Israel, the Great Powers, and the Middle East Crisis of 1958

Avi Shlaim

Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 12:2, May 1999

'The Iraqi revolution of July 1958', Roger Louis observed, 'was a watershed in the history of the Middle East and the region's relations with the West. It represented the overthrow of the old social and landed order and the virtual end of the British Empire in the Middle East, even though the British presence continued in Aden and the Gulf. In another sense the crisis marked the rise to the ascendancy of the United States as a Middle Eastern power in place of Britain.'[1]   There are several studies of the 1958 crisis and its consequences from the point of view of Arab states involved.[2]  In addition, there are various accounts of American and British policies during this crisis.[3]   The purpose of the present paper is to examine the 1958 crisis from the Israeli perspective and, more specifically, from the perspective of Israel's relations with the Great Powers.

    Securing the support and sponsorship of a Great Power had been a cardinal tenet in the strategy of the Zionist movement ever since its inception at the end of the nineteenth century. At first the Zionist leaders looked to the Ottoman Empire for support, then to Great Britain which held the mandate for Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, Zionist leaders began to look increasingly towards the United States which was in the process of replacing Great Britain as the pre-eminent Western power in the Middle East. There was a short interlude during which the newly-born state officially adhered to a policy of 'non-identification', of not taking sides in the Cold War between East and West. But following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Israel adopted an openly pro-Western orientation. In the early 1950s, Israel lobbied to be included in successive Western plans for the defence of the Middle East but she was repeatedly rebuffed. These plans, culminating in the ill-fated Baghdad Pact in 1955, were all directed against the Soviet Union and they required the cooperation of the Arab states if they were to have any chance of success. From the point of view of the Arab states, however, the real threat to their security emanated not from the Soviet Union but from Israel. Consequently, they were not prepared to join any defence organisation of which Israel was a member.

    David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and the main architect of its foreign and defence policy, did not see the Jewish state as part of the Middle East but as part of Europe. His overriding aim was to turn Israel into a close ally of the United States in the struggle against international communism and Arab radicalism. For Ben-Gurion Israel's relations with the United States took precedence over her relations with her Arab neighbours. A comprehensive review of Israeli-Arab relations was held in the prime minister's office with senior officials on 1 October 1952. In the course of the discussions Ben-Gurion repeated three times that although they were sitting in the Middle East, this was the result of a geographical accident for they were a European people. 'We have no connection with the Arabs', he said. 'Our regime, our culture, our relations, are not the fruit of this region. There is no political affinity between us, nor international solidarity.' Ben-Gurion also called for a concerted effort to persuade the Americans that Israel could be turned into a strategic asset in the Middle East: 'America should know that there is a potential for a quarter of a million soldiers who are destined to fight and who are prepared to fight and this cannot be dismissed so easily.'[4]

The Eisenhower administration was not susceptible to Israeli blandishments and relations between the two countries were plunged into a crisis by Israel's attack on Egypt in 1956 in collusion with Britain and France. American pressure compelled Britain and France to halt the attack while Israel was eventually compelled to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula. The Suez War had far-reaching repercussions for power relations in the region. Israel's decisive victory put her on the map as a major military power. On the other hand, the Suez War caused the collapse of British and French power in the Middle East and paved the way to further Soviet advances in the region. Less immediately obvious but no less significant was the shift in the balance of power within the Arab world. Side by side with the global Cold War between East and West, an Arab Cold War had been going on between the radical forces and the conservative forces. The Suez War was a decisive victory for the radical forces led by Egypt against the conservative and pro-Western forces, notably Iraq and Jordan, in the Cold War. Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, emerged as a popular hero in the aftermath of the war which was represented as an imperialist-Zionist plot against the Arab nation.

    The main lesson that Ben-Gurion drew from the Suez War was that Israel could not acquire strategic depth by expanding her territory at the expense of her neighbours because the Great Powers would not allow her to keep the spoils of war. Accordingly, he abandoned the hope of territorial expansion and adopted a strategy of deterrence. The aim of this strategy was to deter Arab parties from trying to change the status quo by force. To this end it was necessary to equip the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) with the most advanced weapons and to maintain its qualitative superiority over the Arab armies.

    While deterrence was one major theme in Ben-Gurion's post-Suez strategy, the quest for external guarantees of Israel's security was another. He was acutely aware of Israel's international isolation in the aftermath of Suez, especially in face of the growing danger represented by the Soviet Union. Although the tripartite attack was halted as a result of American pressure rather than Soviet threats, Moscow made much political capital out of the crisis. Ben-Gurion feared that the Soviet Union would try to extend its influence in the region by arming the radical Arab regions most hostile to Israel. Against this danger there was a limit to what Israel could do on her own. Israel was up against a world power, therefore she had to have a world power on her side.

