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Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 81-103

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The 1956 Sinai Campaign Viewed From Asia:
Selections From Moshe Sharett's Diaries

Introduced and annotated by Neil Caplan


October 29, 2001 marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the Sinai Campaign—Israel's first "war of choice." 1 The declared objective of the Israel Defense Force [IDF] was to eliminate the feda'yun incursions launched over the preceding two years from bases in the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula against mostly civilian targets inside Israel. It soon became clear, however, that the IDF campaign had been prepared in collusion with France and Great Britain, and that Israel's war aims were not limited to this single declared military objective. In addition, both powers had their own reasons to seek the downfall of Gamal Abd al-Nasir's régime, which had revealed a major arms procurement program with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in September 1955 and which had further defied the western powers by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company in July 1956.

On 29 October 1956, Moshe Sharett (1894-1965) was in New Delhi, no longer holding any government office. He had served as Israel's first foreign minister (May 1948-June 1956) and its second prime minister (December 1953-November 1955). Before and after the founding of the state, he had worked intimately with David Ben-Gurion, with whom he shared many goals, but with whom he increasingly clashed during the early 1950s. During his concurrent term as prime minister and foreign minister in 1954 and 1955, Sharett—with some difficulty—led a cabinet majority that favored restraint and moderation in the face of feda'yun cross-border raids. Although deeply troubled by the growing popularity of the competing "activist" strategy of stiff reprisals advocated by Defense Minister Ben-Gurion, IDF Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan and others, Sharett reluctantly [End Page 81] agreed to continue to serve as foreign minister in a new government formed under Ben-Gurion's premiership in November 1955.

In the crisis atmosphere caused by the Egyptian-Czech arms deal, Sharett led Israel's representatives abroad in lobbying western powers (without success) for a treaty guarantee that would have afforded protection to the Jewish state in the event of an Arab attack. Greater hopes were attached to the simultaneous quest for defensive armaments. Foreign Ministry officials, along with emissaries from the Defense Ministry, conducted parallel, but often uncoordinated, efforts at arms purchases in the United States, Britain, France, and Canada.

During 1955 and 1956, Sharett's relations with Ben-Gurion grew extremely tense. Sharett mobilized cabinet votes that blocked Ben-Gurion's proposals that the IDF capture the Gaza Strip or the Straits of Tiran (Sharm el-Sheikh). and that Israel renounce its adherence to the 1949 General Armistice Agreement in protest against Egyptian violations. While in the United States awaiting the State Department's decision on Israel's arms requests, Sharett felt he was "stabbed in the back" upon receiving news of a massive IDF attack on 11/12 December 1955 against Syrian positions near the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret). During his absence, Sharett confided sarcastically to his diary, "Defense Minister B.G. [had] consulted [acting] Foreign Minister B.G. and [had] received the approval of Prime Minister B.G." for this significant escalation in Israel's border wars. The disproportionately high toll of Syrian casualties shocked international opinion, leading officials in both Washington and London to hold off any decisions regarding Israel's arms requests until after the UN Security Council had completed its hearings on the Syrian complaint. 2

Relations with Ben-Gurion deteriorated further throughout the winter and spring of 1956, with the result that Sharett was finally forced to announce his resignation as Israel's foreign minister on 18 June 1956. Having created the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with hand-picked officials from the pre-state Jewish Agency Political Department, Sharett felt further humiliated by the fact that "his" ministry was being taken over by Golda Myerson (whose family name was shortly to be...


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