Britain, Israel, and the United States, 1955-1958: Beyond Suez

Britain, Israel, and the United States, 1955-1958: Beyond Suez

Britain, Israel, and the United States, 1955-1958: Beyond Suez

Britain, Israel, and the United States, 1955-1958: Beyond Suez


Orna Almog examines the Anglo-Israeli relationship from 1955 to the summer of 1958 in the context of the Cold War, superpower rivalry and political upheaval in the Middle East. The author reveals examples of the British foreign service mistaking Israeli thinking for psychological weakness and making errors of judgement.


On 15 September 1955, the British Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, met with the Israeli Ambassador to London. Afterwards Macmillan recorded in his diary:

Mr Elath painted a very realistic and impressive picture of the situation in Israel today. The population is a strange mixture, ranging from sophisticated and highly educated Jews from Hamburg and Vienna, to the latest arrivals from the miserable life of Rabat or Algiers. The party system is hopelessly confused; the electoral system (PR) makes it almost impossible to get a Govt of any authority; the extremist views have undue weight. Meanwhile, the determination, or apparent determination, of the Arabs to keep the nominal state of war and the economic boycott permanently going, makes many Israelis despair and therefore lean to violent measures.

The siege mentality of a young and vulnerable state, Macmillan recognised, was reinforced by purchases of arms by Israel's hostile neighbours, including British tank sales to Egypt. There, however, Macmillan's sympathetic appraisal of Israeli anxieties ended. For the British, Israel was only part of the Middle East, and a very problematic part at that. The prism through which they primarily viewed Israel is clear from Macmillan's comment the following month to Mr Sharett, then the Israeli Prime Minister, 'that he ought to accept our idea for a final Arab/Israel settlement. Till that was made, we shd all be easy prey to Russian intrigue.'

This Anglo-American scheme, Project Alpha, involved an adjustment of territories between Israel and the Arab states in favour of the latter. That its prospects for success were limited had already been made clear by the talks Macmillan had held with Fawzi, the Egyptian Foreign Minister. But if Fawzi's demands suggest that Alpha offered the Arabs too little, from the Israeli point of view offering anything was too much. The British willingness to do so only added to the intense Israeli suspicion of their motives that had festered from the end of the Mandate.

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