    Ben-Gurion instinctively turned to America, the other main protagonist in the Cold War. From America he hoped to obtain arms, political backing and a security guarantee. He couched his appeals for help in Cold War rhetoric about the dangers posed by international communism, rhetoric that was calculated to appeal in particular to John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State. Ben-Gurion's appeals for help were usually accompanied by the suggestion of a common strand against the Soviet Union and its Arab allies. The Americans, however, remained cool and distant. Their policy was to prevent the military balance of power being upset and since, in their estimate, Israel was already stronger than her neighbours, they declined to become her chief arms supplier. Political considerations also accounted for their coolness. They wanted Arab support for their global policy of containment against the Soviet Union  and they thought that they had a better chance of achieving this on their own than in alliance with Israel.

    The Eisenhower Doctrine of March 1957 gave Israel an opening for improving relations with the United States. This doctrine promised military aid and co-operation to Middle Eastern countries, Israel included,  against overt aggression from any nation ‘controlled by international Communism’. Yet Israel was threatened not by international communism but by Arab nationalism, and especially by Egypt. The Israelis hoped that the doctrine might be construed as a security guarantee in the event of an attack by an Arab state ‘influenced’ by international communism but this was not the case.[5]   The doctrine was solely aimed against the Soviet Union. Middle Eastern states were invited to associate themselves with the Eisenhower Doctrine. Official opinion in Israel was divided. Mapai, the ruling party, represented the mainstream. Mapai's left-wing coalition partners,  Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avodah, balked at an open identification with one side in the Cold War, especially as there was no concrete advantage in doing so. Ben-Gurion was for accepting the invitation although it fell well short of a formal American guarantee of Israel’s borders. Abba Eban, the ambassador in Washington, strongly urged the government ‘to accept inclusion in this quaint doctrine on the principle that if Israel, so long boycotted from Middle Eastern groupings and categories, was unexpectedly asked to join any groupings in our region, we should accept the invitation before it was hastily withdrawn.’[6]   In the end a compromise was reached and the government issued a deliberately vague statement of support for the Eisenhower Doctrine.

    Deepening Soviet involvement in Syria in the summer of 1957 gave Israel an opportunity to put the Eisenhower Doctrine to the test. Syrian politics took a sharp pro-Soviet turn when an arms deal was concluded between the two countries. At the same time tension built up along the Syrian-Israeli border as a result of incidents in which several Israeli civilians were killed. Ben-Gurion thought that there was a real possibility that Syria would become a ‘people’s republic’ and join the Eastern bloc and thus present Israel face-to-face with the Soviet Union. He disputed the assessment of Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff, that an Arab attack on Israel was unlikely. In his opinion, the Soviet Union was preparing an attack on Israel through Syria. He saw Soviet references to Israeli troop deployment on the northern front as an attempt to procure an alibi for an attack or a provocation.[7]

    Ben-Gurion was not thinking in terms of a preventive war against Syria but when intelligence reached him that the Americans were encouraging a coup in Syria, he wanted to join in the act. In August Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad, wrote to Allen Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to suggest joint action to prevent further Soviet penetration of the Middle East. The American reply came in the form of a letter from John Foster Dulles to David Ben-Gurion. Dulles ignored the suggestion of joint action and instead asked for assurances that Israel would not take independent action against Syria. Ben-Gurion replied immediately, to stress the dangers to the free world in general and Israel in particular if international communism were to establish a base in the heart of the Middle East, to renew the plea for joint action, and to assure Dulles that Israel could be relied upon to behave discreetly and responsibly.[8]   At the end of August Harel received a reply from Allen Dulles who had been abroad. The reply was evasive and essentially negative. The Americans were ready to listen to Israel’s views and to receive intelligence from her but they were anxious to avoid any active co-operation with Israel in relation to the Arab world.[9]   Ben-Gurion got the hint and was from now on careful not to embark on any ventures against Arab countries without clearing them with the Americans in advance.

    But the lack of an explicit Western security guarantee continued to worry Ben-Gurion and in the autumn of 1957 he embarked on a diplomatic campaign to associate Israel with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The aim of the campaign was not official membership because that was clearly out of the question but close association and co-ordination of defence plans. Dayan was opposed to the idea not because he did not want co-operation with NATO but because he thought it would be demeaning to beg. His views were rejected. Ben-Gurion was so desperate to find shelter under the NATO umbrella that he sent Golda Meir, his foreign minister, to talk to Dulles and special emissaries to plead Israel’s case in Paris, Bonn and the Hague. The French were sympathetic. But in December 1957, under strong pressure from the United States, the NATO Council rejected Israel’s request for association.

