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(paper presented at the International Conference on
The History of the Cold War, Cortona, Italy, October 5–6, 2001)
Towards the middle of the 1950s, the Soviet Union livened up its policy in the Arab East, which was in large measure facilitated by the serious political changes in that region and by the increasing gravitation of a number of young Arab states towards Moscow. In September 1955, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser signed his first agreement on arms deliveries from the countries of the socialist bloc (initially, Soviet weapons were shipped via Czechoslovakia). As a result of this, on 21 July 1956, Egypt was deprived of a loan for the construction of the Aswan Water-Power Complex earlier promised to her by the US, Britain and the IBRD. On 26 July, Nasser issued a decree nationalising the Suez Canal, from whose zone the withdrawal of British troops had been completed in June 1956, and soon, after a sharp aggravation of the situation, Israel, Britain and France, displeased with Egyptian actions, unleashed an aggression against that country. The Soviet Union resolutely supported Egypt and strongly demanded to stop this military invasion. In December 1956, the Anglo-French troops were withdrawn from Egypt.
The process of rapprochement between Cairo and Moscow set in, in which each of the parties pursued its own objectives that often did not coincide. The extension of the Cold War to the region expressed itself in US attempts to hinder the veering to the left of the political spectrum in the states in the region and prevent the Soviet Union from gaming certain positions in them. The so-called Eisenhower Doctrine proclaimed in early 1957 was partly calculated to produce this effect. After the events of the fall of 1956, relations with Egypt took on an increasing importance for the Soviet leadership. At the end of 1956, Nasser decided to visit the USSR next summer. Working out Egypt's foreign and internal policy plans, he requested Soviet government opinion on a number of questions and informed them on steps he was going to take. On December 31, he, for example, told the Soviet ambassador E.D.Kiselyov on his intention to hand Hammarskjold a note declaring the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement null and void1, and also on an attempt on his life by the British. Nasser was also concerned about Eisenhower’s intention to ask Congress the right to use US armed forces in the Middle East' In this connection, he asked the Soviet government to provide the necessary information and advice. In the same conversation, Nasser informed Moscow of the “impetuous US activity for the creation of a Union of North Africa, to include Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and then Algeria”2. Nasser complained about the folly of the Egyptian military attaché in Libya, who, after having organized a number of major acts of sabotage against the British bases in Libya in 1956, “caused the strongest discontent of Ben Halim”, for which he was subsequently tried.
In connection with the report on the stepped-up US activity in Northern Africa, Kiselyov proposed to Moscow to speed up the formation of Soviet embassies in Tunisia and Morocco as much as possible. For his part, the ambassador informed Nasser about the US pressuring of the Arab countries by way of Iran for the purpose of creating an Islamic pact, calling all this “parts of a single imperialist chain”, to which one could also add the idea of an “African security belt”. The ambassador reported that these plans were directed “at the destruction of Arab unity and the political isolation of Egypt”3.
Nasser also informed the ambassador that the US had refused to provide food aid to Egypt by grain deliveries. He requested the opinion of the Soviet government on the two questions he was discussing with the American ambassador, – on the Suez Canal and the Palestinian problem. Egypt’s position on the canal was reaffirmed – “no international control in any.form, only international cooperation with all countries”4.
Moscow’s rapprochement with Cairo was also facilitated by the fact that on 31 December 1956, USSR Foreign Minister D.T. Shepilov gave the ambassador an instruction to visit Nasser or Sabri and inform them of the decision on the shipment of Soviet military equipment in accordance with the agreements concluded earlier.
After Eisenhower’s statement on the Middle East on 5 January, that was soon called a doctrine, Ali Sabri, head of the chancellery of the president of Egypt, on 8 January met the Soviet ambassador on Nasser’s instructions. He informed the ambassador that the president gave an order to allow the Egyptian press “a complete freedom of all-round criticism of US plans in the Middle East”. As one of the measures to oppose US plans he named the beginning of the Egyptian government's course towards strengthening allied relations with Syria and Jordan. The Egyptian leader believed that Lebanon “could be tempted by Eisenhower's promises”. Sabri voiced an opinion, regarded by his interlocutor as that of Nasser, on the “extreme desirability of a statement by the Soviet government, in which it would be necessary to proclaim the readiness of the Soviet Union to offer economic assistance to the Arab countries without any political conditions, declaring at the same time that the Soviet Union cannot remain indifferent to a US military intervention in the affairs of the Middle East”5. Kiselyov, carrying out orders from Moscow, subjected Eisenhower’s plan to a sharp criticism, adding that it would be better if the Arab countries themselves made an official statement apropos of this. Personally, Kiselyov added that it would be a rightful thing to do to raise urgently the question of the threat of US intervention in the affairs of the Middle East at a session of the General Assembly. The calculation behind this was that a negative opinion could be formed in the UN concerning US plans, and this, in turn, could, in the opinion of the ambassador, induce the Democratic majority in Congress to come out in opposition to these plans for the motives of interparty struggle6.
Sabri did not share the ambassador’s optimism concerning the General Assembly. He said that the large Latin American bloc of UN member states would ensure support for the US. Besides, he expressed anxiety in connection with the position of India, indicating that Nehru's statement on the Eisenhower doctrine was weak. In his words, Eisenhower’s statement in essence meant “joining the Baghdad pact without formal announcement and the encouragement of the pro-Western forces in the Arab world”7.
