Time to Talk Tough With Israel

The last president to take a firm stand against Israel was Dwight Eisenhower over the Suez Crisis, says historian Kai Bird. Now Obama must be like Ike and support Israel’s liberal wing by staying tough.

As a young boy in the autumn of 1956, I was forced to leave our house in Sheikh Jarrah—the neighborhood that today has become the latest battleground over the building of settlements in East Jerusalem. My father was then an American diplomat stationed in East Jerusalem. But when Israel, Britain, and France launched a surprise invasion of Egypt on October 29, 1956, my mother, sister, and I were evacuated to Beirut, leaving father behind to tend to the business of the U.S. government in Jerusalem. We were separated for nearly six months—the time it took for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to compel the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to withdraw his troops from the occupied Sinai Peninsula.

In dealing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration should emulate the strength and stubbornness of Ike in confronting Ben-Gurion.

Peter Beinart: How Barack Beat Bibi This is the one and only successful instance in which an American president used his ample powers against an Israeli government bent on self-destructive policies. In 1956, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had secretly conspired with Britain and France to invade Egypt. This “troika” hoped to seize control of the Suez Canal, which recently had been nationalized by Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdul Nasser. The British and French also hoped to bring about the downfall of Nasser, whose brand of secular Arab nationalism they believed threatened their colonial interests. For his part, Ben-Gurion saw an opportunity to expand Israel’s territory into the Sinai Peninsula. The invasion, of course, was successful and Israeli forces quickly occupied the entire Sinai.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded swiftly, forcing an immediate cease-fire. Within a week, he also compelled the British and French—under threat of financial sanctions—to withdraw their troops. The Israelis, however, were not so easy. Eisenhower later confided in The New York Times’ Kennett Love, “We not only had a little difficulty in getting Britain and France to come out, but later we had much more difficulty in getting the Israelis to come out. Finally, we had to be very tough with them, really, but they finally agreed.”

Ben-Gurion wanted to keep the whole of the Sinai. On November 7, the very day the war ended, he disingenuously told the Knesset, “Our forces did not infringe on the territory of the land of Egypt… our operations were restricted to the area of the Sinai Peninsula alone.” He further proclaimed that the 1949 armistice lines “between us and Egypt are vanished and dead.”

Eisenhower responded by sending Ben-Gurion a stern note warning him that such a stance would bring about a “condemnation of Israel as a violator of the principles and well as the directives of the United Nations.” (Those were the days when U.N. condemnations remained credible.) Ike also told his Undersecretary of State Herbert Hoover, Jr., to pass on an oral warning to Golda Meir, Israel’s foreign minister: If Israel did not withdraw from the Sinai, the president was willing to impose economic sanctions.

Ben-Gurion was stunned. The very next day he sent Eisenhower a message saying that he did not intend to annex the Sinai. A few hours later, he told the Israeli people in a radio broadcast, “None of us knows what the future of the Sinai Desert will be.” But then Ben-Gurion procrastinated for months in the hope that over time Eisenhower would relent and allow the Israelis to keep the land.

In early February 1957, the Israeli cabinet defied a unanimous vote in the U.N. General Assembly and voted not to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Eisenhower, however, was determined not to reward Israel’s aggression. “I personally believe,” my father wrote from Jerusalem, “that Eisenhower is going to have to move in with our strength and force them out… Perhaps Ben-Gurion will fall in the resulting mess, and frankly peace will be closer if he does…. He has been a great Jewish leader, perhaps the greatest, yet his lack of statesmanship in the present period is amazing.”

Finally, Ben-Gurion caved. The last Israeli soldier left the Sinai and Gaza on March 16, 1957—and only then did the State Department allow my family to return to Jerusalem. Eisenhower had not been afraid to be very tough with the Israelis. That was the last time any American president faced down an Israeli prime minister.

Today, time is running out for any viable two-state solution. This realization is deeply troubling to the majority of Israelis who fear that the right-wing settlers' movement is hijacking the peace process. Israel’s liberals desperately need a game-changer. As the Israeli-American historian Bernard Avishai recently wrote, “there is a culture war in Israel now, and the only way the liberal side of it can mount an offensive is if America keeps the heat on.” In dealing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration should emulate the strength and stubbornness of Ike in confronting Ben-Gurion. It would take one phone call for Obama to tell Netanyahu that the building of new settlements anywhere in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, has to stop. Period. And if not, then Netanyahu needs to know there will be severe trade and financial sanctions. This would be Obama’s gift of tough love for the Israelis. Yes, I know this scenario is unlikely, even naïve. It almost certainly won’t happen. This is 2010, not 1956. But trust me, if it doesn’t happen, things will only get worse.

Kai Bird spent his formative years in the Middle East. He and Martin J. Sherwin won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for their biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Bird's memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, will be released by Scribner in April.