Even after this humiliating rebuff, Ben-Gurion continued his efforts to persuade the Americans to issue a statement that they would come to Israel’s aid in the event of a Soviet or Soviet-backed attack. He explained his motives to an American visitor: ‘When we are isolated, the Arabs think that we can be destroyed and the Soviets exploit this card. If a great power stood behind us, and the Arabs knew that we are a fact that cannot be altered —Russia will cease her hostility towards us, because this hostility would no longer buy the heart of the Arabs.’[10]

    In February 1958 Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic. The initiative for the union came from a group of Syrian leaders who wanted to stop the drift towards communism at home. But the pro-Western regimes in the Middle East saw the union as a threat to their security. Iraq and Jordan formed a loose union, the better to protect themselves against the spread of the Nasserist tide. In Israel the Egyptian-Syrian union was viewed somewhat differently. It was seen as an attempt to encircle the country and to intensify Arab pressure on her. Ben-Gurion saw it as a nutcracker, closing in on Israel from above and below. In fact, the merger did not change the military balance between the Arabs and Israel. But Yehoshafat Harkabi, the director of military intelligence, over-reacted to this development. He considered that it posed a serious danger to Israel’s security and Ben-Gurion was influenced by his assessment.[11]   Harkabi always proceeded on the basis of worst case scenario not only because it was his professional duty but also because of his character. Like Ben-Gurion he was diminutive in stature and like Ben-Gurion he was haunted by fear and foreboding about Israel’s prospects of survival. On one occasion he said to Ben-Gurion: ‘What we have in common is that neither of us believes that the State of Israel really exists.’  Ben-Gurion’s response consisted of a grunt which Harkabi was left to interpret any way he liked.[12]

    One of the most important and interesting developments in Israel’s policy towards the Arab world in the decade after the Suez War was the alliance of the periphery. Yet very little has been written on this subject.[13]   The basic idea was to leapfrog over the immediate circle of hostile Arab states by forming alliances with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. Iran and Turkey were Islamic but non-Arab states while Ethiopia was a Christian country in Africa. What all these states had in common was fear of the Soviet Union  and of Nasser’s brand of Arab radicalism. The principle behind the alliance of the periphery was: ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Its two main aims were to check Soviet advances in the Middle East and to curb the spread of Nasser’s influence in Asia and Africa.

    The idea of the alliance of the periphery was developed by Ben-Gurion and his close advisers after it became clear that territorial expansion was not possible and that an American security guarantee was improbable. The aim of this alliance was not to change the regional status quo but to preserve the status quo against subversion by radical forces. It was an attempt to strengthen Israeli deterrence, to reduce Israel’s isolation, and to add to her influence and power as an actor on the international stage. But the alliance of the periphery was not an alliance in the conventional diplomatic sense of the word. In fact, Israel did not have normal diplomatic relations with any of the countries involved. The alliance was an informal one and it consisted for the most part of secret and clandestine contacts. Although the foreign ministry and the IDF were given support roles, the Mossad had the primary responsibility for developing the alliance of the periphery.

    The main architect and the driving force behind the alliance of the periphery was Reuven Shiloah, a former head of the Mossad. Shiloah saw the alliance of the periphery not just as a political strategy but as an ideological response to Nasser’s doctrine of the three circles. Nasser’s doctrine portrayed Egypt as standing at the centre of three circles — the Arab, Islamic and African circles. It was a monolithic concept of the Middle East which posited Egypt as the dominant power and pan-Arabism as the dominant ideology. The alliance of the periphery challenged this concept at two levels. At the political level it sought to build an outer ring of states linked to Israel while at the ideological level it put forward the idea of a pluralistic region which was not organized by pan-Arabism or pan-Islam.[14]

    The other major figure in promoting the alliance of the periphery was Isser Harel who had succeeded Shiloah as head of the Mossad in 1952. Whereas Shiloah was given to flights of fancy, Harel was a dour and down-to-earth intelligence chief whose strong point lay not in analysis, but in the conduct of operations. Born in Russia in 1912, Harel emigrated to Palestine in 1931 but retained a strong anti-Soviet sentiment which made him an enemy of the left-wing parties inside Israel and a staunch supporter of the United States in the Cold War. Like Shiloah, Harel wanted to turn Israel into an ally of America in the global contest against the Soviet Union  and in the regional contest against the Arab radicalism.

