Israel should stay clear of the internal American debate over the candidacy of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next defense secretary. The identity of the defense secretary can have profound implications for Israel, but this is an internal American decision. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore one aspect of this issue which touches on the history of U.S.-Israel relations. Recently, David Ignatius, one of the leading columnists of The Washington Post tried to compare Hagel’s worldview to that of President Dwight Eisenhower, who had to contend with the joint operation of Britain, France, and Israel against Nasser’s Egypt.
In particular, Ignatius reminds his readers how back in 1956, Eisenhower was willing to use the threat of sanctions to force Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. The hardest U.S. pressure was actually employed in 1957, after Eisenhower was re-elected and he began his second term of office. But is it correct to view Eisenhower’s policy of pressure on Israel as a success story, worthy of imitation, that defended U.S. interests? Would Eisenhower have wanted his administration’s actions in the aftermath of the Suez Campaign to be remembered as his legacy?
Professor Isaac Alteras wrote a comprehensive history of this subject published in 1993 entitled “Eisenhower and Israel,” which reveals that Eisenhower actually came to regret the tough line he took against Israel in 1956. In a meeting in 1965 with the Republican Jewish leader Max Fisher, according to Alteras, Eisenhower said: “You know Max, looking back at Suez, I regret what I did. I should have never pressured Israel to evacuate Sinai.” Richard Nixon, who served as Eisenhower’s vice president, verified Fisher’s description of the former president’s view of what he had done. According to Nixon, Eisenhower even said that the Suez Crisis was the biggest foreign-policy “blunder” of his administration. In short, there is substantial evidence that Eisenhower came to renounce his own Suez policy.
Why did Eisenhower change his mind? His administration had hoped that by distancing itself from Israel, it would be able to erect a set of Cold War alliances in the Middle East modeled after NATO, like the famous Baghdad Pact, that would help the U.S. to contain the Soviet Union. But his strategy totally backfired. As one former U.S. official pointed out, Eisenhower’s support for Nasser in 1956 strengthened the Egyptian leader significantly and led to a wave of revolutions across the Arab world that eventually required active Western intervention in Lebanon, Jordan, and eventually in the Arabian Peninsula.
Moreover, in the wake of the revolutionary storm that followed the Suez Crisis, the Hashemite regime in Iraq was also overthrown in 1958; its leaders modeled themselves after Nasser and adopted an anti-Western orientation. The American-sponsored Baghdad Pact was finished. In the meantime, Eisenhower’s policy helped to drive the British out of the Middle East, while in the years that followed the Soviet Union managed to set up air and naval bases across the region.
Eisenhower’s changed attitude toward his own policy directly influenced events in the Middle East on the eve of the Six-Day War. Ten years earlier in 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Abba Eban, who served as both the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and to the U.N., any American statement made about the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai “would lack any binding effect.”
Yet in May 1967, President Lyndon Johnson telephoned Eisenhower and asked him about Nasser’s latest decision to block Israel’s freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Eilat. Eisenhower now stated that the U.S. made a “commitment” to Israel that if the Egyptians used force to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, Israel would be entitled to exercise its right of self-defense.
Bill Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, wrote that after the Six-Day War, President Johnson and his advisers were determined not to adopt Eisenhower’s approach to Israel from 1956. They refused to force Israel to withdraw from the territories that the Israel Defense Forces captured in the war, without it obtaining a peace agreement first.
Despite his Middle Eastern setbacks, President Eisenhower will always be remembered for his role as the commander of allied forces in World War II that defeated Nazi Germany and helped rescue the remnant of European Jewry that survived the Holocaust. But to turn his policy at Suez into some kind of heroic moment for U.S. foreign policy is a mistake, not only from an Israeli perspective, but also taking into account the wider interests of the West as a whole.