Middle East History: It Happened in March; Ike Forces Israel to End Occupation after Sinai Crisis

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN MARCH; Ike Forces Israel to End Occupation After Sinai Crisis

By Donald Neff

It was 39 years ago, on March 16, 1957, that Israel withdrew under unrelenting U.S. pressure from all the territory it had occupied in the Sinai peninsula during its invasion of Egypt less than five months earlier. As Israeli forces pulled out, they ignored pleas from U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and displayed their contempt for U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's policy by systematically destroying all surfaced roads, railway tracks and telephone lines. All buildings in the tiny villages of Abu Ageila and El Quseima were destroyed, as were the military buildings around El Arish. 1

Israel's dogged insistence on keeping by military occupation parts of the Sinai had led to increasingly tense relations between Eisenhower and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. From the very beginning of what became known as the Suez crisis Eisenhower had forcefully opposed the secret plot by Britain, France and Israel to invade Egypt. Against great political pressures, Ike had managed to stop the ill-considered invasion--but not before Israeli troops grabbed Egypt's Sinai peninsula in a lightning surprise attack starting Oct. 29, 1956.

Britain and France followed Eisenhower's firm advice and quickly removed their troops from Egypt. But Israel insisted on retaining parts of the peninsula. Despite repeated U.S. urgings, Ben-Gurion refused to withdraw Israeli troops. In retaliation, Eisenhower joined with 75 other nations in the U.N. General Assembly in passing a resolution on Feb. 2, 1957, "deploring" Israel's occupation. Only two nations opposed: France and Israel. 2

Still, Ben-Gurion refused to move his troops. On Feb. 11, Eisenhower sent a forceful note to Ben-Gurion to withdraw. Again Ben-Gurion refused. At the same time, the influence of Israel's supporters became intense. The White House was besieged by efforts to halt its pressure on the Jewish state; 41 Republican and 75 Democratic congressmen signed a letter urging support for Israel. 3

In reaction to mounting pressures against his policy, Eisenhower on Feb. 20 called a meeting of the congressional leadership to seek their support for his position. But the lawmakers, sensitive to the influence of the Israeli lobby, refused to help, causing Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to complain to a friend:

"I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy [in the Middle East] not approved by the Jews." In other conversations around the same time, Dulles remarked on the "terrific control the Jews have over the news media and the barrage which the Jews have built up on congressmen....I am very much concerned over the fact that the Jewish influence here is completely dominating the scene and making it almost impossible to get Congress to do anything they don't approve of. The Israeli Embassy is practically dictating to the Congress through influential Jewish people in the country." 4

Disgusted with Congress's timidity, Eisenhower boldly decided to take his case directly to the American people. He went on national television on the evening of Feb. 20 and explained:

"Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal? If we agreed that armed attack can properly achieve the purposes of the assailant, then I fear we will have turned back the clock of international order.

"If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization and our best hope of establishing world order. The United Nations must not fail. I believe that in the interests of peace the United Nations has no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel to comply with the withdrawal resolutions." 5

Not Words Alone

Ike did not depend only on words. …