It was America’s rejection of Harel’s offer of secret co-operation to block the expansion of Nasser’s influence that led him to embark on the creation of a belt of states round the periphery of the Middle East and Africa. He viewed Nasser as a dangerous dictator who, in the style of Hitler, sought to extend his personal influence abroad by the use of agents, assassination squads, subversion and propaganda. ‘My aim’, wrote Harel, ‘was to erect a dam against the Nasserist-Soviet flood. It was clear to me that no country would be saved by a foreign army, but by its own capacity to resist and with mutual help from neighbours. And since Nasser’s main instrument — like that of the Soviets and communism — was subversion and organizing fifth columns, it was most essential and urgent to take effective measures in the sphere of internal security. I therefore devoted considerable efforts to assist these countries in organizing efficient intelligence and security services and a military or police strike force capable of withstanding any sudden internal or externally-inspired coup attempt.’[15]

    Another stand in Israeli thinking about the Middle East, closely related to the alliance of the periphery, was the alliance of the minorities. Israelis liked to portray the Middle East not as predominantly Arab or Islamic but as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural area. Ben-Gurion himself often argued that the majority of the inhabitants of the Middle East were not Arab. He was referring not only to the Persians and the Turks but also to the non-Arab minorities such as the Jews, the Kurds, and the Christian Maronites of Lebanon. By forging an alliance with these minorities, Israel aimed at emerging out of their regional isolation, at keeping the Arab world divided, and at countering the forces of pan-Arabism. With the Maronites of Lebanon the Zionist movement had particularly close links going back to the 1920s. In the decade after 1948, Israel pursued an interventionist policy designed to help the Maronites protect their political predominance at home and preserve Lebanon as an independent, pro-Western state.[16]

    In 1958 the Middle East was convulsed by a series of crises involving Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. This was partly the result of the political fall-out from the Suez War which had discredited the conservative regimes that were associated with Britain and enhanced the appeal of the radical, pro-Nasser and pro-Soviet forces. In May 1958 a civil war broke out in Lebanon between the predominantly Christian and strongly pro-Western regime of President Camille Chamoun and the predominantly Muslim Socialist National Front which wanted to join the UAR.

    On 14 July a group of Iraqi Free Officers led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim captured power in Baghdad in a swift and savage military coup. The young King Faisal II, the regent Abdul Illah, and prime minister, Nuri al-Said were murdered and there was talk of turning Iraq into a people’s republic. The defenestration of Britain’s allies in Baghdad threatened to change the strategic map of the Middle East since Iraq was a major oil producer and the linchpin of the Baghdad Pact. The coup threatened to unravel the whole system of Western control over the Middle East and its oil resources. There was a real danger that Jordan, which was ruled by the other branch of the Hashemite dynasty, and Lebanon might also be overwhelmed by the Arab nationalist tide. The rulers of these countries felt this danger most acutely. President Chamoun requested military aid from the United States under the Eisenhower Doctrine. King Hussein of Jordan appealed to Britain for help.

    The Eisenhower administration decided to put on a general show of force and sent marines into Lebanon within 48 hours of the Baghdad coup to help prop up the tottering regime of President Chamoun. The government headed by Harold Macmillan also resolved on a general show of force, provided it could be carried out in the closest co-operation with the United States. It decided to send immediately by air around 1500 troops from Cyprus to Amman and it asked Israel for permission for overflight across its territory. It took Israel's positive response for granted since Israel, too, had a stake in protecting the monarchy in Amman and in preserving the status quo in Jordan.

    The Israeli response to the crisis was hesitant, extremely cautious, and rather muddled. Since, strictly speaking, the coup in Baghdad was an internal matter which did not affect the regional status quo, Israel adhered to a policy of non-intervention. This reduced her to an essentially passive role, to giving advice to outside powers. Her hope was that the Western powers would intervene by force against the rebels in Iraq but it quickly became clear that this was not a realistic option. The decision to assist Lebanon was well-received in Israel as a demonstration that America was faithful to her commitments. On the British request, however, the cabinet was divided, with Mapai’s left-wing coalition partners opposing the request. The Mapam ministers had a neutralist orientation and did not wish to side with Britain against the Soviet Union. The Ahdut Ha’avodah ministers believed that the monarchy in Amman was doomed, with or without British help, and they did not want to miss a chance to capture the West Bank.