The Egyptian leaders also continued to communicate to the Soviet ambassador the information on the planned North African Union, voicing strong anxiety in this connection and hoping that Moscow would oppose these plans.
The question of Israeli troops in Egyptian territory was an object of permanent consultations. On 24 January Ali Sabri informed the Soviet ambassador on the Egypt’s position of on this question, asking for advice. The question was so important that at the USSR First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs A.A.Gromyko’s submission of 30 January, a guideline Ruling of the CPSU Central Committee was adopted on it, according to customary procedure. It read:
In connection with the dragging out of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egyptian territory, the return of the Soviet ambassador A. Abramov to Israel, originally planned for 26 December 1956, was postponed during that period. In a note to the USSR Deputy Foreign Minister V. A. Zorin of 26 January 1957 Abramov wrote:
“From the statements of the Israeli government one can see visible that it considers the Gaza Strip to be a disputed area, intending to annex it, and wants to keep the coast of the Gulf of Akaba until it receives guarantees of the freedom of Israeli navigation in the Gulf. One may presume that these Israeli claims were inspired by England, France and the US, which do not hide their intention to use the Israeli occupation of the above areas for pressuring Egypt. This is confirmed, in particular, by the fact that Israel, in response to the resolution of the session of the UN SC of 19 January which obliged her to withdraw troops from the territory of Egypt in five days, declared on 23 January in a in,a pointed manner on its refusal to abide by this resolution.
At the same time Egypt now does not have any effective means of forcing Israel to withdraw from the occupied areas. Our means of pressure against Israel – the recall of our ambassador and the termination of the Soviet-Israeli trade – are not effective enough and are gradually losing their value”8 Abramov believed that the resolution of the question of the Gaza Strip and the Israeli navigation in the Gulf of Akaba cold not be expected in the coming months and that his return to Israel was inappropriate, as it would be regarded in the Arab countries as an “indirect approval of aggression”. He suggested relieving him from the duty of an ambassador without appointing a new one9.
Anyhow, the Soviet embassy to Israel continued working. In connection with reception of a working plan of the Department Of the Countries of the Near and Middle East of the USSR Foreign Ministry for the first quarter of 1957, the Soviet charge d’affaires in Israel N. Klimov informed the Head of the Department, G. T. Zaitsev, of the embassy’s opinion. The plan, wrote Klimov, USSR raised no question of working out the position concerning Israel in the light of changes caused by the aggression against Egypt, nor did it take into account the “changes in the Jewish question in connection with the events that took place in Poland and Hungary”. The letter went on to say: “The aggression of Israel against Egypt has shown a substantial change in Israel’s role in the affairs of the Middle East. Israel has proved that she can attack the neighbouring Arab countries at any moment when it is of advantage to her. It is also necessary to bear in mind that Israel possesses a significant scientific staff and a corresponding equipment for the preparation and realization of bacteriological means of attack.
For the last four months up to 8,000 Jewish immigrants from Poland arrived in Israel. Among them are former employees of the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs, military intelligence, security service, outstanding scientists, including atomic physicists and well-known bacteriologists. In the nearest future one may expect the arrival of a significant number of Jews from Hungary, among them well-known scientists and outstanding physicians. Israel receives a significant reinforcement for the realization of subversive work against the Soviet Union and the socialist countries, and also against her neighbours”10.
Though Nasser continued to assure the Soviet leadership of his sharply negative attitude towards the Eisenhower doctrine and to demand from Moscow an active counteraction to its realization, he did not want to quarrel with the US and preferred to avoid declarations. The USSR Foreign Ministry wrote to the CPSU Central Committee on 8 February 1957 in this connection: “As reported by comrade Kuznetsov from New York, during the discussion at the UN General Assembly of Hammarskjold’s report and the question of deployment of UN armed forces in Egyptian territory, the Egyptian delegation took a rather unstable position and in fact made serious concessions to the US.
Also noteworthy is the fact that this unstable position of the Egyptian delegation was actively supported by the representatives of India. The position of the Egyptian and Indian delegations, as well as the decisions taken by the General Assembly on 2 February caused anxiety, especially in Syria and Jordan.
The behaviour of the Egyptian delegation suggests that under US pressure the Egyptian government is to some extent falling back on its former positions.
Taking into account the above-mentioned circumstances, the USSR Foreiga Ministry deems it expedient to authorise our ambassadors to Egypt, Syria and India. in a confidential and informal manner to exchange opinions with Nasser, Quatli and Nehru concerning the situation that been formed in the Near and Middle East.
The USSR Foreign Ministry also deems it expedient to inform the Chinese friends about this”.
In the draft instructions to the Soviet ambassador to Egypt worked out the Foreign Ministry on behalf of the Foreign Minister D. T. Shepilov, one of the dangerous tendencies in development of the situation in the Near and Middle East was referred to as follows: “The United States of America, using a serious military, moral and political defeat of England and France in their aggressive war against Egypt, is taking urgent measures to adopt and implement the so-called Eisenhower doctrine, whose objective, as was rightly indicated by you, mister president, is to strengthen US political, economic and military positions in the Near and Middle East and to take the place of England and France in this area”11.
