The nationalization of the Suez Canal was the ostensible cause for the 1956 Arab-Israeli War. After the United States refused aid for building the Aswa¯n Dam on July 26, the anniversary of the 1952 revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal to finance building of the dam, Nasser’s dream project. Egypt managed to keep the canal running, much to the consternation of France and Britain. In announcing the canal’s nationalization, Nasser had carefully adhered to international law. The United States, especially the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, an expert in international law, opposed the use of force to retake the canal and instead proposed a diplomatic settlement.
The oil shipped through the canal was vital to the British and French economies, and it was apparent that the United States, then self-sufficient in oil, did not intend to supplement any possible oil losses to its European allies. Great Britain and France were determined to take back the canal by force. The British prime minister, Anthony Eden, personally detested Nasser, and his conservative Tory government was reluctant to cede British imperial control. The French were angry over Nasser’s support for the Algerians in the ongoing war there. Israelis feared Nasser’s growing popularity in the Arab world and wanted him removed from power before he could unify the Arabs and possibly form a united front to attack them. The Israelis secretly approached the French with a proposal for a joint military action against Egypt; the French then brought Great Britain into the plan. Although some British cabinet members opposed joining the alliance, Eden was determined to bring Nasser’s regime down, and the tripartite agreement of the French, British, and Israelis was concluded.
According to the plan Israel was to launch a tripronged attack across the Sinai Peninsula, quickly take the territory, and stop the offensive prior to reaching the canal. The British and French would bombard Egyptian airfields and parachute forces along the canal on the supposed excuse that they were there to stop the war between Egypt and Israel. The Israelis launched the attack in October 1956, quickly cut through Egyptian defense lines, took the Sinai, but then stopped before reaching the banks of the canal. The British and French were late in launching their attack but ultimately took control of the canal. The war was a clear-cut military victory for Israel, Britain, and France, but Nasser immediately accused the three nations of collusion. Although Eden and the French for years publicly denied any collusion, ultimately firsthand accounts by Israeli and other military and political leaders revealed the secret agreement.
With some justification, Nasser argued that the attack proved that Britain and France still had imperialist designs on the Arab world and that Israel was also a threat to its Arab neighbors. Nasser thus turned a military defeat into a political victory and became the most popular man in the Arab world. Contrary to Western and Israeli hopes, Nasser was not overthrown, and he consolidated power after the 1956 war.
The war placed the United States in the awkward position of having to condemn its closest allies in the United Nations. The Soviets gained popularity in the Arab world by supporting Egypt. The war also diverted world attention away from the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolt by Soviet forces. In the face of international condemnation, Britain and France were forced to withdraw in December 1956, and the canal reverted to Egyptian control. Subsequently Eden, suffering from ill health in part brought on by the stress of the conflict, stepped down as prime minister. The Israelis were reluctant to withdraw from the strategic area of Sharm al-Sheikh in the south of Sinai and the Gaza Strip. President Eisenhower intervened and threatened to cut off all U.S. economic aid if they did not return all the territories to Egypt. Israeli forces finally left in March 1957. However, Israel did gain a unilateral agreement from the United States that the Gulf of Aqaba up to the southern Israeli port of Elath was to be considered an international waterway. Egypt and the Arab states never recognized the legality of Aqaba as an international waterway but for a decade did not challenge Israeli shipping through the gulf. Israel made it clear that any future closure of the waterway would be casus belli, or cause for war, and its threatened closure was one cause of the 1967 ArabIsraeli War.
See also Algerian revolution.