    The IDF experts were also concerned about the future of Jordan. Their intelligence suggested that the coup in Iraq had been well prepared and carried out with the help of the UAR and they feared a similar coup in Amman because of its proximity to Israel’s vulnerable strategic points. Various contingency plans had been prepared for the capture of the entire West Bank or parts of it in the event of a Nasserist coup in Amman. On the evening of 14 July, Chaim Laskov, the new chief of staff, proposed the capture of Hebron, of the area around Jerusalem, and of the high ground all the way to Nablus. Ben-Gurion was unconvinced. ‘This time the Arabs will not run away!’ he wrote in his diary.[17]   The demographic problem was important because there were nearly a million Arabs on the West Bank compared with only 1,750,000 Jews in Israel. But it was not the only one. Another consideration was the strong opposition that Israeli expansion into the West Bank was likely to encounter from the Western powers and from the international community. Thirdly, in common with the foreign policy establishment, Ben-Gurion regarded the survival of the Hashemite monarchy in Amman as essential to Israel’s security. They all recognized that the preservation of the status quo in Jordan against further encroachment by Nasser was a vital Israeli interest. As Golda Meir told Selwyn Lloyd: ‘We all pray three times a day for King Hussein’s safety and success.’[18]   It was one thing to preserve Israel’s freedom of action in the event of Hussein’s fall; it was quite another to seize by force parts of his kingdom while he was still sitting on his throne.

    Given the divisions in the cabinet, Ben-Gurion embraced a suggestion made by one of his ministers that they turn to America for advice before replying to the British request. America supported the British plan to fly troops to Amman. America also sought permission to use Israel’s air space herself as it intended to fly over Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq to project her strength and determination. Before the positive Israeli reply was conveyed to Britain, however, RAF planes began to fly over Israel on their way to Amman.[19]   On 17 July Ben-Gurion received from prime minister Harold Macmillan a courteous explanation and apology for this action. Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion resented this affront to Israeli sovereignty. ‘Although we fully agree with you on the necessity to preserve the independence of Jordan’, he wrote to Macmillan, ‘I must protest against our being faced with an accomplished fact by the unauthorized flying of airborne forces over our territory, and we trust that this will not happen again. We cannot acquiesce in the sovereignty of our country being violated.’[20]   Ben-Gurion returned to this subject again and again in his talks with the British ambassador, Sir Francis Rundall. ‘He and his colleagues’, reported Rundall, ‘are trailing their emotional shirts as only Israelis can and are even more likely than usual to see slight or insult where none is intended.’[21]

    A total of 4,000 paratroopers were airlifted to Amman as well as military equipment and fuel. After securing the royal palace and other installations in Amman, the British forces stayed for several months and only withdrew when the danger seemed to have passed. King Hussein was grateful for Britain’s help and for Israel’s part in facilitating it. The plotting in Iraq was linked to similar activities within the Jordanian armed forces. He had warned the Iraqis of the impending coup but their reply was that he should look after himself because Iraq, unlike Jordan, was a stable country. When the coup occurred, he considered military intervention to restore the regime but he was forced to abandon the idea when he learnt that the royal family had been wiped out. The situation in Jordan became ominous, as he recalled many years later:

Suddenly, we found ourselves isolated, our oil tankers were caught up in Iraq and couldn’t come through; the Syrian border was closed. Nasser straddled both Syria and Egypt, the Saudis would not permit overflights or the supply of food.... So we were totally cut off and we needed oil and there was only one way: to fly across Israel into Jordan. We did not have any direct negotiations over that. The British and Americans did and we certainly appreciated it.[22]

    The crisis in Jordan suddenly underlined Israel’s importance to the great powers. Israel was not being asked to do anything to help Jordan, except to permit the use of her air space. Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion earnestly hoped to get something in return for helping the Western powers. Considerations of national pride and prestige played their part in his response to the crisis. He wanted Israel to be treated with all the respect due to an important ally and he considered it demeaning that the Western powers simply asked Israel to allow their airlift to Jordan. He feared that if Israel supplied the technical services requested of her, she would be discarded as soon as the crisis subsided. In the words of one of his aides, the prime minister did not want Israel to 'play the role of the mistress who is not permitted to greet her lover openly under the trees of the main avenue.'[23]  Ben-Gurion gathered his advisers and told them: ‘We now have to act with all our energy to obtain arms from the United States, to demand to be involved in political and military discussions relating to the Middle East, and to bring closer together the Middle Eastern states who are opposed to Nasser.’[24]   As the crisis evolved, four distinct objectives emerged. These were to persuade Britain and America to supply arms to Israel, to obtain a public American security guarantee, to integrate Israel into the Western plans for the defence of the Middle East, and to secure American support for the alliance of the periphery.

