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Stephen Mihm: Biden should be like Ike to curb Israel

Stephen Mihm, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

As Israel’s Gaza offensive has grown ever more deadly and destructive, President Joe Biden has equivocated: condemning the civilian death toll while simultaneously sending more arms to Israel. This position, though perhaps politically expedient at the outset of the conflict, has become untenable.

Now, as the war threatens to destabilize the entire region, Biden should take a more forceful stance, much as one of his predecessors did. In 1956, President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower successfully defused the Suez Crisis, forcing Israel and its allies — as well as the president’s own political rivals — to back down. Eisenhower’s willingness to confront Israel offers a model, however imperfect, for today.

At the beginning of 1956, the Suez Canal remained in the hands of British and French interests, much as it had been for nearly a century. That summer, though, Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized control of this critical conduit, effectively cutting off the flow of Middle Eastern oil to Europe. The move also hit Israel, denying its ships passage through the canal.

Nasser’s act, the culmination of rising tensions between Egypt and European powers, set off a major crisis. Britain and France, eager to reclaim some of their former influence in the region, forged an alliance with Israel, which had already clashed with Egypt in 1948. Together the three nations crafted a plan dubbed “Operation Musketeer”: Israel would invade Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as well as Gaza, which was then under Egyptian control. Britain and France would then land troops in the canal zone in a bid to overthrow Nasser.

News of the plan left Eisenhower aghast. Though the president counted all three countries as allies, he had cultivated relations with the newly independent Arab nations as well, in part to check Soviet influence in the region. Eisenhower, who had previously warned Britain against using force in the region, resolved to curb his Cold War allies if they proceeded with the plan.

This was not without risk: a direct confrontation with Britain, France, and Israel could backfire not just internally, but also closer to home. With the presidential election set to take place a week later, Eisenhower could ill afford to alienate pro-Israel voters in key states, particularly because his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, had tried to make Eisenhower’s foreign policy a campaign issue.

Israel and its allies undoubtedly expected that these considerations would sideline Eisenhower and proceeded with their plan. Israel moved first, invading Egypt on October 29. When Eisenhower pushed for a United Nations resolution calling for Israel to withdraw, Britain and France vetoed the measure — again, expecting that this would settle the issue.

It did not. Instead, Eisenhower delivered a national address on October 31 declaring that the US would not countenance the invasion. “In all the recent troubles in the Middle East, there have indeed been injustices suffered by all nations involved,” Eisenhower said. “But I do not believe that another instrument of injustice — war — is the remedy for these wrongs.”

Eisenhower understood that eloquence alone wouldn’t force a withdrawal, particularly as Britain and France made it clear they would proceed with the plan. Ike now played hardball, informing the Brits through back channels that the US would no longer help prop up the value of the pound sterling, which was already in freefall. The gambit worked: in the face of potential economic crisis, Britain had no choice but to back down and soon withdrew its troops. France followed suit, furious but unable to proceed without Britain by its side.

 

Israel, though, refused to withdraw. Eisenhower was not pleased. He turned again to diplomatic back channels, this time to threatening to support a UN resolution that would ban all public and private aid to Israel, including the tens of millions of dollars the nation received from the US each year. At first, Israel refused to budge. But Eisenhower was unwavering — even as Democrats in Congress, led by future president Lyndon Baines Johnson, threatened to revolt.

As the year came to a close, Eisenhower combined the stick with a carrot: reassurances that the US recognized Israel’s right to defend itself should Nasser take any measures to threaten the nation. By March of 1957, Israel bowed to reality and withdrew its forces, ceding control of the territory it had captured. Egypt reopened the canal the following month, and while tensions over free passage of cargo persisted, the Suez Crisis had come to an end.

What can Biden learn from this episode? While it’s tempting to suggest that he should simply emulate Eisenhower, the reality is more complicated. Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal wasn’t anywhere near as deadly or abhorrent as the attacks launched by Hamas. Moreover, Israel today is a far more powerful and established country than it was in 1956, and quite mindful of the fact that the US failed to honor Eisenhower’s commitment a decade later, a betrayal that helped set the stage for the Six-Day War.

Still, Eisenhower’s bedrock belief — that the US should put stabilizing the Middle East ahead of propping up its allies — remains relevant today. If Israel proceeds with an invasion of Rafah, it will unleash a refugee crisis that could rupture the tenuous peace Egypt and Israel currently enjoy. Eisenhower would not have let such a thing happen. Neither should Biden.

Biden may wish to reread what Eisenhower wrote in his diary at the height of the Suez Crisis, as the words are eerily prescient. The US, Ike concluded, “must be friends with both [Arab and Israeli] contestants in that region in order that we can bring them closer together. To take sides could do nothing but to destroy our influence in leading toward a peaceful settlement of one of the most explosive situations in the world today.”

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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