The draft spoke of Israel’s encouragement by the US, Britain and France and their fostering the delay in the withdrawal of troops from the territory of Egypt. Thus, as the Foreign Ministry believed, these countries sought “to create the preconditions for a substantial and in no way justified enhancement of the functions of UN armed forces in the territory of Egypt, obviously expecting to use these armed forces for their imperialist purposes, put pressure on Egypt and other Arab countries in the process of the settlement of the Suez question and other Middle Eastern problems”12.
The Soviet Foreign Ministry believed that the UN SC resolution of 2 February 1957 on the deployment of UN armed forces concealed “danger to Egypt and other Arab countries” and could be used by the US and Western powers “to implement their colonialist plans”13. The reference to the report of the UN General Secretary of 24 January contained in the resolution was considered in the USSR Foreign Ministry as a serious concession to Israel. “The decision on the deployment of the UN armed forces in the territory of Egypt along the demarcation line with Israel and the granting of extended functions to her provides an opportunity for Israel to ensure for herself a stable rear from the side of Egypt, which frees Israel's hands to carry on a provocative, aggressive policy with regard to Syria and Jordan”14.
In Moscow saw the connection between the Eisenhower doctrine and “the desire of the US and other Western powers to occupy the strategically important areas of Egypt by UN armed forces” in order to isolate her from other Arab countries, which the US intended, as the USSR believed, to draw into aggressive blocs. Moscow was dissatisfied with Egypt's insufficiently active and clear position on this question.
In this connection, the draft instruction to the Soviet ambassador to Syria said that the US, together with England, France and Israel, by exerting ever- growing pressure on Syria and Jordan, “harboured plans for the overthrow of the republican regime in Syria and the dismemberment of Jordan”15. In the process, as the draft instruction noted, Shukri Quatli was to be told that not all the Arab countries perceived the “link between the Eisenhower Doctrine and the desire of the USA and other Western powers to occupy by the UN armed forces the strategically important regions of Egypt”. The ambassador was to find out how Quatli appraised the possible consequences of the UN SC decision of 2 February on the deployment of UN armed forces in the territory of Egypt along the demarcation line with Israel, along the coast of the Gulf of Akaba and in the Gaza Strip, and also to find out which steps Syria’s president deemed necessary to take “in order to hinder the implementation of measures planned by the colonialists in the Near and Middle East”.
The Soviet leadership, as may be judged from the diplomatic archives of the period, sought to rely on a possibly greater number of Arab countries – parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, using their fear of a possibly intensified US pressure on them (Egypt, Syria and, to a lesser degree, Jordan, where calculations were made on the government headed by the leader of the National Socialist Party – Suleiman an-Nabulsi, which came to power after the election in October 1956). The main task was, naturally, to prevent the growth of US influence and the increase in the number of countries participating in blocs with American membership. After the 1956 events, the USSR still more definitely began to be inclined to supporting the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time Moscow exhibits restraint, calling on the Arabs to do likewise, unwilling to enter into confrontation with the USA in the region and taking account of the fact that the Eisenhower government also exercised restraint in supporting Israel. Egypt, relations with which substantially improved after the Suez crisis, attracted Moscow's ever-growing attention.
In February 1957, Soviet diplomats were paying attention to the development of the situation regarding the canal. As followed from conversations between Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmud Fawzi and Hammarskjold in New York, Egypt believed that until the withdrawal of Iraeli troops from the territory of Egypt, talk on the future of the Suez Canal was premature. Ali Sabri told the Soviet ambassador in Cairo, E.D. Kiselyov, that the Canal users, meeting at a conference in London in January 1957, failed to reach any agreement16. Egypt argued against any priorities whatsoever in the passage of ships through the Canal. Sabri informed the ambassador of the apprehensions Nasser developed in connection with a plan to hold a conference of signatory powers of the 1888 Convention, and of the fact that Egypt deemed it necessary to state its position on the Suez question already then, promising to send the text of the declaration a day or two prior to its publication. A fundamental point in it was that Egypt insisted on payment of Canal dues exclusively to the Egyptian administration. This was aimed, said Sabri, against the plans of the USA and other Western powers to put into practice the payments of Canal dues via an international bank17. The main objective of the Egyptians, as followed from the conversation, was to prevent the establishment of an interim regime for the canal on the initiative of the US, Britain and France.
An exchange of information on statements that were only supposed to be published had already become customary in the Soviet-Egyption confidential contacts. On 10 February, the Soviet ambassador also met Nasser and acquainted him with the main principles of the declaration proposed by Soviet government to the three great powers on the question of policy in the Near and Middle East. Nasser supported all its points except one – on the four powers’ renunciation from supplying arms to the countries of the region (point 5), indicating that in such a situation Israel would become much stronger than Egypt, especially in terms of aviation18. He said that if it were possible to “saturate” Egypt with planes before the adoption of the declaration, the objections against the fifth point would be lifted. Nasser also expressed doubts about the realistic nature of the point on the liquidation of military bases and the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Replying to the remark of the Egyptian president, the Soviet ambassador observed on his personal behalf that if after the adoption of the declaration Israel were supplied with arms by, say, Canada, then Egypt would find a lot of friends who would supply her with arms, for instance China or Czechoslovakia.
The Egyptian president related that in a letter to Hammarskjold he declared that his country might suspend the clearing of the canal in case if Israel withdrew her troops from the Gulf of Akaba and Gaza, but made it clear that he was not going to delay the clearing for a long time.