    Ben-Gurion summoned the British ambassador for a talk on 18 July. His main purpose was to propose a working partnership between the United Kingdom and Israel on the lines of the one that already existed between Israel and France. He recalled that he had already proposed such a partnership to Britain in 1951 but was turned down and said that he was prompted to renew this proposal by the revolutionary changes that were taking place in the Middle East. He supported the Anglo-American intervention but pointed out that while Lebanon was basically a democracy and would survive as such, Jordan was only the King and one bullet would finish him off. He could not see that Jordan had any long term future. Whilst Ben-Gurion realized that Britain had important interests in the Middle East, he stressed that for Israel her very survival was at stake. Nasser threatened not only Israel but Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Sudan. What Ben-Gurion suggested was a partnership between equals based on common interests and common values. He asked that his proposal be considered at the highest level.[25]

    A couple of days later, Macmillan sent a friendly but non-committal letter to Ben-Gurion. He expressed the hope that the current situation would be the beginning of a fruitful stage in their relations. He also expressed interest in the suggestions made by Ben-Gurion and hoped to be able to discuss them more fully with him soon.[26]   Ben-Gurion, however, would not be fobbed off with vague promises. On 23 July, Eliahu Elath, the Israeli ambassador in London, went to see Selwyn Lloyd, the Secretary of State, and spoke at length about Israel’s expectations. He stressed that by agreeing to the airlift, Israel had crossed the Rubicon. Although she had always been of the West, even the Suez crisis had not brought her out so openly on the side of the West as her co-operation over Jordan. It was therefore the moral duty of the West to see that she did not suffer as a result. The United Kingdom in particular, he said, should never again leave the Arabs in any doubt about how far they could go against Israel. This in turn would make the Arabs less intransigent and help Israel to come to an understanding with them.[27]

    Ben-Gurion pinned his greatest hopes on a change of attitude in Washington. He therefore mustered all his powers of persuasion in a letter to President Eisenhower on 24 July. His main purpose in writing was to get American support for the alliance of the periphery. He began by painting a very dark picture of the situation in the Middle East after the Iraqi revolution and by describing Arab nationalism as a front for Soviet expansionism. Anyone who had read the writings of Colonel Nasser, he wrote, could not be surprised by what happened in Iraq nor regard it as the end of the matter. If Colonel Nasser realized his aim of dominating the Arab world with the help of the Soviet Union, the consequences for the West would be serious. France would not be able to solve the Algerian problem or maintain good relations with Morocco and Tunisia. Libya would not be able to preserve her independence for very long and America and Britain would not be able to preserve their positions there. A pro-Soviet revolution in Iran would be possible. Sudan would become an Egyptian protectorate. Ethiopia’s independence would also be jeopardized and Nasser would be able to carry forward his ambition to dominate the whole of Black Africa.

    Next came an account of Israel’s efforts to strengthen her relations with the outer ring of the Middle East — Iran, Turkey, Sudan and Ethiopia — ‘with the object of establishing a strong dam against the Nasserist Soviet torrent.’  This group included one Arab-speaking country (Sudan) two non-Arab Muslim countries (Iran and Turkey), a Christian nation (Ethiopia) and the State of Israel. In terms of geography this group consisted of two arms: Iran, Turkey and Israel made up the northern arm, Sudan and Ethiopia comprised the southern arm.

    While Ben-Gurion hoped that Nasser’s advances in the Arab world would be checked, he dwelt on the possibilities of enhancing freedom and mutual help in the outer ring of the Middle East. Although Israel’s resources were limited, she was able to assist these countries in many fields and, indeed, the fact that she was not a great power made her less suspect in the eyes of other countries. The implication was that Israel was better placed than the United States to organize the containment of Nasser because she did not arouse suspicions of neo-colonialism. Israel had already an oil pipeline from Eilat to the Mediterranean and if a wider-gauge pipeline could be built, that would serve as an alternative to the Suez Canal for conveying petroleum from East to West and reduce Nasser’s capacity for blackmail. What Israel lacked was a guarantee of her borders, her sovereignty, and her capacity for self-defence. Ben-Gurion made it clear that he was not talking about a far off vision but of a design whose first stages were already in the process of fulfilment. He also stressed that the outer ring would represent a source of strength for the West. Two things, however, were essential according to him: American political, financial, and moral support, and a clear indication to the other four countries that Israel’s efforts had the backing of America. Ben-Gurion concluded his letter with an affirmation of faith that, with Eisenhower’s help, they could safeguard the independence of this vital part of the world and with a request for an early meeting to discuss this matter further.[28]

    Eisenhower replied to Ben-Gurion promptly. His letter, like that of Harold Macmillan was friendly but non-committal. The letter contained a fairly anodyne assurance. It stated that Israel could ‘be confident of United States interest in the integrity and independence of Israel’ and promised that Dulles would write to him in more detail.[29]   Dulles wrote to Ben-Gurion on 1 August but his letter was typically woolly and evasive, with few details and no commitments. He confirmed that America, like Israel, was interested in strengthening the security of the nations in the Middle East who were determined to resist the expansionist forces at work in the area and he referred to recent action by America to strengthen her relations with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. With regard to Israel’s security, he only elaborated on what the President had already said about the implications for Israel of American action in Lebanon: ‘We believe that Israel should be in a position to deter an attempt at aggression by indigenous forces, and are prepared to examine the military implications of this problem with an open mind.’[30]   This was not exactly the explicit defence guarantee that Ben-Gurion was hoping for. It had no deterrent effect because it was given in private and it did not commit America to come to Israel’s aid in the event of a Soviet attack.

