Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Tom Segev: A War of Whims

19 February 2009

By Tom Segev, Haaretz – 19 February 2009

Tom Segev

Tom Segev

On the evening of October 29, 1956, Israel, allied with France and Great Britain, attacked Egypt, and the Sinai Campaign began. The operation lasted for about 100 hours and cost the lives of over 170 Israeli soldiers. Over the years, the widespread perception has been that Israel wanted this war, but to this day there is no consensus among scholars about the reasons why.

Dr. Guy Laron, an Israeli researcher who is now teaching at Northwestern University, in Chicago, is trying to prove that the main reason why Israel attacked Egypt was the desire to expand the country’s borders, including capturing the West Bank. To prove this thesis, an article by Laron, published in the prestigious Middle East Journal, cites formerly classified documents, including General Staff proceedings.

On October 26, 1955 – in other words, exactly a year before the Sinai Campaign – chief of staff Moshe Dayan convened the General Staff and told the generals about a plan to expand the country’s borders, one stage at a time. A preliminary strike against Egypt was designed to ensure the capture of Gaza and Sinai up to the Suez Canal, and afterward up to Cairo as well. The first stage of capturing the West Bank was supposed to bring the Israel Defense Forces as far as Hebron, the second stage up to the Jordan River. In Lebanon, Israel planned to stop at the banks of the Litani River; the capture of the Golan Heights was supposed to bring the IDF to Damascus.

This was of course a contingency plan, as Laron himself admits, and its existence does not go a long way to proving that the Sinai Campaign was meant to implement it. However, according to Laron, the remainder of the campaign’s goals – including the prevention of terror and toppling the regime of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser – could have been achieved even without a war. Laron claims that only the ambition of territorial expansion required a war.

The 19 years between the War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War in fact saw many discussions about expanding Israel’s borders in the event a war broke out, but no one has managed to prove that Israel initiated a war in order to achieve that goal. Nevertheless, Laron’s description of Israel’s attitude toward Egypt as “schizophrenic” seems valid.

The IDF intelligence assessments correctly determined that the army could easily defeat Egypt. Here was ostensibly a good reason not to attack Israel’s southern neighbor, but the opposite was also true: Egypt’s weakness constituted a good reason to attack. At the same time, the General Staff debated whether Nasser was planning to attack Israel, or whether he was concentrating on efforts to defend Egypt from an Israeli attack. Yehoshafat Harkabi, a general and Middle East scholar, was convinced that Nasser was planning an attack; Dayan was convinced he wasn’t.

All these discussions were held against the backdrop of an arms deal Egypt had signed with Czechoslovakia. The Czechs sent instructors who were supposed to train Egyptian combat pilots. Declassified documents Laron perused in Prague reflect an embarrassing story: The Czech instructors wanted to go home, but their commander, Jan Rendel, wanted to stay. The instructors knew why: Rendel was involved in smuggling Bohemian crystal and selling it to the Egyptians at exorbitant prices. Meanwhile, the actual training of the Egyptians was neglected and a number of the planes crashed. Israeli intelligence also knew about this. The assessment was that Egypt was so weak that it would not risk an attack on Israel.

However, the IDF wanted a war. Dayan was inconsistent. In April 1956 he suddenly said that the Egyptians were planning to attack Tel Aviv – apparently in the hope that this would convince prime minister David Ben-Gurion to allow the IDF to plan an attack. The General Staff discussion held on April 10, 1956, conveys an almost apocalyptic mood. Egypt would attack Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion agreed, and if it succeeded, Israel would be lost. Jordan would take Jerusalem, Syria would attack Haifa. There was absolutely no proof of that, but Ben-Gurion adopted the nightmarish vision.

The generals on the General Staff reassured him. The IDF is stronger. It will win. Ben-Gurion believed that we should not embark on a war without allies, and when the possibility of a joint operation with France and Great Britain arose, he hoped to take over the West Bank, too. The French disagreed, and Ben-Gurion made do with Sinai. More than a rational expansion plan, the Sinai Campaign looks today like an improvised adventure, a whim of a country that didn’t know what it wanted.

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