According to Nasser, Lebanon, where Shamun wanted to “secure an election campaign for himself with American money”, was a weak spot of the Arab world in terms of the penetration of the Eisenhower Doctrine19. In Nasser’s opinion, the main cutting edge of the Eisenhower Doctrine was aimed not against Communism and the USSR but against Arab nationalism and Egypt as its vehicle. Here the views of the Egyptian and the Soviet leadership clearly differed: Moscow regarded the Eisenhower Doctrine through the prism of Soviet-American antagonism.
On 14 February 1957, Egypt’s ambassador to the USSR Al-Kuni sent information to the Middle Eastern Department of the Soviet Foreign Ministry on the statement of the Director of the Department of Information of Egypt Abdel Kader Khatem on the Dulles plan which, as was stated, “pursues the objective of satisfying Israel's demands on the freedom of navigation in the Egyptian territorial waters in the Gulf of Akaba and on the deployment of UN armed forces in Gaza under the pretext of Israel’s defence from the Egyptian aggression”20. The statement paid much attention to the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and the non-observance of UN decisions by Israel. On 15 February, Al-Kuni was received by Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs V. A. Zorin. Referring to Soviet proposals expressed by the Foreign Minister D. T. Shepilov in his report at a session of the USSR Supreme Soviet, the ambassador pointed to the possible manoeuvres of the Western powers on two issues – the imposition of an embargo on arms shipments to the countries of the Near and Middle East and the liquidation of military bases in the region. The West, the ambassador pointed out, proposed not to extend the application of the embargo to Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, particularly to Turkey as a NATO member. Al-Kuni also said that the US aspired after an internationalization of the Gulf of Akaba for supporting Israel and through this – for exerting pressure on Egypt, and that “it is in the interests of the Soviet Union to foil the plans of the Western powers with regard to the Gulf of Akaba”21.
Significant for the explanation of the Egyptian political line of that time were the ambassador’s reasoning.that what was involved in the matter was not only the dispute between Egypt and Israel, as the Western powers trying to neutralise Iraq and Saudi Arabia strove to demonstrate, but the dispute between Israel and the whole Arab countries. Seeking a more active Soviet support of Egyptian rights in the Gulf of Akaba and understanding the essence of Moscow's basic concern, the ambassador asserted that the defence of these rights would help to destroy the Eisenhower Doctrine.
For his part, V. A. Zorin pointed out that Moscow “did not fully understand Egypt’s position during the adoption of the UN resolution on the deployment of international forces in the area of the Egyptian-Israeli armistice line and that there was an impression that Egypt did not particularly object to the deployment of UN forces on its territory”22. The ambassador’s reaction was evidence to Egypt’s unwillingness to enter into a confrontation with the Western powers on this question. Having agreed that the deployment of these forces at the Sinai was a dangerous step, Al-Kuni remarked that “Hammarskjold is a man with a warm heart and good intentions”. This met a strong rebuff on the part of the Soviet diplomat who claimed that “Hammarskjold is an international official serving the interests of an organisation in which the USA now represents the uppermost force”23.
Receiving the Egyptian ambassador on 25 February,1957, the new Soviet Foreign Minister A. A. Gromyko wondered if the data were right concerning the possibility of conclusion of an agreement on leaving UN forces in the Gaza Strip and on Egypt's consent to the deployment of UN troops in the Sinai. The ambassador remarked that such data were not right, but his clarifications bore a very confusing character. As Gromyko informed the top Soviet authorities (the record was circulated among all the senior Soviet party and administrative leaders),
“The essence of this position is that although UN forces may be present near Gaza, they should not be present at the territory of Gaza and, besides, even near Gaza they may be present only as long as Egypt agrees to it. He added that thus also incorrect are the data as though Egypt is ready to agree that in the future the question of the duration of the presence of UN forces in the territory of Egypt will be decided independently of Egypt's consent”24.
Gromyko approved of the Egyptian 'working document25 on the Suez question, but said that it would be better if it also contained a proposal concerning the convocation of a broad international conference on the Suez Canal to attract all the countries parties to the 1888 Convention.
Al-Kuni also touched upon the conference of representatives of Arab countries, which was to start its work in Cairo on 25 February. “Speaking about the position of the conference participants, he said that Egypt can completely rely only on Quatli. He offered an opinion that, striving to preserve the unity of the Arab countries, Nasser at first will not directly condemn the Eisenhower Doctrine, but that he, probably, will make a statement on the need of strict observance of the independence of the Arab countries and thus will indirectly express condemnation of the above doctrine”. The ambassador said that Iraq and Lebanon accepted the Eisenhower Doctrine, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia will vacillate. Saud sets great by his position of the “father Arab nationalism”26.
Incidentally, already after that conference, Al-Kuni communicated that Egypt remained pleased with its results and that “the published communique was an expression of unity of the Arabs”27. Al-Kuni informed Zorin that on the question of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Egyptian territory by the Egyptians “failed to exhibit due firmness”. However, about the UN SC resolution which in conversations with the Egyptians the Soviet diplomats constantly criticized, the ambassador said that it did not affect the sovereign rights of Egypt to its territory, whereas after the withdrawal of Israeli troops the Egyptian authorities at the Sinai Peninsula would be able to dispose of it at their own discretion.