    The Soviet Union, which had played no visible role in the crisis of 1958, suddenly loomed large in the eyes of the Israeli ministers with the arrival of a Soviet note on 1 August. The note protested against the overflight of Israel by American  and British aircraft, associated Israel with their aggressive acts, and spoke of perilous consequences for Israel’s own national interest. The note provoked strong demands in the cabinet to withdraw permission for the overflights. Ben-Gurion felt that he had no firm basis for continuing to resist this pressure and he informed America and Britain that the flights had to stop, unwisely giving the Soviet note as the sole reason for this decision. Dulles immediately summoned Abba Eban and spoke to him sternly about his and the President’s shock at learning that Israel had caved in to the Soviet demand without even consulting them. When Eban tried to explain that Israel was in a precarious position because she lacked a formal security guarantee, Dulles stated that the Eisenhower Doctrine made it clear that the US would come to the support of Israel should it be attacked by a Communist power. For future guidance he wanted to know whether Israel felt so menaced by the USSR that it would do whatever the Soviet Union requested.[31]

    Ben-Gurion immediately reversed his decision again, permitting America to continue her airlift to Jordan until 10 August and denying that there was any link between the Soviet note and his earlier decision. He took Eban’s advice to delay his reply to the Soviet note and to assure the Americans in the meantime that Israel was second to none in her steadfastness in the face of pressures and intimidation from Moscow. In truth, Ben-Gurion felt very bitter at what he saw as American hypocrisy in exposing Israel to the risk of retaliation from another superpower while denying her a formal defence guarantee and a part in the formulation of Western plans for the defence of the region. The resentment was mutual. Dulles bitterly resented the constant pressure to which the Israelis subjected him, especially during the crisis. In his public utterances he was careful not to show his true feelings. But in private Anglo-American exchanges he called Israel ‘this millstone round our necks.’[32]

    British officials were equally resentful of Israel's not so subtle attempts to turn the crisis to her advantage and equally reluctant to enter into a long-term partnership with her. Despite the revolution in Iraq, the Foreign Office Arabists felt that the realities of Britain's interests in the Middle East ruled out a closer association with Israel. To Evelyn Shuckburgh it seemed that if they went on to create some sort of partnership along the lines proposed by the Israelis, 'we should simply be adding another heavy link to the chain hanging round our neck which started with the Balfour Declaration and has been steadily drowning us ever since.' Britain's difficulties over the Jordan overflights, according to Shuckburgh, were serious but temporary. He therefore suggested that they should pay the Israelis in temporary coin, such as the supply of aircraft and submarines, rather than burden themselves with a permanent liability.[33]  There were some dissenting voices but this advice was heeded. The British became less stand-offish in their relations with Israel and less inhibited about arms deliveries, but they continued to eschew long-term commitments.

    The Middle East  crisis gradually subsided. In Lebanon Camille Chamoun’s extremely pro-American government was replaced by a neutral one headed by General Fuad Chehab. In Jordan, contrary to all local expectations, King Hussein survived and finished the year more firmly on his throne than he had started it. In the final analysis, Ben-Gurion achieved only one of the four objectives he had set himself when the crisis erupted: Britain revised her previous policy of restricting the supply of arms to Israel. America was still reluctant to become Israel’s main arms supplier, but she began to provide ‘shooting weapons’ as opposed to defensive military equipment. The other three objectives were not achieved. Britain and America refused to give Israel a formal defence guarantee. They also politely brushed aside Ben-Gurion’s proposals for a close political and military partnership. Finally, the Americans could not be drawn to make any commitment, even a purely verbal one, to the alliance of the periphery. These results were rather disappointing when measured against Ben-Gurion's initial expectations of using the 1958 crisis as a stepping-stone to a strategic partnership with Western powers against the forces of radical Arab nationalism.


