50 years ago: Suez hypocrisy at the UN
PORT SAID, 1956. British tank in devastated city. Below: Egyptian first-day cover with stamp showing civilians behind soldier. Some say armed citizens carried on resisting after the officers fled.
IN one of my favourite movies, Carlton Brown of the FO, Britain's Foreign Secretary (Raymond Huntley) makes a pompous speech at the United Nations General Assembly on why Her Majesty's government considers it right and just that the island of Gaillardia should be partitioned. The UN team sets off with whitewash to mark a line across the island.
Then the Foreign Office learns that partition would leave the much coveted uranium ore deposits on the wrong side of the partition, falling under Soviet influence. So up gets Britain's man again, to make the same high-flown speech, but this time concluding that this is why HM government thinks the island should not be partitioned. Naturally neither speech makes mention of anything as sordid and material as ore deposits. Each time the minister speaks an angelic choir sings somewhere in the background.
Carlton Brown came out in 1959. But three years earlier there was a real drama played out at the UN, about a real war. Instead of fictitious Gaillardia, the country invaded was Egypt, and the strategic prize was the Suez canal. British government hypocrisy was the same, except they contrived to have the Israeli delegate do the peformance.
Israeli forces had invaded Egypt and were nearing the banks of the canal as well the strategic object for them of Sharm el Sheikh, at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. Britain and France were preparing to join the invasion, albeit in the guise of "peacemakers". Unlike British treaties with Arab states, the deal with Israel was meant to remain secret, although RAF and French planes had already bombed Egyptian ports and airfields on October 31, 1956, three days before the UN met and voted for cease-fire resolutions.
Israeli chief of staff General Moshe Dayan had been in on the secret negotiations and was close to Prime Minister Ben Gurion. Dayan knew that the British government had not only sanctioned a full-scale Israeli invasion, but insisted upon it, to provide conditions for British intervention. Now here is Dayan's account of what happened at the UN:
"Towards the end of the Assembly session, which was adjourned in the early hours of 4 November, there was renewed pressure on Britain, France and Israel to declare their acceptance of the UN resolutions. The Israel representative asked for the floor and he announced that 'Israel agrees to an immediate cease-fire provided that a similar answer is forthcoming from Egypt'. I imagine that our representative assumed that by the time the Egyptian reply came in, we would have succeeded in capturing Sharm e-Sheikh. And even if the cease-fire went into effect with a delay of a few hours, it would not be so bad. The main point was that in principle we had announced our readiness to carry out UN resolutions.
"The Governments of Britain and France, however, almost jumped out of their skins when they learned of the statement by the Israel representative. After all, they have repeatedly announced that the whole purpose of the entry of their forces into the Canal Zone is to separate the belligerent Israel and Egyptian Armies; now, if the two combatants cease fire, what justification is there for Anglo-French intervention? In this circumstance, the situation of the British Prime Minister is particularly difficult. Public opinion in his country is against the war in Egypt, and this opposition is mounting daily, erupting in demonstrations demanding that 'Eden must go!'.
"Britain therefore asked France to use the full weight of her influence to persuade us to retract our announcement agreeing to a cease-fire. France has done this, begging us to do nothing which may shake the tottering foundations underlying Eden's position on Suez. As our friends, the French, explained it, if we did not accede to Britain's request, Eden would be compelled to abandon completely his military plan on Suez.
"After reviewing and weighing up all the factors, Ben Gurion decided to respond to the French entreaties, and at noon on 4 November, our UN representative notified Hammarskjold that his announcement at the Assembly had not been properly understood. What he had meant was that at the moment there was a de facto cease-fire on the fighting fronts. As to Israel's compliance with the Assembly resolution, this was conditional on the acceptance of satisfactory positive replies to the following five questions:
1 Is there clear and unequivocal agreement on the part of the Government of Egypt to a cease-fire?
2 Doss Egypt still adhere to the position declared and maintained by her over the years that she is in a state of war with Israel?
3 Is Egypt prepared to enter into immediate negotiations with Israel with a view to the establishment of peace between the two countries as indicated in the aide-memoire of the Government of Israel of 4 November to the Secretary-General of the UN?
4 Does Egypt agree to cease the economic boycott against Israel and lift the blockade of Israel shipping in the Suez Canal?
5 Does Egypt undertake to recall the fedayun gangs under her control in other Arab countries?
"Although Ben Gurion met the request of the French Government, he was most angry. If Britain and France had wished to exploit the fact that hostilities had broken out between Israel and Egypt, they had had six days at their disposal, from 29 October to 4 November, during which there was fighting between Israeli and Egyptian forces near the east bank of the Suez Canal. But throughout that period the British Army occupied themselves with their meticulous preparations for Operation 'Musketeer' as if they had all the time in the world. Now, when the UN Assembly called for a cease-fire, Britain was asking Israel to reject it for the sake of her (Britain's) political convenience.
"Israel had done her utmost, made a supreme effort, to end the campaign before finding herself in grave conflict with resolutions of the UN - and she had in fact succeeded. Of course she had no alternative but to refuse the demand to pull her forces back to the armistice lines; but she could at least have accepted the second demand of the resolution, the cease-fire. Now she had to add to her burdens by rejecting even that, which she would not, for herself, have needed to do.What prompted Ben Gurion to agree was, of course, not only the desire to respond to the request of France, who in the last few years has shown such sincere friendship for us. He was also actuated by the cold calculation that it is better for Israel not to appear alone as an aggressor who disturbs the peace and ignores UN resolutions. It is better that Britain and France should be with her on this front.
"The matter, however, did not end there. The French sensed that the final moments of their political time were upon them and that if they wished to land their forces on Egyptian soil, they had to do so immediately. France's Defence Minister, Bourges-Maunoury, and Foreign Minister, Christian Pineau, therefore flew to London to spur the British for the n'th time to advance the date of their landing.
"This time, apparently, the British realized that the twelfth hour had indeed arrived, but they searched for a formula which would justify their action in the eyes of the world. The formula agreed on by the British and the French was, inevitably, at the expense of Israel. The reply handed by Britain and France to the UN Secretary-General, following the Assembly resolution of 4 November, included the following sentence: 'The two Governments continue to believe that it is necessary to interpose an international force to prevent the continuance of hostilities between Egypt and Israel, to secure the speedy withdrawal of Israel forces, to take the necessary measures to remove obstructions to traffic through the Suez Canal, and to promote a settlement of the problems in the area.'"
(Dayan, M. -Diary of the Sinai Campaign, pp.181-3)
While the manouvres went on in the UN, the bombing and invasion of Egypt went ahead. Instead of freeing the Suez Canal for maritime traffic they succeeded in blocking it. Instead of toppling Nasser, as MI6 hoped, it was Eden that went. France failed to hold Algeria against the rising forces of Arab nationalism. Ben Gurion's delusions of empire in Gaza and Sinai did not last, and Israelis' dreams of peace and security (which might have seen a glimmer of hope when Nasser made secret tentative peace approaches two years before the Suez war) have remained out of reach, and almost forgotten. Having chosen their path and alliances, Israel's rulers were stuck with them.