“The Egyptian has his thumb on our windpipe”. So muttered Prime Minister Anthony Eden in July 1956 on hearing that President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal. It led to a clandestine agreement with then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for a joint military intervention – and Israel’s subsequent move into Sinai 60 years ago this week.
Mr Nasser’s ambition to become a leader of the post-colonial world was carefully cultivated by the Soviet Union. He enthusiastically signed an arms deal with Communist Czechoslovakia in exchange for Egyptian cotton.
A worried Mr Ben-Gurion wished to pre-empt the build-up of a vast arsenal. For the two Israeli bombers, the Egyptians possessed 45. The Israelis had 114 jets, the Egyptians 200. The British embargo on arms to Israel was only broken by French willingness to quietly supply 300 tanks.
Israel’s fear coincided with Mr Eden’s interest in eliminating Mr Nasser’s control of this international waterway. Israeli ships had been banned from entering the canal, and the British suspected Mr Nasser might do the same to them. Seventy million tons of oil from the Persian Gulf passed through the Suez Canal annually – 57 per cent of all oil consumption in Western Europe.
Following the Israeli incursion on October 29, 1956 – last weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the crisis – the British and the French called on both sides to withdraw to ten miles from the canal. Mr Nasser was expected to accept the presence of Anglo-French troops to ensure free passage of shipping, pending negotiations.
The Labour party refused to participate in this deception – as did the US. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell told the House of Commons that rather than act as a policeman, Mr Eden had sent troops to Suez “to help the burglar and shoot the householder”. Yet while the party opposed British intervention, many Labour MPs remained sympathetic to Israel’s predicament.
The Labour left, led by Aneurin Bevan, had always been supporters of Israel, in contrast to Mr Gaitskell and the Conservative party.
The 17 Jewish Labour MPs, disproportionately on the left, assiduously followed the party line. In one vote, several abstained because it unambiguously condemned Israeli action.
As history records, Mr Eden had to resign, the troops withdrew and the Suez campaign was viewed as a giant political failure. However, it did cement the belief that Israel was no more than an outpost of Western imperialism, a mantra the Corbynistas chant today.
Jewish Chronicle 4 November 2016