Obviously, the Egyptians agreed on the deployment of the international forces in the hope for the withdrawal of Israeli troops, while the Soviet Union considered the deployment of these forces as a step towards the strengthening of US positions in the region and the realization of the Eisenhower Doctrine.
Zorin called the communique of the four Arab states published after conference “an important political document”, but expressed perplexity that it did not express an attitude to the Eisenhower Doctrine and did not say anything about the proposals of the Soviet Union on the question of peace and security in the Near and Middle East.
Al-Kuni’s answer made it possible to make clear Egypt’s position on that score. The ambassador said:
“The Eisenhower Doctrine is unacceptable for the Arab countries. But if the USA offered their aid without making any conditions, either military or political, the Arab countries could in principle accept such aid, since these countries feel a great need in everything. The heads of four Arab states did not openly state their attitude to the Eisenhower Doctrine and to the Soviet Basic Principles for tactical reasons. Practically, not theoretically, the main Arab countries carry on policies corresponding to the Basic Principles and directed against the Eisenhower Doctrine”28. The ambassador did not respond to Zorin’s request to inform him on the position of King Saud and King Hussein at the conference. Al-Kuni also declared that an “open statement on the ‘Doctrine’ and the ‘Principles’ was awkward, apparently because in this case it would be necessary to reject the Eisenhower Doctrine and openly approve the Soviet Principles. This could mean that the Arab countries depart from the neutral course in relations with West and East. It would give food for unleashing a new campaign of hostile propaganda in the West”29.
He noted that the Americans seemingly intended to add to the Eisenhower Doctrine an item providing for the rendering of “aid” on the part of the USA to UN troops in the Middle East “in case of need” and that if this addition were really made, Egypt would officially reject the Eisenhower Doctrine.
After the entry of UN troops into the Gaza Strip, a new situation emerged there. In Gaza, demonstrations were held with the demands of an immediate reinstatement of an Egyptian administration there, at which Canadian troops opened fire. On 11 March, the Egyptian government sent Hammarskjold a telegram of protest, which specified that according to the arrangement between the Egyptian government and the UN Secretary General, as well as to the decisions of the UN General Assembly, the function of international troops consisted in monitoring the ceasefire and the withdrawal of the aggressors' troops from the Egyptian territory. However, in the Gaza Strip the international troops began to perform administrative functions and attempted to impart the administration in the Gaza Strip an international character.
Ali Sabri told Soviet Charge d’Affaires in Egypt P. I. Gerasimov that “after the entry of UN troops into Gaza, the command of the UN troops invited members of the municipal council (who were elected before the aggression) and asked them to cooperate with the command. The members of the municipal council declared that they agree to follow the instructions of the command on condition that the Egyptian government gives its consent to this. After the Egyptian government took a decision yesterday on the appointment of General Abdel Latif as governor of Gaza, the municipal council refused to cooperate with the UN forces command and began a campaign of passive resistance to them. The newly-appointed governor will urgently go to Gaza if he is permitted to enter”30. The Egyptian government, while keeping an immutable position on the Gulf of Akaba, nonetheless did not wish to raise the question on the withdrawal of UN forces from Sharm el-Sheikh, pending the settlement of the Gaza issue.
Sabri also told the story about the delay in the publication of the declaration of the Egyptian government on the Suez Canal, already known to Moscow, due to objections on the part of India. At that period Krishna Menon put forward his proposals on that question, which were rejected by Nasser, since they put the Canal under the trusteeship of an international bank. Nor did Egypt agree to the Soviet recommendation to include in the declaration a point on the convocation of an extended international conference on the Suez issue.
As to the relations between the USSR and Israel at that period, they were clearly passing through a crisis. Conversing with Israel’s ambassador to Moscow I. Avidar on 16 February, Gromyko replied to the ambassador's reproaches that the USSR in recent months ceased to develop the positive results achieved earlier, annulled the agreement on oil deliveries to Israel for 1957–1958 and recalled her ambassador from Tel-Aviv. According to the minister, “Our relations with Israel indeed suffered a deterioration, but this is caused by well-known facts that stem from the policies and actions of the government of Israel; Israel with her actions harmed her position and the cause of peace and calm in the Middle East, having unleashed an aggressive war against the Egyptian state. Pursuing such a policy, Israel may lose its friends. From such policy she will eventually lose rather than gain. She can be supported at this stage by utterly extremist circles in some countries and even by some governments, but from the standpoint of the prospect of her own existence and development, Israel has already caused itself great political damage. The realization of such policy is also capable of causing still greater damage henceforth.
With reference to recent facts which bear witness about what kind of foreign policy Israel is pursuing, I took up the question of Gaza. In so doing, I emphasized the fact that the Israeli position on the question of troop withdrawal from Gaza showed to the whole world that she does not strive towards safeguarding peace and security in the Middle East, but acts in the opposite direction”31. Avidar tried to convince the Minister that Israel’s actions in October-November 1956 bore a defensive character, that it was threatened with danger from Egypt. The Arab countries, he said, “did not want to sign a peace treaty, declared a boycott to her and closed the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Akaba for Israeli shipping. Egyptian documents captured by Israeli troops at the Sinai Peninsula allegedly confirmed the fact that the Egyptian command bears responsibility for sending commandos to the Israeli territory”32. The Soviet Foreign Minister flatly rejected the Israeli argumentation:
“I said that the ambassador was trying to ascribe aggressive intentions to Egypt, but hardly anyone can seriously believe that in the light of what happened in the Middle East. What happened is that it was not Egypt who invaded Israel but Israel who mounted an aggression in relation to Egypt and invaded Egyptian territory, coordinating her actions with Britain and France. The invasion of Egyptian territory by Israeli troops is an objective fact, and its significance cannot be shaken by any reasoning that Egypt allegedly had malevolent intentions towards Israel or was preparing an invasion of Israeli territory”33.
Simultaneously with efforts in the Egyptian direction, Moscow was trying to secure the support of its proposals from Syria. The Syrian Charge d’Affaires in the USSR, Ihsan Marrash told V. Zorin at his meeting with him on 16 February that in his opinion “the government of Syria will find it somewhat difficult to determine its position on this question. This difficulty is linked, in his words, with the existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ensuing unresolved issues”34.
Damascus, understanding Moscow’s interest in its support and i in the thwarting of American plans, like Cairo, sought to secure I greater assistance on the part of the USSR. Not all the Syrian | conclusions and demands were appreciated in Moscow. On 30 March, the CPSU Central Committee passed a resolution drafted in the Foreign Ministry in a reply to the KGB telegram from Damascus of 27 March 1957, which said that “at present, Moscow does not consider a military attack of states hostile to the Arab world on Syria to be inevitable; it is not excluded that Israel's military preparations serve the purpose of blackmail and intimidation of the Arab countries with a view to compel them to make substantial concessions to the Western powers in the resolution of urgent Middle Eastern problems”35. USSR called on Syria and other Arab countries to show endurance and composure, not to take steps which could “provoke an intervention against Syria, for example, by Israel and Turkey”36. The reply read that the USSR “renders and will render assistance to Syria by arms deliveries on the basis of the understanding reached”. However, in response to a question raised by Hawrani on the sending of volunteer pilots by the USSR to Syria or Egypt, it was declared that “under the present conditions such actions might involve negative consequences for both the Arab states and the Soviet Union37.
As far as the Suez issue was concerned, the USSR closely monitored all the moves of the Egyptian diplomacy on it and adjusted its position with due regard for the development of the situation. The instructions to the Soviet ambassador to Cairo approved by the CPSU Central Committee at the end of March, contained an opinion on the draft memorandum of the Egyptian government on that question as being “politically motivated”, but said that “the Western powers would oppose its adoption, try to impose their conditions on Egypt and aggravate conditions in the region. This was especially important to take into account in connection with the holding in Bermuda of a meeting between Eisenhower and Macmillan, and US accession to the military commission of the Baghdad Pact”38. At the same time, Moscow closely studied at which exact point Egypt was ready to make concessions on this question to the Western powers. This is attested, in particular, by the following Foreign Ministry reference drafted on 29 March 1957 on the main provisions of the draft memorandum of the Egyptian government on the Suez Canal, which partially met the proposals of the Western powers:
“The following provisions of the draft memorandum of the Egyptian government on the Suez Canal may be viewed as meeting the proposals of the Western powers in some degree or other:
The Soviet ambassador to Egypt informed Nasser that “the USA through its intelligence channels has attempted to disorient the Soviet government with a message that President Nasser allegedly came to an agreement with the USA on many questions and, in particular, concluded an agreement on free arms shipments to Egypt”40. This was one element of sounding out the possible steps of Egypt and the USA to meet each other’s positions. Apparently, Moscow far from always trusted Egypt as yet. Nasser held forth for a long time on US policies, saying that “in fact it did not render real help to Egypt in a single case”. He related how the US ambassador was putting pressure on him in order to compel him to cancel the decision to send the appointed governor to Gaza, after which Nasser, on the very next day, not only dispatched the governor but gave an order to the Egyptian armed forces and police units to enter the territory of Gaza. After this, the ambassador arrived at night, this time with a message from Eisenhower who insisted that he “did not resort to provocative, dangerous and conflict-prone actions in the Gaza area”, demanding “a recall of the governor, otherwise Israel would resume its aggression”41. Based on this example, Nasser called relations with the USA cold, and in support of this conclusion also related to the Soviet ambassador about the scandal that flared up between the US ambassador and Foreign Minister Fawzi over the publication of the Egyptian memorandum on the Suez issue.
Considering the particular Soviet interest to the positions of the four Arab leaders at the February conference in Cairo, Nasser promised to instruct Sabri to acquaint Kiselyov fully with a detailed conference record. Egypt’s President confidentially informed:
“The complexity of the situation lay in the position of King Saud. We managed to convince him that although everyone understands that he is closely linked with the USA, he should not express approval to the Eisenhower Doctrine so as not to give an impetus for an enlivened activity of the pro-American forces in other Arab countries. Saud agreed to this and behaved loyally in this sense. It should be noted that the press incorrectly covered the question of US arms for Saudi Arabia. King Saud does not receive free arms from the Americans but pays for them himself. Saud receives the 50 million reported in the press for the lease of an air-force base in Dahran, and for the weapons he will pay the USA 120 million dollars”42.
Nasser also said that “for tactical considerations it was arranged at the conference of heads of Arab countries not to argue against the Eisenhower Doctrine at government level and with this aim in view not to debar Richards rudely from visiting Arab countries, although no one, naturally, has doubts about the failure of his mission, as far as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia is concerned”43.
