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Regional Interests and the Impact of Individuals in the 1950s Middle East

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

By Jacob Lewis

The relationship between the state of Israel, the international community, and the United States was just beginning to form in the 1950s and was deeply complicated. The Israelis were clearly aware of the impending threat of conflict posed by neighboring Arab states, so they attempted to obtain an arms advantage in the region to secure themselves against an attack. The reluctance of the United States to provide the arms requested by Israel eventually led to special efforts by Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Shimon Peres, to obtain arms from France and qualitatively shift the balance of power in Israel’s favor. Israel’s military victory in the Suez Crisis and War of 1956 displayed this advantage, even though Israel and its allies withdrew from the Sinai afterwards. The critical importance of both regional interests and powerful individuals is apparent throughout the literature covering the events of the 1950s.

The regional interests of the states involved in the Middle East during the 1950s are key to understanding why each actor made specific decisions. According to Professor Avi Shlaim, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion focused on the idea that Israel’s security and international position revolved around the hostility of its Arab neighbors. Professor Guy Ziv also contends that Ben-Gurion’s top priority was to focus on developing the Israeli army into a competitive force in order to prepare for the inevitable second conflict with the Arab states. It is clear that Israel desperately sought arms to prepare itself for conflict with its neighbors because acquiring arms from a powerful state actor, such as the United States or France, acted as a deterrence. Arms deals between Israel and these powerful actors would clearly establish relationships between the states. Professor Isaac Alteras highlights this fear of conflict with Arab states through his descriptions of the consistent border tensions between Israel and Egypt along the Gaza Strip. Israel’s focus was the security of the state in relationship to the hostility of the Arab states in the region.

There is scholarly consensus on the regional interests of France in the Middle East. Ziv describes how the toppling of the Shishakli regime in Syria brought about greater Soviet influence in the region, which constituted a threat to France’s power. Additionally, French exclusion from arms deals like the Baghdad Pact and growing tensions with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime due to their support of Algerian rebels drove France towards a relationship with Israel. Israel already had strained relations with Egypt and Syria, and Shlaim states that France made an arms deal with Israel in order to try to start a war with Egypt. The growing military alliance between Israel and France, as well as French pro-Israeli sympathies, clearly were an attempt by France to hold on to its influence in the Middle East and North Africa. Such a strategy would likely mean dealing with Nasser and Soviet influence in Syria, and Israel would certainly look to France as an ally in their struggle with Egypt. Alteras also mentions the establishment of the military alliance between France and Israel as vital to their relationship and further discusses the pro-Israeli sympathies of many powerful figures in the French government, such as Prime Minister Guy Mollet. However, those sympathies seem rather insignificant in the face of the appeal of an ally in the region against a common foe such as Nasser. The need for France to have support in its struggle against Nasser and to keep influence in the region ran through its relationship with Israel.

The outsized influence of second tier officials in the United States, Israel, and France, were all highlighted in the scholarship. In the United States, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles appears to have been the main influencer in the Middle East. In fact, President Eisenhower himself was rarely mentioned in the literature. Dulles focused on not antagonizing the Arab states within the Middle East as he viewed them with the utmost strategic importance. Dulles’ beliefs loomed over the repeated denial of arms sales to Israel. His role in the rocky U.S.-Israeli relationship in the 1950s was apparent to Shimon Peres, who thought that he was openly hostile towards Jews. This led Peres to believe that seeking arms for Israel from the United States was pointless; thus, he sought weapons from France instead. This assessment of Dulles, and therefore the United States, seems fair through Peres’s perspective. According to the Israelis, there was a clear and urgent danger posed by the Arab states to their existence. Given Dulles’ views on U.S.-Arab relations, it makes sense that Peres would believe that it would be impossible to convince the United States to provide them with sufficient arms to develop a qualitative advantage. Dulles viewed the establishment of Israel as a catalyst for the turmoil in the Middle East and requested concessions from both Israel and the Arab states. Additionally, the United States would often condemn Israeli actions at the time. There appeared to be a bias towards the Arab states from the United States, at least as Dulles drove Middle East policy. Dulles’ influence, not specifically Eisenhower’s, seems to have played a major role in the Arab-Israeli conflicts.

Shimon Peres played one of the most significant roles in generating massive arm deals and a relationship between Israel and France. Professor Ziv points out that Peres, due to the intransigence of the United States, could not conceive of a conventional way to retrieve arms for Israel. Prominent figures in the Israeli government, such as Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon put up serious resistance to Peres’ attempt to pursue the guarantee of arms from France. France’s declining influence in Syria, exclusion from the Baghdad Pact, and Nasser’s siding with the rebels in Algeria also played to Israel’s strategic interests as it sought to secure itself in the region. Although Alteras does not go into as much detail about Peres’ involvement during this time period, he explicitly mentions that Peres advised Ben-Gurion to approve of a French-Israeli agreement against Nasser’s regime. Shlaim also puts forward that Peres himself worked at building the Israeli relationship with the French and worked through abnormal channels, such as talking directly with the French defense organizations. While Professor Ziv speaks to Peres’ role the most in his scholarship, it seems to be generally accepted that Peres played a major role in establishing French-Israeli relations prior to the Suez Crisis. Without the support of the French, and thereby the British, Israel would not have felt confident in engaging in a conflict with Egypt. The back-channel dealings—including disregarding the protests of the Israeli and French foreign ministries and the convincing of Ben-Gurion that retrieving arms through France was worthwhile—evidently could not have been done without the significant efforts of Peres.

There are many nuances to the arms race in the Middle East during the 1950s and it is important to scour a plethora of literature to determine the leading factors in its development. Professors Ziv, Shlaim, and Alteras all focus on varying aspects of the arms race and ensuing Suez Crisis. However, two aspects evident throughout their literature are the impact of regional interests of the states involved and the non-senior officials who worked to establish the French-Israeli relationship. Although a rather narrow scope of both these aspects was covered, the regional interests of states such as Egypt and other Arab states are also extremely influential. Something I did find was that the readings focused on Nasser as the key player in Egyptian foreign relations, without a focus on a junior official such as Dulles or Peres. The impact of this absence on the actions taken by Egypt is not readily apparent in the scholarship. Regional interests will always play one of the most major parts in anything that a state does today. Interestingly, the Israeli Prime Minister still goes over the heads of some of his junior officials. Just as Ben-Gurion operated against the wishes of Sharett in his dealings with France, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to operate in a subversive manner towards Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. This is especially evident through Netanyahu’s handling of the Abraham Accords. However, in this contemporary case, Gantz and Ashkenazi are of a different party than Netanyahu. It seems likely that there are other junior officials involved in these modern deals, although their identities are unclear. Nonetheless, the literature made it apparent that the regional interests of actors, as well as the hard work done by individuals working for those actors, played incredibly significant roles in the development of the 1950s Middle East arms race.

Works Cited

Alteras, Isaac. Eisenhower and Israel: United States-Israeli Relations, 1953-1960. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993.

Shlaim, Avi. “Israel Between East and West, 1948-1956.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, no. 4 (2004): 657-673.

Ziv, Guy. “Shimon Peres and the French-Israeli Alliance, 1954-1959.” Journal of Contemporary History 45, no. 2 (2010): 406-429.

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