Friday, October 10, 2008

Perfidious Albion, or Troubled Eden

ALL SMILES. But this was in February 1955,
in Cairo. The following year Eden (right) made plans to invade Egypt and get rid of Nasser(left). In the event, Nasser held on to power, and it was Eden who went.

NEWLY released documents from the British official archives show that on the eve of the 1956 Suez war Prime Minister Anthony Eden was worried about Israeli intentions. Worried, that is, that the Israelis might not play their part by attacking Egypt as was expected of them.

The British government, fearing Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal would undermine British imperial power across Africa and Asia, had already mobilised reservists and begun loading vehicles on ships for an invasion, to seize the canal back. The French government, in addition to its interest in the canal, thought an assault on Egypt could halt support and encouragement to the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria. Both believed they could topple President Nasser.

The Israeli government, with Ben Gurion back in the saddle as PM, Shimon Peres as Defence Minister, and Moshe Dayan in command of the armed forces, had closed the backdoor on tentative contacts from Nasser, and relied on overwhelming force to stop cross-border fedayeen raids. It thought its interests, including shipping through the canal, might be served by helping the Anglo-French plan. Through France it became a partner in the alliance, even if one the British government, mindful of its Arab clients, would sooner not acknowledge.

In a Guildhall speech, Eden warned the Israelis that the RAF could hit them from its bases in Cyprus if they
dared attack Jordan. But all the time he knew plans were being made to attack Egypt. Still, at a cabinet meeting on July 27, 1956, discussing a statement on Egypt's takeover of the canal Eden advised: "Avoid reference to stopping traffic to Israel, because that would only bring other Arab states on to Egypt's side".
Later, after the Israelis had invaded, and Britain declared it was intervening to separate the warring sides, Eden denied indignantly that there had been any hidden "collusion".

But it had been a different Eden that spoke with his Cabinet on October 23, 1956, anxious in case the Israelis did not invade. This is revealed in newly-released minutes, hand-written by Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet secretary. Here is the Prime Minister:
Now seems tht. I. won´t attack. We can´t hold our mil. prepns. for more than a week or so. Winter opn. wd. not be satisf. French are much concerned. They have had provn. over supply of arms by E. to Alg. rebels. They may wish to act alone - or even with I. - and ask for facilities in Cyprus. Best course : get Pineau over this p.m. & see how gravely they regard provocation. We mght support them in action over that.
If there were worries about what the Israelis might not do, it seems there were illusions about support Britain could expect from over the pond. Here is a note on discussions at Cabinet on August 14 about how to bring Nasser down:

Doubt if we shall bring him down, w´out force. M. U.S. attitude to force. U.S. will be heavily on our side. i) They understand effects, not only on Canal, but as M/E. ques. ii) They don´t want U.N. - intolerable delays. They will stand to a good positive resoln. iii) They are beginning to think of econ. sanctions. If U.S. will apply them hard, it tends to bring them on twds. force. They don´t want that now, a) because Election b) if they stand out of it, R. mght stand aside too. But, if strong resoln., followed by sharp econ. pressure (e.g. dues) - other measures may come in, for N.´s popularity may wane: if large line-up against (includg U.S.) & no revenue fr. Canal. Dictator´s stock, when it begins to fall, falls fast.

Favoured that in W´ton because imprtce. of getting U.S. thoroughly involved

As we know, on October 29, 1956, Israeli paras dropped on the Mitla Pass in Sinai, and the Israeli invasion began, sweeping towards the canal and south to Sharm el Shaikh at the tip of the peninsula. The British and French forces moved up their bombers and invasion craft, while their governments announced to an incredulous world that they wished to separate the two warring sides, ten miles either side of the canal.

As the warships massed off Port Said for what the British government insisted was a "police action", the UN met. Here is Moshe Dayan's account:

"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.."
Moshe Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, 1956,

There could not be a cease fire without a series of conditions, BG insisted. So Eden had his excuse, even if no one believed it.
The demonstrations against Eden's war grew, as did adverse reaction to it in the US, as well as Moscow. The economic costs also became apparent.

On November 20, with Eden ill, the cabinet discussed "what line to take on collusion". Ian Macleod said such evidence as was around was "pretty shoddy" (Eden had taken steps to see it was removed, as we now know) They should say of course they had known of Israeli intentions, and taken precautionary steps, but there was "no prior agreement, no promises of territorial change, no incitement to Israel to attack".

On November 28 they discussed how to withdraw from Egypt, without losing face, how to restore the position with US opinion, and how to avoid economic collapse.

Nowadays what latter-day British imperialists regret is not the Suez aggression, but the circumstances that they did not get away with it.

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