Israel Table of Contents

In February 1950, the Israeli government had discreetly negotiated a draft treaty with King Abdullah of Transjordan, including a five-year nonaggression pact, open borders, and free access to the port of Haifa. In April Abdullah annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thus creating the united Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Ben-Gurion acquiesced because he thought this would mean an end to independent claims on Israeli territory and material claims on confiscated Arab territory. Abdullah, however, was assassinated in July 1951. Moreover, Israel was boycotted by all its Arab neighbors, and from the end of 1951 the Suez Canal and the Strait of Tiran (at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, where it opens into the Red Sea) were closed to Israeli shipping.

Surrounded by enemies and having to integrate thousands of immigrants into the new state, Ben-Gurion attempted to make the IDF the new unifying symbol of the fledgling state. He realized that the socialism of the Histadrut was ill suited to solving the problems facing the new state. Above all, Israel needed a unity of purpose, which in Ben-Gurion's thinking could only be provided by a strong army that would defend the country against its enemies and help assimilate its culturally diverse immigrants. Thus, Ben-Gurion added to the socialist ethos of the Histadrut and kibbutz movements an aggressive Israeli nationalism spearheaded by the IDF. To carry out this new orientation, he cultivated a "new guard" Mapai leadership headed by dynamic young General Moshe Dayan and technocrat Shimon Peres. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the Dayan-Peres supporters in Mapai and the "old guard" Labor establishment would compete for power.

In November 1953, Ben-Gurion tendered his resignation, and the less militaristic Moshe Sharett took over as prime minister. Under Sharett's weaker leadership, the conflict between the old-guard Mapai leadership and Ben-Gurion's new technocratic elite festered openly. This led to a major scandal in the Labor Party called the Lavon affair. Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon, an important figure in the old guard, had authorized intelligence chief Benjamin Gibly to launch Israeli spy rings in Cairo and Alexandria in an attempt to embarrass Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Egyptians, however, caught and later executed the spies, and the affair proved to be a major embarrassment to the Israeli government. The commission authorized to investigate the affair became embroiled in a test of strength between the young military establishment-- including Dayan and Peres--and the Mapai old guard, whose support Lavon solicited.

In February 1955, Ben-Gurion returned to the Ministry of Defense, and with the malleable Sharett still as prime minister was able to promote his hard-line defense policy. This position resulted in a number of raids against the Egyptians in response to attacks on Israeli settlements originating from Egyptian-held territory. Subsequently, Ben-Gurion was restored to leadership of the Mapai government. At this time, his biggest concern was the rising power of Nasser. By October 1955, Nasser had signed an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, while President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to supply Israel with weapons.

Ben-Gurion sought to inflict a mortal blow on the Egyptian regime. Because Nasser threatened Western interests in the Suez Canal, Ben-Gurion entered into secret talks with Britain and France about the possibility of Israel striking at the Sinai Peninsula, while Britain and France moved in on the Suez Canal, ostensibly to help protect Western shipping from combat. In late October, the IDF routed the Egyptian army at Gaza and after a week pushed to the Gidi and Mitla passes. On November 5, 1956, the French and British took over the Suez Canal area. After intense pressure from the Eisenhower administration, which was worried about the threat of Soviet military involvement, the European powers acceded to a cease-fire.

In March 1957, Israeli troops were forced to withdraw. The war served to spur Ben-Gurion's drive toward greater militarization. Although Israel was forced to withdraw from Sinai, Ben-Gurion deemed the war a success: the raids from Gaza ceased, UN peacekeeping forces separated Egypt and Israel, greater cooperation with France led to more arms sales to Israel and the building of a nuclear reactor, and, most important, the army's near-perfect performance vindicated his view on the centrality of the IDF.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress