Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

On the Power of Tacit Understandings - Israel, Egypt and Freedom of Passage through the Suez Canal, 1957-1960

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

On the Power of Tacit Understandings - Israel, Egypt and Freedom of Passage through the Suez Canal, 1957-1960

Article excerpt

Following the Suez War of 1956, Israel demanded freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal. By July 1957, a tacit understanding was reached in which Egypt acquiesced to passage of Israeli goods on foreign ships. Nevertheless, in March 1959, the Egyptians suddenly breached the agreement. The UN secretary General subsequently formulated a new tacit arrangement: the "effective stand." Egypt refused to "play the game" while Israel refrained from military response, recognizing that such a response could endanger the two countries' only shared interest: an aversion to war.

At the end of the Sinai War, Israel and Egypt faced a new diplomatic-security situation during which the perceptions, interests, and power dispositions prevailing before the war underwent change. Attendant on these events, the two countries embarked upon a sequence of limited arrangements, agreed upon both formally and informally, arranged by third parties, the chief of which were the United Nations secretary General (UNSG) at the time, Dag Hammarskjöld, and US government officials.

Yet, while the lion's share of these arrangements, such as the deployment of the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai, have received considerable attention in the literature, the arrangement resolving Israel's demand for freedom of passage through the Suez Canal remains largely unexplored. Documentation recently uncovered in Israeli archives, together with documents from the US State Department and UN archives, have made possible exposure of a fascinating chapter in Egyptian-Israeli relations at the time: the achievement of a tacit understanding, its subsequent disavowal, and the failed attempts to revive that understanding. More importantly, the arrangement, reached through third-party brokerage on the matter of passage of Israeli goods through the Suez Canal, provides a real-world, classic example of situations that require tacit understandings. As Egyptian President Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (hereafter Nasser) was unable to consent in public to Israeli use of the Canal for fear of appearing to submit to Israeli dictates, a covert agreement enabled him to preserve prestige in the Arab world while neutralizing a potentially explosive political situation from the perspective of both sides.

This episode entailed a covert diplomatic struggle maintained between the two adversaries that occasionally rose to the surface and led to several surprising maneuvers involving the UNSG, the US, and other actors. Ultimately, the struggle served to demonstrate the necessity of tacit understandings between antagonists in the Middle East, the contributions of such understandings as well as their limitations.1 In order to provide a frame of reference for the period under study, we open with a summary of the events immediately preceding the Suez war.


Although Egypt first imposed an embargo on Israeli -owned ships in December 1947, the outbreak of the Arab -Israeli War of 1948 brought about the embargo's immediate expansion to "contraband" goods (i.e., cargoes that might strengthen and support the enemy's war efforts) being transported to Israel. An order was issued in February 1950 directing search of ships and planes and the seizure of cargoes identified as contraband by the Egyptian authorities.2

Israel confined its response to diplomatic activity that included submission of complaints to the Egyptian -Israeli Mixed Armistice Committee (EIMAC), which favored Israel's claims, and finally to the UN security Council (UNSC). In September 1950, the UNSC accepted Israel's position in principle and demanded that Egypt end the embargo forth-with.3 In November 1953, however, the embargo was expanded to include ships sailing to Israel under foreign flags as well as all cargoes shipped to and from Israel. Israel again complained before the SC in January 1954.4 The USSR, however, which had abstained in the 1951 vote, cast a veto in March 1954 against a draft decision favorable to Israel. …

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