordan was in a state of political chaos for most of 1956, causing considerable concern in British government circles (particularly in the light of large subsidies paid to Jordan) by seemingly being drawn into an Egyptian/Syrian nexus. King Hussein, having enraged the British by sending a congratulatory message to Nasser on the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company (‘the shadow of exploitation is fading from the Arab world’), devoted much time to lecturing the British Ambassador on the refugee question, claiming that Israel must ‘atone’ for its actions. Neither the Iraqi nor Jordanian proposals appeared serious, but intended rather for domestic consumption.

That leaves Israel, central – indeed essential – to any Palestine settlement. With long land borders and sensitive to the Arab argument that its state should not exist, the Israeli government maintained that only the capacity for self-defence would deter aggression and enable it to survive. As the British Ambassador in Tel Aviv wrote in March 1956, it was considered vital to Israel’s continued existence that ‘Arab countries should never conceive of her destruction as a practical possibility’. In Israeli eyes, ‘no Arab country must ever be allowed to obtain a temporary moral or material superiority which might lead them to translate their dream of destroying Israel into terms of a practical and realisable ambition’. Deterrence was essential, even if Israel alienated the rest of the world: ‘Since both Arab governments and Arab people are inclined to regard a foray into Israel as a meritorious act the only possible deterrent is fear of the consequences.’ Western arms supplies were therefore vital. David Ben Gurion, in response to Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd’s argument in March 1956 that supplying arms to Israel would invite Arab reprisals against British interests, retorted that the Arabs would sell oil to the West however much help Israel received.

Both the UK and US governments remained committed to the existence and security of Israel. As Foreign Office official Evelyn Shuckburgh commented in March 1956, referring to what some considered Israeli excesses in Gaza in retaliation for Egyptian attacks, the two governments would continue to find it impossible not to support Israel ‘despite the appalling consequences of doing so’. For Britain, historical ties and even treaty obligations to other Middle Eastern countries, particularly Jordan, added an extra worry. During the summer of 1956, aggressive Israeli border raids into Jordan raised the awful prospect that Britain might actually end up fighting Israel; indeed, military planning for such an eventuality was already under way when Eden, on 27 July, demanded that planning should be set in train for an attack on Egypt. In the end, the joint operation mounted against Egypt in late October demonstrated the strength of British and French links with Israel.

Despite the high level of Arab-Israeli tension, however, and notwithstanding occasional ritual denunciation of Israel’s very existence, there was a good deal of Arab pragmatism involved. Continuing conflict that disrupted economic life and international links was in no one’s interest, and in a crowded geographical space it was important to reach some kind of agreement on sharing basic resources such as waterways. Although Nasser saw himself as the spearhead of Arab nationalism and sought to gather other states into his orbit, his purpose was not to eliminate Israel, but to impose regional stability on, as far as possible, Egyptian terms. Even the Syrians (often willing to say what others might hesitate to articulate) were willing to be realistic if pressed. In May 1956, when a prominent Syrian told the British Ambassador that the creation of Palestine was ‘an act of colonialism more intensive than that committed by any colonising power in the past’, he conceded that ‘throwing the Israelis into the sea or the destruction of the state of Israel’ was an ‘impossible’ solution.

Many of the difficulties faced in 1956 by those seeking a Palestine settlement appeared insurmountable. None of the initiatives for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the future of refugees were successful, despite the drawing up of many elaborate plans. Recalling those efforts, and their limited success, is not intended as a counsel of despair, but as a reminder of the importance of continuing to try, however intractable the problem may appear.


Gill Bennett