On the question of UN troops, Nasser told the Soviet ambassador that as long as Egypt lagged behind in the preparedness of its armed forces, the presence of UN forces on the border with Israel was useful, and such a situation would allow Egypt to gain time for rearming and training her army, allowing greater room for manoeuvre. If the UN forces now left, this would put Egypt in a difficult position: any Israeli attack on Gaza, given Egypt’s virtual lack of air force, would lead to a situation where Egypt would have nothing to respond with.
Nasser acquainted the Soviet leadership with Egyptian intelligence data on the preparation by Israel of a new aggression against Egypt, based on confidential information received from a of a high-ranking French figure. According to this information, the French Defence Minister insisted on vengeance on Egypt, considering the military actions against Egypt in October-November 1956 to have been a major mistake and believing that “the liquidation of Nasser’s regime in Egypt was and remains a unique opportunity to shore up the positions of France in the Middle East”44. For this it was allegedly proposed to send a six-thousand-strong paratroop unit commanded by General Massu to Cairo with the purpose of killing Nasser and other leading Egyptian figures and to form a new government led by the former Egyptian Interior Minister (before the 1952 revolution) Murtada al-Maragi who resided in Beyrut.
In connection with Nasser’s appeal, Gromyko on 6 April sent to the CPSU Central Committee a draft resolution on the advisability to hand him through the Soviet ambassador some data in possession of the Main Intelligence Department of the General Staff of the Soviet Army. The instructions to the ambassador on this occasion, approved by the CPSU Central Committee, read:
“Please visit Ali Sabri and inform Nasser through him that according to the data available to us, the French Navy indeed put off on 26 March from the port of Toulon in direction of Algeria in roughly the same strength of which the president had spoken. However, this navy did not proceed in the eastern direction and remained in the area of Algeria, engaged in the tasks of military training.
As of 1 April this year, units of the 10-th French paratroop division continued to remain in the area of Orleansville. There are no data on the movement of this division, and also of any other units to the island of Cyprus.
The Israeli army is presently in a state of increased combat readiness, and her armoured troops have received an order to replenish their supplies and food stocks; however, a concentration of a great number of troops at the borders with Egypt has not been noted.
Please tell Ali Sabri that if our intelligence bodies receive information indicating that a military aggression is being prepared against Egypt, the President will immediately be informed of it”45.
Thus Nasser’s alarmist claims found no support from Moscow which did not see a direct threat of a new armed action by Israel against Egypt and wished to discourage precipitate actions by the parties so as not to be entangled into a really dangerous confrontation with the West. Soviet diplomats persistently tried to dissuade Israel from any attempts to resolve the conflict with the Arabs by military means. In particular, the Soviet ambassador to Israel A. N. Abramov in a conversation with Knesset deputy Riftin told him that “Israel will not achieve the settlement of the conflict by military force, but may lose much along this way, and that the only road for Israel is that of friendship with the Arab countries, the road of peaceful coexistence. Besides this, I added that the realization of this road depends only and exclusively on Israel itself, which must give, up the policy of protecting the interests of petroleum monopolies and be the first to undertake peaceful steps towards the Arab countries. These steps might pave the way for a peaceful settlement”46.
It can be clearly seen, that on the foreign-policy questions discussed during the conversations, not only did Nasser not always act on recommendations from Moscow, but at times caused the Kremlin’s irritation with his policies. The USSR ambassador to Syria Nemchina even expressed discontent with the behaviour of the Egyptian delegation in the UN, which shranked from contact with the Soviet delegation. Nasser informed the Soviet ambassador that after the conclusion of the agreement on the delivery of Soviet weapons to Egypt the American representative tried to tempt him with the possibility to obtain major financial aid from the US in exchange for “complete cooperation” with it, to which he did not agree. The President of Egypt informed Moscow that King Saud, who was “carrying a double game and a double policy” probably gave in to US promises47. Nasser specified, in particular, that all the actions of Jordan against Egypt and the Jordanian national patriotic forces were being undertaken at Saud’s instigation. The Egyptian President declared to the ambassador that whereas earlier the Egyptian government preferred not to criticize King Husein and King Saud openly, now, since April 20, “it is necessary to go into an offensive against the attempts of Hussein and Saud to subordinate the Arabs to the Eisenhower Doctrine”48. If Jordan stood her ground, she would be a “tombstone of the Eisenhower Doctrine”.
Nasser obviously expected to ingratiate himself with Moscow by his critique of the Eisenhower Doctrine. However, in reality, as his further steps show, he took a more cautious position.
Nasser made it known that he considered as his main danger “the possibility of an Israeli aggression against Jordan”, in which case Egypt “will act with weapons in hands against Israel by all means available to her – aviation and army”49. This statement caused no enthusiasm in the Soviet ambassador who was trying to convince the President of the effectiveness of the means of political and diplomatic pressure.
As well as in the previous conversations, Nasser informed the ambassador of attempts that were being made on his life, this time by the “US intelligence bodies”. The Egyptian counter-intelligence, he said, had already uncovered eight such attempts.
The criticism of King Saud by Nasser in that conversation was rather harsh. Nasser promised to the ambassador to give him a copy of the text of the treaty on the lease of the US military base at Dahran.