[1] William Roger Louis, 'Harold Macmillan and the Middle East Crisis of 1958', Proceedings of the British Academy, 94, 1997, 209.
[2] Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War, 1958-1964 (London, 1965); Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Politics, 1945-1958 (London, 1965); Mouayad Ibrahim K. al-Windawi, 'Anglo-Iraqi Relations, 1945-1958' (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Reading, 1989); and Lawrence Tal, 'Politics, the Military, and National Security in Jordan, 1955-1967' (unpublished D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 1997).
[3] Alan Dowty, Middle East Crisis: U.S. Decision-Making in 1958, 1970, and 1973 (Berkeley, 1984); Fawaz A. Gerges, The Superpowers and the Middle East: Regional and International Politics, 1955-1967 (Boulder, 1994); Irene L. Gender, Notes from the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945-1958 (New York, 1997); William B. Quandt, 'Lebanon 1958, and Jordan, 1970', in Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, Force without War: U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument (Washington D.C., 1978);  Ritchie Ovendale, 'Great Britain and the Anglo-American Invasion of Jordan and Lebanon in 1958', International History Review, 16:2, May 1994; Orna Almog, 'An End of an Era - the Crisis of 1958 and the Anglo-Israeli Relationship', Contemporary Record, 8:1, Summer 1994; and Lawrence Tal, 'Britain and the Jordan Crisis of 1958', Middle Eastern Studies, 31:1, January 1995.
[4] 'Israel - the Arab States', consultation in the Prime Minister's office, 1 October 1952, 2446/7, Israel State Archives (ISA), Jerusalem.
[5] The President’s Special Assistant (Richards) to the State Department, 4 May 1957, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, vol. XVII, The Arab-Israeli Dispute 1957 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1990),  597-601.
[6] Abba Eban, Personal Witness: Israel through My Eyes  (New York, 1992),  288.
[7] Moshe Dayan, Milestones: An Autobiography (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1976),  348-9.
[8] Ben-Gurion to Dulles, 22 August 1957, in Eli Shaltiel, ed., David Ben-Gurion: Selected Documents, 1947-1963 (Hebrew)  (Jerusalem, 1996),  406.
[9] Isser Harel, Security and Democracy (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv, 1989),  408.
[10] David Ben-Gurion’s diary, 4 January 1958, the Ben-Gurion Archive, Sede-Boker, Israel.
[11] Interview with Major-General Uzi Narkis, 2 August 1982, Jerusalem. Narkis was deputy director of military intelligence at the time and took a very nonchalant view of the UAR. He said that instead of two Majors in the military intelligence corps, one in charge of the Egyptian desk and the other in charge of the Syrian desk, they would now have to put a Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the UAR desk.
[12] Interview with Major-General Yehoshafat Harkabi, 12 August 1981, Jerusalem.
[13] One exception is Michael Bar-Zohar, 'Ben-Gurion and the Policy of the Periphery', in Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., Israel in the Middle East (New York, 1984), 164-74.
[14] Haggai Eshed, One Man Mossad - Reuven Shiloah: Father of Israeli Intelligence (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1988),  280-1.
[15] Harel, Security and Democracy, 409.
[16] Kirsten E. Schulze, Israel's Covert Diplomacy in Lebanon (London, 1998),  55-61.
[17] Ben-Gurion’s diary, 14 July 1958.
[18] Selwyn Lloyd to Sir Francis Rundall (Tel Aviv), 12 August 1958, FO 371/134285, Public Record Office (PRO).
[19] Ben-Gurion’s diary, 17 July 1958.
[20] David Ben-Gurion to Harold Macmillan, 18 July 1958, 2450/8, ISA.
[21] Sir F. Rundall to E.M. Rose, 22 July 1958, FO 371/134269, PRO.
[22] Interview with King Hussein, 3 December 1996.
[23] Mordechai Bar-On, 'Don't Greet Me under the Trees of the Avenue': Ben-Gurion, Israel's Sovereignty and Britain's Policy in the Middle East, 1949-1959 (Hebrew) (Sede-Boker, 1992), 69-70. I am grateful to Dr Bar-On for giving me a copy of this unpublished manuscript.
[24] Ben-Gurion’s diary, 17 July 1958.
[25] Ben-Gurion’s diary, 18 July 1958; and Sir F. Rundall to FO, 19 July 1958, FO 371/34284, PRO.
[26] Harold Macmillan to David Ben-Gurion, 21 July 1958, 2450/8, ISA.
[27] Selwyn Lloyd to Sir Francis Rundall (Tel Aviv), 23 July, 1958, FO 371/34284, PRO.
[28] David Ben-Gurion to Dwight Eisenhower, 24 July 1958, 4316/7, ISA.
[29] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, vol. xiii, Arab-Israeli Dispute; United Arab Republic; North Africa (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1992), 74, footnote 2.
[30] Ibid., 77-9.
[31] Ibid., 82-83.
[32] Lord Hood to Sir William Hayter, 9 September 1958, FO 371/134279, PRO.
[33] Minute by C.A.E. Shuckburgh, 28 July 1958, FO 371/134285, PRO.