Eden’s fears about Is­rael in Suez war

The Jewish Chronicle - - News - BY BERNARD JOSEPHS

A CON­FI­DEN­TIAL re­port of cab­i­net meet­ings, dur­ing which min­is­ters ap­proved an at­tack on Egypt af­ter its na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the Suez Canal, has been re­leased by the Na­tional Archives.

The min­utes, hand­writ­ten by Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary Sir Nor­man Brook, show how min­is­ters scram­bled to ar­range a cover-up fol­low­ing claims of mil­i­tary col­lu­sion with Is­rael and France.

Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ment, the big­gest ques­tion wor­ry­ing Prime Min­is­ter Sir An­thony Eden at a key Cab­i­net dis­cus­sion in Oc­to­ber 1956 was whether Is­rael was pre­pared to press the trig­ger that would spark hos­til­i­ties.

The Prime Min­is­ter, whose gov­ern­ment had al­ready ap­proved the call-up of Bri­tish army re­servists and pre­pared the ground­work for war, was in a state of high anx­i­ety about Is­rael’s will­ing­ness to take on the Egyp­tians.

Such an at­tack was seen as a pre­text for Bri­tish and French forces to step in, sup­pos­edly to stop fight­ing be­tween Is­rael and Egypt but in ef­fect to seize the canal from the in­creas­ingly pro-Soviet gov­ern­ment of Gamel Ab­del Nasser.

Ac­cord­ing to Sir Nor­man’s notes, re­leased af­ter more than 50 years, min­is­te­rial doubts were re­in­forced when the Prime Min­is­ter said: “It now seems that Is­rael won’t at­tack. We can’t hold our mil­i­tary prepa­ra­tions for more than a week or two. A win­ter op­er­a­tion would not be sat­is­fac­tory.”

In fact, Is­rael had its own rea­sons for tak­ing on Nasser’s army.

Egyp­tian na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the canal meant that ship­ping to­wards or from Is­rael was block­aded and Egyp­tian-backed ter­ror­ists were launch­ing reg­u­lar at­tacks from the Si­nai and the Gaza Strip.

Bri­tish fret­ting over Is­rael’s re­solve proved ground­less and the notes showed that min­is­ters in Lon­don fol­lowed the progress of the Is­raeli cam­paign closely. With in­tel­li­gence re­ports show­ing that the Is­raelis were do­ing well, the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter — who just a few months ear­lier had de­clared that it was “ap­palling to have to fight with Is­rael ver­sus the Arabs” — told the Cab­i­net on Novem­ber 2 that the mil­i­tary po­si­tion was “very sat­is­fac­tory”.

The Is­raelis, he said, “are tonight within 12 miles of Port Said, have won a tank bat­tle near Is­malia (and) are op­po­site the Suez Canal.”

Three days later the Bri­tish made an as­sault on Port Said hav­ing called on the Is­raelis not to ad­vance to within 10 miles of the canal. But, with the Amer­i­cans re­fus­ing to back the at­tack, they were forced into a with­drawal. The po­lit­i­cal reper­cus­sions were dev­as­tat­ing.

There were calls for an in­quiry into whether the gov­ern­ment had acted in col­lu­sion with Is­rael and France and Pres­i­dent Nasser’s im­age was tak­ing on a heroic tinge in the pub­lic mind.

Ac­cord­ing to Sir Nor­man, rat­tled min­is­ters gath­ered to dis­cuss a plan for a cover-up. They were without doubt that the Prime Min­is­ter was suf­fer­ing, ac­cord­ing to the min­utes, from “ner­vous ex­haus­tion”.

Sir Nor­man recorded Vis­count David Eccles, the Min­is­ter of Works, ask­ing his col­leagues: “What line should we take on col­lu­sion?”

Min­is­ter of Labour and Na­tional Ser­vice Iain Macleod said that the ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion was “pretty shoddy. Could we not say [that] of course we knew of Is­rael’s in­ten­tions and took pre­cau­tions ac­cord­ingly?”

How­ever, he rec­om­mended that the gov­ern­ment should also say there was “no prior agree­ment, no prom­ises of ter­ri­to­rial changes, and no in­cite­ment to Is­rael to at­tack.”

A month later a still frail Sir An­thony Eden told Par­lia­ment: “To say that Her Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment were en­gaged in some dis­hon­ourable con­spir­acy is com­pletely un­true — and I must em­phat­i­cally deny it.”


An Is­raeli Army mech­a­nised group in the Si­nai desert, dur­ing the push to­wards the Suez Canal in Novem­ber 1956

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