In reply to ambassador’s cable, the USSR Minister of Foreign Affaires A.A. Gromyko on 29 April 1957 cabled his instructions to Kiselyov. He asked him to tell Nasser that Moscow positively viewed the declaration of the Egyptian government on the Suez question and that the USSR would support Egypt in the UN Security Council. Gromyko requested Nasser’s opinion on whether it was necessary to raise in the UN SC the question on the inadmissibility of foreign intervention in Jordan, which, by the way, would distract attention from the Suez problem, and this suited the interests of Egypt50.
A great attention in the correspondence was attached to the problem of the straits. Gromyko instructed the Soviet ambassador:
“As far as the question of the legal regime of the Gulf of Akaba is concerned, tell Nasser that, in the opinion of Soviet experts in international law, there are no definite norms to regulate the navigation regime in such gulfs. Outstanding experts in international law adhere to the opinion that the navigation regime in such gulfs must be established by agreement between littoral states. It is obvious that given the existing relations between,-the Arab littoral countries and Israel, such agreement is at present difficult to achieve. At the same time, it apparently has to be taken into account that the coast of the Strait of Tiran is presently monitored by UN troops, that the situation in Jordan is not quite clear yet, and that also unclear is the real position of the king of Saudi Arabia, who, in the opinion of President Nasser, engages in double dealing and may be in a certain collusion with the Americans.
Therefore it seems advisable for tactical reasons at this moment not to focus on the problem of navigation in the Gulf of Akaba and to concentrate on the final settlement of the Suez question. Such a settlement would depreciate the projects for the construction of an oil pipeline through the territory of Israel, which have arisen in connection with the Suez crisis, of a bypass canal, etc. The settlement of the Suez issue on the basis of recognition of the sovereign rights of Egypt would strengthen the positions of Egypt still more both in other Arab countries and on the international scene as a whole”51. The Soviet minister recommended Nasser to determine Egypt's position on the Akaba question “by limiting, herself to a statement of the Egyptian government that the Strait, of Tiran is located in Egyptian territorial waters and that the passage of foreign courts through that strait is subject to regulation”52. Simultaneously, Gromyko recommended to refrain from military measures aimed at preventing foreign ships from passing through that strait.
In April 1957, the main attention of the Soviet government in connection with the new developments in the Middle East was switched to Jordan. There, the Nabulsi government resigned, martial law was imposed and the activity of the political parties banned. On 19 April, the Soviet government in its notes to the USA, Britain and France submitted a proposal to make a joint statement condemning the use of force as a means of resolution of unsettled problems in the region of the Near and Middle East.
The Soviet government’s statement on the events in Jordan of 30 April read:
“The situation in the Near and Middle East presently became aggravated again. This time it was Jordan that became the object of imperialist intrigues. During the recent two or three weeks, crude pressure from the outside was put on Jordan and the Jordanian government, accompanied now by threats to dismember her territory and deprive the Jordanian people of national independence, now by promises to render financial and other aid in case if reprisals are made against the patriotic forces in Jordan that oppose Jordan’s submission of foreign diktat. In the process, they do not conceal that following Jordan, Syria as well as Egypt, which resolutely reject the notorious ‘Dulles-Eisenhower Doctrine’ and any attempts to draw them into aggressive blocs, undermine their national independence and subordinate their foreign policy to the plans of colonial circles, may become the objects of similar colonialist actions”53.
Moscow expected that Egypt would take a determined position concerning the events in Jordan. However, as was reported in a political letter of the Soviet embassy to Egypt, “the Egyptian government has desisted from giving open support for the national forces in Jordan which in their policy leaned on Egypt and Syria.
However, it tried, along with the Syrian government, to influence the course of events in Jordan through King Saud. As stated by Nasser and Sabri, talks with Saud did not yield any desirable results, as King Saud declared that the king will defend his interests in Jordan by all means at his disposal. Nasser and Sabri made it clear that Egypt could not now rely on Saud, who in substance has turned into an American associate in the Middle East.
Refraining from taking an official position relative to the Jordanian events and Saud’s behaviour, the Egyptian government has given instructions to the press to wage a campaign against the reactionary forces in Jordan, the US and Iraqi intervention in these events, without touching the personalities of Hussein and Saud”54. Nasser spoke against the USSR's raising the question of the events in Jordan in the Security Council, motivating this by saying that the “reactionary forces will then try to represent the democratic and national elements in the country as Communist agents, thereby complicating their straggle against the forces of reaction and making it easier for the US to conduct their policy of isolation of Egypt”55.
Thus the six months, which elapsed from the termination of military operations by Britain, France and Israel in Egypt until the crisis in Jordan were a period of a more active involvement of the Middle Eastern region in the Cold War. The Soviet Union strove to win allies in the region by directing the bulk of its diplomatic efforts at the discrediting of the Eisenhower Doctrine which, as Moscow believed, threatened to draw the new states of the region into blocs hostile to it. The USSR increasingly supported the Arabs in their conflict with Israel. However, as we can see from the diplomatic correspondence the Soviet leadership exercised a maximum of caution so as not to allow itself to be drawn into a confrontation with the West in the region and tried to dissuade its Arab partners from precipitate actions. In relations with Moscow, these countries pursued their own objectives and frequently tried to shift on it the burden of counteraction to threats directed against them.
SOVIET DIPLOMACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST
DURING THE 1956 CRISIS
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