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History, The Suez Crisis

Strait of Tiran, Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan, British Commonwealth countries, UNEF

The lack of comprehensive peace settlements between Israel and the bordering states after the 1949 armistice agreements caused continual tensions in the region. The Arab states continued to regard the establishment of Israel as an injustice and sustained a political and economic boycott on the new state. Egypt refused Israel access to the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, and in 1951 Egypt blockaded the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s only direct access to the Red Sea. Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began raiding Israeli communities near the borders. Israel held Jordan and Egypt responsible for these attacks and launched retaliatory raids. Further conflicts arose over control of demilitarized zones along the border and over Israeli use of water from the Jordan River—which borders Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank—for domestic development. Syria soon became involved as well.

In February 1955 Israel launched a raid against an Egyptian army base in the Gaza Strip. In response Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt organized further Palestinian guerrilla operations against Israel, and he intensified military buildup. In September Egypt concluded an arms deal with the Communist government of Czechoslovakia (acting for the USSR). Israel found these developments, along with Nasser’s emergence as the leader of a new Arab nationalist movement, threatening and began to prepare for war. In July 1956 Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, transferring ownership of the company that controlled its daily operations from British and French shareholders to the Egyptian government. Through secret negotiations with Britain and France, who sought to regain control of the canal and topple the Nasser regime, Israel planned a military offensive against Egypt.

In October 1956 Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, quickly capturing these areas and advancing toward the Suez Canal. As planned in the meetings with Israel, the British and the French issued an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of both Israeli and Egyptian forces from the canal. When Nasser refused, British and French forces bombed Egyptian bases. The United States and the USSR demanded an immediate cease-fire, and a UN resolution soon forced the British, French, and Israelis to withdraw from Egyptian territory. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) stationed troops on the frontier between Israel and Egypt, which helped ensure quiet along the border for the next decade. The Egyptian government reopened the canal, and Israel gained access to the Strait of Tiran. However, no comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace talks followed the Suez Crisis, and sporadic border incidents continued.

In a period of relative peace in the decade after the 1956 war, Israel’s economy developed rapidly. Industrial and agricultural development allowed the government to end its austerity measures, unemployment almost disappeared, and living standards gradually improved. Exports doubled and the gross domestic product increased dramatically. Israel now manufactured previously imported items such as paper, tires, radios, and refrigerators. The most rapid growth occurred in the manufacture of metals, machinery, chemicals, and electronics. Farms began to grow a larger variety of crops for the food-processing industry and fresh produce for export. To handle the increased volume of trade, a deep-water port was built on the Mediterranean coast at Ashdod.

Foreign relations expanded steadily. Israel developed ties with the United States, the British Commonwealth countries, most Western European nations, and nearly all the countries of Latin America and Africa. Hundreds of Israeli experts and specialists shared their knowledge and experience with people in other developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Israel strengthened its military and political cooperation with France, the United States agreed to supply Israel with arms in 1962, and West Germany continued to provide economic and military aid. In 1965 Israel exchanged ambassadors with West Germany, a move that had been delayed because of bitter memories of the Holocaust.

Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister in 1963 and was succeeded by his minister of finance, Levi Eshkol. Two years later Ben-Gurion formed a new opposition party, Rafi, to distance himself and his followers from the old guard of Mapai. Many prominent members of Mapai, including Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, joined the new party.

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