Commentary Magazine


The Lessons of 1956: Nostalgia for a Betrayal of Israel

If you want an object lesson as to where contemporary Israel-bashing in the United States is headed, you can do no better than read an article published today in the Daily Beast by Kai Bird, the former Nation staffer, MacArthur Foundation “genius,” and Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The title, “Time to Talk Tough with Israel,” promises the familiar tiresome refrain about how America must slap the Israelis around for their own good and doesn’t disappoint. But Bird’s frame of reference isn’t just the usual slander about AIPAC running American foreign policy. Instead, he writes from the perspective of an important event in his childhood: the 1956 Sinai campaign, which took place while Bird’s father was serving in the American consulate in East Jerusalem. At that time, about half the city was illegally occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan. Jews were forbidden entry into the Old City, and Jewish holy places such as the Western Wall were abandoned and desecrated.

In 1956, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser massed  his army in the Sinai and allowed Palestinian terrorists to use Egyptian-occupied Gaza as a terrorist sanctuary. Acting in conjunction with Britain and France, who were angry about Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, Israel cleaned out both Gaza and the Sinai, dealing a serious blow to Nasser’s aggressive ambitions. But the United States, which hadn’t been consulted, wound up backing Nasser against the former colonial powers and their Israeli ally. In the end Nasser wasn’t compelled to make peace with Israel. Instead, Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai. All it got in exchange was the presence of a United Nations observer force on the border.

Bird considers that American diktat as a model for our current diplomacy. Which is to say, he wants the United States to demand that Israel give up every inch it won in 1967, including East Jerusalem. If Israel refuses, Bird advocates “severe trade and financial sanctions.”

But let’s examine the results of Bird’s ideal moment in American diplomacy. What did President Eisenhower achieve in 1956? He saved the skin of a vicious Arab dictator who would use the rest of his career to keep fomenting violence in the Middle East. And he set the stage for the 1967 Six-Day War, which took place after Nasser marched his army back into the Sinai along Israel’s border, blockaded the southern Israeli port of Eilat, and then demanded — and got — the withdrawal of the UN force. Far from helping peace, America’s betrayal of Israel only guaranteed that another war would follow. That wasn’t tough love; it was a disaster for both countries.

Bird believes that a similar betrayal of Israel — this time by Barack Obama — will help “Israeli liberals” defeat Netanyahu and give a two-state solution a chance. But the reason those “liberals” were annihilated at the last Israeli election in February 2009 was because the Palestinians have conclusively demonstrated their lack of interest in peace. And no Israeli government of any political stripe will abandon the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

It takes a particular kind of chutzpah for a writer who seems to have fond memories of the days when those Jerusalem neighborhoods were Judenrein — “Jew-free” — to call for a return to a policy of American hostility to Israel to revive such a situation. But that is what passes for intelligent commentary in some publications.